(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries

EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE (9 of 10)

previous | next

From the Lombards to Charlemagne, 570 to 814

Much of Italy was under the rule of the Lombards, a Germanic people from northern Europe who had adopted Roman ways, including Latin as their language and Catholicism as their religion. In Western Europe where Roman populations lived under the rule of German warlords, or where Roman populations lived under the rule of Roman nobles, Roman law prevailed. And in Italy this law still forbade marriage with Germans. Cultural diffusion, as always, was underway. But complete assimilation would take ages.

In Gaul, meanwhile, the Germanic King Clovis, a Catholic, divided his kingdom among his four sons – in keeping with Frankish custom. Rather than receive revenues from taxes, the sons of Clovis continued their tradition of plunder. They assaulted their neighbors, extending their control to Marseille and ending what had been the kingdom of Burgundy. For the Franks, fighting remained the business of good weather, and carousing was the business of bad weather. Each spring the king's warriors set out on hunts for game or raids against some distant lord or king. Then they would go to the shrines of Christian saints, such as St. Martin, and offer their thanks for their victories and newly won treasures. For generations, the kings who were descended from Clovis did little except pursue their pleasures, enrich themselves and their dependents and lead an occasional military expedition. They made little effort to maintain a Roman administrative system. Eventually they began collecting taxes, but taxes were so detested that if a king wished to rid himself of an official that he disliked he could send him out to collect taxes, never to hear from him again.

The mother of the four sons, Clotilda, to be declared a saint, endured family feudings and killings – not unlike that which happened in the family of Constantine the Great after his death. She is said to have encouraged the bloodletting in 523, having incited her sons against her cousin Sigismund to avenge the death of her parents. Others deny this and support the legend that she withdrew in sadness to Tours, close to the tomb of St. Martin, to whom she had great devotion, and spent the remainder of her life in prayer and good works. A source for all this is the writing of the bishop of Tours, Gregory of Tours, a historian who described events with his Christian perspective.

Warlords and Life in Gaul

What had been Gaul was divided into a number of petty kingdoms, with local aristocrats assuming as much control as they could. These aristocrats accumulated wealth and left little for the kings, and Gaul's kings became mere figureheads. The aristocratic landowners, like some of the kings, were crude, violent and unprincipled men, removed from the old tribal culture that had helped control individuals. They exercised authority as suited their passions, taking and discarding wives and concubines as they pleased and believing that they had the right to deflower a commoner's bride before he was allowed to consummate his marriage.

Self-sufficient estates that had survived Roman times dominated agriculture. These estates were populated by servile workers – ninety percent of Gaul's population – and a few craftsmen. These people wore clothing of hides and rough cloth and lived in huts, rising at dawn and bedding down with the setting of the sun. They heated their homes with gathered wood or grass and cow's dung. And rarely did they have candles to light their home.


Among the Franks in Gaul a new dynasty of kings arose, the Carolingians, begun by Charles Martel (born 688, died 741). Martel's grandson became known as Charlemagne (French for Charles the Great). It was a dynasty dependent on the support of warlords called nobles, with whose help the Carolingians were able to fight wars and suppress peasant rebellions. These nobles recognized the Carolingian king as their overlord and the Carolingian king recognized the nobles as local rulers and rewarded them with land and booty for their services.

Much of Charlemagne's rule involved continuous warfare, and his power with the sword gave him influence with the Church. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor, hailing him as "Augustus, crowned of God … emperor of the Romans." The emperor in Constantinople also claimed to be the Roman Emperor, but Charles played down his title. It was the Empress Irene who ruled in Constantinople and her rule was tarnished by conflict. The papacy had been shifting away from Byzantium. Pope Leo was looking toward to a rival imperial power associated with Rome and referring to Costantinople as the ruler of Greeks, while Constantinople saw itself as having inherited the authority over all of what had been the Roman Empire. With Constantinople distracted by conflict and war, the Byzantine papacy was being replaced by what historians call the Frankish papacy.

Charlemagne's empire (map) was more rural and thinly populated than either the civilizations ruled by Constantinople or Islam – a result of low prosperity, which Charlemagne tried to raise. He encouraged more trade by giving guarantees to Jewish merchants. And under Charlemagne's rule agriculture improved.

Literacy in Gaul had all but disappeared since the invasions by the Germans, and Charlemagne invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, and he tried to learn to read.

But, economic progress was taking place. People had begun taking advantage of river water to power their mills. Northern Europe was blessed with the low mountains and slow-moving rivers appropriate for such power. The three-field system had been introduced, allowing a field to lay fallow a year here and there, which increased per-acre harvests. The invention of the horse collar permitted a horse to pull a load three or four times as great as it had with a simple thong of leather around its neck. A tandem harness allowed numerous oxen to work as a team. A wheeled plow had been introduced that could knife deeply into the heavy, richer, wetter and often sticky soil of northern Europe. Rather than 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 peasants pooled their oxen and their labor. A great agriculture was beginning that would give advantage to northern Europeans and change the world.

Charlemagne encouraged learning, which was a rise above the attitudes in Stone Age societies, when no one believed in change or progress. Literacy in Gaul had all but disappeared since the invasions by the Germans, and Charlemagne moved to correct this. He invited scholars from England and Ireland to teach. He founded a school for the nobles of his court, and he tried to learn to read.

One of the scholars he invited to his court was Alcuin, an Englishman from York. His scholarship included ponderings on theology and adherence to dogma. He was also interested in grammar. His one contribution was the invention of lower case letters.

Charlemagne had other challenges to which he applied himself. Exercising his belief in change, he standardized weights, measures, and coinage. He replaced amateurs representing their community in local courts with itinerant professional judges who had a better understanding of law. And Charlemagne reformed the clergy. To be ordained a priest one had to take an examination.

But Charlemagne was also stuck in some old thinking. 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.

At the end of Charlemagne's life his empire's roads were still primitive, making travel slow. There was little surplus wealth with which to make effective centralized governance. But it was the custom of dividing property among one's sons that played the biggest role in breaking down the centralized governance of Charlemagne – a custom that still existed among the Franks. Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, divided the empire among three of his grandsons, one receiving western Gaul to the Pyrenees, another Charlemagne's realm roughly between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, and the eldest, Lothair, receiving the title of emperor and territory between the two others, from what is now Belgium and south in Italy just beyond Rome. The division was to last into modern times, between what would be France and Germany, with fragments of Lothair's kingdom to become Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

After Charlemagne, wandering minstrels sang of him and exercised humanity's proclivity to fantasize and exaggerate. They glorified his deeds and his ability as a conqueror. They described Charlemagne as having performed superhuman feats and as having dispensed perfect justice.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.