No figure in Medieval History has engendered as much respect and romanticism as Charlemagne. His very name means Charles the Great. He is regarded as the starting place for royal line of both the French and German kingdoms. As we discussed last week, Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, was responsible for turning the tide of Western Europe, saving it from the invading Moors and pulling it out of the backwater that it had become after the fall of the Roman empire. But it was Charlemagne who defined the Middle Ages and Europe’s place in it.
So how did he do it?
Charlemagne had the advantage of standing on the shoulders of greatness. His grandfather was a powerful man who set the ball in motion. His father, Pepin (also called Pippin, but since that makes me think of hobbits…), continued that work, particularly where the Church was involved. Remember, at this point in history, the 700s, the Christian Church, while important, hadn’t yet become the all-pervasive force that controlled the lives of all of the people of Europe. The Church had authority, but it was also plagued with ignorance, disorganization, and indifference on the part of most of the peoples of Europe. In areas settled by Germanic tribes paganism was as popular as Christianity and its practices and traditions were far older.
Charles Martel was himself a strong Christian with a clearer understanding of what that implied than many of the people in his world. When he became Mayor of the Palace and set about conquering the Germanic tribes to the east of the Frankish kingdom, and even subduing rebellious Frankish lords, he used forced conversions as a way to bring the people of his kingdom in line. His son Pepin continued this trend but took it one step further. Pepin wasn’t content just to be Mayor of the Palace. He carried Carolingian dominance to the next step and had himself crowned King of the Franks. To lend an extra weight of legitimacy and power to this assumption of the throne he sought papal approval for it, and when the pope visited the Frankish kingdom he anointed Pepin king personally. Pepin, in turn, defended the papal lands against the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy.
When Charlemagne assumed the throne from his father in 768 he not only maintained the alliance with Rome that his father had set up, he took it to the next level. Pepin had helped to defend papal lands from the Lombards. Charlemagne marched right in and obliterated the kingdom of the Lombards entirely. He annexed most of northern Italy to the Frankish kingdom. In doing so he gained control of most of Western Europe, most of the lands that had once been under control of the Roman Empire. In effect, he reestablished a political entity that more or less was the Western Roman Empire of several hundred years before. Pope Leo III made this more or less official on Christmas Day, 800 by crowning Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor.
But in a way, all of these famous names and dates, the ones you have to memorize in boring history classes, is just a tiny part of the story. The important thing to understand is how this was able to happen. How was one man, building on the work of his father and grandfather, able to create a definitive Medieval culture out of a politically, culturally, and economically weak area?
The answer is that Charlemagne worked from the inside out, if you will. And he was adaptable. He wasn’t doing anything new by converting the tribes and lands that he conquered to Christianity. He even started out doing it the same way as his grandfather had, forcibly. In Germanic lands he made the practice of paganism punishable by death. But sometimes condemning people to death for practicing the religion they’ve practiced for countless generations isn’t actually the best way to win devoted converts. So Charlemagne changed his tactics.
One of the things that Charlemagne is most remembered for is being a champion of educational reform. Even monasteries, the centers of learning in the Middle Ages, were black holes of ignorance and illiteracy. Charlemagne instituted policies to change all that. He made sure that clergymen were highly educated and that they educated others. Part of this effort involved revolutionizing writing to make it easier to read. The Romans had used only capital letters, but the new “Carolingian script” ushered in lower-case letters as we have come to know them. This was also the beginning of the Medieval Church’s tradition of copying manuscripts. Whereas so many great works of Rome had been lost prior to this time, almost nothing has been lost from the Carolingian era on.
Okay, so Charlemagne created a revival in learning. So? Well, another calculated effect of improving the education of clergymen and increasing the numbers of men and women in religious life was the spread of not just the church but devotion. Swords could only do so much to convert the heathen masses. Charismatic preachers sent to proselytize to the people was far more effective. Time also worked in Charlemagne’s favor in this respect. By educating people in the tradition of Christianity and positioning learned, influential individuals in their midst he saw to it that a whole new generation was raised up who didn’t just convert to Christianity but who completely invested in it. And when you have a vast and diverse set of people under your power, people with nothing else in common, who all believe in a single Church with a centralized structure and one Pope, you have something that can hold a kingdom together that would otherwise fall apart.
Ah ha! See what he did there? Charlemagne brought the Church to people where they lived. In doing this he also created the parish system. This meant that rural areas could have their own churches and pastors rather than having to travel to cities to partake in the life of the church. Rural pastors reported to bishops in the larger cities, who reported to archbishops in major cities, who reported to the Pope in Rome. And by bringing the Church to the people he also brought the people to the Church in a fundamental way that not only stuck, it defined a millennium.
Brilliant, eh? But wait! There’s more! Because not only did this give all of the people in his kingdom a piece of a common identity, it boosted the authority of the Medieval Catholic Church itself. Because the individual priests and monks were more educated and trained to be more devoted to their religious life, because the chain of command was strengthened and lines of communication were made clearer, the effectiveness of the Church exploded. Because the vast majority of the population of Europe believed in the authority of the Church from the ground up, the Church was able to grow into what we know as the all-powerful institute of the Middle Ages. And of course the Church would support any and all claims of the man who got them there, Charlemagne.
Charlemagne understood people. He understood power. What makes him so great is that he was able to see the long-game of what needed to be done, and because of the work of his forbearers he had the power to do it. Next week we’ll talk a little bit more about the awesome things Charlemagne was able to do once he’d revolutionized Europe.