During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Carolingians ruled a large, Christian empire in western Europe.
Who were the Carolingians?
During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Carolingians ruled a large, Christian empire in western Europe. Many people saw it as the natural successor to the western half of the Roman Empire, which had fallen centuries earlier.
The Carolingians’ most famous ruler was Charlemagne, whose reign saw an increase in literacy and education, law and order, and religious piety. He ruled for more than 40 years, and was so influential that he is sometimes called the ‘Father of Europe’.
The name of the dynasty is derived from the fact that many of their kings were named Charles, which was Latinized as Carolus. Charlemagne’s successors included Charles the Simple, Charles the Bald, and Charles the Fat. As their epithets suggest, these kings failed to live up to Charlemagne’s lofty heights.
The origins of the Carolingians
After the fall of Rome, Europe was divided up by barbarian groups, who established several Christian kingdoms. One of these was Francia, which roughly matched the borders of modern France. This kingdom was ruled by a line of kings called the Merovingian Dynasty.
Not much is known about the Merovingian kings, apart from their commitment to growing long, thick hair. Supposedly, this was a sign of power. If a Merovingian’s hair was cut off by an opponent, he would no longer be allowed to rule.
In the north of their kingdom was an area known as Austrasia. It was managed by a line of noblemen, including a powerful figure named Charles Martel. They held a lot of influence in the Merovingian court, and over time, they started to outshine their long-haired kings.
The start of a dynasty
In the early 8th century, the Umayyad Caliphate – whose territory included the Iberian peninsula – began to worry the edges of the Merovingian kingdom. They wanted to claim the region as their own, and convert its people to Islam.
The defense of Francia was led, not by the Merovingian king, but by the Austrasian nobleman Charles Martel. In 732 CE, he famously defeated the invading Umayyads at the Battle of Tours, and became known as the defender of Christianity.
By this point, the power of the Austrasian noblemen was plain for all to see. In 768 CE, Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, overthrew the final Merovingian king, and established the Carolingian Dynasty in its place. Pepin was crowned by Pope Zacharias, who wanted to lend the support of the Church to the man whose father had protected Christian Europe.
A new Roman Empire
Pepin the Short was the first Carolingian king, but he was not their greatest ruler. That title goes to his son, Charlemagne, who became king of the Franks in 771 CE.
He set out on a mission to unite all of Europe’s Germanic people into one Christian kingdom. He spent most of his reign engaged in military conflicts, taking control of Lombardy (northern Italy), Avar (Austria and Hungary) and Bavaria (Germany). He forced his new subjects to convert to Christianity, putting anyone who refused to death.
His work caught the attention of Pope Leo III, who thought this growing empire was the natural successor to Christian Rome. In 800 CE, he named Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor – the first person to hold this title. People began to refer to the empire as Romanum imperium: the Latin term for ‘Roman Empire’.
As Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne became explicitly intertwined with the Catholic Church. He was a zealous defender of Christianity, and helped the Church to become more powerful than ever before.
As his empire expanded, he gave vast tracts of land to the Church, which allowed it to build monasteries and churches all over Europe. In many places, this land is still owned by the Catholic Church today.
Meanwhile, his Admonitio generalis was a set of reforms which enforced new standards of morality and literacy among members of the clergy. In the past, many priests could not even read the Bible, and Charlemagne sought to change this.
The Carolingian Renaissance
As well as supporting the Catholic Church, Charlemagne was a patron of science and learning, and his reign saw a period of cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
He filled his court with renowned intellectuals, and asked them to help him educate his Christian subjects. Together, they established a writing system called Carolingian Miniscule, and opened libraries and schools throughout the empire. This writing system became the basis for many modern European alphabets.
His work ushered in an intellectual golden age unlike anything seen in western Europe since the fall of Rome. This was precisely Charlemagne’s intention: he thought of his empire as a new Rome, and wanted to match its former glory.
Louis the Pious
In old age, Charlemagne’s health deserted him; he had frequent fevers, and developed an uncomfortable limp. In 814, he passed away, and left his son, Louis the Pious, to rule the empire instead.
Louis was another devout Christian, who generally followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing to support the Catholic Church and encourage education and learning. He also had a ruthless streak. After hearing about a plot to dethrone him, he had the plotters blinded, including his nephew Bernard.
He regretted this decision. Fiive years later, he performed public penance, and sought the forgiveness of the Pope. The Pope forgave him, but some people thought the entire ordeal made Louis look weak. This event was probably the beginning of the end for the Carolingian Dynasty.
The decline of the Carolingians
The final years of Louis’ reign were marked by a series of revolts and civil wars. He managed to suppress them, but when he passed away, in 840 CE, another war broke out between three of his sons, who all wanted the empire for themselves.
In 843 CE, the Treaty of Verdun was drawn up, which divided the empire between the sons. This severely weakened the empire as a whole: the three kingdoms, as rivals, were far weaker than they had been as a single, unified entity.
In the next few years, rival forces began to attack the remnants of the empire. In 845 CE, the Frankish city of Paris was sacked by a Viking army. By the end of the century, the former empire had fragmented even further. Another century later, the final Carolingian – Louis V – was dethroned.
The legacy of the Carolingians
The legacy of the Carolingian Empire is still felt in modern Europe, with many aspects of western culture tracing back to this period. Christianity is still Europe’s most popular religion, and its people continue to value education and literacy.
Even the concept of Europe can be linked to the Carolignians. The continent was once just a collection of separate kingdoms, until the Carolingians turned them into a unified body with similar values and beliefs. In many ways, the European Union is a successor to this former empire.
There is also a dark side to the Carolingian legacy. Modern rulers, like Napoleon and Hitler, have claimed inspiration from Charlemagne himself, in their attempts to conquer the rest of Europe. Hitler, in particular, viewed his Nazi Reich as a continuation of the Carolingian Empire.