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Search for more about Charlemagne at the History Site!



We have seen how Byzantine civilization grew out of the wreckage of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, this civilization, centered at Constantinople, drew extensively on the Greco-Roman tradition. From Greece came Hellenistic culture and all that culture had to offer in terms of art, architecture, philosophy, science and literature. From Rome came the much more practical details of law and administration. It was Justinian (c.482-565) who best represented this assimilation of Roman law. And, of course, added to the Greco-Roman tradition was Christianity -- the great unifying agent of the early Middle Ages both east and west. Islamic civilization also benefited from the Greco-Roman tradition, especially in the areas of Greek science and philosophy. Islamic scholars placed Aristotle on a pedestal and called him simply, "The Philosopher." While Islam did not call itself Christian, it did have a religion which was as persuasive in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Spain as Christianity was in Western Europe .

Between the 6th and 9th centuries, Byzantine and Islamic civilization flourished -- the result was a material civilization which far outshone their western neighbors. The west had to remake itself. In the wake of the demise of the Roman Empire, European peasants, nobles and clergyman had to literally remake their lives. Our image of this period in western history is one of darkness. Greece and Rome, even during its bad times, always appears more brilliant than the early Middle Ages even its peak. There appears to be little or no intellectual pursuit -- no creativity, no innovation in the arts, the learning, no science. Perhaps the metaphor of a Dark Ages is not that far from the truth.

One reason why this may be so is that most Europeans had other things on their mind. As the urban life of Rome gave way to the countryside, people became more closely attached to the land. Their very survival depended upon it. These people needed security and protection and these seemed to be the two words which best express the common needs of the general population of Europe. Serfdom and feudalism promised security and protection, however, feudalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. What began as an attempt to restore social, political, military and economic order, ended up producing nothing less than anarchy .

Before we turn to Charlemagne the foundation of the Frankish Kingdom, we need to spend some time discussing a few intellectual trends of the early Middle Ages. Our discussion may shed some light on this rather dark age. Although the majority of Europeans were busy reconstructing their lives -- trying to find protection and security -- there were scholars who were desperately trying to keep learning alive. As you might expect, these were Christian scholars. I would like to suggest that these scholars were not that original in their thinking. On the other hand, like St. Augustine (354-430), they did help keep classical learning alive. The two individuals I am about to mention retained a profound respect for the intellect of Greece and Rome. At the same time, they were devout Christians. They were trying to create a Christian culture which combined the Greco-Roman tradition with a faith in Christianity and support of the Church.

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"The last of the Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastic theologians," Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c.475-524), was a Roman statesman and philosopher, and was descended from a prominent senatorial family. He studied philosophy, mathematics and poetry at Plato's Academy, and through his studies at Athens he gained the knowledge that later enabled him to translate Greek philosophic writings into Latin. Soon after 500, he served the court of Theodoric (455-526), king of the Goths, who ruled Italy. In 510, Boethius was appointed consul and "Master of Offices." As consul, he attempted to check the oppressive behavior of his fellow officials. In 522, and during a religious controversy, Boethius managed to choose the wrong side. He was arrested, condemned and sent into exile to await execution. But Boethius was a man of principal, like Socrates, and rather than given to stronger powers, he stood firm in his opinions.

While waiting execution, this admirable scholar wrote a short book called, The Consolation of Philosophy. In the Consolation, BOETHIUS carried on a conversation with Philosophy, who appears as a woman. In other words, he turned not to God or to Christ or his faith, but to his early training in philosophy. He reassured himself, in the tradition of Socrates and the Stoics, that "if then you are master of yourself, you will be in possession of that which you will never wish to lose, in which Fortune will never be able to take from you." This is classical humanism defined.

The Consolation is a marvelous book and its debt is clearly Socratic and Stoic. Imagine this scholar imprisoned, waiting for a certain death. It was Stoicism which gave him spirit and support. Oddly enough, the words Christ or Christianity do not appear in his book. Boethius exerted a major influence in western intellectual life. Until the 12th century, virtually all of what Europe knew about Aristotle came from Boethius. He even helped to diffuse Euclidean geometry to the Middle Ages. He wanted to unite faith and reason -- and wanted to show that they did not conflict with one another, but complemented one another. His influence was far and wide. As late as 1600, Elizabeth, the Queen of England, made the Consolation required reading at her court. She even saw through its translation into English. Dante, Boccaccio, Cervantes, and Chaucer were all familiar students of the Consolation of Boethius.

