Christian living and the inner life and unity of the Church were furthered by the great Carolingians. For about two centuries the Carolingians brought under their sway much of Western Europe including at the widest extent of their realms the larger portions of what are now France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Western and Southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, perhaps half of Italy, slight footholds south of the Pyrenees, and much of the east coast of the Adriatic. Their rule stretched from the Elbe to Barcelona and from the North Sea to south of Rome, Their power reached its apex under Charlemagne and was symbolized by his coronation as Roman Emperor by the Pope in Rome in 800. Compared with that of the Cssars of the second and third centuries Charlemagne's empire was a small, impoverished, and semi-barbarous affair. In splendour it was far inferior to the contemporary Byzantine Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, and the waning T'ang dynasty in China. Yet its glories dazzled Western Europeans. The Carolingians assisted the Christianity of Western Europe by giving a measure of peace and political unity to a fairly large area, by actively furthering improvements in the Church, and by an alliance with the Papacy which gave protection to the Roman Pontiffs against local enemies in Italy, especially the Lombards and unruly factions in the city.
The earliest of the Carolingians who rose to prominence, Pepin of Heristal and Charles Martel, had no very deep religious interest. Indeed, in his pressing financial needs, the latter appropriated some of the property of the Church, a move which is not surprising in view of the fact that in his day, through the gifts of generations of benefactors, about a third of the land of the realm is said to have been in the possession of ecclesiastical institutions. However, Pepin of Heristal and Charles Marcel were quite willing to give moral support to Wiltibrord and Boniface in their missionary labours, for these would aid in the extension of Frankish political power.
The two sons of Charles Martel, Carloman and Pepin the Short, who succeeded their father on his death in 741, were more religiously minded. Indeed, after six years Carloman retired to the monastery of Monte Cassino, leaving Pepin in undivided control. They reinforced Boniface in his efforts to reform the Frankish Church and much of his success was due to their aid. Beginning with Clovis, the Frankish rulers had exercised a large degree of authority over the Church in their realms, and Pepin wielded this to improve the quality of the clergy and to strengthen the Church's discipline. In the age of disorder the custom of holding annual synods of the bishops, summoned by the king, had almost lapsed. Synods now became more numerous and acted vigorously to improve the morals of the Frankish domains. After Boniface retired to resume his mission among the Frisians, Chrodegang, Bishop and later Archbishop of Metz, continued his reformatory labours. Outstanding among the Frankish bishops of his day, he was zealous in cleansing the Church.
Pepin the Short also established relations with the Papacy which accrued to the benefit of himself and the See of Peter. For several years the Popes had been in a very difficult situation. They were threatened by the Lombards. At the same lime they had broken off relations with the Emperors at Constantinople over the iconoclastic issue. Under Pope Gregory III, who held the chair of Peter from 731 to 741, or, in other words, during the later years of Charles Martel, a Roman synod had excommunicated the opponents of the icons and in retaliation the Byzantine Emperor, an ardent iconoclast, had exercised his authority to remove Sicily and such portions of Italy as he could command from Papal jurisdiction. In theory Rome had been under the Emperor, but the breach now severed that connexion and Gregory III was the last Pope to seek and be given the approval of the Byzantine Emperor for his election. Gregory turned to Charles Marcel, as the most powerful Christian political figure in the West, for aid against the Lombards, but in vain.
Pepin the Short was more friendly to the Church and the Papacy. He asked of Pope Zacharias, who succeeded Gregory III, approval for relegating the last of the Merovingian rois fainéants to a monastery and the assumption by himself of the royal title. He thus seemed to say that the Pope had the right both to depose monarchs and to grant crowns, a principle which was to be of enormous importance in succeeding centuries. Pope Zacharias gave the requested assent. In 752 Zacharias was followed in the Papal chair by Stephen II. The Lombards were a growing menace. In 751 they had taken Ravenna, long the seat of the Exarch, the chief representative in Italy of the Emperor, and were threatening Rome. Stephen journeyed north to seek the aid of Pepin and was housed in a monastery at St. Denis, near Paris. There he crowned and anointed Pepin, confirming the earlier coronation, said, somewhat debatably, to have been by the hands of Boniface. He also anointed Pepin's queen and the king's two sons, Carloman and the future Charlemagne. In return, Pepin waged two campaigns in Italy against the Lombards and compelled the latter to turn over to the Pope their recent conquests from the Emperor, including Ravenna.
