Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding


C HARLES THE GREAT, or Charlemagne, became King of the Franks when his father Pippin died. He was the greatest ruler of his time; and for hundreds of years after his death his influence continued to be felt in Western Europe. If Columbus had never been born, America would have been discovered just the same; and if Luther had never lived there would nevertheless have been a Reformation in the church. But if Charlemagne had never been King of the Franks, and made himself Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire,—as we shall see that he did,—the whole history of the Middle Ages would have been very different from what it actually was.

At first Charlemagne's brother ruled with him as King; but within three years the brother died, and then Charlemagne ruled as sole King of the Franks. He owed the power which he had largely to his father, and to his grandfather, Charles Martel; but Charlemagne used his power wisely and well, and greatly increased it. He put down the rebellions of the peoples who rose against the rule of the Franks; he defended the land against the Mohammedans of Spain and the heathen Germans of the North; he conquered new lands and new peoples. In addition he set up an improved system of government; and he did all that he could to encourage learning an make his people more civilized than they had been before.

When we read of all the things that Charlemagne did, we wonder that he was able to do so much. In the forty-six years that he was King he sent out more than fifty expeditions against different enemies; and in more than half of these he took the command himself. Charlemagne's wars, however, were not simply for plunder, or for more land, as so many of the earlier wars of the Franks had been. They were fought either to keep down the peoples whom the Franks had already conquered; or else to keep out new peoples who were seeking to conquer the Franks. In both these objects Charlemagne was successful. The net result of his wars was that almost all those lands which had formerly been under the Emperors of the West, were now brought under the rule of the King of the Franks; and the peoples who lived in these lands, both the old inhabitants and the German newcomers, were allowed peaceably to live together and work out their own destiny.

The most stubborn enemy that Charlemagne had to fight was the Saxons. A portion of this people had settled in the island of Britain about three hundred years before; but many Saxon tribes still dwelt in the northern part of Germany. In Charlemagne's time they still worshipped Woden and Thor, and lived in much the same way that the Germans had done before the great migrations. It was part of Charlemagne's plan to make himself ruler of all the German nations; besides, there were constant quarrels along the border between the Saxons and the Franks. The result was that war was declared, and Charlemagne started out to conquer, to Christianize, and to civilize these heathen kinsmen. But it was a hard task; and the war lasted many years before it was ended. Again and again the Franks would march into the Saxon lands in summer and conquer the Saxon villages; but as soon as they withdrew for the winter the young warriors of the Saxons would come out from the swamps and forests to which they had retreated, and next year the work would have to be done over again.

After this had occurred several times, Charlemagne determined to make a terrible example. Forty-five hundred of the Saxon warriors who had rebelled and been captured were put to death by his orders, all in one day. This dreadful massacre was the worst thing that Charlemagne ever did; and it did not even succeed in terrifying the Saxons. Instead, it led to the hardest and bloodiest war of all, in which a chief named Widukind led on his countrymen to take vengeance for their murdered relatives and friends. But in the end Charlemagne and his Franks proved too strong for the Saxons. Widukind, at last, was obliged to surrender and be baptized, with all his followers. After that the resistance of the Saxons died away; and Charlemagne's treatment of the land was so wise that it became one of the strongest and most important parts of the kingdom.

Charlemagne also fought a number of times against the Arabs in Spain. He not only prevented them from settling in Southern France, as they had tried to do in the time of Charles Martel; but he won from them a strip of their own country south of the Pyrenees Mountains. In one of these wars, the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was cut off and slain by the mountain tribes in the narrow pass of Roncevalles. The leader of the Franks was Roland, while the leader of the enemy was called Bernardo. Long after that day strange stories grew up and poets sang of the brave deeds of Roland, and of the mighty blasts which he gave on his hunting-horn, to warn Charlemagne of the danger to his army. Three blasts he blew, each so loud and terrible that the birds fell dead from the trees, and the enemy drew back in alarm. Charlemagne, many miles away, heard the call, and hastened to the rescue; but he came too late. An old song says:

"The day of Roncevalles was a dismal day for you,

Ye men of France, for there the lance of King Charles was broke in two;

Ye well may curse that rueful field, for many a noble peer

In fray or fight the dust did bite beneath Bernardo's spear."

In most of his wars Charlemagne was successful; and the stories about him told rather of his glory and his might than of his defeats.

One of his most important conquests was that of the Lombards, in Northern Italy. Nearly a century afterward, an old monk wrote the story of this war as he had heard it from his father. Desiderius, the King of the Lombards, had offended the Pope, and the Pope appealed to Charlemagne for aid. When Charlemagne marched his army over the Alps into Italy, the Lombard King shut himself up in his capital, Pavia. There he had with him, according to the story, one of Charlemagne's nobles named Otker, who had offended the dread King and fled from him.

"Now when they heard of the approach of the terrible Charles," writes this old monk, "they climbed up into a high tower, whence they could see in all directions. When the advance guard appeared, Desiderius said to Otker: 'Is Charles with this great army, do you think?' And he answered: 'Not yet.' When he saw the main army, gathered from the whole broad empire, Desiderius said with confidence: 'Surely the victorious Charles is with these troops.' But Otker answered: 'Not yet, not yet.'

"Then Desiderius began to be troubled, and said: 'What shall we do if still more come with him?' Otker answered: 'You will soon see how he will come; but what will become of us, I know not.' And, behold, while they were speaking, appeared the servants of Charles's household, a never-resting multitude. 'That is Charles,' said the terrified Desiderius. But Otker said: 'Not yet, not yet.' Then appeared the bishops and the abbots, and the chaplains with their companions. When he beheld these the Lombard prince, dazed with fear and longing for death, stammered out these words: 'Let us go down and hide in the earth before the wrath of so terrible an enemy!' But Otker, who in better times had known well the power and the arms of the great Charles, answered: 'When you see a harvest of steel waving in the fields, and the rivers dashing steel-black waves against the city walls, then you may believe Charles is coming.'

"Scarcely had he spoken when there appeared in the North and West a dark cloud, as it were, which wrapped the clear day in most dreadful shadow. But as it drew nearer, there flashed upon the besieged from the gleaming weapons a day that was more terrible for them than any night. Then they saw him,—Charles,—the man of steel; his arms covered with plates of steel, his iron breast and his broad shoulders protected by steel armor. His left hand carried aloft the iron lance, for his right was always ready for the victorious sword. His thighs, which others leave uncovered in order more easily to mount their horses, were covered on the outside with iron scales. The leg-pieces of steel were common to the whole army. His shield was all of steel, and his horse was iron in color and in spirit.

"This armor all who rode before him, by his side, or who followed him,—in fact, the whole army,—had tried to imitate as closely as possible. Steel filled the fields and roads. The rays of the sun were reflected from gleaming steel. The people, paralyzed by fear, did homage to the bristling steel; the fear of the steel pierced down deep into the earth. 'Alas, the steel!' 'Alas, the steel!' cried the inhabitants confusedly. The mighty walls trembled before the steel, and the courage of youths fled before the steel of the aged.

"And all this, which I have told with all too many words, the truthful seer Otker saw with one swift look, and said to Desiderius: 'There you have Charles, whom you have so long desired!' And with these words he fell to the ground like one dead."

In this war Charlemagne was completely victorious. Desiderius ceased to be King of the Lombards, and Charlemagne became King in his place. For centuries after that Charlemagne's successors continued to wear "the iron crown of Italy," which the great King of the Franks had won from Desiderius.

One of the results of the conquest of the Lombards was that Charlemagne was brought into closer relations with the Pope. The Emperor of the East still claimed to rule over Italy; but his rule was feeble, and only a small part of the peninsula was now in the hands of his officers. The real power in Italy had passed into the hands of the King of the Franks; and the question now was, whether the Pope should be under his rule as he had been under that of the Eastern Emperors. Two things made this question harder to decide. One was that Charlemagne, following the example of his father Pippin, had given to the Pope a large number of the cities and villages which he had conquered in Italy. The other was that the Pope, on Christmas day of the year 800, placed a crown on Charlemagne's head as he knelt in prayer in St. Peter's church at Rome, and proclaimed him Emperor.

These two things helped to make it very hard to decide just what powers the Pope and the King of the Franks should each have. When Charlemagne gave those cities and villages to the Pope, did it mean that he gave up the right to rule there, and turned the power over to the Pope, so that the latter became the Prince in these places? And when the Pope crowned Charlemagne as Emperor, did that mean that the Pope could not set up and pull down emperors whenever he wanted to? These, you see, are very hard questions to answer; but they are very important questions to understand. Upon the answers given to them would depend the decision whether the Pope was above the Emperor, or the Emperor above the Pope; and this was a question about which men fought for hundreds of years.

We may also ask, What was this Empire of which Charlemagne became Emperor on that Christmas morning? The name which men give to it is "the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." They thought of it as a revival of the old Roman Empire of the East, which had come to an end more than three hundred years before. They called it the Holy  Roman Empire, to show how great a part the Church, and especially the Pope, played in it; and they added the words, of the German Nation, because it was the new and vigorous peoples who had come from the North who now supplied its strength. Though Charlemagne as Emperor ruled only over the peoples who had obeyed him as King, still men felt that his position now was higher, and his authority greater, than it had been before. For now his power was linked with the majestic history of Rome, and was given a more solemn sanction by the Church.

