In the Wake of Rome: the Islamic, Byzantine, and Carolingian Empires
After the Roman Empire's collapse, three major "successor states" emerged. These were: the Arabic-speaking Islamic empire, which gained control over the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain; the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, which gained control over Southeast Europe and portions of Italy; and 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 became fierce rivals. Their mutual hostility, however, masked a great deal of cultural interaction.
The Origins of Islam
Islam began in Arabia among the Arab peoples (Semitic-speaking tribes of farmers, nomadic herders and traders). The Arabs were polytheists who worshiped many gods, including Yahweh and an Arabic god called Allah. According to Islamic mythology, the Arabs descended from the Ishmael, the son of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham.
The Romans had considered Arab lands too poor to bother with. In the late 500s, though, Arabia became important to international trade. As we've seen, "western" societies had long traded with East Asia via caravans that crossed Persia and Central Asia. In the late 500s Persian attacks on Byzantium (see lecture 7) had forced these caravans to seek safer routes. The alternate routes passed through the Arab lands on the way to the great cities of North Africa.
The Arab city of Mecca profited most from new trade routes. Mecca had long been a center of Arabic religious life; it was 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. The Kabah was the object of pre-Islamic Arab religious pilgrimage, so controlling Mecca had economic as well as religiously importance to pre-Islamic Arabic tribes, and the city had been the object of frequent warfare. In the late 500s, the new trade routes through Arab lands all converged at Mecca, which further enhanced its importance.
In the late 500s and early 600s, the aristocratic Quraish clan controlled Mecca. Muhammad, born in about 570, was a member of the Quraish clan. His parents had died when Muhammad was 6 years old, but he went on to amass a sizable fortune through trade and judicious marriage. His comfortable life would change dramatically in his early 40s, though, as a result of a religious conversion.
NOTE: Tales of Muhammad's youth describe him as a natural leader. He is said, for instance, to have figured out how to stop the Arab tribes from warring over control of the Kabah. Legen says that in Muhammad's youth the Kabbah had been destroyed in such fighting and had to be rebuilt. But the Arab tribes came to the brink of war over the question of who would have the honor of picking up the Black Stone and placing it in the foundation of the Kabah. Muhammad solved this debate and prevented war by suggesting that the Black Stone be laid on a sheet and that representatives of each tribe then hold a corner of the sheet in order to pick up the stone and set it in place. The story is probably best understood as allegory for the unity of Arab peoples through cooperation and worship.
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. (Note that Muhammad would have been familiar with the lives of Moses, Paul, etc., since he had encountered both Jewish and Christian teachings in his life and travels in Arabia.)
The most central of the teaching revealed to Muhammad (contained in the Koran or Quar'an) is that there is only one God, who is the God of all time and of all men. The new faith 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 the final and greatest of God's Prophets, Muhammad. (Muhammad did not claim to be God or the "Son" of God, but anointed as God's final Prophet.) At the core of Islam are ethical and moral guidelines similar to those of Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Muhammad explicitly recognized the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus as Prophets of Allah and preached that God had inspired the Jewish and Christian Bible. But the Koran was Allah's final revelation to man.
Muhammad faced staunch resistance when he began preaching this new faith to the members of the Quraish tribe, who feared Islam would displace Mecca's religious importance. But in 622 CE the city of Yathrib (270 miles north of Mecca), invited Muhammad to take power as its governor, to preach to its people, and to mediate disputes between rival tribes. Muslims call the year 622 the hijra (the Migration); it is Year 1 in the Islamic calendar. Muhammad renamed the city Medina ("City of the Prophet"), and told its people that Allah demanded that they convert to the new faith and also convert the neighboring towns and cities. The responsibility of ruling Medina shaped Muhammad's religious teachings. Islam now included elaborate guidelines regarding law, administration, and practical matters of government.
Medina also gave Muhammad a base for military expansion. In 630 CE Muhammad's forces conquered Mecca. He convinced the Quraish to convert to Islam, partly through intimidation and partly through clever politics. (He declared the Kabah a holy site of Islam, so that Mecca continued to be a center of religious pilgrimage.) Between 630 and his death in 632, Muhammad used a combination of intimidation, politics, and charismatic preaching to convert other Arab tribes.
