Mei – Year 13 Student & Former Chief Editor, Humanities Journal
Editor’s Note: Year 13 student Mei, founder and former Chief Editor of the school’s Humanities Journal, researched and composed this remarkable extended essay on the Carolingian Empire in response to the Robson History Prize essay competition organised by Trinity College, Cambridge. The judges were extremely impressed with Mei’s submission, identifying it as ‘Highly Commended’: “Thank you very much for entering Trinity College’s 2020 Robert Robson Prize for essays in History. In a bumper lockdown year we received over 300 entries for the Prize, but your essay in particular stood out far above the rest of the field, and was Very Highly Commended by the examiners. Many congratulations! You deserve high praise for writing such an outstandingly intelligent and interesting piece of work.” The aims of the Robson Prize are twofold: firstly, to encourage ambitious and talented Year 12 or Lower Sixth students considering applying to university to read History or a related discipline; and secondly, to recognize the achievements both of high-calibre students and of those who teach them. You can read more excellent contributions from Mei in The GSAL Journal here. CPD
‘Let my armies be the rocks, and the trees, and the birds in the sky’. The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were undoubtedly dominated by a belligerent, militaristic foreign policy characterized by three principle objectives. Desire for booty to sustain the gift economy, the inclination to defend his empire against both external threat and internal dissidents and perhaps most importantly, his thirst to spread Christianity across Western and Central Europe. Yet was it this pugnacious imperialism, which allowed the Carolingian Empire to survive for some 75 years after the mighty Charlemagne’s death? Or was its stability as an Empire in a perpetual state of decay once military expeditions had a purely defensive agenda under Louis the Pious from 814 until the finalization of the Empire’s disintegration marked by the deposition of Charles the Fat in 888?
The birth of the Carolingian Empire came, somewhat ironically, after its most fruitful military conquest had already occured. Charles, better known as Charlemagne, the King of the Lombards and the Franks, the patricius of the Romans, was crowned imperator augustus by Pope Leo III in 800, marking the conception of an empire erected on the back of successive military victories tarnished with few failures. This began with the brutal conquest of Saxony, leading to the annexation of territory between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, the conquering of the Frisians and draconian measures to compel acceptance of Christianity under the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae after a 30 – year struggle. Extending military control as part of his bellicose policy, Charlemagne undertook the annexation of Italy in 774, an invasion of Spain in 778 with equivocal success, Frankish control over the Spanish March by 781, the forcible annexation of Bavaria between 787-788 and most importantly, the conquest of the Avar Khaganate by 796. It is the latter which held most significance for the Carolingian Empire and its temporary stability thereafter, due to the fruits that it bore and the subsequent impact this had upon internal harmony. Additionally, Charlemagne, through embodying the roles of both Frankish warrior King and fierce diplomat allowed the formation of relations with the Abbasid Caliphate (Arabic اَلْخِلَافَةُ ٱلْعَبَّاسِيَّةُ) and the Anglo – Saxon Kings, elevating his Kingdom to the mightiest in Europe through ensuring those who he hadn’t conquered were not foes of the empire. Statistically, this would be evidenced if the Carolingian Empire hypothetically existed today: it would be the World’s 3rd major power, boasting a GDP of 8540 billion dollars, plus 302 billion in Tributary states. However in the 8 and 9th centuries, economically, and subsequently socially, it was almost exclusively supported by his victory over the Avars, the siegers of Constantinople, between 791-796 until his death in 814.
