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The Empire of the Franks
For the ancient world, the Mediterranean area was the center. Around the
coasts of the Mediterranean - whether in Spain, North Africa, Sicily, or Asia
Minor - everywhere, people lived largely by the same political and social
concepts. The Germanic tribes, who had moved into the western Roman
Empire, didn't disturb this unity of the Greco-Roman culture. And when, in
the seventh century, a completely new political power and culture
appeared in the spread of Islam, the unity of the Greco-Roman culture was
ended, but the Mediterranean remained the center.
That changed when the Franks, under the leadership of Karl Martell,
conquered the Arabs in 732 A.D. at Tours and Poitiers in what is now
western France, and thereby laid the foundation for the rise of the
Frankish Empire. Now there were three big political centers, and the
tripartite division of the Mediterranean area was complete: along with the
Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Empire appeared the new Frankish
Empire. The center-point of the history of the world - which was, until the
eighth century, the Mediterranean area - moved north, to central Europe,
the area north of the Danube and east of the Rhein.
But was that linked to a complete departure from the Roman and ancient
heritage? What was new about this Frankish Empire, and back toward
which traditions did its rulers reach?
In order answer this question, we want to examine more closely the rise
of the Frankish Empire, and above all the empire of its most significant
ruler, Karl the Great.
Karl the Great ruled over an area that had at least the expanse of the
western Roman Empire. All the Christian tribes of western and central
Europe - with the exception of England and Ireland - were united in his
empire. Karl the Great attempted, in his empire, to merge the cultural
commonalities of Christianity and of Germanic-Frankish lifestyles with the
ancient Roman traditions, so that finally a new culture arose: "the Christian
Occident" as it would later be called.
Architecture like the Palatinate Chapel in Aachen can still give us an
impression today, that in the empire of Karl the Great, Christian tradition,
Germanic lifestyles, and Roman heritage merged into a new culture. But
also in the politics of Karl the Great, we can see that he had made no final
break with ancient tradition, as is shown by this: that he - as already his
father Pepin - entered into a close political alliance with the Papacy in
Rome, and took the old title of the western Roman emperor "Augustus and
Imperator". But the coronation in Rome in 800 A.D. meant more than
The Franks, page 1
merely the renewal of the ancient empire: a new, Christian empire arose,
in which the king of the Franks had the task, as one coronated by God, to
unite and to protect the community of Christians. But how should he fulfill
this task? How could this empire be ruled and administered? We know
that the Roman emperors could rely upon a dense network of cities, many
bureaucrats, a well-organized army, and other things as they administered
the Roman Empire. In the Frankish Empire there weren't such things. There
was no capital, no magistrate and senate, not even a standing army. And
yet, Karl the Great left behind at his death in 814 A.D. an empire in which
almost all the countries and territories of western and central Europe were
united. In order to find an explanation for this, we must look more closely
at the roles which the monks, abbots, and bishops in the Christian church
played in the governing of the Frankish Empire, and how the rulers
worked to gain the loyalty of the Frankish nobility.
A New Center: The Frankish Empire
The Development of the Frankish Empire
Chlodowech (also called "Clovis" or "Clotilda of Burgundy") had built a
powerful Frankish Empire and founded the Merovingian dynasty. The
belief in a divine power which rested on the royal family, however, lead to
this, that after the death of a king, all of his sons took over the leadership.
Thus the empire was divided over and over again. Very often, the brothers
lead war against one another. By means of this commotion, the
Merovingian dynasty lost influence. The majordomo, the highest court
official, on the other hand, became the most powerful man in the Frankish
In 732 A.D., the Arabs, who at this time ruled Spain, invaded France over
the Pyrenees. The Frankish majordomo, Karl Martell, defeated them in the
battle at Tours and Poitiers. This victory decided that the Frankish Empire
would become Christian, not Islamic. By means of this battle, the
foundation was also laid for this, that, later, western Europe - despite all
differences between the tribes and states - would form a unit: the Christian
Bonifatius and the Frankish Church. At the time of Karl Martell,
Christians were bitterly persecuted by the pagans in the Frankish Empire.
