Charlemagne

Charlemagne lived between 742 and 814 and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 768-814. Through Charlemagne the tradition of the Roman Caesar was revived in Europe. The Roman Empire was dead and decaying; the Byzantine Empire was far gone in decline. In all Europe there was not a tithe of the speculative vigor that we find in the Athenian literature of the 5th century BC. Official Christianity had long overlaid and accustomed itself to ignore those strange teachings of Jesus of Nazareth from which it had arisen. The Roman church, clinging tenaciously to its possession of the title Pontifex Maximus, long since abandoned its appointed task of achieving the Kingdom of Heaven. It was preoccupied with the revival of Roman ascendancy on earth, which it conceived of as its inheritance. It had become a political body, using the faith and needs of simple men to forward its schemes.. The Roman Empire staggers, sprawls, is thrust off the stage, and reappears, and - if we may carry the image one step, further - it is the church of Rome which plays the part of the magician and keeps this corpse alive. And throughout the whole period, there is always a struggle going on for the control of the corpse between the spiritual and various temporal powers.

This most powerful king, who had been anointed in boyhood, inherited half of his father's kingdom and took the other half when his brother died at a young age. Charlemagne's personal proficiency was small, for though he could read he could not write at all. We are told that for years, he kept writing materials under his pillow for practice during his wakeful hours. Apparently he was a sound sleeper, for he never learned to write. He had enlarged that kingdom by thirty years of wars. Saxons in the north, Magyars, who became Hungary in the east, Italy to a line below Rome to the South, and a belt across northern Spain to the southwest, as, well as Corsica and the Balearic Islands.

The restoration of the Western Empire by Charlemagne was speedily followed by the separation of the Greek and Latin churches. The difference in creed between the Greek and Latin churches turns on the question whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone, perhaps by the Son, or from the Father and the Son. The first of these opinions was asserted by the Greeks, the second by the Latins; and the addition to the Nicene creed of the word filioque kindled the flame of discord between the oriental and the Gallic churches. The point is a subtle but vital one. The Greek attitude leans toward the Arian point of view.

Note the spirit of St. Augustine's City of God. Charlemagne conceived of this Christian Empire as being ruled and maintained in its orthodoxy by some such great Caesar as himself. He was to rule even the Pope. Rome felt that the emperor must be anointed by the Pope. No doubt Charlemagne had been thinking and talking about making himself emperor, but not that the Pope should make him emperor; enter Pope Leo III.

On Christmas day, 800, Charles was attending mass in St. Peter's basilica in Rome and kneeling at the alter. As he rose from prayer, Pope Leo III, who had everything in readiness and without warning clapped a crown upon his head. As he placed the diadem on his head, Pope Leo and pronounced him emperor, with the words "To Charles Augustus, crowned by the will of God, great and peace-loving Emperor of the Romans, life and victory." With some of the old imperial ceremony the pope proclaimed Charlemagne Roman emperor, thus usurping a function which had been exercised during past centuries by the people, the Senate, and the army of Rome. There was a great and popular applause of the assembled Franks and Romans. So Einhard reports, "that he declared he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they were conferred, although it was a great feast day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope." It established the precedent that the imperial coronation of the western successors to the Caesars must be by the Pope and thereby accorded that pontiff an enhanced position. He did not want to be crowned because "Roman" meant Byzantine to him, and he had no desire to emulate the ruler in Constaninople and had no intention of placing himself in a position of debt or weakness with regard to the bishop of Rome.

To be sure the Carolingians had been promoted from kings to emperors, but their empire thenceforth bore the stamp "made in Rome". In later years the popes would insist that what they gave they could also take away. If the papacy could make emperors, it could also depose them. At no time since has Europe been so nearly united as under Charlemagne. And never again would western Christendom flirt so seriously with theocracy. The papal anointing of Pepin and Charlemagne gave the Carolingian monarchy a sacred, almost priestly quality. He was a far greater force in the Carolingian Church than was the Pope. Baptism alone represented the maximum requirement for the name Christian, regardless of faith or life.