It was through the existing economic mechanisms, which were dependent on continual military expansion that internal stability between the echelons of society was maintained; once the flow of loot began to cease, adherence to centralized authority followed suit and the Emperors power began to succumb to de-centralization, leading to the disintegration of domestic stability. This was due to the structure of the Carolingian Empire. Plunder was imperative in the consolidation of Imperial authority as it fuelled the gift economy; Charlemagne gifted fiefs to the vassals, whom held the land alliodially, vesting the control and defence of the land to the elite in the name of the emperor. Manorialism subsequently legitimized this power as within the Carolingian Empire, the ‘manor’ became the nexus of local legal and economic authority, acting as a vehicle through which central and local administration was integrated and reinforced by the utilization of missi dominci , royal agents whom facilitated greater precision and uniformity in transmitting the emperor’s orders, thus ensuring centralization was upheld. However, this network was intrinsically reliant upon continual military expansion; the acquisition of lands to gift by the King was imperative in maintaining his position at the apex of the social and economic hierarchy as it was the modus operandi to purchase the loyalty of the elite, the previous failure to do so culminating in the ravaging de-centralization which marked the descent of the Merovingian dynasty prior to the Carolingian rise to authority. Therefore, the advent of military stagnation under Louis the Pious marked a decline in the stability of the Carolingian Empire as the incentives (booty and plunder) which were required in almost – constant supply to spur fealty to the King dried up, marking a descent into de-centralization which suggests that continual martial expansion was at the crux of the economic mechanisms which drove the social symbiosis of the era. Once the yields of war dwindled after the military feats became largely defensive, the methods through which the support of the elite could be conserved after the death of Charlemagne were scarce. There was paucity in the way of coinage – Louis the Pious continued his father’s reformed coinage system with no intrinsic change until he infringed his minting rights, leading to coins from the Frisian Durstede, the source of all gold sous and half – sous being struck sparingly. From this point thereafter, no Carolingian gold circulated and the Carolingian currency pattern weakened, leading to the appearance of feudal coinages which clearly serves as an indicator of the erosion of centralized authority which appears to be driven by the failure to sustain military expansion and secure the pillage required to procure allegiance from the elites, and below them the common people. Subsequently, by the latter phases of Carolingian rule, the usurpation of nucleus authority was rife. Through the capitularies, the lamentable corruption of the counts, dukes and nobles whom had retracted their loyalty to the emperor was recounted in the Royal Frankish Annals, the most prominent of which were the Dukes of Flanders, Barcelona and Aquitaine – each established their own mechanisms of taxation, revenue and took over the right of judgement, the latter marking a considerable shift from the tight administrative system under Charlemagne. Thus, once perpetual military expansion ceased, internal stability began to deteriorate as the booty which derived from imperialism propelled the system of gift economy which preserved social stability in a way unheard of since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476; once this was lost, the allegiance of the elites simmered away simultaneously, culminating in the decay of centralized authority and eventually the crumbling of the Carolingians by the late 9th Century.
However, this argument appears to lack nuance; if the final significant military conquest orchestrated by the Carolingians occurred in 796, how did the Empire survive beyond the reign of Charlemagne, let alone until 880 during which his great – grandson was hereditary ruler? Perhaps this is indicative of the notion that continual military expansion wasn’t necessarily beneficial to the Carolingian empire’s stability in the long – term, and that Charlemagne’s creation of an ever – lengthening frontier and potentially perilous ethnic melange in fact caused the internal and external uprisings that scarred the reigns of his successors who dealt with the wider ramifications of his ceaseless military aggression.
Therefore, perhaps the initial success of Frankish Imperialism was the agent of its own downfall, as the burgeoning size of the Carolingian Empire was incompatible with its inadequate infrastructure, exposing it to both external and internal threats, the latter of which proved fatal in the dismantlement of harmony across the empire. Externally speaking, the Empire was marred by a sort of lex talionis; it began to suffer the pillaging it had inflicted on other territories, as it became an uber – rich target due to its previous military success. This derived from two principle groups – the Saracen Pirates and the Vikings. The former posed limited problems to the safety and stability of empire; they plundered Rome in 843, causing moderate damage. However, the Vikings were far more threatening, not only due to their hunger for vengeance which led to significant material damage, but their ideological qualms (perhaps stemming from the stringent enforcement of Christianity upon their pagan population under Charlemagne) with the Carolingian Empire, which threatened to undermine the efforts of the Carolingian renovatio. The most culturally damaging of the Viking raids was the plunder of Aachen, the home of the imperial palace and a number of scriptoriums modelled as the ‘new Athens’ – its plunder shook the essence of Frankish culture and threatened the nexus of the Carolingian renaissance and its positive moral regeneration, which bound together much of the Carolingian empire despite its gaping ethnic differences.