Nominally, most of the residents were actually called Christians; but pagan
lifestyles actually had more influence than Christian ways. Human sacrifice
was still common, people were held as slaves, and women were bought
and sold as property. The Irish and English churches were then in a much
better condition. The monks from the British Isles felt themselves obligated,
therefore, to lead the Frankish church out of its problems.
The Franks, page 2
In the seventh century, many Irish monks went around on the continent as
itinerant preachers. They also founded cloisters there; St. Gallen goes
back, for example, to the Irish itinerant monk Gallus. The monks of the
continent took on some aspects of Irish life; among them was Pirmin, the
founder of the cloisters Murbach and Reichenau.
In the eighth century, the influence of the English monks became stronger.
In contrast to the Irish, they did missionary work "from above", i.e., they
sought close collaboration with the Frankish nobility, king, and the Pope in
Rome. The most significant of these missionaries was Wynfreth.
After early unsuccessful missionary attempts among the Frisians, he turned
to the Pope and traveled to Rome. The Pope gave him the name
Bonifatius and assigned him to spread the faith in the eastern Frankish
Empire, which was not yet thoroughly Christianized. In over thirty years of
missionary work, he went through Hessia, Thuringia, Franconia, and
Frisia. He founded cloisters, e.g., Fulda. He gave effort also to reforming
the church's administration. While he was able to institute a new
organization of bishops in Bavaria, he was only able to remove a few
anti-reform bishops in Franconia. The Frankish nobility and the Frankish
church had no interest in changing the usual way of doing things.
Bonifatius was murdered by Pagans in 754 A.D. during a missionary trip to
Frisia. He has been honored since then as a martyr of the Christian faith;
he was even called the "Apostle to the Germans". By means of his activity,
he contributed to the various tribes in the Frankish Empire becoming
"brothers and one nation by means of the Christian faith" even beyond the
borders of Germany.
Beyond the fame of Bonifatius, however, we must not forget that many
Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns collaborated in the missionary and reform
work at that time: e.g., Willibald and his sister Walpurg, who founded and
lead the cloister at Heidenheim, or Lioba, a relative of Bonifatius, who was
the abbess in Taubersbischofsheim.
The Carolinians as Kings. Bonifatius emphasized, in his missionary
work, that he worked in the service, and with the support, of the Pope in
Rome, the successor to the Apostle Peter. To this highest authority,
therefore, the Frankish leaders turned in a politically very important
question: could they assert themselves over the inherited rights of the
Merovingian kings, who had long since become incompetent to govern,
and make the majordomo, Pippin, the son of Karl Martell, king? When the
Pope gave them notice, that one who exercises the power should be
called king, they elevated Pippin in the year 751 A.D. to king.
The Franks, page 3
Because the Carolinians could not refer to any inherited right, they justified
their royal status in a different way. They claimed to be called by God to
royal rule. As a sign of this divine assignment, they allowed themselves,
like the kings in the Tanakh, to be annointed and added to their names the
phrase "dei gratia" = "by the grace of God".
Karl the Great, the son of Pippin, is the most significant rule of the Frankish
Empire. The dynasty is called "Carolinian" after him. He saw it his duty, as
a rule assigned by God, to care for the spread of the Christian faith. The
Saxon wars show especially clearly how Karl allowed his military to be of
secondary importance to Christian missionary work. Already, soon after
the conflict with the powerful and independent neighbors in the north-east
began, reports were made of the first mass baptisms. The tough and
effective resistence, however, hindered a lasting success for the many
Frankish military maneuvers. Only twenty-five years later did Karl dare to
institute bishoprics. After the complete pacification of the Saxons, and the
baptism of their military leader, Widukind, he sent priests and monks into
what had long been a pagan land. The Saxons were astounded that Karl,
deviating from Pagan practice, didn't simply execute Widukind. The
acceptance of Christianity made the defeated Saxons into members of the
Frankish Empire, with fully equal rights, into "brothers".
The Re-Creation of the Empire. The task of protecting God's church
included also protecting the Pope in Rome. When the Langobards wanted
to conquer Rome, Karl went to Italy. After he conquered them, he put on
the Langobardian crown in Pavia, in order to preclude in the future any
danger for the Pope. On Christmas day in the year 800, he was crowned
emperor by the Pope. After that, he carried the following title: "Karl, the
most gracious, sublime, great and peaceful emperor, crowned by God,
who rules the Roman Empire and who is also, by God's mercy, king of the
Franks and Langobards."
