The Contextual Guide and Internet Index to Western Civilization
Carolingian & Ottonian (800-1000) Historical Essay
Charlemagne (742-814) was, according to Lord Clark in his magisterial Civilization, the first great man of action to emerge from the darkness since the collapse of the Roman world. In Rome on Christmas Day 800 Pope Leo III crowned him Holy Roman Emperor the first head of an empire that would last over 1000 years. (Napoleon forced its dissolution in 1806.)
A commanding figure over six feet tall, Charlemagne became the subject of legend. He vastly extended the Frankish empire into a European empire by adding Germany (Saxony) [in the first successful invasion of Germany], Italy (the Lombard kingdom was annexed in 774), Bohemia (Czech), Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and some of Spain. He attacked the Spanish Moors (Moslems) in 778 but his rear guard was defeated. Written later, the Song of Roland (c.1100) recounts this campaign.
Charlemagne's empire did not survive him, and in 936 it passed into the German (Saxon) hands of Otto I the Great. The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) would remain a German institution until its end. After Charlemagne, the Renaissance Habsburgs were its most famous rulers.
Perhaps Charlemagne's greatest achievement was the re-establishment of contact with the ancient culture of the Mediterranean world. His teacher and librarian, Alcuin of York, helped him collect and copy ancient manuscripts. In fact, almost our entire knowledge of ancient literature is owing to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne.
He believed strongly in the value of education, especially an educated laity. (Before Charlemagne, the clergy had been the only class widely educated.)
On the way back from his coronation in Rome Charlemagne stopped in Ravenna where the Byzantine emperors had built large stone buildings decorated with gloriously colorful mosaics. San Vitale especially impressed him and on returning to France he decided to have his architect, Odo of Metz, build a replica of it as his palace chapel.
This chapel in Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) still stands. Charlemagne filled his palace with treasures from all over the known world -- jewels, ivories, silks. But it is the magnificent illuminated manuscripts (many of them lavishly bound with ivory, gold and jewels) which he commissioned that were his greatest cultural contribution.
After the break-up of Charlemagne's empire there emerged something like the Europe we know today.
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