IN A SENSE, the reign of Charlemagne was "The Revolt of the
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.
You see, the Eastern emperors continued to try to control the popes, according
to the principle of caesaropapism
Look it up in your book.
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?
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
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.
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
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.
This is rather enjoyable. I think that I'll write on the board some
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
Excuse me. Did you mean to capitalize "chapel?"
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
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.
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
- 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
This good fortune came to an end in the reign of Charlemagne's son, Louis the
Is that all for today?
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