Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (2/3)

In the previous post in the series about Charlemagne and the historical myth of his fatherhood of Europe, we discussed the overall implications of what on earth is a ‘historical myth’ and whether accolades can help historians to decipher anything about the past.

In this post we will be unpicking Charlemagne’s ‘fatherhood’ of Europe further and will be discussing the political implications of the accolade as in order to make a claim to be called a “father of Europe” the various political reforms have to last long enough to make a unified ‘Europe’. Furthermore, because we cannot separate the language from its context, when writing about history, we will have to discuss what political ‘unity’ meant for Charlemagne’s contemporaries.

Think like a Historian:

Do historians need any other skills apart from analysing the past events? If yes, what are the skills required?

Due to Charlemagne living in a galaxy far, far away a time far removed from ours, historians who study his reign do not have many sources to rely on to find out absolutely everything about Charlemagne’s reign. As a result, historians are not entirely certain about the way Charlemagne’s contemporaries treated political unity. In order to solve such issues with the understanding of any historical period (including the reign of Charlemagne), historians debate whose understanding of the events and of the contemporary is more plausible. These debates are referred as “Historiographical debates” by academics.

Think like a Historian:

Can a group of people ever absolutely agree on something, which they can never find out for certain?

So what do historians who study Charlemagne’s reign think the concept of ‘unity’ in early Mediaeval Europe meant? On a governmental level, Johannes Fried, argues that ninth-century Frankish sources demonstrate no sign of “transpersonal or abstract concepts”[1] of a politically unified community, hence suggesting that the early medieval government, in its core, was not aiming to create unification between the king and his lords.  The only possible exception from the rule was the far-removed belief in “ecclesia”, or the Church,[2] which signified the Christian empire[3] and was based on the belief that the multi faith society was undesirable. As a result, the historians should consider the religious unity of the empire as part of political unity. However, others disagree with such a claim. Hans-Werner Goetz countered the notion that “ecclesia” was not the only concept which referred to political unity.[4] A more appropriate concept, in his view, was the concept of “regnum” which referred to “a territorial unit that existed regardless of personal ties between a ruler and his magnates”.[5] Nevertheless, Goetz’ view may not be the most valuable one in this situation as he tends to disregard the connection between “ecclesia” and the medieval empire.[6] Consequently, we have to look at religious and other political ways how a kingdom may have to be united to make our judgement about Charlemagne’s ‘fatherhood’ of Europe.

Think like a Historian:

How can a ruler unite a country?

Understanding the geo-political context in which Charlemagne ruled his empire is vital to comprehend his strive for unification of his realm. With Saxons raiding the Northern border, the Moors having solid control over the Mediterranean[3] and the Holy See (The Pope in Rome) being constantly threatened, it was unsurprising that Charlemagne wanted to impose a degree of unity to his empire. As a result, the newly invaded territories were subdued by brutal force. The author of the Annales Nazariani conveys that after a rebellion of a newly subdued Thuringian nobles they were killed off, having their eyes “torn out”, bit by bit after returning from giving “fidelity to the king and his children” in the tomb of St Peter.[4] In a similar light, Charlemagne’s men have been said to have slaughtered 4,500 people within one day in 782 during Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons.[5] This degree of unjustifiably harsh control demonstrated that Charlemagne was somewhat fearful about the potential threat posed by the hostile tribes, given that ultimately these slaughters were aimed to conform the conquered peoples to the Christian faith. There was certainly a personal element to Charlemagne’s strive to unify his realm. It is highly likely that he  saw it as his personal mission to unite Christendom.[6]Consequently, both the geo-political and religious contexts are vital to understand that Charlemagne attempted to emulate an ideal “father” king and thus on a personal level he saw himself as the “father of Europe”.

Charlemagne managed to quickly establish himself as an effective unifier by adding an ecclesiastical element to his role as a king whilst ruling his realm.[4] Charlemagne managed to introduce the Old Testament and teachings of St Augustine of Hippo to promote the idea that the king’s position was bestowed by God for making a divine plan for the universe hence allowing the king to take care of both  spiritual and material matters within his own kingdom. This is evident by such acts and decrees like the 789 decree that demanded for “every single monastery” to “provide instruction in the singing of psalms, musical notation, [Gregorian] chant, the computation of the years and seasons, and grammar”.[6] The long-term goal of this act had been to root Christianity within the empire and thus to unite its inhabitants. Similarly, the 802 Capitulary for the Missi (an act that demanded people to swear an oath that confirmed their Christian faith) allowed for the imposition of unity throughout Charlemagne’s empire. These reforms radically changed the role of the monarch, therefore allowing for a conclusion that Charlemagne was indeed an omnipotent “father” monarch to his contemporaries given his care for the spiritual well-being of his subjects.

This is a 7th century chant Deum Verum (True Lord). Such chants would’ve been sung during Charlemagne’s reign by Gregorian monks and nuns in the monasteries.
To make your life funkier, here is a Gregorian chant cover of Coldplay’s song ‘Viva la Vida’ (hopefully, you’ll know the original, otherwise we’ll feel old). Enjoy!

Think like a Historian:

Why can verbal oaths be important in a society that does not have an overall literate population?

Yet, despite Charlemagne’s efforts legislation that was passed to unite religiously his empire was not sufficient. This was because Christianity was not widespread within early Medieval Europe. Even the most devout Christians that lived outside the monasteries, were considered lucky if they saw a priest once a year.[1] It appears that the most predominant form of religion were multiple tribal pluralistic faiths. After all, in contemporary world, the North half of Europe remained pagan[2] and the vast majority of Charlemagne’s empire was Christian only in name, but not in practice. This is evidenced by Charlemagne’s continuous struggle with the Saxons, who had continuously practiced paganism. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that due to the multitude of pluralistic faiths it was difficult for Charlemagne to establish a religiously united empire and thus factually Charlemagne has very little actual claim to be called a “father of Europe”.

