Elliot Fernandez

Charlemagne, Emperor. The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)

The Carolingian Empire, within the stage of the Kingdom of the Franks, is a fundamental piece of European history. There are two periods: the Merovingian dynasty (481-751) and the Carolingian dynasty (751-987).
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-10-30 | Updated on 2022-09-14

The Kingdom of the Franks, which covers a period of several centuries, between 481 and 987, represents a fundamental stage in the history of Europe. The reigning dynasty during this period changed, the first being the Merovingian dynasty (481-751) and the second one, the Carolingian (751-987). Under the rule of Emperor Charlemagne, the power of the Carolingian Empire extended to virtually all of Western Europe, except for present-day Great Britain.

The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)

The Merovingian dynasty (481-751)

The Kingdom of the Franks is chronologically divided into two stages: the period of reign of the Merovingian dynasty (481-751) and the period of the Carolingian dynasty (751-987). During the Merovingian period, King Clovis I was converted to Christendom and the process of territorial expansion began over the territories controlled by the Visigoths in the South and the annexation of the Kingdom of Burgundy. With Clovis, the Kingdom of the Franks re-established the borders of the ancient province of Roman Gaul. Clovis died in 511 dividing the Kingdom among his sons (patrimonial heritage as the Res Publica). Under the Merovingians, the monarchical institution was not represented by the sovereign.

As for the taxation of the Kingdom, there was a palatine structure, typical of the ancient tax regimes. The King entrusted the collection of taxes to the group of the “potentes” (the high aristocracy). The peasants paid the potentes not in currency, but in the form of species (part of the harvest). Conversion of these species into currency was done under the adaeratio procedure (originating in Roman times). The King owned his private fundus and others that belonged to the public treasury.

Carolingian Empire Kingdom of the Franks
Kingdom of the Franks between the years 481 to 814.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the Merovingian period, a key institution was consolidated: the maior domus (in English known as “Mayor of the Palace”). As the King's chief intendant, he was in charge of administering his property. The different palace butlers of this period were the true rulers in Merovingian France. He was more than a civil servant.

The most prominent were those of the region of Austrasia, which belonged to the Pippinids dynasty. Charles Martel, Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia (714-741) and Neustria and Burgundy (717-741), was the one who defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732. In 752 the son of Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, with the support of the aristocracy and papacy, dethroned the last Merovingian king, Childeric III. It was then that Pepin was proclaimed King of the Franks in Soissons at the beginning of the reign of the new Frankish dynasty: the Carlovingians.

The new Carolingian dynasty

Carolingian Empire coronation of Pipi
Coronation of Pepin according to Jean Fouquet (15th century). Source: National Library of France

The arrival into power of the new Carolingian dynasty marked a major turning point in European history. The Carlovingians put an end to the dynastic succession that had taken place during the period of the Merovingian dynasty. Since this break, the dynastic succession was organized by Palace. The first Carolingian king was Pepin III, the Short, which had previously been the “maior domus” of various regions of the Kingdom.

The decomposition of the Merovingian monarchy coincided with the appearance of the first feudal relations. The ideology of the new political power contrasted with the representation of the Merovingian kings. The family, in Merovingian times, was a very closed nucleus, they were pagan kings, their hair was very long, and they were assigned healing virtues (singular conditions). Coinciding with the loss of political power, many chroniclers laughed at these powers.

The Carlovingians, on the other hand, built a much more powerful and clearly Christian legitimacy of power. They introduced the notion that the origin of earthly power came from God (by “God's grace”). Charlemagne was considered a vicar of God, above the Pope himself.

In the Carolingian era, the ritual of the royal anointing was introduced (it sanctified the political power of the King and made him inviolable). This inclusion of Christian considerations did not end with it. The Carlovingians made it impossible to separate the political and religious dimensions. As for the succession, King Pepin III initiated a new lineage of power that did not manage to solve the succession problems. Pepin delegated power to his sons. This caused problems in the transmission of political power.

The Carolingian Empire was fundamental in the creation of the idea of Europe in the collective imaginary of the thinkers of the time, mainly religious.

