By Mona Kreidl-Dear
Who was Charlemange?
Without Charlemagne’s tremendous achievements, the progression and development of medieval Europe might not have been what we have come to revere, including the cornerstone of art, architecture, literature, commerce, and education. Charlemagne’s trusted advisor, Einhard, ostensibly recorded most of Charlemagne’s moderate feats as well as others with some embellishment. Despite this dichotomy, history has a testament of the only known first-hand putative depiction of the begetter of Europe and his achievements.
Charlemagne is cemented in history as a pivotal, bold, and veracious ruler who paved the way for medieval Europe’s advancement.
The most notable triumphs of Charlemagne were the consolidation and expansion of the Frankish Empire resulting from his great military conquests, the promotion of the liberal arts education that was created during the Carolingian Renaissance, and the implementation of governmental decrees that assisted in solidifying the Frankish empire. Thus, Charlemagne is cemented in history as a pivotal, bold, and veracious ruler who paved the way for medieval Europe’s advancement.
Consolidation of Europe
After the fall of the Roman Empire, most of what we consider to be Europe was not effectively run nor was it cultivated by any prolific dynasty until the incipience of the Carolingian rulers. Ultimately it was Charlemagne who expanded this empire beginning with its expansion and then consolidation.
Charlemagne conducted several conquests that gave rise to the development of his empire. After expanding upon the acquisition of Aquitaine, previously begun by his father, Pepin the Short, Charlemagne moved his target towards Lombardy. This campaign was successful and thus Charlemagne crowned himself “King of the Lombards.” Another war that was arduous but proved eventually to be successful was in 778 against Al-Andalus known as the “Spanish March.”
However, the most notable crusade was that of Saxony, which was hellacious and laborious until the Saxon people finally accepted Charlemagne as their ruler, and Christ as their guide. Obtaining Saxony and all its riches was valuable to the empire; it was Charlemagne’s belief that it was his divine right to convert these savages to Christianity. In the biography, The Life of Charlemagne, Einhard detailed the Saxons as a formidable yet brute people:
“No war ever undertaken by the Frank nation was carried out with such persistence and bitterness, like almost all the tribes of Germany, were a fierce people, given worship of devils, and hostile to our region, and did not consider it dishonorable to transgress and violate all law, human and divine.”
This war continued for thirty-three years before the Saxons, and their leader, Wittekind, capitulated to Charlemagne after many bloody battles and massacres. Einhard also recorded this event in The Life of Charlemagne. His depiction appeared to have portrayed a defeated people who did not have the will or the capacity to keep fighting and was relieved to have been converted. Einhard recorded the terms of their surrender and its results:
“At last, after conquering and subduing all who had offered resistance, he took then thousand of those that lived on the banks of the Elbe, and settled them…the war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King; which were renunciation of their worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and the union with the Franks to form one people.”
This historical depiction by Einhard was corroborated via the Poeta Saxo. Furthermore, the anonymous poet affirmed this version as stated by the history author, Rosamond McKitterick:
“Again it the Poeta Saxo who provides a commentary on the conclusion of peace…he claims that they were to enjoy their own legates or local administrators, native laws, and freedom…”
This statement by Kitterick about the thoughts of the Poeta Saxo amplifies the writings by Einhard by stating that the final conquering of the Saxons aided to unify the empire. Therefore the expansion of the Carolingian empire was ultimately a success, acknowledged by two historical sources and refined by Charlemagne.
Education and arts reforms
Another crucial achievement of the Frankish empire by Charlemagne was the reforms implemented to education via the Carolingian Renaissance. Prior to these changes, most of Europe was not collectively educated nor producing works of literature; it was only monks and nuns that learnt these crafts while attending monastic schools. The need for culture and education to be expanded and preserved was a priority for Charlemagne.
In order to have created such an immense transformation in education, Charlemagne enlisted the help of intellectuals from all over Europe. Most notably, was Alcuin from York who applied the ideas of the trivium and quadrivium, or the seven liberal arts, originally created and chronicled by Boethius. The foundation of the liberal arts education was to be literate in Latin, which was essential in order to read the vast collections of theological and classical works. Charlemagne wished for both boys and girls to receive their education in these subjects at a young age.
