Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

A Bright Spot in the Dark Ages: How Charlemagne Almost Saved Western Civilization

A Bright Spot in the Dark Ages: How Charlemagne Almost Saved Western Civilization

Photograph via Wikipedia

[quote]Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman empire.

—Official title of Charlemagne from 800 to 814[/quote]

Sometime in the fifth century C.E., Western civilization went dark. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, roads crumbled, trade stopped, schools closed, literacy dwindled, aqueducts collapsed, and voracious barbarians feasted on Rome’s cold corpse. The Dark Ages, comprising about the first half of the Middle Ages, would last over 500 years.

But there was a bright spot. A few centuries into the Dark Ages, the Franks, one of the barbaric tribes that carved up the West, gave us a leader who reconstructed much of what was lost. He didn’t just reassemble Rome’s land; he reassembled its culture. His name was Charlemagne, King of the Franks, Emperor of the Romans, and the Grandfather of Europe.

Charlemagne was the greatest king of the Middle Ages. It’s fair to ask, however, if “greatest ______ of the Middle Ages” means much of anything. After all, aren’t the Middle Ages rather unimpressive? Might “greatest king of the Middle Ages” be analogous to being the greatest presidential candidate of the 2012 Republican Primary?{{1}}

Yes and no. It is true that the Middle Ages, as the name implies, is often seen as the underappreciated middle child of Western history.{{2}} Compared to antiquity and modernity, few bright minds or advancements graced the Middle Ages; there was little original literature, construction, exploration, or curiosity. For about a thousand years, a continent was obsessed with heaven, survival, and little else. The fact that no other medieval rulers even rival Charlemagne’s greatness shows just how mediocre the era was. This fact, however, also makes Charlemagne’s accomplishments all the more astounding. In a time of pervasive darkness, a lone star shone powerfully enough to light Western Europe like no time since Rome.

Charlemagne, known only as Charles for most of his life (it was Karl in his native German; Charles is just the Anglicized version of our history books), was born to Pepin the Short, the King of the Franks, and his wife, Big Foot Bertha, in 742.{{3}} Pepin was the son of Charles Martel, who led a successful Frankish defense of a Muslim invasion in 732. Subsequently, Charles “the Hammer” became the founder of the Carolingian Dynasty (Charles/Karl Latinized into Carol), a family into which both Pepin and Charlemagne were born and after which the Charlemagne-led Carolingian Renaissance was named.{{4}} Pepin and Bertha had two surviving sons, Charles and Carlomon. Upon Pepin’s death in 768, the two sons inherited the Frankish Kingdom, a territory that rested about where France is now.{{5}}

The reason for the split was due to the myopic custom of Salic Law, which decreed that inherited land must be given to all male heirs.{{6}} The custom predictably led to bickering between feuding brothers, acrimony usually resolved by warfare and murder. Charles and Carloman careened toward such a relationship when, in 771, Carloman unexpectedly died.{{7}} Charles, then 29, assumed power over the entire kingdom and embarked on a path that earned him the nickname “Charlemagne”—Charles the Great.

Fortunately, he inherited Big Foot Bertha’s, not Pepin the Short’s, height genes. He grew to be 6’ 4”. In modern America, someone of that height would find himself taller than 98 percent of the population. Among the malnourished medieval masses, whose average height was about 5’ 5”, such height seemed almost godlike.

Back that height with the Frankish army, and few in his kingdom dared oppose him. His hallmark was his efficient management. Charlemagne didn’t merely outgrow everyone around him; he out-thought them as well. He had a curious mind and an aggressive spirit. He was a born leader. He managed all he could. Rather than hide behind walls and a moat, he made himself accessible to everyone. He scorned pomp. If one wanted an audience with him to help settle a matter, one went to his palace and rang a bell. He came out and judiciously listened.

His driving desire was a large and accomplished kingdom. He went on over 50 war campaigns in 45 years (he reigned from 768 to 814). From modern France, his forces spread out south across the Pyrenees (to fight Muslims), east into modern Germany (to conquer Bavarians and Saxons), and southeast into modern Italy (to conquer the Lombards).{{8}} Thousands fell in front of his army. By the height of his empire in the early ninth century, he controlled Western Europe from the English Channel to the edge of the Balkan Peninsula, from Rome to the North Sea. He reunited much of the Western Roman Empire that had collapsed three centuries earlier, and he even added some northern European territories that Rome never controlled.

