Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, King of the Franks (742-814), was a strong leader who unified Western Europe through military power and the blessing of the Church. His belief in the need for education among the Frankish people was to bring about religious, political, and educational reforms that would change the history of Europe.
Charlemagne was born in 742 at Aachen, the son of Pepin(or Pippin) the Short and grandson of Charles Martel. His grandfather, Charles, had begun the process of unifying Western Europe, in the belief that all people should be Christian. Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, continued this process throughout his rule and passed his beliefs on to Charlemagne. All three, in addition to the political unification, believed that the church should be reformed and reorganized under the Pope, which helped their rise to power as the Carolingian Dynasty. (Holmes 74)
Upon Pepin’s death in 768, Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman, each inherited half of the Frankish kingdom. Pepin, in the Merovingian tradition of the time, split his kingdom between his two sons. Three years later Carloman died and Charlemagne took control of the entire kingdom. He inherited great wealth and a powerful army, built by his father and grandfather. Charlemagne used the army and his own skillful planning to more than double the size of the Frankish Kingdom. (Halsall 15)
The world of Charlemagne was a heathen one, with many warring tribes or kingdoms. Many of these tribes were conquered by Charlemagne, among them the Aquitanians, the Lombards, the Saxons, the Bretons, the Bavarians, the Huns, and the Danes. The longest of these battles was against the Saxons, lasting thirty-three years. Charlemagne actually defeated them many times, but due to their faithlessness and their propensity to return to their pagan lifestyle, the Saxons lost many lives in the prolonged battles with the Franks. With each conquest the Frankish kingdom grew, and with growth came additional power and responsibility for Charlemagne. In each area of Europe that was taken over by Charlemagne, he removed the leaders if they would not convert to Christianity and appointed new ones, usually someone with high position in the Church. Those people who refused to convert or be baptized in the church were put to death. (Holmes 75)
The Church played a vital role in the kingdom of Charlemagne. It gave a sense of stability to Charlemagne’s rule, and he in turn provided stability in the Church. The people conquered by Charlemagne, after being converted to Christianity, were taught through the Bible a unified code of right and wrong. It was necessary for the Church to play a role in this education of the people, because only the clergy were educated. (Boussard 92) The Church also guided Charlemagne’s hand as a ruler, for he took on many conquests as a necessity to spread the Christian religion throughout Europe. (Ganshoff 19) Indeed, it appears that Charlemagne’s desire to spread his kingdom and government was intertwined with his desire to spread the Christian religion and have the people live according to the Word of God. (Ganshoff 25)
At the beginning of the Carolingian dynasty the Church was suffering from many problems. Paganistic peoples, a degradation of the Latin language, and the decline of power of the Pope or Papacy all contributed to the need for a leader to bring about reformation. Charles Martel, Pepin, and ultimately Charlemagne all took as their personal responsibility the reorganization of the Church. Each one, as king of the Franks, saw it his duty to better the state of his churches. (Ganshoff 205) Charlemagne, through the monasteries and ultimately the “Palace School”, required all priests to learn classic Latin. His purpose was to insure that church services were always conducted in the proper form, with correct pronunciation and grammar. The education of the priests also served to provide Charlemagne with a growing number of educated people for his administration, and gave his kingdom a unified written language that could be passed on throughout all of Western Europe. (Holmes 97)
The Papacy had been reduced to controlling only a small portion of land around Rome, and was under constant aggression from the Lombards. Pope Hadrian I in 773 appealed to Charlemagne to help rebuff the Lombards, and in the winter of that year in a short and decisive campaign, the Lombards were defeated. Charlemagne then added “King of the Lombards” to his title, and gave control of the northern part of Italy to the Pope. The creation of the “Papal States” indebted the Pope to Charlemagne, and Pope Leo III eventually crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans” on Christmas day in 800AD. (Ganshoff 41)
Power in Carolingian society was based on land ownership, also known as Feudalism. Charlemagne knew that he must have the allegiance of the people to himself, the King. To accomplish this, he looked back to the seventh century, and instituted an oath of fidelity – a promise to do nothing that would endanger the king or his sons or the royal power. The feudal monarchy created by Charlemagne had two definite characteristics: absolute power limited only by advice given by nobles and the Church and power based on a contract – the oath of fidelity pledging allegiance by the king’s subjects. (Boussard 42)
“The oath brought two immediate advantages. It created a direct, personal link between the subject and the king. But more important still, anyone who broke it became guilty not only of infidelitas but also of perjury; if his infidelity was not great enough to attract the death penalty, he could still be condemned to lose his right hand as a perjurer, and what was more, in religious terms he had placed himself in a state of mortal sin.” (Ganshoff 113) The oath was a combination of action for the public good, combined with the practice of Christian virtues. Once again, an example of the minimal separation of Church and State.
Charlemagne recognized the importance of education, not only of spreading it throughout his kingdom, but also of learning for himself the ability to read and write Latin and Greek. His desire for personal knowledge, and to educate the people, lead him to found the “Palace School” at his home, Aix-La-Chapelle. To staff his school, Charlemagne turned to the monasteries. During the Dark Ages preceding the Carolingian dynasty, only the monks had maintained the ability to read and write. They had over the years, however, misprinted many of the books of the Bible. Charlemagne asked the monk, Alcuin, to head the school, and commissioned him to correct the texts that had been copied incorrectly. (Ganshof 30)
The schools begun by Charlemagne were primarily for the education of the priests, but were open to all people. Charlemagne’s Admonitio generalist stressed the importance of education for everyone. Many of the scholars brought to the Palace School were foreigners: Italians, Spaniards, and Irish, but there were also some Franks. (Holmes 96-97) Charlemagne saw it his duty to create a center for science, art and literature, and to spearhead a cultural revolution in Western Europe.
