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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Charlemagne and the Carolingian State(s) to 843

Clovis' Sons and Creeping Merovingian Anarchy (511-640)

End of the First European Order: Foreign Invasions, Carolingian Obsolescence, and Doorstep of the High Middle Ages (840s-950s)


Charles the Great--Charlemagne--became sole king of Carolingian lands with the death of his brother Carloman in 771. The next 40 years saw forceful foreign engagements to expand borders and consolidate his influence in central and Western Europe, as well as in Rome. He engaged militarily in Italy, Saxony, Spain, Bavaria, against the Avars, and against remaining Byzantine outposts in Italy and the Adriatic. He began with Italy and Saxony, forcing a Papal appeal for help from Rome in 772. Pope Hadrian I (772-795) was again under pressure from encroaching Lombards under King Desiderius. At the same time, the latter had hosted Carloman's widow and children, and may have been intriguing against Charlemagne with Frankish nobles. Thus, Charles invaded Italy in 773 with a huge army, besieging Desiderius in his capital at Pavia until Easter 774. The Lombard was required to surrender himself along with his family and royal treasure. Charles took the title King of The Lombards, with his son Louis the Pious as nominal administrator. By 775, the Duchy of Spoleto recognized his suzerainty, while Benevento held out until 787.

Around the same time, Charlemagne began campaigns in Saxony to the East of Austrasia and Frisia that lasted to the 790s. They were particularly hard. Traditional enemies of the Franks, the Saxons were pagans worshipping the Irminsul sacred tree trunk. They had almost no political unity, and were therefore difficult to defeat as an entire people. For the New King of the Lombards, the goal was territorial conquest, and Christianization. Campaigning began in 772, marching as far as Eresburg on the Lippe and Weser. Franks destroyed Irminsul, and received local chiefs' submission. As soon as Frankish armies left for Italy, Saxons repudiated them and raided on Charles' frontier as far as the monastery of Fritzlar by 774. Charlemegne led a second large expedition in 775 to recoup losses. He defeated a Saxon army at the Weser, and moved to the Oker River. Eastern Saxons (Eastphalians) then submitted, as did southern Saxons. The latter retook the offensive when Charles was in Italy in 776, attacking Frankish Eresburg. By 777, Charles got a group of Saxons to submit to him at his Paderborn settlement and receive Christianity, but there was no permanent subjugation. In 779, the Saxons rose again, raiding as far west as the Rhine near Cologne, destroying Frankish outposts on the Lippe. In 780, Charles swept through the region as far as the Elbe, securing the baptism of numbers of Westphalians and more easterly Saxons. In 782, the Saxons annihilated a Frankish force, leading to yearly Frankish campaigns until 785, when a major victory over the Saxons as well as a massacre of thousands of their warriors brought their King Widukind to surrender, accepting baptism. Smaller uprisings in the 790s no longer undercut Charles' position in the area.

A major aspect of Charles' campaigns had been Christianization, both for its own sake, as well as to make Saxons more docile, loyal subjects of a consciously Christian king. He thus used the church and its structures to support his conquest. Forcing Saxons to accept the new faith, he set up bishoprics and dioceses, endowed new monasteries, and equated pagan relapses with revolt. The Pope and his Irish-English monastics responded by vigorously missionizing the region. Another method of Saxon pacification involved population exchanges. Moving large numbers of them into western Frankish lands, he brought in Frankish peasant colonizers. In addition to numerous garrisons and border troops, Charles granted much land to Frankish counts in the area. Gradually, the region was well integrated.

Even while fighting in Saxony, Charles had been attracted southwest into Spain by the Arab Muslim lords of Barcelona and Zaragoza. The latter feared the powerful Ummayad Amir of Cordoba's expansionary inclinations, and appealed to the most powerful European ruler they could find. Charlemagne saw it as a religious mission to retake lands from infidels. Both Barcelona and Zaragoza reneged, however, and Charles was left facing large Ummayad force on his own. He withdrew, but in crossing the Pyrenees, his rearguard was annihilated ironically by Christian Basques. That was the end of incursions into Spain's interior. In the next years, however, he led repeated campaigns into the area just south of the Pyrenees, giving conquered lands to warrior leaders. Called the Spanish March, it was a strong buffer against the Muslims, and provided a jump-off for Reconquista precursors. In 785, Franksih forces took Gerona, while Louis the Pious, Charles' son and nominal king of Aquitane, took Barcelona in 801.

