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Charlemagne in a Nutshell

Updated on June 9, 2008

A Synopsis

The Franks were a Germanic tribe spread throughout Gaul and central Europe east of the Rhine River. They had converted from the Norse religion to Catholicism and were ruled by the Merovingian Dynasty. When the Merovingians fell into decay and were considered useless, the Franks were ruled by the mayors of the palace. Charlemagne's grandfather Charles Martel was a mayor who ruled in the stead of the king. His son, Pippin the younger, also a mayor, deposed the king and was himself anointed king of the Franks by Pope Stephen II in 751 AD. In 754, the young Charlemagne and his brother Carloman were anointed as well. When Pippin died, his land was divided between the two brothers. Charlemagne received the outermost territories, spanning Neustria, West Aquitaine, and North Austrasia (now Northern and Western France and the northern part of Germany). Carloman received Septimania and East Aquitaine (southern and eastern France) as well as the territories bordering on Italy.

Charlemagne's government was structured in a way that would be considered loose today. The territories were divided into counties, each of which was headed by a count. Each year two representatives - one from the church and one from the emperor - would tour the counties, passing on Charlemagne's orders and reporting back to him on the state of affairs in the empire. Charlemagne was dependent on the loyalty of the nobility in order to put down rebellions and keep control of his empire.

Charlemagne was born around the year 748. At the age of five, he met Pope Stephen II and in 754 was coronated along with his brother Carloman as a king of the Franks. At seven he helped his father to transfer the relics of St. Germanus. All these experiences must have been very educational in both religious affairs and the relationship between the Frankish kings and the pope. In accordance with tradition he was trained to ride, use weapons, hunt, and behave in polite society.

After the year 760 AD when he was about 12, Charlemagne took on an increasingly public role, protecting the Monastery of St. Calais, going on campaign with his father in Aquitaine, and by the age of 15 being given the responsibility of the administration of the monastery of Prum along with several counties. There was some opposition within the nobility of these counties which he had to learn to deal with while he was there. In 768 his father Pippin died, and by 769 at the age of 21 he was himself marching into Aquitaine without the help of his brother Carloman, with whom there was some tension. Their mother worked towards easing the tensions between the two, but in 771 Carloman died. Charlemagne was left the sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom, and in 774 during a visit to the pope in Rome he was titled the Patricius Romanorum, protector of Rome.

Charlemagne's kingdom encapsulated much of Central Europe, stretching from the border between modern-day Spain and France, and east across France and to Germany. His territory in Saxony transferred in and out of Frankish control throughout the thirty years of wars with the Saxons but ultimately was absorbed into the kingdom, and the Saxons converted to Catholicism. He also added lands taken in conquests of the Avars and Dalmatians. To the south, he controlled the Alps, Corsica, and Italy north of Spoleto, taken from the Lombards.

Charlemagne was coronated emperor at the end of the year 800 by Pope Leo III. The reasons for the coronation are varied. The pope had just nearly been deposed in a rebellion, and it was only through the intervention of Charlemagne that he was not removed from power. It is possible that Charlemagne manipulated the situation to his advantage, helping the pope in return for being crowned. Being emperor would give Charlemagne the authority to punish the conspirators. Also, the Eastern Byzantine Empire was at the time ruled by the Empress Irene, who could not technically be an emperor, so it was claimed, so therefore the title was vacant. Since Charlemagne was already ruling large parts of what used to be the Roman Empire, he could legitimately claim the title of emperor. This would also allow him to be on an even footing when dealing with the Byzantines.

Charlemagne was very interested in reviving the idea of the Holy Roman Empire. The Carolingian Renaissance initiated in his court at Aachen saw a resurgence of classicism in art and architecture that harkened back to the times of the Christian emperors, as well as presented a blend of Byzantine and Greco-Roman styles that suggested political ties between the Eastern and Western empires - a union that was never to be, but made for good pro-Charlemagne propaganda. There was also a great resurgence of learning and culture. In the library at Aachen were collected numerous Christian and classical manuscripts that were kept and copied.

Politically, the idea of a revival of the Holy Roman Empire, as ruled by the Christian Caesars, appealed to Charlemagne in that it would give him the same kind of authority both within the Frankish kingdom and abroad.

Charlemagne's revival of culture and learning and patronage of the arts helped improve the government, as did his centralization of the government at Aachen and his organization of the kingdom, which was echoed later in feudalism. Charlemagne was also notable for the capitularies he issued - in writing, which was new - such as the one after his coronation in 800 that required oaths of loyalty, defined laws of the empire and the punishments for, for example, insulting the church or taking part in a rebellion.

In 813 AD Charlemagne crowned his only surviving legitimate son, Louis the Pious, as emperor. After his father's death in 814, Louis had himself re-coronated in Rome by the emperor, a practice that continued for many generations. Louis concerned himself with defending the empire, attending to the religious matters within the kingdom, and dealing with the matter of succession. He divided the empire between his three sons, Lothair receiving the largest chunk while Charles the Bald and Louis the German received smaller shares. After much war and strive, the kingdom was divided in three, and Lothair, holding the central portion, was crowned Emperor.

After Otto the Great claimed a miracle at the tomb of Charlemagne, the journey towards canonization was begun. In 1165 he was declared a saint, and although his sainthood was later officially rescinded, that did not stop people from regarding him as one. Myths and legends about Charlemagne abounded throughout the areas he once ruled, and important leaders had a habit of associating themselves with his name, attempting to harken back to the glory days, while numerous forgeries in his name were produced for the same purpose. He has been called the founder of both France and Germany.

Charlemagne was defined throughout history according to the trends of the critic's current time, at times upheld as the ideal ruler, the first constitutional ruler, and other times criticized for his policies, personal life, and most heavily for the massacre at Verden, causing much scholarly dispute. None of these could be termed objective opinions, as everyone regards him differently depending on their own culture and values, rather than judging him by the standards of the time in which he lived, which is probably how he judged himself.

Western Europe under Charlemagne



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