Few reigns have had more significance than that of Charlemagne. When he assumed the throne of the Franks in 768 the “dark ages” had run of things on the European continent. Little settled political order existed, and the world of most villagers narrowed to their immediate sphere. Travel and mobility came with far too much unpredictability.
Upon his death in 814, Europe had begun its transformation into what we might recognize as civilization. Not only had a discernible political order emerged, but the “Carolingian Renaissance” started to bring back the rudiments of culture and learning. The geography of Europe changed, as these “before” (ca. AD 700) and “after” (AD 814) maps of Europe indicate. . .
. . . but the change involved much more than geography alone. With Charlemagne came the return of building with stone. We discussed in class about the significance of building with stone, and what it reveals about a time period that introduces it:
- Building with stone requires a higher degree of specialized skill than either mud-brick or wood, showing advancement.
- Building with stone is more costly, showing economic improvement
- Stone is more time-consuming, but also more durable. No one would build with stone who thought about moving anytime soon.
The use of stone in the 9th century AD shows more than mere political stability, it shows a return of confidence, what historian Kenneth Clark argues is one of the unseen foundations of any civilization. Clark may or may not have been a Christian, but he recognized the key truth that civilization rests ultimately on psychological/spiritual factors, rather than mere “physical” factors like good laws and good economies. He is one of the few historians I’ve come across who gives the lion’s share of credit to the Church for recovering civilization after Rome’s fall.
Last week the students go their first introduction to Clark, one of my favorite historians. This site’s title is in fact an homage to Clark. I realize that students may not go ga-ga over a mildly stuffy British lord with bad teeth, but Clark has much to teach us. He possessed a discerning eye and a careful mind, one that could read a great deal from the creative works left by the past. Here is the first few minutes of the first episode, though I recommend just about everything he did. . .
Charlemagne’s times raised difficult questions for the Church then, and by proxy for the Church today. The Church has an interest in good government and good order for society. All in all, the Church would prefer a government friendly to its interests. But all government rests in the end, on owning the monopoly on violence in a particular geography. This is inevitable in any age. The Church then, and the Church today, has hard choices about what to support and what to protest. The state does not bear the sword for nothing, as St. Paul stated in Romans. But the state has its own interests apart from the Kingdom that the Church should critique. In this intricate dance, it’s easy to miss a few steps.
Charlemagne’s constant wars mean we can find much to dislike about him. After his death his kingdom got divided amongst his sons, and with this political division came instability and the return of violence, and this raises two possibilities:
- However much we might deplore Charlemagne’s violence we might be forced to see it as necessary for the “reboot” of civilization to have one strong-man impose his singular vision. While this vision may have been less than perfect, it stood superior to anything before it.
- Or, we can say that the breakup of his kingdom after his death comes as a byproduct of the violence of his reign. Charlemagne taught his successors that violence was the pathway to getting what you wanted.
Civilization took a few backward steps after Charlemagne, but the seeds planted during his reign bore fruit later. This is why I personally can’t fully accept argument #2 above. Charlemagne had an eye to something other than just violence. Take for example the development of the elegant “Carolingian” script during his time, which shows a different side of the man. First, the script that preceded it, the “Merovingian” style . . .
And now the Carolingian . . .
One can perhaps see Charlemagne’s practical, decisive, hand in the handwriting that bears his namesake. I think it an improvement over the Merovingian — it’s more accessible to the common man. But Carolingian script is not strictly a “military” in nature, it shows a softer side of Charlemagne — it has a decided elegance about it.
While handwriting styles shouldn’t always be taken as decisive evidence, I think it telling in this instance. The undercurrent of some semblance of Christian civilization had taken root, though the prevailing winds might blow in various directions.
After the break we will look at the Norman Conquest and the subsequent formation of an identity called “Europe.”