The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)
By Mayke de Jong
Medieval Worlds: Comparative and interdisciplinary studies, Vol.2 (2015)
Abstract: This paper examines the potency of the concept of ’empire’ in Carolingian history, arguing against the still recent trend in medieval studies of seeing the Carolingian empire as having been in a constant state of decay. An initial historiographical overview of medievalist’s perceptions of ’empire’ over the past century is followed by a discussion of how Carolingian authors themselves constructed, perceived and were influenced by notions of ’empire’. Biblical scholars like Hraban Maur initiated an authoritative discourse on imperium, which in turn, after the 840s, heavily influenced later authors, perhaps most interestingly Paschasius Radbertus in his Epitaphium Arsenii. While the writings of these authors who looked back at Louis’s reign have often been interpreted as revealing a decline of imperial ideals, they must rather be seen as testifying to a long-lasting concern for a universal Carolingian empire.
Introduction: According to most textbooks, the first Western empire to succeed its late Roman predecessor suddenly burst upon the scene, on Christmas Day 800 in Rome, when Pope Leo III turned Charles, King of the Franks and Lombards, and patricius (protector) of the Romans, into an imperator augustus. Few events have been debated so much ad nauseam by modern historians as this so-called imperial coronation of 800, which was probably not at all a coronation; contemporary sources contradict each other as to what happened on that Christmas Day in St. Peter’s church. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard claimed that the vigorous Frankish king “would not have entered the church that day, even though it was a great feast day, if he had known in advance of the pope’s plan.” This became the basis for a grand narrative that survived well into the late twentieth century: that this great Germanic warrior had never wished to become emperor, but was tricked into it by a devious pope with his own agenda. Without necessarily admiring Germanicness, historians still tend to distinguish between a Frankish and ‘Rome-free’ conception of empire and a papal version thereof. Furthermore, the prevailing consensus has been that the imperial title was something like a cherry on Charlemagne’s already plentiful cake: there is not a possibility he became a different ruler after 800. All things considered, the great Charles could have done very well without this sudden intervention by Rome’s bishop.
According to a strong and persistent trend in modern historiography, the ensuing Carolingian empire did not even last a century, and it was in a constant state of decay; almost from the very moment of its inception. Its modest glory is still exclusively associated with Charlemagne, who was the only Carolingian emperor with whom later empire builders deigned to identify with. When the Great Charles died in January 814, and his weak and overly pious son Louis succeeded, things went downhill rapidly. Or did the decay already start when the once vigorous king retired to Aachen after 800, an old emperor unable to keep his unruly daughters in check? Certainly decline had well and truly started by 830, when Louis was faced with the first of rebellions, and at the very latest it started after Louis’ death in 840 and during the subsequent division of the empire among his remaining sons in 843. For then onwards, Carolingian imperial history was a muddle of competing members of the dynasty, so difficult to remember that it was something of a relief that the last legitimate emperor, aptly named Charles the Fat, was deposed in 888.