Shortly after incorporation of Saxony, Charlemagne turned to Bavaria, north of his Italian domains. Though its count had accepted Carolingian authority since Pepin III, its leader had not shown sufficient loyalty, and the region was invaded in 787. Subdued, the region was divided into counties granted to Frankish warriors. This brought The Carolingian Empire up against the Avars who had caused much Byzantine misery. Avar raids into Bavaria and Northeast Italy had begun in 787-88. Though repelled by local forces, such raids continued to 791, when Charles decided to launch a major reprisal against "the excessive and intolerable outrage...against the Holy Church and Christian people." An army under Charles' son Pepin defeated the Avars, at which point a civil war erupted, eliminating them as a threat. Frankish armies marched into Avar territory north of the Danube in 795-796, plundering unopposed.

Pope Hadrian died at the end of 795, and Charlemagne was soon dragged back into Italian politics, this time Papal. Since rescue from Lombard dominance, political power of the Papacy in Rome's environs, and its increasing wealth, made the pontificate a sought-after position, able to bestow benefits on relatives and supporters. Leo III was elected to the Papacy in 796, but he was opposed by relatives of his predecessor. Seizing on rumors (or the reality) of Leo's corruption, his opponents staged a coup in 799, imprisoning him in a monastery. The Pope escaped, however, arriving at Charles' encampment in Paderborn. Charlemagne sent him back to the Holy See with a Frankish escort strong to reseat him, by which time his opponents had accused him before Charlemagne of adultery and perjury, asking that the pope not be reinstated. As the dilemma of who was fit to judge the Pope could not be resolved, the situation went no where until Charlemagne himself came to Rome before Christmas 800, and convoked a synod of Church and civil leaders. Leo took an oath (in the mold of compurgation) affirming his innocence, which the synod accepted. Two days later at Christmas mass, the Pope surprised Charlemagne by crowning him as Emperor of the Romans.

For the remaining years of his reign until 814, Charlemagne's campaigns were limited. He mostly remained in his palace at Aachen. Still, having been crowned Emperor, his relations with Constantinople were awkward, in that Byzantium was slow to recognize him as a Western imperial colleague. Thus, through 813, Frankish forces made inroads on the declining Byzantine possessions in the Adriatic and in Italy, until Emperor Michael I sent emissaries prepared to recognize the Carolingian as basileus, emperor. In September of that year, he had his son Louis the Pious crown himself Emperor.

The last decade of Charlemagne's rule was not as accomplished as his earlier years. His key concerns were establishing Carolingian succession and the division of lands amongst his sons. He had three, for whom he designed a plan in 806. According to the Divisio Regnorum, Pepin was to keep enlarged Lombard lands; Louis was to receive an augmented Aquitane as well as southern and western areas, while Charles, the oldest son, was to get traditional Francia--Austrasia and eastern conquests, as well as Neustria. By 811 Charles' and Pepin's deaths made the arrangement irrelevant. Louis was now to receive all. Finally, foreboding future events, in addition to entanglements with Andalusian Muslims in the 800-806 period, first hostile encounters with the Vikings took place in 808-810, when the Danish King Godefred raided Frankish Frisia and clients' areas north of the Elbe.

