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Charles the Great: Should Charlemagne be called ‘great’?

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Published: Wed, 31 May 2017

Charlemagne has from his time of rule between the years 768 to 814 left a marked and undeniable impression upon the historical world, encouraging global and timeless debate as to whether he warrants his image as the ‘Father of a Continent’. [1] Throughout the duration of my project I intend to explore the concept of Charlemagne as a ‘great’ man by looking at the historiography surrounding him, considering his actions and seeing whether they justify his magnificent reputation. This question has attracted much scholarly debate both during and since the time of Charlemagne and I hope to display how the historians have interpreted Charlemagne’s title, and whether their opinions have changed as time has progressed and their research has developed.

I will consider three main areas of his reign which have in my opinion instigated the most discussion. The first will be his constant involvement in warfare and the achievements and failures he attained and endured as a result. The second will look at the ‘disintegration’ [2] theory, calling into question the capability and effectiveness of Charlemagne’s government and administration, and consequently his ability as a ruler. The final area of deliberation will question the significance of the imperial title, and how he came to acquire such a prestigious title, encompassing his policies of education and reformation. I will attempt to find historians that both agree and disagree with all themes. In addition to these main points that I hope to also observe Charlemagne’s involvement with finance and legislation, including his relationship with the church, all of which I hope will provide me with enough evidence from historians by which I can determine whether Charlemagne’s reputation can be defended or not.

The German historian, François-Louis Ganshof who was writing in the late twentieth- century, is very explicit in his opinion that Charlemagne’s kingdom and rule ‘decomposed’ shortly after 800, mostly as a result of the inadequacies of his army. According to him it was Charlemagne’s death which actually helped to save his reputation from disgrace, as he suggests that had he lived any longer the defeats he would have endured would have been especially damaging. [3] There are many scholars who directly oppose this line of thought however, particularly Donald Bullough who was writing around the same time as Ganshof and professed that by the time of his death in 814 Charlemagne was ‘the most powerful Christian ruler in the world’ [4] These differences of opinion felt around the same time demonstrate how varied the debate is upon Charlemagne and whether he truly deserved his magnificent title, which has survived and been upheld throughout the ages.

The Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne was, indeed, very powerful, and by 814 Charlemagne had many over-sea territories under his firm control. This however was not always the case, and throughout his 40 year reign, Charlemagne was confronted with much unrest. Roger Collins, writing in 1998 tells us that ‘Charles’s Saxon wars were the most protracted and most bitterly fought of the numerous campaigns of his reign’, having begun in 772 and continuing until 804, ‘with repercussions still being felt thereafter.’ [5] There is no general consensus to be found which agrees that he Charlemagne was wholly successful or not in the different areas of his rule, but I hope to see whether time, situation or perhaps agenda of the historians are valuable enough evidence for the continued debate as to whether Charlemagne was a ‘great’ man.

The reputation of kings and leaders is often measured in terms of the amount of land gained throughout a reign or time in power. In terms of Charlemagne, this again opens up new avenues of great historical debate. Was the expansion of territory during his reign extensive enough to justify his repute as ‘the most powerful Christian ruler in the world?’ Many historians disagree that it was, and R. Schieffer confirms that ‘after years of apparently unstoppable rise, the limits of Carolingian power suddenly became apparent’ [6] around the time of the year 800. Alongside Schieffer, reasons for this opinion centred upon Charlemagne’s inability to expand his territories significantly into Spain or into the eastern empire. For example, The Royal Frankish Annals, described as ‘the most unassuming work of history written during this age’ [7] , tells us in 782 that Charlemagne’s army were killed almost to a man when ‘the Saxons, persuaded by Widukind… rebelled as usual.’ [8] This does not suggest a successful army led by a great warrior king.

