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Lectures in Medieval History

15: The Carolingian Empire


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IN A SENSE, the reign of Charlemagne was "The Revolt of the West."

That's a great start to a lecture

Thank you. I work hard, you know.

Yeah, sure. Does it mean anything?

Yes it does. If you'll remember Justinian's reconquest of the West began to fall apart right after his death, but that didn't mean that Byzantine influences in the West ended. They held on to the old imperial capital at Ravenna for a long time, and it was not until the early seventh century... That's the 600's you know.

[The Western Mediteranean in 600 AD]

The Western Mediterranean in 600 AD

Yes, I remember.

Good. You wouldn't call this the nineteenth century because the years all begin with the number 19.

You already told me that.

Did I?

Four times.

Oh? Anyway, the Byzantines exercised a great deal of control over the West during this period. As a matter of fact, in about 660, the emperor of the east, Constantine II, visited Rome with a sizable army and an assembly of nobles.

That must have caused a stir.

It did. All of the leading citizens of Rome marched out to meet him and escorted him and his followers back to Rome in a grand procession, and then held a great banquet. He stayed in Rome almost a week.

Doing what?

Well, actually, he was robbing what treasury they had, which wasn't much, and his men were gathering up all of the lead and bronze they could find.

What in the world for?

The bronze was to make fittings for shields, armor, horse rigging, that sort of thing, and the lead was to make pellets as ammunition for the slingers in the Byzantine army.

So the Romans lost a few statues.

They lost more than that. Most of the stonework of Rome -- the columns, walls, and even the great sheets of marble that protected the embankment of the Tiber River -- were held together with bronze clamps. Without the clamps, everything began -- actually -- to fall apart.

What about the lead?

The roofs of buildings, including the old temples and public buildings from the early days of the empire, were built of wood, but were protected with sheets of lead, the gutters and downspouts were made of lead, and the pipes that distributed water to and through the city were made of lead.

What happened?

Well, the slabs on the embankment slid into the Tiber and, during the next flood, the bank collapsed into the river and the nearby merchant district and warehouses were simply swept away. Unprotected wooden roofs began to rot and cave in. Without water coming into the city, the sewers quickly became clogged. You know the Forum, the center of the city?

Oh, yeah. The place with all the ancient buildings. I saw pictures of it in the National Geographic.

Well, the main sewer of the entire city, the "Cloaca Maxima" ran beneath the forum. When it finally stopped up, all of the sewage of the city began flowing into the forum, filling it up with excrement, garbage, dead animals, and so forth. It became a cesspool.

Yuck!

Yuck indeed. There was a good side to it, though. Many of the ancient buildings of Rome were torn apart during the years by the Romans themselves so the stones could be used for new buildings. Someone once said "The temples of the ancient world were the quarries for the cathedrals of the middle ages," and that was often enough literally the case. But the great buildings of the Roman Forum were spared because they were covered with the filth of the city. And so some of the great buildings of ancient Rome were preserved.

You mean they survived because they were covered with

That's right. In an ironic way, they are the gift of the last "Roman" emperor to visit the old capital.

What happened to all the stuff he swiped?

They loaded the bronze and lead onto three ships to send back to Constantinople, but they were attacked by Muslim vessels off Sicily and were all captured.

Gosh! That's really interesting, but what does it have to do with the Carolingian Empire being "The Revolt of the West?"

Was that what I was talking about?

That's what you said you were going to talk about.

Oh.

You see, the Eastern emperors continued to try to control the popes, according to the principle of caesaropapism

What's "caesaropapism?"

Look it up in your book.

I did.

Oh, yes. I remember. "caesaropapism" is the principle that Church leaders are more or less subject to the emperor. Remember how Constantine called councils and practically ran the Church?

Sort of.

Well, take my word for it. He did, and that set the precedent for caesaropapism. Anyway, the Byzantine empire was so much wealthier, more populous, stronger, and better organized, that the peoples of the West still looked the Constantinople as a model, even after the Muslims had seized control of the Mediterranean and made communication between the East and West much more difficult. That situation began to change in 751, with three important developments. I'll write them on the board, and you can copy them down.

I don't need to copy them. I'll just download them.

That's right. They'll be up on the web site, won't they?

What do you mean? They already are on the web site. You're on the web site, I'm on the web site. We're not real you know. We're just a file named carolingian_empire.html.

