Charlemagne wanted to create a righteous empire and changed Christianity forever.
Karen Girod: “Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David; and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images. They broke down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and the incense altars which were above them he cut down; and the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images he broke in pieces, and made dust of them and scattered it on the graves of those who had sacrificed to them. He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. And so he did in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as Naphtali and all around, with axes. When he had broken down the altars and the wooden images, had beaten the carved images into powder, and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem.
Then the king sent and gathered all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the Lord, with all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem—the priests and the Levites, and all the people, great and small. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant which had been found in the house of the Lord. Then the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. And he made all who were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin take a stand. So the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. Thus Josiah removed all the abominations from all the country that belonged to the children of Israel, and made all who were present in Israel diligently serve the Lord their God. All his days they did not depart from following the Lord God of their fathers.”
-2 Chronicles 34 1-7, 29-33, New King James Version
Shoutout to Momma French History Podcast for taking us to church.
King Charles of Francia, Emperor of the Romans, was a remarkable man. He was semi-literate but he voraciously loved books, which he often had read to him. His favorite works were classical Roman military texts which he studied to coordinate his armies, and the Bible which he used to manage his kingdom. Of all Biblical figures, Charles chose to model himself after King Josiah, who tore down the idols to false gods, rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and returned the Kingdom of Judah to righteousness. In 789 Charles issued the capitulary Admonitio generalis, in which he claimed he was a new Josiah, come fourteen centuries later to save the souls of the Franks.
So often in history’s it’s hard to tell if a leader was truly religious or if they were just using religion as a means to consolidate power. One cannot help but question Constantine and Clovis’ piety given that they took on the Christian religion when it was most convenient for them. There’s little question that Charles believed what he said. He patronized the church more than any of his predecessors. He ordered the creation of scriptoriums to reproduce the Bible, and patronized literacy to disseminate the Good Book. He forcibly converted pagans. He hosted three synods, religious councils that brought bishops from across his vast realms to debate church issues. He regularly requested monastic orders and relics from Italy so that his people could practice the true religion.
Charles’ devotion was even more pronounced later on in his reign. It’s not hard to see divine providence in recounting his life: Charles’ brother conveniently died at just the right time for him to disown his weak relatives and gain control of all of Francia. Astounding military victories meant he created the largest empire in Europe since Rome. He conquered Islamic land and sank their naval raiders. He destroyed pagan idols, burned sacred groves and elder trees, baptized pagans and sent missionaries to preach Christianity to them. By book and sword, Charles’ army of preachers and his army of…army, converted more souls to Christianity than maybe anyone before him. The Frank was first coronated by the Pope as king, then in 800 as Emperor, taking over from the wicked Byzantine Empress Irene.
Charles also hosted numerous theologians at his palace at Aachen who debated numerous Biblical points, among them eschatology, the study of the final days of the world and the Last Judgement. Alcuin of York suggested that Charles’ coronation as Emperor of the Romans on Christmas 800 was exactly 6,000 years after the creation of the universe and marked the beginning of the Sixth Age, wherein a godly kingdom would rule on Earth for 1,000 years before Armageddon, Satan’s ultimate defeat and the end of the world. It’s hard not to think you have some special place in God’s plan when your ministers keep telling you that your reign is the beginning of all good things and the end of all malevolence forever. I mean, I get a big head when someone writes a nice review for the show.
Charles’ belief that he occupied an important and unique role in God’s plan had important affects on the development of Christianity. Priests became obsessed with “true religion,” or more accurately, they were obsessed with everything that wasn’t true religion. Sin, transgressions against God, became of paramount importance. People were increasingly expected to do penance to right their sins. Failure to do penance brought God’s wrath on a community, and if one died before being forgiven they were damned to hell for all eternity.
Since most people were illiterate the church wasn’t overly-concerned with people’s beliefs but their actions. Beliefs were ill-defined at the time and the Franks regularly lumped superstition, paganism, heretical doctrines and magic together. Priests combatted this nebulous conglomeration of bad beliefs by instructing people to follow godly habits. People were expected to attend mass, maintain the sacraments, pray and act in a godly manner in their communities. Traditional Frankish burials with worldly items declined in favor of simple Christian burials in coffins at church grounds. Priests discouraged concubinage and outlawed sexual and marital relations between spiritual family members, such as between a godson and his godfather’s daughter. Weddings became public events and were insoluble.