In addition debate on this topic has been largely focussed around the substantial lacking of a competent and willing army, as H. Fichtenau suggests, ‘The poorer people complained that they were compelled to render almost continuous military service until they were completely impoverished.’ [9] This also informs us that Charlemagne’s subjects were coerced into fighting for their king, possibly questioning his reputation at the time and skill as a military leader. In this sense, it is easy to argue that Charlemagne does not deserve the brilliant reputation that he has been remembered for. Fichtenau continues in suggesting that Charlemagne cared very little about his people to make them do “continuous military service” which may be a reason why he could not easily raise an army. Is this the attitude of a great leader, in response to the terms of the treatment of Charlemagne’s service men? T. Reuter completely disagrees with Fichtenau suggesting that warriors were well looked after, benefiting from ‘gifts of food, clothing, gold, and silver, horses and arms’ [10] . This reveals a competent leader aware of the people serving under his name and rewarding them justly.

Charlemagne managed to conqueror a substantial amount of Italy and hold on to what he had when faced with attempted invasion, in particular against the Saracens and troublesome Saxons. Einhard recorded that ‘Ganshof, whose view upon Charlemagne is often critical, even records that; ‘outstanding achievements, which can scarcely be matched by modern men.’ [11] Certainly the achievements that Charlemagne enjoyed in wartime are abetting as a part of his ‘great’ remembrance. There is certainly much to suggest that Charlemagne did deserve his reputation in relation to his triumphs on the battlefield. His acquirement of the Avar treasure in 791 and the invasion and subjugation of the land of Bavaria to his rule where remarkable high points in his reign of warfare; Becher goes on to tell us that ‘with Bavaria, Charlemagne acquired a new and apparently powerful neighbour’, [12] which would assist him in advancing his reputation across the continent. Bullough is in cohorts with Becher on this opinion as he claims that ‘Charles’ reputation and prestige among his neighbours had clearly not diminished as advancing years forced him to leave the command of armies in battle to others.’ [13] Agreeing with this view is Collins who adds in his work, which ‘offers an essentially political account of the major developments of Charles’ reign’ [14] , that ‘Charles’s naval activities in his final period are particularly notable’, and saw the Carolingian Empire turned into ‘a major maritime power.’ [15] In my opinion, Charlemagne did well to defend his kingdom successfully and expand to cushion his existing borders. Ganshof shows that he was a well renowned man and admired by other kings from neighbouring territories. I believe that Charlemagne not only managed to maintain his inherited lands, which is a great achievement in itself considering the vastness of the kingdom, but managed to build and gain land and respect, with which comes great reputation. His role in warfare suggests that he was a great and distinguished military leader and it would appear that his victories and skill in battle is one of the few topics where the historians generally agree that it enhanced his reputation amongst his peers and beyond.

The argument of the ‘decomposition’ [16] theory, chiefly driven by Ganshof’s, has also encouraged much contest between historians, both historically and modern. Charlemagne’s final years, chiefly following the Imperial Coronation of 800, are characterised by Ganshof as being dominated by a process of disintegration. It is my view that this idea holds a certain truth to it, demonstrated particularly in the aftermath of Charlemagne receiving the imperial title, but only to a certain extent. There were arguably some areas of his rule that experienced some level of limitations post-800, particularly his administrative apparatus, his military successes and also his Imperial Programme. Ganshof sets the parameter for this issue, although he does also indicate that there was a ‘Balance Sheet’, [17] implying that he did not believe that there was either uniform failure or success. He does often mention, however, that any successes Charles managed to achieve, mainly concerning his foreign and internal policies, were in his mind, notably ‘disappointing’, [18] holding an overall picture of failure. Opposing this idea, King states that ‘the Emperor had coped perfectly satisfactorily in his last years’, [19] supported by Collins who adds that he believes that Ganshof’s’ ‘judgement seems mistaken’. [20] 

Charlemagne’s government is one of the most disputed aspects within his reign. Many historians agree that the way in which he orchestrated his government was poor, including Matthew Innes who declares that ‘the lack of attention to the nuts and bolts of administration and to the mechanisms by which Charlemagne was able to govern … is striking” [21] . His point is furthered in saying that “some historians have gone so far to claim that the Carolingians lacked any clearly defined concept of the state’ [22] . In the last years of Charlemagne’s reign for example, the Carolingian state ‘had symptoms of bad government’ [23] . The idea argued by Ganshof that the last reigning years ‘suffered decomposition’ would surely suggest that Charlemagne does not deserve his great reputation. Ganshof states that “Charlemagne’s achievements in the last years fell short of those envisaged in 802” [24] We know that during 801-814 for example “there are instances of malfunctioning of public services” [25] of which the capitularies “year after year denounce the same abuses” [26] .

