charlemagne and christianity -- 11/21/23

Today's selection -- from Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. Charlemagne, one of the most powerful rulers in European history, used Christianity to consolidate his power and unify the population under his rule:

“Charlemagne, who reigned for 46 years from 768, set out to conquer the territory of his neighbours and to convert them to Catholic Christianity 'with a tongue of iron'. In 772 he invaded Saxony along the same roads as Augustus 800 years earlier, and met with the same resistance. His armies destroyed the sacred places of Saxon worship, but because the Saxons had many leaders, they were almost impossible to defeat. Visits to Rome reinforced Charlemagne's ambition to build an empire, and provided him with a sense of epic and brutal power. The campaign against the Saxons grew more bitter as villages were forcibly relocated and hill-forts besieged and destroyed. Elements of the Saxon nobility were persuaded, by the prospect of more power over their own peasants, to betray their people to the Franks, and at Verden in 782, 4,500 Saxon prisoners were beheaded on the orders of Charlemagne.

“In the peace that was finally agreed, as Charlemagne's secretary and biographer Einhard wrote: 'The Saxons were to put away their heathen worship and the religious ceremonies of their fathers; were to accept the articles of the Christian faith and practice; and, being united to the Franks, were to form with them one people.' The same conditions were applied to most of the peoples of the western European mainland as Charlemagne's armies took the Germanic heartlands and pushed east as far as the Avar Khanate of Hungary, while also forcing the Arab armies in Spain back as far as the Ebro. Local traditions of worship, either pagan or Christian, were abolished and any diversion from the Catholic faith was strictly punished, as Charlemagne's 'Capitulary Concerning Saxony' states: 'If anyone follows pagan rites [or] ... is shown to be unfaithful to our lord the king, let him suffer the penalty of death.'

“At its height, Charlemagne's kingdom extended from the Pyrenees to the River Oder and from the North Sea to south of Rome. Western Europe, excluding only Britain and Iberia, was under one ruler, its boundaries were strictly drawn, and its frontiers were closed. Charlemagne took a strongly Frankish view of how this society should be organized. In the time of his grandfather, monks had come to the Frankish kings from Ireland and England, eager to preach to the pagans of Frisia and Saxony--both Willibrord and Boniface followed a tradition of wandering or peregrino Christians. But Charlemagne's conquests and his strict enforcement of Christianity changed the nature of their travels. Instead of converting pagans, clerics were engaged in the education and 'correction' of the population, to ensure that they followed Catholic ways. This was not simply an authoritarian process; there was a widespread belief that God was waiting to punish humanity for its sins, which must therefore be eradicated.

“Charlemagne felt his own need of instruction and looked once more to the now-celebrated Christian school of north-east England. Alcuin of York, inheritor of the scholarly reputation of Bede, travelled to the new palace complex at Aachen (characteristically built in the countryside) to be Charlemagne's spiritual adviser. And while his subjects must be shown the correct ways to be good Christians, they should also be good Franks. Subjection to the Lord God was matched by subjection, loyalty and deference to one's secular lord. Charlemagne was a master at creating an atmosphere of utter loyalty at his court combined with a system of formal friendship which served as a model for his aristocrats. But in this rigidly hierarchical Frankish society, any attempt to form communal organizations--guilds or brotherhood leagues, for example--was ruthlessly suppressed. The increased use of written instruction also allowed the imposition, just as in ancient Greece and Rome, of codified laws. Roman law was reintroduced either alongside, or in place of, the customary laws of local populations.

The Bust of Charlemagne, an idealized portrayal and reliquary said to contain Charlemagne's skull cap, is located at Aachen Cathedral Treasury, and can be regarded as the most famous depiction of the ruler.

Charlemagne was declared Caesar, or emperor, on Christmas Day 800 by Pope Leo. This was less an anointment of a subject king than a desperate attempt by the pope to endear himself to the most powerful man in Europe, and to gain some influence over the direction of Christendom. Despite Stephen's efforts of 50 years earlier, western Christianity was firmly in the hands of northerners--principally Charlemagne and whichever scholars he chose to come to his court. The pope needed entry into this charmed circle. The learned monks at Aachen were charged with giving spiritual direction to Charlemagne's kingdom, but they also helped to create a mythic history of western Christianity, with Charlemagne as its apogee. This was entirely understandable; it was important for the Aachen court to create a 'civilization story' that explained their own place in history. Alcuin, in particular, was aware of Viking raids on the coast of his homeland and took these as a sign of God's displeasure with his flock. Einhard, Charlemagne's contemporary biographer, understood that the emperor had been granted great power precisely in order to bring the faithful to heel. 

“These writers followed Bede's lead in seeing pagan darkness both in the past and all around. They described the Merovingian centuries as an age of darkness, barbarism and ignorance, allowing later writers to speak of a 'Carolingian renaissance' in the eighth century. Both were a travesty of the truth, but fuelled the Franks' self-importance and gave justification to the severe brutality they had handed out. Even the Carolingian minuscules, the lower case Roman alphabet attributed to Charlemagne's court, emerged from the labours of generations of scribes who worked at the courts of 'barbarian' kings, while the development or reinstatement of 'correct' Latin by Alcuin and others (who came from regions where Latin had not been spoken for centuries) presented a new barrier between intellectual and ordinary life. People in Francia (and in Italy and Spain) in the early ninth century assumed they were speaking Latin which they had inherited from the Romans. But their Latin was an early form of French, and unintelligible to Latin scholars; Alcuin dismissed it as barbarous. Church Latin therefore became a language that was spoken by no ordinary people, but was the universal language of an educated elite and the required language of the Catholic liturgy--it was the language in which man spoke to God. 

“While Charlemagne wanted to create a Christian society in the form of a Holy Empire, Christian monks and bishops had begun to think about new political structures. In particular they read St Augustine's City of God, which told them they should not be content to live in a wicked world, but should aim to teach others the way that the world should be governed. The Christian church began to seek the establishment of a state governed by the doctrines of Christianity, just as Charlemagne wanted to recreate the majesty of the Roman empire by uniting the see of Rome with his own empire in the north. Charlemagne's power and ambition gave direction to the course of western history for the next 500 years by making the church in Rome part of western, rather than Mediterranean, Europe. Charlemagne created the state that many in Europe desired--a Christian empire centred on a court where piety and learning were valued, while converting or making war on the heathen tribes on its borders. The price was the quashing of diversity and granting the church an ever-growing influence in politics and education. Charlemagne had recreated Latin Christendom and put Christianity at the centre of the state's affairs, but he also put the state at the centre of the church's affairs.

“The reign of Charlemagne marks the end of the first phase of the Middle Ages, but his empire did not last. In 843 Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious divided his empire between his own three sons--the Franks were effectively divided into a western (French) kingdom, an eastern (German) kingdom, and a middle kingdom. The resulting conflicts were exacerbated by the increasing raids of Scandinavian northmen or Vikings and by incursions by Magyars and Slavs. But the power of the German element of the Franks was reasserted by the emperor Otto I, who was king of the Germans from 936, and emperor from 962 until his death in 973. Otto's armies defeated the invading Magyars, pushed the Slavs back to the Balkans and took over most of Italy. The Germanic people became, and remained, the dominant force in central Europe. By 1000, the Scandinavian raiders and people had become integrated into the Christian culture of western Europe.”



Roger Osborne


Civilization: A New History of the Western World


Pegasus Books


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment