62 Carolingian Europe

The painting by Charles de Steuben depicts an armored Charles Martel on his luminous steed, triumphantly leading his horde of soldiers against a the Muslim warriors of the Umayyad Caliphate, led by their general, 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.
Bataille de Poitiers by Charles de Steuben uploaded to Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The Frankish kingdom in northern Gaul split into kingdoms called Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy during the 6th and 7th centuries, under the Merovingians who were descended from Clovis. The 7th century was a tumultuous period of civil wars between Austrasia and Neustria. Such warfare was exploited by Pippin, the Mayor of the Palace for Austrasia who became the power behind the throne. Later members of his family line inherited the office, acting as advisors and regents. One of his descendants, Charles Martel (d. 741 CE), won the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE, halting the advance of Muslim armies across the Pyrenees.

Across the English Channel in the British Isles, the island of Britain was divided into small states dominated by the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, and East Anglia, which were descended from the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Smaller kingdoms in present-day Wales and Scotland were still under the control of the original native Britons and Picts. Ireland was divided into even smaller political units, usually known as tribal kingdoms, which were under the control of kings. There were perhaps as many as 150 local kings in Ireland, of varying importance.

Painting by Raphael illustrating the Coronation of Charlemagne. Before a throng of Catholic priests, Pope Leo crowns Charlemagne who kneels before him.
The Coronation of Charlemagne by Raphael is uploaded to Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor on Christmas Day 800 CE is regarded as a turning-point in medieval history, marking a return of the Western Roman Empire, since the new emperor ruled over much of the area previously controlled by the western emperors. It also marks a change in Charlemagne’s relationship with the Byzantine Empire, as the assumption of the imperial title by the Carolingians asserted their equivalency to the Byzantine state. There were a number of differences between the newly established Carolingian Empire and both the older Western Roman Empire and the concurrent Byzantine Empire.

The Frankish lands were rural in character, with only a few small cities. Most of the people were peasants settled on small farms. Little trade existed and much of that was with the British Isles and Scandinavia, in contrast to the older Roman Empire which had its trading networks centered on the Mediterranean. The administration of the empire was from an itinerant court that traveled with the emperor as well as through approximately 300 imperial officials called counts, who administered the counties which the empire had been divided into. Clergy and local bishops served as officials, as well as the imperial officials called missi dominici, who served as roving inspectors and troubleshooters.[1]

Carolingian Renaissance

A painting from manuscript of two students being taught by one of the leading scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance, Alcuin.
Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right). Manuscript by Fulda uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and edited by Thomas Gun | Public Domain

Charlemagne’s court in Aachen was the center of the cultural revival sometimes referred to as the “Carolingian Renaissance”. The period saw an increase in literacy, developments in the arts, architecture and jurisprudence, as well as liturgical and scriptural studies. The English monk Alcuin (d. 804 CE) was invited to Aachen and brought the education available in the monasteries of Northumbria. Charlemagne’s chancery—or writing office—made use of a new script today known as Carolingian minuscule, allowing a common writing style that advanced communication across much of Europe. Charlemagne sponsored changes in church liturgy, imposing the Roman form of church service on his domains, as well as the Gregorian chant form of liturgical music in the churches.

An important activity for scholars during this period was the copying, correcting, and dissemination of basic works on religious and secular topics, with the aim of encourage learning. New works on religious topics and schoolbooks were also produced. Grammarians of the period modified the Latin language, changing it from the Classical Latin of the Roman Empire into a more flexible form to fit the needs of the church and government. By the reign of Charlemagne, the language had become enough different from the classical that it came to be called Medieval Latin.[2]

Breakup of the Carolingian Empire

The breakup of the Carolingian Empire was accompanied by invasions, migrations, and raids of external foes. The Atlantic and northern shores were harassed by the Vikings, who also raided the British Isles and settled in both Britain and Ireland as well as the distant island of Iceland. A further settlement of Vikings was made in France in 911 CE under the chieftain Rollo (d. around 931), who received permission from the Frankish king Charles the Simple (r. 898–922) to settle in what became Normandy. The eastern parts of the Frankish kingdoms, especially Germany and Italy, were under constant Magyar assault until their great defeat at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955 CE. The breakup of the Abbasid dynasty meant that the Islamic world fragmented into a number of smaller political states, some of which began expanding into Italy and Sicily, as well as over the Pyrenees into the southern parts of the Frankish kingdoms.[3]

Putting it All Together

  1. "The Middle Ages or Medieval Period" by Wikipedia for Schools is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
  2. "The Middle Ages or Medieval Period" by Wikipedia for Schools is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
  3. "The Middle Ages or Medieval Period" by Wikipedia for Schools is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


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