Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Ancestry and early life of Charlemagne
The Merovingian princes
Condition of Europe on the accession of Charlemagne
Necessity for such a hero to arise
His perils and struggles
Wars with the Saxons
The difficulties of the Saxon conquest
Forced conversion of the Saxons
The Norman pirates
Conquest of the Avares
Unsuccessful war with the Saracens
The Lombard wars
Coronation of Charlemagne at Home
Imperialism and its influences
The dismemberment of Charlemagne’s empire
Foundation of Feudalism
Charlemagne as a legislator
His alliance with the clergy
His administrative abilities
Reasons why he patronized the clergy
Results of Charlemagne’s policy
Hallam’s splendid eulogy

Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire

A.D. 742-814.

The most illustrious monarch of the Middle Ages was doubtless Charlemagne. Certainly he was the first great statesman, hero, and organizer that looms up to view after the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Therefore I present him as one with whom is associated an epoch in civilization. To him we date the first memorable step which Europe took out of the anarchies of the Merovingian age. His dream was to revive the Empire that had fallen. He was the first to labor, with giant strength, to restore what vice and violence had destroyed. He did not succeed in realizing the great ends to which he aspired, but his aspirations were lofty. It was not in the power of any man to civilize semi-barbarians in a single reign; but if he attempted impossibilities he did not live in vain, since he bequeathed some permanent conquests and some great traditions. He left a great legacy to civilization. His life has not dramatic interest like that of Hildebrand, nor poetic interest like the lives of the leaders of the Crusades; but it is very instructive. He was the pride of his own generation, and the boast of succeeding ages, “claimed,” says Sismondi, “by the Church as a saint, by the French as the greatest of their kings, by the Germans as their countryman, and by the Italians as their emperor.”

His remote ancestors, it is said, were ecclesiastical magnates. His grandfather was Charles Martel, who gained such signal victories over the Mohammedan Saracens; his father was Pepin, who was a renowned conqueror, and who subdued the southern part of France, or Gaul. He did not rise, like Clovis, from the condition of a chieftain of a tribe of barbarians; nor, like the founder of his family, from a mayor of the palace, or minister of the Merovingian kings. His early life was spent amid the turmoils and dangers of camps, and as a young man he was distinguished for precocity of talent, manly beauty, and gigantic physical strength. He was a type of chivalry, before chivalry arose. He was born to greatness, and early succeeded to a great inheritance. At the age of twenty-six, in the year 768, he became the monarch of the greater part of modern France, and of those provinces which border on the Rhine. By unwearied activities this inheritance, greater than that of any of the Merovingian kings, was not only kept together and preserved, but was increased by successive conquests, until no so great an empire has ever been ruled by any one man in Europe, since the fall of the Roman Empire, from his day to ours. Yet greater than the conquests of Charlemagne was the greatness of his character. He preserved simplicity and gentleness amid all the distractions attending his government.

His reign affords a striking contrast to that of all his predecessors of the Merovingian dynasty,–which reigned from the immediate destruction of the Roman Empire. The Merovingian princes, with the exception of Clovis and a few others, were mere barbarians, although converted to a nominal Christianity. Some of them were monsters, and others were idiots. Clotaire burned to death his own son and wife and daughters. Frédegunde armed her assassins with poisoned daggers. “Thirteen sovereigns reigned over the Franks in one hundred and fourteen years, only two of whom attained to man’s estate, and not one to the full development of intellectual powers. There was scarcely one who did not live in a state of perpetual intoxication, or who did not rival Sardanapalus in effeminacy, and Commodus in cruelty.” As these sovereigns were ruled by priests, their iniquities were glossed over by Gregory of Tours. In his annals they may pass for saints, but history consigns them to an infamous immortality.

