Rome’s Successor States: the Islamic, Byzantine, and Carolingian Empires
Three major "successor states" to the Roman Empire emerged after the 600s. These were: (1) the Arabic-speaking Islamic empire, which gained control over the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain; (2) the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, which gained control over Southeast Europe and portions of Italy; and (3) the Latin-speaking Catholic Carolingian (Frankish) empire, which gained control over most of Western and Central Europe. In the Early Middle Ages (600s-1100 CE), these three empires were fierce rivals. But their mutual hostility masked a great deal of cultural interaction.
The Islamic Empire: Pre-Islamic Arabia
Islam began in Arabia among the Arab peoples (Semitic-speaking tribes of farmers, nomadic herders and traders). The Arabs were polytheists whose gods included Yahweh and an Arabic god called Allah. According to Islamic mythology, the Arabs descended from the Ishmael, son of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham.
The Romans considered Arab lands too poor to bother with. In the late 500s, though, Arabia became an important international trade crossroads. Persian attacks on Byzantium forced caravans between Asia, Africa and Europe to seek safer routes—through Arab lands to the great cities of North Africa.
The city of Mecca profited most from new trade routes. Mecca was a center of Arabic religious life--the site of the Kabah, a temple built around a black stone that Arabs believed the gods had created at the birth of the universe. Pre-Islamic Arabs took religious pilgrimage to Mecca to visit the Kabah. In the late 500s, the new trade routes through Arab lands converged at Mecca, which enhanced its importance.
In the late 500s and early 600s, the Quraish clan controlled Mecca. Muhammad (570-632 CE ) belonged to the Quraish clan. Muhammad amassed a fortune through trade and judicious marriage. He clearly travelled widely, and would have known followers of Judaism and Christianity as well as Arab polytheists.
In 610 CE, Muhammad had a conversion experience like that of Moses and Paul: he heard the voice of the Archangel Gabriel, who told him that Allah was the only God. Gabriel called upon Muhammad to be God's Prophet and to bring God's teachings to his people.
The most central teaching revealed to Muhammad (contained in the Koran or Quar'an) is that there is only one God, the God of all time and all men. Islam ("Submission to God") taught that men and women must be completely subservient to God; that the Day of Judgment was near; and that God will save only those who strictly follow his teachings as revealed by his final and greatest Prophet, Muhammad.
God reputedly dictated the Quar’an to Muhammad as a guide for leading an ethical and moral life. Each Muslim (“one who surrenders to God”) is to follow these teachings, but is directly responsible for his or her own behavior. (Islam’s ethical and moral guidelines paralleled Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Muhammad said the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus were Prophets of Allah, and that God had inspired the Jewish and Christian Bible.) Muhammad called on Muslims to pray as a community (in mosques), but the Islamic clergy is not an intermediary between man and God, and Islam has no sacraments. Mullahs in Islam, like Judaism’s rabbis, were to be religious and legal teachers and scholars.
The Quarish tribe resisted Muhammad’s teachings, as they feared Islam would displace Mecca's religious importance. In 622 CE the city of Yathrib (270 miles north of Mecca), invited Muhammad be its governor, preach to its people, and mediate disputes between rival tribes. Muslims call the year 622 the hijra (the Migration), Year 1 in the Islamic calendar.
Muhammad renamed Yathrib as Medina ("City of the Prophet"). Allah, he said, demanded that they convert to Islam and also convert neighboring towns and cities. Ruling Medina shaped Muhammad's religious teachings, so Islam includes guidelines regarding law, administration, and practical matters of government.
Islam’s expansion spread in Arabia
Medina became Muhammad’s base for military expansion. In 630 CE Muhammad's forces conquered Mecca. He converted the Quraish to Islam (through intimidation and clever politics—he declared the Kabah an Islamic holy site so Mecca continued to be a pilgrimage center.) Between 630 and his death in 632, Muhammad used intimidation, politics, and charismatic preaching to convert other Arab tribes.
