Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (3/3)

In the previous post in the series about the historical myth of Charlemagne, we discussed whether Charlemagne had successfully united his realm and whether this realm corresponded to the modern day Europe. Now, it is the time to take a look whether Charlemagne managed to achieve economic unification of his realm and whether such unification lasted for a significant amount of time.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a ruler try to unite their realm by using economy? How would they do it? Can you think of any examples from the course you’re studying right now?

To understand Charlemagne’s significance as a unifier, one also has to grasp the extent of the economic fragmentation of Western European territories prior to his reign. The Western European economy, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, “moved exclusively to the rhythms of the ancient world”[1] being aided by trans-Mediterranean trade and the three cultures—Persian, Semitic and Graeco-Roman[2]. However, the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE of the eastern and southern Mediterranean prevented the various trading sea routes from being used. Cut-off from their main trade routes, the newly formed tribes of Northern Gaul and Germany had to adapt in order to survive. Due to the lack of acceptance of new types of gold currency local rulers were forced to turn to another valuable unit to reward their supporters with—fertile land.[3] As a result, European feudalism, a political system based on land distribution, was developed circa sixth century CE.

Here is a video that gives a short explanation of the tactics that were used during the Arab conquests in the during the early 7th century.
Here is a video that explains the basics of European feudalism.

All of these factors caused early feudal societies, such as the one during Charlemagne’s reign, to have subjects that were “scattered rather evenly throughout the realm on smallish, individual farms”[4]. Large estates belonged either to a select number of families, or monasteries. The crop yield from these lands was low due to the undeveloped farming methods, which resulted in little surplus and limited trade opportunities. As a result, contemporary Medieval economy was primarily dependent on the positive relationship between the ruler and the local military elite — after all realms of various tribes required protection from expansionist neighbours who often gained resources via aggressive methods.

In this harsh economy Charlemagne attempted to unify his Empire. The main way in which Charlemagne attempted to do so was minting his celebrated portrait coin circa 812.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two images of two coins. The one with a person’s face on it, was created during Charlemagne’s reign. The one that has a symbol that looks like the capital letter ‘R’ was created in the reign of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short. What differences can you notice if you were to compare these two coins? Why do you think Charlemagne changed the appearance of the coin? Does Charlemagne remind you of someone else on the coin?
SOURCE TIME (cont.): Another two coins for you to compare, since this post is all about the ‘money moves’. Again, here is a coin that was created under Charlemagne. The coin on the left, was created under ancient Roman king, Constantine, who was famous for his administrative and financial reforms that strengthened the Roman empire. What is Charlemagne trying to do with his portrait on his coin? What does it tell a historian about the ways the Mediaeval rulers saw ancient Rome?

Despite the regional differences between individual mints of coins (i.e. individual versions of the coins) their purpose is evident—to demonstrate the extent of Charlemagne’s power after his coronation as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE. The implication of imperial propaganda in this case is exceptionally clear. The latter form of a portrait coin conveyed imperial power and the consequent imperial status, by evoking the Roman emperors by depicting Charlemagne in the classical dress on the obverse and a Christianised temple on the reverse. This depiction would have signalled Frankish supremacy to Charlemagne’s contemporaries within as well as outside his empire. This style of coinage was very different to those minted before as they usually used the name of the person who minted the coin and the location where the coin was minted. Such stark contrast between two types of coins had contributed to the creation of early Medieval European unification as subjects within Charlemagne’s empire saw themselves as living under the rule of one of the greatest monarchs of the day. The same message was sent off to other rulers that surrounded Charlemagne’s realm.

Think like a Historian:

Are coins a useful type of source to use when trying to find more things about a certain historical period?

This standardisation of coinage, however, would have produced limited achievements, had Charlemagne not had any idea of what to expect from his own tax- payers. The fact that meticulously organised documents, such as the polyptych of Saint Germain des Prés, which was, in this case, a detailed survey of monastic property as well as its inhabitants demonstrated a degree of desired economic unification. The question-answer format of the polyptych served its purpose as this method allowed to categorise the sort of buildings on the land, thus allowing to categorise their inhabitants and finally to calculate the total sum per each manor. For example, in the case of Saint Remi and Lorsch the lands contained “25 manors, 1690 holdings, and about 9400 names”.[5]Long-term unification in this case could be seen, as not only the overall survey of the land was conducted, but also this information could have been used for future purposes, such as management of each estate for the empire to flourish. This was equivalent to the English Domesday Book as the government clearly required a reliable survey of its lands in order to assess the situation clearly in order to rule the conquered land effectively.

Here is a short informative video about Mediaeval manuscripts.
Another short video in case anyone is interested in the ‘weird’ side of Mediaeval manuscripts. (Also, useful for some NicheTM knowledge for when you’re using Mediaeval marginalia for memes cc: Rimma)

However, it is more justifiable to argue that Charlemagne merely laid foundations to what later would become national European economic identity in accordance with the states. After the death of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious in 840, Louis’ sons fought for the larger half of the empire. Consequently, after the end of the conflict, the trade ceased to be profitable as whilst making the journey across the former empire a merchant had to cross up to eleven borders and to pay an import duty he crossed each border to the local ruler. This was an expensive and inefficient way to trade as by the time the merchant reached the desired market the reclaimed cost for the goods was so high that no purchaser would want to acquire the goods. Consequently, both the purchasers and sellers returned to producing and consuming products on the site.  As a result, the trade system collapsed and each economic system enclosed within itself to cultivate individual identities that would come out as a result in the space of two hundred years.

This leads to the conclusion that, had Charlemagne been the true “father of Europe” his economic policies would have had a more lasting unificatory impact than mere thirty years. The terminology used in the accolade implies that Charlemagne had united Europe during his lifetime to such an extent that his empire would become economically important to the whole of Europe even after his death. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the economic system of Charlemagne’s empire did not withstand the challenge of the civil war Charlemagne’s claim to the ‘fatherhood’ of Europe is indeed limited.

Think like a Historian:

Why are historical myths created?

Although Charlemagne’s accolade had been discussed as if having a fixed meaning, it must be ultimately said that just as any set of words, the meaning of the “father of Europe” changed with time. It could be argued that Charlemagne was no “father of Europe” simply because the term became a mere political myth and that it did not hold any political implications and therefore it be discussed in terms of political unity. It was a useful formula employed by contemporary authors which was then forgotten and rediscovered in twentieth century by politicians and historians after the Second World War in order to “contribute to the creation of a more peaceful European state”. Although “Europe” for Charlemagne and his contemporaries may have been part of their claims to political authority, this notion of Charlemagne ruling the “realms of Europe” had acquired a nostalgic tone by the start of his son’s reign. Consequently, Charlemagne’s “fatherhood” of Europe cannot be true simply due to the fluidity of the term, which had been applied by later generations of chroniclers. It must ultimately be concluded that Charlemagne’s title of “father of Europe” was a political myth promulgated by those in power at their discretion at various points in time. Charlemagne did not do any more than his father and the implication that his legacy resonated through the tides of history is simply not credible to discuss, considering about 900 years of political, linguistic and religious disunity. Having considered the evidence, Charlemagne was more of an outlier in the European history of disunity, with various powerful figures, like Napoleon, attempting to become the next Charlemagne. As a result, Charlemagne’s existence was useful means for these people to push their agendas, which was in turn reinforced by their obsession with cultural and political continuity, hence allowing for the myth to be developed into what it is today. 

[1] Peter Brown , ‘“Mohammed and Charlemagne” by Henri Pirenne’, Daedalus 1 (1974), pp. 25-33, pp. 26-27

[2]  Robert. S. Lopez, ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne: A Revision’, Speculum 1 (1943), pp. 14-38, pp. 15-18

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Mayke  De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 15

[5] Devroey Jean-Pierre, Ordering, measuring, and counting: Carolingian rule, cultural capital and the economic performance in Western Europe (750-900)

To explore this topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • Another good book to start with is Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne. It would be useful for those who would like to learn about Charlemagne’s reign overall, without any ‘fathers of Europe’ and historical myth-making.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a smaller topic to explore.

cc: Rimma

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