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Emerson King

Familial feat turned familial feud: An Essay Addressing Challenges in Carolingian

Empire between 751 and 840
For a dynasty that so frequently paralleled itself to the Romans, the Carolingian
Empire was relatively short-lived. That is not to undermine the notable and influential
feats achieved by Pepin the Younger (or Pepin the Short), Charlemagne, and Louis I,
however, various factors exhausted their empire and eventually made its downfall
inevitable. This essay will argue that the three most significant challenges that faced the
Carolingians stemmed from their expansion of the empire through warfare, the
maintenance of such a vast amount of land with diverse inhabitants, and intra-familial
conflicts. To clarify, in this context, challenges are any sort of situation self-imposed
or not where inappropriate or inadequate responsive action would be disastrous. This
essay will provide examples of certain challenges that originally helped the empire grow,
but may have contributed to its downfall as time progressed.
As many would suspect, warfare was undoubtedly a central challenge to the
Carolingians. They initiated nearly all wars between 751 and 814 in order to expand their
domain, protect the church, and obtain booty1. Beginning soon after Charles Martels
tenure as mayor in 720 and ending in 804, there were only eight years without a war
campaign. In some years there were two or three campaigns. Pepin and Charlemagne
(especially Charlemagne) pushed the borders of their Frankish empire throughout their
reigns. Incessant warfare is almost synonymous with the early Carolingian empire.
Charlemagne fought on all his borders, reabsorbing Provence and blocking Arab
advances from Spain as he did so, taking over Francia, and re-establishing Frankish
hegemony in Alsace and Aquitaine2. Aggressive in battle and an extremely efficient
organizer, Charlemagne never lost a war. The Pope supported Pepins assumption as
King of the Carolingian on the condition that the Carolingians would protect Rome. And
so the mutually beneficial relationship with the Papacy was born. For the papacy,
protection from external forces, especially the Lombards, was a necessity; for Pepin, it
was essential that the pope recognize him as a true King to further legitimize Carolingian
authority. Thus, with the help of the church, it became possible for the Carolingians to be
elevated above the numerous dukes and counts who jealously seized upon the kings
every weakness to strengthen their own positions3.
Both Pepin the Short and Charlemagne instigated wars against the Lombards for
identical reasons, however, Charlemagnes victory was much more decisive. Pepin had
previously taken up this war at the request of Pope Stephen II, but with great difficulty. In
774, Charlemagne attacked the king of the Lombards, urged on by Pope Hadrian I, who


Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. New York: Viking, 2009. Page 380. Print.
Wickham, 376.
Blockmans, Willem Pieter, and P. C. M. Hoppenbrouwers. Introduction to Medieval Europe 300-1500. Second ed. Page 87. Print.

Emerson King

feared the Lombard rulers threats and their encroachment on his papal territories4.
Charlemagne ensured the Lombard threat was suppressed by forcing their King
Desiderius and his son Adalgis into exile out of Italy5. He then took over the rest of Italy
and made his son the King.
Of all the wars started by Charlemagne, the war with the Saxons shed the most blood
and was a continuous obstacle to his goal of consolidating a unified empire. The war
lasted for over thirty years (772-804). There were underlying causes that threatened daily
to disturb the peace, such as murder, theft, and arson. Charlemagne was infuriated by
these recurring incidents, and saw no other option but to declare war on the Saxons.
When the Saxons lost battles, they often pledged oaths to the Carolingians and vowed to
convert to Christianity. However, they often went back on their word and continued
fighting6. There were multiple capitularies targeting Saxon pagan culture, punishments
for committing perjury, and penalties for committing a robbery that prove the Saxons
were a massive problem for the Carolingianswar was the only option to suppress them7.
It would be foolish to undermine the smaller wars fought by Charlemagne. Had he
lost a battle by not putting forward the necessary military force, rebellions or invasions
may have sprung up throughout the peripheral states or external nations. He took
seriously the many shorter and decisive wars, such as against the Bretons in 786, whom
surrendered all hostages and promised to follow his orders8. Or against the Bavarians in
787, where a rebellious Duke Tassilo was urged by his wife to take revenge on the
Carolingians for exiling her father, King Desiderius, from Lombardy. She allegedly used
her husbands power to fulfill her own wishes. However, when Charlemagnes army
approached Bavaria, Tassilo quickly surrendered and pledged his loyalty. Or when
Charlemagne declared war on the Slavs immediately after the incident with Duke Tassilo
because the Slavs were attacking the Abrodrites, who were allies of the King. A decisive
battle made sure that the Slavs never thought to disobey his commands9.
With enemies in the north, south, and east, Charlemagne felt the need to always be on
the offensive. An exception was his conflicts with the Northmen. He built a fleet to
protect his empire from the constant raids of the Northmen. Fortifications and guards
were set up at all the ports and at the mouth of every river that touched the North Sea.
Charlemagne took the same precautions along the southern border of the empire where
Moors had recently taken to plundering. As a result of these fortifications, the Italians
never suffered harm from the Moors, nor did Gaul or Germany suffer from the