Louis the Pious succeeded his father as sole ruler of Francia in 814. In 816, he had himself re-coronated by Pope Stephen IV, setting a precedent that all claimants to emperorship would follow. The first fifteen years of his reign were divided among three concerns: 1) dealing with continuing military matters, now in a defensive manner. Slavs beyond the Elbe and in the Northwest Balkans were fought off, while Lombard duchies in southern Italy were repeatedly disciplined. Likewise, Bulgars who had wandered west were pushed off, just as constant skirmishes with the Arabs in the Marches were meant to protect Barcelona. 2) Appropriate to his epithet, Louis was intensely concerned with religious matters in his realms. He wanted a Christian kingdom. This began by enforcing religious morality in his palace, encouraging princesses to enroll in nunneries. He also held ecclesiastical councils at Aachen in 816-817, under the influence of his close adviser Wittiza, known as St. Benedict of Aniane. In the next years, they wold insist that all monasteries adopt the Benedictine Rules. Further, he insisted that high Church prelates in his realms become quasi- monastic in conduct. They should be 'regular' as opposed to 'secular' clergy. Benedict's 821 death only decreased the aggressiveness of the program. 3) Like his father, Louis faced the insurmountable succession-division dilemma. Wanting to preserve the territorial unity of Francia, his idea in the 820s was to give the great majority of the kingdom to his oldest son Lothair, with much smaller regions going to Charles the Bald and Louis the German. Naturally Charles and Louis the German were disappointed, and spent the next twenty years in fratricidal strife.

Between 829 and 833, Louis the Pious was twice deposed as ruler and then reinstated by warring sons. Only a balance of fear kept him in power for the rest of the decade, and on his death in 840 his two younger sons Charles and Louis combined to fight Lothair. The Battle of Fontenoy's losses were tremendous, yet the results required compromise. Charles the Bald received the western regions from forty miles east of Paris to the southwestern Marches and stretching from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. Louis the German received eastern districts from the Marches beyond the Elbe to just outside Strasbourg, and from Denmark in the north to the Adriatic in the south. Wedged in between this was Lothair's kingdom, stretching from the North Sea all the way past the papal States in Italy, with the Imperial capitals. Accordingly, it was he who received title of emperor. While Charles' and Louis' shares approximate to the divisions of France and Germany, the middle kingdom was so unstable that it was divided amongst Lothairs' three sons at his death in 855. When the inheritor of the northern region dead in 869, Charles the Bald and Louis the German both tried to seize it. With the exception of Italy and Provence the middle kingdom was thus eliminated, igniting civil wars between an embryonic France and Germany that continued into the tenth century.


The Carolingian Empire is remembered as the first truly glorious Medieval polity in Europe. With Charlemagne's creation of a single state out of a massive swath of Italian and Gallic lands; his assumption of title of Holy Roman Emperor through coronation by the Pope; and keen interest in Christianity's progress, it is plausible to view a reemergence of the unity of ethos and purpose which characterized the Roman state six-hundred years before. Still, as we recall that the Carolingians were no more than another Frankish clan like the Merovingians, whose evolving power was based on conquest and usurpation of authority from kings, we must ask: what differentiated Charlemagne's state from that of his predecessors, and how did it exhibit substantial similarities? Further, when looking at the Carolingian decline from the 820s onwards, what insoluble dilemmas, or problems of political technology, doomed these states?

Charlemagne was not a political innovator, and did not provide any new sort of political glue to a polyglot, multi-traditioned state. Mostly, the administration of his domains was based on the Merovingian pattern of dependence on counts, whose loyalty was sought by dint of the King's raw power, and the benefits to be derived from association with him. Beyond that, the Churh was incorporated more closely into administration, as had been the trend from Pepin onwards. On the militarized borders and in newly conquered areas, margraves, or border counts, were established to maintain order, defend new acquisitions, and support the conversion process. A small group of the king's associates watched over all of this, and were in frequent contact with Charlemagne at Aachen. The King's sons were made titular kings of newly acquired areas, with some limited executive power. The challenge of this whole system was not unlike that in the Merovingian period--how to guarantee the continued loyalty of local administrators. There was no mechanism to do so, and often Charles' army was the answer. Additionally, missi dominici were royal agents created by Charlemagne. Consisting of a lay noble and a cleric sent directly from the palace out to the counties, they were to convey the king's desires and report back to him the conditions of the realm. As long as--and only as long as--a powerful king stood behind the missi, the system could work. As well, though the right of localities and various ethnic groups to individual customary law codes was recognized, during Charlemagne and Louis the Pious' lifetime, capitularies were issued by the central government which applied to all subjects equally. Finally, yearly assemblies were held in the spring or summer. Gathering together counts, dukes, their retinues, and the royal host, issues of general concern would be addressed, after which the army would go off to fight across the nearest border. As far as fiscal administration was concerned, public taxation was not much more orderly than it had been under the effective Merovingians. Aside from certain dues, the king lived mostly off the revenues of his large estates scattered throughout Francia. Moving from one to another as provisions ran low, it allowed him to check up on conditions regionally. All in all, "we are still dealing with a primitive German monarchy--but a primitive German monarchy presided over by a political genius" quite adept at warfare.

