The Development of Feudalism in Western Europe: Charlemagne Compare and Contrast

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Throughout history, various rulers have had significant impacts on society. From Alexander the Great’s boldness to George III’s insanity, these individuals have played a crucial role in shaping history. However, none of them influenced European feudalism as profoundly as Charlemagne, who was both the King of the Franks and the initial Holy Roman Emperor.

While Charlemagne’s governmental advancements were noteworthy, he also went beyond that. He implemented an educational system for his people, although it cannot be compared to today’s public and private systems. Nevertheless, this initiative marked a significant beginning in the 8th and 9th century.

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In addition to his governance and educational reforms, Charlemagne also played a vital role in spreading Christianity across Europe. Born in Northern Europe in 752, he became one of history’s outstanding leaders and laid the groundwork for establishing the Holy Roman Empire.

The Line of Frankish kings has a brief history. In 481, Clovis assumed the throne of one of the Frankish tribes. A bet with his wife prompted him to convert to Christianity, and he compelled 3,000 soldiers to do the same. This act garnered support from the Catholic Church for both Clovis and the Franks. However, Clovis’s leadership qualities were not inherited by his sons. Upon Clovis’s demise, his sons partitioned the kingdom he had labored to construct. Subsequent Merovingian kings proved inadequate rulers, eventually becoming figureheads. The responsibility of governing the kingdom fell to the “Mayor of the Palace.”

In 751, Pope Zacharias arranged for Childeric III to be sent to a monastery and for Pepin, Mayor of the Palace, to be crowned king. However, the alliance between the Papacy and the Franks would soon face a challenge. The Lombard king, Aistulf, conquered territories north of Rome and expressed his desire to capture Rome itself. To avert this impending disaster, the Pope approached Pepin the Short and requested his aid in confronting the Lombards.

Charlemagne, also known as Charles I, was born in 742 to Pepin the Short and Bertrada. Little is known about his childhood, but it is believed that he enjoyed horseback riding and hunting. Although he struggled with writing, he excelled at speaking Latin fluently. His lineage can be traced back to Ansegis and Begga, but his most famous ancestors were his father, Pepin the Short, and grandfather, Charles Martel.

In battle against the Lombards, Charlemagne emerged victorious and gave the gained land to the Catholic Church. This event became known as the Donation of Pepin and resulted in the formation of the Papal States.

After the death of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne and his brother Carloman were declared kings by their supporting nobles and anointed by their respective bishops. During his life, Charlemagne faced several military challenges. In 769, Aquitaine and Gascony rebelled against his rule. Without assistance from his brother, Charlemagne had to quell these rebellions himself. He led his army through Bordeaux and defeated the leader of the rebellion, Hunold. Duke Hunold sought sanctuary with Lupus, who was the Duke of the Gascons. Nevertheless, Duke Lupus agreed to surrender Duke Hunold to Charlemagne and a peace accord was achieved.

Hunold was spared execution and instead returned to the monastic life. Following the reconquest of Aquitaine, his mother attempted to reconcile Charlemagne with his brother, but Charlemagne had already begun making treaties with neighboring rulers of Carloman’s kingdom.
In an effort to establish peace with Lombardy, Charlemagne married Desiderata, the daughter of the Lombard king. This marriage drew displeasure from Pope Stephen III, as it encouraged Frankish kings to weaken the power of the Lombards, who bordered their territories.
However, the Pope ultimately abandoned his objections to the marriage and formed an alliance with Desiderius, Desiderata’s father.

Charlemagne divorced his wife and married Hildegarde, a Suabian noblewoman, after one year. In 771, there was a fear that Charlemagne’s brother, Carloman, and Desiderata would form an alliance and attack him. However, in December of that year, Carloman passed away, giving Charlemagne full control of the Frankish Kingdom.

In 772, Charlemage led an army into Saxony for the first time with the intention of conquering the region. He also destroyed the Irminsul – a sacred temple and tree grove worshipped by all Saxons. The invasion had to be paused due to winter conditions. When he regrouped his army in 773, Charlemagne changed his plans and decided to attack Lombardy instead. Thus, his army marched from Geneva towards Lombardy.

