Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire (Hangin’ with the Carolingians part 2)

[This is part two of my series of articles entitled: “Hangin’ with the Carolingians.” The Carolingian dynasty, which encompassed nearly two centuries (AD 686-840), is a fascinating era. The series began with the high point of the period, the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day, AD 800. Part 2 discusses the emergence of the new Holy Roman Empire and the pivotal Carolingian Renaissance.]


There can be no doubt. The third Indiana
 movie (The Last Crusade) is by far the best. If anyone says otherwise, they are wrong.

One of the most memorable parts of the movie occurs when Indiana’s father, Dr. Henry Jones Sr. (played brilliantly by Sean Connery), uses his umbrella to scare up a flock of gulls which causes an attacking Nazi pilot to crash. Like any former James Bond should, Jones Sr. follows his enemy’s defeat with an ironic quip which, in this case, is a famous line of verse attributed to Charlemagne:

“Let my armies be the rocks and the trees, and the birds in the sky.”

(If you didn’t already; you should read that line again with a good Connery accent.)

The only problem with this attribution is that Charlemagne was unable to read or write well, which has led many to doubt that these words are truly his. It is possible, perhaps, that on an occasion lost to history, Charles the Great spoke these words or a similar phrase and someone else simply wrote them down. Whatever the case may be, Charlemagne remains one of the most important contributors to the preservation of the written word and the arts in the common era. When one considers his struggles with illiteracy, his contribution is all the more impressive.

Charlemagne loved books and reading, despite the fact he could not use them well. He often asked members of the palace to read great pieces of literature to him. His desire was to develop a united empire in the image of his favorite book, the City of God by St. Augustine. For this reason, Charlemagne’s style of leadership was fertile ground for the growth of a new Roman Empire. According to Schaff,

His grand ambition was to unite all the Teutonic and Latin races on the Continent under his scepter in close union with the spiritual dominion of the pope; in other words, to establish a Christian theocracy . . . (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 4:238).


What developed was the rebirth of a “Christian” empire meant to be reminiscent of the glorious Romans of late antiquity. The Church, under the leadership of the papacy, had crowned its choice for emperor both inside and outside of Rome for the first time in centuries. In the minds of Church leaders, the chain of command would once again be:

God -> Pope -> Palace -> People

The new empire was much different, however. The major reason for this: Charles was still in charge. This was Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. If the papacy was looking for an emperor who would bend to their every whim, they had crowned the wrong man. [It is worth noting that the papacy eventually gained majority control when Charlemagne’s son, the saintly yet much less savvy Louis the Pious, inherited the imperial throne.]

This mosaic from the papal dining hall in the Lateran, which is known as the Triclinium, depicts St. Peter bestowing a stole of divine authority on Pope Leo III (left) and a banner of God’s protection on Charlemagne (right). This mosaic dates to the Carolingian era and echoes the belief that Charlemagne’s authority was bestowed by the Pope, who received his authority from Peter, who was given charge over the Church by Jesus.

The Holy Roman Empire was merely a shadow of the first, great Roman Empire. This was especially true in terms of force and organization. For one thing, the empire was as much German as it was Roman. As mentioned in part 1, however, the enforcement of Christianity from the imperial seat was stronger than perhaps any other era in Western history.

Many historians believe the key to Charlemagne’s power was the inauguration of the missi dominici, or “royal messengers.” These men were traveling bishops charged with keeping their eyes on Charlemagne’s subordinate rulers and helping to maintain palatial power throughout the Frankish empire. This led to a reinvigorated system of archbishops and dioceses throughout German lands and into Italy. Charlemagne was already a friend to the Roman Catholic Church. Whether or not it was intentional, the success of his missi dominici made Charlemagne the ultimate political ally of the papacy.

While Charlemagne’s rule was successful in bringing stability and order to Western Europe for a time, it was not altogether good for the Church. Despite the fact that the number of those who claimed to be Christians increased throughout the continent, the spread of faith was a far cry from the missionary spirit of the Early Church.

In many ways, the churches built during Charlemagne’s tenure as emperor serve as a metaphor for the authenticity of Christian faith throughout the empire.  Charlemagne oversaw the construction of several new cathedrals throughout the Empire. Many of these, such as his capital cathedral in Aachen, were simply facsimiles of existing Roman Catholic cathedrals. They were ornate; but they were not original. When the original Roman Empire fell, the Imperial Church dissolved alongside. This was not necessarily a bad thing. It seems as though the medieval mind could not grasp the idea of the Church without imposing political power. Nevertheless, Charlemagne represents an important step in the history of Christianity and its foundations in Europe.

If there is one area for which the entire Western world, and not just Christians, owe a debt of gratitude to Charlemagne and the Carolingians, it is certainly for the results of the Carolingian Renaissance.


Charlemagne’s passion for literature and education paid big dividends for Western history as a whole. As Christianity began to spread anew throughout Europe, this time by the impetus of the Holy Roman Empire, Christian places of worship were rebuilt and Christian monasticism was revived. The Gregorian chant was renewed. Under Charlemagne’s direction, however, the main purpose of monasticism became the preservation of literature and promotion of education among the clergy.

Alcuin of York (AD 735-804) took over the palace school, expanded libraries and schools, saw to the copying of ancient manuscripts, and bolstered the literacy of the clergy. Alcuin and Charlemagne encouraged the understanding and promotion of not only Christian literature but also Roman, Greek, and other ancient texts. As a result, the monasteries became a type of scholastic institution which be the predecessor to the first modern universities like the University of Bologna (AD 1088), the University of Paris, aka Sorbonne (AD 1150), the University of Oxford (AD 1167), and the University of Cambridge (AD 1209).

Under Charlemagne, a significant increase in Roman trade, currency, and manufacturing developed. The Carolingian Renaissance also saw a rebirth of the use of Latin and the style of architecture and art that has come to be known as “pre-Romanesque.” Among the most famous art which from the era are the illustrations that accompany the Lorsch Gospels (below).

The Carolingian Renaissance stands a pivotal moment in the history of Christianity and Western civilization in general. The preservation and care of language, Scripture, literature, and the arts, along the promotion of education, paved the way for things like:

  • Private and Public higher education
  • The greatest period of monasticism to follow (like St. Francis of Assisi)
  • The revival of indigenous European languages as opposed to only Latin
  • Scientific discovery
  • The rise of Scholasticism
  • Gothic architecture
  • The Italian Renaissance and the most influential period of European art
  • The end of the Dark Ages

NEXT UP: Hangin’ with the Carolingians Pt. 3 – The Venerable Bede and why Christians should celebrate Lent

5 thoughts on “Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire (Hangin’ with the Carolingians part 2)

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