Charlemagne was the greatest member of the Carolingian family, which arose in the early 7th century in the northeastern region of the Frankish world. He reigned over the Franks from 768 to 814—a major turning point in European history.
Charlemagne was a large man, perhaps 6’3″ or 6’4″. Several contemporary descriptions of him show a complex figure: A man who was deeply moral and yet profligate. He was married four times—his wives died under unsuspicious circumstances—but he had many concubines. In his lifetime, he produced perhaps as many as 20 children, more than half of whom were not legitimate. Of his personality, he was a man who could be deeply kind and deeply humane, who could be moved by human suffering and by the circumstances of his own family—but who could also be positively vicious when crossed by someone or by enemies. Among the histories, there is a story told of him that he slaughtered 4,500 Saxons on one day, simply to teach them a lesson. It isn’t clear that he committed this act, and the number 4,500 is suspiciously round. However, certainly, something happened on that day that was widely remembered.
Learn more about Charlemagne—Father of Europe
He was, in many ways, a barbarous man, and yet at the same time, a learned one. We’re told that he was perfectly fluent in his native Germanic tongue, that he could both speak and understand Latin, and that he could understand Greek although he could not speak it well. History tells us that he could read, and Augustine’s City of God was his favorite book. Yet, we know that he couldn’t write. As an old man, he tried to teach himself how to write, and he couldn’t get on with it; he said that perhaps he had begun learning a bit too late.
Learn More: The Greek Alphabet & Pronunciation
An Inspired Vision
Charlemagne’s long reign, just under 46 years, provided him with a great many opportunities which he seized on. His immense patronage brought key people to his court. Charlemagne could attract people and reward in ways that none of his contemporaries could compete with him. But he was no fool; he was a keen judge of people. He was willing to spend, and he spent well, but he spent intelligently.
This is partially due to his sense of vision, by knowing where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. Throughout his reign, he fought a large number of campaigns to maintain his realm—53 campaigns in 46 years. But there are some ironies in Charlemagne’s military activities. He did not study in the war colleges, he was not a great charismatic leader, a brilliant strategist, or a great battlefield tactician. What he did, quite simply, was out-organize everybody. Very often he entrusted the leadership of his armies to trusted soldiers or even to his sons, eventually, as they grew somewhat older. His great talent was organization, not generalship.
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We may think of Charles as one of the great conquering warriors, but we have to qualify that judgment. In fundamental respects, he aimed to restore the maximum boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom that had preceded him. In several places, he rounded off frontiers. What he was doing was building a large insulator along a threatened frontier of the kingdom. He was not an indiscriminate warrior who just conquered and conquered, and marched and marched, and moved ever forward. Fundamentally, his military activity was conservative.
Control and Consensus in the Law
Charles made the royal court and courtiers key players in both government and politics. He had an ability and a will to attract elites, powerful people, and important persons from all around his vast realm to his court. He created the impression of wide consultation, of building consensus, of hearing many points of view, and then implementing the common vision. In these regards he was very clever; there cannot be much doubt that the vision was always his. He convinced people to sign on to his vision, but in such a way that it appeared as if the vision were somehow commonly, jointly forged.
Every year, there was an annual assembly of the Franks. In principle, every free Frankish male could attend the assembly. Throughout Carolingian history, those assemblies became more aristocratic, and it tended to be more the elite who came. But, in principle, it was all free Franks. The Franks came together to debate, deliberate, and to discuss plans that the king had put before them—perhaps ideas for a military campaign, institutional reforms, or legal reforms.
Large numbers of people would assemble, and then there would be a period of socializing before the assembly got down to its business. Small groups of people would go and attend upon the king. Aristocratic males would bring their sons, particularly their teenage sons, to meet the king and other powerful people. There was a great deal of politicking and schmoozing that went on before these assemblies ever got down to the serious business of passing laws. By the time those laws passed, they had the appearance, and maybe the substance, of consensus.
The kind of laws they issued came in what are called “capitularies” (capitula is Latin for chapters). Virtually every assembly issued one of these, and was then to be taken out to the regions of the realm and there implemented by the key local officers called “counts.” The Latin word behind the English word “count” is comes, which means companion—more strictly, table companion. The idea is that the realm is being ruled by the king and his companions jointly.
Learn More: Pronouncing Classical Latin
How to Keep Your Officials Honest
The key members of the Frankish elite were made royal vassals. They thus entered into very deep, important, and reciprocal personal relationships with the king. Vassals were bound to him with a very personal bond implying that they were going to undertake certain important responsibilities on the king’s behalf. There were also officials called the missi dominici, the envoys of the lord king. These were wandering envoys who were sent out throughout the realm to inspect the work of the other officials. They were supposed to make sure that the poor were not oppressed, that the officers were not to take bribes, and that the officers were not to enter fishy judgments in courts of law because someone had slipped them a little money; they were to make sure that the system was functioning honestly.
Charles also had a certain tidiness of mind, a desire that, within his vast realm, things should be done in the same way by people everywhere. He turned to Rome, asking Pope Hadrian I, his great friend, for a copy of the canon law—the law of the church—then applied in Rome. A book was sent north. It was studied for a period by Frankish scholars. It was amended and adapted in certain ways to suit the Frankish situation, and then in the year 789, it was applied widely throughout the Frankish world.
Standardizing Christian Worship
Charles observed that all through his realm, people worshiped in slightly different ways. He turned again to Rome, requesting a copy of a sacramentary—a Mass book, the orders for the worship services in the church. He got this probably in 785–786. It was studied by Frankish scholars and then implemented through much of the Frankish realm.
Learn more about Christendom on the eve of the Viking Age
Charles noticed that monasteries followed a variety of different practices, so he wrote to the pope and said, “Send me a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict.” He brought it into court, his scholars studied it and then he implemented it. He said that the monasteries of the realm should all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. What we can see here is the creation of a firm foundation for a common cultural life in much of what we think of as western Europe.
Common Questions About Charlemagne
Charlemagne unified the Franks, who were in present day Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, under the Roman Empire through the use of a common language (Latin), establishing a school system, and fostering a Church-centered culture with rules that many cultures still follow today such as designating Sunday as a work-free day.
Charlemagne is recorded to have died of Pleurisy, which is a condition where the lungs inflame to problematic proportions.