Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus or Karolus Magnus, meaning Charles the Great) (747 – 28 January 814) was King of the Franks from 768 to his death. He expanded the Frankish kingdoms into a Frankish Empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800 as a rival of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. His rule is also associated with the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church. Through his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define both Western Europe and the Middle Ages. He is numbered as Charles I in the regnal lists of France, Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire.
The son of King Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, he succeeded his father and co-ruled with his brother Carloman I. The latter got on badly with Charlemagne, but war was prevented by the sudden death of Carloman in 771. Charlemagne continued the policy of his father towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in Italy, and waging war on the Saracens, who menaced his realm from Spain. It was during one of these campaigns that Charlemagne experienced the worst defeat of his life, at Roncesvalles (778). He also campaigned against the peoples to his east, especially the Saxons, and after a protracted war subjected them to his rule. By forcibly converting them to Christianity, he integrated them into his realm and thus paved the way for the later Ottonian dynasty.
Today he is regarded not only as the founding father of both French and German monarchies, but also as the father of Europe: his empire united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Romans, and the Carolingian renaissance encouraged the formation of a common European identity. Pierre Riché reflects:
. . . he enjoyed an exceptional destiny, and by the length of his reign, by his conquests, legislation and legendary stature, he also profoundly marked the history of western Europe.
In 687, Pippin of Herstal, mayor of the palace of Austrasia, ended the strife between various kings and their mayors with his victory at Tertry and became the sole governor of the entire Frankish kingdom. Pippin himself was the grandson of two most important figures of the Austrasian Kingdom, Saint Arnulf of Metz and Pippin of Landen. Pippin the Middle was eventually succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles, later known as Charles Martel (the Hammer). After 737, Charles governed the Franks without a king on the throne but desisted from calling himself "king". Charles was succeeded by his sons Carloman and Pippin the Short, the father of Charlemagne. To curb separatism in the periphery of the realm, the brothers placed on the throne Childeric III, who was to be the last Merovingian king.
After Carloman resigned his office, Pippin had Childeric III deposed with Pope Zachary's approval. In 751, Pippin was elected and anointed King of the Franks and in 754, Pope Stephen II again anointed him and his young sons, now heirs to the great realm which already covered most of western and central Europe. Thus was the Merovingian dynasty replaced by the Carolingian dynasty, named after Pippin's father Charles Martel.
Under the new dynasty, the Frankish kingdom spread to encompass an area including most of Western Europe. The division of that kingdom formed France and Germany; and the religious, political, and artistic evolutions originating from a centrally-positioned Francia made a defining imprint on the whole of Western Europe.
Charlemagne's birth-name, "Charles" was derived from his grandfather, Charles Martel. The name derives from "karl", a Germanic stem meaning "man" or "free man", related to the English "churl". The earliest extant forms of Charlemagne's name are in the Latinate form, "Carolus" or "Karolus".
In many Slavic languages, the very word for "king" derives from Charles' Slavicised name.
The area of Charlemagne's birth does not make determination of his native language easier. Most historians agree he was born around Liège, like his father, but some say he was born in or around Aachen, some fifty kilometres away. At that time, this was an area of great linguistic diversity. If we take Liège (around 750) as the centre, we find Low Franconian in the north and northwest, Gallo-Romance (the ancestor of Old French) in the south and southwest and various Old High German dialects in the east. If Gallo-Romance is excluded, that means he either spoke Old Low Franconian or an Old High German dialect, probably with a strong Frankish influence.
Apart from his native language he also spoke Latin "as fluently as his own tongue" and understood a bit of Greek: Grecam vero melius intellegere quam pronuntiare poterat, "He understood Greek better than he could pronounce it.
Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect.
Charles is well known to have been fair-haired, tall, and stately, with a disproportionately thick neck. The Roman tradition of realistic personal portraiture was in complete eclipse in his time, where individual traits were submerged in iconic typecastings. Charlemagne, as an ideal ruler, ought to be portrayed in the corresponding fashion, any contemporary would have assumed. The images of enthroned Charlemagne, God's representative on Earth, bear more connections to the icons of Christ in majesty than to modern (or antique) conceptions of portraiture. Charlemagne in later imagery (as in the Dürer portrait) is often portrayed with flowing blond hair, due to a misunderstanding of Einhard, who describes Charlemagne as having canitie pulchra, or "beautiful white hair", which has been rendered as blonde or fair in many translations.