The area of the Rhine basin was the heart of the Carolingian dynasty, from where the Empire expanded in the time of Charlemagne, to the area of Saxony, Italy, the area of southern France, the Hispanic Mark and Brittany.

Every year, the King summoned the moguls of the Kingdom, the Franci. The state was physically grouped into an assembly. But what was the purpose of this meeting of these powerful people? In the assemblies, the aristocrats passed accounts and carried the tributes that they had to deliver to the King. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people could meet in these assemblies, and the King's superior position was dramatized.

Carolingian Emperor Carlemany Empire
Coronation of the Emperor Charlemagne in Rome. Year 800. Work by Jean Fouquet. National Library of France

Charlemagne, Emperor of Europe

Charlemagne was the successor to Pepin III. He received the Kingdom together with his brother, Carloman I. However, Carloman died three years later and Charlemagne kept the part of the brother's realm plus the incorporation of the newly conquered spaces.

Charlemagne was proclaimed Emperor on December 25th, 800, in Rome, in a ceremony presided over by the Pope. For the Church, it was transcendental that in Western Europe there should be an Emperor again. Charlemagne was shown as a continuation of Constantine (the first Christian Emperor). December 25th, 800, was considered a date of change in era in the computation, this day marked the passage from one era to another.

The proclamation of Charlemagne as Emperor with the support of the papacy must be understood in a context of political strife and religious division, between the West (represented by Charlemagne as political power and the papacy of Rome as religious power) and the East (with the Byzantine Empire claiming itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire and the Eastern Church). The two political and religious powers sought the restoration of a single political and religious legitimacy, yet this was impossible and ended in an irreversible process of separation between the Eastern and Western Churches.

From 800 onward, the Papacy in Rome and Charlemagne were linked, thus ensuring the pre-eminence of the power of the Pope in Rome over the Church in the East. It was the time when Charlemagne built a new Constantinople for his Empire, the new imperial city of Aachen one of the seats of his dynasty.

Trade during the Carolingian Empire

The merchants moved as a result of the activity of the monasteries or of the Carolingian court itself. There were also the “emporio,” which were trading ports, large residential complexes and goods production complexes. The traffic of goods was recorded by taxes, they were the “telodium” (place where taxes were collected and according to which contexts it could be a fiscal warehouse). These telodiums regulated the movement of goods when they entered the Empire.

There were annual fairs. One of the most important was that held in Saint-Denis, inside the monastery. The fairs were places of concentration of trade-exchanges, lasting between 2 and 3 days. The fair in Saint-Denis lasted one month.

What did the organization of fairs entail? The mobility of merchants from faraway places. The fairs were held to allow the regular entry of exotic products and to concentrate products from elsewhere in the same space. For the organizer of the fair, it meant being able to collect taxes, fees. Emporiums, on the other hand, were centres for the production of objects. All along the Rhine there were centres with products such as ceramics, pots, which were real exchange objects. Other products such as salt or millstones also took place in these centres.

The Carolingian Empire promoted the proliferation and expansion of product exchanges. For this reason, weekly markets, fairs and the so-called centres and emporiums emerged. The Carolingian period described herein contrasts with the central thesis of historian Henri Pirenne. From the debate generated by Pirenne's thesis, the magnitude of the Empire's trade flows has been discovered, leaving a great archaeological trace. These trade flows were closely linked to political power. The emporiums were fiscally controlled by the state.

However, the Carlovingians ended badly. Under the reign of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, the problem of the transmission of power loomed. The Empire was fragmented and tensions arose. Authority did not generate forms of stable political power.

That was a moment of change in European history. In the Carolingian Empire, the usual administrative procedures of the old states that needed a certain mobility of their officials were reproduced. There was a flickering taxation system (one possible solution that had been found was the convening of annual assemblies).

It is very elusive, but during this period the Carolingian dominance of trade is striking.

It was a transitory Empire, which collapsed due to its dynastic dysfunction. The state became shrinking due to fragmentation. Many historians place the beginning of Europe just at the defragmentation of the Carolingian Empire. From then on, much more stable power transmission systems appeared.