It is difficult to conceive a more dreary and dismal state of society than existed in France, and in fact over all Europe, when Charlemagne began to reign. The Roman Empire was in ruins, except in the East, where the Greek emperors reigned at Constantinople. The western provinces were ruled by independent barbaric kings. There was no central authority, although there was an attempt of the popes to revive it,–a spiritual rather than a temporal power; a theocracy whose foundation had been laid by Leo the Great when he established the jus divinum principle,–that he was the successor of Peter, to whom were given the keys of heaven and hell. If there was an interesting feature in the times it was this spiritual authority exercised by the bishops of Rome: the most useful and beneficent considering the evils which prevailed,–the reign of brute force. The barbaric chieftains yielded a partial homage to this spiritual power, and it was some check on their rapacity of violence. It is mournful to think that so little of the ancient civilization remained in the eighth century. Its eclipse was total. The shadows of a dark and long night of superstition and ignorance spread over Europe. Law was silenced by the sword. Justinian’s glorious legacy was already forgotten. The old mechanism which had kept society together in the fifth century was worn out, broken, rejected. There was no literature, no philosophy, no poetry, no history, and no art. Even the clergy had become ignorant, superstitious, and idle. Forms had taken the place of faith. No great theologians had arisen since Saint Augustine. The piety of the age hid itself in monasteries; and these monasteries were as funereal as society itself. Men despaired of the world, and retreated from it to sing mournful songs. The architecture of the age expressed the sentiments of the age, and was heavy, gloomy, and monotonous. “The barbarians ruthlessly marched over the ruins of cities and palaces, having no regard for the treasures of the classic world, and unmoved by the lessons of its past experience.” Rome itself, repeatedly sacked, was a heap of ruins. No reconstruction had taken place. Gardens and villas were as desolate as the ruined palaces, which were the abodes of owls and spiders. The immortal creations of the chisel were used to prop up old crumbling walls. The costly monuments of senatorial pride were broken to pieces in sport or in caprice, and those structures which had excited the admiration of ages were pulled down that their material might be used in erecting tasteless edifices. Literature shared the general desolation. The valued manuscripts of classical ages were mutilated, erased, or burned. The monks finished the destruction which the barbarians began. Ignorance as well as anarchy veiled Europe in darkness. The rust of barbarism became harder and thicker. The last hope of man had fled, and glory was succeeded by shame. Even slavery, the curse of the Roman Empire, was continued by the barbarians; only, brute force was not made subservient to intellect, but intellect to brute force. The descendants of ancient patrician families were in bondage to barbarians. The age was the jubilee of monsters. Assassination was common, and was unavenged by law. Every man was his own avenger of crime, and his bloody weapons were his only law.

Nor were there seen among the barbaric chieftains the virtues of ancient Pagan Rome and Greece, for Christianity was nominal. War was universal; for the barbarians, having no longer the Romans to fight, fought among themselves. There were incessant irruptions of different tribes passing from one country to another, in search of plunder and pillage. There was no security of life or property, and therefore no ambition for acquisition. Men hid themselves in morasses, in forests, on the tops of inaccessible hills, and amid the recesses of valleys, for violence was the rule and not the exception. Even feudalism was not then born, and still less chivalry. We find no elevated sentiments. The only refuge for the miserable was in the Church, and the Church was governed by narrow and ignorant priests. A cry of despair went up to heaven among the descendants of the old population. There was no commerce, no travel, no industries, no money, no peace. The chastisement of Almighty Power seems to have been sent on the old races and the new alike. It was a desolation greater than that predicted by Jeremy the prophet. The very end of the world seemed to be at hand. Never in the old seats of civilization was there such a disintegration; never such a combination of evils and miseries. And there appeared to be no remedy: nothing but a long night of horrors and sufferings could be predicted. Gaul, or France, was the scene of turbulence, invasions, and anarchies; of murders, of conflagrations, and of pillage by rival chieftains, who sought to divide its territories among themselves. The people were utterly trodden down. England was the battle-field of Danes, Saxons, and Celts, invaded perpetually, and split up into petty Saxon kingdoms. The roads were infested with robbers, and agriculture was rude. The people lived in cabins, dressed themselves in skins, and fed on the coarsest food. Spain was invaded by Saracens, and the Gothic kingdoms succumbed to these fierce invaders. Italy was portioned out among different tribes, Gothic and Slavonic. But the prevailing races in Europe were Germanic (who had conquered both the Celts and the Romans), the Goths in Spain, the Franks and Burgundians in France, the Lombards in Italy, the Saxons in England.

What a commentary on the imperial government of the Caesars!–that government which, with all its mechanisms and traditions, lasted scarcely four hundred years. Was there ever, in the whole history of the world, so sudden and mournful a change from civilization to barbarism,–and this in spite of art, science, law, and Christianity itself? Were there no conservative forces in that imposing Empire? Why did society constantly decline for four hundred years, with that civilization which was its boast and hope? Oh, ye optimists, who talk so glibly about the natural and necessary progress of humanity, why was the Roman Empire swept away, with all its material glories, to give place to such a state of society as I have just briefly described?

And yet men should arise in due time, after the punishment of five centuries of crime and violence, wretchedness and despair, to reconstruct, not from the old Pagan materials of Greece and Rome, but with the fresh energies of new races, aided and inspired by the truths of the everlasting gospel. The infancy of the new races, sprung however from the same old Aryan stock, passed into vigorous youth when Charlemagne appeared. From him we date the first decided impulse given to the Gothic civilization. He was the morning star of European hopes and aspirations.

Let us now turn to his glorious deeds. What were the services he rendered to Europe and Christian civilization?

It was necessary that a truly great man should arise in the eighth century, if the new forces of civilization were to be organized. To show what he did for the new races, and how he did it, is the historian’s duty and task in describing the reign of Charlemagne,–sent, I think, as Moses was, for a providential mission, in the fulness of time, after the slaveries of three hundred years, which prepared the people for labor and industry. Better was it that they should till the lands of allodial proprietors in misery and sorrow, attacked and pillaged, than to wander like savages in forests and morasses in quest of a precarious support, or in great predatory bands, as they did in the fourth and fifth centuries, when they ravaged the provinces of the falling Empire. Nothing was wanted but their consolidation under central rule in order to repel aggressors. And that is what Charlemagne attempted to do.