You mustn't go around saying things like that. We're trying to get the students to learn something by having them imagine that we're real and are talking about Medieval History. Don't go around getting them confused.

Okay. Sure, Professor. You write things on the board and I'll copy them down. Oh Boy. It sure is fun learning about Medieval History.

Don't overdo it.

Okay.

Let's see. Let's start with what happened with the Muslims.

IN 751, ISLAM HAD SPLIT INTO TWO CONTENDING PARTIES. THE ABBASIDS AND THE UMAYYADS. THE UMAYYAD'S CAPITAL WAS IN DAMASCUS, AND THEIR TRADITIONS WERE SEVERE, BUT STRAIGHTFORWARD. THE ABBASIDS, BY CONTRAST WERE CENTERED TO THE EAST -- IN THE AREA OF MESOPOTAMIA -- AND THEIR TRADITIONS INCLUDED A STRONG MYSTICAL ELEMENT. THESE TWO WINGS DEVELOPED INTO THE MODERN SHI'ITE AND SUNNI BRANCHES OF ISLAM. A WAR BETWEEN THE TWO FACTIONS LED TO THE OVERTHROW OF THE UMAYYAD CALIPHATE OF DAMASCUS. THE ABBASIDS WERE NOT INTERESTED MUCH IN SEA POWER AND THE MEDITERRANEAN. THEIR INTERESTS WERE CONTINENTAL, AND THEY BUILT THEIR NEW CAPITAL IN MESOPOTAMIA, AT BAGHDAD. IN A SIGNIFICANT WAY, THE TRIUMPH OF THE ABBASIDS REFLECTED THE REVIVAL OF PERSIAN CULTURE, BUT WITHIN ISLAM RATHER THAN IN OPPOSITION TO IT.

Am I supposed to copy down all of that?

Why not? If I can write it, can't you copy it? Anyway, you said that you were going to download it. Now, what was going on in the Byzantine empire?

BYZANTIUM ALSO BECAME MUCH MORE INTERESTED IN CONTINENTAL AFFAIRS DUE TO THE SLAVIC PEOPLES THREATENING THEIR EUROPEAN FRONTIERS. UNDER THE ISAURIAN EMPERORS, THE LANDS OF THE EMPIRE WERE REORGANIZED IN A QUASI-FEUDAL MANNER, AND THE NAVY WAS ALLOWED TO DECAY AS A STRONGER LAND FORCE WAS BUILT UP.

Well, at least that's shorter.

Now let's see what was happening with the Franks.

THE FRANKS ALSO TURNED THEIR ATTENTION INLAND AND BEGAN TO EXPAND INTO LANDS TO THE NORTH AND EAST. WHAT LITTLE INTEREST THE FRANKS HAD DEVELOPED IN NAVAL POWER VANISHED. SO THE THREE MEDITERRANEAN POWERS SIMULTANEOUSLY, AND FOR REASONS THAT WE DO NOT REALLY UNDERSTAND, DISENGAGED AND TURNED THEIR ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE STRUGGLE TO CONTROL THE MEDITERRANEAN.

[map
of the Frankish kingdom in 768 AD]
This is rather enjoyable. I think that I'll write on the board some more.

Groan!

THE FRANKS HAD NOT GIVEN UP GAVELKIND, AND PEPIN LEFT THE KINGDOM TO HIS TWO SONS. BUT CARLOMAN'S DECISION TO ABDICATE, AGAIN, FOR WHAT REASONS WE ARE NOT SURE, BROUGHT INTERNAL PEACE AND RELATIVE UNITY TO THE FRANKISH STATE. ON A SOCIAL LEVEL, THE FRANKISH EXPANSION REDUCED THE IMPORTANCE OF TRIBAL, CLAN, AND OTHER KINSHIP TIES AMONG THE FRANKS AND ALLOWED THEM TO DEVOTE A GREATER PORTION OF THEIR LOYALTY TO A CONCEPT OF THE "STATE."

Why did you put quotes around the word "state?"

Well, the Carolingian kingdom lacked many of the things that we normally associate with a "state." Its population was not homogenous. There were the descendants of Romans, Visigoths, Burgundians, and other Germanic tribes. They spoke several different tongues, had different cultural and historical traditions, and different institutions. Even within a single group, there were immense differences of wealth, power, education, and personal freedom.

