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Charlemagne (or Charles the Great) was king of the franks from 768 to 814, king of the lombards from 774 to 814, and emperor from 800 to 814. The son of King pepin iii and Bertrada, he was born in 747 or 748 and died on Jan. 2, 814. Little is known about Charlemagne's youth. He received religious training from his mother and from Abbot Fulrad of St. Denis, a confidant of his father. He learned to read Latin but never to write. While he was still a child, his father was elected king by the Frankish nobles, a momentous step taken with papal approval that led to the deposition of the last Merovingian king. Charlemagne first appeared in the historical record in late 753 and early 754, when he played a role in the ceremonies organized to welcome pope stephen ii on the occasion of the pope's visit to Francia. That visit resulted in an alliance between the papacy and the Franks that would play an important role in Charlemagne's future career. During the course of his stay in Francia in 754 Stephen II anointed King Pepin III, Queen Bertrada, Charlemagne, and his younger brother, carloman, thereby providing further legitimacy for the newly founded royal dynasty. Along with his father and brother Charlemagne also received from the pope the title patricius Romanorum, which implied an imprecise obligation to serve as protector of Rome and the Romans. Infrequent bits of information in the sources suggest that while growing up Charlemagne and his brother were involved in their father's military campaigns and court life, learning from those experiences what was needed to prepare them for their future role as kings.

In accord with Frankish custom the kingdom of the Franks was divided between Charlemagne and Carloman when Pepin III died in 768. A period of rivalry between the brothers ensued which threatened to undo Pepin III's work in unifying the Frankish kingdom. One consequence of this fraternal rivalry was the marriage of Charlemagne to the daughter of desiderius, king of the Lombards, a union negotiated by Bertrada that some viewed as a move to isolate Carloman and as a threat to the papacy and the Papal States whose chief enemy was the Lombard king and whose well-being Pepin III and his sons had pledged to defend. But the potential crisis stemming from fraternal rivalry ended with the death of Carloman in 771. Charlemagne moved decisively to set aside

the claims of Carloman's heirs and to assume sole kingship over the entire Frankish kingdom.

Charlemagne's Military Accomplishments. As sole ruler Charlemagne launched an extraordinarily active career which involved him in a wide range of activities. Central to his 45-year reign were his military activities, continuing a tradition in Frankish history that reached back to clovis (ruled 481511). Some of his wars ended with the submission to Frankish rule of peoples over whom the Franks had long claimed lordship but who constantly sought autonomy, such as the Aquitainians and the Bavarians. Others were aimed at subduing external peoples perceived to threaten the Frankish kingdom. Most notable among those were the Saxons, whose repeated raids had long menaced the eastern frontier of the kingdom. Beginning in 772 Charlemagne set out to end that threat by subjugating the Saxons and incorporating them into the Frankish kingdom. That end, not achieved until 804, required repeated campaigns, many prompted by Saxon repudiation of peace treaties. Some of the Frankish expeditions ended in defeat, and others witnessed mass killings and forced deportation of rebellious Saxons. Saxon resistance was stiffened by the Frankish insistence that the Saxons accept Christianity, a demand that was accompanied by forced conversions and by draconian laws punishing those who refused to convert or who after conversion resisted such Christian practices as tithing. In the course of the long Saxon wars the neighboring Frisians became involved and were conquered.

At intervals during the Saxons wars Charlemagne conducted other military operations. One of them drew him into Italy. Shortly after he became sole king of the Franks, he repudiated his Lombard wife, thereby breaking his alliance with the Lombard king, Desiderius. In response to appeals from Pope Adrian I beseeching him to live up to the promise made by his father to protect the Papal States, Charlemagne invaded Italy in 773774, forced Desiderius to surrender, and assumed the title of king of the Lombards. That victory gave him possession of most of Italy, but required subsequent campaigns to retain control. In 778 he led an expedition into Spain in an attempt to take advantage of internal dissension among the ruling Muslims by establishing a Frankish presence south of the Pyrenees that would hinder Muslim incursions into Frankish territories in southern Gaul. That venture ended in a disastrous Frankish defeat at the hands of Gascon (Basque) forces at Roncevalles, an episode immortalized in The Song of Roland, an epic poem composed later. But Charlemagne persisted and eventually succeeded in conquering an Frankish enclave, called the Spanish March, between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Ebro River. The final submission of the Bavarians in 788 brought the Franks into contact with the Avars to whom the Bavarians allegedly had turned for assistance against the Franks. The Avar Empire had originally been shaped north of the Danube in the sixth century by Asiatic nomads who established dominance over the indigenous Slavic population and who often proved to be a formidable challenge to the eastern Roman Empire during the seventh century. By the eighth century the Avar power was in decline, providing an inviting target for the Franks. A succession of brilliantly conducted campaigns in 791, 795, and 796 destroyed the Avar state, allowed the victors to seize vast booty, and opened the way for the annexation of a large bloc of territory in the Middle Danube Valley. Military victory was accompanied by the effective extension of a missionary effort, already begun by the Bavarian clergy, aimed at converting the inhabitants of the Avar Empire.

Charlemagne's military victories greatly extended the frontiers to be defended and raised concerns among peoples faced with the arrival on their borders of an aggressive major power. In protecting Frankish frontiers and in dealing with apprehensive neighbors Charlemagne combined military means with effective diplomacy. The conquest of Saxony brought the Franks into contact with several Slavic tribes living east of Elbe and with the Danish kingdom. Against any Slavic tribe which showed hostility toward the Frankish state Charlemagne directed punitive raids which usually ended up with the exaction of tribute; those who preferred peace were permitted to become vassals of the king with some assurance of Frankish protection. During the first stages of the Saxon wars the Danes often lent aid to the Saxons; Charlemagne responded by strengthening the fortifications in the frontier area facing Denmark. Before his death internal problems in the Danish kingdom lessened the Danish threat and provided opportunity for diplomatic exchanges that led to peaceful relations and the promise of increasing Frankish influence in Denmark. The most ominous development on the northern frontier was the beginning of raids on Frankish territory along the North Sea coast by seagoing Danes, a threat Charlemagne sought to counter by creating a Frankish fleet. To protect the new frontier mapped out by the victories over the Avars Charlemagne created militarized marches under the command of trusted officials based in Bavaria and northern Italy. The interactions between the Franks and the Slavic peoples along a frontier extending from the Baltic Sea to the Balkan peninsula set in motion a chain of events that would soon transform the Slavic world. The creation of marcher zones was also adopted against the Muslims facing the Frankish enclave in Spain and the hostile Bretons and Gascons in Gaul. Charlemagne's annexation of the Lombard kingdom did not assure complete control of Italy. In the southern part of the peninsula independent Lombard princes, especially the dukes of Benevento, continued to threaten peace in the Frankish kingdom of Italy and had to be restrained with military campaigns. The Papal States, whose boundaries remained problematic and whose political status with respect to Charlemagne' kingdom of Italy was not clearly defined, complicated the Italian scene. The Frankish position in Italy also led to confrontations with the Byzantine Empire. A complex series of diplomatic negotiations, sometimes punctuated by military encounters in Italy and along the Dalmatian coast, ensued. In general, Charlemagne's diplomatic encounters with the emperors in the East allowed him to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the Byzantine Empire. Charlemagne established diplomatic ties with the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, Harun-al-Rashid, a relationship nurtured by the fact that these two rulers shared common enemies, the Byzantine emperors and the Umayyad caliphs in Spain. Charlemagne enjoyed a vague role as protector of the Christian establishment in Jerusalem. And his presence was felt in the affairs of Anglo-Saxon kings of Mercia and Northumbria in England. Through successful warfare and effective diplomacy Charlemagne had become a world figure.

Government Structure. Military and diplomatic concerns did not distract Charlemagne from concerns about the governance of his realm. In general, he was not a political innovator, being content to retain the political institutions and techniques inherited from his merovingian predecessors. His aim was to improve these institutions and to adapt them to serve a more sophisticated concept of the nature and purposes of government than had guided his predecessors. The royal government continued to be served at the local level by counts, each charged with acting in the name of the king in a specific territory to administer justice, raise troops, collect revenues due the king, and keep the peace. Steps were taken to improve the administration of justice at the local level by attaching individuals learned in the law, called scabini, to each court under the jurisdiction of the count to assure judgments in accord with law. Counts were rewarded for their services by income from lands attached to their offices, charges made for public services performed, fines, and royal gifts. Bishops continued to be entrusted with important political functions, particularly in administering justice, caring for the poor, and restraining law breakers. The central government consisted of the king's personal entourage, called the palatium (palace), made up of trusted lay and ecclesiastical companions of the king who discharged a variety of functions associated with managing the royal resources, mustering and leading armies, conducting diplomatic missions, producing written documents required for carrying on administrative activities, rendering justice in major cases, and counseling the king in shaping policy. At both the local and central levels of government careful attention was given to assuring a regular royal income, derived primarily from the produce of royal estates, war booty, tolls on commercial activity, and obligatory gifts imposed on rich subjects, and only secondarily from direct taxation. Income from war booty was especially valuable in allowing Charlemagne to attract as officials at all levels individuals drawn from a limited number of aristocratic families interlocked by kinship ties who were eager to serve the king in return for the prestige, the power, and the material rewards derived from holding office and enjoying royal favor.

