Reading Guide :
The Carolingian Empire: renovation and innovation
This week we will begin a two-week look at Carolingian and post-Carolingian Europe. The epoch takes its name from one of Charlemagne's ancestors, Charles Martel (714-741), but is more commonly associated with Charles the Great (Karolus Magnus, or Charlemagne). Between ca. 750-850 C.E., political power and territorial unity in Europe achieved their highest point of consolidation following the Roman Empire, before ultimately splintering once again into a decentralized political landscape. Some historical background: since the late seventh century, while the Merovingian dynasty was still in place, political power in Francia had been steadily accumulating in the hands of officeholders known as the mayors of the palace, the right-hand men of the Merovingian kings. In 751, Pepin (or Pippin) the Short seized royal power from the last of the Merovingians, replacing one royal dynasty with an established, but non-royal, newcomer. Pepin, who ruled Francia as king for 17 years, had two sons: Charlemagne and Carloman. Their relationship was not close. Under pressure, Carloman eventually ceded his half of the kingdom to his brother and retired to an Italian monastery, and Charlemagne achieved sole power of his father's territories. Our documents for this week begin with Pepin's anointing as king in 751, by Archbishop Boniface, and again in 754, this time with his sons Charles and Caroloman, by Pope Stephen.
As you read, keep careful track of the arguments between the popes and Carolingian kings. What is the nature of the relationship between the Carolingian rulers and the pope, and what sort of the relationship does the Donation of Constantine attempt to establish between them? What kind of document the Donation pretend to be? What was the extent and nature of Charlemagne's power, that is, to what spheres of life did it extend? What issues or aspects of daily life does he regulate in his capitularies (legal pronouncements)?
- Einhard, Life of Charlemagne. Notes: Einhard (born ca. 770) wrote this text in 826, twelve year's after Charlemange's death. It is easily his most famous work, although he wrote many others. Einhard was an important courtier during Charlemagne's reign, arriving at Charlemagne's court in the early 790s on the recommendation of the abbot of Fulda. He was learned, a poet, rather than (it seems) a military man. One of his nicknames at court was Nard or Nardulus ("Little Nard"), nard being a fragrant oil. Another name given him--the preeminent intellectuals and teachers at Charlemange's court were all given classical nicknames--was Bezaleel, who was a craftsman in the employ of Moses (Dutton, Charlemagne's Courtier, xiii). He traveled on behalf of Charlemagne to Rome, and was well endowed by the emperor with lands and churches, many located in the modern Low Countries (Belgium and Holland), for his service. As you read, keep in mind that Einhard is omitting or glossing over a great deal of information, especially concerning the origins of the new dynasty and the removal of the old one.
(1) What qualities make Charles an ideal king in Einhard's portrayal? To what subjects does Einhard devote his narrative? How does it begin? How does it end?
(2) How do you account for Einhard's rather lengthy digression in c. 33? What other concerns preoccupy Einhard as he writes?
(3) What does Einhard think of the Carolingians' predecessors, the Merovingians? Why do you think he presents such a negative portrayal of the last Merovingian ruler? How is the last Merovingian removed, exactly? How does Einhard describe Pepin's relationship with his brother, Carloman? Is it believable? Why or why not?
- Donation of Constantine (750s? perhaps as late as 800 C.E.). Notes: This document, the most famous forgery in medieval history, pretends to be an imperial decree issued by the Emperor Constantine in the year 317 to Pope Sylvester. Of course, it is not an imperial decree, but more than likely the product of a Roman cleric writing on behalf of the pope and in the interests of the papal territories in the last half of the eighth century. It was not, apparently, considered a fraud by contemporaries, and was only unmasked as a fake by the Humanist Lorenzo Valla in the fifteenth century. It was widely copied in medieval manuscripts.
(1) What powers and rights does the Donation reserve for the pope?
(2) How should we understand this document and the intentions of its author(s)?
(3) What does the document claim were the circumstances of its composition by Constantine (chaps. 6-11)? What is significant about these details?
- Dhuoda, Handbook for William (composed 841-843). Notes: Dhuoda began her handbook for her oldest son, William, in 841 -- a momentous year in Frankish history. Following the death of Louis the Pious in 840, his three surviving sons, Lothar, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald, struggled with one another for control of their father's vast empire. Civil war lasted for two years, from 841-843. Dhuoda was married in the 820s to Bernard of Septimania in a ceremony at Aachen, the royal palace. She, like her husband, were of high aristocratic descent. William was born in 826, and her second son in 841--he was, then, an infant when the Dhuoda composed her Handbook. While her husband Bernard moved in the highest political circles of Louis's court, Dhuoda remained in southern France, maintaining her family's estates and defending the kingdom's borders. After Louis's death, Charles the Bald considered Bernard's loyalty suspect (he had been accused by his enemies of adultery with the queen, among other things), and as a pledge of his good behavior seized his and Dhuoda's sons, William and the (unnamed) infant. When Dhuoda was writing, William was in his teens. As it happens, Charles executed Bernard and William was executed in 850, attempting to avenge his father. Dhuoda may have predeceased them both. The Handbook is conventionally divided into 11 books plus a Prologue, into a coherent plan. The contents revolve closely around the virtues of a good Christian life, touching on prayer, devotion to God, moral conduct, and how to succeed in secular life. Her work shows familiarity with the writings of Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, the Rule of Benedict, and contemporary authors like Alcuin of York. And, of course, the Bible, which quotes at length and often from memory. The Handbook survives in just three manuscripts, one fragmentary.(1) What kind of advice does Dhuoda give William in the verses comprising sections 1 and 2?
(2) Given the tenor of the Handbook's contents, what can we deduce about aristocratic women's social and religious roleswith respect to their children and families?
(3) Does this work possess a political purpose or agenda? If so, what might it be?