Charlemagne wore the traditional, inconspicuous and distinctly non-aristocratic costume of the Frankish people, described by Einhard thus:
He used to wear the national, that is to say, the Frank dress: next to his skin a linen shirt and linen breeches, and above these a tunic fringed with silk; while hose fastened by bands covered his lower limbs, and shoes his feet, and he protected his shoulders and chest in winter by a close-fitting coat of otter or marten skins.
He wore a blue cloak and always carried a sword with him. The typical sword was of a golden or silver hilt. He wore fancy jewelled swords to banquets or ambassadorial receptions. Nevertheless:
He despised foreign costumes, however handsome, and never allowed himself to be robed in them, except twice in Rome, when he donned the Roman tunic, chlamys, and shoes; the first time at the request of Pope Hadrian, the second to gratify Leo, Hadrian's successor.
He could rise to the occasion when necessary. On great feast days, he wore embroidery and jewels on his clothing and shoes. He had a golden buckle for his cloak on such occasions and would appear with his great diadem, but he despised such apparel, according to Einhard, and usually dressed like the common people.
Much of what is known of Charlemagne's life comes from his biographer, Einhard, who wrote a Vita Caroli Magni (or Vita Karoli Magni), the Life of Charlemagne. Einhard says of the early life of Charles:
It would be folly, I think, to write a word concerning Charles' birth and infancy, or even his boyhood, for nothing has ever been written on the subject, and there is no one alive now who can give information on it. Accordingly, I determined to pass that by as unknown, and to proceed at once to treat of his character, his deed, and such other facts of his life as are worth telling and setting forth, and shall first give an account of his deed at home and abroad, then of his character and pursuits, and lastly of his administration and death, omitting nothing worth knowing or necessary to know.
On the death of Pippin, the kingdom of the Franks was divided—following tradition—between Charlemagne and Carloman. Charles took the outer parts of the kingdom, bordering on the sea, namely Neustria, western Aquitaine, and the northern parts of Austrasia, while Carloman retained the inner parts: southern Austrasia, Septimania, eastern Aquitaine, Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia, lands bordering on Italy.
The first event of the brothers' reign was the rising of the Aquitainians and Gascons, in 769, in that territory split between the two kings. Years before Pippin had suppressed the revolt of Waifer, Duke of Aquitaine. Now, one Hunald (seemingly other than Hunald the duke) led the Aquitainians as far north as Angoulême. Charlemagne met Carloman, but Carloman refused to participate and returned to Burgundy. Charlemagne went to war, leading an army to Bordeaux, where he set up a camp at Fronsac. Hunold was forced to flee to the court of Duke Lupus II of Gascony. Lupus, fearing Charlemagne, turned Hunold over in exchange for peace. He was put in a monastery. Aquitaine was finally fully subdued by the Franks.
The brothers maintained lukewarm relations with the assistance of their mother Bertrada, but in 770 Charlemagne signed a treaty with Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria and married a Lombard Princess (commonly known today as Desiderata), the daughter of King Desiderius, in order to surround Carloman with his own allies. Though Pope Stephen III first opposed the marriage with the Lombard princess, he would soon have little to fear from a Frankish-Lombard alliance.
Less than a year after his marriage, Charlemagne repudiated Desiderata, and quickly remarried to a 13-year-old Swabian named Hildegard. The repudiated Desiderata returned to her father's court at Pavia. The Lombard's wrath was now aroused and he would gladly have allied with Carloman to defeat Charles. But before war could break out, Carloman died on 5 December 771. Carloman's wife Gerberga fled to Desiderius' court with her sons for protection.
At the succession of Pope Hadrian I in 772, he demanded the return of certain cities in the former exarchate of Ravenna as in accordance with a promise of Desiderius' succession. Desiderius instead took over certain papal cities and invaded the Pentapolis, heading for Rome. Hadrian sent embassies to Charlemagne in autumn requesting he enforce the policies of his father, Pippin. Desiderius sent his own embassies denying the pope's charges. The embassies both met at Thionville and Charlemagne upheld the pope's side. Charlemagne promptly demanded what the pope had demanded and Desiderius promptly swore never to comply. Charlemagne and his uncle Bernard crossed the Alps in 773 and chased the Lombards back to Pavia, which they then besieged. Charlemagne temporarily left the siege to deal with Adelchis, son of Desiderius, who was raising an army at Verona. The young prince was chased to the Adriatic littoral and he fled to Constantinople to plead for assistance from Constantine V, who was waging war with Bulgaria.