He soon perceived the greatness of the struggle to which he was destined, and he did not flinch from the contest which has given him immortality. He comprehended the difficulties which surrounded him and the dangers which menaced him.

The great perils which threatened Europe were from unsubdued barbarians, who sought to replunge it into the miseries which the great irruptions had inflicted three hundred years before. He therefore bent all the energies of his mind and all the resources of his kingdom to arrest these fresh waves of inundation. And so long was his contest with Saxons, Avares, Lombards, and other tribes and races that he is chiefly to be contemplated as a man who struggled against barbarism. And he fought them, not for excitement, not for the love of fighting, not for useless conquests, not for military fame, not for aggrandizement, but because a stern necessity was laid upon him to protect his own territories and the institutions he wished to conserve.

Charlemagne Inflicts the Rite of Baptism on the Saxons After the painting by Adolph Maria Mucha

Of these barbarians there was one nation peculiarly warlike and ferocious, and which cherished an inextinguishable hatred not merely of the Franks, but of civilization itself. They were obstinately attached to their old superstitions, and had a great repugnance to Christianity. They were barbarians, like the old North American Indians, because they determined to be so; because they loved their forests and the chase, indulged in amusements which were uncertain and dangerous, and sought for nothing beyond their immediate inclinations. They had no territorial divisions, and abhorred cities as prisons of despotism. But, like all the Germanic barbarians, they had interesting traits. They respected women; they were brave and daring; they had a dogged perseverance, and a noble passion for personal independence. But they were nevertheless the enemies of civilization, of a regular and industrious life, and sought plunder and revenge. The Franks and Goths were once like them, before the time of Clovis; but they had made settlements, they tilled the land, and built villages and cities: they were partially civilized, and were converted to Christianity. But these new barbarians could not be won by arts or the ministers of religion. These people were the Saxons, and inhabited those parts of Germany which were bounded by the Rhine, the Oder, the North Sea, and the Thuringian forests. They were fond of the sea, and of daring expeditions for plunder. They were a kindred race to those Saxons who had conquered England, and had the same elements of character. They were poor, and sought to live by piracy and robbery. They were very dangerous enemies, but if brought under subjection to law, and converted to Christianity, might be turned into useful allies, for they had the materials of a noble race.

With such a people on his borders, and every day becoming more formidable, what was Charlemagne’s policy? What was he to do? The only thing to the eye of that enlightened statesman was to conquer them, if possible, and add their territories to the Frankish Empire. If left to themselves, they might have conquered the Franks. It was either anvil or hammer. There could be no lasting peace in Europe while these barbarians were left to pursue their depredations. A vigorous warfare was imperative, for, unless subdued, a disadvantageous war would be carried on near the frontiers, until some warrior would arise among them, unite the various chieftains, and lead his followers to successful invasion. Charlemagne knew that the difficult and unpleasant work of subjugation must be done by somebody, and he was unwilling to leave the work to enervated successors. The work was not child’s play. It took him the best part of his life to accomplish it, and amid great discouragements. Of his fifty-three expeditions, eighteen were against the Saxons. As soon as he had cut off one head of the monster, another head appeared. How allegorical of human labor is that old fable of the Hydra! Where do man’s labors cease? Charlemagne fought not only amid great difficulties, but perpetual irritations. The Saxons cheated him; they broke their promises and their oaths. When beaten, they sued for peace; but the moment his back was turned, they broke out in new insurrections. The fame of Caesar chiefly rests on his eight campaigns in Gaul. But Caesar had the disciplined Legions of Rome to fight with. Charlemagne had no such disciplined troops. Yet he had as many difficulties to surmount as Caesar,–rugged forests to penetrate, rapid rivers to cross, morasses to avoid, and mountains to climb. It is a very difficult thing to subdue even savages who are desperate, determined, and united.

Charlemagne fought the Saxons for thirty-three years. Though he never lost a battle, they still held out. At first he was generous and forgiving, for he was more magnanimous than Caesar; but they could not be won by kindness. He was obliged to change his course, and at last was as summary as Oliver Cromwell in Ireland. He is even accused of cruelties. But war in the hands of masters has no quarter to give, and no tears to shed. It was necessary to conquer the Saxons, and Charlemagne used the requisite means. Sometimes the harshest measures will most speedily effect the end. Did our fathers ever dream of compromise with treacherous and hostile Indians? War has a horrid maxim,–that “nothing is so successful as success.” Charlemagne, at last, was successful. The Saxons were so completely subdued at the end of thirty-three years, that they never molested civilized Europe again. They became civilized, like the once invading Celts and Goths; and they even embraced the religion of the conquerors. They became ultimately the best people in Europe,–earnest, honest, and brave. They formed great kingdoms and states, and became new barriers against fresh inundations from the North and East. The Saxons formed the nucleus of the great German Empire (or were incorporated with it) which arose in the Middle Ages, and which to-day is the most powerful in Europe, and the least corrupted by the vices of a luxurious life. The descendants of those Saxons are among the most industrious and useful settlers in the New World.

