World Chronology, Lesson 31. Life of Charlemagne (742-814 AD)

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From the very beginning of the Christian Church’s development, men have sought to understand what the relationship ought to be between citizens of the kingdom of God and the rulers of the earth. The Jews asked Jesus whether they needed to pay taxes to the Roman empire and Jesus famously responded, “Give ye unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” Later, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,

“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

Now, that advice was given to the Roman Christians while Nero was emperor in Rome–one of the most wicked rulers in world history. In fact, the Christians would be persecuted and killed by various Roman emperors until the conversion of Constantine after 300 AD. How difficult it must have been to accept and obey the words of St. Paul when it was the “higher authorities” who were responsible for so much evil. Nevertheless, the Christians nobly worked to honor their earthly rulers and do good to them, paying taxes and praying for their happiness. St. Paul taught them such:

“I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”

Of course, this would all radically change after the conversion of Constantine. Suddenly, in what must have seemed like the blink of an eye, the higher authorities were FOR the Christians. Persecution ended. Tax payments were canceled. Buildings and lands were given by the state to the Church. Christians were free to live, work, trade, study and worship openly. Surely the Christians must have enjoyed the feelings expressed in Psalm 126:

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then we thought we were dreaming. Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD had done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; Oh, how happy we were!”

This joy, however, was interrupted by the reality that “easy” Christianity created new problems for the Church–problems that hadn’t been known before. During times of persecution, only a genuine faith and love of God could move a man to enter the Church. Church membership could cost a man his life–and all knew that. However, when there are suddenly benefits available for Christians, places of honor to be gained, political powers to be earned, wealth to be made, the wicked are then moved to become Christians for all the wrong reasons. The Church, as we know, did become corrupted in some places and holy men like St. Benedict reacted to that corruption with the creation of monasteries where the purity of the faith could be preserved and the temptations of the world kept out. Religious life was the way of choice for nearly all of the saints we know through history–and that should not surprise us. A man or woman who wishes to serve God with the faith and devotion that was present in the early martyrs will not want to live and work in the world. He or she will not want to face constant distractions and temptations, but will desire to dwell in a place that is safe, quiet and holy. Thus, history’s holiest men and women chose the monastic life and succeeded in keeping themselves unstained by the world.

Constantine’s conversion was only the beginning. As the Church’s wealth and power grew, she became more and more influential politically and began to gain many friends outside of Rome. The friends helped the Church spread to many new lands, fulfilling the Great Commission. The Church spread north and westward through Europe and gained the help of one man who would become one of her most famous champions: Charlemagne.

In this lesson, we will study the life and achievements of Charlemagne, who is considered to be the most influential man in Europe’s Christianization.

The Merovingian Kings

You should remember that all throughout Roman history–from the days of Scipio Africanus, through the days of Julius Caesar and down to the days of Constantine, the Romans constantly fought to protect and expand their borders. Italy occupied a most precious place in the geography of the ancient world, sitting in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea, as if upon the throne of the world. After the Punic Wars, the Romans controlled the sea which they referred to as Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”) and gained all the benefits necessary for success and power–the ability to travel, trade and communicate freely–and to tax and control those who do the same.

The barbarians who lived outside of the Roman empire, lacked many of these benefits and lived a much rougher and desperate life. Julius Caesar, writing about his experiences fighting against the northern barbarians wrote:

“Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, another the Aquitani, a third who are call the Gauls (who call themselves ‘Celts’). These all differ from one another in language, institutions and laws. Of all these, the Belgae are the strongest, because they are the furthest from the culture and civilization of the province, and to them the merchants least often travel and the things which they bring in lead to the weakening of men’s courage.”

Thus, the comforts of Roman life were a danger to them and Caesar said that the further one goes from the center of the Empire and the further one gets from the marketplaces and shops where all the world’s junk is bought and sold, the tougher the men get. Therefore, the word “barbarian” was used to refer to such people and they were understood to be tougher–and even tougher, the further one moved from Rome.

The barbarian tribes were many in number and following exactly who was who would be very difficult for us in a lesson like this–not because there were so many tribes, but because they were constantly moving and warring and forming and changing alliances. The tribes, you must understand, were trying to survive. They did not have the wealth and peace of Greece or Rome to enjoy the arts and culture. They were fighting to stay alive and were only able to pursue those interests necessary for life and war. Thus, the name “barbarian” means fierce, savage, war-like and uncivilized. However, as these outsiders were defeated by Rome and as they eventually made alliances, many of them were absorbed into the Roman Empire and while bringing their own culture with them, were Romanized in many ways. We call this process of cultural mixing syncretism, and the tribes were eventually either syncretized or unsyncretized barbarians. It was the unsyncretized that Caesar said were the strongest.

While these tribes in the north were largely beaten back and controlled by the army of the Roman empire, you should remember that just before the time of Constantine, the empire was divided into East and West and there was a great deal of fighting among the Romans themselves. Now, you should know that “Any kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” and during those times Rome began to lose control of the tribes in the north of the Western Empire. As a result, the population of the tribes grew and they began moving about in search of new land–some to the west into Britain and some to the south into Africa. This constantly created new conflicts, led to new alliances and led to the disappearance of different tribes. Over time, a number of permanent groups established themselves. These groups included Jutes, Gutes, Geats and Danes in the north; Angles and Saxons in the west. As time went on, these peoples slowly formed more stable kingdoms and the wild days of tribal living came to an end.

One of the kingdoms that developed was that of the Franks. These were a confederation (or alliance) of smaller tribes in the north that, as its strength grew, became free from Roman influence in the late 400s. The kingdom of the Franks, or Francia, quickly spread south and west between 480 and 700 AD. The name that is of great importance to us in this history is Clovis, who belonged to the Merovingian family and ruled the Franks from 481-511 AD. Clovis converted to Roman Catholicism and spent his years as king taking control of the entire western half of Gaul. What is most significant about Clovis’ conversion is that it was Catholicism that brought the endless feuds between tribes and peoples to an end. These men experienced the reality of what St. Paul explained as he taught the Gentiles:

“If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth…Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” – Colossians 3

While the tribes of Europe might be unified, it did not end the fighting in these lands. Throughout this course, we have seen how succession tears kingdoms to pieces. Ancient Israel was filled from the beginning with contests for the throne. The Greeks could not share power. Alexander’s men destroyed one another and squandered their master’s kingdom. The Romans’ only true enemies were themselves, and they lost. All of these great collapses were caused by the inability of great leaders to pass that power from one generation to the next. The Merovingian dynasty that ruled the Frankish kingdom was no different.

When the Merovingian king died, his kingdom was divided among his sons. This, of course, is a bad idea. There’s a reason that the king fought to unify and expand his kingdom and to divide it back up when he dies doesn’t make much sense. There’s also a reason, however, why the Frankish kings did this–and it was a part of their pagan religious ideas. The kings were believed to be filled with godly blood, and since the blood of one king flowed in the veins of all of his sons alike, all of them must be kings. The ultimate problem was that jealousy would always lead one son to wish he was given a different part or one son who wants ALL the parts. Therefore, just as brothers in a family often fight over a favorite toy or the last piece of cake, so the Frankish successors fought after the death of a king. Wisdom tells us that the sons of a man’s youth are as arrows in his quiver, yet in these pre-Christian days of European civilization, these arrows flew at one another, leading many sons to lose their lives and weakening the royal family’s power.

The Decline of the Merovingians

As the sons of Merovingian kings struggled for power, men who governed under them were able to gain strength and wealth. The kings left their fighting to men under them, but the men responsible for the greatest victories ultimately became the most powerful men in the kingdom. Around 690 AD, one such man, named Pepin, became the most powerful man in all of the Frankish kingdom. Rather than seize control of the kingship itself, he wisely left the king in place over him, as a figurehead, so that an appearance of order and peace was kept before all of the people. Behind the scenes, however, he controlled the kingdom.

Pepin left positions of power to his sons, who divided the power just as the sons of kings (unwisely) did before. One of Pepin’s sons, Charles Martel, wanted nothing to do with this dividing of power and so took control of the kingdom by force. Charles brought all of the Frankish tribes under his control and sent Catholic missionaries to them to bring them into the Catholic Church. He made great gifts of land and wealth to the Church and worked with Church leaders to overcome the influence of pagan peoples. At the time the Moors (Muslims) were invading Europe from the south, moving from Africa into Spain and Gaul, but Charles Martel led the Franks to victory over the Moors and stopped the Moors from moving north. This victory took place in the Battle of Tours in 732 AD and made Charles Martel famous. We must understand that this victory was responsible for preventing Europe from being overrun by Islamic forces at a time when the Moors were at the height of their power. Charles Martel allowed Christianity to reign throughout the Frankish kingdom, and to influence the development of post-Roman civilization in Europe. Thus, while Clovis was the gate through which Christianity entered the Frankish kingdom, Charles Martel was its earthly defender who kept Islam out.

The Rise of the Carolingians

Charles Martel died in 741 AD and left behind several sons who would, of course, fight for power after their father’s death. The time had come, however, for an end to come to this disorder and foolishness. In 751 AD, St. Boniface, who was the archbishop in the Frankish lands honored Pepin as the true ruler of the Franks. Pope Stephen II also gave his blessing to Pepin, traveling from Rome to formally honor and crown the king of the Franks and to appoint his two sons–Charles and Carloman–as his successors.

Before we continue with the history, let us return to the thoughts that opened this lesson. Remember we discussed the interesting relationship between the kingdom of God, represented by the Church, and the kingdom of men, represented by the rulers of the earth. By this time in Europe, we see that the Church had become so influential throughout Europe that it had the power to settle political disputes and bring peace to kingdoms. Some like to criticize the Church for “mingling in politicial affairs” and failing to maintain a “separation between Church and state”. What they fail to recognize is that before the Church entered political affairs, the world was not filled with peace and order, but war and chaos. The Church, while certainly acting in its own best interests, also acted in the best interests of all mankind. Also, it is true that wars and chaos may have erupted in places after the Church’s involvement, but the evils that followed were never as great as the evils that the Church brought to an end. In fact, the pattern in history will be clearly seen that violence came from the non-Christians who saw revolution as a means of gaining wealth and power, while peace and civilization came from the Church. Some who hate the Church may not like what the Church brought about on earth, but that does not make the Church wrong. The Church acted rightly and should have used its international influence to bring peace in important places on earth–and to use that political influence to accomplish its spiritual mission, which was to bring the world into the faith and obedience of Christ. That, after all, is man’s chief end–to which all political and earthly pursuits must bow. Whenever you hear anyone criticizing the Church’s involvement in the history of politics and government ask these three simple questions:

  1. What was life like in these places before the Church’s involvement? Answer: Bad.
  2. What was life like in these places after the Church’s involvement? Answer: Better.
  3. What did the Church do that it shouldn’t have done? Answer: Nothing.

Getting back to the history, what was confusing at this time was that the old Merovingian kings were still in power–on paper, that is. They were legally the kings of the Franks. However, everyone knew that since the days of Pepin the Elder, the Merovingian kings were merely acting as kings–the Carolingians controlled the kingdom. This difference between one man ruling by the word of the law (de jure) and another man ruling by the actual control of the kingdom (de facto) is an important theme in government. How do we know, who God’s king is? Does the law make a man king or does power make a man king? In this case, Pope Zachary answered that the Carolingians, who were really controlling the kingdom, were the true kings. After this decision, the Carolingians used their power to bring the Merovingian dynasty to an end and Pepin was formally elected as king by the Franks in 752 AD.

The Donation of Pepin

The Church’s safety in Italy was threatened by a group of people known as the Lombards who controlled northern Italy. Pope Stephen II was certainly happy to have the friendship of Pepin and the Franks because the Church could never be sure of what to expect from the Lombards. After being elected as the king of the Franks, Pepin set his earthly power to work for the Church by attacking the Lombards. By 756 AD, Pepin had conquered the Lombards, took possession of their lands and gave them as a gift to the Church. This gift is known as the Donation of Pepin and was one of the great turning points in Church history. Just as Constantine had freed and greatly enriched the Catholic Church in the 4th century, Pepin had added tremendously to the Church’s earthly power and wealth in the 8th century.

We must again stop and marvel at God’s faithfulnes to His Church in world history. Our Lord said, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” and, the Christians were indeed attacked and torn to pieces. They prayed for and forgave their enemies, blessed those who cursed them, cared for those who injured them, gave all their goods to meet the needs of the poor and offered themselves as living sacrifices for the salvation and happiness of the world. Yet, 700 years later, kings from barbarian lands were bowing before them and giving them entire states as gifts. Imagine the joy of the Apostles and martyrs in heaven who were able to see the fruits of their lives and works harvested by the Church in these days of Christian triumph. May we learn these lessons and imitate the early saints who through humility and patience conquered kingdoms by their simple, daily obedience to God’s commands.

The Father of Europe

In 768 AD King Pepin the Younger died and left his kingdom to his two sons–Charles and Carloman. The brothers split the kingdom, but in 771 AD, Carloman followed his father in death. At that time, trouble with the Lombards arose again and Charles came to the Church’s defense and forces the Lombards into surrender. From that point on, Charles went on to conquer almost all of western Europe. We will leave the study of politics and government to those achievements that should most interest us in Charles, who history now calls in Latin Carolus Magnus in French, Charlemagne, and in English Charles the Great.