Here is a short video that gives a brief overview of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons.
SOURCE TIME (yes, this time it is a video source, rather than a written one): Listen to this account of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, which was originally written by the chronicler Einhard. Einghard knew Charlemagne and his court personally.However, Einhard did not participate in the military campaigns. How does Einhard describe the Saxons? Can you fully trust Einhard’s account? Give your reasons for or against.

Although Charlemagne did fail to unite his empire on religious basis he attempted to do so by utilising his civil authority as a “father” monarch to unify his empire. Charlemagne had created a backbone to his government by placing his most loyal and capable followers in charge of an individual area. The said, counts enjoyed a wide range of administrative powers, such as raising troops and collecting taxes.

However, their legislative power was extremely limited as this body was in turn checked by another set of separate corps, missi dominici, who acted as Charlemagne’s personal representatives. There was a strong link between Charlemagne and the said corps as the primary sources usually contained “the royal capitularies” and “quasi-legislative documents” that would be “dispatched across the kingdom in order to provide instructions for king’s will”.[2] Charlemagne cared about the content of the reports that reached him. Adalard emphasizes Charlemagne’s personal concern with the reliability of the information by stating that each man, who entered Charlemagne’s court regardless of his status, was made to verbally state the political situation in the region which he came from.[3] This was very different from the older model based on Roman tradition of gathering intelligence in which class mattered and the testimony from those of lower class was seen as less valid.[4] The same degree of meticulous control was employed at Charlemagne’s court. At his court Charlemagne fully exploited the traditional Frankish annual assembly by cementing his personal ties with the attending trusted clergy and nobility as during these assemblies the king “heard their complaints, accepted their advice, gained their assent for his policies, and delivered to them in his own words his commands for ruling his realm.”[5] Consequently, such meticulous control over nobility allowed Charlemagne not only to watch over his empire, but also to be perceived as an ideal medieval King given almost omnipotent qualities he gained by this degree of control. As a result, it was clear how Charlemagne became to be perceived as a “father of Europe” given the means he used to protect and to unify his empire by gathering more information about his realm than any of his predecessors; given the fact that it was surrounded by hostile tribes, such as the Saxons and the Lombards.

Think like a Historian:

Can a modification of a previous governmental or administrative system be of use for a ruler? If so, why and how? Can you think of any examples?

Nevertheless, the actual political strength of Charlemagne’s empire, given various factors outlined above, was limited and Charlemagne’s empire fell apart soon after his death. This has occurred predominantly due to the civil war that had occurred between his three grandsons. The civil war ended in August 843 with the treaty of Verdun and the empire was subdivided three parts once again—Lothar took majority of lands that stretched to Italy, Louis took the east of Rhine and Charles took Aquitane. As a result, it is certainly could be argued that Charlemagne was not a political “father of Europe” due to his inability to establish a long-lasting political unification of his empire.

This is a video that explains the short-term and long-term importance of the Treaty of Verdun.

Ultimately it must be said that, as much as Charlemagne desired to unite his empire via religious beliefs, he was unable to do so, simply due to inability to spread Christianity across his empire to such an extent which would unify various tribes that lived within it. The case is clear once various divisions created by the 843 Treaty of Verdun are considered in contemporary context. Given that these divisions had been created in the first place highlight that Charlemagne’s empire was never unified in the first place. As a result, Charlemagne cannot be considered the political “father of Europe” simply because it was almost impossible to fully unite his realm in contemporary context, despite him evidently attempting to do so.


[3] Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire and M. Shane Bjornlie, ed.,  Emerick Judson, The Life and Legacy of Constantine (New York, 2017), pp. 133-161, p. 148; Starostine Dmitri, “ …in die festivitatis: Calendar science, everyday rhythms and the ritual structuring of time in the early medieval communities of the Frankish kingdom”, accessed May,  2019 at https://www.academia.edu/33221752/Book_to_send.docx

[6] this was done by increasing the number of the scheduled meetings, which would have occurred between the monarch and his council; from Jinty Nelson, ‘Charlemagne and Europe’ in Journal of the British Academy, 2 (2014), pp. 125–152, p. 138

[3] Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire

[6] Britannica, accessed June, 2019 at

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlemagne/Court-and-administration

[2] Lat. ‘divine cult’; a stately concern that the duty of a true Christian monarch was to “combat heresy” and “care for his people”, from ‘Ecclesia and the early medieval polity’. in eds., W. Pohl, H. Reimitz and S. Airlie, Staat im frühen Mittelalter. Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 11 (Wien, 2006), pp. 113-132, pp.115-116

[3] De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 17

[4]  Britannica, accessed June, 2019 at

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlemagne/Court-and-administration

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Elizabeth Freeman, “Charles the Great, or Just Plain Charles: Was Charlemagne a Great Medieval Leader?”, Agora: Journal of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria, 52 (2017), pp. 10- 19, p. 15

[3] Colin M. Wells, ‘The Maghrib and the Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages’, Florilegium 16 (1999), pp. 17-29, p. 20

[4] McKitterick Rosamund, Charlemagne: The Formation of European Identity, pp.266-267

[1] Mayke De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 17

[2]  Ruth Horie, ‘The concept of Ecclesia’ in Perceptions of Ecclesia: Church and Soul in Medieval Dedication Sermons, pp.35-44, p.35

To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • If you’re interested in Charlemagne as a ruler, and how his contemporaries perceived him, a good starting point is Two Lives of Charlemagne: The Life of Charlemagne; Charlemagne (Penguin Classics). It has a very comprehensible introduction and notes for you to understand the text and begin researching for yourself.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a niche topic to explore.

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