Muhammad told his followers that their duties to Allah included bringing the faith to their neighbors. Jews and Christians should be tolerated as "People of the Book," but also must recognize Muhammad as God's final prophet and convert to Islam. Allah would curse those who refused as infidels.
Allah was the God of all men, but his message was given to the Arabs in the Arabic language. So Muhammad's teachings implied that God had given the Arabs a special mission—to save the world by spreading Islam. Islamic leaders believed the Arabs' status as God's new Chosen People gave them the sacred right and duty to occupy Hebrew and Christian holy places, including Jerusalem.
But early Islamic expansionism was fueled less by religious zeal than by the pursuit of wealth; the Caliphs who ruled the Islamic Empire saw expansion as a means of gaining and controlling important economic resources and trade.
Expansion and Division of the Islamic Empire: The Caliph
Muhammad held religious and governmental power, and Islam called for theocracy. When Muhammad died in 632 CE, he left no instructions for political succession. His father-in-law, Abu-Bakar declared himself Caliph (the Prophet's deputy) and assumed power in Mecca.
After Abu-Bakar, the next Caliph was Umar, an early convert. Umar established a family dynasty of caliphs (the Umayyad Caliphs). Caliphs had authority as political and religious leaders. The Caliph also was military leader and chief judge. Local administration was handled by Islamic judges, based on the Quar’an.
Building an Empire
Within 100 years of Muhammad's death, his followers created a great empire. Abu-Bakar waged war against Arab tribes that rejected his authority as Muhammad's "chosen" successor. He then used military force to extend Islamic power north into Palestine and Syria by 636. The Umayyad Caliphs then turned their armies towards Egypt and Persia. By 646 they had force the Byzantines out of Egypt. By 651 they had conquered the entire Persian Empire. By the 670s they ruled most of North Africa.
In 677 and 717 CE, the Caliphate fried but failed to capture Constantinople. But Arab armies did establish control over European territory: in 711 CE they conquered Spain. Their expansion stopped only when they were defeated by the Franks at Tours (in France) in 732. By the mid-700s, the Islamic Empire was comparable to that of Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar.
Government in the Caliphate
The Caliphs used local converts to Islam to administer their empire. Christians and Jews who did not convert were allowed to live under their own laws and practice their own religion if they recognized the Islamic state as their overlord and paid special taxes. Because of their relative tolerance, the Caliphs faced little resistance. Their greatest challenge actually was controlling how newly-converted Muslims interpreted Muhammad's teachings.
Sunni and Shi’a
The dominant interpretation of Islam was based on both the Quar’an and oral traditions (sunna) that described how Muhammad and his deputies solved legal and administrative problems. This became known as Sunni. Sunni Islam had political as well as theological implications; it emphasized the legitimacy of the descendents of Muhammad's deputies. The Umayyads claim to rule rested on being descendents of Umar, Muhammad's deputy.
Another view challenged the Sunni principle of succession. The Shi'a (the "faction") argued that the Sunnis had distorted Allah's word: succession could only pass through the line of the Muhammad's own family. In 655 CE, Muhammad's son-in-law Ali seized power as Caliph; the Umayyads murdered Ali in 661 CE. Islam subsequently split into Shi'a and Sunni factions, with the Shi'a in the minority.
The division between Sunni and Shi'a was sharpest in areas with mixed Arab and non-Arab populations; non-Arabs were drawn to the Shi'a against the politically and economically dominate Arab Sunnis.
The Abbasid Revolution and the Splintering of the Empire
In 750 CE a descendent of Muhammad's uncle Abbas led a revolt in Damascus (the new Islamic capital) and massacred the Umayyad ruling. He founded a new dynasty of Caliphs, the Abbasids, which lasted until the mid-1200s.
A surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain and set up a rival caliphate at Cordoba in 755. Other uprisings led to other independent caliphates in Morroco (780), Tunisia (800), Persia (820), and Egypt (868). Although these different states had in common both Islam and the Arabic language, Islam remained politically fractured.