Wherever he conquered, he infused his other priorities. Foremost here is his Roman Catholicism.{{9}} The Franks were the first Germanic tribe to practice it. The others were mostly Arian—a Christian sect considered heretical since the Council of Nicaea{{10}}—or pagan.{{11}} Charlemagne felt it his duty to spread the “correct” faith practiced by the Bishop of Rome, the apostolic descendent of Peter. He forced thousands to convert. Those who refused were executed.{{12}} Western and central Europe steadily turned Catholic at the behest of Charlemagne’s sword.

His most famous defense of Catholicism came when Roman nobles assaulted Pope Leo III.{{13}} Leo pleaded with Charlemagne to restore order, and Charlemagne did so with his typical efficiency. It wasn’t his first time in Italy. His conquest of the Lombards, enemies of the papacy, had reaffirmed a Frankish defense of the Holy See that dated back to Pepin the Short.

[pullquote_right]He was Napoleon a thousand years early.[/pullquote_right]

The Franks, the pope thought, had become his right arm, and Charlemagne his fist. Leo seized the opportunity. Late in 800, Charlemagne visited Rome to confer with the Pope, and Leo invited the king for Christmas Mass. As Charlemagne knelt in prayer, Leo placed a crown on the king’s head. The prepared clergy in attendance boomed: “Long life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God the great and pacific emperor of the Romans.” Just like that, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, got a promotion. He became Charlemagne, Emperor of the Romans. An “Augustus.” This office soon evolved into Holy Roman Emperor.{{14}}

Charlemagne did his best to live up to the lofty title of Roman emperor. He worked to build a centralized, progressive state. He was Napoleon a thousand years early; he managed his empire as closely as someone in the ninth century could. He felt as if he were the father of his country, and in a practice rarely seen during the Dark Ages, he felt it was his responsibility to care for his people. He wanted a safe, beautiful, and, most remarkably, an intellectual empire.

Capitalizing on an upward trend in feudalism, Charlemagne gave counts and dukes throughout his empire some autonomy, though they ultimately answered to him. When not at war, he made visits throughout the empire, some unannounced. However, since he could not cover much ground, he also sent out royal inspectors to ensure no plots were afoot. He enacted laws and dictated new ordinances and sent royal judges out to hear cases. He held an annual convention of clergy and nobility to hear their thoughts and give them instructions. The sum of this policy produced the most efficient and safest western European state since Rome.

But efficient and safe did not make a great empire. Charlemagne knew his history, and he knew the wonders achieved by the Greco-Roman world. He tried to mirror them. He promoted architectural achievements. The product was Carolingian architecture. He commissioned beautiful abbeys and churches, including the medieval wonder that was his octagonal chapel at his palace in Aachen. To help trade and travel, he built enormous bridges that hurdled rivers, and he ordered a canal that connected the Danube and the Main. By the mid-ninth century, the Carolingians had commissioned 27 new cathedrals, 417 monasteries, and 100 royal residences.

Perhaps his most passionate policy was that of cultural and intellectual advancement. Charlemagne wanted to renew the dying Latin culture that had given way to barbarian Europe. The fruits of this labor became the Carolingian Renaissance. Latin itself had already eroded into vernacular tongues, but Charlemagne, with unity in mind, wanted to resuscitate the dying language. This would allow him to communicate with the furthest reaches of his domain, and it would help more people understand the language of the Catholic Church. Carolingian scholars copied classic Latin texts. Most modern translations of them derive from Carolingian copies, and there’s a chance the texts would have perished without that effort, as few original works survived the Dark Ages otherwise.{{15}} Charlemagne also ordered new libraries to house them.

