Carolingian Empire: History, Economy & Characteristics

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Carolingian Empire | Definition & History

Carolingian Empire: State of the Early Middle Ages, founded by the King of the Franks Charlemagne, who ruled it between 768 and 814.

Data
Date 768-843
Location Western Europe
Capital Aachen
Idiom Frankian
Religion Christianity
Form of Government Centralized Monarchy

What was the Carolingian Empire?

The Carolingian Empire was a state of the Early Middle Ages, founded by the Frankish King Charlemagne, who ruled it between 768 and 814.

The foundations of this empire were laid by his father, Pepin the Short, who in 751 overthrew the last king of the Frankish dynasty of the Merovingians. The new monarch was crowned by Pope Stephen II, who granted him the right to hereditary succession.

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After the death of Pepin, in 768, the Pope offered his support to his son, Carlos, who went down in history with the name of Charlemagne, which means Charles the Great.

Charlemagne set out to restore the unity of the Roman Empire. Resorting to both diplomacy and war, he managed to occupy the territories of Lombards, Bavarians, Avars and Saxons. Thus he built an empire that, with the exception of part of the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles, included all of Western Europe.

In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the West. In this way, the King of the Franks secured dominance over all Christian monarchs and became the armed wing of the Church.

The Carolingian Empire lasted until 843. Its division gave rise to the kingdoms of Lotharingia, France and Germania, the latter two are the origin, in turn, of today’s France and Germany.

Characteristics of the Carolingian Empire

The main characteristics of the Carolingian Empire were the following:

  • Its territory extended over much of Western Europe, but its core was in present-day France.
  • The highest authority was the emperor, the political head of Christendom, who was crowned by the Pope, his spiritual head.
  • Its form of government was the centralized monarchy.
  • The predominant language was Franzic, although Gallo-Italian, Saxon and other Germanic languages ​​were also spoken.
  • The capital was Aachen, present-day Aachen, located in the west of present-day Germany, near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands.
  • It was divided into ducats, counties, and marks, in charge of dukes, counts, and marquises, respectively.
  • His official religion was Christianity.
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Location of the Carolingian Empire

The Carolingian Empire was located throughout Western Europe, but its core was in present-day France.

In order to conquer the territory of Western Europe, which was previously ruled by the Merovingians, Charlemagne won several battles whose territories were shaping his Empire.

Carolingian Empire: History, Economy & Characteristics

Location of the Carolingian Empire around 804, the year in which it reached its maximum extension.

Economy of the Carolingian Empire

The economy of the Carolingian Empire was based on agricultural production, especially in the harvest of cereals such as wheat, barley and oats. Other important economic activities were cattle and pig farming and the artisanal production of weapons and furniture.

The import and export of products were practically non-existent, so the Empire supplied itself, producing what was necessary to feed its inhabitants.

Organizations of the Carolingian Empire

Social Organization of the Carolingian Dynasty

Carolingian society was divided into two large sectors:

  • Privileged: Those who enjoyed economic, social and territorial privileges.
    • Emperor.
    • High clergy and high nobility.
    • Low nobility and low clergy.
  • Non Privileged: Those who did not have privileges and who with their taxes and tithe supported the privileged sectors.
    • Shopkeepers and small merchants.
    • Craftsmen and peasants.

Political Organization of the Carolingian Empire

The head of the Carolingian Empire was the emperor, who concentrated in his hands the maximum military, judicial and legislative power.

For administrative functions, the emperor relied on a court, led by a Chamberlain, who was in charge of palace affairs, among others.

There were also institutions such as the chancelleries, which directed civil and ecclesiastical matters, and the palatine court, which applied the capitulars, legal provisions that governed the entire population of the Empire.

Territorial Organization of the Carolingian Dynasty

The territorial organization of the Carolingian Empire was based on three divisions:

  • Counties: Demarcations like interior provinces that were under the responsibility of a count.
  • Duchies: Set of counties that were under the direction of a duke, appointed directly by the emperor.
  • Trademarks: Areas that were on militarized borders and exposed to foreign invasions. They were under the responsibility of a marquis.

Dukes, counts, and marquises were supervised annually by the missi dominici, who were said to be “the eyes and ears of the emperor“. They were pairs of inspectors, one lay and the other ecclesiastical, who were in charge of judging the abuses of power and acts of corruption of Carolingian officials.

Religion of the Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne was a devout Christian who set out to protect the Church and spread its influence throughout Europe. Its relationship with the Papacy was strategic, since the bishops of Rome granted legitimacy to the Carolingian dynasty, in exchange for protection against the advances of Islam and the claims of power of the Byzantine Empire.

Charlemagne created several bishoprics, brought together two councils, and forced the population of his empire to attend Mass on Sundays and pay tithe, a tax that was used to contribute to the maintenance of the Church.

He also set out to convert the peoples he was incorporating into his empire to Christianity. To achieve this goal, he appealed to both the cross and the sword. His armies marched accompanied by priests who baptized those who agreed to convert to Christianity.

Carolingian Empire: Portrait of Charlemagne

Charlemagne Emperor of the West, portrait made by Louis-Félix Amiel, in 1839. It is exhibited in the Museum of the History of France, in the Palace of Versailles.

Education and Culture of the Carolingian Empire

In the High Middle Ages, the vast majority of people were illiterate. Charlemagne himself during his childhood had received no formal instruction.

To reverse this situation, the emperor promoted the opening of schools for the training of courtiers, officials and religious. The main one was the Palatine School, which operated in Aachen and was attended by Charlemagne and six of his sons. It was in charge of Alcuinus of York, a sage of Anglo-Saxon origin, who was later replaced by the Gothic Teodulf.

Other schools functioned in abbeys, bishoprics and monasteries and their direction was in charge of Christian priests. In the monasteries important libraries were formed, in which copyist monks preserved much of the cultural tradition of the Greco-Roman world.

The work of schools and monasteries transformed the Carolingian Empire into a center of cultural revival called the “Carolingian Renaissance“.

Art of the Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne promoted the development of the arts. Within his Empire influences of Roman art were combined, and Christian art, in addition to the Byzantine.

The Carolingian architects tried to recover the monumental architecture of the Roman Empire, taking as a model the time of the emperors Constantine and Theodosius (4th Century BC). His main works were palaces, royal residences and religious temples, such as the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, where the emperor prayed. To build it, the architects were inspired by the Church of San Vital de Ravenna, thus symbolizing the Latin roots of the Carolingian Empire.

Carolingian artists also made Byzantine-style marble and mosaic sculptures depicting scenes from the Gospels.

Division of the Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious, reigned amidst Viking raids and conflicts with dukes, counts, and marquises. They wanted to manage themselves with greater autonomy and leave the territories they administered as an inheritance to their descendants.

On the death of Luis the Pious, in 840, his sons, Carlos, Luis and Lotario fought for power. In 843, they ended their struggles by signing the Treaty of Verdun, which divided the Carolingian Empire as follows:

  • Kingdom of Carlos the Bald or Western France (Celestial Zone).
  • Kingdom of Lothair I or Lotharingia (Brown Zone).
  • Kingdom of Louis the Germanic, Eastern France or Germania (Red Zone).

Treaty of Verdun

Partition of the territory of the Carolingian Empire, according to the terms of the Treaty of Verdun (843).

Thus was disintegrated the State created by Charlemagne, who had dreamed of a united Europe under a single king and the same faith.


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