The Economy in Muslim Europe
Mesopotamia was been the bread-basket of the Abbasid caliphate, and the decline of Mesopotamian agriculture in the 800s contributed to the Abbasids' decline. But our concern here is with the economy in Islamic-controlled territories in Europe.
In the Early Middle Ages, agricultural practices in Muslim Europe (Spain and Sicily) were superior to those among European Christians. Muslims employed advanced methods of irrigation, advanced farming techniques, and new crops (like rice). Muslim Spain also was a center of artisan production (metalworking in Toledo, leatherworking in Cordoba). Aristocrats in Christian Europe prized the fine quality textiles made in Islamic cities.
Trade and commerce were far more important to the Islamic economy that in Germanic Christian Europe. In cities like Cordoba, merchants bought and sold goods from across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Islamic merchants (and their Jewish intermediaries) provided Early Medieval Europe with spices from India and Indonesia, silk cloth from Damascus, and other luxury goods. Islamic merchants also introduced Europe to new technologies developed in China, such as the windmill, block printing, paper making, the spinning wheel, and new methods of weaving.
Islamic Society in Europe
Islam emphasized equality before God and downplayed hereditary social hierarchies. Islamic society had an aristocratic stratum, but positions in government were open to any man with talent. High literacy among Muslims (around 20 percent male literacy in 1000 CE) allowed common men to rise in status through service. Study of Islamic legal texts also offered a path of upward social mobility: any learned man could be a legal scholar and judge.
Islamic law treated women as inferior and subordinate to men. Muhammad had secluded his wives from male society. By the early middle ages, aristocratic and wealthy Muslim families strictly secluded women in the "harem" (the female quarters of the household). But women in the families of slaves, peasants, artisans, and small-scale merchants could go out in public if they wore a veil that covered their heads and faces. Seclusion of aristocratic women was not unique to Islamic culture; there were similar practices in parts of Christian Europe (e.g., Russia).
Islamic culture in this period borrowed from the cultures of peoples the Muslims had conquered and with whom they traded. Arab scholars translated classical Greek works into Arabic, in particular the works of Aristotle and works on mathematicians (Euclid), science (Archimedes), and medicine (Hippocrates and Galen). Arab-language commentaries on Aristotle influenced Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophy, and most of what High Medieval Christian theologians knew about Aristotle came from Jewish translations of Islamic writers.
Islamic scholars also made major original contributions to early medieval science. In mathematics, the Arabs "discovered" the concept of "zero" and borrowed the Hindu system of numbers (1, 2, 3, etc). "Zero" allowed Islamic scholars to invent algebra (named after its Arab pioneer) and the decimal system. Algebra gave Arab astronomers a power tool for deriving astrological tables. The decimal system let merchants to record business transactions more effectively than did the Roman system. (Italian merchants adopted Arab numbers in the 1200s).
The Islamic cities of medieval Spain and were major centers of scholarship—places where Islamic, Christian, and Jewish scholars interacted. Islamic cities also became great centers of the arts. Islam generally prohibited figurative painting and sculpture, so Islamic visual art took the form of non-figurative decoration and architecture. (Examples: mosques and palaces in Spain, e.g., the Alhambra Palace in Granada.)
The Byzantium Empire: The Greek Eastern Empire
After the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Eastern "Roman" Empire centered in Constantinople underwent a major change. In 610 the new emperor, Heraclius, changed the empire's official language from Latin to Greek. This brought to a culmination the growing distance between the culture, religion, and government of the Latin west and the Greek east.
The eastern empire became known as the Byzantine Empire (the original name of Constantinople was Byzantium). In the Early Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire faced almost constant military assault from the East (from the Persians and then from the Islamic empire). Emperor Heraclius led Byzantium against Persia for control over the "Holy Land." In 614 the Persians captured Jerusalem; in 617, Byzantium recaptured the Holy Land and in 647 Byzantium defeated the Persians in a major war. But they soon faced a more dangerous threat—the Islamic Empire.