Charlemagne's extensive conquests and the division of the Empire

Carolingian Empire Battle of Fontenay-en-Puisaye
Battle of Fontenay-en-Puisaye, in the year 841

Charlemagne tried to organize the dynastic succession by creating different Kingdoms to distribute to his children. The idea was to give the firstborn the central space of the Empire, and to share with the younger brothers the conquered lands in lesser realms, subject to the authority of the son who received the central power.

Charlemagne divided his Empire among his sons as follows:

A series of events caused the succession question to be postponed. Several of his sons, such as Charles and Carloman, died. Then Louis became the sole authority over the entire Empire. These deaths were presented by the chroniclers as divine accessory facts. Louis was also known as “the Fair.”

Monastic reform in the time of Louis the Pious

Louis the Pious (also known as Louis the Fair) was a king very active in Aquitaine. With Louis, the Christianization of the Empire continued. One of the reforms promoted by him was the monastic reform. During the Visigothic period, there was little uniformity in organizing monastic life. There were no rules. In part, this went back to the time of the Carolingian kings, who brought order.

The monastic institutions were not regulated. Louis homogenized the monastic rules and the Christian liturgy itself. An attempt was made at regularization. The main promoter of that reform was Benedict of Aniane, advisor to Louis the Pious. In a Council held in Aachen in the year 816, a rule was elaborated which sought to overcome the anarchy of the various canonical customs, the growing confusion between clerics and monks and also to strengthen the weak community bonds that existed at that time among the canons.

Benedict of Aniane based his reform on a rule written several centuries earlier by Benedict of Nursia, who had elaborated the Benedictine rule and founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino. This reform had much to do with the imperial organization itself. Monasteries were like organized capitals. The Carolingian interest in putting order had a relation with regulating these monastic centres because it was there where the whole empire was sustained.

The polyptyques, the written documentation of the Carolingian era

The polyptyques were documents with detailed inventories of places that were under the fiscal domain of the Empire. These polyptychs include a separate list of constituencies with the corresponding assigned tax burdens that can be broken down into smaller documents.

The Brevium were descriptions (tax estimates) of tax records of each unit under the authority of the monastery. Sometimes the unit was called a villa and the whole Villis. They form a polyptych. The Fiscus were the fiscal districts. All this was attempted to homogenize. The most curious thing is the attempt to codify everything that regulated the Empire. They wanted to speed up the collection process. However, it was not possible to make it everywhere in the Empire.

After the death of Louis the Pious, the Empire began to break. The Ordinatio imperii (817) was an attempt to organize a practice that Charlemagne had already carried out to foresee the association in the Government of the Empire of his sons, who were appointed kings of the outer zone of the Empire. But this provision was a failure because the children fought each other.

Lothair I, King of Italy, wanted to have dominions in the heartland of the Empire, and confronted his two brothers (Louis the German and Charles II the Bald) at the Battle of Fontenoy. Lothair lost the battle. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun was reached, peaceful coexistence between the sons: each of the three brothers occupied an area of central France. This lasted a couple of decades. But the order of succession was not established.

Treaty of Verdun
The division of the Empire according to the Treaty of Verdun. Source Medieval Internet Sourcebook

Relations of the Carolingian Empire with the Papacy

Maintaining good relations with the Church in Rome was part of the foreign policy of the Carolingian Empire. During the Carolingian period, the Church began to possess territorial properties. The Papacy represented a strong ideological power. The Church was interested in the establishment of a strong political institution that could ensure the maintenance of peace. And Carlovingians were interested in the legitimization of the Church through royal anointing.

During Pepin the Short's reign, there was a balance between the Monarchy and the Papacy. The King was chosen by God. Situation of cordiality. The Lombards acted as vassals between the Frankish King and the Papacy in the territories of Pavia. The Papacy had the support of the Franks and the Byzantines. But when the Papacy saw that it was left alone on the Italic peninsula, it asked the Franks for help in removing the Lombards. The Frankish King agreed to help him and entrust to the Papacy all the territory occupied by the Lombard Kingdom, giving rise to the birth of the Pontifical State (year 751).

The Frankish aristocracy had usurped a lot of land from the Church. The King had the usurpations compensated through a tax, the surrender of 10% of the part of the production for the Church (the tithe). Precaria verbo regis: concession in exchange for something. With Charlemagne, the Emperor had more power than the Church itself. Charlemagne was the most powerful king.