There was one mistake which Charlemagne made in reference to them. He forced their conversion to a nominal Christianity. He immersed them in the rivers of Saxony, whether they would or no. He would make them Christians in his way. But then, who does not seek to make converts in his way, whether enlightened or not? When have the principles of religious toleration been understood? Did the Puritans understand them, with all their professions? Do we tolerate, in our hearts, those who differ from us? Do not men look daggers, though they dare not use them? If we had the power, would we not seek to produce conformity with our notions, like Queen Elizabeth, or Oliver Cromwell, or Archbishop Laud? There is not perhaps a village in America where a true catholicism reigns. There is not a spot upon the globe where there is not some form of religious persecution. Nor is there anything more sincere than religious bigotry. And when people have not fundamental principles to fight about, they will fight about technicalities and matters of no account, and all the more bitterly sometimes when the objects of contention are not worth fighting about at all,–as in forms of worship, or baptism. Such is the weakness of human nature. Charlemagne was no exception to the race. But if he wished to make Christians in his way, he was, on the whole, enlightened. He caused the young Saxons, whom he baptized and marked with the sign of the Cross, to be educated. He built monasteries and churches in the conquered territories. He recognized this,–that Christianity, whatever it be, is the mightiest power of the world; and he bore his testimony in behalf of the intellectual dignity of the clergy in comparison with other classes. He encouraged missions as well as schools.

There was another Germanic tribe at that time which he held in great alarm, but which he did not attack, since they were not immediately dangerous. This tribe or race was the Norman, just then beginning their ravages,–pirates in open boats. They had dared to enter a port in Narbonensis Gaul for purposes of plunder. Some took them for Africans, and others for British merchants. Nay, said Charlemagne, they are not merchants, but cruel enemies; and he covered his face with his iron hands and wept like a child. He did not fear these barbarians, but he wept when he foresaw the evil they would do when he was dead. “I weep,” said he, “that they should dare almost to land on my shores, in my lifetime.” These Normans escaped him. They conquered and they founded kingdoms. But they did not replunge Europe in darkness. A barrier had been made against their inundation. The Saxon conquest was that barrier. Moreover, the Normans were the noblest race of barbarians which then roamed through the forests of Germany, or skirted the shores of Scandinavia. They had grand natural traits of character. They were poetic, brave, and adventurous. They were superior to the Saxons and the Franks. When converted, they were the great allies of the Pope, and early became civilized. To them we trace the noblest development of Gothic architecture. They became great scholars and statesmen. They were more refined by nature than the Saxons, and avoided their gluttonous habits. In after times they composed the flower of European chivalry. It was providential that they were not subdued,–that they became the leading race in Northern Europe. To them we trace the mercantile greatness of England, for they were born sailors. They never lost their natural heroism, or love of power.

The next important conquest of Charlemagne was that of the Avares,–a tribe of the Huns, of Slavonic origin. They are represented as very hideous barbarians, and only thought of plunder. They never sought to reconstruct. There seemed to be no end of their invasions from the time of Attila. They were more formidable for their numbers and destructive ravages than for their military skill. There was a time, however, when they threatened the combined forces of Germany and Rome; but Europe was delivered by the battle of Poictiers,–the bloodiest battle on record,–when they seemed to be annihilated. But they sprang up again, in new invasions, in the ninth century. Had they conquered, civilization would have been crushed out. But Charlemagne was successful against them, and from that time to this they were shut out from western Europe. They would be formidable now, for the Russians are the descendants of these people, were it not for the barrier raised against them by the Germans. The necessities of Europe still require the vast military strength and organization of Germany, not to fight France, but to awe Russia. Napoleon predicted that Europe would become either French or Cossack; but there is little probability of Russian aggressions in Europe, so long as Russia is held in check by Germany.

Charlemagne had now delivered France and Germany from external enemies. He then turned his arms against the Saracens of Spain. This was the great mistake of his life. Yet every one makes mistakes, however great his genius. Alexander made the mistake of pushing his arms into India; and Napoleon made a great blunder in invading Russia. Even Caesar died at the right time for his military fame, for he was on the point of attempting the conquest of Parthia, where, like Crassus, he would probably have perished, or have lost his army. Needless conquests seem to be impossible in the moral government of God, who rules the fate of war. Conquests are only possible when civilization seems to require them. In seeking to invade Spain, Charlemagne warred against a race from whom Europe had nothing more to fear. His grandfather, Charles Martel, had arrested the conquests of the Saracens; and they were quiet in their settlements in Spain, and had made considerable attainments in science and literature. Their schools of medicine and their arts were in advance of the rest of Europe. They were the translators of Aristotle, who reigned in the rising universities during the Middle Ages. As this war was unnecessary, Providence seemed to rebuke Charlemagne. His defeat at Roncesvalles was one of the most memorable events in his military history. Prodigies of valor were wrought by him and his gallant Paladins. The early heroic poetry of the Middle Ages has commemorated his exploits, as well as those of his nephew Roland, to whom some writers have ascribed the origin of Chivalry. But the Frankish forces were signally defeated amid the passes of the Pyrenees; and it was not until after several centuries that the Gothic princes of Spain shook off the yoke of their Saracenic conquerors, and drove them from Europe.