It lacked most of the institutions that we think are necessary to a central government. There was no set of common laws, weights and measures, currency, civil service, and the like. The Roman system of roads and bridges was falling apart, the Roman canals were caving in, and transportation and communication were constantly becoming more difficult. That was partly reflected in the decay of trade and commerce. There had once been a steady trade between Baltic lands and the Eastern empire coming down the coast of the North Sea, up the Seine or Loire Rivers, and down the Rhone. The route was shut down, and some of the Scandinavians began to open an eastern "Varangian" route along the Russian rivers, while others began to raid England to get in the form of plunder what they were not longer able to acquire through trade.

That sounds just like a text book, you know?

That's not strange. I write textbooks in my spare time.

Somehow or another, that figures.

The illusion persisted that the Roman empire, as embodied in the Byzantine emperor, was mistress of the Mediterranean and governor of the Church. It was difficult for the Frankish kings to command obedience when even they believed that the Byzantine emperor was their superior.

It seems that Charlemagne was not content with a subordinate position, especially since the Byzantine empire now had its hands full fighting off the Muslims and couldn't exert any real power in the West. It would appear that Charlemagne and his advisors had it in their mind to recreate the power, prestige, and culture of the western Roman empire. How did he do this?

I have no idea.

That was a rhetorical question. How did he do this? By establishing a series of practices designed to strengthen a central government. I'm going to write on the board some more.

Okay.

  • 1. CHARLEMAGNE ALLOWED A GREAT DEAL OF LOCAL AUTONOMY TO CONTINUE, BUT APPOINTED MARGRAVES, COUNTS, AND DUKES TO PLACE SOME LIMITS ON THIS AUTONOMY. HE ALSO ENCOURAGED THE GROWTH OF A LOCAL LAND-OWNING ARISTOCRACY, NOT ONLY TO PROVIDE WARRIORS, BUT BECAUSE THEY WOULD LOOK TO A CENTRAL GOVERNMENT TO HELP THEM MAINTAIN THEIR POSITION AND STATUS.
  • 2. HAVING EMERGED FROM THE MEROVINGIAN "CIVIL SERVICE," THE CAROLINGIANS HAD A PHILOSOPHY OF GOVERNMENT BASED UPON THE KING AS THE STEWARD OF THE PEOPLE OF THE REALM.
  • 3. CHARLEMAGNE USED LETTERS, THE CAPITULARIES, TO DISSEMINATE ORDERS AND STANDARDS THROUGHOUT THE REALM, AND ESTABLISHED TRAVELLING INSPECTIONS TEAMS, THE MISSI DOMINICI, TO DETERMINE WHETHER HIS ORDERS WERE BEING OBSERVED AND WHETHER LOCAL OFFICIALS WERE DISCHARGING THEIR DUTIES PROPERLY.
  • 4. HE ESTABLISHED A COMMON CURRENCY, THE SILVER PENNY, AND MATCHED IT WITH THE VALUES OF MUSLIM COINAGE TO ENCOURAGE TRADE.
  • 5. FINALLY, HE STRENGTHENED THE MILITARY POWER OF THE FRANKS BY HAVING THE FRANKISH ARMY ENGAGE IN REGULAR CAMPAIGNS AND CONQUER LANDS THAT THEY MUST THEN DEFEND.
Apart from these institutional measures, Charlemagne did a number of things to give his kingdom an aura of the Roman empire as he imagined it to have been at its height. He established his capital at Aachen, an old rest and rehabilitation base for the Roman army on the Rhine. He constructed a palace there much on the model of the Roman palaces, the ruins of which were still visible on all hands. Finally, he built his palace church, the Chapel, on the model of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, the imperial church when the Roman capital was located in that city, and even imported Roman columns and marbles with which to build it.

Excuse me. Did you mean to capitalize "chapel?"

Yes.

Why?

That's an interesting story.

I was afraid that it would be.

Stop complaining and go back to sleep. Charlemagne dedicated his palace church to Saint Martin, the most popular saint at the time in all of western Europe. Martin had been a cavalry officer in the Roman army garrisoned on the Danube. The army was pretty solidly worshippers of Mithra, and had little sympathy for Christians. Martin became a Christian, though. While riding at the head of his troop in the dead of winter, they came upon a half-naked beggar who was almost dying from the cold. Martin could not stop because they were on imperial business, but he took off the short cloak, called a "capella," that cavalry officer wore, and threw it to the beggar. These cloaks were quite valuable, made of the finest wool and dyed scarlet. Martin's act of charity impressed a number of his soldiers, and he became quite famous for the deed.