The capitularies created under Charlemagne often had to be re-issued, and we may infer from this that perhaps he did not have the authority which would ensure his requests were carried out. Fichtenau maintains that “it cannot be denied that Charles the great failed to solve this problem” [27] . Donald Bullough is in agreement with this point as he does ‘not feel confident that either Charles or his close advisers had developed a clear and consistent attitude to the empire in the east.’ [28] Davis who was writing in the late 1920’s confirms that the ‘capitularies and his commissions produced the merest ripples on the surface of the deep waters of customary law.’ [29] His work predominantly focuses on the belief that ‘the very name by which [Charlemagne] is best known is the product of French invention’ [30] with a view to link themselves with greatness, rather than a result of Charlemagne’s prominence. The majority of the criticism directed at Charlemagne’s government focuses around the years after 800, however Charlemagne managed to achieve great things such as managing to make his subjects take an oath of fidelity taken ‘in the name of the emperor’ [31] which Ganshof describes as ‘new and imperial’ [32] . Perhaps even more importantly he created a new codification of law which insisted upon creating a written record of laws for the first time. Therefore it is evident that the government serving under Charlemagne did manage to do great and commendable things. It was from the government that Charlemagne managed to patronize the arts, and scholarship and learning. Although there were negatives within the government, I believe the achievements far outweigh them.

The Imperial Coronation is a major event in Charlemagne’s rule and yet another area which has induced forcible disagreement amongst historians since its occasion in 800.

The main argument is centred on the significance of the title in relation to the rest of his rule, and calls into question his role as protector of the Church among other factors. With the ‘imperialization of Charlemagne’ [33] in 800, many historians have questioned whether Charlemagne changed the way he ruled after his coronation. The areas on this question chiefly explored throughout history are multi faceted, but I have identified three main parts to examine. These include changes that were implemented in the government, if any, Charlemagne’s personal outlook on the title, and his role as protector of the Church. It is interesting to see how much, or indeed, how little, these three constituents changed after the Imperial coronation of 25th December, 800.

We can identify certain techniques that Charlemagne employed in order to carry out his will. In 802 he called a council at Aachen and dispatched his missi in order to examine the religious and moral state of affairs throughout the kingdom. Wilson described his government as a ‘strong, centralised government [with] internal stability’ [34] , which leads us to believe that he was powerful enough to impose any changes effectively upon his dominions. Historians have claimed in their work that there were also changes to the content and style of capitularies after 800. The most famous and extensive of capitularies were the Admonitio Generalis, 789, the Herstal of 799, and capitulary produced at Aachen in 802, dubbed as ‘the Programmatic Capitulary’ by Ganshof. Historian King tells us how each of these capitularies are released following much unrest in Charlemagne’s kingdom, and that ‘most of the rulings are concerned with canon law, monastic life and the like.’ [35] It is to be noted however, that these things are indeed ‘recurrent theme[s with]… the problems dealt with in 802 or 789 or 779’ [36] and the ideas are simply repeated over time. Collins informs us that the Admonitio Generalis we can see Charlemagne ‘explicitly claiming responsibility for the moral and spiritual welfare of his realm’ [37] . The content was greatly influenced by a range of councils dating back from the fourth to sixth centuries, and therefore much of it was repetition of ideas and wishes from over the years. Although this is true, Collins admits that ‘the concluding regulations…represent new injunctions’ [38] and have not been taken from any earlier documents. Nevertheless no dramatic change in content can be seen. King adds that the previously sought goals in the capitularies had not been altered: ‘order, justice, piety, peace, concord, each conceived in Christian terms, each expressive of God’s will.’ [39] Despite this, we are told that these issues were ‘sought the more determinedly’ [40] by Charlemagne after 800.