Islam was based on the idea that there is only one God, Allah, who on the Judgment Day will save the souls only of those who have proved themselves through a life of selfless devotion to God. God is said to have dictated the Koran to Muhammad as a guide for leading an ethical and moral life. Each Muslim is to follow the Koran and is directly responsible for his or her own behavior. Muhammad called on Muslims to pray as a community (in mosques), but the Islamic clergy does not act as intermediary between man and God and the Koran requires no sacraments. The role of religious authorities in Islam was similar to that of rabbis in Judaism—they were religious and legal teachers and scholars.
From its inception Islam had missionary elements. Muhammad told his followers that their duties to Allah included bringing the faith to their neighbors. Although Muhammad preached that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as "People of the Book," he also argued that Jews and Christians should recognize Muhammad as God's final prophet and convert to Islam. Allah would curse those who refused as infidels. [To put this into perspective, remember that Christian rulers of Rome also had been using state power to push "pagans" into converting to Christianity.]
And although Allah was the God of all men, he had given his message to the Arabs in the Arabic language. Muhammad's teachings implied that God had given the Arabs a special mission—to save the world by spreading the Islamic faith. 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. [Jews held Jerusalem sacred because if was the site to the Temple; Christian's because it was the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.]
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.
The Expansion and Division of the Islamic Empire
Muhammad had both religious and governmental authority—the Islamic Empire was a theocracy. But at his death (in 632), Muhammad 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, one of Muhammad's early converts. Umar established a family dynasty of Caliphs (the Umayyad Caliphs). As theocratic rulers, the Caliphs had authority as both political and religious leaders of the Muslims. The Caliph was military leader and chief judge; matters of local administration were handled by Islamic judges (based on the Koran).
Within 100 years of Muhammad's death, his followers created a great empire.
Abu-Bakar waged war against those Arab tribes that had refused to accept his authority as Muhammad's "chosen" successor. He then used military force to extend Islamic power north out of Arabia. The Arabs were expert desert warriors, and had beaten back the Christian Byzantine forces and controlled Syria and Palestine by 636. The Umayyad Caliphs then turned their armies both the Southwest and the East. 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. Although Islamic efforts to capture Constantinople failed in 677 and 717, the Arab armies did establish control over European territory: in 711 they crossed from North Africa and conquered Spain. Their expansion stopped only when they were defeated by the Franks at Tours (in northern France) in 732.
By the mid-700s, the Islamic Empire was comparable to that of Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar.
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, but had to recognize the Islamic state as their overlord and pay special taxes. Because of their relative tolerance, the Islamic Caliphs faced surprisingly little resistance from conquered peoples. Their greatest challenge actually was controlling how Muslims interpreted Muhammad's teachings, especially among non-Arabs.
The dominant interpretation of Islam was based both on the Koran and on the oral traditions (sunna) that described how Muhammad and his deputies had solved problems of law and government. 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 be legitimate rulers rested on being descendents of Umar, Muhammad's deputy.
But another view challenged the Sunni principle of succession. The Shi'ites (the "faction") argued that the Sunnis had distorted Allah's word and that 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 retaliated by murdering Ali in 661. From that point on, Islam has been sharply divided between Shi'ites and Sunnis, with the Shi'a in the minority. The division between Sunnis and Shi'ites was particularly sharp in areas with mixed Arab and non-Arab populations; non-Arabs were drawn to the Shi'ites and their criticism of the politically and economically dominate Arab Sunnis.
In the mid-700s, religious dissent translated into rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphs. In 750 a descendent of Muhammad's uncle Abbas led a revolt in Damascus (the new capital) and massacred the family of the Umayyad Caliph. He founded a new dynasty of Caliphs, the Abbasids, who ruled over most of the Middle East 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.
Economy, Society and Culture of the Islamic Caliphates
In her discussion of the economy of the Islamic lands as a whole, including Abbasid territories in the Middle East, Coffin explains that Mesopotamia was been the bread-basket of the Abbasid caliphate and that the decline of Mesopotamian agriculture in the 800s contributed to the Abbasids' decline.