The Lombard wars of Charlemagne are the last to which I allude. These were undertaken in defence of the Church, to rescue his ally the Pope. The Lombards belonged to the great Germanic family, but they were unfriendly to the Pope and to the Church. They stood out against the Empire, which was then the chief hope of Europe and of civilization. They would have reduced the Pope to insignificance and seized his territories, without uniting Italy. So Charlemagne, like his father Pepin, lent his powerful aid to the Roman bishop, and the Lombards were easily subdued. This conquest, although the easiest which he ever made, most flattered his pride. Lombardy was not only joined to his Empire, but he received unparalleled honors from the Pope, being crowned by him Emperor of the West.



It was a proud day when, in the ancient metropolis of the world, and in the fulness of his fame, Pope Leo III. placed the crown of Augustus upon Charlemagne’s brow, and gave to him, amid the festivities of Christmas, his apostolic benediction. His dominions now extended from Catalonia to the Bohemian forests, embracing Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and the Spanish main,–the largest empire which any one man has possessed since the fall of the Roman Empire. What more natural than for Charlemagne to feel that he had restored the Western Empire? What more natural than that he should have taken the title, still claimed by the Austrian emperor, in one sense his legitimate successor,–Kaiser, or Caesar? In the possession of such enormous power, he naturally dreamed of establishing a new universal military monarchy like that of the Romans,–as Charles V. dreamed, and Napoleon after him. But this is a dream that Providence has rebuked among all successive conquerors. There may have been need of the universal monarchy of the Caesars, that Christianity might spread in peace, and be protected by a reign of law and order. This at least is one of the platitudes of historians. Froude himself harps on it in his life of Caesar. Historians are fond of exalting the glories of imperialism, and everybody is dazzled by the splendor and power of ancient Roman emperors. They do not, I think, sufficiently consider the blasting influence of imperialism on the life of nations,–how it dries up the sources of renovation, how it necessarily withers literature and philosophy, how nothing can thrive under it but pomp and material glories, how it paralyzes all virtuous impulses, how it kills all enthusiasm, how it crushes out all hope and lofty aspirations, how it makes slaves of its best subjects, how it fills the earth with fear, how it drains national resources to support standing armies, how it mocks all enterprises which do not receive imperial approbation, how everything is concentrated to reflect the glory of one man or family; how impossible, under its withering shade, is manly independence, or the free expression of opinions or healthy growth; how it buries up, under its armies, discontents and aspirations alike, and creates nothing but machinery which must ultimately wear out and leave a world in ruins, with nothing stable to take its place. Law and order are good things, the preservation of property is desirable, the punishment of crime is necessary; but there are other things which are valuable also. Nothing is so valuable as the preservation of national life; nothing is so healthy as scope for energies; nothing is so contemptible and degrading as universal sycophancy to official rule. There are no tyrants more oppressive than the tools of absolute power. See in what a state imperialism left the Roman Empire when it fell. There were no rallying forces; there was no resurrection of heroes. Vitality had fled. Where would Turkey be to-day without the European powers, if the Sultan’s authority were to fall? It would be in the state of ancient Babylon or Persia when those empires fell.

There is another side to imperialism besides dreaded anarchies. Moreover, the whole progress of civilization has been counter to it. The fiats of eternal justice have pronounced against it, because it is antagonistic to the dignity of man and the triumphs of reason. I would not fall in with the cant of the dignity of man, because there is no dignity to man without aid from God Almighty through His spirit and the message he has sent in Christianity. But there is dignity in man with the aid of a regenerating gospel. Some people talk of the triumphs of Christianity under the Roman emperors; but see how rapidly it was corrupted by them when they sought the aid of its institutions to bolster up their power. The power of Christianity is in its truths; in its religion, and not in its forms and institutions, in its inventions to uphold the arms of despotism and the tools of despotism. It is, and it was, and it will be through all the ages the great power of the world, against which it is vain to rebel. And that government is really the best which unfetters its spiritual influence, and encourages it; and not that government which seeks to perpetuate its corrupt and worldly institutions. The Roman emperors made Christianity an institution, and obscured its truths. And perhaps that is one reason why Providence permitted their despotism to pass away,–preferring the rude anarchy of the Germanic nations to the dead mechanism of a lifeless Church and imperial rottenness. Imperialism must ever end in rottenness. And that is one reason why the heart of Christendom–I mean the people of Europe, in its enlightened and virtuous sections–has ever opposed imperialism. The progress has been slow, but marked, towards representative governments,–not the reign of the people directly, but of those whom they select to represent them. The victory has been nearly gained in England. In France the progress has been uniform since the Revolution. Napoleon revived, or sought to revive, the imperialism of Rome. He failed. There is nothing which the French now so cordially detest, since their eyes have been opened to the character and ends of that usurper, as his imperialism. It cannot be revived any more easily than the oracles of Dodona. Even in Germany there are dreadful discontents in view of the imperialism which Bismarck, by the force of successful wars, has seemingly revived. The awful standing armies are a menace to all liberty and progress and national development. In Italy itself there is the commencement of constitutional authority, although it is united under a king. The great standing warfare of modern times is constitutional authority against the absolute power of kings and emperors. And the progress has been on the side of liberty everywhere, with occasional drawbacks, such as when Louis Napoleon revived the accursed despotism of his uncle, and by the same means,–a standing army and promises of military glory.