Byzantium and War with the Caliphate
In the 650s, Islamic Arab armies captured the Holy Land. The Umayyad Caliphate attempted to take Constantinople in 677 and again in 717. Under Emperor Leo (717-741), Byzantium thwarted the Umayyad invasion and re-conquered Asia Minor (Western Turkey). Leo's victories set up a two hundred year-long stalemate between Byzantium and the Arabs, which ended only when the Abbasid Caliphate weakened and Byzantium took back Syria in the late 900s.
Byzantium's triumph was sort lived, however: in 1071 the Islamic Seljuk Turks (a Central Asian people who had established a kingdom in Iran) smashed Byzantium's army. From that point until the mid-1400s, the Byzantine Emperors found themselves battling against the constant threat of Turkish conquest. (In 1453, the Turks finally did conquer Constantinople, which they re-named Istanbul.)
Government in the Byzantine Empire: Bureaucratic Autocracy
Byzantine emperors claimed to rule their lands as their patrimony: they claimed that God out all the empire’s lands and peoples under the Emperor's responsibility, as his imperium. The Emperor's rule therefore was absolute. Byzantium had no Senate, no assembly, no constitution that limited the monarch's power. It was an "Autocracy." The Emperor's court was the focal point of politics (which often meant conspiracy, backstabbing, and intrigue.)
What made this system stable was a very large bureaucracy of tax collectors, judicial officials, and other civil servants. The economy and most activities in Byzantium were regulated by the state bureaucracy. The empire's civil service was notoriously corrupt, but educated, literate officials kept the system running steadily (if inefficiently).
The Byzantine Economy: Trade plus Agriculture
Rome's Eastern cities had been centers of trade, through which luxury goods from Asia came into the western market. After the fall of Rome, Byzantine cities (Constantinople, Thessalonica, Antioch) remained centers for trade in spices and fine quality manufactured goods from Asia (silks and other textile, pottery, etc) and grain and raw materials from Europe. Cities like Constantinople (which had nearly a million inhabitants in the late 900s) also had their own manufacturing (e.g., textiles and fine metalworking).
But agriculture was the most important base of the Byzantine economy. The majority of the state's tax revenues came from free peasant farmers. In the 600s-900s, most farming in Byzantium was done by free men. That made Byzantium different from the West: in the West, aristocrats and monasteries used laws to restrict the movement of agricultural laborers by tying peasants to their land (a system of labor called serfdom.) Up until 1000 CE, free peasants in Byzantium resisted this process and held on to their own land. After 1000, however, serfdom became more common in the Byzantine Empire.
Religion: The Eastern Orthodox Church and Iconoclasm
Byzantine emperors tried to impose orthodoxy and uniformity on Christian doctrine. The Eastern Christian church (like the Roman church) had fierce debates over what was "dogma" and what was "heretical." One example was the debate over Iconoclasm, a movement led by Emperor Leo (717-740) and his son Emperor Constantine V (740-775).
Icons are paintings of Christ and the saints used in worship. The Iconoclasts argued that this is blasphemy (worshipping not Christ, but a picture of Christ made by a man), and violated the Ten Commandments. Leo and Constantine V ordered all icons destroyed and persecuted priests and monks who refused to accept the new doctrine. Painting icons was an important source of wealth for some monasteries, which were centers of opposition to Leo’s orders.
The Papacy in Rome also opposed Iconoclasm, since it directly challenged the cult of saints, which was vital to the legitimacy of the Pope. The Pope condemned Leo and later Constantine V, who responded by denying the Pope’s authority. In 800, the Pope declared Charlemagne the "Roman Emperor" (we'll talk more about this is a bit). From the early 800s, the Eastern Church saw itself as outside the Pope's authority.
After 800 the Eastern Church abandoned Iconoclasm. The Eastern Church then treated anything that departed from established Christian tradition as heresy. Eastern Christian theologians argued that the one true, Orthodox faith could not tolerate innovation, change, or debate.
Byzantine Classicalism and the Arts
Religious authorities in Byzantium declared all new religious ideas to be heresy, but also encouraged study of pre-Christian writings from classical Greece. Service in the Byzantine state bureaucracy required education, and so education was important to elite families, who sent their sons and daughters to school or hired private tutors. All students studied and memorized the great works of Greek literature (especially Homer's Iliad and Odyssey). But Byzantine authorities feared “new” ideas as dangerous—memorizing writings by Plato was ok, but study or development of new philosophies was banned. The aim of Byzantine classicism was "preservation" of classical Greek culture and not its extension.
Byzantine arts were more original than their scholarship. A distinct Byzantine style of architecture developed, epitomized by the Saint Sophia cathedral in Constantinople. The building had a completely new design—in the shape of a cross (representing the Crucifixion), with an enormous dome over the central square (180 feet high, about 110 feet across). The dome rests on four pillars that turn into arches, and lifts up towards heaven. Light pours through stained glass windows in the dome and reflects off gold leaf; it looks as if light is coming from the dome itself, floating high above the floor. The point was to reflect the glory of God. The Saint Sophia Church became the symbol of Byzantine (Greek) Christianity.
The Final Break between Byzantium and the West
Conflict between the eastern empire and the Roman church had been building since the Pope excommunicated Emperor Diocletian. Tensions had escalated during the debate over Iconoclasm, and also in 800 when the Pope had recognized Charlemagne as the "true" Roman Emperor (which meant that the Byzantine emperor was NOT the "true" Roman emperor). The “Greek” church considered the “Roman” church corrupt, backwards, and uneducated; the “Roman” church the “Greek” church as heretics, corrupt, and arrogant.
In 1054, the Pope declared that the Eastern (Greek) Church must recognize the primacy of Rome (that the Pope was the head of the entire church). The Greek Church refused. As a result, Christianity split into two rival, hostile churches—the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. The hostility between the Latin West and the Greek East was so great that during the Crusades in the 1200s, Catholic forces attacked and plundered Constantinople.
The Frankish-Carolingian Empire: From the Roman West to Western Europe
As we’ve seen, the Germanic kingdoms that carved up the Western Roman between the 400s and the 600s adopted elements of Roman culture. They converted to Christianity and recognized the authority of the Roman church. Their kings and elites spoke Latin, and Latin became the common language of religion and scholarship. Roman law shaped their understanding of government, citizenship, and property rights. In the 400s-500s, Germanic kings still recognized the emperor in Constantinople as "the" Roman emperor.
Ruralization and Decentralization:
Urban life in the West began declining in the 400s. Towns remained important centers of Church administration, but by the 700s the west was a decentralized rural-based society. Labor shortages meant large tracts of the land went unused. Germanic kings and aristocrats now lived year round in the countryside and used the law to tie peasants to their land (as serfs).
The decline of cities, the decay of trade, and the impoverishment of the peasantry crippled the old Roman tax system, which had been the basis for the wealth of the State. At the same time, Islamic control over North Africa meant that the West no longer had easy access to gold, and the Roman system of coinage (based on the use of gold) broke down.
Feudalism and Manorialism (the feudal economy)
In the early medieval west, society was reduced to two primary social groups: aristocrats, who controlled the land and had access to wealth and luxury goods; and poor peasants (the vast majority).
Aristocrats became organized in a pyramidal hierarchy, similar to the Roman patronage system. The most politically powerful (Kings and Princes) demanded loyalty and service from subordinate aristocrats; in return, these “Lords” gave their subordinates gifts, land, serfs and local power. Those local elites had their own network of clients (military retainers)---less important aristocrats, who gave them service and loyalty in return for gifts and a share of power. As this system developed, the gifts of land, serfs and power became known as fiefdoms in a system historians call Feudalism.