Charlemagne was most innovative as a ruler in extending and strengthening the linkages between his person and his court and the local centers of power. He exploited the shared interests and the kinship ties of powerful aristocratic families, chiefly from Austrasia where the Carolingian dynasty had its roots, from which most office holders were drawn as a means of establishing consensus within the ruling elite whose reach extended across the entire realm. He continued the traditional annual assemblies which brought together in the presence of the king himself most of the counts, bishops, abbots, and powerful aristocrats of the realm in a setting where complaints could be aired, advice sought, new policies announced, and personal ties cemented. He regularized and extended the use of missi dominici, royal agents sent out in pairs to make regular circuits around specifically defined territorial entities embracing several counties for the purpose of making the king's will known, ascertaining how well local officials were discharging their duties, correcting abuses by those officials where necessary, trying particularly difficult judicial cases, and meting out punishment to lawbreakers. To improve communications between his court and local units of government Charlemagne sought to expand the use of written documents in dealing with administrative matters. Especially important were his capitularies, written documents dispatched across the kingdom to inform interested parties of the king's will and to direct how his programs were to be carried out. He greatly expanded the use of vassalage and benefices as a means of establishing personal bonds between the king and powerful subjects. Those willing to accept vassalage swore under oath to accept the king as their overlord and to be loyal to him; in return they were rewarded with benefices in the form of offices or grants of land to be exploited for their personal benefit as long as they remained loyal and served their lord. Charlemagne even required all free men in his realm to swear an oath obligating them to be faithful in obeying and serving the ruler.

Managing Subjugated Lands. Although conquest was not new in Frankish history, Charlemagne's success as a conqueror gave some urgency to the governance of conquered peoples. He was certainly aware that diversity was a reality in his vast realm, precluding the possibility of a unitary system of governance, with one notable exception: his conquered subjects must accept Christianity, which meant that the ruler must do whatever was needed to mount a missionary effort, to put in place an ecclesiastical organization, to recruit and train clergy to meet the spiritual needs of the new converts, and to provide the physical and monetary resources required to sustain Christian worship. Charlemagne's acceptance of diversity was evidenced by the fact that everywhere in his realm he allowed his subjects to be judged by the law under which they were born. In 781 he created the subkingdoms of Italy and Aquitaine, each ruled by one of his sons, a step that clearly recognized the unique traditions prevailing in those areas. With the passing of time he sought to efface that uniqueness by filling secular and ecclesiastical offices with Frankish aristocrats and by making inhabitants of Italy and Aquitaine subject to royal legislation. In Saxony Charlemagne sought to put in place political and religious structures that duplicated those prevailing in Francia, a policy that led to the rapid assimilation of the Saxons into the Frankish world. In the somewhat ill-defined border regions facing the Bretons, the Muslims, the Slavs in the Danube Valley, and the Danes, Charlemagne established marches directed by dukes who were entrusted with considerable political autonomy, especially in military affairs; the powerful officials were drawn from the king's most trusted followers. Taken together, these measures allowed a considerable number of people to be incorporated into the Frankish realm without serious threat to the internal order. But the system also created a situation where local potentates entrenched in various regions for the purpose of ruling them in the name of the Frankish king could develop a power base that eventually enabled them to resist the royal government.

Charlemagne Redefines Kingship. Charlemagne's efforts to improve traditional techniques of government were accompanied by a subtle change in the concepts defining the purpose of government and the role of the king. Charlemagne inherited from his Merovingian predecessors a concept of kingship based on the king as a warlord who had the power to command his subjects to do what he willed as long as he retained the power to enforce his commands. He did not abandon that model of rulership, especially insofar as his power to command was concerned. But as his reign progressed, the scope of that power was extended. His own legislation and the pronouncements of his chief counselors on the art of ruling began to add a religious dimension to what it meant to rule and to be a subject. Increasingly prominent was the idea that in a Christian society he who ruled "by the grace of God" had an obligation to rule according to the commands of God, and his subjects had a duty to respect the law of God in their conduct. By that definition the ruler must become an agent serving to realize the will of God, a duty that required that he direct his efforts toward assuring the salvation of his subjects. Kingship began to take on a ministerial dimension which mandated that a ruler be both priest and king, dedicated to assuring both the spiritual and material well-being of his subjects. This concept of kingship, which drew its substance chiefly from the Old Testament model of kingship and from St. Augustine's ideas on the nature of the city of God, began to blur the distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the Church and the state, and to bestow on the secular leader the authority to direct both spheres.

Despite the boldness of Charlemagne's political program, there were signs by the end of his reign that it was overly ambitious. Those signs suggested that during his reign the scope of government greatly expanded due to his conquests and to the new range of responsibilities emerging from a redefinition of the function of government and its leader, but that the means of coping with that expansion did not materialize. The human resources needed to enact his political program were lacking, being limited to a narrow range of families that had long enjoyed a central place in the Carolingian world. The material resources to support royal enactments were insufficient, especially after the cessation of military conquests during the last part of Charlemagne's reign and the consequent shrinking of booty available for distribution to loyal followers. The infrastructure undergirding the central administration was too primitive to reach out across a vast and diverse realm to explain and enforce measures aimed at creating order and providing justice. As a consequence of these limitations, political power began to escape royal control into private hands, as it had done earlier during the Merovingian chapter in the history of the Frankish kingdom. Without dubbing him a political failure, it can perhaps be said that in the context of his age Charlemagne simply tried to do too much by way of establishing effective government on a permanent basis.

Charlemagne's Religious Reform Efforts. Despite the magnitude of the problems facing him in the political realm and of the effort made to solve those challenges, Charlemagne found the time and energy to leave his mark on other facets of his world. He won widespread praise in his age as a religious reformer. His efforts in this realm represented a continuation of the reforming effort begun in the 740s by his father, Pepin III, and his uncle, Carloman. Charlemagne expanded and intensified their reforming program and placed the full power of the state behind its realization. His concern for religious reform was motivated in part by his personal piety. But he was keenly aware of the importance of the ecclesiastical establishment to his political program. And he became increasingly convinced that he as ruler had a duty imposed by God to see to it that his subjects gained eternal salvation. The result was a series of councils that enacted reforming measures given the force of public law in royal capitularies, the most important of which were the Capilulare generalis of 789 and the Capitulare missorum speciale of 802. Responsibility for enforcing this legislation was given to all public officials, but bishops were the chief agents in realizing meaningful reform. But in the final analysis it was the ruler's responsibility to purify the religious life of his subjects. Consequently, Charlemagne's reform effort served to place the direction of the Christian community into the hands of the secular ruler.

The reforming legislation promulgated by Charlemagne was traditional in its spirit and its content. It was inspired by an awareness of defects in contemporary religious life that needed correction in accordance with norms laid down by earlier church councils and encoded in collections of canon law. A few major concerns dominated Charlemagne's reform program: instituting a hierarchal church organization involving metropolitan archbishoprics, bishoprics, and parishes; defining the authority and responsibilities of the archbishops, bishops, and priests serving this hierarchy, especially bishops; improving the moral and intellectual quality of the clergy; protecting church property and income; regularizing and standardizing liturgical practices; providing physical facilities required for the proper conduct of religious life; intensifying pastoral care in order to deepen understanding of the faith and to root out all traces of paganism; improving moral behavior among all Christians in a variety of areas, such as criminal activity, marriage practices, treatment of the powerless, and property transactions. As the reform movement gained momentum, its scope began to broaden. Charlemagne and his chief religious advisers began to assume responsibility for defining and guaranteeing orthodox doctrine. That dimension of reform was evident in the famous libri carolini, compiled by theodulf at Charlemagne's command to correct the decisions on icons enacted by the Council of nicaea in 787, and in the pronouncements of the Council of Frankfurt in 794 and the subsequent writings of alcuin condemning adoptionism. These facets of Charlemagne's religious policy suggest that the Frankish king was charting a course that would give the West its own version of caesaropapism, not unlike that exemplified by Roman emperors from constantine the great to emperors ruling in Constantinople in Charlemagne's own day.

