Charlemagne Essay, Research Paper
Charlemagne The King
We know a good deal about Charlemagne because we have two biographies of him written by men who were close to him. The more important of these is by Einhard. He describes Charlemagne as being moderately tall, around six feet tall and powerfully built with a thick neck and deep chest. He had the red hair and blue eyes of his tribe and was possessed of both strength and stamina. He was average of the Franks in his love for hunting and for feasting, but Einhard notes that his king drank in small servings, only three cups of wine with a meal. Charlemagne was an ambitious king, aggressive and ruthless, but equally notable was his perseverance, his ability to carry through on a plan. He was not a great general, but he was a dogged campaigner and was often able to wear the enemy down through sheer force. Indeed, one of his more important attributes was his physical energy. Einhard notes that Charlemagne was able to work longer and harder than his commanders or his secretaries. He was no genius, but he had a good mind and appreciated literature, which he had read to him by others. He was a patron of scholars and brought many of them to his court. All these accomplishments created a wide net of loyalty. Charlemagne had admirers within the Church and among his nobility. His enemies feared both him and his armies. He did not command perfect obedience among his vassals, but none defied him successfully or for long. Charlemagne had one other virtue that is needed if a king is to be called “Great”. He ruled the Franks from 768 to 814; creating an empire that would be the envy and model for many an ambitious monarch after him.
The Lombards had moved into Italy in the later 500s, destroying what was left of the Gothic kingdom and establishing their own. They ruled northern Italy for the next two centuries, until Charlemagne ended their rule. Charlemagne was married to the sister of the Lombard king. He was not interested in maintaining the marriage, however, and while still a young man he repudiated her and sent her away, claiming the marriage was not valid. This made the Lombard king very angry, Desiderius, who immediately began conspiring to harm Charlemagne however he might. To this end, he plotted rebellion with some Frankish lords. When this plot was discovered, Charlemagne had all the excuse he needed to go to war. Charlemagne invaded Italy in 773. He defeated Desiderius at the Battle of Pavia that same year, capturing the king himself, whom he sent off to a monastery for safekeeping. Charlemagne proceeded then to claim for himself the iron crown of the Lombards and with this the Lombards fade into the background. Central Italy was not his because Pepin had given it to the Pope. Southern Italy was still in Greek or Moslem hands. But the Kingdom of Italy, as it came to be known, was ruled by a northern prince. This is why later German kings will claim to have rights and powers here. The story of Saxony was quite different from that of Lombardy. Saxony (is today northwestern Germany and parts of the Netherlands) was still ruled by the Saxons, who had remained pagan. They were a semi-nomadic people who lived in part by preying on farming communities and were a sore thorn in Charlemagne?s side. So, in 772, he decided that it was in the interests of both realm and Church that he does something about the Saxons. He gathered an army, marched into Saxony and defeated the army that was fielded against him. He pushed forward as far as the Weser River, receiving the submission of local chiefs. Then he went home again. The next year he was occupied by the business in Lombardy, and the Saxon chiefs quickly ignored their oaths to receive missionaries and to send tribute payments to the Christian king. In 775, Charlemagne again invaded Saxony and again defeated the army that was sent against him. This time he scoured Saxony from one end to the other, to make sure there were no chieftains left undefeated. To make doubly certain of his new subjects, he forced the chiefs to convert to Christianity.
