Christianity to 843
#26 The Carolingian Church

Published by Professor Alan L. Hayes, Wycliffe College

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Some references

Some primary sources

Fordham University, New York, has several selected sources from the Carolingian period.

One of these is The Donation of Constantine.

Here's a link to a copyrighted map of Charlemagne's Empire, ca. 800. It's a simple map to take in and it will help you picture the extent of his empire.

The Song of Roland, written in the 11th century or so, concerns Charlemagne's military adventures against Islamic Spain. See the Spark Notes on the Song of Roland.


Janet L. Nelson, a professor emerita at King's College, London, has published King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne, from University of California Press (2019).

The Donation of Constantine

Hanover College, Indiana, provides this very useful resource on the Donatoin of Constantine. The link will take you to a page with three options: a scholarly introduction, the "Donation of Constantine" itself, and a debunking of the Donation of Constantine by an early Renaissance writer, Lorenzo da Valla.

Other links

Here again is a lnk to Lynn Harry Nelson's lectures on medieval history. Note that three of them have to do with the Carolingian Empire.



The Franks, a Germanic people, emerge into the historical record in the third century CE, and they become a major western period under Clovis (d. 511). He made his capital in Paris. In 508, influenced by his wife, Clovis was baptized a Catholic Christian, a significant event since most Germanic Christians were Arians. As Francia grew in political clout over the next many generations, a resulting trend was the growing religious unification of European peoples within a Catholic Christianity centred on the papacy.

The Carolingian dynasty of Francia emerges with Charles Martel (d. 741). He himself was never king of the Franks, but was the power behind the throne, in the capacity of a major administrative official called "the mayor of the palace." (The word "Carolingian" derives from Charles Martel's Latin name, Carolus.) In 732 Charles Martel gained particular prestige by defeating the Muslim armies at Poitiers and Tours. His son Pepin the Short became the first king of the Carolingian dynasty in 751, through a bloodless coup. Pepin's son Charles, called "the Great" (Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne), became king in 768, and emperor on Christmas day, 800.

Charles Martel's army confronting the Muslim armies from the Umayyad Caliphate (in what's now Spain) at the Battle of Tours-Poitiers, 732.


The rise of the papacy

Before 650

We've already seen a number of reasons for the importance of the diocese of Rome, including the following:

Pictured is "Old St. Peter's," the basilica which Constantine had built on the site of the aedicula commemorating the martyrdom of St. Peter. It was torn down in the sixteenth century to make room for the present St. Peter's.

After 650

From the seventh to the ninth centuries further circumstances consolidated the authority of the medieval papacy:

At right: Charlemagne crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III. Public domain.


Charlemagne inherited the crown in 768. He conquered Saxony and Lombardy, and by the time he was through conquering, his territory extended over most of western Europe, except al-Andalus (which was controlled by the Emirate of Cordóba) and southern Italy (which was retained by the Lombards). In 800 the pope crowned Charlemagne emperor, much to the surprise of the emperor in Constantinople, who thought that he was the emperor.

The centre of Charlemagne's empire was Aachen, a town located in what is today in western Germany on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. (In English it's called by its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle.) The chapel in his palace is pictured here; it still stands, and serves as the cathedral for Aachen diocese.

Charlemagne and European unity

In recent decades Charlemagne's empire has been seen as embodying a vision for European unity. At least a dozen modern countries are geographically located in what was once Charlemagne's empire, and the example of a single political and administrative authority in charge of peoples of different languages and cultures has inspired some of the architects of the European Union and the Schengen Area. A high-rise building in Brussels that houses European Union offices is called the Charlemagne Building, and the best-known prize given to someone who has made a contribution to European unity is called the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen. All empires, however, seem to generate restlessness, and the European Union, despite having no one of Charlemagne's clout anywhere in sight, is seen by some as being managed by people with imperial aspirations.

The Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne's period is characterized by important developments in government administration and a renaissance in scholarship. The star of Carolingian scholarship was no doubt Alcuin (c. 735 – 804), whom Charlemagne brought from York in what is now the north of England (then Northumbria) to run the palace school. He also wrote theological works, and promoted the copying of manuscripts. Another figure of the Carolingian renaissance was Theodulf (d. 821), bishop of Orléans, who probably wrote the most important western statement on iconoclasm, the Libri carolini. (He opposed iconoclasm.) He's best known to us today as the author of the hymn "All glory, laud, and honour". Other Carolingian developments in church affairs include:

Aachen chapel, shown here, was part of Charlemagne's palace. The palace is gone, but the chapel has been preserved as part of the Aachen cathedral.

The Synod of Frankfurt (794)

The Synod of Frankfurt was a significant event in western church history for several reasons: it was convened by Charlemagne, not the Pope; Charlemagne was acclaimed as a "priest" (sacerdos by virtue of his being anointed by God; the council was attended by church leaders from across the kingdom; preparations were thorough and substantial; the conclusions of the Synod were important.

Among the considerable documentation produced in advance for the Synod, including agendas and treatises, the most notable was the Libri Carolini, which included theses on the devotional use of representational art. These were evidently intended as a response to the Second Council of Nicea of 787, with its high view of icons: or, to be precise, they were a response to the reports which they had received about Nicea II, which weren't quite accurate. Participants at the Synod of Frankfurt felt no obligation to agree with Nicea II. The Synod thus gives evidence that western Christianity now understood itself to be independent of the authority of the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern hierarchy. To put it otherwise, Eastern-dominated ecumenical councils could no longer speak for the universal Church.

Among its conclusions, the Synod of Frankfurt:

The Treaty of Verdun (843)

Charlemagne was succeeded by his son Louis "the Pious". On Louis' death, his three sons fought for control. Their wars were settled by the Treaty of Verdun, which divided Charlemagne's kingdom three ways. (The text itself hasn't survived.) Linguistic differences probably determined the boundaries; in west Francia people spoke Romance languages (descended from Latin); in east Francia they spoke Germanic languages. But something like this division became permanent. This was thus the beginning of our modern European map.

Here is a map of the area covered by the Treaty of Verdun. You can see that the western section looks a lot like the territory of modern France, the middle section a lot like the territory of the Low Countries / western Switzerland / northern Italy, and the eastern part a lot like the territory of modern Germany. In other words, this is the point at which the political map of modern Europe begins to take shape.