Charlemagne's aggressive domination of religious life in his realm proceeded without alienating the Frankish episcopacy which generally gave its full support to the ruler's program. Perhaps that support owed much to the fact that Charlemagne controlled episcopal appointments and had the resources to extend valuable favors to supportive clerics. However, the record seems to indicate clearly that the king filled episcopal offices with men who took their religious responsibilities seriously, who believed in the royal reform program, and who possessed the skills to give substance to that program. Neither did two popes who held office during his reign, adrian i (773795) and leo iii (795816), resist the caesaropapist course followed by Charlemagne. Although by the end of the 8th century the papacy was extended recognition as the titular head of Christendom, both Adrian I and Leo III were fully aware of the extent to which the survival of the Papal States and of the pope's authority over those who inhabited the Papal States depended on the protection of the Frankish ruler; thus, neither was inclined to challenge his religious policy. In fact, Adrian I repeatedly proclaimed his approval of Charlemagne's efforts to purify religious life and to lead in the spread of Christendom among the pagans. The king in turn was moved by the deepest respect for the spiritual head of Christendom. He was especially bound to Adrian I by personal ties, and, as we shall see, took major steps to rescue Leo III from his enemies. On numerous occasions he sought papal advice and sanction for his religious program. On two different occasions he reaffirmed the friendship pact that Pepin III had established with Pope Stephen II. And he extended the territorial boundaries of the Papal States by restoring to the pope lands that were part of his kingdom of Italy.

The Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne's efforts to improve the royal government and the religious establishment posed the need for better-educated secular and religious officials. The response to that need was a cultural renewal, known as the "carolingian renaissance," which in its beginning owed much to Charlemagne's initiative and which constituted one of his most enduring achievements. Charlemagne's renaissance was given its original impetus by a circle of educated men from outside Francia whom Charlemagne gathered at his court in the 780s and 790s. Included were the Italians paul the deacon, paulinus of aquileia, and peter of pisa, the Visigoth Theodulf, the Irishman dungal, and above all the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin of York, all products of an intellectual revival that had occurred in their lands during the 7th and 8th centuries. It was not long after they joined the royal court that their ranks began to be complemented by natives of Francia who were the disciples of these outsiders. The interactions of the members of the court circle with each other and with the king eventually found expression in royal commands, which together spelled out the fundamental features of the Carolingian cultural renewal; especially exemplary were a capitulary entitled Admonitio generalis of 789 and a royal letter entitled Epistola de letteris colendis ("Letter Concerning the Cultivation of Letters") circulated sometime during the 790s. These texts provided for the establishment of schools equipped to improve Latin literacy; the production of accurate copies of books basic to understanding Christian teachings; the assemblage of libraries that would allow studies beyond the elementary level; measures to assure the proper performance of the liturgy; and steps aimed at deepening among all Christians a knowledge of the basic tenets of the faith. Members of the court circle began to produce textbooks required to improve literacy, to convey the basic tenets of the faith, and to perform the liturgy properly. They collected copies of books that would make possible the deeper exploration of the Christian religion, including the writings of the Latin church fathers and selected classical authors. As a consequence an important royal library was created. A royal copy center, called a scriptorium, developed where books were copied and sometimes decorated with painted miniatures which set their creators in search of models for the art of book decorating. The royal scriptorium played an important role in propagating a new style of writing, the Carolingian minuscule, which made copying and reading much easier. The combination of royal commands on educational matters and the example set by the court scholars soon began to have an influence across the entire kingdom. Existing episcopal and monastic schools were revived and new ones founded; some of these schools produced masters who were able to expand the curriculum to the point where they could provide a broad education based on the traditional liberal arts. The number of Scriptoria and libraries increased, especially in monastic centers, where some libraries featured a wide range of books, including many classical writings, the only surviving copies of which came from these libraries. The fruit of Charlemagne's effort to renew culture was soon evidenced in the increased use of writing in the conduct of royal government and ecclesiastical administration, the improved competence in Latin, an enriched level of discourse reflected in the literary production of the era, especially in poetry, history writing, biblical commentaries, and letter writing, and in church building and decoration. Perhaps there was some truth to a boast that a "new Athens" was in the making, especially at Aachen after it became the favorite royal residence and the center of a building program that embodied many of the major features of the Carolingian revival in architecture and art. In fact, the full fruits of the Carolingian cultural renewal did not emerge until after Charlemagne's reign, but his patronage had given cultural renewal a form and a purpose that would leave a long-lasting mark on the cultural face of western Europe.

Charlemagne Is Crowned Emperor. The impressive list of accomplishments associated with the first 30 years of Charlemagne's reign provided the background for the culminating event of his regime: his coronation as emperor. As his reign progressed there were increasing signs that in the minds of many, perhaps including Charlemagne himself, his feats as warrior, governor, religious reformer, and cultural patron elevated him to a status inadequately conveyed by his traditional titles, king of the Franks and the Lombards and patricius Romanorum. He was a universal leader, uniquely endowed to safeguard the spiritual and material well-being of the community of true believers, a community increasingly conceived as an imperium Christianorum whose members included those who adhered to the true faith of Rome and whose leader needed a title befitting his role in creating, directing, and sustaining such an entity. The increasing knowledge of classical history in the court circle emerging from the Carolingian Renaissance suggested comparisons with great Roman emperors. The situation in Constantinople, where a succession of emperors had fostered the heresy of iconoclasm and where after 797 a women, irene, held the imperial office, pointed up the unfitness of the Greek emperors to lead the imperium Christianorum.

A development in Rome provided the occasion for giving substance to this line of thinking, which at its essence had to do with locating responsibility for the direction of orthodox Christian society. In 799 a crisis developed in Rome that raised serious doubts about the ability of the pope to guide the imperiium christianorum and posed a major challenge for Charlemagne. A faction of Roman aristocrats rebelled against Leo III (795816) and sought by force to render him unfit for office by blinding him; the rebels charged Leo III with tyranny and with serious personal misconduct. Leo III escaped with his life by fleeing to Charlemagne's court, placing Charlemagne in a position of deciding how he would proceed in a situation that involved judging the vicar of St. Peter and restoring order within the Papal States where the pope was ruler. The Frankish ruler acted decisively. He took steps to restore the pope to his office and then, after wide consultation, made a journey to Rome in late 800 to settle matters. After extensive discussions during December of 800, Charlemagne arranged an assembly of dignitaries on December 23 at which Leo III was allowed to clear himself of the charges brought against him by swearing under oath that he was innocent. Two days later on Christmas day as Charlemagne prepared to celebrate Mass in the basilica of St. Peter, Pope Leo III placed a crown on his head while the assembled crowd acclaimed him emperor and then the pope performed the ritual act of obeisance due an emperor.

Charlemagne's coronation as emperor posed two problems, the answers to which eluded not only his contemporaries but also many later historians. The first involved assigning responsibility for this momentous step. Although einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, wrote later that the king would never have gone near St. Peter's on that fateful day had he known what was going to happen, the evidence makes it more likely that the coronation was jointly planned by Leo III and Charlemagne as a means of serving ends useful to each party; given the pope's tenuous position at the moment, one suspects that Charlemagne played the leading role in charting the course of events in December of 800. In his moment of need Leo III was undoubtedly pleased to play a role in proceedings that would strengthen his ties to his protector by allowing him to sanction an important new title for the Carolingians just as his predecessors had done a half-century earlier in approving the assumption of the Frankish kingship by Pepin III. The pope's role in the bestowing the imperial crown on Charlemagne implied that papal participation was in some way a requisite to authentic election to the imperial office. Given the long connection of the papacy with the protocol of the imperial court in Constantinople, it is likely that Leo III played the decisive role in arranging the ritual proceedings that occurred on Christmas Day, 800. Charlemagne very likely welcomed a clarification of his legal position in passing judgment on those who had attacked the pope, a power he soon used to condemn the conspirators. He could as emperor claim equality with his counterpart in Constantinople. Above all else, he was granted recognition for his accomplishments in carrying out God's will more successfully than anyone else. Such recognition pleased his advisers and gave them fresh ammunition with which to flesh out their concept of ministerial kingship.

