Einhard, in his The Life of Charlemagne, makes clear the fundamental integration of politics and religion during the reign of his king. Throughout his life, Charles the Great endeavored to acquire and use religious power to his desired ends. But, if Charlemagne was the premiere monarch of the western world, why was religious sanction and influence necessary to achieve his goals? In an age when military power was the primary means of expanding one’s empire, why did the most powerful military force in Europe go to such great lengths to ensure a benevolent relationship with the church?
One possibility may be found in the tremendous social and political influence of Rome and her papacy upon the whole of the continent. Rather than a force to be opposed, Charlemagne viewed the church as a potential source of political power to be gained through negotiation and alliance. The relationship was one of great symbiosis, and both componants not only survived but prospered to eventually dominate western Europe. For the King of the Franks, the church provided the means to accomplish the expansion and reformation of his empire.
For the Holy Roman Church, Charles provided protection from invaders and new possibilities for missionary work. The blessing of the church helped to unify and strengthen the resolve of the Frankish people as they withstood or conquered the heathen Viking and eastern Germanic tribes. The fact that Charles was Christian and was backed by the Catholic church must have certainly helped keep other christian powers from allying with these barbarians. For Rome, there were suddenly new peoples to convert, and keep from direct opposition to the The Great Christian Emperor.
Additionally, Charlemagne provided Rome with badly needed protection from Islamic invaders. Indeed, Charles saved most of Italy from Muslim piracy. When Rome became one with Carolingian empire, he “Defended and made it beautiful (page 285). ” With potentially hostile forces to the east, such as the Byzantine and Islamic empires, Rome found much to gain from Charles’ friendship. Another example of the benefits of the papal-frankish relationship may be found in Charles’ reformation of his parishes. To quote Einhard, “His chief concern was for the churches.
Whenever he discovered one in his kingdom that was old and ready to collapse he charged the responsible bishops and priests with restoring it (page 285). ” This, in addition to the masterpiece of Aachen, helped strengthen the Christian resolve in his empire, while furthering his goals of beautification. One of the chief concerns for Charlemagne, as evidenced by Pepin’s and Germania’s betrayals, must have been protecting the kingship from usurpation while he was fighting one of his many foreign wars.
The Roman church would have certainly provided a degree of security in this respect, as they were fully integrated with Frankish royalty and society, and had much to lose in the event of Charlemagne’s deposition. The institution of the church also provided a reasonable punishment for Pepin, as his monastic prison was an excellent means of captivating and supervising him. Charlemagne “Cultivated friendships with kings across the seas, so that Christians living in need under their jurisdiction would receive some aid and succor (page 290).
Such an act would have endeared many Christian peoples to his name, and may have granted him a greater political sway in foreign kingdoms, assuming said Christians were not powerless. It too must have granted the church a greater loyalty among foreign Christians, as the promise of justice would have undoubtedly helped in the conversion of non-christian poor. The power of this marriage of church and state may again be witnessed in the rescue of Pope Leo from the Romans.
When Hadrian’s successor was maimed and presumably ousted by other Roman powers, Charles the Great marched to the city and restored order. Additionally, he spent an entire winter in the restoration of the church’s former importance. In gratitude, the pope crowned Charlemagne “Emperor and Augustus,(page 290)” a title with such power that it is difficult to believe Einhard’s depiction of the king’s reluctance to accept. Given the potential loss to Charles had the church fallen, the concept of his dramatic action is not difficult to fathom.
With the titles won from his assistance, he gained an even greater authority over the western world, as well as the ability to goad the Eastern Roman emperors. And while he “concluded a firm treaty with them (page 284),” to give assurance of his good will, his position from which to bargain was greatly enhanced by his new title. The new crown also granted Charlemagne the power to change the names of the months, commit to paper the pagan songs of his kingdom without papal suspicion and attempt to reform the Frankish legal code.
In his elder years, it also allowed him to personally crown his son and successor Louis without the need for papal consent. This power he was also able to will, as Louis received the title of Augustus from his father. It would be a discredit to Charles for one to claim that his services to the church were for the sake of mere earthly rewards. Einhard speaks in great length about the emperor’s piety and his strong desire to better his spiritual being, saying that Charlemagne had “Practiced the Christian religion, in which he had been raised since childhood, with the greatest piety and devotion. page 289)”
He was repeatedly charitable to other Christians, particularly the poor. His faith also extended itself to the vast personal expenditures required in order to build the Basilica of the Holy Mother of God, present offerings to the holy Sepulcher, give tremendous gifts of gold and silver to the local parishes, and rebuild the Cathedral of St. Peter. Even in death, when Rome could give him no political gain, the Great Christian King ensured that a portion of his wealth went to impoverished Christians, and that the churches of his dominion would be maintained.
The church too performed many personal functions for Charlemagne of a less-than-political nature, including his last rites, the care of his sister in her convent, and his own burial. The church also acted as a kind of legal authority, witnessing his inheritance arrangements. The relationship between politics and faith in the age of Charlemagne would not have been possible or necessary without the people’s true belief in their religion. Einhard himself reveals the depth of his faith when he sites the numerous omens foretelling Charles’ death, as well as speaking of the “Divine ordination, (page295)” of Louis.
The business of religion was taken seriously by all parties mentioned in Einhard’s Life, and the church, being an integral part of the western world, could thus hardly have been ignored. In addition, the strong forces of competing religions made the question of faith one of great import in the West, making a solid Catholic union absolutely necessary. The alliance of Rome and the Frankish Empire was not entirely without its drawbacks, but its rewards are seen in the survival of Charlemagne’s name into the present.