The Cult of Charlemagne


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Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) has had a tremendous impact on European society for centuries after his life, and indeed up to this day. Sometimes called the Father of Europe, he is to the Middle Ages what Alexander or Julius Caesar were to the Greco-Roman world.

Heir of the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchies, Charlemagne managed to unify the Roman Catholic world under his rule and create the concept of Westernness. He was the first sovereign ever to unify Germany, where the Romans or other Germanic rulers had always failed. He was the first Germanic ruler to be granted to title of Emperor by the Church and to be recognised as such by the Eastern Roman Emperor (based in Constantinople) and the Muslim world.

His sphere of influence encompassed most of continental Europe, as well as Britain and Ireland. Only Pagan Scandinavia, Muslim Iberia and the Byzantine Balkans did not pay tribute to Charlemagne.

Political influence over the Middle Ages

After his death, the Carolingian Empire was quickly divided between Charles' grandsons, then great-grandsons, etc. Notwithstanding this parcelling of Europe into dozens, then hundreds of fiefdoms, Europeans had gained a sense of unity, of common culture. Rulers strove to rebuild their famed ancestor's empire. This is how the Holy Roman Empire came into existence, but also the Kingdom of France.

German and French monarchs struggled over the legacy of Charlemagne, doing everything they could to demonstrate that they were the sole rightful heir of Charles.

From the time of King Louis VI of France (1081-1137), the French monarchy associated itself with the Oriflamme, which, according to one legend, was carried by Charlemagne to Jerusalem.

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1122-1190) had Pope Paschal III canonise Charlemagne in 1165.

Two centuries later, the French declared Saint Charlemagne patron saint of France, alongside Saint Denis.

King Louis XI of France (1423-1483) instituted a holy day in Charlemagne's honour and ordered its observance on pain of death.

Charles VIII of France saw himself as a living reincarnation of Charlemagne.

Myth and legend

Myths and legends about Charlemagne were already written during his own lifetime, and multiplied in the following centuries. In the words of Derek Wilson in his biography of Charlemagne :

"No other figure in the whole of Western history has been more transformed in the popular imagination. More than a thousand partially or wholly spurious stories were added to the canon of his exploits. The Charlemagne legend became a veritable portemanteau into which chroniclers, troubadours, chruchmen and kings stuffed whatever ideological baggage they needed for their own purposes. Pilgrim, crusader, Christian warrior, chivalrous knight, pattern of perfect monarchy, moral exemplar, scholar prince, ancestor claimed by rival dynasts, protector of the Church, saint - in hindsight, Charles, son of Pepin, became all these things. Every age invents its own heroes by mixing truth and fiction. Britain has, among others, King Arthur, Robin Hood and Francis Drake, champions around whom a multitude of legends have gathered and been celebrated in prose, verse, song and film. But no other national hero in any European country approaches the stature achieved by Charlemagne in popular imagination. He became for later ages an all-purpose, charismatic figure, an amalgam of everything a Christian king should be, an example of whatever, from time to time, was esteemed by the prevailing political correctness."

Religious hero

One of Charlemagne's achievements was to unify most of Europe under a common religion, forcing pagans to convert to Christianity, and helping with the harmonisation of the various kinds of Christian beliefs of the time.

Two stories in particular, the Song of Roland and the Pilgrimage of Charlemagne to Constantinople and Jerusalem were used to bolster the religious fervour of Christian knights during the Crusades. In the words of Derek Wilson, "the holy emperor had been the prototype crusader who had fought the infidel in Spain and marched underneath the Oriflamme to the very portals of Jerusalem".

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