In this way the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor was an event of very great importance. For a thousand years after that day, the office of Emperor in the West continued to exist; and for a good part of this time it was one of the most powerful means of holding peoples of Western Europe together in one family of nations, and preventing them from growing wholly unlike and hostile to one another. We may truly say that a new age commences in Europe, when force alone no longer rules, and when great ideas, such as the idea of the Church and of the Empire, begin to play a part amid the strife of nations.

To govern the wide territories which were under his rule, Charlemagne kept up the "counts" or local rulers that he found established in different parts of his Empire. Over these he set higher rulers who were to travel about the country, seeing everything and reporting everything to the King. Twice a year, in the spring and in the autumn, the nobles of the land were called together to consult with him, and assist him in making laws for the kingdom. These assemblies would continue for several days, according to the importance of the business. While they lasted, messengers would come and go from the King's palace, proposing laws to the assembly, and carrying back answers; and no stranger might approach until the business was completed. If the weather was fine, the assembly met in the open air; but if it was not, then the meetings took place in churches and other buildings. The King, meanwhile, was busy receiving presents, talking with the most important men, especially those who dwelt at a distance from his court, and hearing what his nobles and officials had to report to him concerning any part of the kingdom. This last Charlemagne considered very important. As an old writer says: "The King wished to know whether, in any part or any corner of the kingdom, the people murmured or were troubled, and what was the cause of their troubles. Also he wished to know if any of the conquered peoples thought of rebelling, or if any of those who were still independent threatened the kingdom with an attack. And upon all these matters, wherever a danger or a disturbance arose, his chief questions were concerned with its motives or its cause."

Besides being a great warrior and a great ruler, Charlemagne was also a great friend of learning and education. He loved to gather about him learned men from all parts of the world. In this "Palace School," as it was called, the King and his wise men discussed learned questions. Charlemagne himself learned to read only after he was a grown man; and in spite of all his efforts he never succeeded in learning to write. This made him all the more anxious that the bright lads of his kingdom should have the advantages which he lacked. So he founded schools in the monasteries and bishoprics; in this way he hoped to get learned men for offices in the Church and State. The rude, fighting men of that day, however, looked upon learning with contempt; and many noble youths in the schools neglected their books for hawking and warlike exercises.

The old monk who tell us how Charles overcame King Desiderius, also tells us of the Emperor's wrath when he found the boys of one school going on in this fashion. The boys of low and middle station had been faithful; and when they presented their compositions and poems to the King, he said: "Many thanks, my sons, that you have taken such pains to carry out my orders to the best of your ability. Try now to do better still, and I will give you as reward splendid bishoprics, and make you rulers over monasteries, and you shall be highly honored in my sight." But to the high-born boys, who had played while the others worked, he cried out in wrath: "You sons of princes, you pretty and dainty little gentlemen, who count upon your birth and your wealth! You have disregarded my orders and your own reputations; you have neglected your studies and spent your time in games and idleness, or in foolish occupations! I care little for your noble birth, and your pretty looks, though others think them so fine! And let me promise you this: if you do not make haste to recover what you have lost by your neglect, you need never think to get any favors from Charles!"

In many other ways, besides those which we have mentioned, Charlemagne did a great work for the peoples over whom he ruled, and laid the foundations on which the ages that came after builded. In the troubled times that followed his death much of his work seemed to be swept away; but this was only in seeming, for the most important parts of it lived and still live in the governments and civilization of the world.

Before taking leave of this great King, perhaps you would like to know what he looked like, and how he lived. One of the learned men of his court has left a good description of him. "He was tall and stoutly built," he says, "his height being just seven times the length of his own foot. His head was round, his eyes large and lively, his nose somewhat above the common size, and his expression bright and cheerful. Whether he stood or sat, his form was full of dignity; for the good proportion and grace of his body prevented the observer from noticing that his neck was rather short and his person rather too fleshy." He was very active, this same writer tells us, and delighted in riding and hunting, and was skilled in swimming. It was, indeed, because of its natural warm baths that he made his favorite residence and capital at Aachen (The Frank Aix-la-Chapelle). He always wore the Frankish dress; but on days of state he added to this an embroidered cloak and jeweled crown, and carried a sword with a jeweled hilt. The name (Charlemagne), by which we know him, is French, but the King himself, in speech, dress, and habits, was a thoroughly German king, and ruled over a thoroughly German people.

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