In granting these lands to the Pope Pepin the Short is usually regarded as having inaugurated the temporal power of the Papacy and the Estates of the Church. This status the Popes have claimed from that day to this, although it was to be sadly weakened in the nineteenth century.
The step was not as revolutionary as might at first sight appear. As we noted when we spoke of Gregory the Great, the Church of Rome had long held vast properties which it administered, widely scattered in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Gaul. To be sure, in theory these were within the structure of the Roman Empire and thus were subject to the Emperors. In practice, however, the Popes had managed them through an elaborate bureaucracy almost as though they were independent. Because of the decline of the imperial power in Italy, the Popes had been the chief defenders of the city of Rome. Gregory the Great, for example, had raised armies for protection against the Lombards. Even with these qualifications, the action of Pepin was highly significant.
Pepin the Short died in 768 and was succeeded by his sons Charles and Carloman. The latter followed his father to the grave in 771 leaving Charles, whom we best know as Charlemagne, "Charles the Great," as sole ruler. In Charlemagne the Carolingian power reached its height. His was a long reign, for he died in 814 and thus was on the throne for nearly half a century, for more than forty years without a colleague. A bold and skilful warrior, he greatly extended the borders of his realm. He was also an able administrator whose organizing and directing genius actively concerned itself with all aspects of the life of his domains. Under his vigorous hand important political and ecclesiastical innovations were made and for a time it seemed that permanent recovery had been effected from the disorders which had followed the decay of the Roman Empire. By his coronation as Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, in the year 800, and in Rome itself, it might almost have seemed that the preceding centuries had been a bad dream and that the glories of the Cssars were not only to be revived but also enriched and transfigured by the Christian faith of ruler and people. The act was not regarded as an innovation, for Rome still held the imagination of the peoples of Europe, civilization was thought of as inseparable from it, the Roman Empire continued, even if with diminished borders and from Constantinople, and there was ample precedent for two Emperors, one in the East and one in the West. Eventually Charlemagne was recognized by two successive Byzantine rulers as entitled, with themselves, to the designation of Emperor.
Charlemagne was deeply and genuinely religious and conceived of himself as ruling by Christian principles. He was masterful, autocratic, cruel in at least some of his wars, and notoriously lax in his marital relations, but he was moderate in his eating and drinking. He could not write (although in his mature life he made some pretense of trying) and while he could read he preferred to be read to. He was fond of the history of antiquity but he took especial delight in the writings of Augustine, particularly his De Civitate Dei. This work gave him his political and social philosophy and he set himself so far as possible to making his realm the City of God.
Possessed of this masterful energy and this religious motive, Charlemagne continued the reformation and improvement of the Church which was already under way. In the newly conquered lands won from paganism he created bishoprics, established monasteries, and appointed the men who were their heads. In the older parts of his domains, where the bishops were elected by the chapters with the consent of the people, his license was necessary. As the tradition of elections was weakened, he used his authority to place in episcopal chairs men whom he believed to be suitable and to endow them with the revenues of abbeys. He encouraged the regular holding of synods. He himself presided at important synods which dealt with theological doctrines and had the major voice in the decisions.
Charlemagne concerned himself with improving the structure of the Church. The parish system had long been spreading in the Frankish domains and the countryside had been divided into parishes, each with its clergy. Many of the parishes and chapels had been endowed with lands by local magnates for "the salvation of their souls," but the do nors retained to themselves and their heirs the privilege of naming the pastors. These rights could be transferred by sale, gift, or bequest. Under these circumstances the bishop, beyond his function of ordination, might be permitted very little if any control. Charlemagne insisted that the bishops have the power of discipline over the clergy in their respective dioceses. The bishops also had political and civil functions.
