's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire

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Later depiction of Charlemagne by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer

Overview[edit | edit source]

Charlemagne (c. 742-814 CE), also known as Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus, or Karl der Grosse, was King of the Franks beginning in 768 and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800 until his death. As leader of the Franks, Charlemagne used military conquest to create the largest European Empire since the fall of Rome. At the time of Charlemagne's death, the Carolingian Empire nearly ruled over the entirety of what would one day become France, Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. Due to the geographic expanse of his empire, Charlemagne became the symbolic founder of both France and Germany, and the cultural renaissance of Charlemagne's rule has been argued as the foundation for a common European culture. Central to the creation of this common European culture were Charlemagne's actions to forcibly convert the pagan tribes he conquered (notably the Saxons). In being crowned by the Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne solidified the enduring complementary (and sometimes conflicting) relationship of secular and religious power in the Medieval world. As Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne was charged with protecting the Roman Catholic Church and in return the Church would assure the emperor with the blessing of the divine.

The Carolingian Renaissance[edit | edit source]

The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of increased intellectual activity in Europe, roughly coinciding with the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th-9th centuries. Turning to the Christian Roman Empire of the 4th century for inspiration, the Carolingian Renaissance witnessed a boom in literature, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence and scriptural studies. Charlemagne ordered the construction of schools, in particular to instruct the Latin language as it served as a universal language in the far flung empire during an era when vernacular European languages were emerging in their own right. The construction of Charlemagne's palace and the Palatine Chapel in his royal capital, Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) served as an innovative model for future churches with its monumental westwork, or western entrance (a precedent continued with the ornate western facades of gothic cathedrals).

Medieval historians point to the Carolingian Renaissance as evidence that the "Dark Ages" is largely a misnomer for this period and that by Charlemagne's time, Europe was already finding new ways to innovate and create long before the Italian Renaissance of the 15th-16th centuries. However, unlike the lasting power of the Italian Renaissance, the effects of the Carolingian Renaissance died out within a generation or two.

The Treaty of Verdun[edit | edit source]

Following Charlemagne's death in 814, his son, Louis the Pious, reigned until 840. While Louis' reign was marked by the difficulties of holding his father's vast empire together, it was Louis' death that tore the empire apart. The three sons of Louis, Lothair I, Charles the Bald and Louis the German, all vied for their father's throne, leading to a three year civil war in the empire. The Civil War ended when Lothair's forces were defeated at the Battle of Fontenay and he became willing to negotiate rather than continue fighting. The Treaty of Verdun (843) effectively divided Charlemagne's Empire into three sections: West, Middle and East Francia. Charles the Bald ruled the West (what would one day become France), Lothair the Middle (the Low Countries, Burgundy and Northern Italy) and Louis the East (the Holy Roman Empire).

Division of Charlemagne's Empire by Treaty of Verdun