In opposition to King and Collins, Ganshof argues that in face there was a significant change to the content and style of the capitularies after 800, and also the way in which Charlemagne thought perceived them. He interprets the 802 capitulary issued from Aachen as a bid to create a Christian republic on earth under Charlemagne’s authority. He puts particular emphasis on the way it is written, and how some passages are in first person which he claimed was unusual. The parts in first person may be interpreted as issues which Charlemagne held most dear to him, and Ganshof argues that this is due to the Emperor being driven by Imperial responsibility. [41] The introduction of the capitulary refers to Charlemagne’s intentions of sending out missi, to spread the word of god and encourage people to obey him, and Ganshof uses this as evidence of an Imperial programme of rule. The oath of fidelity is a particularly significant feature of ‘the Programmatic Capitulary’, ‘the counterpart to the Emperor’s recognition of his own enhanced obligations before God.’ [42] Two years after his coronation, it appears that Charlemagne imposed ‘a greater insistence on the strict enforcement of the established laws’ [43] , and possibly the most significant detail is that the oath was to be taken in the name of the Emperor, not the King. Ganshof implied that a distinction is being made between the Imperial and former royal title. He adds that the language used to draw out the oath in the capitulary is explicitly more spiritual, and this distinguishes it from other oaths sworn in the 890’s with Charlemagne as king.

I believe that the debate to Ganshof’s argument rests in the suggestion that perhaps the ‘sixty-year-old Emperor’ [44] was simply becoming increasingly more aware of his old age. Charlemagne greatly desired salvation and in order to ensure this he knew his responsibility to his people and their beliefs was an important constituent which would seal his fate. Perhaps Charlemagne’s focus in his capitularies came more from the anxieties of an old man ‘for awareness of passing years’ [45] , and not as a direct result of his Imperial Coronation, as Ganshof has suggested.

Perhaps Charlemagne perceived the Imperial title as a way to enforce other wishes more firmly as Wallace-Hadrill claims that the imperial title ‘meant little or nothing’ to him ‘outside Rome’. [46] For example, with his newly acquired status he was able to claim that there were religious dimensions to his military campaigns, which would encourage more people to serve him. Davis tells how Charlemagne;

did not go out of his way to seek the Imperial dignity, but accepted it as a responsibility which could not be refused; he employed it, not as a stepping-stone to further aggrandisement, but to legalise power already acquired, to allay the purposeless strife of race against race within his existing dominions, to evoke the consciousness of spiritual brotherhood which afterwards proved so mighty a factor in European development. [47] 

Wallace Hadrill confirms that Charlemagne was ‘fight[ing] for the faith’ [48] , and not solely because of his newly adorned title. In addition, this supremacy enabled him to crown his son Louis, which he hoped would secure his legacy after his death.

I believe that the greatest significance of the Imperial coronation lies in the debate as to whether Charlemagne’s attitude towards the Church changed after 800. In my personal opinion, there is much evidence from many of the historians which suggests that it did, but still there lies a counter argument.

I believe that following the coronation in Rome Charlemagne recognised his responsibilities to God and pursued them with a ‘driving passion’ [49] , and his ambition to create ‘a truly Christian society’ [50] was substantially magnified. There is much evidence to suggest that this is exactly what Charlemagne thought God required of him, and the fact that he was crowned on Christ’s birthday is appropriate to this. It adds to the belief that Charlemagne saw himself as Christ’s representative upon earth, and because of this, saw himself as Gods worker among men. The ‘Paderborn Epic’ [51] also may hold evidence to this claim, as the poem refers to Charlemagne as an instrument of St. Peter. The oath of fidelity, released with the capitulary of 802, has been said to have been ‘re-phrased to give it a more religious character’ and was ‘the counterpart to the Emperor’s recognition of his own enhanced obligations before God.’ [52] 

After 800, Charlemagne became ‘worthy of the highest secular dignity that existed under God’, and we know that he also continuously claimed ‘responsibility for…the spiritual welfare of his realm.’ [53] Was this however completely owing to the coronation or due to his awareness of an approaching death as an old man? There are continuous implications suggesting that Charles had a ‘terrible awareness that God’s judgment will be conditioned by the conduct of his subjects’ [54] and in his remaining months he spent his time in prayer and alms-giving ‘and spent some of his last hours in correcting’ books. [55] Perhaps therefore this priority of religion had more to do with his hopes for personal redemption and salvation from God, and to attain this, he knew he had to do Gods bidding, and spread the word of Christianity for a Christian republic on Earth. Also toward the end of his reign we know he ‘arranged for the distribution of the treasures and silver…among the twenty-one metropolitan churches that now existed in his empire…for the good of his soul.’ [56] Nevertheless, it remains certain that Charlemagne was ‘concerned with the problems of the Church’ and thought it was his duty to protect ‘with his whole mind’. [57] It is evident that his struggles with Saxony were primarily due to their resistance of Christianity, in preference of paganism. It remains uncertain as to whether his increased Christian mission in his last years were more due to the coronation, and his recognition of being the protector of the church, or simply due to his hopes for salvation after death. Becher however tell us that in gaining the Imperial title, Charlemagne ‘achieved his goal of standing at the head of the Christian world’. [58] 

Charlemagne is presented as a king of well-rounded ability and his patronage of the arts compliments his government and religious advances particularly well. The capturing of the Avar treasure meant there was a greater disposable income and as a result of the influx of income patronage of the arts, encouraging scholarship and learning amongst his people, soars in his period. Fichtenau and Wallace-Hadrill suggest there was no significant push in the development of the arts for the first few years in Charlemagne’s sovereignty. Rosamond McKitterick continues to say that the patronage of learning could be regarded as one of the obligations of royalty, [59] perhaps suggesting that it was not something newly enforced by Charlemagne. On the other hand, she then suggests that his patronage was designed to promote his royal power as a Christian king and to consolidate the faith [60] which is shown by the creation of the two schools; the peripatetic school, which Charlemagne travelled with, and the Hofschule, his court school. Most of the courts activities revolved around religion and the Hofschule even created a new addition to the gospels. [61] In addition, Charlemagne began to commission paintings such as the ‘Al Fresco’ which still survives today in the chapel in Frankia. It overlooks the vault and illustrates Christ sitting in majesty. This represents to us a recurring theme that the arts tended to reflect; Charlemagne’s comparison to Christ. Charlemagne however seemed to show a genuine interest in the developments of the arts as he ‘was very interested in music and what was sung in his chapel’. [62] Charlemagne used his patronage of the arts to improve the image in which other people saw him and successively improve his reputation. Einhard, a dedicated scholar who served both under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious claimed that ‘the King… was a very intelligent man’. [63] Rosamond McKitterick suggests that it was a period of remarkable efflorescence of culture ‘initiated by Charlemagne’ [64] which is shown by the influx of poetry, art, and books produced during his reign. This can allow us to understand more clearly why the scholars in Charlemagne’s era were eager to help the king; scholars from all around the globe sought to help him, including Alcuin of York and Paul the Deacon from Italy.

The ability to summon such great men from other kingdoms suggests the reputation that preceded Charlemagne. His devotion to scholarly texts, prayer and almsgiving shows the depths of Charlemagne’s faith and his desire and motivation to improve his subject’s lives. Personally I think that this is an invaluable insight into the character of the king, as we are able to see how driven and determined Charlemagne was to both better the lives of his people, but also his personal reflection of what his duties meant to him. Charlemagne’s attention to the arts tended to be quite extravagant and we may infer that he looked upon the subject as a form of propaganda. It suggests that he was very astute in his decision-making of what to commission in order to improve his reputation. It is clear to see that Charlemagne reputes himself with great integrity and achievement and his accomplishments were of great merit.

The viewpoints regarding Charlemagne’s claim to greatness are of great variation. Finding the distinction between a myth and a truly remarkable man has been difficult to determine throughout the scope of work available to me. Many historians, including Richard Winston who was writ


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