Charlemagne's measures did not prevent many ecclesiastical endowments being allocated for the support of his favourites, even laymen. Thus his biographer, Einhard, an intimate at his court and that of his son, Louis the Pious, enjoyed the income of several important abbeys and, although married and living with his wife, seems to have been an abbot.
Further to raise the level of the Church, Charlemagne revived and strengthened the existing system of archbishops. He increased their number. Each was in theory to supervise the bishops in his province. The missi dominici sent out to enforce the king's decrees had authority in matters ecclesiastical as well as civil and military.
Charlemagne perfected a system of tithes for the support of the bishops and the parish clergy. For authority for the principle the clergy cited the Mosaic Law. The custom had spread gradually. In 585 a synod of Frankish prelates asked that it be regularized. Pepin the Short gave tithes legal status as a recognized tax and Charlemagne further endorsed them. In the Frankish domains and elsewhere in the Western Church, the support of the clergy and the care of the poor also came from offerings, many of them mass stipends in return for which masses were said for the donors or for those whom they designated.
Charlemagne encouraged the repair, embellishment, and construction of churches and the improvement of public worship. Pepin the Short had already furthered the spread of the "Gregorian chant." Charlemagne sought to make universal the form of the liturgy which had developed at Rome.
He endeavoured to raise the morals of the laity and to improve the acquaintance of the common man with the main principles of the faith. To this end he commanded the clergy to preach on the Creed, prayer, and the Ten Commandments. In theory all Christians were to know the Lord's Prayer and the Creed. Through ecclesiastical legislation he strove to inculcate and enforce the sanctity of the marriage tie, and that in spite of his own errant example.
Charlemagne also stressed the education of the clergy. Even after the reforms of Boniface and Chrodegang, great room remained for improvement. In many monasteries learning had lapsed and idleness and ignorance abounded. His purpose was the advancement of religion and the Church, but as a foundation the study of the great authors of Roman antiquity was stimulated. Indeed, that we have the works of these pagan writers is in many instances due to the copies made in this period of literary revival. The form of Latin script was encouraged, a vast improvement over what had immediately gone before it, which became standard in succeeding centuries and is familiar in our printed books of today.
To aid in this educational programme Charlemagne drew scholars from wherever he could find them. They came from Ireland, Spain, Italy, Gaul, and, notably, England. In the seventh and eighth centuries some of the Anglo-Saxon monasteries had become centres of learning. Most famous of all their scholars was Bede. Reared in a monastery in
Northumbria in the present County Durham, he was diligent in his religious duties and in his studies. He used Latin easily, knew some Greek, and was master of such of the learning of the day as was available to him. He wrote voluminously and on many subjects, but is best remembered for his Ecclesiastical History of England, our fullest source for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and the early years of the English Church. Alcuin, the most distinguished of the savants at the court of Charlemagne, a scion of a noble family, related to Wilhbrord, and a younger contemporary of Boniface, had been educated at York under the direction of one of the disciples of Bede. He had headed the school in that city. A trusted intimate of Charlemagne, with no great originality, he was immensely learned, taught in the palace school which his royal master had set up, wrote extensively, and died (804), ripe in years and honours, as head of the monastery of St. Martin of Tours.
Charlemagne was not especially interested in furthering asceticism. He founded a few monasteries, but to him they were not important for the practice of the full Christian life, but rather as centres of education and civilization.
Charlemagne concerned himself with the Papacy. He renewed his father's grants to the see of Peter and treated the Popes with respect. However, he made it clear that he expected them to support him with their prayers while leaving to him practical matters of political action and administration. He may not have been entirely happy when the Pope took the initiative of crowning him Roman Emperor as he was kneeling at the high altar on that memorable Christmas. Day. That act, however, had fully as far-reaching significance as the Papal sanction to the assumption of the royal power by Pepin. It established the precedent that the imperial coronation of the Western successors to the Cssars must be by the Pope and thereby accorded that pontiff an enhanced position.
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