In the context of the expansive dynamics of Frankish imperialism, Pope Leo III was a rather weak figure. Leo III was a pope widely rejected by the Roman aristocracy. An unbalanced situation.

On December 25th, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor. The Emperor participated in the appointment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is known as the lay investiture, a common process since Charlemagne that would cause many problems in later centuries.

Since year 800 there was the identification between the Christianity and the Kingdom of the Franks with Europe. The equation Christendom=Europe was born. It is the essence of European origin. The reign of Louis the Pious meant an absolute reversal of roles. Frankish imperialism stopped. The problems that already announced the decomposition of the Kingdom began. The habit of secular investiture was maintained.

Carolingian Institutions and Administrative Organization of the Empire

The head office of the Carolingian Empire was a collegiate organization, in the Palatium space: a group formed by the Rex (king) and the Potentes (aristocracy). The potentes owed loyalty to the King. He had to be able to subdue the aristocracy. The potentes were part of the Aula Regia, formed by the comes (committees in plural, hence drift Earl).

The Aula Regia was part of the King's entourage. The committees advised the king, accompany him in his travels… The Palatinus (Comes of the Palace), had judicial functions. The Seneschal, with military functions, was the bearer of the King's standards. The Maior Domus provided the treasure and public goods.

At the local level, the basic entity was the counties. Multiples entities: 350 counties. The county's government was entrusted to a comes (Earl), appointed by the King, although many times the King to reward the loyalty of the counts named the descendants.

Functions of the Earl: assumed military functions, judicial, prosecutors … Acting on behalf of the King.

One of the King's institutions was called Missi Dominici (“the Lord's envoys”). They were people of the King's utmost trust and who watched over the various counties, so that the local administration would not escape real control.

Among the different counties, there were the peripheral ones, located on the border of the Kingdom, which were the marks (border space). They were unsafe areas. Areas that had to be militarized, with fortifications, walls, castles. They could also be platforms prepared for territorial expansion. These areas were often strongly opposed to the King (revolts against the central power).

What link did the Earls have with the King? They tended to feudalize. The earls had to swear allegiance to the King. This was a previous step that evolved into feudalism. What did the earls get in return? They were rewarded in exchange for such fidelity, in what was called the beneficium. It was not a salary, but the concession of a part of the resources that corresponded to the King.

What benefits did the Earl obtain? Part of the King's fiscal resources went to the Earl (he received a certain percentage of the King's total income). The beneficium was the basis of what was then the vassalage (to give in profit as retribution for services rendered). It was linked to the office, not to the person. The vassal was any noble individual who was under the tutelage of another noble.

Carolingian land-expansion was the driving force behind the centralization of the Empire. The external projection of aristocratic aggressiveness allowed the King to distribute charges and benefits. Charlemagne spearheaded these expansion campaigns. He opened several simultaneous fronts of conquest, which acted to subdue enemy peoples. Between 770 and 800, a first front towards Italy (conquest of Lombardy). A second front of conquest towards Bavaria, Septimania and south of the Pyrenees, until Barcelona (801), Girona (785) and finally towards the Pannonian Avars.

The Saxon area was a territory which could be considered pagan, primitive and peripheral and often launched raids on the Frankish territory. Faced with this, Charlemagne attacked in the year 782 and destroyed a sacred tree in the city of Paderborn, which was one of the symbols of paganism that characterized the Saxons.

The conquest, from that moment on, acquired a religious character. In the so-called Paderborn assembly, some tribal chiefs were baptized, probably to save their lives. There was resistance by one of the tribal chiefs, Widukind, who ended up in 782 after genuine massacres, where an estimated 4500 Saxons died. The Franks used forceful measures in every sense, and the Saxons were forced to surrender.

The Franks established a legal norm known as the Lex Saxonum, the text of the capitulation of the Saxons, in which it was established respect for their customs. One of the formulas used for Christianization was the transfer of relics.

