Charlemagne: The Omens of Death

(Publisher’s Note: Originally published in April of 2014)

At the age of 87, English actor Christopher Lee portrayed one of Europe’s greatest kings in a most unusual fashion. 2010 saw the release of Lee’s first full music album, a concept piece titled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. Against a symphonic metal backdrop, Lee voices Charlemagne’s ghost narrating several musical acts of his life — bearing such titles as “King of the Franks”, “The Iron Crown of Lombardy”, “The Bloody Verdict of Verden” and “The Age of Oneness Out of Diversity”. The album proved successful enough to spawn a heavy metal follow-up in 2013 that was titled Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, featuring evocative tracks like “Massacre of the Saxons”, “Let Legend Mark Me as the King” and “The Devil’s Advocate”. The albums mark two of the few recent dramatic portrayals of Charles the Great, but not the most famous musical one. The Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin debuted on Broadway in 1972, and was revived there in 2013. It focuses on Charlemagne’s son, and also features the emperor as a character. In Europe, there have been two recent miniseries about his reign: 2013′s Karl der Grosse with Alexander Wüst as Charles, and 1993′s Charlemagne with Christian Brendel in the title role. Among the reasons for a lack of material about Charles is the challenge of portraying his long and complicated reign, which occured during one of Europe’s most-turbulent periods. Yet over 90 minutes of three episodes within his 52-part series The Western Tradition, UCLA professor Eugen Weber strives to give a well-rounded portrayal of the impact Charlemagne had upon the European age he reigned over.

By 500, the Western Roman Empire was gone. The Eastern Empire remained, and its Byzantines carried on their Roman legacy until the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. Yet in what were once Roman borderlands (in today’s France and Germany), the old law, administration and social order was no more. So began an era with a very bad reputation, which Weber sums up in his intro to Episode 17 of The Western Tradition:

“It was a time of anarchy, of murder, arson, pillage, rape. A time when the world seemed to fall apart. Even the church depended on the barbarian tribes who ruled the West. As the barbarians were Christianized, the church became more barbarous. The Dark Ages, this time on The Western Tradition.”

Out of this age, spanning the 6th-9th Centuries, one ruler’s name emerges above the rest: Charlemagne. It’s a name that still retains its French grandeur, even in English-speaking lands, and with good reason. Charles the Great’s Carolingian Empire was Europe’s greatest realm since the glory days of the old Roman Empire — a status that was reinforced and celebrated on Christmas Day of 800, when Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III as Emperor of the Romans. His domain stretched over modern France, Germany, Austria, Italy and beyond, thanks to cavalry-powered Frankish armies. But how much do Americans know of how Charles went about acquiring the title of “the Great”, and turning his smaller Frankish inheritance into an empire?

When Rome fell, the Franks and the Burgundians ruled over what had been the province of Gaul. But the church in Rome still held spiritual sway over the people of the land. And though it saw the Franks as barbarians, and converted them to Christianity, the desired civilizing effect of Catholicism didn’t eliminate the barbarity. One of the foremost chroniclers of the early Dark Ages was the bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours, whose 6th Century perspective on the Franks is described by Weber thusly:

“Frankish history, or at least what we know of it from Gregory, is one long tale of arson and rape; murder and perjury; sons strangling their mothers; mothers throwing their sons down a well; people getting kicked or burned to death at a friendly banquet; wives encouraging their lovers to murder their husbands — and then in due course murdering their daughters, because they were afraid that they might tempt the lover away; incest rife, and sometimes leading to murder; servants and allies betraying or poisoning their masters and their friends.”

The Gaul that they inhabited had regressed back to a primitive pre-Roman subsistence-level economy, which Weber describes as “agro-military.” Under that approach, he notes that “the economic impetus provided by new inventions like the yoke, the heavy plow, and the crank resulted in better-armed tribes better able to build new states.” Great land-owning lords became powers unto themselves, but without the infrastructure to go about collecting taxes. Instead, revenue was generated by gangs of armed men who were rewarded with the spoils of robbing and pillaging. Kings called upon lords to supply men to plunder rivals of their wealth, providing luxuries for the king, and money to arm the men doing the plundering. The cycle continued, with Frankish armies going further and further afield.