The siege lasted until the spring of 774, when Charlemagne visited the pope in Rome. There he confirmed his father's grants of land, with some later chronicles claiming—falsely—that he also expanded them, granting Tuscany, Emilia, Venice, and Corsica. The pope granted him the title patrician. He then returned to Pavia, where the Lombards were on the verge of surrendering.
In return for their lives, the Lombards surrendered and opened the gates in early summer. Desiderius was sent to the abbey of Corbie and his son Adelchis died in Constantinople a patrician. Charles, unusually, had himself crowned with the Iron Crown and made the magnates of Lombardy do homage to him at Pavia. Only Duke Arechis II of Benevento refused to submit and proclaimed independence. Charlemagne was now master of Italy as king of the Lombards. He left Italy with a garrison in Pavia and few Frankish counts in place that very year.
There was still instability, however, in Italy. In 776, Dukes Hrodgaud of Friuli and Hildeprand of Spoleto rebelled. Charlemagne rushed back from Saxony and defeated the duke of Friuli in battle. The duke was slain. The duke of Spoleto signed a treaty. Their co-conspirator, Arechis, was not subdued and Adelchis, their candidate in Byzantium, never left that city. Northern Italy was now faithfully his.
The sons fought many wars on behalf of their father when they came of age. Charles was mostly preoccupied with the Bretons, whose border he shared and who insurrected on at least two occasions and were easily put down, but he was also sent against the Saxons on multiple occasions. In 805 and 806, he was sent into the Böhmerwald (modern Bohemia) to deal with the Slavs living there (Czechs). He subjected them to Frankish authority and devastated the valley of the Elbe, forcing a tribute on them. Pippin had to hold the Avar and Beneventan borders, but also fought the Slavs to his north. He was uniquely poised to fight the Byzantine Empire when finally that conflict arose after Charlemagne's imperial coronation and a Venetian rebellion. Finally, Louis was in charge of the Spanish March and also went to southern Italy to fight the duke of Benevento on at least one occasion. He took Barcelona in a great siege in the year 797 (see below).
Charlemagne's attitude toward his daughters has been the subject of much discussion. He kept them at home with him, and refused to allow them to contract sacramental marriages – possibly to prevent the creation of cadet branches of the family to challenge the main line, as had been the case with Tassilo of Bavaria – yet he tolerated their extramarital relationships, even rewarding their common-law husbands, and treasured the bastard grandchildren they produced for him. He also, apparently, refused to believe stories of their wild behaviour. After his death the surviving daughters were banished from the court by their brother, the pious Louis, to take up residence in the convents they had been bequeathed by their father. At least one of them, Bertha, had a recognised relationship, if not a marriage, with Angilbert, a member of Charlemagne's court circle.
According to the Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir, the Diet of Paderborn had received the representatives of the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, Gerona, Barcelona, and Huesca. Their masters had been cornered in the Iberian peninsula by Abd ar-Rahman I, the Umayyad emir of Córdoba. These Moorish or "Saracen" rulers offered their homage to the great king of the Franks in return for military support. Seeing an opportunity to extend Christendom and his own power and believing the Saxons to be a fully conquered nation, he agreed to go to Spain.
In 778, he led the Neustrian army across the Western Pyrenees, while the Austrasians, Lombards, and Burgundians passed over the Eastern Pyrenees. The armies met at Zaragoza and received the homage of Sulayman al-Arabi and Kasmin ibn Yusuf, the foreign rulers. Zaragoza did not fall soon enough for Charlemagne, however. Indeed, Charlemagne was facing the toughest battle of his career and, in fear of losing, he decided to retreat and head home. He could not trust the Moors, nor the Basques, whom he had subdued by conquering Pamplona. He turned to leave Iberia, but as he was passing through the Pass of Roncesvalles one of the most famous events of his long reign occurred. The Basques fell on his rearguard and baggage train, utterly destroying it. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass, less a battle than a mere skirmish, left many famous dead: among which were the seneschal Eggihard, the count of the palace Anselm, and the warden of the Breton March, Roland, inspiring the subsequent creation of the Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland).
