By Philip Daileader, William & Mary
Charlemagne’s imperial coronation on Christmas Day, 800, was a pivotal event of his reign, and the event for which he would most be remembered. Because Charlemagne staked his claim to single, unitary rule, and because Charlemagne’s court poets bestowed on him the title of father of Europe, Charlemagne would become a symbol of European identity and unity.
The Imperial Title
For the first time in more than three hundred years, a ruler in western Europe held the imperial title. Perhaps even more importantly, Charlemagne’s new title suggested a possible future in which Europe consisted not of multiple and independent kingdoms, but rather of a single and unitary empire, much like the Roman Empire at its height.
So how did this audacious idea come about? It emerged as the consequence of developments stretching back almost three centuries, as Charlemagne’s people, the Franks, rose to European prominence.
It emerged, too, because Charlemagne’s grandfather and father had made the Carolingians the preeminent Frankish family. And lastly, it emerged because Charlemagne’s own life as heir-apparent and then king positioned him to assume the imperial title at the age of 52.
Date and Place of Charlemagne’s Birth
Historians continue to make discoveries about Charlemagne and his life. If someone had been presenting Charlemagne’s story in the mid 1970s, or any time before that, they would have said that Charlemagne was born in 742, give or take a year. The basis for their assertion would have been Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard, who wrote that Charlemagne had been seventy-two years old at the time of his death in 814.
However, in the 1970s, scholars reexamining the contemporary evidence for Charlemagne’s birth and the activities of Charlemagne’s parents posited that Charlemagne must have been born five years later, in 747; Einhard had made Charlemagne several years older than he actually was.
Then, in the 1990s, scholars realized that identifying Charlemagne’s birth year as 747 failed to take into account that their sources’ authors calculated years differently than they did. So the date of Charlemagne’s birth became the second day of April 748.
The place of Charlemagne’s birth is still uncertain, but it was somewhere in the Kingdom of the Franks, and he himself was a Frank. The English word frank, meaning ‘honest’, and before that ‘free’, is derived from the name of Charlemagne’s people.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Frankish Kingdom
The Franks were a Germanic people, one of many that had entered the western half of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Like other Germanic peoples, the Franks had established their own independent territories and kingdoms within the western half of the Roman Empire.
The person with the best claim to have been the first king of the Franks was Clovis, who died in 511. Clovis, and then his Frankish subject, converted to the Catholic variant of Christianity. The Franks’ conversion likely facilitated Frankish rule over the Catholic Gallo-Roman population.
The Language Divide
The Frankish kingdom gradually expanded until, by the early 8th century, it encompassed most of what had once been Roman Gaul. During that expansion, multiple linguistic divides began to emerge among the Franks.
Those Franks living in northeastern regions, along the Rhine River Valley and thereabouts, continued to speak Frankish, a Germanic language. Everywhere else, Franks began to speak a form of Latin that evolved into Old French.
The Franks’ own Germanic language influenced the newly emerging Old French language, with the influence stronger in the north than in the south. The influence often took the form of loan words. Modern French has perhaps 1,000 loan words that came from Frankish and pushed out Latin alternatives. These linguistic borrowings give us some sense of what the Franks were doing, and of how others perceived the Franks.
The loan words often involve war and conflict. For example, the Latin word for ‘war’ was bellum, but the French word today is guerre, which is quite different and of Frankish origin. Similarly, the Latin word for ‘arrow’ was sagitta, but the French word is the Frankish flêche. On a lighter note, the Franks also brought a new word for crayfish, which gave the French their écrevisse.
It seems most likely that Charlemagne’s native tongue was Germanic Frankish, a language in which he took a scholarly and literary interest. At the same time, though, considering the western places where he spent much of his youth and where he traveled, it seems likely that he could converse in Old French.
The Frankish System of Succession
The Frankish kingdom founded by Clovis soon became kingdoms.
According to the Frankish system of succession, when a king died, that king’s lands were divided among male heirs. These male heirs received royal titles; descended from Clovis, they belonged to the dynasty that he had established, the Merovingian dynasty (named for a mythical ancestor).
This system of dividing the kingdom—known as partible inheritance—left the Frankish territory in a state of constant flux. Kingdoms proliferated and consolidated, expanded and contracted. At the time of Charlemagne’s birth, the Frankish kingdoms included most of what is present-day France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, plus parts of present-day Germany.
Common Questions about the Frankish Kingdom Before the Birth of Charlemagne
The Franks were a Germanic people, who had entered the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. They had claimed territory in the western parts of the Roman Empire, where Charlamagne was later born.
It seems most likely that Charlemagne’s native tongue was Germanic Frankish, a language in which he took a scholarly and literary interest. At the same time, though, considering the western places where he spent much of his youth and where he traveled, it seems likely that he could converse in Old French as well.
According to the Frankish system of succession, when a king died, that king’s lands were divided among male heirs. These male heirs belonged to the dynasty of their predecessor. This system of dividing the kingdom—known as partible inheritance—left the Frankish territory in a state of constant flux.