The end of the Carolingian Empire

During the Carolingian age, the Kingdom was territorially structured within: Austrasia, Neustria, Aquitaine and Burgundy. It is said that the Carolingian Empire marked the beginning of Europe. The Empire lasted only a century, with three different Kings. Pepin in dying divided the realm between Charlemagne and Carloman. Charlemagne achieved the resignation of the brother, becoming the only sovereign of the territory in 771. The year 800 was crowned Emperor. In 814, he died and was succeeded by Louis the Pious, the last monarch who could maintain territorial unity.

Fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire after the death of Louis the Pious

The reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) and the inheritance issue

During the reign of Louis the Pious, a series of problems occurred that triggered the fragmentation of the territory. Louis the Pious was the only survivor of Charlemagne's sons. Louis tried to unify all the peoples that had formed the Empire, centralizing power in his figure. But he found the fact that Charlemagne's expansion had been so spectacular that the territory could no longer be expanded. And when the conquests came to a standstill, problems with the local aristocracy began.

When the conquests were no longer possible, the property transferred to the aristocracy had to come out of those that were the King's own, or through concessions of State property. Nevertheless, this greatly weakened the State, leaving it without direct possessions. The transfer of goods from the State and King to the aristocracy strengthened the local powers against the central one, which became smaller and weaker.

On the other hand, the constant revolts, especially in the periphery led by local noblemen, generated tensions between the sons of the Emperor.

In 817, Louis tried to safeguard the territorial unity through a law known as the Ordinatio Imperii, aimed at preserving territorial cohesion. Louis the Pious already saw coming that his succession would cause troubles. Louis the Pious died in 840.

Treaty of Verdun of 843
The territorial distribution of the Empire between the sons of Louis the Pious to the Treaty of Verdun of 843

In 841 the two brothers (Charles and Louis) allied to face the other brother, Lothair in the battle of Fontenoy. The firstborn was Lothair, however the two younger brothers won. On 842 Charles the Bald and Louis the German agree in the Oaths of Strasbourg to maintain the alliance and divide the Kingdom between them.

Charles and Louis addressed their men, one speaking German and the other French. The conflict between brothers was not only a family division, but implied that the aristocracy should position itself. On 843 the Treaty of Verdun established the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire:

All the members of the high aristocracy had to position themselves, giving rise to a process of chained fragmentation. The dividing line between France and Germany begins to be drawn. A large part of the territorial conflicts were in Lothair's territory.

In West Francia, Charles tried to strengthen his situation, he tried to gain more territories in the Middle, but he could not subdue the Bretons. He also had to deal with the increasingly frequent attacks of the Vikings and Normans, who were more audacious and who were accumulating booty. The weakness of the defence made the Vikings increasingly brave. This was so until the King transferred to the aristocracy the responsibility of defending the country. The problem was that the aristocracy did not defend the reign, but its own territory. It was a privatization of defence.

The situation in East France was different. The aristocracy recognized the authority of the Sovereign, although it was a less populated, less urbanized, less “civilized” area. Above all, the eastern and northern borders were very dangerous, as opposed to the Vikings and the Slavs. Internally it was more coerced, but externally it was very dangerous.

Chronology of the process of break up of the Kingdom:

What was the incidence of the second wave of invasions in Christian Europe?

The main impact of the arrival of these peoples in the Frankish territory was to reveal the defensive weakness of the Empire.

The main character of the second wave of invasions is the Normans, the Vikings (“men of the coast”) and the Hungarians (also called Magyars). As in Roman times, they were the so-called barbarians, who now moved again. Nevertheless, the Muslims were also part of this new wave of mass migration.

While the Scandinavians and Hungarians acted similarly, the Muslims had few commonalities with the previous group. Both Scandinavians and Hungarians, in general, practised looting with terror on the local population. At first, they did not intend to dominate politically, but to seize the spoils and march. On the other hand, the Muslims did intend to consolidate their conquests. Very few areas of Europe were free from these aggressions.

Second wave of Barbarian invasions

The emphasis on these migratory processes demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Carolingian power. Vikings, Normans (Norwegians, Danes and Swedes) threw themselves at Christian Europe, why?

The mobility of these peoples towards the territory of the Franks was the result of a change in the correlation of forces with their neighbours. When the Carolingians showed signs of weakness, these attacks became more frequent. Another reason was that Vikings and Normans wanted to control the Frisians.