In Hispania, the struggle against the Moors continued unabated throughout the latter half of his reign. His son Louis was in charge of the Spanish border. In 785, his men captured Gerona permanently and extended Frankish control into the Catalan littoral for the duration of Charlemagne's reign (and much longer, it remained nominally Frankish until the Treaty of Corbeil in 1258). The Muslim chiefs in the northeast of Islamic Spain were constantly revolting against Córdoban authority and they often turned to the Franks for help. The Frankish border was slowly extended until 795, when Gerona, Cardona, Ausona, and Urgel were united into the new Spanish March, within the old duchy of Septimania.
In 797 Barcelona, the greatest city of the region, fell to the Franks when Zeid, its governor, rebelled against Córdoba and, failing, handed it to them. The Umayyad authority recaptured it in 799. However, Louis of Aquitaine marched the entire army of his kingdom over the Pyrenees and besieged it for two years, wintering there from 800 to 801, when it capitulated. The Franks continued to press forwards against the emir. They took Tarragona in 809 and Tortosa in 811. The last conquest brought them to the mouth of the Ebro and gave them raiding access to Valencia, prompting the Emir al-Hakam I to recognise their conquests in 812.
Charlemagne was engaged in almost constant battle throughout his reign, often at the head of his elite scara bodyguard squadrons, with his legendary sword Joyeuse in hand. After thirty years of war and eighteen battles—the Saxon Wars—he conquered Saxonia and proceeded to convert the conquered to Roman Catholicism, using force where necessary.
The Saxons were divided into four subgroups in four regions. Nearest to Austrasia was Westphalia and furthest away was Eastphalia. In between these two kingdoms was that of Engria and north of these three, at the base of the Jutland peninsula, was Nordalbingia.
In his first campaign, Charlemagne forced the Engrians in 773 to submit and cut down an Irminsul pillar near Paderborn. The campaign was cut short by his first expedition to Italy. He returned in the year 775, marching through Westphalia and conquering the Saxon fort of Sigiburg. He then crossed Engria, where he defeated the Saxons again. Finally, in Eastphalia, he defeated a Saxon force, and its leader Hessi converted to Christianity. He returned through Westphalia, leaving encampments at Sigiburg and Eresburg, which had, up until then, been important Saxon bastions. All Saxony but Nordalbingia was under his control, but Saxon resistance had not ended.
Following his campaign in Italy subjugating the dukes of Friuli and Spoleto, Charlemagne returned very rapidly to Saxony in 776, where a rebellion had destroyed his fortress at Eresburg. The Saxons were once again brought to heel, but their main leader, duke Widukind, managed to escape to Denmark, home of his wife. Charlemagne built a new camp at Karlstadt. In 777, he called a national diet at Paderborn to integrate Saxony fully into the Frankish kingdom. Many Saxons were baptised.
In the summer of 779, he again invaded Saxony and reconquered Eastphalia, Engria, and Westphalia. At a diet near Lippe, he divided the land into missionary districts and himself assisted in several mass baptisms (780). He then returned to Italy and, for the first time, there was no immediate Saxon revolt. In 780 Charlemagne decreed the death penalty for all Saxons who failed to be baptised, who failed to keep Christian festivals, and who cremated their dead. Saxony had peace from 780 to 782.
He returned in 782 to Saxony and instituted a code of law and appointed counts, both Saxon and Frank. The laws were draconian on religious issues, and the indigenous forms of Germanic polytheism were gravely threatened by Christianisation. This stirred a renewal of the old conflict. That year, in autumn, Widukind returned and led a new revolt, which resulted in several assaults on the church. In response, at Verden in Lower Saxony, Charlemagne allegedly ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons who had been caught practising their native paganism after conversion to Christianity, known as the Massacre of Verden. The massacre triggered three years of renewed bloody warfare (783-785). During this war the Frisians were also finally subdued and a large part of their fleet was burned. The war ended with Widukind accepting baptism.
Thereafter, the Saxons maintained the peace for seven years, but in 792 the Westphalians once again rose against their conquerors. The Eastphalians and Nordalbingians joined them in 793, but the insurrection did not catch on and was put down by 794. An Engrian rebellion followed in 796, but Charlemagne's personal presence and the presence of Christian Saxons and Slavs quickly crushed it. The last insurrection of the independence-minded people occurred in 804, more than thirty years after Charlemagne's first campaign against them. This time, the most unruly of them, the Nordalbingians, found themselves effectively disempowered from rebellion. According to Einhard:
The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King; which were renunciation of their national religious customs and the worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and union with the Franks to form one people.
