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Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor

Among the Franks on the continent a new dynasty of kings had arisen — the Carolingians — founded by Charles Martel (r. 718–741). His grandson was to become known as as Charlemagne (French for Charles the Great) and to succeed to King of the Franks in 768. The dynasty was dependent on the support of hereditary landowner-warlords titled as nobles. The nobles recognized Charles as their overlord, and Charles recognized the nobles as local rulers and rewarded them with land and booty from territorial expansions.

Although named after the Prince of Peace, Christendom was steeped in warfare. Much of Charlemagne's rule involved continuous warfare, his conquests extending his empire to what today includes France, Germany, Austria, and Croatia.

In his History of the World in Christian Perspective, the PhD historian Jerry Combee writes:

He made his wars seem like holy wars. New Roman Catholic churches sprang up wherever he conquered. Defeated peopes often received the choice of death or public profession of Catholicism. Charlemagne never learned that forced statements of belief are of little value.

Charlemagne overran the Lombard power in Rome and became King of the Lombards in 744. He restored some influence to the Pope, and in the year 800 (thirty-two years into his reign), Pope Leo III crowned him emperor, hailing him as "Augustus, crowned of God, emperor of the Romans." The emperor in Constantinople also claimed to be the Roman Emperor, but Charlemagne was diplomatic and played down his title.

Charlemagne's empire was thinly populated and rural compared to the Islamic empire, which was around the Mediterranean Sea more than was Charlemagne's. But Charlemagne encouraged trade. His government gave guarantees to Jewish merchants. And during his rule, agriculture improved. Also, he wanted to advance education. He invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, and he tried to learn to read. His government standardized weights, measures, and coinage. He replaced amateurs representing their community in local courts with itinerant professional judges who had a better understanding of law. Charlemagne was devout but this didn't interfere with his having had four wives and children by five mistresses. He applied his sense of morality to an attempt to reform the clergy. To improve the priesthood an ordained priest had to take an examination. A priest or commoner who committed fornication was required by law to do penance for ten years, including three of these years living on bread and water. A cleric begetting a child had to do penance for seven years. He ruled that if anyone "by his magic" caused the death of anyone, he had to do penance for seven years. Or if anyone "took away the mind" of someone "by the invocation of demons," he had to do penance for five years. In Charlemagne's realm a slave might be hanged for committing an act for which a free man would receive a lesser punishment. Christians were allowed to beat their slaves, but if they did so to an extent that killed the slave they would be punished. Only authorities were allowed to take a life. The common Frank, meanwhile, had their worldly pleasures that conflicted with morality as perceived by local religious authority. On special holidays people might dance and sing the pagan or ribald songs of their forefathers. Churchmen complained of this singing of "wicked songs" that were the lures of the devil.

At the end of Charlemagne's life (January 814) his empire's roads were still primitive. Travel was slow. His government had little of the surplus wealth needed to make effective centralized governance. Following his death the centralized governance that he had created fragmented. Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, divided the empire among three of his grandsons, one receiving western Gaul to the Pyrenees, another Charlemagne's realm roughly between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, and the eldest, Lothair, receiving the title of emperor and territory between the two others, eventually to become Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

After Charlemagne' death, wandering minstrels kept alive humanity's proclivity to fantasize and exaggerate. They glorified Charlemagne's deeds. They described Charlemagne as having performed superhuman feats and as having dispensed perfect justice. The so-called Holy Roman Empire that Charlemagne left behind had its troubles, not only its fragmented rule and authoritarian class oppressions but also migrations and its related violence.

CONTINUE READING: Europe's Migrations and Feudalism

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