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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

The Carolingian Empire

In a sense, the reign of Charlemagne was "the revolt of the west."

  • 1. The Carolingian empire was an accident
    • a. 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.
    • b. 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.
    • c. 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.
    • d. 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.
    • e. 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."

    2. The Character of the Carolingian Regime.

    • a. Limitations.
      • 1. The population of the Frankish lands were 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.
      • 2. The state lacked any institutions of central government. There was no set of common laws, weights and measures, currency, civil service, and the like.
      • 3. 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.
      b. Some Carolingian solutions to these limitations.
      • 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. Pepin and Charlemagne did a great deal toward creating governmental machinery.
        • a. 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.
        • b. Charlemagne used letters, the capitularies, to disseminate orders and standards throughout the realm.
        • c. He established travelling inspections teams, the missi dominici, to determine whether his orders were being observed and whether local officials were discharging their duties properly.
        • d. He established a common currency, the silver penny, and matched it with the values of Muslim coinage to encourage trade.
        • e. 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 defend.
      • 3. What was the goal of all of these policies? 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.
        • a. Charlemagne 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 St. 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.
        • b. He 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.
        • c. He established a palace school and placed it under the direction of his counsellor, the famous scholar Alcuin. Alcuin gathered a number of fine Latin scholars there, including Einhard and others. 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.
    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 planned marriage to the heiress to the Byzantine empire fell 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.) 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 on Charlemagne's head and acclaimed him Holy Roman Emperor. It has been 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?

    • The theoretical power of the Byzantine emperor over the west was finally ended.
    • 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 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

    . This good fortune ended in the reign of Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.