Meanwhile, seeing value in intelligent government officials, he promoted educational reform. He was a bright man, familiar with the ancient thinkers. There were no jesters at his royal dinners; instead, his court listened to someone reading from the promoted text of the day. He spoke his native German, learned Latin, and also dabbled in Greek. He attracted top scholars to his palace and commissioned them to write a curriculum and texts.{{16}} Charlemagne also founded monasteries across his empire to help create a literate clergy and, therefore, more teachers. As a result, some Europeans received a standardized education not seen in centuries. Charlemagne then had a new crop of literate, learned government officials for his empire.{{17}}

In total, his campaign for a literate and cultured upper class was more remarkable than his many war campaigns. Warfare was ubiquitous in the Dark Ages. Learning was not. European literacy levels, which were at their lowest in a thousand years, never again returned to such a nadir. Medieval nobility perpetuated their new skill and permanently became a literate class.

Meanwhile, the rest of the population, though never formally educated, also benefited from Charlemagne’s reign. Never was trade more viable (he worked to shift the continent to a single silver currency), transportation safer, or the government so fair. The inspectors sent out by Charlemagne ensured that justice was applied fairly, a liberal move for the theretofore mistreated peasantry. There was no branch of government he did not control. He personified a central state and the “enlightened despot” dreamed about by the likes of Plato (#30).

It seems as if Charlemagne’s only mistake of any consequence was his apathy toward the succession process. With only one surviving son, Louis the Pious, Charlemagne felt comfortable leaving his empire to him and even made Louis co-emperor in 813. Charlemagne, in essence, passed the buck on the Salic Law that later doomed his empire. Louis had three surviving sons—Lothair, Louis, and Charles—each of whom inherited a third of the empire and promptly engaged in a civil war when the pious Louis died in 840. Three years later, the Treaty of Verdun officially split into three what their grandfather had worked so hard to make one.{{18}}

Charlemagne, 72, died in 814 having little idea that his empire, which he spent the better part of 45 years expanding, strengthening, and improving, would die not three decades later.

Did his legacy die with him? Some of it, surely. If he had spearheaded Europe’s permanent renaissance into a flourishing culture, he would be our Top 5. However, Europe’s true Renaissance was still six centuries away. Not only did Charlemagne’s empire fracture with the Treaty of Verdun and ensuing invasions, but the subsequent instability in western Europe reintroduced the Dark Ages that Charlemagne attempted to relegate to history. The late ninth and tenth centuries were nearly as dark as the sixth and seventh.{{19}}

Moreover, the Carolingian Renaissance was not only short-lived, but it was not particularly creative. Carolingian scholars produced relatively few original works. Scientifically, there was little advancement. Instead, the leading thinkers of the time merely copied manuscripts, cobbled together encyclopedias, and organized curricula on existing subjects.

Still, it’s remarkable that in a flood of intellectual deprivation, someone swam so hard against the current. The lands he went on to control had been considered, at worst, barbaric wilderness, and at best, a satellite of Constantinople.{{20}} His reign created a distinct culture that could not be confused with a barbaric outpost of the Byzantium. He solidified a “Western” culture; without him, I wouldn’t even be able to make a list of “Western” figures.{{21}}

Indeed, his conquests and priorities were ultimately a harbinger of Europe’s future. The breakaway from the East was not just political. The Latin languages, threatened by the Germanization of post-Roman Europe, reasserted themselves alongside the Byzantines’ Greek. Western art forever broke away from Byzantine influence. Charlemagne’s mission to spread Catholicism ingrained the faith into Western Europe and blocked the Orthodox Church, which later spread north to Russia, from spreading west. Right up until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the lands he conquered remained staunchly Catholic, as did the lands conquered by those lands, like Iberia during the Reconquista. Lands conquered by those lands, like South and Central America, remain Catholic. Catholicism, the world’s largest denomination at 1.2 billion, makes up half of Christianity. Charlemagne is a big reason why.{{22}}

He also became the idol of nearly every royal to come after him. Charlemagne was the strongest man on the continent of Europe, becoming so not only through conquest but by barking orders to all corners of his empire. His accomplishments showed what an effective administrator could do and autocrats emulated him, though none rivaled his empire until Napoleon a millennium later.