But Boethius -- remember, we left him in prison -- soon met a horrible fate at the hands of the Gothic officials. In 524, Theodoric confirmed his sentence and after days of cruel torture, Boethius was the bludgeoned to death. Like Socrates, Sir Thomas More, Bruno and Galileo, Boethius fell victim to stronger and much crueler powers. He was an intellectual who stood by his principles. Boethius helped to keep classical scholarship alive. So too did Cassiodoris (c.485-c.580), Gregory of Tours (538-c.594) and Isidore of Seville (c.560-636). And in his own unique way, so too did St. Augustine.

There was something vital in this Greco-Roman tradition that had to be preserved. And soon we shall see what the12th and 13th centuries were to make of all this, for in those centuries, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) managed to blend Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, with Christianity. Reason and faith were not opposites, but two necessary roads to truth (i.e. the medieval synthesis).

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The Venerable Bede

The other scholar I'd like to mention was the Venerable Bede (c.673-735). Bede was born near Monkwearmouth, near Durham, in England and educated at a Benedictine monastery under Benedict Biscop. He was later transferred to the daughter monastery at Jarrow. He devoted himself to Latin, Greek, and the literature of the Church Fathers. He also studied Hebrew, medicine and astronomy. He was by all accounts, a polymath. He wrote lives of the Saints, hymns, epigrams, works on Christian chronology, and commentaries on the Old and New Testament. Bede's most valuable work was the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum), to which we are indebted for almost all our information on the ancient history of England down to the year 731. The History begins with an account of England's geography and early inhabitants and carries the story from Caesar's landing in 55B.C. through the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and spread of the Christian faith down to his own day. It is to Bede, furthermore, that we received the expression "A.D." or anno domini ("from the Lord's incarnation"). He used a variety of sources to write his history including chronicles, biographies, records, public documents, and oral and written communications from his contemporaries. He used these sources critically, as would a modern historian, yet he still believed in miracles and saw all history in terms of the story of man's salvation. History, in other words, had a purpose, and that purpose was human salvation. This is perhaps not that unusual considering that the age in which we're speaking is often called the Age of Faith.

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The Kingdom of the Franks

It was during the early Middle Ages, roughly 500-1000, that a new form of government appeared. This government was Germanic in origin. Rome had built her government around an emperor and his elaborate and extensive administrative bureaucracy. The Germans had a different idea. What developed were kingdoms -- the king had to constantly move around his land in order to show and prove himself to his subjects. While all this was going on, the Church became controlled by members of the educated elite. These elites provided the bureaucrats and administrative officials necessary to maintain religious authority. While the Church preserved Roman and Latin culture, the Germans literally changed the Church in order to incorporate it into their own society.

The Franks expanded their territory to the west -- from Germany into what is now modern France. Although they remained tied to the traditions of their homeland, the further west they moved into Gaul, the less Germanized they became. In other words, their customs and institutions changed as they moved away from their traditional lands. The Franks and other Germanic tribes were never absorbed into the Roman world, rather, they added a Germanic impression to that world. And, as we will see, feudalism itself grew out of this combination of Germanic custom and Roman law.

The real impact of the Franks upon Western Europe dates from the year 481, when the Frankish king Clovis (465-511) assumed the throne. When he took power, Clovis was only 15 years old. Just the same, he was an ambitious, able and decidedly ruthless king. Between 486 and 511, Clovis conquered a few provinces still ruled by Roman patricians. He also destroyed the kingdoms of the Alemanni, the Burgundians and the Visogoths in Gaul. The most significant event of his career was his CONVERSION TO CHRISTIANITY, the impetus to which was supplied by his wife, Clotilde. Clovis compared himself to Constantine -- another ruler who had experienced a conversion. His followers and loyal subjects followed suit and embraced Roman Christianity. Such an act further explains just how and why Europe was Christianized.

Clovis turned his wars of aggression and conquest into holy wars. These were wars against heretics and his people, the Franks, considered themselves to be the protectors of the faith. So, from the time of his conversion and long after his death, the history of the Franks was inextricably connected with a Roman Church. This is a precedent which would be embraced by France almost down to the present day.

When Clovis died in 511, Gaul was the scene of numerous civil wars. The cause of these civil wars was the Frankish law of inheritance. The law was as follows: if a man with four sons died, his land was divided into four equal parts. Each son would be given land for use only. No one could be said to have owned the land as private property. In other words the law specified use and not ownership or possession. This same law was applied to royal power. The Frankish kingdom was regarded as a larger state which could be divided for purposes of administration. Such a scheme was fertile ground for conflict.