Just as the title of the western Roman emperor came to be honored again
after 300 years, so also the culture of late-classical antiquity was to be
renewed in the Carolinian empire. The respect of the new emperor should
not only be based on weapons, but rather also on education, natural and
social sciences, and the arts in his empire. Karl encouraged, therefore,
culture more than any other Frankish king before him. Kings, bishops, and
abbots had monumental stone structures built. The king's court and the
cloisters became centers of poetry and literature, music, and artistic skills.
The laws and the schools were reformed. In the publishing rooms, books
from the ancient times were copied, and illustrated with precious paintings.
Intellectuals like Alkuin and Einhard were in regular correspondence.
The East Frankish Empire. During the reign of Karl the Great, the
The Franks, page 4
empire and the church were strong enough, to hold together the very
different tribes and nations of the empire. His son, Ludwig the Pious, could
likewise maintain the unity of the empire. Ludwig's three sons, however,
divided the empire among themselves, in 843 A.D., in Verdun. Thus arose
the Western Frankish Empire, the Eastern Frankish Empire, and the Middle
Empire with the two imperial cities, Aachen and Rome, which the oldest
brother Lothar obtained. In the Eastern Frankish Empire lived the Saxons,
the Bavarians, the Swabians, and the portion of the Franks who lived east
of the Maas and Rhein rivers. This was the heartland of European culture.
In contrast to the romanized western Franks, they spoke Germanic
languages, but, however, didn't have any feeling of belonging together.
When the last eastern Frankish Carolinian king died in 911 A.D., the
eastern Franks chose their own king, who did not come from the
Carolinian royal family. He was Konrad I, from eastern Franconia.
Because he had no sons, the next king was the Saxon duke Heinrich.
The Eastern Frankish Empire was not, from this time forward, divided
again. The duchies of the Franks, Saxons, Swabians, Bavarians, and
Lothringians (the latter belonged since 880 A.D. to the eastern Frankish
Empire) remained united in one empire. This empire was only much later
called the "German Empire". At that time, it was center of all European
The Role of the King, the Nobility, and the Church
How an "Itinerant King" Ruled. The king ruled as he moved from
palace to palace. Palaces were large, often richly decorated royal courts
located in royal territories. Along with many hundreds of clergy, and
worldly rules, the chaplains of the royal chapel belonged to the touring
group. Their name is derived from the "cappa", the cloak worn by St.
Martin, which he shared with a beggar. The Frankish kings always brought
along one piece of this cloak as a "national treasure" under the care of the
The chaplains were also responsible for the entire correspondence of the
king. During his trips through the empire, the king decided all the legal
disputes which were placed before him; for each citizen could turn to him
as the highest judge. To issue verdicts was the most prominent ruling
responsibility of the king. Wherever in the empire the king did not happen
to be present, he was represented by counts. They issued verdicts in the
name of the king, lead the required military troops in their districts, and
collected the payments which were due to the king. It was common that the
king chose the counts from among the nobility of the area in which they
were to complete these duties. That created big problems: from these
leaders, one could hardly expect that they would assert the will of the ruler
The Franks, page 5
against their peers, the other nobles, and in the case of some of them, the
own self-interest outweighed their obedience to their distant king. The
complaints about unjust settlements grew louder and louder. Karl the
Great therefore changed to a system in which bishops, abbots, and counts
whom he trusted were sent into the individual parts of the empire as "royal
ambassadors". They were not only supposed to oversee the legal verdicts
rendered by the counts, but also to see to it that the emperor's instructions
to the nobles, the bishops, and the cloisters were properly carried out.
Nobility and Feudalism. In the Carolinian era, people lived in various
ways, depending upon their legal status and property ownership. There
were various forms of freedom and lack of freedom, from royalty to
peasantry; in practice, the most important dividing line ran between the
nobility and the rest of the population. Outstanding service in the Crusades
and in the imperial administration had helped a very small number of
families to high positions. Aside from the church, only the noble lords
could afford to obtain luxury goods like silk and spices from importers.