He also had an effect on European political geography. Salic Law not only divvied up his land, but it also split up his titles: his western heirs inherited “King of the Franks,” and that country evolved into France. His eastern heirs inherited “Emperor of the Romans” and led the Holy Roman Empire, which later (much, much later) became Germany.{{23}} In his quest to be the father of his country, he became the Grandfather of Europe.{{24}}

But above all, he’ll be remembered as the greatest king of the Middle Ages. He was that millennium’s best leader, politician, and general. He was a far-sighted philosopher who thought about the legacy of his rule and the destiny of his empire. An exceptional leader during unexceptional times, Charlemagne is the 21st most influential figure in Western history.{{25}}

[[1]]Burn! A late burn, granted, but oooh that’s hot![[1]]

[[2]]It’s a derogatory term, the “Middle Ages.” Almost as an afterthought, it’s in the “middle” of the great ancient and modern eras, as if we couldn’t give it a better name than merely describing when it was in comparison to our beloved first child and the one on which we now dote. Moreover, think of how personal the term is. Won’t our modern world one day be in the “middle” as well? Remember, medieval people thought they were the modern world. Frankly, in a few thousand years, there’s a great chance that Greco-Roman civilization, the Middle Ages, and our current era will all be relegated to “ancient history.” Food for thought.[[2]]

[[3]]That’s right, I said Big-Foot Bertha. She was known as “Berthe au grand pied,” so you tell me. Of course, what makes this all the funnier is that this large, broad-footed woman married someone named Pepin “the Short.”[[3]]

[[4]]This is not the last we hear of Martel, I assure you. Stay tuned into 2014.[[4]]

[[5]]The Franks were one of the many Germanic tribes that replaced the Western Roman Empire after its fall. Under their leaders of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, they steadily build a kingdom in northwest Europe in what was the old Roman province of Gaul. The Franks eventually evolved into, and lent their name to, the country of France.[[5]]

[[6]]Salic Law began with the first king of all the Franks, Clovis, in the late fifth century. His faction of Franks, called the Salian Franks, had just consolidated rule over the other Frankish subgroups. Clovis, whom French history considers the first of France’s 19 Louises, decried that upon his death, all four of his sons would share the kingdom. The united Franks continued this precedent set by their founder. No other medieval civilization adopted such a system, opting instead for primogeniture—the eldest son or closest male heir inherits everything.[[6]]

[[7]]The cause of death was said to have been a “severe nosebleed,” an explanation that feels a bit empty, especially considering Carloman’s wife and children then fled, were pursued by Charles’s forces, and never heard from again.[[7]]

[[8]]The Bavarians, Saxons, and Lombards lent their names to the modern areas of Bavaria and Saxony in Germany and Lombardy in Italy.[[8]]

[[9]]That is, strict obedience to the authoritative Bishop of Rome (the pope) and his subordinate hierarchy of clergy, to say nothing of adherence to the many nuances of Nicene, Trinitarian and apostolic theology that developed in the Latin-speaking west of the old Roman Empire. Catholicism had drifted away from the Greek-speaking east of the empire, which, rather than follow a Roman pontiff so far away, rallied around the local emperor and patriarch of Constantinople. Since the east felt it was the west that wandered from Christianity’s eastern roots, the eastern half began to call itself “Orthodox.” This Christian divergence evolved over a thousand years (the official schism occurred in 1054), so no one person will make this list as a result of the split, and I’ll never get much more into it than I just did. These two branches of Christianity make up about 1.5 of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. The man behind the third branch, which makes up most of the other 700 million, will certainly get my attention, but to learn about him you’ll have to wait until 2015. Or you could also just go to Wikipedia.[[9]]

[[10]]Discussed in detail in my Constantine (#23) entry.[[10]]

[[11]]The reason for the Franks’ Catholicism will be discussed in a later entry.[[11]]

[[12]]Perhaps a quarter of all Saxons were killed by Charlemagne’s wars. Many of them fled to the old Roman province of Britannia, where, with the Angle tribe, they contributed toward creating an Anglo-Saxon culture in what became known as Ang-land, or England.[[12]]

[[13]]Pope Leo III had made enemies of his predecessor’s family, and a few years after Leo’s ascension to the papacy, they assaulted him. They attempted to gouge out his eyeballs and rip out his tongue. Guards rescued him, but not before his muggers slashed at his eyes, leaving scars on both eyelids for the rest of his life.[[13]]