Hence, in the order of Providence, the dream of Charlemagne as to unbounded military aggrandizement could not be realized. He could not revive the imperialism of Rome or Persia. No man will ever arise in Europe who can re-establish it, except for a brief period. It will be rebuked by the superintending Power, because it is fatal to the highest development of nations, because all its glories are delusory, because it sows the seeds of ruin. It produces that very egotism, materialism, and sensuality, that inglorious rest and pleasure, which, as everybody concedes, prepared the way for violence.

And hence Charlemagne’s empire went to pieces as soon as he was dead. There was nothing permanent in his conquests, except those made against barbarism. He was raised up to erect barriers against fresh inroads of barbarians. His whole empire was finally split up into petty sovereignties. In one sense he founded States, “since he founded the States which sprang up from the dismemberment of his empire. The kingdoms of Germany, Italy, France, Burgundy, Lorraine, Navarre, all date to his memorable reign.” But these mediaeval kingdoms were feudal; the power of the kings was nominal. Government passed from imperialism into the hands of nobles. The government of Europe in the Middle Ages was a military aristocracy, only powerful as the interests of the people were considered. Kings and princes did not make much show, except in the trappings of royalty,–in gorgeous dresses of purple and gold, to suit a barbaric taste,–in the insignia of power without its reality. The power was among the aristocracy, who, it must be confessed, ground down the people by a hard feudal rule, but who did not grind the souls out of them, like the imperialism of absolute monarchies, with their standing armies. Under them the feudal nobles of Europe at length recuperated. Virtues were born everywhere,–in England, in France, in Germany, in Holland,–which were a savor of life unto life: loyalty, self-respect, fidelity to covenants, chivalry, sympathy with human misery, love of home, rural sports, a glorious rural life, which gave stamina to character,–a material which Christianity could work upon, and kindle the latent fires of freedom, and the impulses of a generous enthusiasm. It was under the fostering influences of small, independent chieftains that manly strength and organized social institutions arose once more,–the reserved power of unconquerable nations. Nobody hates feudalism–in its corruptions, in its oppressions–more than I do. But it was the transition stage from the anarchy which the collapse of imperialism produced to the constitutional governments of our times, if we could forget the absolute monarchies which flourished on the breaking up of feudalism, when it became a tyranny and a mockery, but which absolute monarchies flourished only one or two hundred years,–a sort of necessity in the development of nations to check the insolence and overgrown power of nobles, but after all essentially different from the imperialism of Caesar or Napoleon, since they relied on the support of nobles and municipalities more than on a standing army; yea, on votes and grants from parliaments to raise money to support the army,–certainly in England, as in the time of Elizabeth. The Bourbons, indeed, reigned without grants from the people or the nobility, and what was the logical result?–a French Revolution! Would a French Revolution have been possible under the Roman Caesars?

But I will not pursue this gradual development of constitutional government from the anarchies which arose out of the fall of the Roman Empire,–just the reverse of what happened in the history of Rome; I say no more of the imperialism which Charlemagne sought to restore, but was not permitted by Providence, and which, after all, was the dream of his latter days, when, like Napoleon, he was intoxicated by power and brilliant conquests; and I turn to consider briefly his direct effects in civilization, which showed his great and enlightened mind, and on which his fame in no small degree rests.

Charlemagne was no insignificant legislator. His Capitularies may not be equal to the laws of Justinian in natural justice, but were adapted to his times and circumstances. He collected the scattered codes, so far as laws were codified, of the various Germanic nations, and modified them. He introduced a great Christian element into his jurisprudence. He made use of the canons of the Church. His code is more ecclesiastical than that of Theodosius even, the last great Christian emperor. But in his day the clergy wielded great power, and their ordinances and decisions were directed to society as it was. The clergy were the great jurists of their day. The spiritual courts decided matters of great importance, and took cognizance of cases which were out of the jurisdiction of temporal courts. Charlemagne recognized the value of these spiritual courts, and aided them. He had no quarrels with ecclesiastics, nor was he jealous of their power. He allied himself with it. He was a friend of the clergy. One of the peculiarities of all the Germanic laws, seen especially in those of Ina and Alfred, was pecuniary compensation for crime: fifty shillings, in England, would pay for the loss of a foot, and twenty for a nose and four for a tooth; thus recognizing a principle seen in our times in railroad accidents, though not recognized in our civil laws in reference to crimes. This system of compensation Charlemagne retained, which perhaps answered for his day.