How do we figure Charlemagne's coronation by the Pope into the equation? Ambiguity still persists, and the consequences were to depend mostly on the future kings to possess the title. On the surface, Pope Leo III had a need for a powerful protector against local Roman rivals as well as petty kings. Charlemagne was the best possibility. As well, the crowning of Europe's most powerful secular ruler by the head of Europe's church symbolized the unity of purpose and destiny between state and religion that had existed in Constantine's Rome, and that had been lamented as passing with the ancient order's demise. As well, Charlemagne was a self-consciously Christian ruler, equating his advance with that of the religion.

There was another, more problematic side to it, however. By placing the crown on the Carolingian's head, the Pope had made symbolic claim to supremacy over the secular. Charlemagne is reported to have thoroughly resented this. Something of a precedent was set; Louis would have himself re-coronated by the Pope after Charlemagne's death, while all inheritors of the Imperial title would hasten across the Alps to Rome to be recognized by the Papacy. Still, given the realities of power, it was most often the Pope who was dependent on Carolingian kings. The powerful ones interfered in Papal elections when possible, and popes in turn made efforts not to cross Imperial desires. Finally, assumption of the Imperial title aggravated Charlemagne's relations with Byzantium for a time.

Historians impressed with the Carolingian achievement have often referred to a cultural 'renaissance' during Charlemagne's rule and that of his son Louis. It is true that he did want to revive something of classical learning, as part of his inheritance of Rome's legacy, and as part of claims to true European/Christian leadership. Learned men in touch with the Latin classical tradition were brought to the palace, conducting something like a school for aspiring elites. These included Alcuin, from the school of York steeped in Irish-English learned traditions; the Italian Peter of Pisa, the grammatical expert, Paul the Deacon, who wrote a Lombard history; as well as Theodulf, a Spaniard trained in Isidore of Seville's traditions. The classical division of knowledge into trivium and quadrivium was ressucitated, and Charlemagne also invigorated monasteries as centers of classical learning's preservation. Here, Hrabanus Maurus and Walafrid Strabo's biblical commentaries would influence medieval Christian thought for centuries. What must be remembered in all of this is that there was absolutely no percolation beyond the walls of the palace or monasteries. Only about a dozen writers were involved, and it was mostly derivative as opposed to creative. The contribution was the preservation of learning for later times, as ensuing civil wars and foreign invasions sapped much of its vigor.

Ultimately, the Carolingian state decayed for the same reasons as did its predecessor. The end of foreign conquest provided fewer opportunities for rulers to exhibit martial prowess and distribute financial largesse. As well, Frankish kings could not let go of the notion that the royal patrimony ought to be split among a ruler's heirs. And, Carolingian successors were never satisfied with their allotments. Added to this was the conjuncture of less skilled kings such as Louis the Pious, or young-dying ones whose lands were divided by other relatives. Through these processes, lands were repeatedly divided along lines roughly parallel to the divisions of France and Germany. By the end of the ninth century, latent cultural differences between Aquitane, Burgundy, and Ile de France (Paris), on the one hand, and Austrasia, Saxony, Bavaria, and other eastern areas on the other, would condition the emergence of separate polities in the next two-and-a-half centuries.

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