By Charlemagne's time, people had come to believe that physical objects associated with saints, or even parts of the bodies of the saints, had almost magical powers. The custom arose of placing at least one of these objects, called relics, in the altar of every church. The more important the relic, the more important the church was considered. Charlemagne got the cloak that St. Martin had thrown to the beggar as a relic for his palace church, and so the church became know as the Capella. That's where we get our word "chapel."

You know, that was surprisingly interesting.

Thank you. Now back to the point.

Charlemagne ordered the copying of many old manuscripts dating from the late empire. Not all of these were literary; many were official documents and treatises such as the Notitia dignitatum, a list of the officials of the late empire and their location, the Laterculus, a survey, and the work of Vegetius on military organization, training, and tactics. He also established a palace school and placed it under the direction of his counselor, the famous scholar, Alcuin. Alcuin gathered a number of fine Latin scholars there, including Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer. A literary revival was begun, and the scholars of the school developed a new and legible form of script -- remember that there was no printing presses in those days; everything was handwritten -- called Carolingian miniscule, the "miniscule" meaning that some of the letters rose above, and some sank below, the others. The lower-case letters you are reading right now are those developed by Charlemagne's palace scholars. Under Alcuin's leadership, the Latin in use by churchmen was regularized, and the level of clerical education raised significantly.

Then came the big event that historians are still arguing about. Alcuin may have aspired to reestablish the western Roman empire, the pope may have wished to free himself of the caesaropapist policies of his Byzantine neighbor and would-be overlord, Charlemagne may have planned this after his marriage to the heiress to the Byzantine empire fell through.

Why did the marriage "fall through?"

Charlemagne seemed to have been a bit put off at the way that she had her young son thrown in a dungeon, had his eyes put out with red-hot pokers, and then proclaimed herself empress and ruler.

Seem like a good reasons to me.

Historians have never been able to decide who planned what, and the sequence of events is unclear, but on Christmas Day of the year 800, the pope -- supposedly unexpectedly -- placed a tiara (crown) on Charlemagne's head and acclaimed him Holy Roman Emperor. Voltaire remarked that the realm was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, but it lasted for over a thousand years and was one of the most important forces in the politics of medieval Europe.

What were the consequences of Charlemagne's coronation?

I have no idea.

That was another rhetorical question.

Oh.

As I was saying, what were the consequences of Charlemagne's coronation? Aha! I think I'll write on the board some more.

  • THE THEORETICAL POWER OF THE BYZANTINE EMPEROR OVER THE WEST WAS FINALLY ENDED.
  • WESTERN RULERS COULD NOW CLAIM THEIR RIGHT TO RULE INVOLVED A DESCENT OF SOVEREIGNTY FROM THE EMPEROR AUGUSTUS CAESAR.
  • THE POPES COULD ACT INDEPENDENTLY OF THE EASTERN EMPEROR.
  • THE WESTERN CHURCH HAD DENIED THE VALIDITY OF CAESAROPAPISM.

The Carolingian achievement was great, but Charlemagne had not eliminated the basic limitations inherent in the Frankish state. The economic infrastructure of the West had not been repaired, and the reconstruction of anything remotely resembling a western Roman empire was beyond the means of Charlemagne and his advisors. The Franks had gotten as far as they had simply because their rivals were engaged elsewhere, and they had the good fortune to have enjoyed almost seventy years in which the kingdom had passed to a single heir and so remained united and free from civil wars

.

[Map of the Carolingian Empire in 800 AD]

Map of the Carolingian Empire in 800 AD
This good fortune came to an end in the reign of Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious.

Is that all for today?

Yes.

Okay. That was a real nice ending to the lecture.

Thank you. I work very hard, you know.

You said that before.

That doesn't make it any the less true.


There are two Lives of Charlemagne available in translation. One, by Einhard, is an account written by one of Charlemagne's court officials, while the other, supposedly written by a monk named Notker "the Stammer,". It was composed some years after Charlemagne's death and is considerably more anecdotal than the account of Einhard.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas
304



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