Charlemagne divided his army into two divisions: one under his own leadership and the other led by his Uncle Bernard. Although Desiderius fortified the passes to Lombardy, Charlemagne’s flanking maneuver compelled him to retreat towards Lombardy. Eventually, Desiderius’ forces settled in Pavia, where Charlemagne laid siege for several months. While leaving a smaller force to continue the siege, he took the majority of his army to confront other threats from the Lombards. He successfully defeated the Lombard prince and also made a visit to Rome while Pavia remained under siege due to its close proximity. During his time in Rome, he held meetings with various rulers from both religious and political backgrounds. In these discussions with the pope, he reaffirmed the alliance between the Frankish Empire and the papacy. By summer of 774, famine had struck Pavia.

Desiderius agreed to surrender under the condition of sparing his men. Upon Charlemagne’s return to the siege at Pavia, he accepted these terms and banished Desiderius to Neustria. Consequently, Charlemagne became both the King of Italy and the King of the Franks and Lombards, Roman Patrician. He implemented minimal changes to the government structure, allowing most governors to retain their positions. Nonetheless, one son-in-law of Desiderius refused to recognize Charlemagne’s authority and attempted to reinstate Adelchis, who had previously been exiled.

Charlemagne responded to his supporters by engaging in battle with one of them and subsequently killing the rest. While dealing with the Lombards, he was faced with another rebellion from the Saxons, which led him to return to Saxony with his armies. He began his invasion by attacking Westphalia and then went on to conquer Engria. He later crossed into Eastphalia, where the Eastphalians were the first to embrace Christianity, followed by the Engrians. Hostages were taken as a means to ensure their oaths were upheld. The conversion of Westphalia, being the strongest province compared to the other two provinces, was accomplished last.

Initially, three quarters of Saxony pledged loyalty to Charlemagne during his campaign. However, this allegiance did not last long as Saxony rebelled again in 776. To address the rebellion swiftly, Charlemagne led his army from Italy to Saxony and caught the Saxons by surprise. In response, the hostages who were previously taken were executed, prompting the Saxons to seek peace. Charlemagne ensured his control by convening a council at Paderborn in Engria’s center. As part of this council, numerous Saxons were baptized and swore oaths of loyalty to Charlemagne. Additionally, during the council meeting, ambassadors from Spain paid homage to Charlemagne.

The proposal was made to make their feudal lords lords of Charlemagne in exchange for protection. With the belief that they had control over Saxony, Charlemagne accepted the offer and led his army into Spain. However, upon conquering lands there, he discovered there was another rebellion in Saxony. Consequently, he returned to Saxony and successfully defeated the Westphalians. As expected, the Eastphalians and Engrians surrendered without resistance. Eventually, Charlemagne divided the Saxons politically and assigned them to bishops. He also established a Saxon code of law and allowed certain Saxon Chieftains to retain authority.

Many individuals were baptized in the rivers Elbe and Ocker. Following 2 years, the northern tribes of Saxony rebelled, and Charlemagne once again suppressed the rebellion. He subsequently gathered the revolt’s leaders, approximately 4,500 men, and executed them. Shortly thereafter, there were still rebellions in Saxony, albeit minor ones that were easily suppressed. Charlemagne then redirected his focus to other fronts, conquering the Slavs, Avars, the Island of Corsica, Sardinia, and the Baleric Islands. In 792, the Saxons rebelled once more, requiring Charlemagne 2 years to quell the uprising.

Life with Charlemagne/ The search for a Capitol

Charlemagne, known for his physical stature and high-pitched voice, surrounded himself with people who sought his advice and engaged in conversations with him throughout his day. He valued efficiency and would often plan his day while getting dressed in the morning. Despite being deeply religious and attending mass regularly, his passion for hunting, an activity he had enjoyed since childhood, consumed his thoughts after the religious ceremony. The abundance of game in the forests of Frankland made it easy for him to indulge in this sport. Additionally, he took great pleasure in eating and considered meal times to be occasions for both physical and mental nourishment. His preference for roast meats is a well-known characteristic.