[[14]]Leo hoped that by resuscitating an empire that had been dead for 300 years, it could rival the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, where the Eastern Orthodox Church had steadily been acting independently of what he thought was his own primacy. Few historians, however, consider Charlemagne a continuance of the old Roman emperors. His descendants, who led the Holy Roman Empire, were part of a new line of leaders for an entirely new territory.[[14]]

[[15]]Those who copied the texts even created a new writing style—Carolingian miniscule—which standardized, among other things, clear capital and lowercase letters (as opposed to the SHOVTING ROMAN type of the ancient world).[[15]]

[[16]]One of these scholars, Alcuin of York, led the creation of a curriculum that taught the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Both became staples of medieval universities.[[16]]

[[17]]A more psychoanalytic explanation for Charlemagne’s passion toward schooling was that he grew up in a time where he wasn’t taught to write. As he grew, he took it upon himself to learn to read, but he didn’t start writing young enough to do it competently. His biographer, Einhard, describes Charlemagne hiding his frustration. He hid tablets under his pillow, and, at night, when no one was looking, he tried to recreate the symbols that children formed so easily. But his mammoth hands, which wielded a sword better than a pen, failed him. The man controlled half a continent, but writing was beyond him, and he knew it.[[17]]

[[18]]Once the mighty Frankish Empire split, other factors contributed to the decline of what was left of it. Invaders capitalized on the squabbling states. Islam reaffirmed its foothold in Iberia and southern Italy. Slavs and Magyars moved into the Balkans and Hungary, respectively. Most famously, the Vikings made coastal and river raids across Europe. The Vikings’ reputation grew to be considerably worse than they deserved, though. Since wealthy Europeans held their money in churches and monasteries—where they knew no Christian plundered—the Vikings, who believed in the Norse religion, targeted these lucrative buildings. And since the nobles and monks were the only people who were literate, their terrified accounts attempted to rally Europe against these invaders, going as far as to put horns on Viking depictions, one of the more infamous fallacies of the Middle Ages.[[18]]

[[19]]The scary post-Charlemagne world could not spare the resources for education. Raiders struck at random and the Carolingian heirs were too slow to intervene. As a result, most towns and villages turned into autonomous, self-sustaining communities. The heirs of Charlemagne’s former vassals did not feel nearly the loyalty to the crown that their ancestors had felt toward the great emperor. These vassals turned into lords of their own land and went on to largely ignore their kings. They built castles with moats and walls for their own protection and arranged vassals of their own to subdivide and manage their land. They secured soldiers, usually led by sons of nobles (knights), and provided protection for the many peasants who would, in exchange, work the land. With strength in numbers seen as crucial in an unsettling time, all swore loyalty, resources, or protection to someone else. Communities became entirely self-sufficient. A local parish priest provided the spirituality. Feudalism dominated Europe.[[19]]

[[20]]The Eastern Roman Empire still had dreams of reconquering the old west. In the mid-sixth century, their emperor Justinian was able to reconquer some of it, including Rome itself. Though the Byzantines eventually lost these lands, they still hoped reunification could be had. However, Charlemagne has started the shift of power from east to west. By the eleventh century, the east humbled itself and asked the west for help during the First Crusade.[[20]]

[[21]]You may now curse his name.[[21]]

[[22]]An interesting inadvertent effect on Catholicism in Europe was that Charlemagne, by letting the pope crown him, gave future popes the justification for crowning future kings. It was a precedent which showed that if Charlemagne, the greatest ruler of the Middle Ages, needed the pope for his crown, then surely all other kings did as well. This coronation went a long way toward the papacy controlling monarchs for rest of the Middle Ages. Not until Philip IV of France (#29) would this dynamic irrevocably change.[[22]]

[[23]]The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806, when Napoleon felt there was room for only one emperor in Europe and dissolved the entity. He replaced it with the Confederation of the Rhine, which was, in turn, replaced by the post-Napoleonic German Confederation. It was not until 1871 that the German state of Prussia capped a series of wars to unify the territory into the German Empire that would go on to fight in World War I.[[23]]

[[24]]If only his grandchildren didn’t fight each other for the next eleven centuries.[[24]]

[[25]]See you next month when we hit the top 20![[25]]