The Final Years of Charlemagne's Reign. A second, more intractable problem centered around what the imperial title meant to Charlemagne and what effect it had on his actions as ruler. The answer to that question must be sought in his actions during the last years of his reign. Some evidence suggests that the imperial title meant little to him. He continued to call himself "king of the Franks and the Lombards," to which was joined the enigmatic designation "emperor governing the Roman empire." In 806 he provided for the future division of his realm among his three sons without any consideration of the unity implicit in the idea of empire or any mention of the imperial title. In his lifestyle he continued to dress, eat, and play in the fashion of a typical Frankish noble with little concern for modes of conduct or protocols associated with the imperial dignity. Some evidence suggests that in the last years of his life he increasingly turned away from the clerical advisers who played a role in securing his imperial coronation in order to give a larger share in wielding power to the powerful noble families that had played a part in establishing the royal power of the Carolingian dynasty and who had little interest in promoting the imperial ideal. But other pieces of evidence suggest that Charlemagne took the imperial title seriously. He undertook a long military and diplomatic effort aimed at winning recognition of his title from the emperor in Constantinople, an end he finally realized in 812. He sought to reenergize his reform program in the years after 800 in a context that suggested he felt that his new title mandated renewed concern for the spiritual welfare of his subjects. The terminology used to convey imperial orders, the protocol adopted for the conduct of court life, the symbols used on royal coinage, and the motifs employed in creating and decorating the main structures of his new residence in Aachen all suggest that a "new Rome" was being built and reflected an awareness that the imperial office was a source of ideological elements which strengthened Charlemagne's authority. In 813 Charlemagne with his own hands bestowed the imperial crown on his only surviving son, Louis the Pious. That act suggested that he believed that the imperial title had some value to a successor faced with holding together the vast empire that he and his Carolingian predecessors had put together. And it also indicated that he wished to exclude the papacy from any role in providing legitimacy for the imperial title. Taken together, this evidence points to the conclusion that Charlemagne saw the imperial crown as a unique award extended to him in recognition of his personal accomplishments, an award to be used as he pleased but not to be set aside lightly lest its potential for enhancing his authority as a ruler and his and his family's status among other rulers in his world be wasted.

When Charlemagne died in 814, one author wrote that "Rivers of tears now flow unceasing, / for the world bewails the death of Charlemagne," while another writing somewhat later remembered with longing that when his life ended he "left all Europe filled with every goodness." However much deserved on the basis of his many accomplishments, these sentiments do not speak to his personal qualities which must not be overlooked in assessing his career. His powerful personality was a vital force in a setting in which institutional structures were fragile and personal relationships played a fundamental role in maintaining order. Although he gained the admiration of an elite circle of nobles and clergymen for his interest in learning, his new political concepts, and his progressive religious ideas, to most of his subjects Charlemagne was preeminently an ideal warrior chief, companion, and family man. He was a giant man blessed with extraordinary energy and vitality. He loved the active lifemilitary campaigning, hunting, and swimming. He was no less at home at the banquet table, where quantities of food and drink, storytelling, and spirited verbal thrusts created an atmosphere of joviality among his numerous companions. He was naturally gregarious, loquacious, and intellectually inquisitive, allowing him to be the dominant person in his court circle. But he could be brutal on occasion; for instance, after a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Saxons in 782, he ordered the slaughter of 4,500 Saxon prisoners of war in an effort to terrorize that truculent people into submission. Never far from his mind were the interests of his large family. In the course of his reign he was married five times; after his last wife died in 800, he remained unmarried but shared his life with several concubines. These liaisons produced at least eighteen children. The royal sons counted as legitimate began early to learn the arts of being king, Pepin as king of Italy, Louis as king of Aquitaine, and Charles at his father's court. Charlemagne refused to allow his daughters to marry, keeping them with him to adorn his court and perhaps to dote on their loving father. Two of them bore illegitimate children fathered by court officials. One of the tragic episodes in Charlemagne's life was marked by the death of four of his children in a two-year span from 810 to 812, including Pepin and Charles, both destined to succeed their father. Despite behavior that those living by different moral standards might hold in disdain, Charlemagne was a model of piety in the eyes of his subjects. He attended Mass daily, prayed frequently, gave generously to the support of the Church, and acted frequently in the interests of the poor and oppressed. These qualities and traits made him a figure capable of commanding the respect, loyalty, and affection of his subjects; on these feelings rested much of his authority.

Charlemagne's reign represented an important chapter in western European history. His empire did not long survive him, but the ideal of a politically unified Europe inspired some western Europeans until the present, sometimes with unhappy consequences. Charlemagne served as the model prince during most of the Middle Ages. The goals he pursuedorderly government, religious reform, cultural renewal, Christian expansioninfluenced the programs of many later medieval kings. What he actually achieved during his reign laid a firm basis upon which an orderly, civilized society was later built in western Europe. For these accomplishments, he justly deserved to be called "the Great" and Europae pater.

See Also: 'abbĀ sids; byzantine empire; carolingian reform; states of the church; umayyads.

Bibliography: Einhardi vita Karoli Magni, ed. o. holderegger, (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum 24 Hannover 1911; reprinted, 1965). Notker der Stammler, Taten Kaiser Karls des Grossen (Notkeri Balbuli Gesta Karoli Magni imperatoris ), ed. h. f. haefele, (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum 12 Munich 1959; reprinted, 1980), English translation of both biographies as Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. l. thorpe, (London and New York 1969). Annales regni Francorum, a. 768814, ed. f. kurze, (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum 6 Hannover 1895; reprinted, 1950) 26141, English translation in Carolingian Chronicles. Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories, trans. b. w. scholz (Ann Arbor, MI 1970) 4697. Capitularia regum Francorum, ed. a. boretius and v. krause, 2 v., (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Leges, Sectio II Hannover 18931897; reprinted, 19801984), 1:44259. Concilia aevi karolini, ed. a. werminghoff, 2 v., (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Leges, Sectio III: Concilia 2, 1/2 Hannover 19061908; reprinted, 19971999), 2/1:74306. Epistolae karolini aevi, v. 23, ed. e. dÜmmler, et al (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae 45 Berlin 18921935, reprinted 19851995), 3:494567; 4:134. Codex Carolinus, Epp. 4997, ed. w. gundlach. (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae, v. 3: Epistolae Merowingici et Karolini, v. 1 Berlin 1892) 567-648, 654655. Alcvini sive Albini Epistolae, ed. e. dÜmmler, (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae, v. 4: Epistolae Karolini Aevi, v. 2 Berlin 1899) 1493. Die Urkunden Pippins, Karlmanns und Karl des Grossen (Pippini, Carlomanni, Caroli Magni Diplomata), ed. e. mÜhlbacher (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Diplomata Karolini 1 Hannover 1906; reprinted, 1991) 77478. Poetae latini aevi carolini, ed. e. dÜmmler (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Poetae 1 Berlin 1881; reprinted, 1997). Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa. Ein Paderborner Epos von Jahre 799, ed. j. brockmann, with studies by h. beumann, f. brÜnhÖlzl, and w. winkelmann, (Studien und Quellen zur westfälischen Geschichte 5 Paderborn 1966). Opus Caroli regis contra synodum (Libri Carolini), ed. a. freeman with p. mayvaert (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Legis, Sectio II: Concilia, Supplement 1 Hannover 1998).

[r. e. sullivan]


views updated Jun 27 2018


CHARLEMAGNE (c. 742814), also known as Charles the Great and Carolus Magnus; king of the Franks (768800) and first emperor of a revived Empire in the West (800814). For three years after the death in 768 of Pépin III (the Short), the regnum Francorum was divided between his two sons, but in 771 the elder, Charlemagne, became sole ruler, although not without opposition. His unusually long reign was of major importance in the history of western Europe and the Christian church and the Latin culture associated with it. In 773774, responding to papal appeal, Charlemagne invaded the Lombard kingdom, annexed it to his own and then visited Rome, where he was ceremonially received and given an "authoritative" text of church law. On a second visit (781) his two sons were baptized by the pope and given subordinate kingdoms.

Involuntary conversions and the establishment of an organized church followed Charlemagne's military victories over the Saxons (beginning in 772), but Saxony was for years beset by bloody and destructive rebellions. Nevertheless, the monastery of Fulda, the bishopric of Würzburg, and new settlements such as Paderborn became centers of organized missionary activity. In 785 the leaders of Saxon resistance accepted baptism, although it may be doubted whether many Saxons followed their example until further pressures, including severe punishment for "pagan" practices, had been employed. The conversion of the Frisians was simultaneously being achieved, although with less violence.

A succession of campaigns (led first by the king himself and then by subordinate commanders) against the Asiatic Avars west of the middle Danube and against Slav tribes to their south ended Avar independence and opened up the region to missionary activity from Salzburg and Aquileia. Campaigns were also conducted intermittently against northern Slav peoples, who then received clergy from the new Saxon bishoprics, and late in the reign the Franks were also in both military and peaceful contact with the Danes. In the southwest, a campaign into Muslim Spain in 778 ended disastrously, supposedly at Roncevalles in the Pyrenees. Subsequently, however, local commanders gradually extended Frankish authority over the predominantly Christian lands as far south as the Ebro (the region of Navarre and the later Catalonia).

