by Will Durant
This biography was published in Will Durant's "History of Civilization" and is only a small part of a marvelous historical survey.
In 771 Carloman II died, and Charles at twenty-nine became sole king. Two years later he received from Pope Hadrian II an urgent appeal for aid against the Lombard Desiderius, who was invading the papal states. Charlemagne besieged and took Pavia, assumed the crown of Lombardy, confirmed the Donation of Pepin, and accepted the role of protector of the Church in all her temporal powers.
Returning to his capital at Aachen, he began a series of fifty-three campaigns- nearly all led in person- designed to round out his empire by conquering and Christianizing Bavaria and Saxony, destroying the troublesome Avars, shielding Italy from the raiding Saracens, and strengthening the defenses of Francia against the expanding Moors of Spain. The Saxons on his eastern frontier were pagans; they had burned down a Christian church, and made occasional incursions into Gaul; these reasons sufficed Charlemagne for eighteen campaigns (772-804), waged with untiring ferocity on both sides. Charles gave the conquered Saxons a choice between baptism and death, and had 4500 Saxon rebels beheaded in one day; after which he proceeded to Thionville to celebrate the nativity of Christ.
At Paderborn in 777 Ibn al-Arabi, the Moslem governor of Barcelona, had asked the aid of the Christian king against the caliph of Cordova. Charles led an army across the Pyrenees, besieged and captured the Christian city of Pamplona, treated the Christian but incalculable Basques of northern Spain as enemies, and advanced even to Saragossa. But the Moslem uprisings that al-Arabi had promised as part of the strategy against the caliph failed to appear; Charlemagne saw that his unaided forces could not challenge Cordova; news came that the conquered Saxons were in wild revolt and were marching in fury upon Cologne; and with the better part of valor he led his army back, in long and narrow file, through the passes of the Pyrenees.
In one such pass, at Roncesvalles in Navarre, a force of Basques pounced down upon the rear guard of the Franks, and slaughtered nearly every man in it (778); there the noble Hruodland died, who would become three centuries later the hero of France's most famous poem, the Chanson de Roland.
In 795 Charlemagne sent another army across the Pyrenees; the Spanish March- a strip of northeast Spain- became part of Francia, Barcelona capitulated, and Navarre and Asturias acknowledged the Frankish sovereignty (806). Meanwhile Charlemagne had subdued the Saxons (785), had driven back the advancing Slavs (789), had defeated and dispersed the Avars (790-805), and had, in the thirty-fourth year of his reign and the sixty-third of his age, resigned himself to peace.
In truth he had always loved administration more than war, and had taken to the field to force some unity of government and faith upon a Western Europe torn for centuries past by conflicts of tribe and creed. He had now brought under his rule all the peoples between the Vistula and the Atlantic, between the Baltic and the Pyrenees, with nearly all of Italy and much of the Balkans. How could one man competently govern so vast and varied a realm? He was strong enough in body and nerves to bear a thousand responsibilities, perils, and crises, even to his sons? plotting to kill him. He had in him the blood or teaching of the wise and cautious Pepin III, and of the ruthless Charles Martel, and was something of a hammer himself. He extended their power, guarded it with firm military organization, propped it with religious sanction and ritual. He could vision large purposes, and could will the means as well as wish the ends. He could lead an army, persuade an assembly, humor the nobility, dominate the clergy, rule a harem.
He made military service a condition of owning more than a pittance of property, and thereby founded martial morale on the defense and extension of one's land. Every freeman, at the call to arms, had to report in full equipment to the local count, and every noble was responsible for the military fitness of his constituents. The structure of the state rested on this organized force, supported by every available psychological factor in the sanctity of anointed majesty, the ceremonial splendor of the imperial presence, and the tradition of obedience to established rule. Around the king gathered a court of administrative nobles and clergymen- the seneschal or head of the palace, the 'count palatine' or chief justice, the 'palsgraves' or judges of the palace court, and a hundred scholars, servants, and clerks.
