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
- 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.
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
b. Some Carolingian solutions to these 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
What were the consequences of Charlemagne'S coronation?
- The theoretical power of the Byzantine emperor over the west was finally
- 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.