Aristocrats used their legal power to tie peasants to their land (serfdom) and charged the peasants rent—to be paid in work and in produce (grain, for instance). Aristocrats lived off of the peasants' rent payments. But they also looked for other sources of income, to obtain luxury goods and weapons. Luxury goods brought status, and aristocrats needed luxury goods to give as gifts to their military retainers. That meant that the aristocrats also had to gain control over the labor of artisans and the activities of merchants and it also meant that aristocrats would regularly raids and plunder the goods of their weaker neighbors.
The Merovingian Dynasty
Warfare between competing aristocratic families made the 500s- 700s was a political unstabile period in Western Europe, but a few dynastic kingdoms did emerge. The most important was the "Merovingian" dynasty established by the Frankish king Clovis, which ruled Gaul (France) and large portions of Central Europe.
Merovingian kings used a version of the old Roman state bureaucracy, in which literate administrators served regional governors. They cultivated good relations with the Papacy and the Catholic monastic orders (which were becoming important economic engines). Kings supported the spread of monasteries as a way of extending their influence into new territories, especially to the north. The Merovingian kings in the 600s supported foundation of scores of monasteries in northern Gaul (northern France) and created new Bishoprics there as well. This shifted the center of economic power in Gaul to the northwest; in the 700s, the Merovingian kings located their capital in Paris.
In the late 600s, a civil war between competing aristocratic families broke out in the Merovingian “Frankish” kingdom. Charles Martel, an aristocrat from Austrasia (in central Germany) used this situation to take power behind the throne in 717.
Martel’s title was Mayor; he used Merovingian kings as "figureheads." Like earlier Merovingian kings, he made alliances with the Pope and monastic orders (especially the Benedictines) that helped spread the Frankish kingdom into new territories in northern Germany.
Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
In 741, Charles Martel died. His sons Pepin and Carloman initially continued the practice of ruling behind the scenes, using a Merovingian figurehead king. In 751 Pepin declared himself the King of the Franks. His claim to the crown depended upon support from the Pope; representing the Pope, Saint Boniface of the Benedictine order "anointed" Pepin as king. In return, Pepin pledged to reign as a Catholic king and to protect the Church. The special relationship between the Frankish Kingdom and the Church reached its apex under Pepin's son, Charlemagne (Charles "the Great"), who became king in 768.
Charlemagne led the Frankish army in conquering present-day Germany, northern Italy (Lombardy), present-day Austria, and northern Spain. These conquests put the Franks at the center of a great new empire, which provided elites new territory and wealth. The Papacy approved of this empire, because Charlemagne aided the Pope in attacking “heretical” Arian Christians in Northern Spain and in the forced Christianization of pagans in northern Germany (Saxony). (Charlemagne also moved his capital to the "German" city of Aachen.)
The Emperor as Protector of Christendom
Charlemagne’s relationship with the Papacy was, at a very important level, about power. Charlemagne's armies protected the Papacy. But he also treated the Church's bishops and even the Pope as his subordinates, as if they were appointed civil administrators.
Charlemagne arranged for the election of Leo III as Pope in 796; in return, Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800. This symbolic act was a blow to the Byzantine Emperor, but didn't really give Charlemagne control over any new territory or powers.
At the same time, Charlemagne saw himself as a Christian king called upon by God to unify and lead Europe's Christian community. Like the Byzantine emperors and the Islamic Caliphs, Charlemagne not just the secular ruler. In the early middle ages, official doctrine insisted that kings were “chosen” by God. Charlemagne was expected to administer his kingdom, but his first duty was to protect Christianity and promote proper Christian observance among his subjects.
Charlemagne took this more seriously than did most medieval kings: he imposed Christian practices (baptism, etc) on pagans in Saxony; he enforced the tithe among peasants on all his lands; he directly appointed and removed bishops and abbots; he even dictated the text of church services (the liturgy) and the order of worship in monasteries.