The heathen resistance in Saxony was at an end.
For the next two years, Charles was occupied with the Slavs against the Saxons. Pippin and Duke Eric of Friuli continued, however, to assault the Avars' ring-shaped strongholds. The great Ring of the Avars, their capital fortress, was taken twice. The booty was sent to Charlemagne at his capital, Aachen, and redistributed to all his followers and even to foreign rulers, including King Offa of Mercia. Soon the Avar tuduns had thrown in the towel and travelled to Aachen to subject themselves to Charlemagne as vassals and Christians. This Charlemagne accepted and sent one native chief, baptised Abraham, back to Avaria with the ancient title of khagan. Abraham kept his people in line, but in 800 the Bulgarians under Krum had swept the Avar state away. In the 10th century, the Magyars settled the Pannonian plain and presented a new threat to Charlemagne's descendants.
Charlemagne also directed his attention to the Slavs to the south of the Avar khaganate: the Carantanians and Slovenes. These people were subdued by the Lombards and Bavarii and made tributaries, but never incorporated into the Frankish state.
Matters of Charlemagne's reign came to a head in late 800. In 799, Pope Leo III had been mistreated by the Romans, who tried to put out his eyes and tear out his tongue. Leo escaped, and fled to Charlemagne at Paderborn, asking him to intervene in Rome and restore him. Charlemagne, advised by Alcuin of York, agreed to travel to Rome, doing so in November 800 and holding a council on December 1. On December 23 Leo swore an oath of innocence. At Mass, on Christmas Day (December 25), when Charlemagne knelt the altar to pray, the pope crowned him Imperator Romanorum ("Emperor of the Romans") in Saint Peter's Basilica. In so doing, the pope was effectively attempting to transfer the office from Constantinople to Charles. Einhard says that Charlemagne was ignorant of the pope's intent and did not want any such coronation:
[H]e at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.
Many modern scholars suggest that Charlemagne was indeed aware of the coronation; certainly he cannot have missed the bejeweled crown waiting on the altar when he came to pray. In any event, he would now use these circumstances to claim that he was the renewer of the Roman Empire, which had apparently fallen into degradation under the Byzantines. However, Charles would after 806 style himself, not Imperator Romanorum ("Emperor of the Romans", a title reserved for the Byzantine emperor), but rather Imperator Romanum gubernans Imperium ("Emperor ruling the Roman Empire").
The Iconoclasm of the Isaurian Dynasty and resulting religious conflicts with the Empress Irene, sitting on the throne in Constantinople in 800, were probably the chief causes of the pope's desire to formally acclaim Charles as Roman Emperor. He also most certainly desired to increase the influence of the papacy, honour his saviour Charlemagne, and solve the constitutional issues then most troubling to European jurists in an era when Rome was not in the hands of an emperor. Thus, Charlemagne's assumption of the imperial title was not an usurpation in the eyes of the Franks or Italians. It was, however, in Byzantium, where it was protested by Irene and her successor Nicephorus I — neither of whom had any great effect in enforcing their protests.
The Byzantines, however, still held several territories in Italy: Venice (what was left of the Exarchate of Ravenna), Reggio (in Calabria), Brindisi (in Apulia), and Naples (the Ducatus Neapolitanus). These regions remained outside of Frankish hands until 804, when the Venetians, torn by infighting, transferred their allegiance to the Iron Crown of Pippin, Charles' son. The Pax Nicephori ended. Nicephorus ravaged the coasts with a fleet and the only instance of war between the Byzantines and the Franks, as it was, began. It lasted until 810, when the pro-Byzantine party in Venice gave their city back to the Byzantine Emperor and the two emperors of Europe made peace: Charlemagne received the Istrian peninsula and in 812 Emperor Michael I Rhangabes recognised his status as Emperor.
In 808, the king of the Danes, Godfred, built the vast Danevirke across the isthmus of Schleswig. This defence, last employed in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, was at its beginning a 30 km long earthenwork rampart. The Danevirke protected Danish land and gave Godfred the opportunity to harass Frisia and Flanders with pirate raids. He also subdued the Frank-allied Wiltzes and fought the Abotrites.