Charlemagne, like the Greeks, disliked drunkenness in everyone and held himself to high standards. In preparation for his busy day filled with court cases, planning, and other royal matters, he frequently took a nap after meals. He had a fondness for swimming, which he considered as enjoyable as hunting. Each evening, he would participate in chapel services before having dinner. His family was dear to him, and he insisted on dining only when his children were present. Charles, Carloman (later renamed Pepin), and Louis were his beloved children whom he prioritized education for right from the beginning of their lives.

In addition to receiving physical training, each of Charlemagne’s children accompanied him on the battlefield. By the age of 13, they were all leading soldiers. Charlemagne also gave each son a portion of the kingdom to rule, allowing them to gain practical leadership experience. Even when they were on their own, Charlemagne kept a close watch on them. If he suspected his son Louis was being careless, he sent him to the Saxon front. He was even more vigilant with his daughters, only permitting them to marry courtiers who resided in the palace. His daughters actively participated in his daily activities, including morning hunts and post-dinner discussions.

Charlemagne selected Aix-la-Chapelle (now called Aachen) as his new capital in 791. The reasons for this decision were threefold: the town’s renowned hot springs, its convenient accessibility to most of Frankland and close proximity to Saxony, and its small size which allowed him greater control over its development. The focal points of the capital were the church and palace, both holding equal importance to Charlemagne. In terms of governmental reforms, during the late 780s and throughout the 790s, Charlemagne dedicated significant effort towards improving the lives of ordinary citizens. One notable measure was establishing ‘missi dominici’, or emissaries appointed by the lord.

The missi dominici were individuals who inspected all regions of the empire and kept records of how Charlemagne’s orders were being implemented. As Charlemagne could not personally oversee his entire kingdom at once, the missi dominici served as his eyes and ears. Charlemagne once expressed, “I insist that my missi, through their upright behavior, serve as examples of the virtues that they teach others on my behalf.” Additionally, feudalism played a role in simplifying the empire. Charlemagne created a document known as the “Decree Concerning the Estates,” which provided general guidelines for managing the manor. In order to enhance trade within the empire, Charlemagne worked on improving road conditions and constructing new roads.

Charlemagne made an unsuccessful attempt to build a canal connecting the Danube and Rhine rivers. However, due to new trade emerging, he established a money exchange system in his empire. Along with his military prowess, Charlemagne also placed great importance on his own intellectual development. After experiencing life in Italy, he approached education with the same determination as attacking the Saxons. He even learned Greek and Latin languages. Charlemagne founded a school in Aix-la-Chapelle, attracting students from all corners of his kingdom. Although initially meant for noble sons, he believed in providing all children with the opportunity to learn and subsequently allowed enrollment for everyone.

Charlemagne frequently noted that students from disadvantaged backgrounds outperformed their more privileged peers. The reputation of the Palace School became renowned throughout Europe, attracting students from across the continent. In order to enhance the educational system, Charlemagne selected Alcuin, a monk hailing from England. Alcuin not only authored new textbooks to replace outdated ones, but also initiated the training of new instructors. By the time Alcuin retired, Charlemagne was able to provide free education for all. Charlemagne greatly appreciated the intellectual discussions offered by Alcuin and others. Consequently, the school in Aix-la-chapelle rapidly evolved into a college.

Lectures, poetry readings, and conversation were commonly found in the academy. Most members of the academy gave Charlemagne the nickname Kind David, which probably alluded to David’s role as a prophet in the bible. Charlemagne’s interest in education sprung from his fascination with religion, as he believed that education allowed individuals to gain religious knowledge essential for soul salvation. Additionally, Charlemagne started developing an interest in the religious life of Frankland through various means. Previously, his religious endeavors were limited to converting people through warfare, but now his sense of responsibility started to expand.

The king, Charlemagne, frequently acted as a preacher, emphasizing that the people, particularly the clergy, should embody the principles and conduct they professed. He initiated a movement to purify all the churches in Frankland, introduced the Gregorian chant into church services, and encouraged priests to receive proper education. Additionally, Charlemagne engaged in theological debates of his time. He examined the orthodox viewpoint and endeavored to comprehend it. Moreover, he intervened when he perceived a lack of dedication from Pope Hadrian. Upon learning that the Eastern church defended the use of images in worship, Charlemagne composed a defense of the Western Church’s stance. In 794, he convened a council of Bishops, presenting them with his document. The council unanimously denounced the eastern practice.

