Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Charlemagne Part Three: Daddy Issues

Welcome back, History Fans!

Today we are going to finish up our study of Charlemagne. So far we've seen how the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace seized royal control (thanks to a scared pope) and how Charlemagne's military victories put him position to be crowned emperor (thanks to a scared pope). This post has less to do with spooked clergy and more to do with Charlemagne's personal life and some of the institutions and policies he set in place.

Charles seemed to have no trouble knocking up his wives and concubines but the royal succession turned into quite a disaster over the span of his life. His first marriage was more or less an old Frankish custom that looked more like our idea of common-law marriage. There was no real ceremony, and it was definitely not approved by the church. Remember the church, though no longer in its infancy, was still fighting to take hold in the West after Rome fell. Einhard calls Charles's first wife a concubine, but this is misleading. The king certainly had his fair share of concubines but he married this woman named Himiltrude. The church, as it grew and planted itself in Frankish policy, eventually decided that those old Frankish marriages were not official and therefore null. This meant that Charles not only had to find a new wife, but the child that Himiltrude bore him, whose name in history is PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, would never have a legit claim to the throne.

If you remember from our last discussion, Charlemagne had also married the princess of the Lombards. She did not have any children, so any Italian heirs who may have wanted to continue the desperate fight for Lombard independence thankfully did not come into existence. Nevertheless, it is significant that both of his early marriages had pretty intense political consequences. We saw Desiderus early on attempt use his daughter's marriage to Charles to regain his footing and get anointed by the pope. PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, though gross and disfigured, had been born before the church policy that denied him his birthright had been put into place. As we shall see, this decision by the church to strip his disgusting son of his claim to the throne, will come (hunch) back to haunt him in 792. The HUNCHBACK got mixed up with some folk who urged him to take what was his. Pepin led a rebellion against his father that was quickly stomped out. As punishment, PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK was locked away in a monastery for the rest of his life. A fate worse than death.

Charles then enjoyed a handful of brides for different periods of time. Most famous was Queen Fastrada, who Einhard blames for all of Charles's merciless destruction that his military had been bestowing on Europe since before he married Fastrada. But with a name like that, I'm sure she was no peach! Entering the ninth century, here's what Charles's succession plan looked like. . . with BULLETS!
  • Pepin the Hunchback - doomed for life in a monastery
  • Carloman who later took the name Pepin - kingdoms of Italy and Lombard
  • Louis who later became the Pious - kingdom of Aquitaine
  • Charles Jr - was not given a kingdom but was to replace his father as King of the Franks
 We have seen how the Germanic tradition of splitting up kingdoms totally ruins them. Very few sons have the charisma and leadership skills of their father. A great example that we have studied here on History Books is old King CNUT. His North Sea Empire crumbled as soon as he passed away. Charles, though centuries before CNUT, likewise divvies up his kingdom that he fought so hard for between his remaining sons. When will these Germanic numbskulls learn?!

Yet disaster struck in 810, and the kingdom, for better or worse, was left in the hands of one son. Carloman, who was to take over the Italian portion of the empire, died that year. The following year Charles's pride and joy Charles Jr. died. This was a heavy blow because Charles had been pruning him, letting him take over military operations and diplomatic issues. With PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK locked up with monks and his legitimacy ruined by the damned church anyway, the entire empire was left to the weakest of all Charlemagne's sons: Louis the Pious. Charles, probably still frustrated with how the Pope ruined his own coronation, made sure that Louis was crowned by no one but himself. Possibly Charles knew that his son Louis didn't have the stuff to be an emperor and wanted to make sure that he gave him the best shot at a successful tenure - without the aggravating interruptions of the Pope and silly policies created by the clergy. This way, Louis stood above everyone else. Charles had seen himself as head of the church. Crowning his own son took any question out of the symbolism - Louis was now head of Western Christianity.

Louis the Pious HATED the alphabet

Whether or not Charles actually took such a special interest in Louis is debatable. His special treatment of his daughters, however, caused quite a bit of controversy in the royal court. A typical medieval ruler would have used his children to his advantage--marrying off daughters to strengthen or make new alliances, and setting up sons with land or titles or as successors. There is clear evidence that Charles attempted the latter even though bad luck struck in the early ninth century. Even PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK had a prestigious ecclesiastical position with his name on it until he led the rebellion. The daughters, however, stayed at court, either traveling with Charles or in place at Aachen. He had intended to marry a daughter early on to one of the Constantines in Byzantium, which would have linked the Christian world in an unprecedented way. He backed out at the last minute and kept his daughter near to him.