The sense of public participation in the government was furthered by semiannual assemblies of armed property owners, gathered, as military or other convenience might dictate, at Worms, Valenciennes, Aachen, Geneva, Paderborn... usually in the open air. At such assemblies the king submitted to smaller groups of nobles or bishops his proposals for legislation; they considered them, and returned them to him with suggestions; he formulated the capitula, or chapters of legislation, and presented these to the multitude for their shouted approval; rarely the assembly voiced disapproval with a collective grunt or moan. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, has transmitted an intimate picture of Charles at one of these gatherings, 'saluting the men of most note, conversing with those whom he seldom saw, showing a tender interest toward the elders, and disporting himself with the young.'
At these meetings each provincial bishop and administrator was required to report to the King any significant event in his locality since the previous convocation. 'The King wished to know,' says Hincmar, 'whether in any part or corner of the Kingdom the people were restless, and the cause thereof.' Sometimes (continuing the old Roman institution of inquisitio) the representatives of the King would summon leading citizens to inquire and give under oath a 'true statement' (veredictum) as to the taxable wealth, the state of public order, the existence of crimes or criminals, in the district visited. In the ninth century, in Frank lands, this verdict of a jurata, or sworn group of inquirers, was used to decide many local issues of land ownership or criminal guilt. Out of the jurata, through Norman and English developments, would come the jury system of modern times.
The empire was divided into counties, each governed in spiritual matters by a bishop or archbishop, and in secular affairs by a comes (companion- of the king) or count. A local assembly of landholders convened twice or thrice a year in each provincial capital to pass upon the government of the region, and serve as a provincial court of appeals. The dangerous frontier counties, or marches, had special governors- graf, margrave, or markherzog; Roland of Roncesvalles, for example, was governor of the Breton march. All local administration was subject to missi dominici - 'emissaries of the master' - sent by Charlemagne to convey his wishes to local officials, to review their actions, judgments, and accounts; to check bribery, extortion, nepotism, and exploitation, to receive complaints and remedy wrongs, to protect 'the Church, the poor, and wards and widows, and the whole people'from malfeasance or tyranny, and to report to the King the condition of the realm; the Capitulare missorum establishing these emissaries was a Magna Carta for the people, four centuries before England's Magna Carta for the aristocracy. That this capitulary meant what it said appears from the case of the duke of Istria, who, being accused by the missi of divers injustices and extortions, was forced by the King to restore his thievings, compensate every wronged man, publicly confess his crimes, and give security against their repetition.
Barring his wars, Charlemagne's was the most just and enlightened government that Europe had known since Theodoric the Goth. The sixty-five capitularies that remain of Charlemagne's legislation are among the most interesting bodies of medieval law. They were not an organized system, but rather the extension and application of previous 'barbarian' codes to new occasion or need.
In some particulars they were less enlightened than the laws of King Liutprand of Lombardy: they kept the old wergild, ordeals, trial by combat, and punishment by mutilation; and decreed death for relapse into paganism, or for eating meat in Lent- though here the priest was allowed to soften the penalty. Nor were all these capitularies laws; some were answers to inquiries, some were questions addressed by Charlemagne to officials, some were moral counsels. 'It is necessary,' said one article, 'that every man should seek to the best of his strength and ability to serve God and walk in the way of His precepts; for the Lord Emperor cannot watch over every man in personal discipline.' Several articles struggled to bring more order into the sexual and marital relations of the people. Not all these counsels were obeyed; but there runs through the capitularies a conscientious effort to transform barbarism into civilization.
