Charlemagne thought of himself as being a Frank, not a European. He even tried to wear only Frankish clothes. He rejected foreign clothes, however gorgeous they might be, and never agreed to be dressed in them, except once in Rome when Pope Hadrian had requested it, and, on another occasion, when his successor Leo had begged him.
Regarding the standardization that Charlemagne brought to Europe, it must be kept in mind that Charlemagne often declined to pursue standardization. For example, Charlemagne did not try to turn those whom he conquered into Franks. On the contrary, Charlemagne reinforced, and maybe even created and imposed, non-Frankish identities on those whom he had defeated.
The Frankish legal system was not based on territoriality of law, in which the location where a crime happened determines which laws apply. Rather, the Frankish legal system was based on ‘personality of law’, in which the ethnicity of the parties involved determined which laws applied. Franks had their own law codes, and Lombards had their own law code.
When Charlemagne conquered the Saxons, he did not impose Frankish law on them; instead, he had the Saxon laws codified and written down, thereby cementing the Saxon identity.
Notker, who wrote a biography of Charlemagne, tells us that, during the ninth century, some groups within Charlemagne’s Empire, such as Aquitanians and Bavarians, voluntarily came to identify themselves as Franks. Had that trend continued and spread, then Charlemagne’s Frankishness might well have become the basis of a continent-wide identity. But the trend did not continue.
For those living outside Europe, Europeans were all ‘Franks’—at the time of the First Crusade and for some time thereafter, Arabs used a single blanket terms for all western Europeans, including those who remained in Europe, those who crusaded, and those who settled in the crusader states. The term was al-Ifranj, which is derived from Frank.
But in Europe itself, older regional identities persisted while an overall Frankish identity did not persist. In East Francia, the Frankish identity died out entirely, giving way to a shared Teutonic, or German, identity.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Charlemagne’s Multi-ethnic Court
Charlemagne’s multi-ethnic court bolsters the case for him being the father of Europe; he assembled people from different parts of Europe to work together.
At the same time, his multi-ethnic court was a generational oddity, not a model that persisted. Under Charlemagne’s son and under later successors, the court scholars and the empire’s intelligentsia were predominantly Frankish.
And while Charlemagne loved foreigners, it is unclear whether he recruited Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Spanish Goth, and Italian scholars to his court for the cosmopolitan flavor that they added, or simply because he lacked Franks capable of doing (and doing well) the work that he wanted done.
Also, while Gaelic-speakers of Europe’s northwest seemed strange, at least they were allowed to live and work at Charlemagne’s court. No Scandinavian or Slav lived and worked at Charlemagne’s court, and Franks sometimes viewed Slavs, and other central and eastern Europeans, with murderous contempt.
Opposites That Don’t Go Together
Charlemagne loved meeting foreigners and recruited foreigners to his court, but it was a place where Charlemagne’s scholars hurled ethnic slurs at one another, possibly for Charlemagne’s amusement; and he launched wars in which foreign enemies speaking strange languages were tadpoles, worms, and not even human.
That is the world of the eighth and ninth centuries, a world that Charlemagne epitomized in many ways. His Europe is not ours; it is not even the Europe of centuries much closer to Charlemagne’s lifetime than to our own, such as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, or, despite his claims to be a renewer of the Roman Empire, the fourth and fifth centuries.
Charlemagne’s world is too rural and too Christian, too medieval with its fiefs and knights, to be the Europe that ancient Greeks and Romans knew. Yet, Charlemagne’s world also lacks the stone castles, the crusades, the inquisitors, and the chivalric culture that we think of as essential components of the Middle Ages.
Recognizing Charlemagne’s particularity leads us to a broader conclusion and insight: The unexpected opposites in Charlemagne’s world and in Charlemagne himself remind us that our own notions of what should and should not go together will not last forever.
Common Questions about Charlemagne: An Emperor of Frank Origin
Charlemagne loved to see himself as a Frank and nothing more. He rejected foreign clothes, however gorgeous they might be, and never agreed to be dressed in them, except once in Rome when Pope Hadrian had requested it, and, on another occasion, when his successor Leo had begged him.
Charlemagne often declined to pursue standardization. For example, he did not try to turn those whom he conquered into Franks. On the contrary, he reinforced, and maybe even created and imposed, non-Frankish identities on those whom he had defeated. Indeed, each group in his kingdom had its own encrypted and written legal identity.
Charlemagne loved meeting foreigners and recruited foreigners to his court. Charlemagne’s multi-ethnic court had people from different parts of Europe working together. However, his multi-ethnic court was a generational oddity and not a model that persisted.