Sunday, April 6, 2014

Charlemagne and the Quest for Order

Long ago now, while reading about the Ottoman empire, I came across a potent observation, probably by Arnold Toynbee. It was to the effect that great empires initially expand only to make order. Problems at their borders cause them to invade. The idea of creating an empire is never the actual motive of any given campaign. At later stages of an ever-enlarging entity, the idea of a “calling,” as it were, a call to greatness, tends to posses at least a part of each leading elite. In our own case Manifest Destiny, arising in the nineteenth century, was such an idea, still alive in the notion of American Exceptionalism.

All this came to mind again as I was contemplating the rise of various “empires” during the Middle Ages, e.g., the Visigothic, Gothic, and Vandal early, the Carolingian and the Holy Roman a little later. When one looks at the details, what becomes visible is brutal warfare on what looks to us like small scale. Barbarian raids and plunder incite countering responses which, succeeding, swallow up small regions that, today, would take less than a morning to drive across. Each such effort prominently features the egos of individuals; yet, the more successful of these warriors, at their infrequent moments of leisure, dream of empire.

The best remembered of these barbarian warriors was Charles I. He represents the last of the famous Frankish conquerors; he formed the largest empire, so-called, but he was also an agent in a three-fold process. The political aspect of that process was the expansion of the Franks, first under the Merovingian and then under the Carolingian dynasties, until the Franks under him ruled what is today France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, half of Italy, and Austria. The process is nicely illustrated in the following map; I’ve shown it before but it deserves another look in this context:


The political process, one of consolidation, was accompanied by an ideological consolidation, the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity. The first convert was the Merovingian Clovis (466-511). Pepin the Short (714-768) formed a lasting alliance with the Papacy. Charlemagne, his son, continued that process by converting the last holdouts to Christianity; he also continued to protect the Church, and, in his maturity engaged in high-handed reforms of ecclesiastical arrangements—but he was the Protector General of Catholicism, and his initiatives did not arouse much resistance. Finally, under the Carolingians, of whom the first was Charles Martel (688-741), Charlemagne’s grandfather, there appeared an administrative process of consolidation as well marked by various kinds of reforms. The Carolingians first appeared on the stage of history as administrators serving kings, the so-called Mayors of the Palace—until they seized the highest power for themselves. Charlemagne was the most skillful and ambitious of them. His reforms and arrangements lasted much longer than his realm and included monetary, accounting, educational, ecclesiastic, and legal arrangements. The last of these, in fact, laid the groundwork for what later came to be called feudalism. Under Charles both counts (hence our “counties”) and dukes were appointed. And if they had no land to support them, it was granted to them. I am most struck by Charles’ educational initiative, launched in 787. He called for the establishment of schools by every parish and monastic establishment: the Birth of Catholic Education. I went to high school under Benedictine nuns…

Obviously helped by great vigor and intelligence, Charlemagne also lived longer than such usually did. Clovis died at 45, Charles Martel at 54, Pepin the Short at 54, but Charlemagne lasted to a ripe age, 71-72 years of age (his birth date is in some dispute).

Herewith a timeline:



I’ve highlighted in yellow the wars or conflict in which Charles was the leader. It turns out that each of these conflicts began with a provocation by the other side:

·         The Aquitanian campaign was caused by an insurrection.
·         The Lombard war was caused by invasions of the Papal States by the Lombard king.
·         The Saxon war was initially caused by a Saxon invasion of Francia.
·         The invasion of Spain was at Charlemagne’s initiative and represents the belief that the Moors wished to come under his protection. He failed to take the city and, on his return, lost his baggage train to Basque raiders.
·         The Bavarian conquest was caused by its duke’s formation of an alliance with the Avars.
·         The Slavic war were instigated by attacks on Charlemagne’s allies, the Abodriti (Slavs in Northern Germany).
·         The Avar campaign was occasioned by an Avar invasion of Bavaria.

Not that the urge to conquer was not already present somewhere in Charles’ mind, as in the case of the Spanish campaign. He pictured himself, as his power grew to be the champion of Christianity—and forcible conversion of pagan populations to Christianity did not cause him any kind of qualms. On the whole, however, the Carolingian empire grew, as probably all empires actually do, by a kind of reflex of self-defense, by a determination to keep order, which reflex or determination by a strong power tends always to increase its territory and its influence.

Now some notes to the Timeline. Carloman I was Charlemagne’s younger brother. Upon Pepin’s death, in conformity with Frankish custom, Francia was split between Charles and Carloman. This custom caused consolidated realms to fall apart, alas. The Carolingian empire held together until 840, outlasting Charles’ own death by 27 years, only because, at his death, Charles only had one surviving son, Louis the Pious. After Louis’ death the Holy Roman Empire fell apart—to be reconstituted, but now with a Germanic focus, by Otto I who was himself a direct descendant of Charlemagne.

The map I show here is the Francia split in two at Pepin’s death.  The green is Carloman, the yellow Charles. Bavaria, which the legend in French labels as under Frankish influence, was so influenced because Charlemagne’s first wife, Desiderata, was the daughter of the Lombard King, Desiderius; and Duke Tassilo III, ruler of Bavaria, was married to another daughter of the Lombard King, Liutperga. Charles entered his marriage in order to secure his own flanks. His link to Lombardy worried the Church but need not. The Church was concerned because Lombardy overlay the Papal States. After the Carloman’s death and the unification of Francia, Charles put that marriage aside and married a Swabian countess, Hildegard. Tassilo III’s later agitations—and attempt to ally himself with the Avars—were in part caused by the acrimony caused by Charles’ “divorce.” This provides some feel, at a lower detail than mere maps and reforms can provide, for the flavor of those times. The Papacy did not object either to the “divorce” or, later, to Charles’ conquest of the Lombards… The next king of the Carolingian empire, Louis the Pious was the fourth child (of nine) of Hildegard and Charles. We were then a long ways from today—literally: Today I saw a full-page ad in the New York Times titled “Abortion is not a crime. It’s a right.”

The legacy of Charlemagne, who formed an empire, was really the modern nation state, its centralized administration, and various institutions of which feudalism has passed away but universal education still remains in place. The future states of France and Germany, the two big foot-prints of Europe, were formed under Charlemagne and then his great great great great grandson Otto I. The unification of Italy had to away the nineteenth century and Guiseppe Garibaldi.
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Image credits: French Denier showing image of Charlemagne; the inscription is KAROLUS IMP AUG, thus Karolus Imperator Augustus; you’d never know that this was not a Roman—and Map of the Carolingian Empire at Charles’ death: both from Wikipedia (link). Map of Francia split between Charles and Carloman I: Bossier Aim (link).

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