An amazing or brilliant ruler is often followed by a ruler of lesser quality. After Clovis, there was no successor equal to his power or to his influence. By 640, the Merovingian dynasty established by Clovis, rapidly declined. Finances were out of control, the land was continually divided, and political control was turned over to local administrative officials, the Mayors of the Palace. By the end of the 7th century, the Mayors had been established on hereditary lines. These hereditary mayors were the ancestors of Charles the Great or Charlemagne (in Latin, Carolus Magnus). The Carolingians inherited land that retained some of the attributes of Roman administration, specifically laws and systems of taxation.

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The Frankish Mayors of the Palace represented a new aristocracy -- the class of warriors. This class attained its wealth solely from land. Frankish culture was not urban and as a result in the early Middle Ages we see a general decline of urban life not to be revived into well after the 12th century. It has been said that it was during the reign of CHARLEMAGNE (742-814) that the transition from classical to early medieval civilization was completed. He came to the throne of the Frankish kingdom in 771 and ruled until 814. His reign spans more than 40 years and it was during this time that a new civilization -- a European civilization -- came into existence. If anything characterizes Charlemagne's rule it was stability. His reign was based on harmony which developed between three elements: the Roman past, the Germanic way of life, and Christianity. Charlemagne devoted his entire reign to blending these three elements into one kingdom and by doing this, he secured a foundation upon which European society would develop.

Frankish society was entirely rural and was composed of three classes or orders: (1) the peasants - those who work, (2) the nobility - those who fight, and, (3) the clergy - those who pray (see Lecture 23). In general, life was brutal and harsh for the early medieval peasant. Even in the wealthiest parts of Europe, the story is one of poverty and hardship. Their diet was poor and many peasants died undernourished. Most were illiterate although a few were devout Christians. The majority could not understand Latin, the language of the Church. The nobility were better off. Their diet, although they had more food, was still not very nutritional. They lived in larger houses than the peasants but their castles were often just as cold as the peasant's small hut. Furthermore, most of nobility were illiterate and crude. They spent most of their time fighting. Their religious beliefs were, for the most part, similar to those of the peasants. At the upper level were the clergy. They were the most educated and perhaps the only people to truly understand Christianity since they were the only people who had access to the Bible. It was the clergy who held a monopoly on knowledge, religious beliefs and religious practice.

When Charlemagne took the throne in 771, he immediately implemented two policies. The first policy was one of expansion. Charlemagne's goal was to unite all Germanic people into one kingdom. The second policy was religious in that Charlemagne wanted to convert all of the Frankish kingdom, and those lands he conquered, to Christianity. As a result, Charlemagne's reign was marked by almost continual warfare.

Because Charlemagne's armies were always fighting, he began to give his warriors land so they could support and equip themselves. With this in mind, Charlemagne was able to secure an army of warriors who were deeply devoted and loyal to him. By the year 800, the Frankish kingdom included all of modern France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, almost all of Germany and large areas of Italy and Spain. It seemed clear that Charlemagne was yet another Constantine, perhaps even another Augustus Caesar.

Toward the end of the year 800, Pope Leo III asked Charlemagne to come to Rome. On Christmas Day Charlemagne attended mass at St. Peters. When he finished his prayers, Pope Leo prostrated himself before Charlemagne and then placed a crown upon his head. Pope Leo then said "life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peaceful emperor of the Romans." This was an extremely important act. Charlemagne became the first emperor in the west since the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476. Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard (c.770-840), has recorded that Charlemagne was not very much interested in Pope Leo's offering. Had Charlemagne known what was to happen on that Christmas day, he never would have attended the mass. The bottom line is this -- Charlemagne had no intention of being absorbed into the Roman Church. From the point of view of Pope Leo, the coronation of Charlemagne signified the Pope's claim to dispense the imperial crown. It was Leo's desire to assert papal supremacy over a unified Christiandom and he did this by coronating Charlemagne. By gaining the imperial title, Charlemagne received no new lands. He never intended to make Rome the center of his empire. In fact, from Christmas Day 800 to his death in 814, Charlemagne never returned to Rome. Instead, Charlemagne returned to France as emperor and began a most effective system of rule. He divided his kingdom into several hundred counties or administrative units. Along the borders of the kingdom, Charlemagne appointed military governors. To insure that this system worked effectively, Charlemagne sent out messengers (missi domini), one from the church and one lay person, to check on local affairs and report directly to him. Charlemagne also traveled freely throughout his kingdom in order to make direct contact with his people. This was in accordance with the German tradition of maintaining loyalty. He could also supervise his always troublesome nobility and maintain the loyalty of his subjects. There was no fixed capital but Charlemagne spent most of his time at Aachen.