Godfred invaded Frisia and joked of visiting Aachen, but was murdered before he could do any more, either by a Frankish assassin or by one of his own men. Godfred was succeeded by his nephew Hemming and he concluded the Treaty of Heiligen with Charlemagne in late 811.
In 813, Charlemagne called Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, his only surviving legitimate son, to his court. There he crowned him with his own hands as co-emperor and sent him back to Aquitaine. He then spent the autumn hunting before returning to Aachen on 1 November. In January, he fell ill with pleurisy. He took to his bed on 21 January and as Einhard tells it:
He died January twenty-eighth, the seventh day from the time that he took to his bed, at nine o'clock in the morning, after partaking of the Holy Communion, in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign.
He was buried on the day of his death, in Aachen Cathedral, although the cold weather and the nature of his illness made such a hurried burial unnecessary. A later story, told by Otho of Lomello, Count of the Palace at Aachen in the time of Otto III, would claim that he and Emperor Otto had discovered Charlemagne's tomb: the emperor, they claimed, was seated upon a throne, wearing a crown and holding a sceptre, his flesh almost entirely incorrupt. In 1165, Frederick I re-opened the tomb again, and placed the emperor in a sarcophagus beneath the floor of the cathedral. In 1215 Frederick II would re-inter him in a casket made of gold and silver.
Charlemagne's death greatly affected many of his subjects, particularly those of the literary clique who had surrounded him at Aachen. An anonymous monk of Bobbio lamented:
From the lands where the sun rises to western shores, People are crying and wailing...the Franks, the Romans, all Christians, are stung with mourning and great worry...the young and old, glorious nobles, all lament the loss of their Caesar...the world laments the death of Charles...O Christ, you who govern the heavenly host, grant a peaceful place to Charles in your kingdom. Alas for miserable me.
He was succeeded by his surviving son, Louis, who had been crowned the previous year. His empire lasted only another generation in its entirety; its division, according to custom, between Louis's own sons after their father's death laid the foundation for the modern states of France and Germany.
Charlemagne had an important role in determining the immediate economic future of Europe. Pursuing his father's reforms, Charlemagne abolished the monetary system based on the gold sou, and he and the Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia took up the system set in place by Pippin. There were strong pragmatic reasons for this abandonment of a gold standard, notably a shortage of gold itself, a direct consequence of the conclusion of peace with Byzantium and the ceding of Venice and Sicily, and the loss of their trade routes to Africa and to the east. This standardisation also had the effect of economically harmonising and unifying the complex array of currencies in use at the commencement of his reign, thus simplifying trade and commerce.
He established a new standard, the livre carolinienne (from the Latin libra, the modern pound), and based upon a pound of silver – a unit of both money and weight – which was worth 20 sous (from the Latin solidus (which was primarily an accounting device, and never actually minted), the modern shilling) or 240 deniers (from the Latin denarius, the modern penny). During this period, the livre and the sou were counting units, only the denier was a coin of the realm.
The lending of money for interest was prohibited, strengthened in 814, when Charlemagne introduced the Capitulary for the Jews, a draconian prohibition on Jews engaging in money-lending.
In addition to this macro-management of the economy of his empire, Charlemagne also performed a significant number of acts of micro-management, such as direct control of prices and levies on certain goods and commodities.
Charlemagne applied the system to much of the European continent, and Offa's standard was voluntarily adopted by much of England. After Charlemagne's death, continental coinage degraded and most of Europe resorted to using the continued high quality English coin until about 1100.
Charlemagne took a serious interest in scholarship, promoting the liberal arts at the court, ordering that his children and grandchildren be well-educated, and even studying himself under the tutelage of Paul the Deacon, from whom he learned grammar, Alcuin, with whom he studied rhetoric, dialect and astronomy (he was particularly interested in the movements of the stars), and Einhard, who assisted him in his studies of arithmetic. His great scholarly failure, as Einhard relates, was his inability to write: when in his old age he began attempts to learn – practicing the formation of letters in his bed during his free time on books and wax tablets he hid under his pillow – "his effort came too late in life and achieved little success", and his ability to read – which Einhard is silent about, and which no contemporary source supports – has also been called into question.