Charlemagne inherited a concept of kingship that emphasized the obligation and legitimacy of extending the Christian faith by force of arms while also securing it at home. To these ends came also the utilization of the church hierarchy as well as lay officials as a means of social control; both groups were expected to give effect to the legal rules and pious exhortations expressed in capitularies promulgated in Latin by the assemblies that brought together bishops, abbots, and leading laymen in 779, 789, and frequently in later years. The king's personal devotion to religio Christiana, with which he is credited by his biographer Einhard (writing c. 829), was essentially expressed in observance of the externals of worship as provided by the court chaplains, with little regard for spirituality or personal morality. Even before 779, however, church authorities were making the king aware that among his responsibilities should be the encouragement of learning (eruditio ) as a basis for more effective government and the more correct understanding of the texts on which the Christian faith was grounded.

Peter of Pisa, remembered as the person who taught Charlemagne "Latin grammar," and other learned Italians joined the still-itinerant court. Around 780 Charlemagne seems to have invited churches and monasteries to supply copies of books in their possession; this was the beginning of a court library that by 790 included a range of patristic writings as well as a remarkable collection of pre-Christian classical texts. A small number of manuscripts, mostly liturgical, were decorated in a distinctive and eventually influential style by resident artists. The circle of scholars was notably enlarged by the arrival of Alcuin and other Englishmen and of the Visigothic Theodulf (later bishop of Orléans). Theodulf is generally accepted as the principal author of the remarkable first example of court scholarship, the so-called Libri Carolini, composed and revised (792793) to counter the current Byzantine and papal concept of images and the adoration due them.

The heterodox views of Spanish ecclesiastics on Christ's relationship with God the Father (adoptionism) were condemned in Frankish councils and challenged in detail by Alcuin, apparently with ultimate success. An increasing concern also with unity of practice in the church was expressed in the provision of standard service texts. However, the "Gregorian" sacramentary sent from Rome was in fact ill suited to the needs of churches in Francia and had to be supplemented; in practice, mixed and divergent books were in use for private and public devotion and study for many decades.

In the 790s the court was providing adolescents (including laymen, e.g., Einhard) who had received a basic education elsewhere with more advanced instruction based on the antique tradition of the "liberal arts" and especially the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. The importance to church and kingdom of correct Latin was emphasized in a royal circular letter, but since this Latin was to be pronounced as spelled, a gap was opened between the language of scholarship and worship on the one hand and everyday speech in Romance (as well as Germanic) regions on the other. Serious attempts were nonetheless made to communicate the elements of the faith to the laity in their vernacular.

Charlemagne and his court increasingly remained at Aachen, where an impressive group of palace buildings including an octagonal chapel was built. This was accompanied by speculation on the nature of the Frankish king's authority over an imperium Christianum. In 799 Pope Leo III was the victim of a violent attack in Rome, and he appealed to Charlemagne; the latter's representatives cleared the pope of unspecified charges leveled against him, but final judgment on his attackers was reserved for the king. In the summer of 800 Charlemagne visited Saint-Martin's, Tours, and its abbot, Alcuin, and then journeyed via Ravenna to Rome. On December 23 he presided over an assembly at which the participating bishops declared that they could not pass judgment on the pope. The latter took an oath of innocence, and the Roman rebels were dealt with. On December 25 at mass in Saint Peter's the pope crowned Charlemagne, as he prayed and those present acclaimed him, "Augustus, great and powerful emperor of the Romans."

The ceremonies had obviously been carefully planned to recognize Charlemagne's unique authority and achievements, but he may well have been unprepared for the precise way in which he was made "emperor in the West." Even if he was worried about the reactions of the imperial court at Constantinople, however, his new title was very soon used in official documents and was subsequently carried on a distinctive new coin. Moreover, the almost annual promulgation of capitularies after 802 and his complaints that many were regularly ignored suggest that the emperor felt that he had assumed new responsibilities toward his Christian subjects.

The resident scholars and advisers were now predominantly younger men; the older generation had left the court for bishoprics and abbeys, and offered their views on doctrinal matters, in writing or at special assemblies. In 806 Charlemagne planned to divide his territorial empire, probably without passing on the title. The death of two of his sons left him with a single heir, Louis, and in 813 he was personally crowned by his father at Aachen. In the same year councils were held simultaneously in different parts of Francia to make more detailed regulations for church organization and practice. When Charlemagne died on January 28, 814, he was buried at Aachen in a tomb whose form and simple inscription are known only from Einhard. His death did not constitute the sharp break often supposed: some of the old courtiers remained and there was continuity of artistic activity at the new emperor's court. Louis did, however, have a deeper concern for Christian spirituality, and the full-est flowering of Carolingian learning took place when the territorial and political unity of the empire was already past history.


The major historical, literary, and documentary sources for the reign of Charlemagne have been edited, some of them several times, in the various series of the "Monumenta Germaniae Historica" (1826). The Council of Europe Exhibition devoted to Charlemagne and his heritage that took place at Aachen in 1965 was the occasion of the publication of the magnificent Karl der Grosse: Lebenswerk u. Nachleben, 4 vols. plus index, edited by Wolfgang Braunfels and others (Düsseldorf, 19651968), whose 2,400 pages provide authoritative accounts of almost every aspect of the man and the age. The history of the church is dealt with in volume 1 (organization), volume 2 (learning), and volume 3 (art and architecture). A concise semi-popular account is my The Age of Charlemagne, 2d ed. (New York, 1973), to be read in conjunction with my " 'Europae Pater': Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship," English Historical Review 85 (1970): 59105. The most recent English-language account of the reign is Rosamond McKitterick's The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751987 (New York, 1983), chaps. 3, 4, and 6.

Donald A. Bullough (1987)


views updated May 29 2018


Charlemagne (742-814), or Charles the Great, was king of the Franks, 768-814, and emperor of the West, 800-814. He founded the Holy Roman Empire, stimulated European economic and political life, and fostered the cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

In contrast to the general decline of western Europe from the 7th century on, the era of Charlemagne marks a significant revival and turning point. Through his use of available resources (such as the Church, Irish missionaries, and manorial and feudal institutions), his alliance with the papacy, and his numerous governmental and ecclesiastical reforms, Charlemagne was able to halt the political and cultural disintegration of the early Middle Ages and lay the foundation for strong central government north of the Alps. Partially as a result of Charlemagne's activity, northern Europe emerged in the high and late Middle Ages as the dominant economic, political, and cultural force in the West.

Early Life

Charlemagne, the son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada, was born in 742. In 741 Pepin had become mayor of the palace, and in 751 he deposed the last Merovingian king and was declared king of the Franks. Little is known about Charlemagne's childhood; in 754, however, he participated in the anointment of Pepin as king by Pope Stephen II. He was educated at the palace school primarily by Fulrad, the abbot of St. Denis.

When Pepin died in October 768, Charlemagne came into his inheritance. According to a general assembly of the Franks, Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman, were both proclaimed king and were to rule the kingdom jointly. In the division of the realm, however, Carloman received a larger and richer portion. Under these circumstances ill feelings between the two brothers were inevitable, and the tension was heightened when Carloman refused to aid Charlemagne in his campaign against an uprising in Aquitaine. Toward the conclusion of the Aquitanian campaign, from which Charlemagne emerged victorious, a fraternal war seemed certain; but Carloman died unexpectedly in 771 and left Charlemagne the ruler of the entire kingdom.

Territorial Expansion

Charlemagne moved aggressively to remove those who threatened his suzerainty and to expand his power, especially in Italy. He immediately attacked and vanquished Desiderius, King of the Lombards; and in 774 Charlemagne was received by Pope Adrian I in Rome. The two renewed the alliance between the Frankish monarchy and the papacy, and shortly thereafter Charlemagne was crowned king of the Lombards at Pavia. The Frankish conquest of Italy—first of Lombardy in the north and later of the southern duchy of Benevento—had a twofold effect: all threats to the independence of the Holy See were removed, and a large portion of Italy was annexed by Charlemagne, thus bringing new wealth and peoples into his kingdom.

During his Italian campaigns Charlemagne also declared war against the Saxons, who had menaced the northeastern frontier of Francia for several generations. Begun in 772, this cruel and bitter war was finally concluded in 804 by the annexation of Saxony by Francia and the enforced Christianization of the Saxon tribes.

In the midst of the continual struggles to subdue the Saxons, Charlemagne carried on several major campaigns that resulted in territorial expansion. Perhaps the most renowned of these was his expedition into Spain. In 778, during the return from this successful campaign, Charlemagne's rear guard, led by Count Roland of the Breton March, was ambushed by traitorous Basques near Roncesvalles. The story of this episode was immortalized in the epic poem The Song of Roland. The historical importance of this campaign was the establishment of a military district called the Spanish March, a territorial buffer zone between Frankish Gaul and Moslem Spain.