Transformations were taking place also among the outer peoples, involving the dissolution of the old tribal solidarity and the creation of centres of power, with the capacity to subdue other tribes. It was also of extreme importance for tribal people to show power and the ability to lead war expeditions. The Barbarians had good combat instruments with fast ships that could go up rivers as well as light weapons. They also had good systems for distributing the booty.

Phases of the expansion

In the 9th century, Norwegians moved along the northern route to Greenland and the coasts of Canada. Attacks occurred in: Ireland, England, Scotland, Loire River, Seville, Cadiz, Provence, Ibiza, Egypt, North Africa…

The Danes attacked France, England, the Garonne, Toulouse, Gijon and Empúries. These were attacks based on speed. At the end of the 9th century, they began to establish negotiations with the attacked targets, so that the threatened peoples would pay a tribute in exchange for not being attacked.

From the end of the 9th century onward, a frustrated attack by the Vikings took place in Paris and the Vikings saw that it was becoming more and more difficult for them to carry out this type of attack. Other strategies are put forward now. One was through an alternative formula, initiating permanent establishments that allowed to consolidate territories in the coast, especially in the east of England. They were narrow groups, which were even absorbed by the native peoples.

Of this period is the creation of the Danish Empire of Scandinavia, relatively short in time. During the years 1018 to 1035, Cnut the Great (known as Canute), was the King of Denmark and England. Cnut's troops carried out the occupation of the northern coast of France, Normandy. In 911, it became a Duchy. It was a concession of the Carolingian Empire to settle in this area. The Frankish Kingdom saved future attacks if this was the product of an amicable settlement. In return, the Danes had to ensure fidelity to the King of France and had to convert to Christianity. Normandy became a platform for future expansion. In 1066, they headed for England and occupied it. In 1071-75 they intervened in southern Italy, beginning of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilians. Initially, the territory was Byzantine.

The expeditions of the Swedes or Varangians (merchants) took place on the shores of the Baltic seas. They were not as aggressive. Basically, their action was aimed to commercial dealings. They entered through the rivers of the Baltic Sea and connected to the Black Sea. They also arrived to the Caspian Sea. What they wanted was to trade silver with Constantinople and Baghdad. These actions were not only pillaging, but tended towards settlements, relating to the natives and creating cities: they settled in large cities, such as Novgorod and Kiev. Rapid fusion of the Varangian aristocracy with the local nobility led to a process of stabilization. They converted to Christianity and formed the first Russian and Slavic kingdoms.

The Hungarians expeditions had an active presence in Carolingian Europe between the 9th and 10th centuries. The origin of the Magyars is little known. It could be of Finnish origin. Around 875 they crossed the Carpathians and settled in today Hungary and Czech Republic. They expelled the farmers and missionaries who had settled in that area of Pannonia. They were extremely aggressive. The region of Pannonia was the starting point for very violent expeditions.

They reached Orleans, Burgundy, the Po Valley and southern Italy. Great speed of movement and use of horseshoes and stirrups. Light weaponry such as short bows used from the horse. It was an approach that the Christian knights found difficult to cope with. The Magyars created apocalyptic horror for Christian peoples.

How did the attacked settlements defend themselves? Fortification of the most frontier cities and construction of castles. Otto I, German Emperor, defeated them in 955 in the Battle of Lechfeld. From that moment on, the Magyars were paralysed and mobilized. It was from then on that they began their process of Christianization.

Finally, the Muslims of al-Andalus began a series of conquest expeditions. Since Muhammad's death, the Muslim governors began to spread everywhere. At some points they acted in the form of raids. The most relevant were the attacks on the coast of Provence forming actually an important base, the Emirate of Fraxinetum. From here they launched the attacks on Italy. One of the most important conquests was that of Sicily, in 830 and the Balearic Islands. Al-Andalus was a conquest by populations from the Maghreb, the Berbers.

How did the second wave of migration over Europe and the process of feudalization affect the Carolingian Empire? It undoubtedly influenced. However, the protection from these attacks was much stronger when the local noblemen organized their defences. The control over the army had already passed to the Vassals, a sign of the decadence of the State organization.