Christian History Home > 2006 > Issue 89 > Turning Point
The Crowning of Charlemagne
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Few moments in world history proved to be of greater significance than what transpired in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800.
All eyes in the basilica that day were fixed on an unusually tall, very energetic, and powerfully built man of 58, a Frankish king named Charles, as he knelt devoutly before the tomb of the Apostle Peter. Just as he was beginning to rise after his prayer, Charles was approached by the Bishop of Rome, Pope Leo III, who set a crown on his head and dramatically announced, "Charles Augustus, crowned great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory!"
"Great" he was indeed, and that Latin adjective, magnus, was eventually assumed into the name by which he has been best known, Charlemagne. For the first time in more than three centuries, and with the blessing of the Church, Rome once again had a Western emperor.
The diadem set on the head of Charles that day crowned likewise the many and colossal achievements of his career. Since becoming King of the Franks in 768, Charles had unified and reorganized most of Western Europe, using his sword to accomplish the first task and his considerable executive skills to bring about the second. Ironically, his sole significant military defeat, when he pushed south into the Pyrenees to attack the Moors in northern Spain, attained legendary status in The Song of Roland. His other enemies—Saxons, Avars, Bavarians, Lombards, and the rest—did not fare so well, and by the time he received his imperial crown, Charles controlled everything from the English Channel to the borders of Byzantium. With respect to his governing, Charles enjoyed almost no structural support and virtually no centralized taxation. He relied almost entirely on alliances constructed by the force of colossal personality and the influence of his many strong friendships.
Three aspects of Charlemagne's influence live on.
First, he was the father of Europe. Although the political unity Charlemagne imposed on the greater part of that continent did not outlive him, the cultural unity of Europe did.
At his royal court, he gathered the cream of available intellect, centered around the scholar Alcuin, whom he brought from York in England. Monks and other copyists were set to transcribing ancient manuscripts, both classical and Christian, for the preservation and extension of learning.
Numerous libraries were collected, and schools were established at monasteries and cathedrals, the forerunners of the great universities. Myriad hymns and poems were composed, along with commentaries on Holy Scripture, treatises on music, theological works, and numerous chronicles of history. Advances were made in architecture (at Aachen and Ingelheim, for instance), technology (such as the iron horseshoe and the padded harness for plowing with horses), and agriculture (for example, the system of triple crop rotation). Under the leadership of this wise and powerful monarch there arose a cultural enrichment still known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
His maintenance and encouragement of a distinctly Christian culture in Europe encouraged Charlemagne to keep out the influence of Islam, which he regarded as the major enemy and obstacle to his enterprise. He would have scoffed at any notion of a compatibility of Islam with a Christian Europe. After all, it was Charlemagne's own grandfather, Charles Martel, who had stopped the Muslim advance in Gaul at the Battle of Poitiers/Tours in 732, and there were still considerable Muslim forces in Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy. In his opposition to the fortunes of Islam in Europe, however, Charlemagne's policy was sufficiently flexible to permit diplomatic relations with the caliph in Baghdad, who was likewise inimical to the Muslim Moors in Spain.
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