Blockmans and Hoppenbrouwers, 88.

Einhard, Abbot of Seligenstadt, and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. Page 18. Print.
Einhard and Notker, 21.
Loyn, H. R. The Reign of Charlemagne: Documents on Carolingian Government and Administration (Selected Capitularies). New York: St. Martin's,
1976. Pages 282-283. Print.
Einhard and Notker, 21.
Einhard and Notker, 22.
Einhard and Notker, 27.

Emerson King

Once conquered lands were secured, the maintenance of the vast empire loomed over
Charlemagne as a nearly impossible task. In 778, he realized that the empire could not
continue expanding its borders. Military activity largely became one of policing and
extracting tribute from still independent neighbors11. Apparently, Carolingian officials
did a poor job addressing the basic problems of the West while fighting wars. There was
decay in economic infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and a loss of the
manufacturing and monetary subsidy that the West had enjoyed when it was under
Roman imperial control12.
Difficulties in converting conquered peoples to Christianity were recurring themes for
the Carolingians. This may be rooted in the fact that regardless of whether these people
converted to Christianity immediately or not, tithes were always required 13 . After
Charlemagne defeated the Saxons, they promised to convert to Christianity, as per his
demands. When a Saxon leader, Widukind, attempted to rebel again and failed,
Charlemagne spared his life on the condition that he be baptized (unbaptized saxons were
to eventually be sentenced to death)14. Charlemagne was Widukinds godfather at the
baptism, not out of kindness, but as a public gesture to make clear that Widukind was
entirely at the kings fatherly mercy15. Charlemagnes advisors were adamantly against
violent conversion to Christianity, purporting that Christianity must be born of an inner
conviction16. This standpoint became official Carolingian policy after the Avars, who
were not converted quickly either, were conquered in the 790s. Charlemagne had a
mission, not just to rule the Franks and their neighbors, but also to save their souls17.
With the understanding that the Saxons may have been hostile to Christianity, it makes
sense that there were extensive entries in the capitularies outlining punishments of death
for a myriad of religious crimes. These crimes included stealing from a church, eating
meat on lent, damaging church property, etc.18
Charlemagne regarded nothing as more important than the restoration of the ancient
glory of the city of Rome. Not only did he protect and defend the church of St. Peter, but
with his own money he even embellished and enriched it above all other churches19. As a
result, when residents of Rome inflicted injuries on Pope Leo III in 799, Charlemagne
intervened. He traveled to Rome to restore the state of the church, which was extremely
disjointed, and stayed there for months mending the situation. Charlemagne wasnt
simply an aggressive fighter; he was also an excellent politician. Tumultuous times like
these were resolved in part by Charlemagnes approachable but firm disposition. These


Wickham, 380.
Wickham, 378.
Loyn, H. R., 283.
Loyn, H. R., 282.
Blockmans and Hoppenbrouwers, 58.
Blockmans and Hoppenbrouwers, 59.
Wickham, 384.
Loyn, H. R., 282-283.
Einhard and Notker, 33.