Charlemagne himself joined the school, attended classes, and fulfilled his scholarly duties. (Bulfinch) He was known to be fluent in speech, and able to eloquently express himself. He mastered Latin and Greek, but he could not speak Greek as well as he could understand it. Charlemagne studied grammar, rhetoric, dialects and astronomy as well. He tried to write, but since he began late in life he was not very successful. (Halsall 25) He also saw that his sons and daughters attended classes, as well as learning traditional Frankish traditions of riding and hunting for the boys, and cloth-making for the girls.
The education system used by Charlemagne’s scholars was suprisingly like that of Classic Greek and Roman scholars. A text would be read by a student or teacher, accompanied by an explanation. Then there would be discussion of the material following the proper analytical reasoning of the time. This method of teaching was responsible for generations of students learning to discipline their thoughts, and formed the minds of several leaders who lived in Charlemagne’s day, and under the kings who followed.
As King or Emperor, one of Charlemagne’s primary responsibilities was to regulate laws and trade within the boundaries of the Franks. He accomplished many goals that would set the stage for the growth of Medieval Europe. Charlemagne took measures aimed at stabilizing the coinage of the day, regulating the amounts of silver and gold to be contained in each. (Boussard 24) After the fifth century, coins had been minted by any number of coiners, and the value of each varied greatly. The reforms of Pepin and Charlemagne saw to the regulation of the amount of precious metals in each coin, as well as the monogram of the king to be embossed on each. These actions gave the idea that money was publicly guaranteed and controlled by one source, instead of many. (Boussard 32)
Charlemagne also unified the laws of his kingdom based on the laws of the church. He set standards for administering justice, codified marriage and divorce laws, and gave rights to all men founded in the word of God. There were exceptions, however. People of privilege: ranking officials in the political, juridical, or religious communities were accorded special protection by the king, and had the ability to have their court cases heard in the palace court. (Ganshof 93) Outside of the palace, Counts, or the individual heads of states, conducted court to settle civil differences. Interpretation of the law was varied, as each man was able to read his own version of truth. Also, the adage “power corrupts” was prevalent in the days of Charlemagne. To combat corruption or the misinterpretation of laws, Charlemagne created the missi dominici, or royal commissioners to inspect and inquire into the judgments of the local courts. (Ganshof 93)
Charlemagne had a profound effect on the art and architecture of Western Europe. His effect was not new thought, but merely a resurgence of ancient Roman tradition. He commissioned great chapels for the monasteries, providing space to worship for many people at one time. The early constructions were mostly of wood; a material familiar to the nomadic people of the time. The need for security and longevity necessitated a return to stone construction, so the Roman style of temples, monuments, gardens and arches was resurrected. (Boussard 160)
Aesthetic decoration also played an important part of architecture during the Carolingian empire. Mosaics, gilding, marble, carvings of ivory, and paintings adorned these new, marvelous structures. Precious gems, gold, and silver were used throughout the churches. Frescos, terra-cotta, and plaster were used to provide background for the walls and pillars of churches and monuments. (Boussard 169) All of these arts were not, however, original. The people of Charlemagne’s time were merely adapting Germanic habits and tradition with the rediscovery of Roman tradition, Byzantine art and oriental innovation. (Boussard 157)
Charlemagne was a enlightened leader who restored the roots of education and order Medieval Europe. His reconstruction of the power of the Pope, the growth of the monasteries – in particular those given to the education of priests and general population, and revival of art and architecture was to set the stage for the development of Western Civilization as we know it today. Laws, traditions, and teachings were carried on by the descendants of the Carolingians in their words and actions, leaving a precedent for the actions of civilization for hundreds of years to come. Charlemagne, a king wiser than any other of his time, was a determined and forceful leader who let nothing stop him once he had begun a task. (Halsall 8 )
Boussard, Jacques, The Civilisation of Charlemagne. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1968
Bulfinch, Thomas, Bulfinch’s Mythology: Legends of Charlemagne Or Romance Of The Middle Ages. 1863 [gopher://gopher.vt.edu:10010/02/53/1]
Ganshof, Francis L., The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, Studies in Carolingian History. New York, Cornell University Press 1971
Halsall, Paul, Internet Medieval Sourcebook . [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]. August 1996
Holmes, George, The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. New York, Oxford University Press 1988
I. Rise to power
A. Charles Martel
B. Pepin the Short
II. Changes in Political and Social order
A. Shift from many Kings to Counts
1. Ownership by lineage changes to appointment by Charlemagne
2. The Oath of Fidelity p. 113 Carol. And Frank. Monarchy
B. Affiliation of the church(diocese) to newly conquered lands p. 205 Carol. And Frank. Monarchy
C. Changes from Christian/pagan adaptations to true Christian religion
A. The need for education p.8 Carol. And Frank. monarchy
B. Alcuin p. 134 civ. Of Char.
C. Palace School / monastery
D. Importation of foreign scholars p.126 civ. of Char.
1. Methods of instruction p.130 Civ. Of Char
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