The Carolingians rise to power
The Arabs entered Spain in 711. Visigothic rule had been very severe and
they were selcomed by many segments of the populace. In keeping with
their usual policy, they allowed the Jewish and Christian communities in
Spain to retain their old laws and culture. They then headed over the
Pyrenees into the territory of the Franks.
The Franks, however, had been reasonably acceptable rulers. Aquitaine
was a traditionally independent region. When the Arabs began to cross the
pyrenees. Both peoples joined together under the leadership of Charles
Martel (the Hammer) and defeated them at the battle of Poitiers in
At this time, Charles Martel was not the king of the Franks. They belonged
to the Merovingian family. He was a Carolingian, the family who had been
the "major domo" or mayor of the palace. This is like saying he was the
chief of staff. He controlled the king's household and collected the taxes
for the king, etc. This family because they controlled access to the kings
and could do many favors for other Franks had become the real powers in
Frankish society. The Merovingians by this time are sometimes referred
to by historians as "shadow kings". Some historians suggest that they
were mildly retarded. More recent historians have challenged this
viewpoint, but no one questions that Charles Martel certainly had more
control than the current Merovingian king.
After the Battle of Poitiers, Charles Martel was also seen as a successful
military leader. God might be said to smile on him. He took care to
reward his followers, often with lands traditionally belonging to the
church. He did this more easily because he had appointed many of his own
supporters to the offices of bishop and archbishop. In this way, by
controlling taxes, by winning battles and by rewarding his followers,
Charles Martel demonstrated all the characteristics of a successful man,
one chosen by God to lead.
He himself, however, did not depose the current Merovingian king. The
Merovingians, with their long hair and supposedly the ability to cure
disease were still seen as God's choice. Charles Martel's son, Pepin chose
not to maintain the fiction of the Merovingian kings. He simply deposed
the last Merovingian ruler, cut his long hair, and shipped him off to the
monastery. Once a man had promised God to give up the life of the world
and maintain chastity, poverty and obedience, no one would have followed
him if he tried to retake his royal position. Pepin then had himself
elected by the other great magnates of the realm as king and to help
establish his legitimacy as a ruler, he asked the Pope to crown him,
thereby receiving God's grace. This act established a strong relationship
between the Pope and the new King. Pepin, supported the Pope in Italy and
invited Catholic missionaries into Northern Europe to properly educate the
people and convert the heathen.
Charlemagne's Early Years
Pepin, who was known as Pepin the Short married a lady known as Bertha
of the Big Feet, or as I call her Big Foot Bertha. Between them they
managed two sons. Charlemagne or Karl der Grosse(B) was one of them
and it was he who ultimately took sole control of Pepin's realm. He
prospered both territorially and economically until he controlled most of
Europe. The first Common Market countries of Europe were once in their
history a part of Charlemagne's territory. His period is also known for the
revival of learning and the preservation of much of Classical and Greek
Charles was a precocious child and educated to some degree in the liberal
arts. At least enough to appreciate educations. He was, of course, trained
in the arts of war as a child. At some time in his youth he was married to
Himiltrude, a noble Frankish lady who bore him a son Pepin the Hunchback
and a daughter, Totlaid. As a hunchback (seen as a sign in the Middle Ages
that he was not graced by God), Pepin could never be considered for
kingship. Likewise Totlaid could never be Queen because under the
Frankish law code, the Salic Law, crown land could not be inherited by a
daughter. Therefore, Charlemagne needed an heir.
After he reinforced his control over Aquitaine, with the advice of his
mother, he decided to marry Desiderata, the daughter of Desiderius, king
of the Lombards. The Pope was not thrilled by this choice, but since it
was good for power, Charlemagne ignored the Pope and married her
anyway. Desiderius demanded that all the Frankish nobles swear to
support and defend the marriage. (A divorced woman was disgraced and
not much good on the marriage market, and besides he wanted the
alliance.)We know very little about her, but apparently she did not win
Charlemagne's favor and within a year she was set home. This irritated
Desiderius and also spelled the end of Bertha's influence at court.
Charles remarried immediately to a 12 or 13 year old Swabian girl of
noble birth, Hildegard. The whole affair was a scandal. Many nobles who
had sworn to honor the marriage to Desiderata were horrified and angrily
left the court. After all their souls were at peril if they didn't defend the
marriage. Of course, they might have preferred the alliance with
Desiderius. In spite of this inauspicious beginning the marriage to
Hildegard was a very happy one. She is praised in the sources as being
beautiful, mild mannered and charitable. She bore him five daughters and
4 sons---enough heirs for any king.