Charlemagne ruled more territory than any other Frankish king did. The institution of monarchy among the Franks was not equipped to deal with this situation. The Merovingians had signally failed to rule other peoples, or even themselves, and it was this system that Charlemagne had inherited. Charlemagne either created new offices, or adapted old ones to new purposes, to meet the challenge. Typical of the changes he made were those that concerned the governors of his various provinces. Within the Frankish realm, he relied on his counts. A count was appointed by him to rule a particular region within France, these regions being still defined more by the peoples living there than by any specific geographic boundaries. These were areas that were settled and on whose loyalty the king could usually rely. Newly conquered territories, however, were another matter. The ruler here had to be a warrior, whose principal duties were military. Such a territory was called a March. Thus, the territory won by Charlemagne when he invaded Spain is called the Spanish March. Most such marches were on the eastern borders, in German territories. The German word for count is graf, and the word for march is mark. Long after Charlemagne, and even long after the Middle Ages, there were lords in Germany called margraves, still reflecting the administrative inheritance from the early Middle Ages. Above the counts were the provincial governors, whose duty it was to govern the principal divisions of the realm. These took the ancient Roman title of duke. The dukes were either members of Charlemagne?s own family, or else were trusted comrades. These titles, too, long outlasted Charlemagne; examples include the Duke of Saxony, the Duke of Brittany, and the Duke of Aquitaine. Not all counts reported to a duke; some regions a duke ruled directly, with no counts under him; some regions were ruled by Charlemagnes directly and were known as royal lands. And some lands were ruled by none of these, but by the Church. Jurisdictions overlapped; some duties and powers were military only, some were administrative, fiscal, or judicial. And sometimes a lord exercised power as he saw fit or until Charlemagne intervened. It was not efficient. It reflected the history of Carolingian conquest rather than any carefully considered plan of governing. But, as noted above, much of it survived its creator and gave shape to the political geography of medieval Europe.
Charlemagne knew that his system was inefficient. More importantly, he knew that there was a constant tendency for his dukes and counts to act independently of him, to do as they wished and for Charlemagnes own decrees to be ignored or circumvented. To counter this tendency, Charlemagne invented new court officers. These of were called missi dominici, or servants of the lord. Their purpose was to act as inspectors general, investigating the behavior of royal officials and reporting to the court. As direct emissaries of the king, they carried all the prestige Charlemagne and the implied threat of his power. They were appointed in pairs, with one being drawn from the Church and one from the laity, so that neither one side nor the other should have its interests predominate. They were always posted to places outside their native lands so they should have no local ties or loyalties. And lest they develop such, the king shifted them about, neither leaving them long in one place nor posting them to the same place consecutively. They were to serve Charlemagne, not local interests. The system worked quite well under Charlemagne. The missi dominici were able to keep Charlemagne informed as to what was going on in all his scattered lands and among all his vassals. More importantly, their mere presence and frequent visits served to remind an ambitious lord that there was a limit to his ambition, so long as Charlemagne and his mighty army was around. And that, of course, was the system’s great weakness, and a weakness shared by all medieval monarchs. It worked only on the prestige and accomplishments of the king himself. So long as he was strong, the system was strong. But let a weak king come along, or a child king, or no king at all, and the system could evaporate almost over night.
Charlemagne was no scholar, but he had a great respect for them and he genuinely desired to revive learning at his court. He loved listening to the classics, such as Augustine’s The City of God. He studied Latin and Greek, though he spoke only Frankish. But he recognized that learning in his day was in disrepair, and he deliberately gathered the leading intellectual lights of his age at his court. Among these scholars was Alcuin. A
Saxon, Alcuin trained at York, in England, and founded a school at Aix-la-Chapelle. Another figure was Peter the Grammarian, from Pisa. Another was Paul the Deacon, from Italy, who wrote a history of the Lombards. There was Einhard, a Frank, the royal biographer. And Theodulf, a Visigoth from Spain, who trained at Seville.
These names are an example of the wide geographic spread of the scholars. A Spaniard, two Italians, an Englishman, and a Frank, and these are but a handful. Charlemagnes court at Aix-la- Chapelle was a beacon for men of learning, and the king funded their activities. It was from these, and others, there originated a burst of activity that would have a strong influence on medieval intellectual life.
The Frankish practice of dividing the realm led to further splits, not only of land but of rights and powers. No new Charlemagne emerged from these families to unite the lands anew, and many of the kings were outright incompetent. After Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, we get kings with names like Louis the Fat and Charles the Simple. To add to their problems, the later 800s and early 900s were not a time for incompetents. The hundred-year stretch from 850 to 950 was filled with the worst of the Viking invasions, to which were added Moslem raids and pirates in the south and Magyar raids from the east. Against these pressures the Carolingians could not stand. Charlemagnes great empire collapsed steadily, fragmenting into dozens of pieces. The monasteries were plundered, the towns burned. Even the very title of emperor was lost again for a time. When it reappeared, it was taken by a German king.