On his eastern frontier Charlemagne defeated Tassilo, the Duke of Bavaria, and made the duchy of Bavaria part of his empire. He divided the western portion of the duchy into counties, each administered by a count loyal to the king; the eastern half formed a march, or border zone, called the Ost Mark (Austria), protected by a military duke, or margrave.

Further to the east, the major power and ultimate threat to the Frankish realm was the vast Slavic kingdom of the Avars, or Huns, an Asiatic tribe which had settled along the upper Danube. Between 791 and 795 Charlemagne crushed the power of the Avars and made their kingdom a tributary state. This victory opened the entire Danubian Plain to German colonization and the eastern expansion of Christianity—the beginning of the Drang nach Osten, or push to the East.

Holy Roman Empire

By 800 Charlemagne had succeeded in extending his overlordship from the Elbe River in the northeast to south of the Pyrenees in the southwest and from the North Sea to southern Italy. He ruled all of the Christianized western provinces, except the British Isles, that had once been part of the Roman Empire. As the sworn protector of the Church, Charlemagne was in fact the political master of Rome itself. Thus his authority, which extended over a vast realm and included numerous peoples, rivaled that of the Roman emperors of antiquity.

The papacy, at odds with Byzantium and its empress Irene over the question of iconoclasm (the problem of image worship and the use of images in the Church), looked to Charlemagne for protection and political leadership and regarded him as the true emperor of Latin Christendom and as the divinely appointed ruler of the earthly sphere. Thus the Pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

Charlemagne endeavored to create unity and harmony within his vast realm and to promulgate laws and promote learning that would achieve his goals of empire. In his effort to assure his equality of rank with the Byzantine emperor, Charlemagne borrowed much from his eastern counterpart. The Byzantine influence is most clearly seen in the Palace Chapel of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), which was a conscious imitation of the imperial residence at Constantinople. In style, the building is based upon the church of S. Vitale in Ravenna, the former western Byzantine capital. Thus Charlemagne, in contrast to his Merovingian predecessors, who traveled incessantly throughout their realm, attempted to create a fixed capital parallel to that of Byzantium, and he resided at Aachen during most of his later years.

Character and Appearance

The major contemporary record of Charlemagne's personal attributes and achievements is the Vita Caroli Magni, the first medieval biography, written by Einhard between 817 and 836. This biography is largely a firsthand account, since Einhard was a member of the palace school during Charlemagne's reign and was his close associate.

In the Vita is the actual physical description of the man who has since become one of the greatest legendary heroes of the Middle Ages. The most striking feature about Charlemagne was his immense size in comparison to the average man of his day. Einhard believed him to be seven times the length of a foot, but with the opening of his tomb in 1861 scholars discovered that his actual height was 6 feet 3 1/2 inches. He was well built and admirably proportioned, except for his rather short thick neck and a protruding paunch. He took frequent exercise on horseback and enjoyed excellent health for most of his life. Einhard says that "his eyes [were] very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry."

Toward his friends Charlemagne was jovial, and he particularly enjoyed the company of others. Yet toward his enemies he was a stern and often cruel warrior to be feared for his strength and ability. Although primarily a man of action, he had great admiration for learning and "was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue." He studied Greek and the liberal arts and thus combined to some extent the personality of a warrior and a scholar.

Charlemagne's Administration

In many respects Charlemagne's government, which proved so successful and which began the ascendancy of northern Europe, differed little in its institutions from the Merovingian era. In keeping with Frankish tradition, the monarchy was considered a matter of family inheritance; the government itself was personal, and its administration was founded on feudal oaths of allegiance between lord and follower. There was no distinction between the king's personal servants and the public officials. Thus the public and private nature of political control were inseparable, as were the secular and the religious aspects of kingship. Much as the Merovingians had done in the past, Charlemagne presided over ecclesiastical synods, depended upon the clergy for advice and counsel, and interfered in matters of Church discipline and property.

What is most striking about Charlemagne's rule of so vast a realm was that he was able to maintain, largely through the strength of his own personality, a centralized state wherein royal authority was primary. Power and political authority descended from the Emperor's imperium to his vassals. In this system the count, a direct vassal of the Crown, was the primary link between central and local government. Each count was in charge of an administrative district or county, which he governed with the help of lesser officials. There was always the danger that a count might become too powerful in his own district, and Charlemagne therefore created a group of special envoys, missi dominici, who inquired into abuses in the kingdom. He also maintained a small group of elite warriors, the vassi dominici, who acted as his personal retinue and helped him enforce imperial authority.

During the course of his reign Charlemagne sent a number of written instructions to his officials. These enactments, known as the Capitularii had the force of law and were implemented directly by the royal agents. They are exceedingly valuable as sources in understanding the social and legal structure of Carolingian France.

In general, the reign of Charlemagne, because of his military and political ability, was a period of internal tranquility and prosperity. He succeeded, through diplomatic negotiations, in having his imperial title recognized by the Byzantine emperor and, through his program of cultural revival and Church reform, in upgrading the level of civilization in the West.

Carolingian Culture

Charlemagne's support of art and letters had several purposes beyond the general improvement of culture and literacy in the empire. One of the major purposes was to provide an educated clergy that could undertake many of the administrative tasks of government. A second purpose, for which an educated clergy was also a necessity, was to ensure the acceptance of orthodox doctrine as well as a uniform liturgy throughout the empire. Such uniformity not only strengthened the Church but facilitated the political task of integrating and centralizing the administration of the empire. The spread of a uniform script known as the Caroline minuscule, the attempts at achieving uniformity of doctrine through the suppression of heresy, and the publication of a uniform Mass book, book of lessons, and monastic rule were sponsored as a means of furthering unity and integration. A third purpose of this cultural revival was to enhance the prestige and authority of Charlemagne himself, who thus appeared as the defender and protector of the Church, of orthodoxy, and of education.

The intellectual traditions and educational institutions supported by Charlemagne greatly influenced the development of Western culture. Grammarians and rhetoricians from northern Italy and English scholars, such as Alcuin, enhanced his court. This mixture of Italian and Anglo-Irish culture provided a broad foundation for the later stages of the Carolingian revival. Charlemagne expanded the number of schools, both monastic and episcopal, and the quality of education was greatly improved through the influence of the scholars who taught at the palace school.

Last Years

In 806, at the age of 64, Charlemagne took measures to provide for the succession of his empire. He divided the realm among his three sons—Charles, Pepin, and Louis. But the death of Charles in April 810 was soon followed by that of Pepin. The remaining son, Louis, later called "the Pious," who was the least warlike and aggressive of the three, was left as the sole heir to the empire, and he was crowned by his father in 813.

The last years of Charlemagne's reign saw difficult times. Civil disobedience increased; pest and famine created hard times; there were troubles on the frontiers. In many respects an era of crisis and decline loomed in the future. In 811 Charlemagne made his final will and gave a sizable portion of his treasures (more than to his own heirs) to various churches of the realm. He died, while fasting, on Jan. 28, 814, and was buried at his palace at Aachen.

Further Reading

Among the studies that focus on Charlemagne's life are Jesse L. Weston, The Romance Cycle of Charlemagne and His Peers (1901). Harold Lamb, Charlemagne: The Legend and the Man (1954); and Richard Winston, Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross (1954). Recommended among the general, recent works are Donald A. Bullough, The Age of Charlemagne (1965), especially distinguished for its illustrations, and E. M. Almedingen, Charlemagne: A Study (1968). The best introduction to Charlemagne and Carolingian institutions is Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne (trans. 1964).

The documents for the Carolingian period are abundant, many of them in translation. For a general collection of sources see Stewart C. Easton and Helene Wieruszowski, The Era of Charlemagne: Frankish State and Society (1961). One of the best translations of Einhard is S. Epes Turner, The Life of Charlemagne (1960). Because of the importance of the coronation of Charlemagne, scholars have devoted special attention to the subject. Many of the evaluations have been collected in Richard E. Sullivan, ed., The Coronation of Charlemagne: What Did It Signify? (1959). For the artistic achievement during Charlemagne's reign see Roger Hinks, Carolingian Art: A study of Early Medieval Painting and Sculpture in Western Europe (1935), and Kenneth John Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800-1200 (1959; 2d ed. 1966). One of the most stimulating works on Carolingian culture is M. L. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 500 to 900 (1931; new ed. 1957). □


views updated Jun 08 2018


Born 742

Died 814

Frankish king and emperor of the West

C harlemagne was unquestionably the most important ruler in Western Europe between 400 and 1000. Only Clovis (see entry) could compete for that distinction, but Charlemagne—who like Clovis came from the nation called the Franks—achieved far more than Clovis could even have imagined. In Clovis's time the Franks, one of many tribes that invaded former Roman territories, conquered much of what is now France, in the process giving their name to the country; Charlemagne's power, by contrast, would extend throughout the entire western portion of the European continent.