Starting with Pope Hadrian’s death in 795, Charlemagne began his journey to becoming Emperor of the Romans. However, his successor, Pope Leo, was disliked by Roman nobles who accused him of adultery. In 799, a group of conspirators attempted to attack the Pope in an effort to overthrow him. Fortunately, his loyal attendants managed to save him and he sought long-term protection with Frankish ambassadors.

Although Charlemagne did not have a favorable opinion of the new pope, he would not tolerate such behavior. He summoned Leo to be brought to him and the pope stayed with Charlemagne for a few months. Eventually, Leo was sent back with two archbishops and Frankish bodyguards, who were tasked with clearing the Pope’s name. During this time, Charlemagne embarked on a tour of his kingdom. At the conclusion of the tour, his fifth wife, Liutgard, passed away. In response, Charlemagne declared his intention to travel to Rome in order for his eldest legitimate son, Charles, to be proclaimed King of the Franks. This was a customary practice for Frankish heirs to receive the crown before their predecessors’ death. While in Rome, Charlemagne successfully vindicated Pope Leo of any wrongdoing. On Christmas Day, the day originally meant for his son’s coronation as King of Franks, Charlemagne himself was crowned Emperor of the Romans. Despite accepting the title with humility, Charlemagne’s biographer and close friend, Einhard, noted that the king would have entered St. Peter’s that day if he had been aware of the Pope’s intentions.

Charlemagne exhibited his true qualities as Emperor by launching his career as a diplomat. One of his main diplomatic endeavors was to address the issue of Muslim attacks on Christian monasteries in the Holy Land. Charlemagne took proactive measures and dispatched a team of ambassadors to Baghdad with the intention of befriending the caliph there. This diplomatic effort proved successful, as the caliph showered Charlemagne with luxurious gifts, including silk and even an elephant. However, Charlemagne faced challenges in his new role as Emperor. In 804, Saxony rebelled against his rule, prompting Charlemagne to respond ruthlessly by dispersing many Saxons throughout various regions of the Frankish kingdom. Additionally, Charlemagne encountered resistance from the Byzantines, who were displeased with his coronation as Emperor of the Romans. Tensions escalated in 805 when Charlemagne clashed with the Byzantines over control of Venice.

Instead of engaging in a conflict for control of Venice, Charlemagne chose to give it to the Byzantine emperor in order to improve their relationship. Moreover, the Normans posed a growing challenge as they used their navy to raid coastal villages in Frankland. Despite Frank’s significant strength on land, they were inferior to the Normans at sea. To overcome this disadvantage, Charlemagne rallied his people to construct a new navy. Eventually, the conflict in the north came to an end not due to superior naval power, but rather because the Norman king passed away. In 810, the Franks initiated a campaign against the Normans, and Charles brought along an elephant he had received from the Caliph of Baghdad. Unfortunately, during the campaign, the elephant died, marking the beginning of Charlemagne’s troubles.

In 810, the Frankish Empire experienced a cattle plague that caused famine, leading to the deaths of Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, and daughter, Hrodrud. Charlemagne’s health also began to decline, prompting him to contemplate the division of his empire after his death. To avoid potential conflict between his remaining sons, he decided against dividing the land among them. However, following Frankish tradition, he planned to break up the empire while ensuring that the three kingdoms would cooperate. Additionally, he specified in his will that eleven twelfths of his wealth would be given to the church. In 811, Charlemagne’s eldest son, Charles, passed away, leaving only Louis as the successor to govern the empire. Many voiced their disagreement with Louis inheriting the crown, advocating instead for one of Charlemagne’s grandsons to take over.

Despite his determination to follow tradition, Charlemagne summoned Louis to Aix-la-Chapelle in 813. His intention was to teach his son how to govern an empire. In September of the same year, Charlemagne crowned Louis the Pious as King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans. Sadly, Charlemagne’s life was cut short a few months later when he died from a fever after a hunting trip. At the age of 71, he left behind a legacy as one of the longest-reigning rulers in European history, with a rule lasting 45 years. Throughout his reign, he prioritized education by offering free schooling to everyone in his kingdom and strengthening the papacy. Whether through his military achievements or his diplomatic endeavors, Charlemagne undeniably stood as a remarkable figure.

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