Internal plight, however, stemmed directly from the incompatibility between ethnic loyalties and overarching loyalties to the emperor, leading to pockets of instability in revolting areas. Conflict during the latter Carolingian period arose notably from the Bretons, Bavarians and Visigoth’s, a triumvirate who were certainly not overjoyed by Frankish rule and sought to capitalize upon the internal weakness of the Empire to fracture the stability that was tenuously binding it together. Once again, this was linked to the structural weaknesses of the Carolingian organization, derived in part from its over – militarization; its rapid swell made the Empire unmanageable, and after its peak in 802 it became unruly, destined to descend into destabilization. The same could be said for all major empires; the Umayyad Caliphate, the Mongol Empire, even the Roman Empire. Despite the fact the latter held out over 900 years longer than the seemingly – measly Carolingian Empire, it was its over – expansion which placed it in a constant state of vulnerability from military aggression externally, as well as internal decay which rotted the flesh of the Roman Empire from its core. Therefore, the stability which Charlemagne’s ancestors attempted to maintain was eroded from within by internal threat due to the Empire’s sheer size, yet this could only be capitalized upon to create instability due to the gravest error of all: Carolingian utilization of Germanic inheritance laws.
These meant that whatever benefits its size brought were negated as the Empire was in a perpetual state of disruption from ambiguities over inheritance and the subsequent need for partition. Introduced by Martel in 714, this archaic tradition purloined from the Merovingian’s dictated that land was to be shared between all eligible male heirs, meaning partition would be necessary if circumstances were to present themselves. This didn’t plague the late Merovingian’s due to a string of expedient deaths ; Martel split Francia between his sons Carloman and Pepin, with the former dying leaving Pepin’s two sons Carloman and Charlemagne to the throne in 768 – Carloman then mysteriously died in 771, meaning the reigns of control were held solely in Charlemagne’s hands. Of his three sons, Carloman died in 810, the illegitimate Pepin the Hunchback was banished to Prüm Abbey after engagement in a rebellion (he died in 811 nonetheless), leaving only Louis the Pious as heir by the time of Charlemagnes passing in 814. Only after this point were the ramifications of Germanic, instead of Roman inheritance law in which all land went to the oldest son, were felt. Louis issued his first order, the ordinatio imperii, which dictated the 1st partition of the empire after his death in which the notion of imperial rule was clearly stressed ; Louis the Pious aligned himself with his eldest son Lothar in retaining the Carolingian ancestral homeland, and his other offspring Louis, Bernard (his nephew) and Pepin were given adjunct lands, worsened by the birth of who would become Charles the Bald in 825 through his second marriage, adding another layer to the succession conundrum. Eventually, relations fell into disarray, and the Carolingian Empire was plagued by the onslaught of years of intermittent Civil War between the brothers, continuing after Louis’ death in 840 until the Treaty of Verdun three years later. Thus, the recrudescence of civil war scored the cracks of internal discontent within the constraints of the Carolingian family, which the dissenters within the Empire quickly capitalized upon to turn into a full disruption of the status quo to fracture the stability of the Empire as they simply had no loyalties to it over their ethnic priorities and it was no longer a coherent body as it was under Charlemagne, hastening its perpetual decay into mere ruins of its former self. If the inheritance question never stood to create the potential for instability from the crux of the Empire, the family behind it, the likelihood is that Civil War could have been averted, as the imperial family would be working with the common aim to preserve the stability of the Empire as a whole, instead of each brother trying to salvage as much as possible for himself. Therefore, minor, isolated incidents within the Empire, inevitable due to its size, could have been quashed and contained, instead of spiralling uncontrollably and threatening the foundations of the Carolingian society crafted by Charlemagne as they ultimately did by the 830’s, a process finalized by the Treaty of Verdun in 843 which irreparably split the entirety of the Carolingian Empire into 3 distinct parts.
