Charlemagne became King of the Franks in the year 768 and from the year 800 to 814, he was also Emperor of the Romans. He was the elder of the two sons of Pepin the Short. After his father’s death in 768, the kingdom was divided into two; Charlemagne’s brother, Carloman was in charge of Austrasia. In 771, Carloman died, and as a consequence of this, Charlemagne became the ruler of a unified Frankish Kingdom. He was engaged in numerous battles throughout his reign. He was able to conquer Saxony, and it took him 18 years to do it.  This was something that Augustus had attempted to but failed (El Camino de Santiago). This essay seeks to discuss why Charlemagne is a central figure in European History by looking at the impact that his reign had on such aspects as religion, commerce and culture throughout Europe.

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was born in 742 and died in 814. In 768, he became the King of Franks (in a nation of the Franks) and later from 800 the Emperor of Romans until his death in 814.  Charlemagne is depicted as the one of the most important rulers in Europe, and especially in Western Europe. According to McKitterick (2008; 1), Charlemagne was one of the few rulers who shaped the current European history. This is because he is credited with promoting history, learning and education during the medieval times.  

The Carolingian Intellectual Renewal

Charlemagne was guided by a strong desire to revive the learning process throughout the kingdom. This could be explained by his intellectual curiosity and the need to install literate government officials and to provide the church with educated clergy. His efforts played a pivotal role in the revival of learning to the extent that a number of historians labeled this period, ‘the Carolingian Renaissance’. It is also considered as the age when the ‘rebirth’ of learning took place. During this time, genuine efforts to preserve Latin culture, as well as the revival of classical studies took place in monasteries, many of which had been set up by English and Irish missionaries during the seventh and eighth centuries (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, 158).

By the ninth century, Benedictine Monks were charged with the responsibility of copying manuscripts. To this end, monasteries established scriptoria.This was important, as it was a step towards the preservation of Europe’s early legacy. Close to eight thousand manuscripts from the Carolingian times have survived to this day. About 90 percent of ancient Roman works owe their existence to the fact that they were copied by these Carolingian Monks.

Charlemagne promoted learning at a personal level; he went to the extent of setting up a palace school, while encouraging scholars from all over Europe to join the Carolingian court. This court provided the foundation of education during the mediaeval period. Charlemagne is also credited with “lighting the bulb” after the Dark Ages. He also ensured that all his children, including girls, received education. The Carolingian Renaissance played an important role in ensuring that the classical heritage remained alive. It also helped to maintain the intellectual life of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church had a significant influence on the way of life of the Frankish people (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, 158).

Charlemagne as a Mythic Ideal

Charlemagne was a mythic figure because of his desire to portray himself as a warrior who had to serve Europe in two profound ways, such as providing a suitable model for a united Europe and defeating Islamic powers that posed a huge threat to Christian Europe. The Holy Roman Empire provided a suitable platform to counter Islam and also served as a perfect feudal society. The Carolingian empire was largely rural and feudal. This society was characterized by a rigid hierarchy, with the emperor at the apex, followed by the higher clergy and the nobles, whereas the peasants, who were the vast majority, were at the bottom. There was very little of city life. The monastery was the outpost of rural Europe and was the nobles’ stronghold. In the Song of Roland, Charlemagne is portrayed as a larger than life figure (Lawrence and John; 2009, 207).

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In addition to promoting learning, Charlemagne also supported architectural works. He had a royal chapel built at Aachen, which he personally funded. He also encouraged the building of churches and abbeys throughout the empire. Architects during his reign conceived and developed the monumental style of construction, which came to be known as the Carolingian style. Later attempts to create a Christian Empire in Europe were inspired by Charlemagne (Marshall Cavendish Corporation).

Commerce Boomed

One of the most profound changes made by Charlemagne was doing away with the gold standard and subjecting the entire continent of Europe to the uniform silver currency. This made trade much easier, and as a consequence, the continent flourished. He also initiated some laws that took away some powers from the nobles, thus allowing even the peasants to take part in commercial activities. According to historians, Charlemagne was sympathetic to peasants and grew frustrated with the sense of entitlement that was characteristic of the nobles. His regional governors were subjected to inspections on a regular basis conducted by royal emissaries to ensure that injustices were not committed by his officials. This benefited people of the lower class.

The Spread of Christianity

Through his military campaigns, Charlemagne not only increased the geographical reach of his kingdom but also forcefully converted the people that he conquered into Christianity. He at one time, during the war with the Saxons, threatened to kill them all, unless they converted to the Christian faith. He sent out missionaries to the Saxons to ensure that his new subjects are instructed in their newly found faith. In addition to being a military man, Charlemagne was a reformer of the church, as well as the society. He often invited clerics who were also scholars to advise him. He was a sincere Christian who in addition to being interested in religious affairs also took charge of them. He at one time requested Alcuin to reform and unify the diverse liturgical practices. One element that was added during this time was The Apostles Creed. He was responsible for setting up the hierarchical church order. During his reign, Pope Hadrian ceased the formal recognition of the emperor based in Constantinople and consequently recognized Charlemagne as Christianity’s lay head. This was attributed to the fact that he was an accomplished military man, a clerical and a social reformer (The Middle Ages).

Foreign Relations

During his reign, Charlemagne was able to establish alliances and gain the goodwill of a number of kings and nations. He formed an alliance with Alfonso, King of Galcia and Asturias. He also had friendly relations with the Persian king Haroun Al-Rashid whose territory included the whole of the East with the exception of India. The emperors of Constantinople also made advances to Charlemagne, by seeking his friendship and alliance. On the suspicion that he would wrestle the empire from them by virtue of having the title emperor, the Greeks made a close alliance with Charlemagne, so that he would have no reason to attack them (Medieval Sourcebook).

Charlemagne should be considered a central figure in the history of Europe. And the fact that he was almost solely responsible for the revival of learning after the Dark Ages is a testimony to that. In addition to promoting learning, he also inspired a cultural renaissance, which was evident in the architectural designs of the churches that were built during his time. Being an accomplished military man he was able to conquer many lands and form a kingdom in Europe that was united. This had the impact of promoting commerce, enhancing the spread of Christianity, and most importantly, protecting Europe from Islamic conquest. His empire also served as a form of inspiration to later attempts at setting up a Christian empire in Europe. This explains why Charlemagne is considered the father of Europe.


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