Charlemagne legislated for agriculture, industry, finance, education, and religion as well as for government and morals. His reign fell into a period when the economy of southern France and Italy was at low ebb through the control of the Mediterranean by the Saracens. 'The Christians,' said Ibn Khaldun, 'could no longer float a plank upon the sea.' The whole structure of commercial relations between Western Europe and Africa and the Levant was disturbed; only the Jews- whom Charlemagne sedulously protected for this reason- connected the now hostile halves of what under Rome had been a united economic world. Commerce survived in Slavic and Byzantine Europe, and in the Teutonic north. The English Channel and the North Sea were alive with trade; but this too would be disordered, even before Charlemagne's death, by Norse piracy and raids. Vikings on the north and Moslems on the south almost closed the ports of France, and made her an inland and agricultural state. The mercantile middle class declined, leaving no group to compete with the rural aristocracy; French feudalism was promoted by Charlemagne's land grants and by the triumphs of Islam.
Charlemagne struggled to protect a free peasantry against spreading serfdom, but the power of the nobles, and the force of circumstance, frustrated him. Even slavery grew for a time, as a result of the Carolingian wars against pagan tribes. The King's own estates, periodically extended by confiscations, gifts, intestate reversions, and reclamation, were the chief source of the royal revenue. For the care of these lands he issued a Capitulare de villis astonishingly detailed, and revealing his careful scrutiny of all state income and expense. Forests, wastelands, highways, ports, and all mineral subsoil resources were the property of the state. Every encouragement was given to such commerce as survived; the fairs were protected, weights and measures and prices were regulated, tolls were moderated, speculation in futures was checked, roads and bridges were built or repaired, a great span was thrown across the Rhine at Mainz, waterways were kept open, and a canal was planned to connect the Rhine and the Danube, and thereby the North with the Black Sea. A stable currency was maintained; but the scarcity of gold in France and the decline of trade led to the replacement of Constantine's gold solidus with the silver pound. The energy and solicitude of the King reached into every sphere of life. He gave to the four winds the names they bear today. He established a system of poor relief, taxed the nobles and the clergy to pay its costs, and then made mendicancy a crime.
Appalled by the illiteracy of his time, when hardly any but ecclesiastics could read, and by the lack of education among the lower clergy, he called in foreign scholars to restore the schools of France. Paul the Deacon was lured from Monte Cassino, and Alcuin from York (782), to teach the school that Charlemagne organized in the royal palace at Aachen. Alcuin (735-804) was a Saxon, born near York, and educated in the cathedral school that Bishop Egbert had founded there; in the eighth century Britain and Ireland were culturally ahead of France. When King Offa of Mercia sent Alcuin on a mission to Charlemagne, the latter begged the scholar to remain; Alcuin, glad to be out of England when the Danes were 'laying it desolate, and dishonoring the monasteries with adultery,' consented to stay. He sent to England and elsewhere for books and teachers, and soon the palace school was an active center of study, of the revision and copying of manuscripts, and of an educational reform that spread throughout the realm.
Among the pupils were Charlemagne, his wife Liutgard, his sons, his daughter Gisela, his secretary Eginhard, a nun, and many more. Charlemagne was the most eager of all; he seized upon learning as he had absorbed states; he studied rhetoric, dialectic, astronomy; he made heroic efforts to write, says Eginhard, 'and used to keep tablets under his pillow in order that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; but as he began these efforts so late in life, they met with ill success.' He studied Latin furiously, but continued to speak German at his court; he compiled a German grammar, and collected specimens of early German poetry. When Alcuin, after eight years in the palace school, pled for a less exciting environment, Charlemagne reluctantly made him Abbot of Tours (796). There Alcuin spurred the monks to make fairer and more accurate copies of the Vulgate of Jerome, the Latin Fathers, and the Latin classics; and other monasteries imitated the example. Many of our best classical texts have come down to us from these monastic scriptoria of the ninth century; practically all extant Latin poetry except Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, and nearly all extant Latin prose except Varro, Tacitus, and Apuleius, were preserved for us by the monks of the Carolingian age. Many of the Caroline manuscripts were handsomely illuminated by the patient art of the monks; to this 'Palace School' of illumination belonged the 'Vienna'Gospels on which the later German emperors took their coronation oath.