During Charles' reign, the Roman half uncial script and its cursive version, which had given rise to various continental minuscule scripts, were combined with features from the insular scripts that were being used in Irish and English monasteries. Carolingian minuscule was created partly under the patronage of Charlemagne. Alcuin of York, who ran the palace school and scriptorium at Aachen, was probably a chief influence in this. The revolutionary character of the Carolingian reform, however, can be over-emphasised; efforts at taming the crabbed Merovingian and Germanic hands had been underway before Alcuin arrived at Aachen. The new minuscule was disseminated first from Aachen, and later from the influential scriptorium at Tours, where Alcuin retired as an abbot.
Historians have debated for centuries whether Charlemagne was aware of the Pope's intent to crown him Emperor prior to the coronation (Charlemagne declared that he would not have entered Saint Peter's had he known), but that debate has often obscured the more significant question of why the Pope granted the title and why Charlemagne chose to accept it once he did.
Roger Collins points out "That the motivation behind the acceptance of the imperial title was a romantic and antiquarian interest in reviving the Roman empire is highly unlikely." For one thing, such romance would not have appealed either to Franks or Roman Catholics at the turn of the ninth century, both of whom viewed the Classical heritage of the Roman Empire with distrust. The Franks took pride in having "fought against and thrown from their shoulders the heavy yoke of the Romans" and "from the knowledge gained in baptism, clothed in gold and precious stones the bodies of the holy martyrs whom the Romans had killed by fire, by the sword and by wild animals", as Pippin III described it in a law of 763 or 764 (Collins 151). Furthermore, the new title — carrying with it the risk that the new emperor would "make drastic changes to the traditional styles and procedures of government" or "concentrate his attentions on Italy or on Mediterranean concerns more generally"—risked alienating the Frankish leadership.
For both the Pope and Charlemagne, the Roman Empire remained a significant power in European politics at this time, and continued to hold a substantial portion of Italy, with borders not very far south of the city of Rome itself — this is the empire historiography has labelled the Byzantine Empire, for its capital was Constantinople (ancient Byzantium) and its people and rulers were Greek; it was a thoroughly Hellenic state. Indeed, Charlemagne was usurping the prerogatives of the Roman Emperor in Constantinople simply by sitting in judgement over the Pope in the first place:
For the Pope, then, there was "no living Emperor at the that time" (Norwich 379), though Henri Pirenne (Mohammed and Charlemagne, pg. 234n) disputes this saying that the coronation "was not in any sense explained by the fact that at this moment a woman was reigning in Constantinople." Nonetheless, the Pope took the extraordinary step of creating one. The papacy had since 727 been in conflict with Irene's predecessors in Constantinople over a number of issues, chiefly the continued Byzantine adherence to the doctrine of iconoclasm, the destruction of Christian images; while from 750, the secular power of the Byzantine Empire in central Italy had been nullified. By bestowing the Imperial crown upon Charlemagne, the Pope arrogated to himself "the right to appoint ... the Emperor of the Romans, ... establishing the imperial crown as his own personal gift but simultaneously granting himself implicit superiority over the Emperor whom he had created.". And "because the Byzantines had proved so unsatisfactory from every point of view—political, military and doctrinal—he would select a westerner: the one man who by his wisdom and statesmanship and the vastness of his dominions ... stood out head and shoulders above his contemporaries.".
With Charlemagne's coronation, therefore, "the Roman Empire remained, so far as either of them [Charlemagne and Leo] were concerned, one and indivisible, with Charles as its Emperor", though there can have been "little doubt that the coronation, with all that it implied, would be furiously contested in Constantinople." (Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee, pg. 3) How realistic either Charlemagne or the Pope felt it to be that the people of Constantinople would ever accept the King of the Franks as their Emperor, we cannot know; Alcuin speaks hopefully in his letters of an Imperium Christianum ("Christian Empire"), wherein, "just as the inhabitants of the [Roman Empire] had been united by a common Roman citizenship", presumably this new empire would be united by a common Christian faith (Collins 151), certainly this is the view of Pirenne when he says "Charles was the Emperor of the ecclesia as the Pope conceived it, of the Roman Church, regarded as the universal Church" (Pirenne 233).
What we do know, from the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes (Collins 153), is that Charlemagne's reaction to his coronation was to take the initial steps toward securing the Constantinopolitan throne by sending envoys of marriage to Irene, and that Irene reacted somewhat favorably to them. Only when the people of Constantinople reacted to Irene's failure to immediately rebuff the proposal by deposing her and replacing her with one of her ministers, Nicephorus I, did Charlemagne drop any ambitions toward the Byzantine throne and begin minimising his new Imperial title, and instead return to describing himself primarily as rex Francorum et Langobardum.