Carolingian Civil Administration, Literacy, and Cultural Revival
Charlemagne’s administrative system shaped the organization of political power in feudal Europe for hundreds of years. He built upon the Merovingian (and old Roman) system of law courts, taxes, and tolls. He developed the practice of sending royal "missions" to the provinces to oversee the work of state officials. He also conducted grand "tours" of his empire, to reinforced the image of royal authority and keep administrators in line.
Feudalism: How to Rule a Huge Empire with a Small Bureaucracy
Charlemagne’s empire was so large that he could not possibly rule it directly. So he devised a method of local governance based on service by aristocrats. He divided conquered regions and the Frankish kingdom itself into districts administered by some three-hundred appointed Frankish "lords" (called counts). The counts served as the local governors and judges. Charlemagne provided the counts with gifts (plunder taken in warfare), and gave them power over peasants and other commoners in their district. In return, the counts swore allegiance to the king (their "overlord"), collected his taxes, and provided soldiers for his army.
The Carolingian Renaissance
Charlemagne's administrators took direct oral instruction from royal missions, but they also received instructions in writing. Literacy (in Latin) thus was of great importance to serving the emperor. While literacy among commoners declined, the monasteries and the royal court championed the importance of reading and writing. Charlemagne and his son Louis "the Pious" (who ruled after Charlemagne's death in 814) believed defending Christianity required having an educated ruling elite, so Christian kings had to be patrons of scholarship.
Charlemagne established a school for his royal court, where scholar-monks studied, wrote about, and taught the classics of Greek and Latin literature and philosophy. Royal patronage helped sustain the arts, and especially poetry, in the Early Middle Ages, and the Benedictine monks working under royal patronage kept alive selected writings of the Classical world. Historians often refer to the scholarship promoted by the Carolingian kings as the "Carolingian Renaissance" (meaning cultural "re-birth")—the work of Carolingian scholars certainly made the later Renaissance of the 1400s possible by helping to preserve classical texts. Perhaps the most important scholarly project undertaken under Carolingian patronage was the effort to collate copies of the Bible and correct errors in previous translations and transcriptions.
The End of the Carolingian Empire
Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, while a great supporter of the Church and of scholarship, proved less able than his father to hold together a huge, complex empire. The empire had grown so vast that it was now under-governed (there simply were too few counts to administer the Frankish territory); moreover, without fresh conquests, Louis lacked the loot necessary to provide elaborate gifts for his retainers. He had an increasingly difficult time keeping the aristocracy disciplined, and the sort of constant infighting that had characterized the 500s and 600s re-emerged. Louis also faced threats that Charlemagne did not have to confront—the resurgence of the Islamic caliphate in Spain and the growing power of the Normans (Vikings) from Norway and Sweden.
By the time Louis died in 843, the empire was in disarray. His three sons divided the empire among themselves: Lothair, who held the title Roman Emperor, ruled the "middle kingdom" of northern Italy; Charles the Bald ruled France, and Louis "the German" ruled Germany. When Lothair died (in 856), his brothers warred against each other to control his territories. At the same time, vital trade routes through the Abbasid Caliphate collapsed, cutting off supplies of silver needed for Carolingian coins, and the Vikings began raiding Carolingian territory. By 917 the Carolingian Empire had completely disintegrated and the last of Charlemagne's royal line had died.
Towards the High Middle Ages
As the Carolingian Empire collapsed, new Western European kingdoms emerged that were strongly influenced by the model of Charlemagne's state. In England, the Anglo-Saxon king "Alfred the Great" established a unified kingdom in the late 800s that drew heavily on the model of Charlemagne's kingdom. So did the new Saxon kings of East Francia (Germany) in the 900s. Like Charlemagne, Saxon King Otto and his descendants assumed the title of Roman Emperor and played a direct role in Papal politics. When, in 1024, the Saxon nobility overthrew Otto's great-grandson, the new Salian dynasty also styled itself after Charlemagne's empire, as did the Capetian royal dynasty that established itself in France in the late 900s.