It is quite clear that the West regarded Charlemagne, after his coronation, as the rightful successor of Constantine VI and Justinian as well as of Hadrian and Augustus. Charlemagne sought the recognition of his claim at Constantinople and offered to marry the empress Irene in Constantinople, making himself emperor of the East and West. He was now obliged to accept the title in the manner that Leo had adopted, as a gift from the Pope, and in a way that had estranged Constantinople and secured the separation of Rome from the Byzantine church. At first Byzantium was unwilling to recognize the imperial title of Charlemagne. But in 811, the pagan Bulgarians [?] and in 812 Charlemagne was formally recognized by Byzantine envoys as Emperor and Augustus. Thus the Empire of Rome, which had died at the hands of Odoacer in 476, rose again in 800 as the Holy Roman Empire. While its physical strength laid north of the Alps, the center of its idea was Rome. It was therefore from the beginning a divided thing of uncertain power, a claim and an argument rather than a necessary reality. He developed a considerable knowledge of theology and it is to him that we must ascribe the proposal to add the words filoque to the Nicene Creed-an addition that finally split the Latin and Greek churches asunder.. He knew his Bible well.. he required every male subject above the age of twelve to renew his oath of allegiance, to be a good subject and a good Christian. To refuse baptism and to retract after baptism were crimes punishable by death. We cannot be sure that Charlemagne wanted to be emperor, the cautious historian should confess to ignorance here. Tall and blue eyed, Charles was proud of his German heritage.

The distinction between church and state was unknown to his age, it is a modern distinction. He regarded the bishops and abbots as his "vassals", to be appointed by him and, in case of disloyalty, to be dismissed by him. Further, Charlemagne apparently regarded himself as the head of the church within his own dominions.

Above all else Charlemagne was a warrior king and was almost constantly at war. He led his armies on yearly campaigns as a matter of course, it was not a question not of going to war, but whom to fight. Ruthless and cruel in battle, he fought, not primarily for spoils, but for what he considered to be the higher goals of Christianity and universal order. When advised by the Pope that the Lombards were again threatening papal territory, he led his armies into Italy in 774 and broke the Lombard power. Now he styled himself king of the Franks and the Lombards. The most arduous campaigns were against the Saxons and lasted 30 years. Many Saxons had crossed into Britain and were heathen, Charlemagne was determined to Christianize them. This momentous shift, which amounted in effect to the birth of the medieval mounted knight. Conquering the Saxons repeatedly and baptizing them by force, only to have them rebel when his armies withdrew. In a fit of savage exasperation he ordered the execution of 4500 unfaithful Saxons in a single bloody day in 782. He succeeded only by laying waste to Saxony, massacring countless captives, and relocating thousands of families in other parts of his empire. By about 800 Frankish control was well established, and in subsequent decades Christianity seeped gradually into the Saxon soul. At last Charlemagne accepted the Frankish clergy and established bishoprics and monasteries.

Charlemagne concerned himself with improving the structure of the church. He strengthened the bishops and the system of the archbishops, perfected a system of tithes for the support of the bishops and the parish clergy and endeavored to raise the morals of the laity and to aquaint the common man with the main principles of the faith. To this end, he commanded the clergy to preach on the Creed, prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Charlemagne stressed the education of the clergy and drew scholars from wherever he could find them. Charlemagne concerned himself with the papacy and treated them with respect.

Though still just the Frankish kingdom, it was quite an empire in extent. It did not fall too far short of matching the extent of the western part of the old Roman Empire, and it had more than the diminished Eastern Empire could boast. The 46 years of his reign were taken up almost entirely by wars fought with neighboring peoples.. (Saxon) At Werden, for example, he caused four thousand rebellious Saxons to be beheaded.. he went beyond the limits of toleration.

Though Charlemagne was great in the arts of war, also great in the arts of peace. Charlemagne was also deeply religious. He took an enlightened interest in letters and the arts and decreed that every cathedral and every monastery should have a school attached to it, open not only to the clergy but also to the laity. The education of the clergy was scandalously insufficient even for the demands of the Latin service. Charlemagne ordered every large monastery to establish a school for the clergy. Later, laymen were admitted to these monastic schools. We must not exaggerate the Carolingian revival of learning. Most of it flowed from royal patronage although it really didnít touch the masses at all. However, the monastic and cathedral schools, once established, lived on through the darkness and weakness of the 9th and 10th centuries and so became the foundation of another and much greater revival of learning in the 12th and 13th century. This cultural reform soon bore fruit. He took very seriously his role as protector and sustainer of the Western Church.

Charlemagne's personal morals were not the best. Though a pious Christian, he had six wives, numerous concubines, his 17 children were mostly illegitimate and he mistreated his daughters. Like the crudest of Merovingians he planned to divide up his kingdom among his surviving sons as if it were a piece of real estate. To conquer is one thing, to rule is another, Charlemagne proved he could do both. But the Carolingian Empire did not endure for long. With the death of Charlemagne the Carolingian power entered upon a decline. It was not sudden, but none of his line had his ability, the fabric fell apart. It was divided into three parts-each part held by a member of the family and this cause deplorable fratricide wars.
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