By the Cross and the Sword : Charlemagne’s Impact on the West.
“He who ordains the fate of kingdoms in the march of the centuries, the all-powerful Disposer of events, having destroyed one extraordinary image, that of the Romans, which had, it was true, feet of iron, or even feet of clay, then raised up, among the Franks, the golden head of a second image, equally remarkable, in the person of the illustrious Charlemagne.
Notker the Stammerer, the monk of St. Gall, wrote these words in AD 844 to describe the reign of the most influential Frankish king Charlemagne ( Lectures 1). Charlemagne, son of Pepin the Short, ruled the Franks for 47 years (Koeller 1). The Carolingian Dynasty, of which Charlemagne was a member, was established in AD 751 when Pepin dethroned the last Merovingian king. The Carolingians ruled a land that “spoke several different tongues, had different cultural and historical traditions, and different institutions.”(Nelson 2). The great variation found in the people of the Frankish kingdom produced for Charlemagne great obstacles. Dr. Skip Knox, Professor at Boise State University argues that the “monarchy among the Franks was not equipped to deal with this situation…” (Knox 11). Attempting to establish control in his empire, Charlemagne implemented a series of programs that would produce a new form of government and would engage his court in an intellectual renaissance.
Charlemagne was forced to entirely reinvent the Merovingian system of government, and to do so he “either created new offices, or adapted old ones to new purposes…” (Knox 11). He appointed dukes and counts, and appointed in the German regions of the land margraves, an office that would remain long after the time of Charlemagne. Thus, Charlemagne created a political hierarchy in which the counts would report to the dukes, and the dukes to Charlemagne himself.
Charlemagne gained the loyalty and respect of his barons by leading them on numerous successful military campaigns (Knox 10). He also insisted that his nobles be educated, and formed at his palace a school under the direction of the scholar Alcuin (Nelson 3). With Alcuin as the “minister of education”, the place school began what is known as the “Carolingian Renaissance”. This characterization is supported by the desire of the emperor to rebuild the Roman Empire and rule in the same manner as the roman emperors.
It is this renaissance that impacts the Western world today, more than any of Charlemagne’s military conquests. In Charlemagne’s palace school at Aachen, one finds the ideals and aims of the Carolingian renaissance most definitively.
Palace schools were not unheard of in the Frankish kingdom. The Merovingians established a school to train young nobles to fight, and how to conduct themselves at court. At the time, however, no academic knowledge was being imparted. The only schools that taught academics were at monasteries and cathedrals. Charlemagne altered the palace school into a center of learning and knowledge (Carolingian Schools 1). He hired scholars to teach, and appointed Alcuin to oversee the school. Charlemagne required Alcuin himself to instruct the royal family in reading and writing.
In addition to the palace school, Charlemagne made many decrees concerning the education of his people (1). His “Charter of Modern Thought” required that the monasteries be concerned with “the study of letters” (2). In yet another decree Charlemagne ordered that teachers “who are both willing and able to learn” be hired and “let them apply themselves to this work with a zeal equal to the earnestness with which we recommend it to them” (2). Knox argues again on this point saying “Charles’ court at Aix-la- Chapelle was a beacon for men of learning, and the king funded their activities. It was from these, and others, there originated a burst of activity that would have a strong influence on medieval intellectual life” (Knox 14). Charlemagne provided not only for the sons of the nobles, but of the commoners as well, and issued a decree that they could not be turned away from studying, saying “if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, that they [the priests] refuse not to accept them but with all charity teach them…” (Carolingian Schools 2).
Much of what was done at Aachen was the work of Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin. Alcuin studied at York, and represented the ideas found in that school of learning. Each of the decrees Charlemagne made was at the advice of Alcuin. It is said that “the voice is the voice of Charles, but the hand is the hand of Alcuin…” (Alcuin 4). Alcuin was appalled that monks and scribes on one side of the empire were unable to read the hand of the monks and scribes on the far side of the kingdom. Alcuin proceeded to universalize the writing, creating what is known as the “Carolingian miniscule” (Snell 1). This handwriting became the basis of the lowercase alphabet used today in modern English. Alcuin encouraged scholars to translate and preserve ancient texts, to ensure that future scholars would have them available for study. He also created the curriculum that would be followed for years to come, requiring study of the seven liberal arts (Encyclopedia Dot Com 1). Because of the work done by Alcuin, There is a continuity from the Carolingians to the later Middle Ages that not even the disruptions of the tenth century could erase. (Knox 17).
Much of what we know about Charlemagne’s life comes from his biographer, Einhard. Einhard was placed in charge of Charlemagne’s public buildings, and oversaw the building of the Aachen cathedral. Charlemagne sent Einhard abroad to deal diplomatically with foreign dignitaries, and considered Einhard a trusted advisor. Einhard was also enamored with the ancient Romans, and attempted to write his biography of Charlemagne in the manner of the ancient Roman historians. Einhard took his position very seriously and writes about it in the preface to “The Life of Charlemagne”.
“Since I have taken upon myself to narrate the public and private life, and no small part of the deeds, of my lord and foster- father, the most lent and most justly renowned King Charles, I have condensed the matter into as brief a form as possible. I have been careful no to omit any facts that could come to my knowledge, but at the same time not to offend by a prolix style those minds that despise everything modern, if on can possibly avoid offending by a new work men who seem to despise also the masterpieces of antiquity, the works of most learned and luminous writers.” (Einhard 2)
The biography begins with the Merovingian family, and concludes with Charlemagne’s will. It includes not only the highlights of his reign, but also his dress, his manner, and his appearance (Einhard 8-10).
The impact of Charlemagne’s reign on western thought is untold. He managed to spread literacy and Christianity to a land that was previously illiterate and savage. His school at Aachen regained the glory of the Roman lyceums that were once hailed as the worlds greatest centers of learning. The magnificence of his person and his reign can be explained best in these words, written by his trusted biographer, when he says that he might have been deterred from “writing if I had not made up my mind that it was better to risk the opinions of the world, and put my little talents for composition to the test, than to slight the memory of so great a man for the sake of sparing myself,” (Einhard 3).
“Alcuin”. The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 3rd Ed. Columbia University
Press. 1994. November 21, 1999. http://www.encyclopedia.com
“Alcuin”. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. III. Robert Appleton Company,
New York. 1908.
“Carolingian Schools”. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. III. Robert Appleton Company,
New York. 1908.
Knox, Skip “Charlemagne”. History of Western Civilization. Boise State University.
August 27, 1999. November 18, 1999.
Koeller, David. “The Reign of Charlemagne” North Park University. 1999. November
21, 1999. http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/WestEurope/Charlemagene.html
Kreise, Steven. “Lectures on Ancient and Medieval History”. The History Guide.
August 13, 1999. November 12, 1999.
Nelson, Lynn. “The Collapse of the Carolingian Empire” Lectures University of
Kansas. November 18, 1999.
Snell, Mellisa. “What Made Charles So Great?”. About dot Com, 1999 November 12,