He was also a great administrator. Nothing escaped his vigilance. I do not read that he made many roads, or effected important internal improvements. The age was too barbarous for the development of national industries,–one of the main things which occupy modern statesmen and governments. But whatever he did was wise and enlightened. He rewarded merit; he made an alliance with learned men; he sought out the right men for important posts; he made the learned Alcuin his teacher and counsellor; he established libraries and schools; he built convents and monasteries; he gave encouragement to men of great attainments; he loved to surround himself with learned men; the scholars of all countries sought his protection and patronage, and found him a friend. Alcuin became one of the richest men in his dominions, and Englebert received one of his daughters in marriage. Napoleon professed a great admiration for Charlemagne, although Frederic II. was his model sovereign. But how differently Napoleon acted in this respect! Napoleon was jealous of literary genius. He hated literary men. He rarely invited them to his table, and was constrained in their presence. He drove them out of the kingdom even. He wanted nothing but homage,–and literary genius has no sympathy with brute force, or machinery, or military exploits. But Charlemagne, like Peter the Great, delighted in the society of all who could teach him anything. He was a tolerably learned man himself, considering his life of activity. He spoke Latin as fluently as his native German, and it is said that he understood Greek. He liked to visit schools, and witness the performances of the boys; and, provided they made proficiency in their studies, he cared little for their noble birth. He was no respecter of persons. With wrath he reproved the idle. He promised rewards to merit and industry.

The most marked feature of his reign, outside his wars, was his sympathy with the clergy. Here, too, he differed from Napoleon and Frederic II. Mr. Hallam considers his alliance with the Church the great error of his reign; but I believe it built up his throne. In his time the clergy were the most influential people of the Empire and the most enlightened; but at that time the great contest of the Middle Ages between spiritual and temporal authority had not begun. Ambrose, indeed, had rebuked Theodosius, and set in defiance the empress when she interfered with his spiritual functions; and Leo had laid the corner-stone of the Papacy by instituting a divine right to his decrees. But a Hildebrand and a Becket had not arisen to usurp the prerogatives of their monarchs. Least of all did popes then dream of subjecting the temporal powers and raising the spiritual over them, so as to lead to issues with kings. That was a later development in the history of the papacy. The popes of the eighth and ninth centuries sought to heal disorder, to punish turbulent chieftains, to sustain law and order, to establish a tribunal of justice to which the discontented might appeal. They sought to conserve the peace of the world. They sought to rule the Church, rather than the world. They aimed at a theocratic ministry,–to be the ambassadors of God Almighty,–to allay strife and division.

The clergy were the friends of order and law, and they were the natural guardians of learning. They were kind masters to the slaves,–for slavery still prevailed. That was an evil with which the clergy did not grapple; they would ameliorate it, but did not seek to remove it. Yet they shielded the unfortunate and the persecuted and the poor; they gave the only consolation which an iron age afforded. The Church was gloomy, ascetic, austere, like the cathedrals of that time. Monks buried themselves in crypts; they sang mournful songs; they saw nothing but poverty and misery, and they came to the relief in a funereal way. But they were not cold and hard and cruel, like baronial lords. Secular lords were rapacious, and ground down the people, and mocked and trampled upon them; but the clergy were hospitable, gentle, and affectionate. They sympathized with the people, from whom they chiefly sprang. They had their vices, but those vices were not half so revolting as those of barons and knights. Intellectually, the clergy were at all times the superiors of these secular lords. They loved the peaceful virtues which were generated in the consecrated convent. The passions of nobles urged them on to perpetual pillage, injustice, and cruelty. The clergy only quarrelled among themselves. Their vices were those of envy, and perhaps of gluttony; but they were not public robbers. They were the best farmers of their times; they cultivated lands, and made them attractive by fruits and flowers. They were generally industrious; every convent was a beehive, in which various kinds of manufactures were produced. The monks aspired even to be artists. They illuminated manuscripts, as well as copied them; they made tapestries and beautiful vestments. They were a peaceful and useful set of men, at this period outside their spiritual functions; they built grand churches; they had fruitful gardens; they were exceedingly hospitable. Every monastery was an inn, as well as a beehive, to which all travellers resorted, and where no pay was exacted. It was a retreat for the unfortunate, which no one dared assail. And it was vocal with songs and anthems.

