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

In the previous post in the series about the historical myth of Charlemagne, we discussed whether Charlemagne had successfully united his realm and whether this realm corresponded to the modern day Europe. Now, it is the time to take a look whether Charlemagne managed to achieve economic unification of his realm and whether such unification lasted for a significant amount of time.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a ruler try to unite their realm by using economy? How would they do it? Can you think of any examples from the course you’re studying right now?

To understand Charlemagne’s significance as a unifier, one also has to grasp the extent of the economic fragmentation of Western European territories prior to his reign. The Western European economy, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, “moved exclusively to the rhythms of the ancient world”[1] being aided by trans-Mediterranean trade and the three cultures—Persian, Semitic and Graeco-Roman[2]. However, the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE of the eastern and southern Mediterranean prevented the various trading sea routes from being used. Cut-off from their main trade routes, the newly formed tribes of Northern Gaul and Germany had to adapt in order to survive. Due to the lack of acceptance of new types of gold currency local rulers were forced to turn to another valuable unit to reward their supporters with—fertile land.[3] As a result, European feudalism, a political system based on land distribution, was developed circa sixth century CE.

Here is a video that gives a short explanation of the tactics that were used during the Arab conquests in the during the early 7th century.
Here is a video that explains the basics of European feudalism.

All of these factors caused early feudal societies, such as the one during Charlemagne’s reign, to have subjects that were “scattered rather evenly throughout the realm on smallish, individual farms”[4]. Large estates belonged either to a select number of families, or monasteries. The crop yield from these lands was low due to the undeveloped farming methods, which resulted in little surplus and limited trade opportunities. As a result, contemporary Medieval economy was primarily dependent on the positive relationship between the ruler and the local military elite — after all realms of various tribes required protection from expansionist neighbours who often gained resources via aggressive methods.

In this harsh economy Charlemagne attempted to unify his Empire. The main way in which Charlemagne attempted to do so was minting his celebrated portrait coin circa 812.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two images of two coins. The one with a person’s face on it, was created during Charlemagne’s reign. The one that has a symbol that looks like the capital letter ‘R’ was created in the reign of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short. What differences can you notice if you were to compare these two coins? Why do you think Charlemagne changed the appearance of the coin? Does Charlemagne remind you of someone else on the coin?
SOURCE TIME (cont.): Another two coins for you to compare, since this post is all about the ‘money moves’. Again, here is a coin that was created under Charlemagne. The coin on the left, was created under ancient Roman king, Constantine, who was famous for his administrative and financial reforms that strengthened the Roman empire. What is Charlemagne trying to do with his portrait on his coin? What does it tell a historian about the ways the Mediaeval rulers saw ancient Rome?

Despite the regional differences between individual mints of coins (i.e. individual versions of the coins) their purpose is evident—to demonstrate the extent of Charlemagne’s power after his coronation as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE. The implication of imperial propaganda in this case is exceptionally clear. The latter form of a portrait coin conveyed imperial power and the consequent imperial status, by evoking the Roman emperors by depicting Charlemagne in the classical dress on the obverse and a Christianised temple on the reverse. This depiction would have signalled Frankish supremacy to Charlemagne’s contemporaries within as well as outside his empire. This style of coinage was very different to those minted before as they usually used the name of the person who minted the coin and the location where the coin was minted. Such stark contrast between two types of coins had contributed to the creation of early Medieval European unification as subjects within Charlemagne’s empire saw themselves as living under the rule of one of the greatest monarchs of the day. The same message was sent off to other rulers that surrounded Charlemagne’s realm.

Think like a Historian:

Are coins a useful type of source to use when trying to find more things about a certain historical period?

This standardisation of coinage, however, would have produced limited achievements, had Charlemagne not had any idea of what to expect from his own tax- payers. The fact that meticulously organised documents, such as the polyptych of Saint Germain des Prés, which was, in this case, a detailed survey of monastic property as well as its inhabitants demonstrated a degree of desired economic unification. The question-answer format of the polyptych served its purpose as this method allowed to categorise the sort of buildings on the land, thus allowing to categorise their inhabitants and finally to calculate the total sum per each manor. For example, in the case of Saint Remi and Lorsch the lands contained “25 manors, 1690 holdings, and about 9400 names”.[5]Long-term unification in this case could be seen, as not only the overall survey of the land was conducted, but also this information could have been used for future purposes, such as management of each estate for the empire to flourish. This was equivalent to the English Domesday Book as the government clearly required a reliable survey of its lands in order to assess the situation clearly in order to rule the conquered land effectively.

Here is a short informative video about Mediaeval manuscripts.
Another short video in case anyone is interested in the ‘weird’ side of Mediaeval manuscripts. (Also, useful for some NicheTM knowledge for when you’re using Mediaeval marginalia for memes cc: Rimma)

However, it is more justifiable to argue that Charlemagne merely laid foundations to what later would become national European economic identity in accordance with the states. After the death of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious in 840, Louis’ sons fought for the larger half of the empire. Consequently, after the end of the conflict, the trade ceased to be profitable as whilst making the journey across the former empire a merchant had to cross up to eleven borders and to pay an import duty he crossed each border to the local ruler. This was an expensive and inefficient way to trade as by the time the merchant reached the desired market the reclaimed cost for the goods was so high that no purchaser would want to acquire the goods. Consequently, both the purchasers and sellers returned to producing and consuming products on the site.  As a result, the trade system collapsed and each economic system enclosed within itself to cultivate individual identities that would come out as a result in the space of two hundred years.

This leads to the conclusion that, had Charlemagne been the true “father of Europe” his economic policies would have had a more lasting unificatory impact than mere thirty years. The terminology used in the accolade implies that Charlemagne had united Europe during his lifetime to such an extent that his empire would become economically important to the whole of Europe even after his death. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the economic system of Charlemagne’s empire did not withstand the challenge of the civil war Charlemagne’s claim to the ‘fatherhood’ of Europe is indeed limited.

Think like a Historian:

Why are historical myths created?
Conclusion

Although Charlemagne’s accolade had been discussed as if having a fixed meaning, it must be ultimately said that just as any set of words, the meaning of the “father of Europe” changed with time. It could be argued that Charlemagne was no “father of Europe” simply because the term became a mere political myth and that it did not hold any political implications and therefore it be discussed in terms of political unity. It was a useful formula employed by contemporary authors which was then forgotten and rediscovered in twentieth century by politicians and historians after the Second World War in order to “contribute to the creation of a more peaceful European state”. Although “Europe” for Charlemagne and his contemporaries may have been part of their claims to political authority, this notion of Charlemagne ruling the “realms of Europe” had acquired a nostalgic tone by the start of his son’s reign. Consequently, Charlemagne’s “fatherhood” of Europe cannot be true simply due to the fluidity of the term, which had been applied by later generations of chroniclers. It must ultimately be concluded that Charlemagne’s title of “father of Europe” was a political myth promulgated by those in power at their discretion at various points in time. Charlemagne did not do any more than his father and the implication that his legacy resonated through the tides of history is simply not credible to discuss, considering about 900 years of political, linguistic and religious disunity. Having considered the evidence, Charlemagne was more of an outlier in the European history of disunity, with various powerful figures, like Napoleon, attempting to become the next Charlemagne. As a result, Charlemagne’s existence was useful means for these people to push their agendas, which was in turn reinforced by their obsession with cultural and political continuity, hence allowing for the myth to be developed into what it is today. 


[1] Peter Brown , ‘“Mohammed and Charlemagne” by Henri Pirenne’, Daedalus 1 (1974), pp. 25-33, pp. 26-27

[2]  Robert. S. Lopez, ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne: A Revision’, Speculum 1 (1943), pp. 14-38, pp. 15-18

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Mayke  De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 15

[5] Devroey Jean-Pierre, Ordering, measuring, and counting: Carolingian rule, cultural capital and the economic performance in Western Europe (750-900)

To explore this 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.
  • Another good book to start with is Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne. It would be useful for those who would like to learn about Charlemagne’s reign overall, without any ‘fathers of Europe’ and historical myth-making.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a smaller topic to explore.

cc: Rimma

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.