Yet Charlemagne's impact went far beyond the military victories that built his vast empire. By forging an alliance with the church, he solidified the idea of kings and popes as joint political leaders. Furthermore, by encouraging the arts and scholarship, he fostered a rebirth of learning in the West.

Merovingians and Carolingians

When Charlemagne (SHAR-luh-mayn) was born, France was under the rule of the Merovingian (mayr-uh-VIN-jee-un) dynasty or royal house, whose power Clovis had established nearly three centuries before. But later Merovingians had proven to be weak rulers, and were dominated by palace officials called majordomos, or "mayors of the palace." The greatest of the majordomos was Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel (known as "The Hammer," c. 688–741), who was clearly the real power in Merovingian France.

When Charles died, his son Pepin III (c. 714–768) decided to take the throne, and in 751 sent a message to the pope, spiritual leader of western Christianity, asking if it would be a sin to remove the Merovingian king from power. The pope, who needed Pepin's help to defend Italy against an invading tribe called the Lombards, gave his blessing, whereupon Pepin seized the throne. Thus he began a new dynasty, which historians call the Carolingian (kayr-uh-LINJ-ee-un) in honor of its greatest ruler, Pepin's son Charlemagne.

Training for kingship

Actually, he only became known as Charlemagne, or "Charles the Great," much later: in his boyhood he had simply been known as Charles. At the time Pepin took power, Charlemagne was only nine years old, and in that same year, his younger brother Carloman was born. Pepin raised both boys to succeed him, since it was the Frankish custom for a king to divide his lands between his sons.

No doubt part of Charlemagne's education involved training in the arts of war, which he practiced by riding and hunting. He did not learn how to read and write, since at that time only priests and other members of the church acquired such skills. Later in life, Charlemagne attempted to teach himself reading and writing, but it is doubtful that he ever became fully literate. Nonetheless, he received a valuable education in kingly skills by accompanying his father on several trips around France.

Certainly he looked like a king. Famed for his piercing blue eyes, Charlemagne as an adult was a giant, standing six feet, four inches at a time when most men were a foot shorter. He was also a devout Christian, and when he started a family, a loving father.

In 768, when Charlemagne was twenty-six, Pepin died, leaving Charlemagne and Carloman as joint rulers. Three years later Carloman—with whom Charlemagne was not close— died, leaving Charlemagne as sole ruler of the Franks.

A series of wars

Charlemagne spent the early years of his reign in an almost constant state of war. In 772, his forces went to war against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe to the north of France. The Saxons were pagans, meaning that they worshiped many gods, and in his first campaign against them, Charlemagne chopped down a tree that they considered a sacred symbol of their religion.

Between 773 and 776, he did battle with the Lombards, subduing northern Italy. He then turned his attention to Spain, which was under the control of Islamic or Muslim forces from the Middle East. Though the Muslims defeated Charlemagne's forces in 778, the campaign was memorable because it served as the basis for the Song of Roland, a twelfth-century French legend.

In 781, Charlemagne had his son Pepin crowned king of Italy by the pope, and in the following year he increased the intensity of his ten-year-old campaign against the Saxons. A rebellion led to a stern punishment by Charlemagne, whose soldiers beheaded some five thousand Saxons. Meanwhile, he continued his campaign in Italy, and by 786 had gained control of the entire Italian peninsula.

The Carolingian Renaissance

Despite his preoccupation with military matters, Charlemagne was also highly interested in education and set about to foster scholarship throughout his empire. Thus in the 780s he ushered in a period sometimes referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance" (RIN-uh-sahnts), the latter term referring to a rebirth of learning.

Charlemagne achieved this renaissance by inviting to France scholars from various parts of Western Europe, most notably Alcuin (AL-kwin; c. 735–804; see English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers entry) from England. Alcuin called for a return to the study of Latin, and to standards of education that had prevailed under the Greek and Roman civilizations. He directed a school at Charlemagne's palace, a training ground for young men who would later work in the government. Another important scholar in Carolingian France was Charlemagne's secretary, Einhard (c. 770–840), whose Life of Charlemagne is one of the principal sources of information about the king.

Before the invention of the printing press, books had to be copied by hand, and more than ninety percent of the works from ancient Rome that exist today owe their survival to Carolingian monks. The originals of such books have long since disappeared, and without the Carolingians, who copied them, no one would know of these writings. Furthermore, much of the lettering system used today—Roman script (best known through the Times Roman font on most computer printers), italics, even lowercase lettering—owes its existence to the monks of Carolingian France.

Architecture also flourished under Charlemagne. The emperor was so impressed by the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in Italy, built after Justinian (see entry) conquered that country, that he was determined to have his own version. The result was the chapel at Aachen (AH-kin), a city in what is now western Germany that Charlemagne designated as his capital in 794. Charlemagne's architect, Odo of Metz, designed a highly distinctive building rather than an imitation, and the chapel served as a model for later styles of architecture in Western Europe.

Emperor of the Romans

The establishment of a permanent capital was an achievement in itself, since medieval kings tended to move from place to place. The Carolingian age signified the beginning of a return to the civilized way of life that had prevailed before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, and in 800, Charlemagne received a title that recognized him as the leader of a new Roman Empire.

The year before, Pope Leo III had been attacked by mobs in Rome and imprisoned. He had escaped and gone to Aachen for help, and Charlemagne had assisted him with a contingent of soldiers. Soon they restored the pope to power,

and Charlemagne himself came to Rome in mid-December 800. On Christmas Day, the pope placed a crown on his head and declared him "Emperor of the Romans." Historians regard this as an early foundation for the Holy Roman Empire, which would take shape nearly two centuries later.

Though this empire was more of an idea than a reality, it would still play a significant part in European politics throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages. Certainly the Byzantine emperors, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from Greece, took the title seriously enough that they regarded it as an insult to their own claims to the Roman throne. Only in 813 did they recognize Charlemagne's use of the title.

The legacy of Charlemagne

The coronation of Charlemagne was the high point of his career. He devoted the remaining fourteen years of his life to the administration of his empire rather than to the conquest of new territory, and he spent most of his time in Aachen, which was famed for its soothing mineral baths. In 806, he started making arrangements to pass his lands on to his three sons, but by 813, only one was still living. Therefore in a magnificent ceremony at Aachen, he placed the crown on the head of his son Louis the Pious. On January 21, 814, following a bath in the mineral springs, Charlemagne developed a sudden fever and died a week later.

His empire did not last long: in the Treaty of Verdun (843), Louis divided it between his three sons, and it gradually fell apart. Descendants of Charlemagne ruled France until 887, and parts of Germany until 911. The idea of a unified western empire, however, was a powerful one, and later Otto the Great (912–973) would revive the concept when he founded the Holy Roman Empire. A later Holy Roman emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa (ruled 1152–90) had Charlemagne canonized, or declared a saint.

For More Information


Biel, Timothy L. Charlemagne. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1997.

MacDonald, Fiona. The World in the Time of Charlemagne. Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1998.

Pollard, Michael. Absolute Rulers. Ada, OK: Garrett, 1992.

Price-Groff, Claire. Great Conquerors. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2000.

Motion Pictures

Charlemagne (television). Pathe Television, 1994.

Web Sites

"Charlemagne: Founder of the Holy Roman Empire." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Charlemagne: King of the Franks." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Charlemagne Links." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Imperium. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).


views updated Jun 08 2018


Born: c. 742
Died: January 28, 814
Aachen (now in Germany)

Frankish king and ruler

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was king of the Franks between 768 and 814, and emperor of the West between 800 and 814. He founded the Holy Roman Empire, strengthened European economic and political life, and promoted the cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne's rule greatly influenced Europe's push to create a unique civilization different from that of Rome or other ancient empires.

Early life

Charlemagne, the son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada, was born in 742. Although his parents married before his brother Carloman was born, they were not legally married at the time of Charlemagne's birth, and he was thus thought to be illegitimate (born out of wedlock). In 741 Pepin had become mayor of the palace, and in 751 he deposed (removed from office) the last Merovingian king and was declared king of the Franks, a powerful Germanic tribe that lived in the region today known as France. Little is known about Charlemagne's childhood. In 754, however, he participated in the ceremony where Pope Stephen II appointed Pepin king. Charlemagne also joined Pepin on many military campaigns.