In terms of commerce, Charlemagne standardized the minting of coins based on the silver standard. This also actively encouraged trade, especially in the North Sea. The Franks manufactured swords, pottery and glassware in northern France which they exported to England, Scandinavia and the Lowlands. He also initiated trade between the Franks and the Muslims and made commercial pacts with the merchants of Venice who traded with both Byzantium and Islam.

The most durable and significant of all Charlemagne's efforts was the revival of learning in his kingdom. This was especially so among the clergy, many of whom were barely literate. On the whole, the monks were not much better educated. Even those monks who spent their days copying manuscripts could barely read or understand them. The manuscripts from the 7th and 8th centuries were confusing. They were all written in uppercase letters and without punctuation. There were many errors made in copying and handwriting was poor. There were, however, a few educated monks as well as the beginnings of a few great libraries. But Charlemagne could not find one good copy of the Bible, nor a complete text of the Benedictine Rule. He had to send to Rome for them. Above all, Charlemagne wanted unity in the Frankish Church, a Church wholly under his supervision. Charlemagne, although illiterate as a youth, was devoted to new ideas and to learning. He studied Latin, Greek, rhetoric, logic and astronomy. He wanted to meet an educated man -- he was very lucky. He was in northern Italy when he met the Anglo-Saxon scholar, Alcuin.

Alcuin (c.735-804) lived in York where there was a library which contained a vast collection of manuscripts. Charlemagne persuaded Alcuin to come to Aachen in order to design a curriculum for the palace school. Alcuin devised a course of study that was intended to train the clergy and the monks. Here we find the origins of the seven liberal arts: the trivium comprised grammar (how to write), rhetoric (how to speak) and logic (how to think) while the quadrivium was made up of the mathematical arts, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. All of this meant a classical and literary education. Students read Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Plato and Cicero.

By the 9th century, most monasteries had writing rooms or scriptoria. It was here that manuscripts were copied. The texts were studied with care. It was no longer merely a matter of copying texts. It was now first necessary to correct any mistakes which had been made over years of copying. Copying was indeed difficult: lighting was poor, the monk's hands were cramped by cold weather and there was no standard scholarly language. What Charlemagne did was institute a standard writing style. Remember, previous texts were all uppercase, without punctuation and there was no separation between words. The letters of the new script, called the Carolingian minuscule, were written in upper and lower case, with punctuation and words were separated. It should be obvious that this new script was much easier to read, in fact, it is the script we use today. Charlemagne also standardized medieval Latin. After all, much had changed in the Latin language over the past 1000 years. New words, phrases, and idioms had appeared over the centuries in these now had to be incorporated into the language. So what Charlemagne did was take account of all these changes and include them in a new scholarly language which we know as medieval Latin.

One of the most important consequences of the Carolingian Renaissance was that Charlemagne encouraged the spread of uniform religious practices as well as a uniform culture. Charlemagne set out to construct a respublica Christiana, a Christian republic. Despite the fact that Charlemagne unified his empire, elevated education, standardized coins, handwriting and even scholarly Latin, his Empire declined in strength within a generation or two following his death in the year 814. His was a hard act to follow. His rule was so brilliant, so superior, that those emperors who came after him seemed inferior. We've seen this before with Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Constantine, Justinian and Mohammed.

Although the Frankish kingdom went into decline, the death of Charlemagne was only one cause of the decline. We must consider the renewed invasions from barbarian tribes. The Muslims invaded Sicily in 827 and 895, invasions which disrupted trade between the Franks and Italy. The Vikings came from Denmark, Sweden and Norway and invaded the Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Danes attacked England, and northern Gaul. The Swedes attacked areas in central and eastern Europe and Norwegians attacked England, Scotland and Ireland and by the 10th century, had found their way to Greenland. The third group of invaders were the Magyars who came from modern-day Hungary. Their raids were so terrible that European peasants would burn their fields and destroy their villages rather than give them over. All these invasions came to an end by the 10th and 11th centuries for the simple reason that these tribes were converted to Christianity. And it would be the complex institution known as feudalism which would offer Europeans protection from these invasions, based as it was on security, protection and mutual obligations.

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