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Charlemagne, pronounced SHAHR luh mayn (742-814), or Charles the Great, was the most famous ruler of the Middle Ages and a key figure in European history. He conquered much of western Europe and united it under a great empire. Charlemagne revived the political and cultural life of Europe, which had collapsed after the fall of the West Roman Empire in the A.D. 400's. His activities laid the foundation of the European civilization that arose during the later Middle Ages.

More is known about Charlemagne than most medieval rulers because of a biography written by Einhard, a friend of his son Louis the Pious. This biography describes Charlemagne as more than 6 feet (2 meters) tall, with piercing eyes, fair hair, a thick neck, and a potbelly. He was strong, fond of exercise, and had an alert mind and a forceful personality. Charlemagne could read and speak Latin, the language of educated people of his time. However, he never learned to write it.
 
 
 

Military conquests.

Charlemagne was a son of Pepin the Short, who became king of the Franks in 751. After Pepin died in 768, his two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, shared the Frankish kingdom. The kingdom covered what is now Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and part of western Germany. Charlemagne became the sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom following Carloman's death in 771.

Charlemagne began to expand his kingdom almost immediately. He conquered Lombardy and Bavaria and added them to his realm. He took land and treasure from the Avars in eastern Europe.

Charlemagne waged his longest and bitterest campaign against the Saxons, a pagan people in northwestern Germany. He subdued the Saxons after about 30 years of war and forced them to accept Christianity.

Charlemagne also waged war in Spain. He was returning from an expedition there in 778 when a mountain people called the Basques ambushed and wiped out his rear guard. This incident became the subject of the famous epic poem The Song of Roland. In the poem, however, the ambushers were the Moors, a Muslim people who ruled Spain.

By 800, Charlemagne's realm extended from central Italy north to Denmark and from eastern Germany west to the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne followed a policy of friendship and cooperation with the Christian church. He protected the church and continually extended its power. In recognition of Charlemagne's vast power, and to strengthen the king's alliance with the church, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800.

Administration and influence.

In Charlemagne's time, Europe had hardly any towns, trade, or industry. Almost all the people made their living by farming, and they raised barely enough to feed themselves. Few people had much money, and the government and laws of the old Roman Empire had disappeared.

To improve conditions, Charlemagne introduced a number of reforms. He granted large estates to loyal nobles, who, in return, provided military and political services to the king. The nobles also maintained the roads, bridges, and fortifications on their land. This arrangement, called feudalism, became the basic political and military system of Europe for the next 400 years. Charlemagne helped increase the supply of food by introducing more efficient methods of farming. To stimulate trade, he coined silver money and encouraged the establishment of markets.

Charlemagne was devoted to justice and good government. He decreed that all courts be held regularly and that judges base their decisions only on accepted law. He divided his realm into districts and appointed efficient officers to administer them. Periodically, Charlemagne sent royal inspectors to carry his orders to the districts and to report on local conditions. In this way, he kept control of the distant parts of his empire.

Charlemagne also improved education and culture by establishing a school at his palace in Aachen. This palace school attracted the best teachers and students in Europe. It educated clergymen, thus strengthening the church, and trained teachers for schools throughout the empire. Scholars at the schools collected and copied ancient Roman manuscripts, which otherwise would have been lost forever. They also developed a new style of handwriting, called Carolingian minuscule. This style of handwriting later became the model for printing. The revival of learning under Charlemagne is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance.

After Charlemagne died in 814, his empire fell apart. Attacks by Vikings and other invaders weakened the empire, and in 843, Charlemagne's grandsons divided it into three parts. By the late 800's, the empire had ceased to exist. However, the cultural revival begun by Charlemagne had a lasting effect on European civilization. Charlemagne's empire also inspired later attempts to unite many European nations. Some scholars trace the origins of the Holy Roman Empire back to Charlemagne's empire.

From World Book Multimedia 1997

Contributor: Bryce Lyon, Ph.D., Barnaby C. and Mary Critchfield Keeney Emeritus Prof. of History, Brown Univ.

Additional resources

Banfield, Susan. Charlemagne. Chelsea Hse., 1986. Younger readers.

Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Trans. by S. E. Turner. Univ. of Mich. Pr., 1960. Firsthand account by a close associate.

Riche, Pierre. The Carolingians. Univ. of Pa. Pr., 1993