Charlemagne and The Carolingians (750–987 AD)

Charlemagne was an 8th-century Frankish king who became Emperor thanks to the Roman Church support. He was depicted like a character of mythical proportions. Among other things, he was able to unite most of Central Europe scattered reigns derived from the fall of the Roman Empire. He imposed his dominion on these territories under his severe martial rule.

Portrait of charlemagne

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After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, Charlemagne built an empire that extended more than 800 miles from east to west. Though he ruled in an era many scholars describe as a “Dark Age,” Charlemagne made the capital of his vast kingdom a center of learning.

The Holy Roman  Empire

The Imperial Orb of the Holy Roman Empire

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The precise term Sacrum Romanum Imperium dates only from 1254, though the term Holy Empire reaches back to 1157, and the term Roman Empire was used from 1034 to denote the lands under Conrad II’s rule. The term “Roman emperor” is older, dating from Otto II (died 983). This title, however, was not used by Otto II’s predecessors, from Charlemagne (or Charles I) to Otto I, who simply employed the phrase imperator augustus (“august emperor”) without any territorial adjunct. The first title that Charlemagne is known to have used, immediately after his coronation in 800, is “Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.” This clumsy formula, however, was soon discarded.

Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

Albert Durer, Portrait of Charlemagne

Charlemagne was crowned “emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III in 800 CE, thus restoring the Roman Empire in the West for the first time since its dissolution in the 5th century. Charlemagne was selected for a variety of reasons, not least of which was his long-standing protectorate over the papacy. His protector status became explicit in 799, when the pope was attacked in Rome and fled to Charlemagne for asylum. The ensuing negotiations ended with Leo’s reinstallation as pope and Charlemagne’s own coronation as emperor of the Romans.

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Charlemagne reign

The carolingian empire

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The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were characterized by extensive military campaigning. His campaign against the Saxons proved to be his most difficult and long-lasting one. After thirty years of on-again, off-again fighting, betrayed truces, and bloody reprisals enacted by the Franks, the Saxons finally submitted in 804. Charlemagne’s activities in Saxony were accompanied by simultaneous campaigns in Italy, Bavaria, and Spain—the last of which ended in a resounding defeat for the Franks and was later mythologized in the 11th-century French epic The Song of Roland. Nonetheless, Charlemagne’s reputation as a warrior king was well earned, and he had expanded his domain to cover much of western Europe by the end of his reign.

Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne facilitated an intellectual and cultural golden age during his reign that historians call the Carolingian Renaissance—after the Carolingian dynasty, to which he belonged. Charlemagne peopled his court with renowned intellectuals and clerics, and together they fashioned a series of objectives designed to uplift what they perceived as the flagging Christian populace of Europe. Improving Latin literacy was primary among these objectives, seen as a means to improve administrative and ecclesiastical effectiveness in the kingdom. A completely new writing system called Carolingian minuscule was established; libraries and schools proliferated, as did books to fill and be used in them; and new forms of art, poetry, and biblical exegesis flourished. The effects of Charlemagne’s cultural program were evident during his reign but even more so afterward, when the education infrastructure he had created served as the basis upon which later cultural and intellectual revivals were built.

St John writing his Gospel

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