After Rome

As Roman power ebbed, German tribes from outside the old borders moved in to fill the vacuum. Gaul, which had been the most prosperous of the Roman provinces, was conquered by the dominant Franks under Childeric I of Tournai and his son Clovis I, recognised as the first king of France. The Franks' kingdom covered much of Germany, the Low Countries, and Northern France, and they clearly dominated the remaining Romans and the original Celtic Gauls. Today the German word for France, Frankreich still pays homage to the Frankish kingdom.

In 987, Hugues Capet was elected and crowned King of France. He was the first sovereign to speak only a vernacular Romanic language or French. The Capetian dynasty succeeded in reinforcing royal authority and undertook the task of extending its realm. But it was not until 1119 that Louis VI proclaimed in a letter to Pope Calistuss II that he was the King of France (no longer just King of the Franks). It was the first text in which reference was made to territorial France, from which the word français is derived.

The Merovingian dynasty, the first of the Frankish dynasties, named after the legendary King Merovech of the Salian Franks, conquered or controlled much of modern France and Germany. The last king of a unified Merovingian kingdom was Clovis, who converted to Christianity as a promise for victory in 496 against the Alamanni tribe. Clovis also defeated Alaric II, the Visigothic King of Toulouse at the Battle of Vouille in 507. At Clovis' death he divided his kingdom amongst his four sons according to Frankish tradition. The subsequent division of the Frankish kingdom inevitably weakened the dynasty.




The rise of the new Frankish kings of the Carolingian dynasty was the result of the expanded power of the Major domo, or "Mayor of the Palace". Merovingian kings gave their major domos extensive power to command and control their estates, and some of them used this power to command and control entire territories. Pepin II the Younger was one of the first to expand his power so much that he controlled almost all of Gaul. His son, also a major domo, Charles Martel, led the Franks' army in lieu of King Theoderic IV and won the 732 Battle of Tours against the Moors, stopping Muslim expansion in Europe and limiting their influence. Martel (meaning the hammer), was a reference to his weapon of choice.

Martel's son, Pepin III the Short gained the support of the nobles and papacy and then disposed of the Merovingian "puppets" and was declared Rex Dei gratia, "King by the grace of God." This set a precedence for European absolutism, by arguing that it was God's will to declare someone a king. Pepin the Short defeated the Lombards of Northern Italy and was the founder of the Carolingian dynasty.[1] The apex of power was gained under Pepin's son Charlemagne (Karl der Magnus, or Charles the Great), who was king of the Franks, then king of the Germans and then emperor. Charlemagne was also the first king to be crowned as Holy Roman Emperor, a position to be held by (primarily German) kings over much of Europe.

Charlemagne made his capital at Aachen in Germany and spent most of his life fighting the various German tribes, bringing them into his kingdom and Christianity. Charlemagne, whose empire expanded by conquest to encompass most of present-day Germany, France, the Low Countries, Austria, Italy, and Bohemia created something of a renaissance for the intellectual world in his Frankish kingdom. Charlemagne established monastaries and had monks copy out the Bible in illuminated manuscripts in rooms called, scriptorias. This king encouraged learning and gathered scholars to teach in new universities, while he established new libraries. Reading and even writing were encouraged for the aristocracy and even some in the growing middle class. For women, 'taking the cloth' (joining a nunnery) was one of the few ways women could expand their intellectual horizons and do something aside from bearing children and working in the fields.

Charlemagne accepted a profound Christianity and defended Pope Leo III both physically and politically. Leo initiated the temporal struggle for power between the pope and the European kings as he created Charlemagne a holy Roman emperor. By publicly crowning this powerful king Leo was seen as capable of disposing such gifts and thus even more powerful than any earthly king. Charlemagne's legacy to Europe was the creation of a European identity, which was furthered in the crusades (a later chapter in the papal struggle for power).

Charlemagne's Europe


Europe c 814 - click


Charlemagne was dependent on support by his nobles, with whose help he was able to fight wars and suppress peasant rebellions. These nobles recognized Charlemagne as their overlord and in return the king recognized the nobles as local rulers and rewarded them with land and booty for their feudal services. He was a devout Christian who had four wives and five mistresses. He has been described as crude and as tough, but he saw himself as king by divine right. Charlemagne won recognition as a great man by conquering territory and pacifying the 'barbarian' Germans, for example the Saxons and the Lombards.[2] He united Europe as far east as the Elbe River, southwest across the Pyrenees Mountains toward the Ebro River in Spain, and in Italy as far south as Rome.

Much of Charlemagne's rule involved continuous warfare, and his power gave him influence with the Church. Charlemagne had his greatest challenge with the Saxons: he fought them in 772, 775, 777, 778, and 782. At the request of Pope Adrian I, he crossed the Alps in 773, overthrew the Lombard kingdom, and returned Ravenna to the papal see. In 776 he suppressed an insurrection in Italy; and in 777 secured the submission of the Saxon chiefs. From Spain, where he had gone to fight to Moors and the Arabs in 778, he was again summoned to crush the Saxons. The Saxons destroyed a Frankish army in 782, which Charlemagne then fearfully avenged. A Saxon uprising followed, but in 783-785 Charlemagne finally persuaded their king, Wittekind and their chiefs, to submit to baptism and become his faithful vassals. In 788, Bavaria was absorbed into his kingdom, and next the country of the Avars to the Raab. At the same time the Magyars had established themselves between the Volga, Don Rivers in c725 and would attack Charlemagne's successors from 862 onwards.[3]

In 800 Charlemagne marched an army into Italy to support Pope Leo III against rebellious Romans. On Christmas Day 800, in St. Peter's Church, the Pope crowned Charlemagne as Carolus Augustus, Emperor of the Romans. The remaining years of his reign were spent in further consolidating his vast empire, which extended from the Ebro to the Elbe. Bishoprics were established in Saxon country and many of the Slavs beyond the Elbe were tamed.