The resulting Carolingian Empire of the Franks developed around the same time as the Anglo-Saxons were dominating England, and the Lombards were doing the same in Italy. And though the Franks far surpassed them both with the size of their land holdings, Weber points out that Charlemagne’s empire was no more than “a clan of village chieftanship writ large with universal pretensions.” At the core of it was loyalty to the king, in exchange for the protection and lands he could provide to the lords who gave him soldiers. And equipping those soldiers was expensive, with Weber noting that “a helmet was expensive as three oxen, and a horse was worth 18-20 cows.” On top of that was the training required to become an efficient fighter — with knights starting the process in their early teens to maximize their potential. But the final result was a powerful fighting unit that dominated European battlefields for their Carolingian masters:

“The heavy cavalryman had come to be recognized as king of the battlefield. The stirrup enabled him to charge infantry, and bowl them over, or to rise in the saddle and hack away with a sword. The heavy armor protected him from infantry weapons. The horse enabled him to wear the armor and fight in it, without being excessively tired. And the horseshoe allowed the horse to cover a lot of ground with this heavy man on its back, even over rough terrain.”

Heavy cavalry became a prominent part of Charlamagne’s army, having increased its presence there after he inherited his half of the Frankish kingdom (the other going to younger brother Carloman I) from his father, Pepin the Short. Weber asserts that the heavy cavalry’s expensive equipment and training embodied the wealth and prestige of the growing Carolingian Empire “at a time when trade had decayed, currency was scarce or nonexistent, and the supply of food itself was chancy.” Moreover, heavy cavalry had long ago demonstrated its worth by helping Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel defeat an Arab army of the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours. His Carolingian heirs would then spend the next century in an almost constant state of war.

In addition to military acumen, Charlamagne was also an able administrator, and provided his empire an infrastructure of clerks and royal officials to manage things. Though there was little production surplus in his realm, Weber tells us that Charles the Great’s “administrative reforms [were] aimed at getting the land, and especially the imperial estates, to provide more of a surplus — or at least setting up a structure that would permit him to cream off more of a surplus.”  Again, this would go to the large armies that were the real economic engine of the empire. Under Charlemagne, as many as 20,000 horsemen and 60,000 foot soldiers might be engaged in a campaign, requiring vast food supplies to keep it fed. But such was the cost of trying to revive the glory of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s crowning as emperor in 800 was part of a grand strategy to emulate ancient Rome, helping to keep social order and stability. But that was predicated on Charles’ strong leadership, which Weber tells us did not survive long after his death in 814, do to the traditional Germanic approach to inheritance:

“Charlemagne wanted to be a Roman Emperor in fact, as well as name. But he died in 814 like a Frankish chief, dividing his lands among several legitimate sons. It could have been worse, since he had hundreds of bastards. Charlemagne’s successors were incompetent and divided.”

Those successors would have to deal with incursions into their lands by Vikings from the north, Hungarians from the east, and Arabs from the south. Infighting among Charlemagne’s successors encouraged the Viking attacks in particular, since a once-unified Carolingian diplomacy, coupled with active Christian missionaries and outright bribes, had previously kept them at bay. In 845, Hamburg was destroyed by Danish king Horik I, while other Vikings rowed up the River Seine and sacked Paris. Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald was then forced to pay off the invaders to get them to leave. Later though, a Viking settlement would arise in the lower Seine Valley as a kind of buffer state to ensure against future attacks. This was the Duchy of Normandy, and in 1066 its Duke William would lead a conquest of England. But the devastation their ancestors laid upon the rest of Europe came to a climax in the late 9th century, and Weber quotes a chronicler of 884:

“The Northmen cease not to slay and carry into captivity the Christian people, to destroy the churches and to burn the towns. Everywhere there is nothing but dead bodies: clergy and laymen, nobles and common people, women and children. There is no road. There is no place where the ground is not covered with corpses. We live in distress and anguish before this spectacle of the destruction of the Christian people.”

With Carolingian power on the wane, it was not an emperor who would beat back such destruction. Rather it was the leaders of smaller states, who both kept local order and organized the defense of their piece of Western Europe, as Weber describes in his closing remarks on the age of Charlemagne:

“The Count of Paris; or Rollo and his descendents in Normandy; or Henry the Duke of Saxony and his son Otto, who finally beat the Hungarians to a pulp. These new princes derived their authority from their military leadership, and from their power to protect their country. And indeed, a series of victories by the mid-900s would mark the turn of the tide. Much suffering was still in store for the West, but the worst of the horrors had passed, and the survival of Christendom was secured, as we shall see next time…”