My concern in this lecture 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; Islam had brought with it knowledge of advanced Asian methods of irrigation and other farming techniques and 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 Christian Europe. Muhammad had been a merchant and Islamic culture looked favorably upon merchant activities. Islamic cities in the Early Middle Ages were thriving, cosmopolitan, centers of trade. In cities like Cordoba, merchants bought and sold goods from across Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was through Islamic merchants that Europe obtained spices from India and Indonesia, silk cloth from Damascus, etc. It was also through Islamic merchants that Europe learned of new technologies developed in China, such as the windmill, block printing, paper making, the spinning wheel, and new methods of weaving.
How was Islamic society organized in the Early Middle Ages? Islam emphasized equality before God and downplayed hereditary social hierarchies; Islamic society had an aristocratic stratum, but as a rule positions in government were open to any man with talent. The high level of literacy in the Islamic world (around 20 percent male literacy in 1000 CE) made it possible for common men to rise in status through service. The study of Islamic legal texts also offered a path of upward social mobility: any learned man might become an Ulam.
Islamic law treated women as inferior and subordinate to men, and Muhammad had asked his own wives to remain in seclusion from male society. By the early middle ages, the practice had developed of strictly secluding women in the "harem" (the female quarters of the household). But this practice was limited to the households of aristocratic and wealthy merchant families; 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).
On a whole, Islamic culture in this period was very cosmopolitan; it borrowed from the cultures of peoples the Muslims had conquered and of those with whom they traded. Arab scholars translated the works of the greatest Greek scholars into Arabic, in particular the works of Aristotle and works on mathematicians (Euclid), science (Archimedes), and medicine (Hippocrates and Galen). Islamic commentaries on Aristotle had a major influence on both Islamic and Christian philosophy; much of the Christian theologians knew of Aristotle came from Islamic writers.
Islamic scholars also made major original contributions in this era. In mathematics, the Arabs "discovered" the concept of "zero." Europeans used cumbersome Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc), but Arabs borrowed the Hindu system of numbers (1, 2, 3, etc). Adding the idea of "zero" then allowed Islamic scholars to invent algebra and the decimal system. Algebra gave Arab astronomers a power tool for deriving astrological tables. The decimal system allowed merchants to record business transactions much more effectively than did the Roman system. (That is why Italian merchants adopted the Arab number system in the 1200s).
Islamic society in the Early Middle Ages valued scholarship and the great Islamic cities all had major libraries and were centers of scholarship. Islamic cities also became great centers of Jewish scholarship, since Islam preached toleration of Jews; Jewish communities in Spain became major centers of learning. In addition, 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. The great achievements of this period are represented, for instance, by the mosques and palaces of Spain, such as the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
The Clash between Byzantium and Islam
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 with its capital in Constantinople 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 in its fight against Persia for control over the "Holy Land" (Jerusalem and Palestine/Judea). In 614 the Persians captured Jerusalem, but three years later Byzantium captured the Holy Land and drove the Persians to the East. In 647 Byzantium defeated the Persians. But they soon faced a new and more dangerous threat—the Islamic Empire.
In the 650s, Islamic Arab armies captured the Holy Land. The forces of the Umayyad Caliphate attempted to invade Constantinople itself in 677 and then again in 717. Under the leadership of 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 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
Like Emperor Constantine (see lecture 7), the Byzantine emperors claimed to rule their lands as their patrimony: God, they asserted, had placed all of the lands and all of the peoples of Byzantium under the Emperor's responsibility, as the Emperor's "property" (just as the family was under the father's imperium in Roman Law); the Emperor's rule therefore was absolute. Byzantium had no Senate, no assembly, no constitution to limit the monarch's absolute power. In other words, it was an "Autocracy." The Emperor's court (his small circle of advisors and aids) became the focal point of all politics. (Often court politics involved conspiracy, backstabbing, and other intrigue.)
