Charlemagne: Who was He and What Did He Do?

Charles the Great. Ring a bell? Not exactly with the immediacy of Frederick the Great or Ivan the Terrible, right? What if instead I asked if you recognized the name Charlemagne? Would that help? It should, since Charlemagne and Charles the Great are one and the same.

But who exactly was Charlemagne? He’s one of those historical personages with whom most of us are familiar in a general sense, but who gets a little fuzzier when we try to come up with details. Like Attila the Hun or Walter Mondale. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire by Pope Leo III on, fittingly I guess, Christmas Day AD 800. Those Byzantine courtiers over in Constantinople considered it an outrage and looked upon Charlemagne as nothing more than a usurper, but time has been on Charlemagne’s side.

Feudalism was the socioeconomic system of the day and Charlemagne was one of the best at adapting it to fit a growing empire. His method was to assemble a hierarchy in which less powerful rulers were bound by fealty to the more powerful. The lesser rulers at this time were pretty much nothing more than big land barons and they assumed the right to rule courtesy of political ties to the emperor. (If you sense a similarity between medieval feudalism and contemporary American politics then, well, you’re nothing but a communist pinko who should be executed!)

Politics under the reign of Charlemagne essentially worked in this way: Vassals in his court gave him counsel and were rewarded with power to oversee and execute the emperor’s will throughout the empire. (Now don’t start that commie pinko comparison of medieval politics to something like a President handing out political appointments to his biggest campaign contributors; it’s nothing at all like that!)

Charlemagne’s stance toward the encroaching Muslim empire to the East deserves some mentioning. Although he did take part in some wars himself-including the battle that inspired the Medieval classic literary tale The Song of Roland-Charlemagne also extended diplomatic hands to Muslim leaders. Rather than embarking upon a Crusade to stamp them all out, he was notably deft in appealing to their religious beliefs. Among the things Charlemagne was able to get without sending large armies to the Holy Land: keys to the most holy Christian site of all, the Church of Holy Sepulchre.

In addition, Charlemagne also stands out of the crowd for welcoming Jewish merchants instead of tying them to a rack and stretching them; or hanging them upside down and applying torches to their feet. Charlemagne actually encouraged the immigration of Jewish settlers into the empire. Yes, true, the taint of anti-Semitism is still in the air since the Jews were basically wanted for no other reason than to provide an instant merchant class, but at least they weren’t being inquisited yet.

Economic stability was also a hallmark of the reign of Charlemagne, as ironic as that may sound considering that, okay, there does seem to be some sort of rightful comparison to be made between feudalism and rampant capitalism. For one thing, Charlemagne was successful in standardizing the silver denier as the official currency of the time. These coins were subsequently unearthed by archaeologists everywhere from England to Russia. The denier was the dollar of its day. The fact that the denier is now forgotten can only send cold shivers down the backs of American bankers, of course. But, then again, what other currency is there now that could take its place? The Euro? Don’t make me laugh! Our little incursion into Iraq took care of that probability, er, I mean possibility.

The reign of Charlemagne was also notable for its attention to increasing literacy. And he did this himself, not by sending out Laura Charlemagne to read to kids at photo-ops, but by establishing his palace school. Indeed, one might be tempted to say that under the rule of Charlemagne, no mind was left behind; he was deeply committed to improving not only the literacy but the intellectual grasp of those who lived under him. Scholarship under Charlemagne became something to be proud of; not something to arouse suspicion. His greatest hope was to establish a bona fide educated class. Of course, much of his effort was for naught; the Dark Ages soon produced a generation that could only look back on Charlemagne palace school as a cruel myth.

But don’t cry for Charlemagne. No matter how little light may be seen during the cruelest nights of any dark age, the hope for a renaissance still shines within us all.


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