Nothing ever gross is reported. He didn't sleep with his daughters, you monsters! I know that's what you were thinking. He was just a lonely dude who liked to be surrounded by people who liked him. Maybe he was afraid of solitude or just a really social guy. Maybe he had daddy issues with the first Pepin. But having multiple grown and rich daughters at the court was bound to cause some trouble. With a rotating cast of eligible bachelors coming in and out of Aachen, the daughters had their pickings. One of Charles's daughters got pregnant from a famous poet. Another was rumored to have been sleeping with a trusted military leader. Without proper marriages, the princesses got their kicks and suddenly the palace was filled with illegitimate bastards. Is that redundant? Whatever.

Charlemagne was a man who could adapt, which was part of what made him such an effective ruler. We witnessed two policy shifts in his military aggression. The first was when he realized that he had destroyed the Italian countryside and that families were selling themselves into slavery because they couldn't pay their debt. Charles was quick to act and forgave the Italian debt. After his ruthless and tiresome venture against the Saxons, Charles was willing to change tactics against the Avars and lighten up a little bit. Another policy that shifted under Charlemagne, though not necessarily for the positive, was slavery. The gap between slave and peasant had slowly been growing closer together, and with the church's encouragement to do away with slavery, serfdom was created. They were like slaves, who had no choice but to rely on their patrons or former patrons for survival. Yet they were free! Kinda.

The monetary system also saw a transformation. Charles demanded a standardization of weights and measurements to ensure a balanced economy. He slowly took the old Roman gold coins out of circulation, keeping the old Frankish silver ones and even minting some new currency. It would appear that Charles was obsessed with organizing, something that became clear on the battlefield. His troops were no better equipped or stronger than their adversaries, but Charles knew how to organize his resources. It certainly helped to have a seemingly unending supply of manpower. Standardizing the monetary system created, in Charles's eyes, a real empire, not just different lands under one ruler. 


The most famous of Charles's policies or improvements was that of the church and of education, which at this point in time, went very much hand in hand. The Frankish church under Charles Martel was in shambles. Reforms began under Pepin the Short and Charle's brother Carloman, who wanted to see a bishop in every city. All the clergy in that bishop's diocese must answer to that particular bishop. Charles himself wanted to see the church cleaned up. He began dishing out stiff penalties to bishops, deacons, and monks who disobeyed their ecclesiastical orders. Old ecclesiastical provinces that had fallen in disuse were restored. Charles was getting organized more than anything. And though he demanded better behavior from the clergy, keeping tabs on all the wickedness was nearly impossible. Charles then went further and began updated ancient liturgies and customs in the church. He tested his clergy to see how well they knew the Lord's Prayer and even personally changed how the Catholic Creed was worded.

Charles held education in very high regard. He loved to learn and was very concerned that his kingdom would lose the Frankish language to the Latin of the church. He spearheaded a move to actually create a standard Frankish grammar. In 789, the Admonitio generalis instructed priests to gather up boys of all stations and statuses for educational instructions. Thus began the first Frankish schools. Again, Charles wanted everybody on the same page. Book production increased under Charlemagne who enjoyed reading and being read to, though he could not write.

We can't get ahead of ourselves though. Charlemagne is often attributed with pushing education and cultural change into modern Europe. And this he may have done but his number one concern was the church. As Barbero put it, "culture and education were revived for the express purpose of reforming or rather rectifying the way the church worked and the way that Christian people lived." Charles believed he was put in a position to protect the church. In fact the pope gave him that title! But the Frankish king took this responsibility to heart and tried to get his people organized, educated, and on the same page so that they could serve God efficiently. Educational reforms and cultural betterment were simply byproducts of Charlemagne's ultimate goal: serve the Lord (this included killing tons of pagans).

Charles seemed to have lost his edge during the Viking attacks that preceded his death. Instead of aggressively striding into Denmark and cutting down every pagan in sight, he tried to fortify the borders and come to peaceful terms with Godfried, the king of the Danes. In that devastating year of 810, Godfried died and left the kingdom of Denmark in mad and bloody rush for the throne. Charles figured the threat had disappeared with Godfried and decided not to invade. Boy, was he wrong! And after all that effort to prepare Louis for an easy reign, Charles had left the door wide open for the ultimate villains: THE VIKINGS. The great emperor died in January of 814, and Louis took on the burden of keeping the empire from crumbling. But that story is for another time.

Stay cool, Chuck.

This concludes our look at the life of Charlemagne. Hopefully our guest writers will have their posts ready in the next week or so. Or else it is back to THE VIKINGS!

Until then, History Fans. Don't trust poets with your daughters!

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