What made this governmental system stable was the existence of a very large bureaucracy of tax collectors, judicial officials, and other civil servants. Almost all public activities in Byzantium came under the regulation of the state bureaucracy. The bureaucracy regulated all aspects of the economy, for instance, including prices and wages. Bribery became a way of life for those who had to work through the web of Byzantine bureaucracy, and the empire's civil service was notoriously corrupt. Still, these educated, literate officials kept the Byzantine government system running steadily (if inefficiently) despite all of the political intrigues at the imperial court.
The Byzantine Economy: Trade as well as Agriculture
Roman Emperors had considered the Eastern Empire to be the wealthiest of their domains. 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, the great 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. In addition, cities like Constantinople (which had nearly a million inhabitants in the late 900s) had their own manufacturing (textiles and fine metalworking, for instance).
But agriculture was still the core 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, which made Byzantium different from the Western. In the West, aristocrats and monasteries used laws restricting the movement of agricultural laborers to tie peasants to their land (this system of labor is called serfdom.) At least until 1000 CE, free peasants in Byzantium managed to resist this process and held on to their own land. After 1000, however, serfdom began advancing rapidly in the Byzantine Empire, so that after 1000 Byzantine agriculture also was based on serfdom.
Byzantine Religion: The Eastern Orthodox Church
Like Emperor Constantine (lecture 7), the Byzantine emperors tried to impose orthodoxy and uniformity on Christian doctrine. In the Eastern Christian church as in the Roman church, there were fierce struggles to determine what was "correct" and what was "heretical." One of the most significant of these struggles 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 using Icons was blasphemy: they claimed that it meant worshipping not Christ, but a picture of Christ made by a man. Moreover, they argued that painting the image of Christ violated the Ten Commandments. Leo and Constantine V ordered all icons destroyed and persecuted those priests and monks who refused to accept the new doctrine. The monasteries in particular fought against Iconoclasm (in part because the painting of icons had become an important source of wealth for some monasteries).
The Papacy in Rome also opposed Iconoclasm. The Iconoclasts' arguments directly challenged the cult of saints, which was vital to the legitimacy of the Pope. (The Pope's claim to primacy in the church was based upon "lineage" from St. Peter—see lecture 7.) Tensions between the Papacy and the Byzantine Emperor led to a break in the year 800, when 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 separate from the Pope's authority.
After 800 the Eastern Church abandoned Iconoclasm and again approved of the use of icons. From that point, the Eastern Church 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
Although religious authorities in Byzantium declared all new religious ideas to be heresy, they did not condemn study of old, pre-Christian writings from classical Greece. Education was a key to service in the Byzantine state bureaucracy, and so education was very important to the Byzantine elites. Not only men, but also women from wealthy and aristocratic families received educations (either from tutors in their homes or at schools). Byzantine school curriculums were based upon classic learning, and all students studied and memorized the great works of Greek literature (especially Homer's Iliad and Odyssey). But here again, Byzantine authorities loathed the study of new ideas as dangerous—it was permissible to memorize the writings of Plato, but it was forbidden to study or develop new philosophical works. The aim of Byzantine classicism was "preservation" of classical Greek culture and not its extension.
Byzantine arts proved far more original than did their scholarship. In architecture, for instance, a distinct Byzantine style evolved from the late 500s. Its greatest example is the Saint Sophia cathedral. This cathedral, built under Justinian (in the late 500s), is almost plane looking from the outside, but the inside is amazing. It was covered in gold leaf, mosaics, stained glass windows, and icons. (The icons no longer exist—after the Turkish conquest of Byzantium in 1453, the cathedral became an Islamic mosque, and still is today.) The building was a completely new design—a real breakthrough—it was 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 has the feeling of lifting up towards heaven. Light pours down through stained glass windows in the done and reflects of the gold leaf—the effect is as if light is coming from the dome itself, which seems to be floating high above the floor. The point was to reflect the glory of God. The Saint Sophia Church became a great symbol of Byzantine Christianity and represents the highest achievement of Byzantine artistic culture.