The clergy were not only thus general benefactors in an age of turbulence and crime, in spite of all their narrowness and spiritual pride and ghostly arts and ambition for power, but they lent a helping hand to the peasantry. The Church was democratic, and enabled the poor to rise according to their merits, while nobles combined to crush them or keep them in an ignoble sphere. In the Church, the son of a murdered peasant could rise according to his deserts; but if he followed a warrior to the battle-field, no virtues, no talents, no bravery could elevate him,–he was still a peasant, a low-born menial. If he entered a monastery, he might pass from office to office until as a mitred abbot he would become the master of ten thousand acres, the counsellor of kings, the equal of that proud baron in whose service his father spent his abject life. The great Hildebrand was the son of a carpenter. The Church ever recognized, what feudality did not,–the claims of man as man; and enabled peasants’ sons, if they had abilities and virtues, to rise to proud positions,–to be the patrons of the learned, the companions of princes, the ministers of kings.

And that is the reason why Charlemagne befriended the Church and elevated it, because its influence was civilizing. He sought to establish among the clergy a counterbalancing power to that of nobles. Who can doubt that the influence of the Church was better than that of nobles in the Middle Ages? If it ground down society by a spiritual yoke, that yoke was necessary, for the rude Middle Ages could be ruled only by fear. What fear more potent than the destruction of the soul in a future life! It was by this weapon–excommunication–that Europe was governed. We may abhor it, but it was the great idea of Mediaeval Europe, which no one could resist, and which kept society from dissolution. Charlemagne may have erred in thus giving power and consideration to the clergy, in view of the subsequent encroachments of the popes. But he never anticipated the future quarrels between his successors and the popes, for the popes were not then formidable as the antagonists of kings. I believe his policy was the best for Europe, on the whole. The infancy of the Gothic races was long, dark, dreary, and unfortunate, but it prepared them for the civilization which they scorned.

Such were the services which this great sovereign rendered to his times and to Europe. He probably saved it from renewed barbarism. He was the great legislator of the Middle Ages, and the greatest friend–after Constantine and Theodosius–of which the Church can boast. With him dawned the new civilization. He brought back souvenirs of Rome and the Empire. Not for himself did he live, but for the welfare of the nations he governed. It was his example which Alfred sought to imitate. Though a warrior, he saw something greater than the warrior’s excellence. It is said he was eloquent, like Julius Caesar. He loved music and all the arts. In his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle were sung the songs of the earliest poets of Germany. He took great pains to introduce the Gregorian chant. He was simple in dress, and only on rare occasions did he indulge in parade. He was temperate in eating and drinking, as all the famous warriors have been. He absolutely abhorred drunkenness, the great vice of the Northern nations. During meals he listened to the lays of minstrels or the readings of his secretaries. He took unwearied pains with the education of his daughters, and he was so fond of them that they even accompanied him in his military expeditions. He was not one of those men that Gibbon appreciated; but his fame is steadily growing, after a lapse of a thousand years. His whole appearance was manly, cheerful, and dignified. His countenance reflected a child-like serenity. He was one of the few men, like David, who was not spoiled by war and flatteries. Though gentle, he was subject to fits of anger, like Theodosius; but he did not affect anger, like Napoleon, for theatrical effect. His greatness and his simplicity, his humanity and his religious faith, are typical of the Germanic race. He died A.D. 814, after a reign of half a century, lamented by his own subjects and to be admired by succeeding generations. Hallam, though not eloquent generally, has pronounced his most beautiful eulogy, “written in the disgraces and miseries of succeeding times. He stands alone like a rock in the ocean, like a beacon on a waste. His sceptre was the bow of Ulysses, not to be bent by a weaker hand. In the dark ages of European history, his reign affords a solitary resting-place between two dark periods of turbulence and ignominy, deriving the advantage of contrast both from that of the preceding dynasty and of a posterity for whom he had founded an empire which they were unworthy and unequal to maintain.”

To such a tribute I can add nothing. His greatness consists in this, that, born amidst barbarism, he was yet the friend of civilization, and understood its elemental principles, and struggled forty-seven years to establish them,–failing only because his successors and subjects were not prepared for them, and could not learn them until the severe experience of ten centuries, amidst disasters and storms, should prove the value of the “old basal walls and pillars” which remained unburied amid the despised ruins of antiquity, and show that no structure could adequately shelter the European nations which was not established by the beautiful union of German vigor with Christian art,–by the combined richness of native genius with those immortal treasures which had escaped the wreck of the classic world.


Eginhard’s Vita Caroli Magni; Le Clerc’s De la Bruyère, Histoire du Règne de Charlemagne; Haureau’s Charlemagne et son Cour; Gaillard’s Histoire de Charlemagne; Lorenz’s Karls des Grossen. There is a tolerably popular history of Charlemagne by James Bulfinch, entitled “Legends of Charlemagne;” also a Life by James the novelist. Henri Martin, Sismondi, and Michelet may be consulted; also Hallam’s Middle Ages, Milman’s Latin Christianity, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Biographic Universelle, and the Encyclopaedias.

Hildebrand : The Papal Empire

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages