During the 1960s, Harper Torchbooks publishers produced several books re very specific historical topics including Heinrich Fichtenau's book titled THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE. This shorter book showed the strengths and weaknesses of a historical era that has too often been glamorized by historians who overlook the serious political and economic problems during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814).
Fichtenhau's opening sections surveyed the problems in European at the end of the once mighty Roman Empire. The Germanic and North European tribes had little law-and-order. Political assassinations and endless military feuds were the norm. Due to barbarian invasions and the rise of Islam, Mediterreanean Sea trade was significantly reduced. The only structered authority was the Catholic Church whose authoritiy was limited.
However, Clovis (c. 480-511) was able to assert his authority over what is roughly today France. His marriage to a Catholic helped the Benedictines to open monastaries and convents which were the only centers of actual teaching and learning. Clovis and other rulers took advantage of literate men to manage bureacracies to exert centralized control. Clovis was a Merovingian, but his successors were not as ambitious and left the important business of rule to the Carolingians of which Charlemange was a successor. By 687, the Merovingians had to concede that the Carolingians were to be recognized for their influence, power, and military proess. In fact, Charles Martel (717-741)became very popular when his forces defeated the Moslems at the Battle of Tours in 733 AD. Charles was so powerful that he appointed his own bishops much to the chagrin of Catholic Church leaders. Charles Martel's successor, Pepin the Short (741-768)showed "who was boss" when he ousted the last Merovingian king which was endorsed by Pope Zacharias (741-752). Such an endorsement was tantamount to diplomatic recognition. Readers should note that Pepin's military forces ended a Lombard threat to Papal lands which made for mutual diplomatic relations.
When Pepin abdicated to join a monastary, his successor was Charlemagne whose reign consisted of triumph and tragedy. Charlemagne faced internal threats to his rule some of which originated with family members. The problem with fickle violent Saxons was followed by more violent reprisals. Charlemagne stopped the Avars or decendents of the Huns. His military forces extended his rule into parts of Eastern Europe, and his forces also controlled the threat from then Islamic Spain.
On Christmas of 814, Pope St. Leo III (795-816)crowned Charlemage as Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne could be pious but not as pious as his successor Louis the Pius. Yet, Charlemagne practised polygamy and had mistresses contrary to Catholic belief. Yet, the popes and bishops owed too much to Charlemagne to complain. One concept that Charlemagne did not claim was that of a a Catholic priest, Caesaro-Papism never took root as it did in the Byzantine Empire.
Fichtenau provided a good account of Charlemagne's concern for scholarship. He invited scholars from Europe to the schools at Aachen and Aix-le-Chappelle. Charlemagne severely mistreated students who were lazy but had high praise for students from middle class and poor families who often showed more desire to learn than their so-called betters from the nobility. The Carolingians did not and could not celebrate Holy Mass. They could, however, ignore papal rules and abuse their power to appoint abbots and bishops.
While many European Catholics referred to St. Augustine's DE CIVITATE DEI (THE CITY OF GOD)that poltical authority was a necessary evil, Charlemange as a good Catholic tried to rule as a Catholic empeoror. Obviously tensions existed the Latin Catholic West and the Byzantine Empire. When the Byzantine ruler Constantine VI (771-802)was blinded by his mother in the same room in which she gave him birth, this was a symptom of disruptive tensions in the Byzantine of which the Carolingians took sadistic pleasure.
Charlemagne had his share of problems such as famine. Charlemagne's missi dominici who were supposed to fairly supervise areas of the Carolingian Empire often over taxed and exploited poor people. Ficthenhau cited the clergy for abuses whom Alcuin (c. 735-804)condemned for not living the spiritual compassionate life they were supposed to. As an aside Alcuin could show insight when he wrote that the beatitudes for Catholic religious were study, assist the love of God by assisting the poor, love of neighbor, love of God, friendship, etc. He wrote that if men are to love one's enemy, how much more should they love a close friend?
Another problem during Charlemagne's reign was the arrival of the noveux riches who rivaled the standing nobility. Fichtenhau gave precise accounts of such rivalry and the continued exploitation of the poor. Often hired assassinations would assassinate witnesses only to be later assassinated themselves. One such scandal was so well known that the guilty had to be brought to justice. In spite of the Catholic Church's Canon Law against usury, little could be done to stop it. In fact, the nobility resented some of the clergy because the clergy were reminders of what the nobility were supposed to be as Catholics. Needless to say, the very poor had to resort to unlawful ruses re relics and engaged in black market trade to survive.
Fichtenhau "gave credit where credit was due." He also gave detailed accounts of wrong doing and ineptitude. He credited the Carolingian scholars for their preservation of learning. While Fichtenau wrote that the Carolingian scholars did little creative scholarship, he should have countered this assertion by including the philosophical work of Eregina (815-877). Fictenhau should have traslated some of the German and Latin he used. Fichtenhau's book titled THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE is a very useful guide to understand the rise and fall of the Carolingian Empire. Fichtenhau ended this book with an isightful remark that,"It is human to overlook what is all too human."
James E. Egolf
August 18, 2012