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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

The Collapse of the Carolingian Empire

1. Charlemagne and his advisors managed a "renaissance" in which they attempted to re-create the Roman Empire of the West as best they could. The central piece of this effort was the concentration of authority in a central government, and they were almost certain to have failed in this effort.

They failed to address the basic problems of the West: the decay of the economic infrastructure (roads, bridges) and the loss of the manufacturing and monetary subsidy that the West had enjoyed from the East when it was under Roman imperial control.

Most important, however, they failed to address the problem caused by the division of the state among the king's heirs according to the traditional inheritance practice of gavelkind. It was only luck that had kept the Frankish realm in the hands of a single ruler from 751 to about 830.

2. Something about Louis the Pious.

Louis was born in 778, while Charlemagne was on an expedition to Spain (remember The Song of Roland?). Charlemagne gave him the newly- acquired land of what is now southern France, stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, with its capital at Toulouse, and with the name of the Kingdom of Aquitaine. He left the child there under the care of a very able group of secular and clerical counsellors, led by Count William of Toulouse (William of Orange in the epics, and St. William of the Desert in the book of saints) and Saint Benedict of Aniane, monastic reformer, scholar, and political theorist. Louis had older brothers, and did not expect ever to get more than the kingdom he had been given.

By 814, when Charlemagne died, however, Louis' brothers were already dead, and he went to Aachen at the age of thirty-six, with three sons of his own, to assume control of the entire empire. He was probably the best-trained ruler to assume a Western throne in over three hundred years and he was ready to reform the whole Carolingian system.

He started by expelling all illegitimately-born men from the civil service and high ecclesiastical posts. The problem was that many of these people had Charlemagne for a father. Louis got rid of his half-brothers and so turned a valuable body of supporters against him. He also stripped the civil service of its experienced personnel at an inopportune time. Some nobles in Italy used a young boy, Bernard, with a claim to the throne as an excuse to rebel. Louis called out the Frankish army, enjoyed a massive show of support, and defeated his Italian opponents and captured Bernard. He ordered Bernard blinded, as was the custom at the time, to eliminate him as a threat to his own authority. Louis executioner was clumsy, however, and the boy died. The Italian church imposed a penance on Louis, and he humbled himself before his highest nobles, earning himself their contempt and a reputation for weakness of character.

He had a plan, called Imperium Christianum (Christian Empire) to handle the problems caused by gavelkind. He divided the lands of the empire among his three sons, establishing their borders, arranged for the imperial crown to pass to his eldest son, and ordered that, when his sons died, the clerical and lay leaders of each kingdom would choose as king the best qualified of their deceased monarch's heirs. All were supposed to work together under the leadership of the emperor. All well and good, but then Louis was introduced to Judith, who was -- the chroniclers report -- an absolute knockout. Unlike his father, Louis, a widower, didn't believe in simply taking young women to bed. He seems to have had "family values," and so married Judith. When Judith gave birth to a son, Louis tried to redraw the borders of the kingdoms of the Imperium Christianum. His sons resisted, and civil war broke out and continued even past Louis' death in 840. Since everyone was involved in fighting one another, perhaps they didn't notice new and even greater problems arising.

A noble class dependent upon the possession of land had emerged over the previous century, and the population of that hereditary class was growing. As long as the Frankish monarchs had kept conquering, there were always new lands to distribute to the nobility. Now that expansion had ceased, the nobles began to suffer from "land-hunger" and began to transform. The seized the lands they had been given to rule as appointed counts, dukes, and margraves, and to treat them as personal possessions. They began to demand payments in land for helping one or the other side in the incessant civil wars and, when the Carolingian monarchs no longer had royal lands to give, they took over the lands of churches and monasteries. Even so, they could not continue dividing their lands into smaller and smaller pieces, so they abandoned gavelkind and adopted primogeniture ("first-born"), a system in which the core of a family's lands was kept intact and passed automatically to the eldest son. In this fashion, the empire was shattered into hundreds of practically independent districts, each owned and ruled by a local strong man with a small body of fighting men and a castle.

Such a state cannot maintain a navy, so the remnants of the empire were easy pickings for sea-borne raiders from Scandinavia (the Vikings and from North Africa (the Saracens), as well as mounted raiders from central Asia, the Magyars, or Hungarians. The rulers descended from Charlemagne were unable to defend Europe from these raiders, and it fell to local powers, such as Count Robert of Paris and the dukes of the lands of Germany, to do so. Meanwhile, the nobles began to establish networks of personal alliances to cut down on fighting among themselves and to coordinate their efforts against the raiders. This was the beginning of the political and military system traditionally called feudalism and the end of any real hope that the West might have had of reestablishing a centralized government and unified state such as the Romans had managed to maintain.

Europe was more or less on its own, no longer trying to bring back some golden age, but searching for whatever means would help it to survive.

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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.