The Final Break between Byzantium and the West
Above I noted that tensions between the Byzantine church and Rome had escalated during the debate over Iconoclasm, and that in 800 the Pope had recognized Charlemagne of the Franks as the "true" Roman Emperor (which meant that the Byzantine emperor was NOT the "true" Roman emperor). That simply accelerated a cultural conflict between East and West that had been growing since the time of Emperor Diocletian (see lecture 7). Byzantine religious authorities considered the Roman church corrupt, backwards, and un-educated (after al, the Latin Romans did not read Greek, the language of the Christian Bible!); Latin religious authorities considered the Greek Byzantines as heretics, as soft, corrupt, and arrogant. In 1054, the Pope declared that the Eastern Church must recognize the primacy of Rome (that the Pope was the head of the entire church). The Byzantine church refused. The Christian Church as a result split into two rival, hostile churches—the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek [Eastern] Orthodox Church.
The hostility between the Latin West and the Greek East was so great that, as we shall see in lecture 9, that during the Crusades the Catholic forces would attack and viscously plunder Constantinople in the early 1200s.
From the Roman West to Western Europe
When in lecture 7 we talked about the Germanic kingdoms that carved up the Western Roman between the 400s and the 600s, I emphasized that the Germanic tribes 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. The Roman law shaped their understanding of government, citizenship, and property rights. And although the Germanic kings ruled portions of the former Western Empire, they still recognized the Emperor in Constantinople as "The" Roman emperor. But in the 600s-800s, the western kingdoms began to distinguish themselves more and more from the Roman past—what had been the Roman West was becoming Western Europe.
The economies and cultures of the West and the East had been following different trajectories since at least the 300s CE (see lecture 7), and this had a great deal to do with the shaping of distinct Western European societies in the Early Middle Ages. Cities in the West had been in decline since the Germanic invasions, and although the cities remained important as centers of the Church administration, life in the west was becoming more and more rural by the 700s. The urban society of Rome was breaking down rapidly. In its place emerged a more decentralized rural-based society. (Remember that although Rome had been an agricultural society, its culture was based upon urban life). The Roman Empire's agricultural economy had been based upon large landed estates that used slave labor. But the labor shortages that had been growing since the late 200s had undermined this system, and by the 700s large portions of the land was left unused. The Germanic kings and aristocrats now lived in the countryside on their estates and did all they could to tie peasants to their land (as serfs).
The financial system of the Roman Empire also collapsed in the 600s and 700s. The decline of cities, the decay of trade, and the impoverishment of the peasantry had crippled the 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.
The type of society that historians often describe as feudalism was emerging out of the wreckage of the Roman West. Society became divided between an elite of aristocrats who controlled the land and had access to wealth and luxury goods, and the great majority of poor peasants. The aristocrats used the law to tie the peasants to their land (this would become known as serfdom) and charged the peasants rent in the form of work and foodstuffs (grain, for instance). The aristocrats lived off of the peasants' rent payments, but also sought ways of gaining luxury goods and weapons. These were crucial not only because owning luxury goods brought status, but also since 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
As a result of regular warfare between competing aristocratic families, the 500s- 700s was a period of serious political instability in Western Europe. A few stable dynastic kingdoms emerged—the most important was the "Merovingian" dynasty established by the Frankish king Clovis, which ruled Gaul (France) and large portions of Central Europe.
The Merovingian Kings made use of an administrative bureaucracy based on the old Roman bureaucracy, in which literate administrators served regional governors. They also cultivated excellent relations with the Papacy and with Catholic monastic orders, which were becoming important centers of economic life as well as centers of religious and cultural activity. (See Coffin's discussion of monasticism and the Papacy, pp 286-288.) Supporting the spread of monasteries was a tool by which the kings could extend their influence into new territories, especially to the north. Most of the several hundred monasteries founded under the Merovingian kings in the 600s were in northern Gaul (northern France), as were most of the new Bishoprics. As a result, the center of economic power in Gaul steadily shifted to the Northwest (towards to region of Neustria, around the Tours; by the 700s the Merovingian kings had established a capital in nearby Paris).
Note: One factor that helps explain this shift to the North, and that would benefit the Germanic peoples in general, was a change in climate: the world climate went through a cyclical warming trend that would last several centuries, and that made agriculture in the northern regions of Europe more productive. This led to more extensive settlement in the north, and to denser populations.