When Pepin died in October 768, Charlemagne and Carloman were both proclaimed king and were to rule the kingdom together. In the division of the realm, however, Carloman received a larger and richer portion. Under these circumstances relations between the brothers turned sour. But Carloman died unexpectedly in 771, leaving Charlemagne the sole ruler of the entire kingdom.

Territorial expansion

Charlemagne moved aggressively, especially in Italy, to remove those who threatened his power. He immediately attacked and defeated King Desiderius of the Lombards. Shortly thereafter Charlemagne was crowned king of the Lombards at Pavia. The Frankish conquest of Italyfirst of Lombardy in the north and later Benevento in the southbrought new wealth and people into his kingdom.

During his Italian operations Charlemagne also declared war against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe who threatened the northeastern frontier of Francia. Begun in 772, this cruel and bitter war finally ended in 804. Francia absorbed the land of Saxony and enforced the Christian religion on the Saxon tribes.

On his eastern frontier Charlemagne defeated Tassilo, the duke of Bavaria. To his empire Charlemagne added the Bavarian duchy, or territory controlled by a duke. He divided the western portion of the duchy into counties, each controlled by a count loyal to the king.

Further to the east the major power and ultimate threat to the Frankish realm was the vast Slavic kingdom of the Avars, or Huns, an Asiatic tribe that had settled along the upper Danube River. Between 791 and 795 Charlemagne crushed the power of the Avars and added their kingdom as a state. This victory opened the entire Danubian Plain to German colonization and the eastern expansion of Christianitythe beginning of the Drang nach Osten, or push to the East.

Holy Roman Empire

By 800 Charlemagne had succeeded in greatly extending his power while crushing several enemies. He ruled all of the Christianized western provinces, except the British Isles, that had once been part of the Roman Empire. As the sworn protector of the Church, Charlemagne was in fact the political master of Rome itself. The papacy, or office of the pope, also recognized Charlemagne's power. The pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

Charlemagne attempted to create unity and harmony within his vast realm and to support laws and promote learning that would achieve his goals of the empire. Charlemagne, in contrast to his Merovingian predecessors (who constantly traveled throughout their realms) attempted to create a fixed capital to rival that of Byzantium, an ancient culture legendary for its beauty and wealth.

A closer look at Charlemagne

The major record of Charlemagne's personal achievements is the Vita Caroli Magni, the first medieval biography. Written by Einhard between 817 and 836, this biography is largely a firsthand account, as Einhard was a member of the palace school during Charlemagne's reign and was his close associate.

In the Vita is the actual physical description of the man who has since become one of the greatest legendary heroes of the Middle Ages (4761453 C. E.). Toward his friends Charlemagne was lighthearted, and he particularly enjoyed the company of others. Yet toward his enemies he was often a cruel warrior feared for his strength and ability. Although primarily a man of action, he had great admiration for learning and spoke Latin fluently. He studied Greek and the liberal arts and thus combined, to some extent, the personality of a warrior and a scholar.

Charlemagne's administration

What is most striking about Charlemagne's rule was that he was able to maintain, largely through the strength of his own personality, a centralized state wherein royal authority came first. Charlemagne also maintained a small group of the best warriors, the vassi dominici, who helped him enforce his authority. During the course of his reign Charlemagne sent a number of written instructions to his officials. These enactments, known as the Capitularii had the force of law and were executed directly by the royal agents. They are extremely valuable as sources in understanding the social and legal structure of Carolingian France.

In general, Charlemagne's reign was a period of internal calm and prosperity because of his military and political ability. He succeeded, through diplomatic negotiations, in having his imperial title recognized by the Byzantine emperor. Through his program of cultural revival and changes to the Church, he succeeded in improving the level of civilization in the West.

Carolingian culture

Charlemagne's support of the arts and letters had several purposes beyond the general improvement of culture and literacy in the empire. One of the major purposes was to provide an educated clergy (a group of religious servants) that could undertake many of the administrative tasks of government. A second purpose was to win the acceptance of orthodox doctrine, or rules of the church, as well as a uniform religious practice throughout the empire. Such uniformity not only strengthened the Church but also centralized the administration of the empire. Still, a third purpose of this cultural revival was to improve the status and authority of Charlemagne himself, who thus appeared as the defender and protector of the Church, of orthodoxy, and of education.

The intellectual traditions and educational institutions supported by Charlemagne greatly influenced the development of Western culture. Charlemagne expanded the number of schools, and the quality of education was greatly improved.

His last years

In 806, at the age of sixty-four, Charlemagne took measures to provide for the succession of his empire. He divided the realm among his three sonsCharles, Pepin, and Louis. But the death of Charles in April 810 was soon followed by that of Pepin. The remaining son, Louis, later called "the Pious," the least warlike and aggressive of the three, was left as the sole heir to the empire. He was crowned by his father in 813.

The last years of Charlemagne's reign saw difficult times. Civil disorder increased as did disease and famine (drastic food shortages). Additionally, there were troubles on the frontiers. In many respects, the future looked dark. In 811 Charlemagne made his final will, giving a more sizable portion of his treasures to various churches of the realm than to his own heirs. He died on January 28, 814, and was buried at his palace at Aachen.

For More Information

Bullough, Donald. The Age of Charlemagne. 2nd ed. New York: Exeter Books, 1980.

Collins, Roger. Charlemagne. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Lamb, Harold. Charlemagne: The Legend and the Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.

Riché, Pierre. Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Charlemagne (or Charles the Great) (742-814)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Charlemagne (or Charles the Great) (742-814)

The greatest of the Frankish kings. Charlemagne was the elder son of Pepin the Short and succeeded his father in 768-814 C.E. He was Emperor of the West, 800-814 C.E. He had a close connection with the supernatural according to legend. Very often in the pages of French romance, the emperor was visited by angels who were considered to be the direct messengers of the heavenly power.

These visitations, of course, were meant to symbolize his position as the head of Christendom in the world. He was its upholder, with the Moors on his southern borders and the pagans (Prussians and Saxons) to the north and west. Charles was regarded by the Christians of Europe as the direct representative of heaven, whose mission it was to Christianize Europe and to defend its true faith in every way. Charlemagne and his court were also connected with the realm of fairies. Encounters with the fairy folk by his paladins were not so numerous in the original French romances that deal with his court, but in the hands of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Pulci, the paladins dwelled in an enchanted region where at any moment they might have met with all kinds of supernatural beings.

Both in the early and late romances the powers of magic and enchantment are ever present, chiefly instanced in magical weapons such as the Sword Durandal of Roland, which cannot be shivered; the magic ointments of giants like Ferragus, which when applied provide invulnerablity; and armor that exercises a similar guardianship on the body of its possessor. Heroes like Ogier the Dane penetrated into fairyland itself and wedded its queens. This union with fairyland was the fate of a great many medieval heroes. The analogous cases of Tom-a-Lincolne, Tannhäuser, and Thomas the Rhymer are also relevant. The magic and the marvels are everywhere in use in the romances that deal with Charlemagne.

He died on January 28, 814 C.E. and was buried in Aachen.


Cabaniss, Allen. Charlemagne. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

Easton, Steward C. The Era of Charlemagne. New York: Van Nostrand, 1961.

Shepard, Les. The History of Street Literature. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1973.


views updated May 18 2018

Charlemagne (742–814) (lit. Charles the Great) King of the Franks (768–814) and Holy Roman Emperor (800–14). The eldest son of Pepin III (the Short), he inherited half the Frankish kingdom (768), annexed the remainder on his brother Carloman's death (771), and built a large empire. He invaded Italy twice and took the Lombard throne (773). He embarked on a long and brutal conquest of Saxony (772–804), annexed Bavaria (788) and defeated the Avars of the middle Danube (791–96, 804). He undertook campaigns against the Moors in Spain. In 800 Pope Leo III consecrated him as Emperor, thus reviving the concept of the Roman Empire, and confirming the separation of the West from the Eastern Byzantine Empire. Charlemagne encouraged the intellectual awakening of the Carolingian renaissance, set up a strong central authority and maintained provincial control through court officials. His central aim was Christian reform, both of church and laity, and he was convinced that God had made him emperor to undertake this holy work.;


views updated May 21 2018

Charlemagne (742–814), king of the Franks 768–814 and Holy Roman emperor (as Charles I) 800–814; the name comes from Carolus Magnus ‘Charles the Great’. As the first Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne promoted the arts and education, and his court became the cultural centre of the Carolingian Renaissance, the influence of which outlasted his empire.


views updated May 29 2018

Charlemagne ★★½ 1995

British miniseries follows the life of the royal conqueror who civilized western Europe and ruled as emperor from 800-814. On five cassettes. 250m/C VHS . GB Christian Brendel, Anny (Annie Legras) Duperey; D: Clive Donner.

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