But not everyone was devout or even moral and there’s evidence that some Franks bribed priests so that they wouldn’t have to perform penance. Much later when church figures learned they could make enormous amounts of money selling forgiveness this led to what are known as indulgences. These indulgences won’t be a major issue for another 700 years when the controversy birthed the Protestant Reformation and literally split the Catholic world in half, but it’s worth noting that its early, informal precedent was already practiced in Charles’ kingdom.
Priests, monks and nuns were supposed to be celibate, non-violent, economically independent of secular lords, literate, possess the necessary texts, and be socially distinct from those they served. By 800 most holy people could practice all of these traits. Extensive patronage meant that they were freed from secular economic domination. Charles’ mass sponsorship of literature and learning meant holy people were at least partially-educated. Professional Frankish armies patrolling well-kept roads maintained peace so priests didn’t have to pick up a mace and bash raiders’ heads in like in the 5th century.
In medieval Europe land was power, and holy people had a lot of it due to their large land grants. Churches and monasteries rented land to peasants. They raised and equipped soldiers. Monasteries also doubled as storehouses for weapons and were involved in selling government-issued arms. Abbots also acted as mediators between powerful elites. Moreover, there wasn’t a clear division between the religious and secular spheres and holy men could administer law and engage in politics. Charles required monasteries and churches to set up schools to teach psalms, musical notation, singing, computation and grammar, those skills he believed were required to save souls. Education meant people from humble backgrounds could rise up, as was the case with Ebo who was born a serf then later became the archbishop of Reims.
The domination of the Franks also impacted Rome and Italy. The Italians couldn’t compete with the Franks’ secular dominance, but they had remarkable religious authority. As the Italian states became tertiary political powers, the Vatican and other Italian religious institutions spread their spiritual power. Charles played right into this and regularly asked for authoritative religious texts to take back to Francia so his people could be taught the best form of Christianity. The Vatican was more than happy to produce or fabricate all the texts the Franks asked for. For example, Charles once asked for a sacramentary by Pope Gregory the Great but none existed, so Pope Hadrian sent a mass book called the Hadrianum containing a text with Gregorian associations. The text was outdated and no longer used in Rome but Charles gladly took it. Charles also asked for the set of monastic regulations known as The Rule of Saint Benedict. If he had listened to this podcast he would know that there was no uniform rule, and that Benedictines developed many different rules, albeit with similar characteristics. But Charles wanted to create a godly kingdom and he and his people gladly bought up every text and relic that Italians sold to them.
Charles didn’t limit his Christianizing role to his own realm. By holding synods he helped formulate church doctrine across the Christian world. He held three synods, two more than his father, and his were attended by bishops from Francia, Italy and even the British Isles. His first gathering was the 794 Council of Frankfurt which condemned Adoptionism in Spain, a heretical belief that Jesus was the adopted son of God. The council also condemned Byzantine beliefs regarding iconography. At the time the Byzantines were undergoing a major rift in religious doctrine. Since the Eastern Roman Empire was wealthy and had had a large Christian population far longer than anywhere else they had accumulated large amounts of mosaics, paintings, statues and other images depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other Christian figures. Some within Byzantium watched people pray towards objects and worried that simple people weren’t praying to or worshipping God but that these icons had become their objects of belief. These concerned zealots began the Iconoclasm movement, which aimed to destroy all religious icons, which they condemned as false idols. The Byzantine Second Council of Nicaea allowed icons with the understanding that people were using them to pray to God and the saints. In response, the Council of Frankfurt (794) condemned iconodualism for equating worship through icons as worship of God. If you’re like me you’re probably tuning out because minute theological differences don’t really titillate you. Let me sum this up for you: King Charles wanted to have a say in Christian theology but the Byzantines held a major council without inviting him and he got pissed. He was already mad at their iconoclasm phase and their political presence in Italy, so this snub only made matters worse. Since Charles didn’t get invited to their council he held his own and he made his bishops come up with a complex theological reason to condemn the Byzantines even though they mostly shared the same beliefs as the Franks, who actually approved of their eastern neighbors easing up on the iconoclasm. Charles wasn’t above altering Christian doctrine in order to get some petty revenge.