These intuitions were religious in nature, but even those who wished to pursue secular professions were welcomed to attend. Similarly, Charlemagne was pivotal in reissuing classical works of great philosophers and also Christian classical works, such as having a new copy of the Vulgate Bible translated.
In order to be able to translate, copy, and read these prolific works of literature, there had to be a reform in which all handwritten copies were legible to all literate people. This new script was known as Caroline Minuscule and it allowed for cohesiveness within the newly implemented educational system. Moreover, it greatly aided in the ability to clearly read a manuscript. Unfortunately, the recordings were limited to Charlemagne’s reforms in education contained within Einhard’s biography. However, there was a passage in which Einhard described Alcuin and how Charlemagne learnt an enormous amount of knowledge from Alcuin:
“…Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy…”
Despite having no mention of the sweeping reforms to education, Einhard noted that the king learnt rhetoric, which was part of the newly instituted trivium within the liberal arts. Furthermore, the history author Rosamund McKittercik elaborates further by explaining: “He does not provide an historical account of the development of Charlemagne’s interest in learning.” This statement further elaborates that these subjects were valued by Charlemagne and therefore must be likely those that were implemented.
In addition to educational reforms, Charlemagne instituted vast administrative reforms that aided in the development of keeping the Frankish empire to live in concordance. In order to successfully control and regulate his vast empire, Charlemagne created laws and codes called capitularies, which all citizens were expected to oblige. Einhard mentions the creation of capitularies and how Charlemagne wished to revamp the old laws within his kingdom. Einhard acknowledged the creation of the capitularies in his biography of Charlemagne:
“It was after he had received the imperial name, finding the laws of his people very defective, he determined to add what was wanting, to reconcile the discrepancies, and to correct what vicious and wrongly cited in them. However, he went no further in this matter than to supplement the laws by a few capitularies, and those imperfect ones…”
It is rather unusual that Einhard did not go into any further detail regarding the capitularies. Contrary to the writings of Einhard, there were recordings of the capitularies and they were presented in an orderly and detailed manner, which were the legitimate codes of law at the time. In order to enforce these laws, Charlemagne needed messengers that were extensions of his own authority. These prolocutors would come to be known as missi dominici, which were always sent in sets of two, one was called an ecclesiastic, for the clerical matters and the other a layman for all other citizens. These regulators would collect taxes, investigate disputes, and make sure the capitularies were being obeyed. Although this system had its flaws and corruption was vast, it seems to have been effective, at least to the aristocrats who were generally employed as these legates. One such capitulary from 802 states rather simply:
That judges shall judge justly, according to the written law and not according to their own judgment.” Ultimately, they were to serve the king and without their ability to communicate regularly with him, the empire certainly would have collapsed or had constant rebellions leaving no room for any renaissance. In this aspect, by not elaborating, Einhard unfairly did not pay homage to the importance of these significant governmental creations within the Frankish Empire.
Another aspect to government reform that was vital in keeping checks and balances was a new coinage system. Similar to the need for handwriting having become universal, the monetary system was in dire need of reform so that all classes of people could easily purchase goods, pay taxes, and increase trade. The creation of this coinage unification also aided to infrastructural improvements. Unfortunately, Einhard gave no mention of this tremendous innovation, which was quite peculiar considering its necessity.
In the end, we have an incredible dynasty that paved the way for the medieval era to progress and expand into the incredible historic anecdotes that we all know and cherish. Without the notable conquests and reforms by Charlemagne, medieval history would be different than what we know. The depiction of these feats penned by Einhard is most likely a mélange of fidelity with some embellishments. Nevertheless, different historical recordings were registered that confirmed the truthful aspects to Einhard’s tale. Thus, the puissant ruler, Charlemagne, lives on as the begetter of medieval Europe and its amazing impact on history.
- Judith Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 89.
- Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 90.
- Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne, (Wyatt North Publishing, 2012), Ipad book edition, chap. 7, pg. 28
- “Charlemagne,” New Advent, Last modified 2009. Accessed October 1, 2013. http://historymedren.about.com/gi/o.htm?
- Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 30.
- Encyclo Online Encyclopedia. UK: 2012. s.v. “Poeta Saxo.” http://www.encyclo.co.uk/define/Poeta Saxo. Accessed October 1, 2013.
- Rosamond Mckitterick, Charlemagne (New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Ipad book edition, pg. 105.
- Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 44.
- “The One and the Many: Devoted to the Universal and the Particulars,” The Unique Boethius: His Contributions, Influence, and Legacy (blog), February 20, 2008, http://universalparticulars.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/the-unique-boethius-his-contributions-influence-and-legacy/.
- Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 97.
- Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 69.
- McKitterick, Charlemagne, pg. 349.
- Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 75.
- “Capitulary of Charlemagne issued in the year 802,” Sam Houston State University, Accessed October 2, 2013. http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Capitul.html.
- Bennet, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 94.
Bibliography and Footnotes
Bennet, Judith. Medieval Europe: A Short History. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Wyatt North Publishing, 2012. Ipad book edition.
Encyclo Online Encyclopedia. UK: 2012. s.v. “Poeta Saxo.” Accessed October 2, 2013, http://www.encyclo.co.uk/define/Poeta Saxo.
New Advent. Charlemagne. Accessed October 1, 2013, http://historymedren.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=historymedren&cdn=education&tm=18&f=00&tt=14&bt=0&bts=31&zu=http%3A//www.newadvent.org/cathen/03610c.htm.
Kitterick, Rosamond. Charlemagne. New York City: University of Cambridge Press, 2008.
“The One and the Many:Devoted to the Universal and the Particulars.” The Unique Boethius: His Contributions, Influence, and Legacy (blog), February 20, 2008. Accessed October 1, 2013, http://universalparticulars.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/the-unique-boethius-his-contributions-influence-and-legacy/.
Sam Houston State University, “Capitulary of Charlemagne issued in the year 802.” Accessed October 2, 2013. http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Capitul.html.
 Charlemagne defeated king Desiderius at the Battle of Pavia, which lasted from 773-774. After sending the king to live the remainder of his life in a monastery, Charlemagne took the crown for himself. This victory relieved any possible Lombard threat towards the papacy.
 In Spain, Charlemagne failed to take Saragossa. On route back to France, he was attacked by the Basques at the pass of Roncesvalles. This event was the foundation for the French epic, The Song of Roland. Eventually, Charlemagne secured the border of northern Spain and France, which was called “The Spanish March.” This border served as an invisible barricade to stop the Moors from crossing into France.
 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 28.
 Charlemagne returned to Saxony several times before Wittekind capitulated. Even after the Massacre of Verdun in 783, where 4,000-4,500 Saxons were massacred, the Saxons did not completely submit. It was only in 785 that Wittekind admitted defeat and was baptized into Christianity.
 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 30.
 The Poeta Saxo composed the Annales de gestis Caroli magni imperatoris libri quinque (“Annals of the Deeds of Emperor Charlemagne in Five Books”). Although he anonymously penned this work, he was most likely a monk of Sankt Gallen or possibly Corvey.
 McKitterick, Charlemagne, pg. 105.
 One of the most important monastic figures that preserved and cultivated literature was Hilda of Whitbey (614-680). It was at Whitbey Abbey where she collected books in order to have educated both men and women in the Latin language and literature. Her deeds would have a great impact on Alcuin of York.
 The quadrivium was called “four ways,” and consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The trivium was called “three ways,” and consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric.
 Alcuin prepared this translation, which had many errors due to previous translators since its creation by Jerome.
 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg. 69.
 Mckitterick, Charlemagne, pg. 349.
 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, pg.79.
 [From Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, Ernest F. Henderson, ed. and tr. (London: Bell and Sons, 1892), pp. 189-201.]
 Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, pg. 94.