Charlemagne (r. 768-814) was a vigorous, lusty, intelligent man who loved hunting, women, and war. All his life he wore Frankish costume and thought of himself as a Frankish chieftain. Although he could read, he could never teach himself how to write; he spoke Latin, however, and understood some Greek. A great conqueror, Charlemagne crossed the Rhine and in campaigns lasting more than thirty years conquered the heathen Saxons, who lived south of Denmark, and converted them at sword’s point to Christianity.
Charlemagne also added to his domain the western areas of modern Bohemia, much of Austria, and portions of Hungary and Croatia.. The eastern boundaries of his realm reached the Elbe and the Danube. Along these wild eastern frontiers he established provinces (marks or marches). His advance into eastern Europe also brought him victories over the Avars, successors to the Huns along the lower Danube. Far to the west, Charlemagne challenged Muslim power in Spain and set up a Spanish march in what is today Catalonia. A defeat of his rear guard at the pass of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains in 778 formed the theme of the heroic epic Le Chanson de Roland.
By the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne had reunited under Frankish rule all of the western Roman provinces except for Britain, most of Spain, southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa, but had added to his domains central and eastern European areas the Romans had never possessed. On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in Rome. So mighty was the tradition of the Roman Empire and so great its hold on people’s minds that the chief bishop of the Christian church, crowned him “Roman Emperor Carolus Augustus.”
It is likely that Charlemagne himself was surprised and not altogether pleased by the coronation; he probably relished the title, but he almost surely disliked the role played by the pope and the implication that the pope had the right to choose and crown emperors. The Roman emperors at Constantinople were horrified.
Charlemagne now was a sacred ruler with spiritual rights and duties as well as temporal ones. His lofty concept of his office and his personal power enabled him to influence the church. He named his son Louis the Pious, his successor in 813, and the pope played no part in the ceremonies.
Charlemagne’s government was very simple. His personal household staff were also the government officials: the chamberlain, the count of the stable (constable), and so on. On major decisions the emperor conferred with great nobles of state and church, but he told them what he (and they) were going to do, rather than asking them for advice and permission. Since the Franks, like other Germans, believed that law preexisted and could not be made by humans, even Charlemagne could not, in theory, legislate. But he did issue instructions to his subjects, which usually dealt with special administrative problems.
Charlemagne’s territories included about three hundred counties, each governed by a count. The count had to maintain order, render justice, and recruit and command soldiers. Alongside the count, the bishop of the diocese and the various local magnates might have considerable powers of their own when on their own lands. Only a powerful king could keep the local authorities from taking too much power to themselves. Charlemagne required his counts to appoint teams of judges, whose appointment he would then ratify and who would actually take over much of the counts’ role in rendering justice. He also sent out from his own central administrative staff pairs of royal emissaries, usually a layman and a cleric, to investigate local conditions and to correct abuses. As representatives of the emperor, they could overrule the count.
The Carolingian empire depended heavily upon Charlemagne personally—on his energy, on the brilliance that all observers attributed to him, on his administrative talents, and on the happy fact that his succession was not divisive. But he had assembled more territory than could be effectively governed, in view of the deterioration of administrative machinery and communications since Roman days. Under his less talented successors, the Frankish practice of dividing lands and authority among the heirs to the throne continued. Quarrels over the allotment of territory raged among brothers and cousins. Although the title of emperor now descended to a single heir in each generation, it had become an empty honor by the middle of the ninth century.
Thus Charlemagne’s achievement was short-lived, if brilliant. Historians have taken differing views of it; some have emphasized its brevity and denied its lasting influence. Others have stressed its brilliance and declared that the mere resurrection of the Roman imperial title in the West helped determine the future direction of European political action; the next time a new revival began, statesmen instinctively launched it by reviving the Roman Empire once again.
Some insist that Charlemagne’s revival of the imperial title at least kept alive the ideal of a unified Christian Western society, as opposed to a collection of parochial states devoted to cutthroat competition. Others maintain that, thanks to Charlemagne’s act, an ambitious secular power could oppose the temporal claims of a spiritual power, the papacy. Of course, a spiritual power well anchored in Italy could oppose the temporal power. The existence of these two claimants to supreme power—the pope and the emperor—saved the West from the extremes of secular domination of religion on the one hand and religious domination of the state on the other. This rivalry and tension helped promote such typically Western institutions and attitudes as individual rights, the rule of law, the dignity of the individual, and ultimately the separation of church and state.
In the struggle among Charlemagne’s successors, one episode deserves special notice: the Strasbourg Oaths of 842. Two of his grandsons, Charles the Bald, who held the Western regions, and Louis the German, who held the Eastern regions, swore an alliance against their brother, the emperor Lothair, whose lands lay between theirs. Each swore the oath in the language of the other’s troops—Louis in a Romance Latin-like language on its way to becoming French, and Charles in Germanic. The symbolism was a striking sign of things to come.
In the ninth century, however, there were as yet no national states in Europe. Indeed, instead of coalescing into large national units, the Frankish dominions were even then breaking up into much smaller ones, despite the formal settlement reached at the Treaty of Verdun in 843. As the power of the central Frankish state was frittered away in family squabbles, smaller entities— duchies or counties—emerged as virtually autonomous units of government.