On Christmas Day, in 800 AD, Charlemagne was in Rome, attending the holiday Mass celebrated by Pope Leo III. As the king prayed, the Holy Father laid his hands upon him and declared him to be God’s chosen leader of the Holy Roman Empire–that is, the new Roman Empire under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Western Europe was, by the grace of God, supplied with a good Catholic king. A great conqueror, Charlemagne filled Europe with Christian culture. As the king’s wealth grew, he gathered the best teachers for himself, his children and those of his nobles. His mission was to provide his family and friends with the most excellent training, out from which people he might select the best and most virtuous to administer affairs within his kingdom. It is worth noting that the education chosen by the king was the classical liberal arts, which is the same course of studies you are beginning in the CLAA.

Among the leaders of Charlemagne’s classical teachers was Alcuin (735-804). Alcuin studied and taught the classical liberal arts, and wrote important texts on Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. Whenever we hear of the cultural achievements of Charlemagne–how he Christianized Europe and brought classical education to the barbarians, we must remember that directing many of these pursuits was Alcuin. One important development in the palace school was the development of a unique style of handwriting that is now called, Carolingian Minuscule. Any time you see an old medieval book, you will see that it is written in this style. Alcuin was also a mathematician and author of a book of mathematical problems for students. Here’s a taste of a medieval mathematics problem Alcuin might have taught:

There were three men, each having an unmarried sister, who needed to cross a river. Each man was desirous of his friend’s sister. Coming to the river, they found only a small boat in which only two persons could cross at a time. How did they cross the river, so that none of the sisters were defiled by the men?

Thus, into the 9th century, Charlemagne carried Christian culture and the classical liberal arts tradition to the outer limits of European civilization. The wealth and power he acquired by conquest did not distract him from the promotion of Christianity and true education. Following the advice of wise Alcuin, Charlemagne earned the title that remains with him to this day: “the father of Europe”. It is his cultural program that most of us think of whenever we speak of the medieval world.


In this course, we have followed the history of men from the creation and fall of the mankind to the beginning of its re-creation. Here, in the time of Charlemagne, we find Christianity conquering nations that the Roman armies could never conquer. At this point, the Church spread throughout the inhabited world and grew rapidly in power and influence. The Popes held not only the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but also the keys of entire lands, nations and armies. Just as Our Lord said, the tiny mustard seed had been planted and grew to become the largest plant in the field, so that the birds of the air (the nations and kings of the world) might nest in its branches. Charlemagne was a champion of the Church and is today honored as Blessed Charles the Great.
May we imitate this blessed Catholic king and, like him, use the power, influence, wealth and wisdom we have to serve Our Lord’s Church in the world.

Memory Work

  • 3500 BC – 750 BC: Ancient World
  • 2000 BC – 1780 BC: Life of Abraham
  • 1450 BC – 1410 BC: Hebrew Exodus
  • 1200 BC: The Trojan War
  • 1000 BC – 960 BC: Reign of King David
  • 960 BC: The Temple of Solomon
  • 753 BC: City of Rome Founded
  • 750 BC: Homer Writes the Iliad & Odyssey
  • 722 BC: Assyrian Captivity
  • 600-535 BC: The Prophet Daniel in Babylon
  • 586 BC: Babylonian Captivity
  • 530-450 BC: Esdras the Scribe
  • 509 – 31 BC: The Roman Republic
  • 750 BC – 500 AD: Classical World
  • 480 – 323 BC: Classical Greece
  • 336 – 323 BC: Conquests of Alexander the Great
  • 323 – 146 BC: The Hellenistic World
  • 264 – 146 BC: The Punic Wars
  • 100 – 44 BC: Life of Julius Caesar
  • 27 BC – 476 AD: The Roman Empire
  • 5 BC – 33 AD: Life of Jesus Christ
  • 33 AD: The Christian Church Founded
  • 50-100 AD: New Testament Written
  • 70 AD: Romans destroy Jerusalem
  • 313 AD Edict of Milan
  • 325 AD Nicene Creed
  • 380 AD Edict of Thessalonica
  • 395 AD Roman Empire Splits
  • 476 AD The Fall of Rome
  • 500 AD – 1500 AD: Medieval World
  • 732 AD – Charles Martel Defeats the Moors
  • 800 AD – Charlemagne Crowned the Holy Roman Emperor
  • 814 AD – Charlemagne Dies
  • 1500 AD – Present: Modern World

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