After an uneventful second council, in 809 Charles held a third council at Aachen. This synod affirmed many previous decisions while adding the filioque to the Nicene Creed. As you probably know, Christianity is a monotheistic religion wherein God is a single entity but that entity exists in three connected forms known as The Trinity. The Trinity is composed of the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is always in heaven ordering the universe, The Son came to Earth as Jesus Christ to save people from sin, while the Holy Spirit is a subtle but active agent working on Earth, enacting the divine will, giving spiritual power to the faithful and otherwise operating in the background. The Nicene Creed held that the Holy Spirit emanates from the Father alone. The Council of Aachen decreed that the Holy Spirit also emanates from the Son. The Franks supported the idea that Jesus could call forth the Holy Spirit just as The Father does as an attack on doctrines like Adoptionism and Arianism, which downplayed Jesus’ importance. Meanwhile the Byzantines raised holy hell when they heard about this and lambasted the Council of Aachen. They argued that the Holy Spirit cannot emanate from two sources as the Spirit is made of one substance. To imply that The Holy Spirit is divisible is a lot like Monophysitism, that formerly popular Eastern heresy that held that Jesus was both human and divine, which meant he wasn’t wholly God.
Now if you’re rolling your eyes again let me tell you that this debate is incredibly important and not because of anything relating to theology. Charles and the Eastern Emperor probably didn’t give two seax about whether Jesus could direct the Holy Spirit or not; what mattered was that the Byzantines held religious councils that decided Christian doctrine and didn’t invite the Franks, so the Franks held their own councils and didn’t invite the Byzantines and they attacked each other. This whole back and forth is petty and childish but history turns upon just such things.
What we need to understand about Christianity is that to most Europeans it was an Eastern religion. It originated in an ancient, troubled, desert-area where it spread to the Greeks as a mystery cult. By the 4th century most Eastern Romans were Christian while most Western Romans weren’t. When Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion in 380 up until the 7th century the Eastern Roman Empire dominated Christianity; it had more Christians than any other country, it controlled the Holy Land and its long history meant it had more authority than the recently-converted west. Then Islam arose and Byzantium lost the Holy Land. Arab attacks combined with internal chaos meant the Byzantines lost their hold on much of Italy, including Rome, the seat of the Papacy, the highest authority in Christianity. The Pope in Rome was the heir of Saint Peter and was theoretically the head of the church but Italy’s decline meant that Popes had to depend on the Byzantines for secular protection. Then in the 8th century King Charles emerged as the protector of the Pope, meaning Christ’s vicar on Earth depended on the Western Frankish King. Charles used his power to assert control over Christian doctrine. Under Charles the Popes were increasingly pressured to oppose the Byzantines.
A remarkable transformation was taking place. Charles was propping up the Pope as a counterweight in his struggle for dominance against the Byzantines. For the first time the Byzantines had a rival for control of Christendom. Additionally, Charles was taking a traditionally Eastern religion and asserting the Western tradition’s dominance over it, while lambasting the East as falling into corruption and heresy. The two powers held councils and went back and forth condemning each other as a means of asserting their authority over Christian doctrine. But the Franks and Byzantines mostly believed the same thing, so if the doctrinal points I mentioned seem small and unimportant it’s because these two schools of Christianity were pretty much one and the same. But these differences kept adding up. These micro-condemnations between Francia and Byzantium are going to cause Western and Eastern Christianity to drift apart until in 1054 the Western and Eastern churches split with the West calling itself the Catholic Church and the East calling itself the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the irreconcilable differences the Eastern Orthodox cited during the East-West Schism was the inclusion of the filioque by King Charles’ 809 Council of Aachen.
Charles’ secular power was enough to challenge the Byzantines and allowed Western theologians to compete for supremacy of this Eastern religion. Furthermore, Charles encouraged fighting between the two religious camps as a means of hurting his political enemies. Now, don’t misquote me and say that, “Gary said Charlemagne is the reason Christianity split in half.” I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that Charles did the same thing to Western Christianity that he did to Western medieval government, culture, society, education, and the military. He imposed prerogatives for all of these and his successors copied his actions either because they agreed with him or because they weren’t strong enough or smart enough to buck these trends. King Charles’ reforms didn’t have to be the foundation for so much of European society. But when Charles’ successors looked at his awesome accomplishments they emulated his actions. Emulation became habit, which became tradition, which became civilization.
Catholicism as we know it owes an enormous amount to Charles, for good and ill. He empowered Western bishops to challenge their Eastern contemporaries like never before. Today, the Catholic Church has 1.3 billion members, while there are only 200 million Eastern Orthodox followers. And if you ask people what is the Western religion, they’ll almost certainly say, “Christianity.” Again, I am not saying Charles picked up the faith from Jerusalem and planted it at Aachen. But he encouraged Western theologians to fight for an equal or even superior authority against the East. As the Byzantine Empire fell, the Western church followed Charles’ example and claimed power over this religion.
The Bible, New King James Version
Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.
New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia