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17: The Fall of the Carolingian Empire

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[Charlemagne] Here's a statuette of Charlemagne mounted on his horse. Ugly chap, wasn't he? Of course, you wouldn't have dared say while he was alive so it's not really quite fair now that he's been dead for about 1200 years. Do you see the little ball in his hand? No, he is not going off to play tennis with a funny racquet. The ball is called the orb, or orbis terrarum, which means "the sphere of the lands (of the world)." It is a medieval world globe, so don't try to hand me any guff about how the people back then believed that the world was flat and that Columbus was some sort of a genius. He thought that the world was shaped like an egg.

1. Charlemagne and his advisors managed a "renaissance" in which they attempted to re-create the Roman Empire of the West as best they could. The central piece of this effort was the concentration of authority in a central government, and they were almost certain to have failed in this effort.

They failed to address the basic problems of the West: the decay of the economic infrastructure (roads, bridges) and the loss of the manufacturing and monetary subsidy that the West had obtained from the East as long as both were under the control of a single imperial authority.

Most important, however, they failed to address the problem caused by the division of the state among the king's heirs according to the traditional inheritance practice of gavelkind. It was only luck that had kept the Frankish realm in the hands of a single ruler from 751 to about 830.

2. Something about Louis the Pious.

Louis was born in 778, while Charlemagne was on an expedition to Spain (remember The Song of Roland?). Charlemagne gave him the newly-acquired land of what is now southern France, stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, with its capital at Toulouse, and with the name of the Kingdom of Aquitaine. He left the child there under the care of a very able group of secular and clerical counselors led by Count William of Toulouse (William of Orange in the epics, and St. William of the Desert in the lives of the saints) and Saint Benedict of Aniane, monastic reformer, scholar, and political theorist. Louis had older brothers, so he did not expect ever to get more of his father's lands than the kingdom he had been given.

[Europe at the Death of
Charlemagne ]
Europe at the Death of Charlemagne

By 814, when Charlemagne died, however, Louis' brothers were already dead, and he went to Aachen at the age of thirty-six, with three sons of his own, to assume control of the entire empire. He was probably the best-trained ruler to assume a Western throne in over three hundred years and he was ready to reform the whole Carolingian system.

He started by expelling all illegitimately-born men from the civil service and high ecclesiastical posts. The problem was that many of these people had Charlemagne for a father. When Louis dismissed his half-brothers, he turned a powerful body of potential supporters against him. He also stripped the civil service of many of its experienced administrators at an inopportune time. Some nobles in Italy used a young boy, Bernard, with a claim to the throne as an excuse to rebel. Louis called out the Frankish army, enjoyed a massive show of support, defeated his Italian opponents and captured Bernard. He ordered Bernard blinded, as was the custom at the time. Since a blind man could not rule, Louis expected to eliminate young Bernard as a future threat to his own authority. Louis's executioner was clumsy, however, and, rather than tapping the eye very lightly with a red-hot poker and so permanently clouding the cornea, he touched the eye so that the shock traveled directly up the optic nerve, and Bernard died on the spot. By having accepted his crown from a clergyman, Louis had already demonstrated his willingness to subordinate himself to the Church, something his father had never done. The popes, based in Italy as they were, had probably been sympathetic to the recent rebellion and thought to use Louis's killing of his nephew as an opportunity to reaffirm ecclesiastical power and influence. The Church imposed a penance on Louis, and he humbled himself before his highest nobles. Many of these fighting men were competing for power and prestige with local bishops and abbots. They were dismayed at the degree to which Louis had abandoned Charlemagne's policy of claiming equality at the very least between ecclesiastical and imperial authority. The public humiliation of King Louis, even though it was self-imposed, must have been a distasteful sight to men who had followed Charlemagne. Louis was left with the approval of the Church but, among his nobles, he had gained a reputation for weakness of character.

Louis and his advisors had devised a plan, called Imperium Christianum (Christian Empire), with which they intend to end the problems arising from the custom of gavelkind being observed even at the imperial level. As the first step, Louis divided the lands of the empire among his three sons, establish their borders, arranged for the imperial crown to pass to his eldest son, and ordered that, when his sons died, the clerical and lay leaders of each kingdom would choose as king the best qualified of their deceased monarch's heirs. All were supposed to work together under the leadership of the emperor. This was all well and good; who knows but what it might even have worked (although I doubt it)? The plan was never fully implemented however. Most elaborate plans founded on abstract principles fail to take into account human frailties. At least this was the case with the Imperium Christianum, Some time after settler their estates on his three sons, Louis was introduced to a girl by the name of Judith, who was -- the chroniclers report -- an absolute knockout. Unlike his father, Louis, a widower, didn't believe in simply taking young women to bed. He seems to have had "family values," and so married the girl.

When Judith gave birth to a son, Louis announced that he was going to redraw the borders of the kingdoms of the Imperium Christianum so that Charles, his new son and the apple of his eye, would have an inheritance equal to those of his half-brothers. Those half-brothers didn't believe as much as did Louis that this was a Good Idea. They defied his attempts to reduce their lands, and civil war broke out between the emperor Louis and his sons. The fighting continued even past Louis' death in 840 and came to involve no only Louis's sons, but his grandsons, and virtually anyone who commanded a sufficient number of fighting men to become a player in this rather pointless game.

Since everyone was involved in fighting one another, perhaps they didn't notice the new and even greater problems that were arising.

A noble class dependent for its power and position upon the possession of land - or, to be more accurate, it's right to collect taxes and services from the residents of the land - had emerged over the previous century, and the population of that hereditary class was growing. As long as the Frankish monarchs had continued conquering new lands, there were always new districts to distribute to the nobility. Now that expansion had ceased, however, the nobles began to suffer from "land-hunger" and began to evolve into something different from what the had originally been. They took complete control of the lands they had been appointed to govern in the offices of count, duke, and margrave and to treat them as personal possessions. They began to demand payment in land for helping one or the other side in the incessant civil wars. When the Carolingian monarchs no longer had royal lands to give in exchange for support, the fighting nobles took over the lands of the churches and the monasteries that the central government - such as it was - could no longer protect. Even so, they could not continue dividing their lands into smaller and smaller pieces. During the course of the ninth and early tenth centuries, in a process that can be discerned only dimly, the aristocracy of western Europe abandoned the deeply-rooted custom of gavelkind and replaced it with primogeniture ("first-born"), a system in which the core of a family's lands was kept intact and passed automatically to the eldest son. In this fashion, the empire was shattered into hundreds of practically independent districts, each owned and ruled by a local strong man in command of a small body of fighting men and a castle.

Such a state cannot maintain a navy, so the remnants of the Carolingian empire were easy pickings for sea-borne raiders from Scandinavia (the Vikings) and from North Africa (the Saracens), as well as mounted raiders from central Asia (the Magyars, or Hungarians). The rulers descended from Charlemagne were unable to defend Europe from these raiders, and it fell to local strong men, such as Count Robert of Paris and the dukes of the lands of Germany, to do so. Meanwhile, the nobles began to establish networks of personal alliances to cut down on fighting among themselves and to coordinate their efforts against the raiders. This was the beginning of the political and military system traditionally called feudalism and was also the end of any real hope that people of the West might have had of reestablishing a centralized government and unified state such as the Romans had managed to achieve.

Europe was more or less on its own, no longer trying to bring back some golden age, but searching for whatever means would help it to survive.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas
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