They alone could be customers for the few specialized craftsmen like
stonemasons and goldsmiths. Their economic superiority rested, however,
primarily upon the ownership of land, and the seignorialism bound to it.
It was not simple for the king to retain superiority over the self-confident
nobles who were concerned about their independence. The king had to
bind them to himself. One way to do this was feudalism, the beginnings of
which went back into the Merovingian era.
Earlier, the defense of the Frankish Empire had posed a difficult problem
for Karl Martell: the Arabs had advanced with their cavalry from Spain a
long way toward Gaul. Against this enemy, the Frankish army of peasants
could do little. It was clumsy, untrained, and poorly-armed. Aside from that,
the soldiers, who were really peasants, couldn't leave their fields for a very
long time. They had to tend the crops and bring in the harvest, so that they
could provide for their families, and give a percentage to their masters.
Therefore, there was a need for soldiers who could ride into battle,
mounted on horseback, and were not needed for agricultural work.
Therefore, Karl Martell obliged men for military service, and paid them with
a piece of land as a loan (a "fief" or "fee"). These soldiers could then live
off of the work and percentages of the peasants who lived on their land.
They became - as it was called in the language of the time - vassals of the
king, and he became their feudal lord. Thus, since the eighth century, a
new class of territorial masters joined those nobles who had inherited
land. Their estates did, indeed, still belong to the king, but they exercised
over their estates all the rights of a territorial master. Above all, Karl the
Great desired that not only the royal soldiers be his vassals, but that all the
The Franks, page 6
influential people in his empire should become his feudal tenants. He
recognized that feudalism was a good way to bind to himself the highhanded nobles with their territorial powers.
He gave them fiefs, therefore, in addition to their aristocratic property, and
bound them to himself by means of an oath of loyalty. The oath of loyalty,
which the feudal lord and the feudal tenants swore to each other, obliged
both of them to reciprocal help in word and deed.
But not only the important people in his empire should become his
vassals. The vassals of the king, in turn, should also bind to themselves
other, less propertied, men as feudal tenants in mutual loyalty. The untilthen local divisions into manors (hence the word, "manorialism") could
thus be overcome by a chain of feudal allegiances. Each person was
supposed to have a feudal lord, to whom he was bound. At the head of
this feudal system stood the king as the ultimate feudal lord.
Churches and Cloisters. The bishops and abbots themselves mostly
came from the noble classes. They administered large land properties, and
thus supported, from the percentages and services of the dependent
peasants, the churches, themselves, and the clergy who worked for them.
In addition, they also received "the tithe", a type of donation to the church.
This large income was used for two main purposes: first, the maintenance
of educational facilities, libraries, and the copying of books; second, the
support given to the poor as a sort of "welfare" system.
The church with its clergy was different from the worldly class-system in
one way: Christianity and the church were strongly influenced by the
ancient world. They retained the learning in science and literature which
the Greeks and Romans had cultivated; they also retained insights into
Hebraic and Semitic thought. Because the Bible, the church fathers, and
the documents of the great ancient ecumenical councils were the
foundations of the faith, the clergy had to be able to read and write, and
know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Although the king bound the worldly
leaders to himself by means of feudalism, bishops and abbot remained the
main foundations for his rule. They were independent of him, and he was
dependent upon them. They were a foundation not only because of the
large land properties of the church - they supplied far more soldiers for the
army than the worldly leaders - , they were an important foundation also
because of their duty, to explain to the ruler, out of the Holy Scripture, the
will of God. From it they understood, that God had given a set orderliness
to the world, in which the kings, the worldly and spiritual leaders, peasants,
and beggars all had a place. This was different than the old pagan worldview, which had dominated Europe several centuries earlier, in which the
poor and physically disabled had no place in the world, and were
The Franks, page 7
regarded as expendable. The king, who had been entrusted with
leadership by God, had to obey this order, and protect it against all
attacks. The king would be held accountable if he did not do his job fairly
and justly. Without knowledge of the Holy Scripture, without the help of the
clergy, he could not fulfill this task. A difference between the church and the
state could not, for this reason, exist. The king the job of leading
"Christendom" on the path indicated by faith.
The Franks, page 8