However, Desiderius was not forgiving and Charlemagne eventually found
himself at war with him both because of this incident and to help the
Pope. After he defeated the Lombards in 773, he kept most of their lands
and added the title King of the Lombards to his list of titles in his
charters and letters. He also set up the Pope with lands that stretch
across west to east across the middle of Italy. These papal lands
effectively split the Italian peninsula. They were one factor in preventing
Italy from becoming a nation state until the 19th century. Charlemagne's
Italian possession would later become a part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Some scholars have suggested that the Italian connection and imperial
dreams were detrimental to the formation of a united German state. The
connection might help explain why the Germans and Italians have often
been united diplomatically into the twentieth century.
Spain and the Spanish Border
In 778 Charlemagne invaded Spain to fight the Muslims with less success.
The Song of Roland written centuries later commemorates one of
Charlemagne's great defeats. As he was leaving Spain, his rear guard was
soundly defeated by the Basques and his baggage lost. The Pyrenees
become the natural border for Charlemagne's empire in the southwest and
ultimately the border between France and Spain.
Other areas of his empire also required military effort to maintain and
defend. The Saxons to the north raided into his territory from 772 until
804. They were like guerilla fighters, trying not to engage the main force
of Charlemagne's army. When Charlemagne first defeated them, he had
them swear fidelity to him and turned them loose. They revolted against
him again in 782. In retaliation, when he defeated them in battle, he
slaughtered 4500 captives. This was considered a despicable act to his
contemporaries. When Hildegard dies shortly afterward in childbirth, it
was said that God was punishing Charlemagne. Then he forced them to
become Christians (Christianity by the sword) and swear fidelity in God's
name. This was also ineffective. Finally he defeated them for the third
time and scattered their families throughout his kingdom so that they
would be unable to unite and rise again.
Frisians, Avars and Bavarians
Charlemagne's middle years are considered his angry period. Some blamed
his new wife Fastrada who was said to be strong-minded and cruel. In
this period he fought with and defeated the Frisians (opening up the
northern seas to Viking incursions). He defeated the Avars, a strong
nomadic tribe to his southeast, capturing much of their wealth. He
deposed his cousin, Tassilo, Duke of the Bavarians, in 788 for treason.
(The Bavarians still haven't forgiven him for this act.)
The Intellectual Years
In 794 Fastrada died and Charles married Liutgard, a young beautiful
Allemanian girl. She is described as openhanded, religious, charming
cultured, and eager to learn---his first intellectual wife. She helped
establish his palace at Aachen where he lived for the next twenty years of
his life. He built the church which still stands there in the shape of an
octagon like Justinian's great church, San Vitale at Ravenna. His throne
and bones are still there. The site where his marble palace once stood is
now the city hall. In the baths as Aachen which were fed by natural hot
springs, Charlemagne and his followers discussed the intellectual
questions of his day.
As his empire rose in power with the conquests and unity brought
economic prosperity. He encouraged learning because he needed men who
could read and write to carry his orders and administer his kingdom.
Scholars from all over Europe were attracted to his court. Alcuin founded
Charlemagne's palace school. Clear writing and literacy increased through
his territories. This had positive effects on both government and the
church. Charley himself learned to read and write and to speak Latin.
Handwriting was improved and became clear and easily readable.
Deteriorating Roman and Greek manuscripts were recopied. In fact, when
the Renaissance scholars revived Latin and Greek learning, they thought
that the Carolingian scripts was how the ancients had written. When the
printing press was introduced, they used a Carolingian style script
because of its clearness. Consequently, that style is our printing style.
Art Treasures came into the empire from Italy. This rebirth of knowledge
survived past his death into the 9th century.
His later years were more cosmopolitan. He was crowned by the Pope
Emperor of the Romans on Christmas day, 800. The title didn't increase
his power and this crowning was probably the idea of the Pope to release
him from his relationships with Irene, Empress of Byzantium, and the
eastern churches. Charlemagne proposed marriage to Irene in this period.
She refused. He also corresponded with Harun Al Rashid, the leader of the
Arab Empire. He sent Charlemagne an elephant, Abul Abas, who was a part
of Charlemagne's zoo along with his lion and bears and peacocks.
Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer, describes him as 6'3.5", short neck,
with a slight paunch in his later years. He was strong and towered over
other men. He believed in moderation, disliked drunkards, and fasting.
Feasting was fine in moderation. A natural person, he disliked fuss and
chastised his men for hunting in silks instead of leathers. He genuinely
liked people and ideas.
Charlemagne's empire was inherited by his only surviving son, Louis the
Pious. His grandsons split the territory between them. Louis the
German's territory will be the basis of modern Germany. Charles the Bald
inherited what will become France. The strip between them which
included Italy was inherited by Lothar. He died first and the French and
Germans have fought over control of his section which included Alsace
Lorraine into the twentieth century. Many towns in this area including
Aachen(Aix la Chapelle) have two names, one French and one German.