Emerson King

political successes were used as defining factors for Einhard and Notker to glorify
Charlemagne as the ideal ruler20.
One method Charlemagne used that checked the power of his citizens, kept his
conquered peoples loyal, and organized his empire was the creation of elaborate
sociopolitical structures. Through gift-exchange, Charlemagne would reward valiant
warriors or individuals who pledged their loyalty to the Carolingian empire with land or
riches. The booty taken from the Avaric campaign in the early 790s was immense, and
funded lavish gift-giving for years. However, only war could keep in place the system of
gift-exchange. Such a structure could only remain intact through an almost permanent
state of warfare, which was essentially the case until the early 800s21.
Assembly politics and the strategic placement of the most trusted aristocratic families
throughout the empire also helped the Carolingians maintain control 22 . This was
strengthened by aristocratic family intermarriage. Regional kings also sent
representatives, or missi, to the provinces. The missi were the kings eyes and ears23.
Corruption of the aristocratic-run court system gave peasants the illusion that they could
stand up to their lords and the justice system could, at least sometimes, work as it was
supposed to. The peasants almost always lost the cases 24 . The network of public
assemblies remained crucial in the Carolingian period. These national assemblies were
matched in every county by local assemblies, or placita, meeting two or three times a
year under the counts presidency, in which local elites were brought into the same public
network; these heard reports of national deliberation25. Carolingians made considerable
use of vassals, who had particularly close ceremonial ties to the kings that were fortified
by personalized oath-swearing and homage. While the counts, dukes, and missi attempted
to maintain structure in their regions, their devout loyalty to the Empire was contingent
on receiving gifts. What was to happen when the wars stopped and the booty ran out?
Another part of this structure was the system of oaths. For example, every freeman
over the age of twelve had to swear formal oaths to the King and their names would be
recorded by the counts and missi. Oath-breakers were considered as perjurers, and risked
damnation, dispossession, mutilation, and sometimes death. While conquering territory in
757, King Pepin forced the rebellious duke Tassilo of Bavaria to swear to become a
vassal on many holy relics. Charlemagne eventually forced the duke into a monastery for
violating the oath26. The breaking of oaths particularly offended Charlemagne, since
creating an empire where inhabitants swore allegiance to him and were proud to do so
was his dream. One of Charlemagnes main goals was to create a unified empire. His
vision was undoubtedly a nationalist one. Charlemagne was the first leader to attempt


Einhard, 25, 26, 33; Notker, 96.

Blockmans and Hoppenbrouwers, 69-70.
Wickham, 387.
Wickham 388-389.
Wickham, 392.
Wickham, 386.
Blockmans and Hoppenbrouwers, 89.

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to construct a Europe dominated by one people or empire 27 . He desired to unite

Carolingian citizens as a single people, if not through language, through religion,
common law, and allegiance to the King. To this extent his intent to be the father of
Europe he failed. From a territorial point of view, Charlemagnes Europe was very
restricted. It did not include the British Isles, Scandinavia, Southern Italy & Sicily, or
Spain28. He wanted national law, attempted to mint a national currency, and wanted
citizens to be loyal to the empire but never succeeded in creating a lasting nationalistic
Charlemagnes grandsons greed for power was more potent than his passionate
nationalistic desire. Louis the Pious, Charlemagnes son, oversaw a period of little
opposition, beginning in 818 and ending in 840, with temporary turbulence in 830-834.
Louis oldest son, Lothar, set forth a coup in 833, with the support of his brothers, and
overthrew their father. However, due to a falling-out among the brothers (a recurring
theme), Louis was restored in 834 and reigned until his death in 840. The crises of the
early 830s were products of a struggle between court factions and the normal tensions
any ruling Carolingian had with adult sons itching to succeed30. Louis the Pious was
unable to cope with the pressure of his sons, or to resolve the problems of government for
such a vast area. He was forced to revert to the practice of dividing the empire between
his sons31. Once Louis the Pious died in 840, his sons again began fighting over the
leading role of the empire. Civil war erupted in 841; the empire was carefully divided
into three regions, one brother took West Francia, another took East Francia, and another
took the lands around Aachen, Burgundy, Provence, and Italy, in the Treaty of Verdun in
To conclude, it may be possible to argue that early Carolingian leadership was too
ambitious, even nave, in terms of what type of empire was actually possible to maintain.
Perpetual warfare with the purpose of funding the loyal citizens, expanding territories,
and saving non-Christians produced a discombobulated sociopolitical structure that did
not look forward toward a realistic, long-term horizon. That is not to say that governing
such a large landmass for a more extended period of time was impossible; it is to say that
governing such an empire was impossible without total political unity. The Frankish
model of land distribution to each of the Emperors sons primed the demise through
familial coups and divisions. Thus, feuds between sons over claims to inherited lands
were major factors in the fall of the Carolingian empire. The empire became so
fragmented that a sense of empire-wide identity was attached only to the Carolingian


Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Europe: 400-1500. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. Page 29. Print.
Le Goff, 32.
Le Goff, 33.
Wickham, 394-395.
Le Goff, 39.
Wickham, 396

Emerson King

family itself33. Louis the Pious sons felt entitled to land and power, and were willing to
obtain them at the expense of the unity of the empire.


Wickham, 404.