Charlemagne: One of the Most Important Figures of Early Medieval Europe
Charlemagne (known also as Charles the Great, as well as Charles I) was a King of the Franks, the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire (though the term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ would only be coined after Charlemagne’s death), and one of the most important figures in the history of early Medieval Europe.
As King of the Franks, he sought to unite all the Germanic peoples into one kingdom, and to convert his subjects to the Christian faith. Charlemagne’s preferred method for achieving these goals was through conquest. Thus, during the early part of Charlemagne’s reign, numerous military campaigns were carried out to expand his realm.
Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Palace of Versailles. (Public Domain)
One of Charlemagne’s greatest political achievements may be said to be his crowning as ‘Emperor of the Romans’ on Christmas day 800 AD by Pope Leo III. The significance of this event was the revival of the notion of the Western Roman Emperor, a role that has been vacant since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Charlemagne’s Early Life
Charlemagne was born during the decade of 740 AD. He was born either in Liège in modern day Belgium or in Aachen of modern day Germany. His father was Pepin the Short, who became the first Carolingian King of the Franks in 751 AD, whilst his mother was Bertrada of Laon. Little is known about Charlemagne’s childhood and education.
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According to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, the emperor had “the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness.” Additionally, Charlemagne had a talent in learning languages, and was able to speak Latin “as well as his native tongue”, and he could “understand Greek better than he could speak it.” It is unclear, however, if these languages were learned by Charlemagne as a child or as an adult.
Charlemagne Receiving Manuscripts from His Tutor, the Monk Alcuin, by Jules Laure. (CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Following Pepin’s death in 768 AD, the kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother, Carloman. Following Carloman’s death in 771 AD, Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Kingdom of the Franks. The new ruler began to expand his kingdom in all directions in a series of military campaigns.
A picture from the 15th century depicting the emperor Charlemagne. (Public Domain)
Some of these campaigns include the war against the Saxons from 772 AD until the end of that century, and the conquest the Lombard Kingdom in 774 AD. In war, Charlemagne was a ruthless leader. For example, the war against the Saxons, who were pagans, was marked by a great amount of bloodshed. The conquered Saxons were supposedly given the choice of either converting to Christianity, or being put to the sword. At the Massacre of Verden in 782 AD, around 4500 Saxons were slaughtered by Charlemagne’s forces.
The Sachsenhain memorial to the massacre in Verden an der Aller, Germany. (CC BY 3.0)
Emperor of the Romans
In 800 AD, Pope Leo III was facing a rebellion, and was attacked on the streets of Rome, hence was compelled to seek the aid of Charlemagne. According to Einhard,
“The Romans had inflicted many injuries upon the Pontiff Leo, tearing out his eyes and cutting out his tongue, so that he had been complied to call upon the King for help.”
Charlemagne came to Rome, set the affairs of the Church in order, and, as a reward, was crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ by the pope on Christmas day of the same year.
Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne as Emperor on Christmas Day. (Public Domain)
Whilst Charlemagne is said to have been a ruthless military leader, he is thought to have been quite a different character outside the battle field. Charlemagne was apparently a highly capable administrator, a skilled diplomat, and a cultured man.
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His coronation as ‘Emperor of the Romans’, for instance, was not well-received by the Byzantines. Through diplomacy, however, Charlemagne was able to improve his relations with them. In Einhard’s account,
“He bore very patiently with the jealousy which the Roman emperors showed upon his assuming these titles, for they took this step very ill; and by dint of frequent embassies and letters, in which he addressed them as brothers, he made their haughtiness yield to his magnanimity, a quality in which he was unquestionably much their superior.”
The Emperor Charlemagne. (1837) By Louis-Félix Amiel. (Public Domain)
The Carolingian Renaissance
It was also under Charlemagne’s rule that the so-called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ occurred. Einhard wrote that Charlemagne was interested in learning. Although the emperor tried his hand at different branches of learning, he was not so successful as he had begun these studies at an old age,
“He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honours upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.”
Alcuin was one of the leading scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance. (Public Domain)
Nevertheless, it was due to Charlemagne’s patronage of such scholars that Western Europe was able to experience a cultural and intellectual revival.
Charlemagne died in 814 AD, and his empire passed to his only surviving adult son, Louis the Pious. In this way, Charlemagne’s empire was kept intact for another generation. It was after the death of Louis the Pious that the Holy Roman Empire was divided into three parts, thus marking the beginning of the long road towards the formation of the Kingdoms of France and Germany.
Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious. (Public Domain)
Top image: A depiction of Charlemagne. Photo source: Flamingo Travels
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Halsall, P., 1996. Medieval Sourcebook: Einhard: Life of Charlemagne.
Keen, M., 1968. The Pelican History of Medieval Europe. London: Penguin Books.
Snell, M., 2016. Charlemagne. [Online]
Available at: http://historymedren.about.com/od/cwho/p/who_charlemagne.htm
The BBC, 2014. Charlemagne (c. 747 - c. 814). [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/charlemagne.shtml
Whipps, H., 2008. How Charlemagne Changed the World. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livescience.com/4892-charlemagne-changed-world.html
www.historyworld.net, 2016. History of Charlemagne. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?ParagraphID=elk