In the late 600s and early 700s, the Merovingian dynasty faced a civil war between competing aristocratic families. The result of this civil war was that Charles Martel (from the region known as Austrasia, in what is now central Germany) seized power over the Frankish Kingdom in 717. Martel used Merovingian kings as "figureheads" while he ruled behind the scenes. Like the Merovingian kings, he skillfully made alliances with monastic orders (especially with the Benedictines) and with the Papacy. This not only increased the legitimacy of his rule, but also helped spread the Frankish kingdom into new territories in northern Germany.
Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
When in 741 Charles Martel died, his sons Pepin and Carloman at first continued the practice of ruling behind the scenes, using a Merovingian figurehead king. But in 751 Pepin obtained support from the Benedictines and the Papacy and declared himself the King of the Franks. The legitimacy of Pepin's claim to the crown depended upon support from the Pope; representing the Pope, Saint Boniface of the Benedictine order "anointed" Pepin as king. (The ritual of anointing the new king with the "oil of Clovis" had its symbolic roots in the Old Testament story that you read in Coffin on page 90.) In return for the Pope's support, 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 upon Pepin's death in 768.
Charlemagne quickly proved himself a brilliant military leader, and led the Frankish army in a series of conquests in 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 and brought their elites both new territory and wealth (from plunder); the Papacy approved since it not only meant stronger Papal authority over Christians who tended towards Arian heresy (in Northern Spain), but also meant the forced Christianization of pagans in northern Germany (Saxony). (Charlemagne also moved his capital to the "German" city of Aachen.)
Charlemagne and the Church
The relationship between Charlemagne and the Papacy was, at a very important level, political—it was about power. Charlemagne's armies protected the Papacy, and in return treated the Church's bishops and even the Pope as his subordinates, very much as he treated his 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 (as noted above). This symbolic act (which really didn't give Charlemagne control over any new territory or powers) was a blow to the prestige of the Byzantine Emperor, and represented the emergence of a new Western Europe from the ashes of Rome's Western Empire.
But Charlemagne was not cynical about his religious beliefs—he really 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 and the Carolingian kings were as much religious as secular figures. The King, according to Early Middle Ages political and religious thought, had been chosen by God; he was expected to administer his kingdom, but his first duties were to protect Christianity and promote proper Christian observance among his subjects.
Charlemagne showed greater concern for religious matters than most medieval kings (for whom these were very serious concerns): he imposed Christian practices (Baptism, etc) on pagans in Saxony; he enforced the tithe among peasants in all of his lands; he directly appointed and removed bishops and abbots (heads of monasteries); dictated the text of church services (the liturgy) and the order of worship in monasteries, etc.
Civil Administration, Literacy, and Cultural Revival
Charlemagne designed a system for administering his empire that would help shape the organization of political power in feudal Europe for hundreds of years. He built upon the Merovingian system of administration (itself built on the Roman system) of courts, taxes, and tolls. He developed the practice of sending royal "missions" to the provinces to oversee the work of state officials, and he himself conducted grand "tours" of his Empire that both reinforced the image of royal authority and kept his administrators in line.
Charlemagne devised a new method of local governance based upon the service of the aristocrats. He divided both conquered regions and the core of the Frankish kingdom into districts administered by some three-hundred appointed Frankish "lords" (called counts), who served as the local governors and judges. Charlemagne provided his retainers (the counts) with periodic gifts (the prizes and plunder taken in warfare), and gave the counts extraordinary powers over peasants (which contributed to enserfment) 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.
Charlemagne's administrative bureaucracy took direct oral instruction from royal missions, but it also received instructions in writing. Literacy (in Latin) thus was of great importance to the ruling aristocratic elite. As a rule, literacy among commoners declined in the Early Middle Ages, but the monasteries and the royal court both championed the importance of reading and writing. Both Charlemagne and his son Louis "the Pious" (who ruled after Charlemagne's death in 814) believed that the cause of Christianity required an educated ruling elite and that 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.