The idea that structural issues within Carolingian succession exacerbated the volatility that accompanied the Empire’s size leading to more serious rebellion and fractures in stability even in the upper echelons of the imperial family was not the only thing afflicting the internal stability of the Carolingian Empire. Its sheer ethnic variety, as a consequence of continual military expansion raised the question of belonging, seen through the inability to extend Frankish identitarianism (identity politics) to its new peoples. Imperialism meant that the Carolingians were brought into contact with people who had differing titles, languages and law codes. As a result, Frankish titles which held gravitas from those emanating from the Carolingian ancestral lands, such as ‘Rex Francorum’, the establishment of which was Pepin I’s life achievement in an attempt to certify his legitimacy before the concept of ‘empire’ had even emerged, were meaningless to the people of conquered lands incorporated within the Carolingian Empire, thus were futile as a vehicle to harness unity and perpetuate stability in the face of the idiosyncrasies of each particular group. This meant that, once the initial stability brought by Charlemagnes strong leadership wore off in favour of domestic struggle, the Emperor had no way of extending his authority beyond the ancestral Frankish realm as all the titles he possessed and the respective weight that they carried meant nothing to the new peoples who were painstakingly ambivalent towards archaic Frankish titles, feeling in no way morally bound into stability by them. Thus, this gave revolters against the Empire no ideological reason not to do so, paving way for internal instability as those conquered by Charlemagne had no moral dues to pay to the Franks and subsequently had no respect for their titles meaning they had no intrinsic reason not to revolt; the often – brutal circumstances of their imperialization perhaps drove them to conflict and hastened the internal fracture of stability even more.
In light of this and moving away from the ramifications of continual military expansion, there was one factor which could salvage the Carolingians from the darkness of internal revolt through perpetuating moral stability. This was the cultural renaissance brought by the Carolingian revival, marking arguably the first flowering of European culture since the Dark Ages and creating the evocation of a ‘civis Romanus sum’ sentiment which diffused throughout the empire, encouraging loyalty to its cause which translated into overall stability for the Carolingians. Scholarly efforts commenced during the reign of Charlemagne in 780, to recreate the spiritus of the Roman Empire, the fall of which as well as the Plagues of Justinian threated the wider preservation of classical civilization as a whole. The motive behind this is multi – faceted; Charlemagne himself had a personal desire to save classical texts and promote the standardization of the Latin language away from the branches, including proto – Italian, Gallo – Romance and Ibero – Romance which it had stemmed into, a product of which is Carolingian miniscule and the modern day question – mark. Einhard writes of him: ’he avidly pursued the liberal arts and greatly honoured those teachers who he deeply respected’. He was perhaps critical of his own academic limitations; he was illiterate, and frequently chastised himself for it, acting as a motivation to further push through cultural reform: ‘if the populous knew with that idiocy they were ruled, they would revolt’. This linked to his religious motivations, and consequently his desire to resolve the theological problems of the Carolingian Empire – these were iconoclasm, which was spreading across the Byzantine Empire and adoptionism, a popular Spanish notion which supposed that Christ was a mortal adopted by God to serve as his son and was a source of great contempt for Charlemagne. Thus, cultural and ecclesiastical reform was required to enact such changes, with the nexus of these being the education of the clergy. This began in 787 with the ‘Charter of Modern Thought’, in which Charlemagne ordered the creation of schools, utilizing a standardized curriculum founded off the works of Cassiodorus (490-585), who instilled the notion that liberal arts were imperative in the establishment of religious truth. It was this capitulary that signalled a revival of the trivium and the quadrivium, mainly through Alcuin, as well as a plethora of other scholars from across the Empire including Theodulph of Orleans and Paul the Deacon. In terms of preserving the vestiges of the civilized Roman culture, scriptoriums produced thousands of manuscripts during the 8th and 9th centuries; it is due to the Carolingians that the works of Livy, Horace and Cicero survived through to the present day as no other copies in the Latin West were produced in the 8th Century, held in ‘scriptoriums’ where copies of Ancient texts were manually reproduced. The Renaissance also yielded developments in art which transcended classical revival, setting the stage for Romanesque, and ultimately Gothic art in the West. Architecturally, the Carolingian renovatio amalgamated Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine styles in a sui generis fashion; between 768-855 alone saw the construction of 27 new cathedrals, 417 monasteries and 100 royal residences.