Charlemagne's Europe was more rural and thinly populated than either the either the Byzantine, or Islamic empires -- a result of low European prosperity, which Charlemagne tried to raise. He encouraged more trade by giving guarantees to Jewish merchants, and he improved agriculture. Literacy in Gaul had all but disappeared since the German invasions had defeated Rome, and Charlemagne invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, he developed mapping, and he learned to read.

Carolingian Law

Charles had a direct hand in a number of innovations and important developments regarding law, of which I emphasize two here.[4] He created a body of Imperial law that has served as an important source for our knowledge of his manner of governing. He also fostered the collection of tribal laws that likewise have been an invaluable source for historians. The effect of such widespread common law was to create a standard of social and economic stability, which remained a goal for centuries afterwards.

Local Law and Imperial Decrees

The different peoples of the Carolingian empire continued to live according to their own national laws. Everyone then understood that law was something that was peculiar to each nation, or people. It was unthinkable that a Saxon should be tried by Frankish law, even though they both had the same king. In order for his margraves, especially, to rule the conquered peoples as his deputies, Charlemagne had national customs set down in writing. He sent scholars to interview those who knew the law -- shamans, tribal elders, and the like -- and the scholars recorded the answers. The king then had the laws published and enforced.

Because of Charles' vision, we still possess the law of the Salian Franks, for example. We know the fine imposed when one free man stole from another, as opposed to when a slave stole from a free man. More importantly, we know from such documents something of the social structure of that era and how those people thought about law and justice. Charles was thinking only of providing a clear set of guidelines, not of creating sources for historians.

Over and above local laws, Charlemagne issued imperial laws that affected everyone and that were imposed throughout his realm. These were called capitularies, after the Latin word for chapter. They were often brief, a page or less, and treated a wide variety of subjects. Whatever their topic, however, a capitulary always superseded the local law. Many of the capitularies concerned the business of the king: terms of military service, for example, or the administration of royal estates. The capitularies are now the primary source we have for the entire Carolingian system of the missi dominici. But the capitularies could and did range widely, and Charles even issued decrees concerning the conduct of the clergy.



Charlemagne's Cathedral in Aachen


Charlemagne standardized European details of weights, measures, and coinage.[5] He replaced amateurs representing their community in local courts with itinerant professional judges who had a greater understanding of law; and he reformed the clergy. To be ordained a priest he decreed that candidates must pass an examination. Anyone, priest or commoner, committing fornication was obliged by law to do penance for ten years, three of these years living on bread and water! A cleric committing adultery and begetting a child had to do penance for seven years. If a cleric lusted after a woman and was not able to commit the act because the woman would not comply he had to do penance for half a year on bread and water and for a whole year abstain from wine and meat. Anyone caught at theft had to do penance for seven years. If anyone "by his magic" caused the death of anyone, he had to do penance for seven years; or if anyone "took away the mind" of someone "by the invocation of demons," he had to do penance for five years. Abortion was punished by a penance of three years.

These were times allowed when a village on special holidays was allowed to dance and sing ancient pagan or ribald songs. Churchmen complained of the peasants singing "wicked songs" that were the lures of the devil. But, amid this wickedness, economic progress was taking place. People had begun taking advantage of the regional river water to power their mills. A three-field system was introduced, allowing a third of the land to lie fallow each year, which increased harvests. Not only was agriculture improving, the invention of a horse-collar permitted a horse to pull a load three or four times as great as it had with the previous, simple thong of leather around its neck. A tandem harness allowed oxen to work as a team. A wheeled plow was introduced that could knife deeply into the heavy, richer, wetter and often sticky soil of northern Europe. Rather than just scratch the surface as other plows did, the new plow turned the soil over. Cross plowing was no longer needed. It took as many as eight oxen to pull such a plow, and this forced peasants to cooperate and pool their oxen and labor. A great agricultural increase was beginning that would give advantage to northern Europeans and change the world.

Charlemagne promoted education, agriculture, arts, manufactures and commerce. He built sumptuous palaces, particularly at Aachen and Ingelheim near Bingen; and he built many churches. Learned men were encouraged to come to his court, and he himself could speak Latin and read Greek. His fame spread to all parts of the Continent. The king was buried at his capital in Aachen. His reign signified an attempt to create order and Christian culture amongst the various nations of the west, but as his successors were at best weaklings, Charlemagne's empire fell to pieces in the 9th century.


1            See See the History of the French Language at

2           In typical Christian fashion the issue with the Saxons was that they worshipped trees, or a tree! Since that was hardly borne out in the Gospels the Saxons had to be tamed; however, the trees made it into the Christian holiday season as Christmas trees. The Christians adapted to the opposing German worship - how could the Saxons refuse?

3           The Magyars were the original Hungarians, a tribal confederacy of seven related clans. The Magyars are by-and-large a Finno-Ugrian people, related to a degree to Finns, Karelians, and Estonians on the one hand, and Turkic peoples on the other. The original confederation, consisting of the Magyari (Madjary), Nyék (Nyak), Kari, Kasi, Taryán, Kurt-Djarmat, and Yenö tribes, was augmented by three dissident Khazar clans, collectively called the Kabars, and the seven plus three formed the "On Oghur" ("Ten Arrows") Confederation; some think that "On Oghur" is the source behind the modern term "Hungary". See Regnal Chronologies at,

4           EL Skip Knox,

5           Frank E Smitha,

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