The title of emperor remained in his family for years to come, however, as brothers fought over who had the supremacy in the Frankish state. The papacy itself never forgot the title nor abandoned the right to bestow it. When the family of Charles ceased to produce worthy heirs, the pope gladly crowned whichever Italian magnate could best protect him from his local enemies. This devolution led, as could have been expected, to the dormancy of the title for almost forty years (924-962). Finally, in 962, in a radically different Europe from Charlemagne's, a new Roman Emperor was crowned in Rome by a grateful pope. This emperor, Otto the Great, brought the title into the hands the kings of Germany for almost a millennium, for it was to become the Holy Roman Empire, a true imperial successor to Charles, if not Augustus.
This division may have worked, but it was never to be tested. Pippin died in 810 and Charles in 811. Charlemagne then reconsidered the matter, and in 813, crowned his youngest son, Louis, co-emperor and co-King of the Franks, granting him a half-share of the empire and the rest upon Charlemagne's own death. The only part of the Empire which Louis was not promised was Italy, which Charlemagne specifically bestowed upon Pippin's illegitimate son Bernard.
Charlemagne had an immediate afterlife. The author of the Visio Karoli Magni written around 865 uses facts gathered apparently from Einhard and his own observations on the decline of Charlemagne's family after the dissensions of civil war (840–43) as the basis for a visionary tale of Charles' meeting with a prophetic spectre in a dream.
Charlemagne, being a model knight as one of the Nine Worthies, enjoyed an important afterlife in European culture. One of the great medieval literary cycles, the Charlemagne cycle or the Matter of France, centres on the deeds of Charlemagne—the King with the Grizzly Beard of Roland fame—and his historical commander of the border with Brittany, Roland, and the paladins who are analogous to the knights of the Round Table or King Arthur's court. Their tales constitute the first chansons de geste.
Charlemagne himself was accorded sainthood inside the Holy Roman Empire after the twelfth century. His canonisation by Antipope Paschal III, to gain the favour of Frederick Barbarossa in 1165, was never recognised by the Holy See, which annulled all of Paschal's ordinances at the Third Lateran Council in 1179. However, he has been acknowledged as cultus confirmed.
Charlemagne is sometimes credited with supporting the insertion of the filioque into the Nicene Creed. The Franks had inherited a Visigothic tradition of referring to the Holy Spirit as deriving from God the Father and Son (Filioque), and under Charlemagne, the Franks challenged the 381 Council of Constantinople proclamation that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone. Pope Leo III rejected this notion, and had the Nicene Creed carved into the doors of Old St. Peter's Basilica without the offending phrase; the Frankish insistence lead to bad relations between Rome and Francia. Later, the Roman Catholic Church would adopt the phrase, leading to dispute between Rome and Constantinople. Some see this as one of many pre-cursors to the East-West Schism centuries later.
In the Divine Comedy the spirit of Charlemagne appears to Dante in the Heaven of Mars, among the other "warriors of the faith".
According to folk etymology, Charlemagne was commemorated in the old name Charles's Wain for the Big Dipper in the constellation of Ursa Major.
French volunteers in the Wehrmacht and later Waffen-SS during the World War II were organised in a unit called 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French). A German Waffen-SS unit used "Karl der Große" for some time in 1943, but then chose the name 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg instead.
The city of Aachen has, since 1949, awarded an international prize (called the Karlspreis der Stadt Aachen) in honour of Charlemagne. It is awarded annually to "personages of merit who have promoted the idea of western unity by their political, economic and literary endeavours. Winners of the prize include Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the pan-European movement, Alcide De Gasperi, and Winston Churchill.
Charlemagne is memorably quoted by Dr Henry Jones Sr. (played by Sean Connery) in the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Immediately after using his umbrella to induce a flock of seagulls to smash through the glass cockpit of a pursuing German fighter plane, Henry Jones remarks "I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne: 'Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky'." Despite the quote's popularity since the movie, there is no evidence that Charlemagne actually said this.
The Economist, the weekly news and international affairs newspaper, features a one page article every week entitled "Charlemagne", focusing on European government.
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