The question as to whether Charlemagne’s renaissance created the cultural sphere is a pertinent one, as it reflects its power as a stabilizing force. Contreni suggests that the renovation had a tremendous effect on education and culture, ‘debatable effect’ on artistic endeavours but an ‘unmeasurable’ effect in the sense that it morally regenerated Carolingian society, stretching to all of the people in the Empire and forging a sense of stability through a shared participation in this marvellous cultural revival. McIntosh follows suit, reflecting that the Carolingian renaissance ‘sewed together a loosely knit European identity’ following the dissemination of the Roman Empire and its subsequently fragile Christian re – invention under the Merovingian’s. From this angle, it was this cultural revival and not continual military expansion which resulted in the proliferation of stability as those under the Carolingian Regime self – handedly ushered in stability through a desire to be part of this flourishing, vivacious, morally – superior polity. However, this stability is questionable, as perhaps moral unity did not create harmony; Charlemagne just deposed of dissidents to his regime who could pose a threat. Those who elected for independence over compliance concerning his ecclesiastical reforms would suggest the latter. Charlemagne, in an ironic juxtaposition with his supposed ‘deep’ religious convictions, enacted terror upon dissenters to his renovation; he brutally massacred 4,500 abjuring Saxons in October 792 alone. Nor was it the first evidence of regeneration since the fall of the Roman Empire; the 7th Century saw the mighty Isodorian Renaissance in the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania, in which scientific development thrived.Yet whether its success was a product of Carolingian ‘propaganda’ , depicting those outside the Empire as primitive Barbarian savages and obscurantists meaning Carolingians felt lucky to at least having a sense of cultural identity, or whether Charlemagne realized that it was incumbent upon him to bind his burgeoning Empire through moral revitalization and did so with great triumph regardless of the destruction he left in his wake, the result remains the same : the Carolingian renaissance brought, at the bare minimum, temporary harmony across the Empire.
‘I am the successor, not of Louis XVI, but of Charlemagne’. Bonaparte’s words fracture the visages of time, some 1000 years after Charlemagne’s death. The question of Charlemagne’s military and imperial prowess during his reign cannot be challenged. What can be is the dependency of the Carolingian Empire’s stability upon the continual military expansion, which dwindled into effectively nil by the dawn of the 9th Century. Despite the fact that military expansion functioned in the short term serving economic objectives and maintaining relative stability among the three primary echelons of Frankish society, it was this same restless imperialism which essentially marked the beginning of the Empire’s decay into nothingness. It created fundamental cracks on the microcosm level of the imperial family, worsened by the inheritance question which plagued Louis the Pious’ reign, leading eventually to his deposition between 833-4. Subsequently, this spilled over into the Empire as a whole and gave way to domestic revolt and ceaseless civil war. Therefore, despite narrowly hanging on by a single thread until 888, the Carolingian Empire was a frayed rope ready to snap at any point after the 843 Treaty of Verdun led to its partition and lost its stability the second Charlemagne took his last breath. Once it reached its zenith in 802, the Carolingian Empire was in a perpetual state of decay, in a position solely to lose, not gain. Whilst the cultural renaissance stalled the complete dismantlement of stability by morally unifying those who experienced gaping ethnic differences under a single polity, temporarily patching up the issue of ethnic – over – imperial loyalty, the situation was never permanent. The initial euphoria and moral regeneration it brought quickly dissipated once the reality of the reform was exposed; the spectrum of lay education was painstakingly narrow, the literacy rate of 875 only fractionally higher than that of 775. Thus, continual military expansion was not the cornerstone of Carolingian stability: the Empire as a whole never enjoyed simultaneous internal and external stability beyond a superficial level, even at the apex of the renovatio. Ultimately, continual expansionism was simply the long – term cause of decay which beset the Empire from its moment of conception.
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