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Charlemagne and the Vision of a Christian Empire

Charlemagne and the Vision of a Christian Empire

Unifying Western Europe Through Imperial Conquest and Christian Reform

Happy are Emperors “if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship . . . . Wherefore if the true God is worshiped it is advantageous that good men should long reign both far and wide. Their piety and probity, which are great gifts of God, enable them to afterwards receive that which is eternal.  In this world, therefore, the dominion of good men is profitable for human affairs.” — St. Augustine[1]


When researching the life and times of Charlemagne, as well as his expansive legal, religious, and educational reforms, one begins to realize the complexity of the man who conquered Western Europe—the devoted churchman in whom was conferred the titles “Emperor” and “Augustus,” thus signifying that his empire was not only Roman, but holy. To confine Charlemagne to a mere retelling of events would be to miss the deep and rich historical treasures that lay beneath the historical record; and most of all, it would be to miss the driving spiritual forces that motivated this legend of European history—a man who has been referred to as the father of the Holy Roman Empire.

To this day, and especially to many who are even vaguely acquainted with the historical record, Charlemagne stands out as the personification of everything that is unselfish and noble, a conqueror who visualized himself as the champion of European unity with the purpose of saving Europe through imperial conquest—an evangelist with a sword. As it turns out, Charlemagne did see himself as the Conqueror of everything pagan and heterodox and the divinely destined builder of Augustine’s City of God—of “one God, one emperor, one pope, one city of God.”[2]  It was as if Charlemagne consciously sought to fulfill Plato’s vision of the ideal philosopher king. After all, Europe badly needed a conquering strong man like David of old, who could exercise wisdom and discernment in the sustainment of God’s new Jerusalem on earth.

This research effort will also endeavor to uncover the motivational factors and purposes underlying Charlemagne’s conquests. This includes understanding his father’s devotion to the Church and military defense of the same, as well as his Donation. Directly linked to these events are the Church-State and East-West ramifications of Charlemagne’s coronation by Pope Leo III. As is the case with most significant historical developments, the fruits of Charlemagne’s coronation would not be seen until a few hundred years after his death in 814. Yet the developmental seeds would be planted in Charlemagne’s application of Church and State, particularly in the administrative roles of bishops. Charlemagne, and especially Alcuin,[3] were convinced that it was not enough to establish Augustine’s City of God through imperial conquest alone. The most efficient way to save souls was to reform the Church—those who professed to know how.

Charlemagne’s imperial reforms would not only combine the strictly traditional spiritual roles of bishops with the innovative ideological construct of having them function as civil servants (and sometimes as provincial governors throughout the realm), this practice would eventually sow the seeds of transforming the Church into a civil institution as well. This would give the Church an added dimension and would greatly augment the development of an ecclesiastical empire: where the authority of the Church would dominate the State. Although this was not Charlemagne’s intent, his determination to demonstrate his loyalty and devotion to the Church bore seeds of their own, even the seeds of later European inquisitions. This was not because this was somehow an evil conspiracy cooked up by Charlemagne, or even by the Church for that matter; but rather, it was a natural outgrowth of these initial civil administrative, and ecclesiastical policies. This seems to have originated, once again, with Charlemagne’s well-intentioned understanding of the Augustinian notion that the king was responsible to God for his subjects’ spiritual welfare.[4]

Charlemagne’s Rise to Power

Extent and Nature of Charlemagne’s Conquests

Charlemagne began his long regal career at the age of 30 when he became the sole ruler of the kingdom of the Franks in 771. At that time the northern half of Europe was still pagan and lawless; in the south, the Roman Catholic church was striving to assert its power against the Lombard kingdom in Italy; and in Charlemagne’s own realm, the Franks were falling back into barbarian ways, neglecting their education and religion. This motivated Charlemagne (742?-814) to strengthen his realm and to bring Christian order to Europe. In 772 he launched a thirty-year campaign to conquer and Christianize the powerful pagan Saxons in the north which resulted in the systematic expansion of his dream for a Christian empire. He also subdued the Avars, a huge Tatar tribe on the Danube, and compelled the rebellious Bavarian dukes to submit to him.  However, when possible he preferred to settle matters peacefully. Charlemagne once offered to pay the Lombard king Desiderius for the return of lands to the pope, but, when Desiderius refused, he seized his kingdom in 773 and restored the Papal States the following year.[5]

Some historians point out that the key to Charlemagne’s amazing conquests was his ability to organize military expeditions. During his forty-six year reign he sent out fifty-three of them.[6] He moved his armies over wide reaches of country with unbelievable speed, with every move planned in advance. Before a campaign he told the counts, princes, and bishops throughout his realm how many men they should bring, what arms they were to carry, and even what to load in the supply wagons. These feats of organization and the swift marches would influence Napoleon. But more importantly, his organizing abilities would also serve him well when organizing the governing districts within his empire. By 800 Charlemagne was the undisputed ruler of Western Europe. His vast realm covered what are now France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It included half of present-day Italy and Germany, part of Austria, and the Spanish March (“border”). The broad March reached to the Ebro River.[7] After establishing the seat of government at Aix-la-Chapelle—the new Jerusalem with a new David at the helm—Charlemagne restored much of the unity of the old Roman Empire and paved the way for the development of the Holy Roman Empire.[8]

His Father’s Devotion to the Church

Charlemagne’s desire to save Europe through conquest and Christian reform seems to have been directly linked to his father’s armed conflicts in behalf of defending the Church in Rome (against Lombardian attacks). As Edward Peters points out, “Charlemagne appreciated his father’s successful cooperation with reform minded churchmen to accomplish his revolution, and he himself appears to have acknowledged a genuine personal responsibility to improve the spiritual character of his kingdom.”[9] Pepin III (714?-768), also known as Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, paved the way for a strong Frankish-papal alliance in Rome’s effort to break with the Byzantine Empire in the east by specifically defending papal interests in the West. For example, when the Lombards threatened Rome in 753, Pope Stephen III entreated Pepin to defend the Church. Pepin not only agreed to defend the Church, he promised to give to the church the lands wrested from the Lombards. This promise was realized in The Donation of Pepin in 756. In essence, Pepin assigned the former Byzantine territory around Ravenna to the pope. This was the birth of the Papal States.[10]

So strong was Pepin’s commitment, Vatican documents record that even after being entreated by an imperial messenger representing the Byzantine Empire to return Ravenna and other cities that the Lombards had taken, to the Exarchate,[11] this messenger “was not able to persuade the steadfast heart of that most Christian and benevolent king, who was faithful to God and loved St. Peter, namely Pepin the king of the Franks.” The document goes on to record that “That same friend of God and most benevolent king absolutely refused to alienate those cities from the power of St. Peter and the jurisdiction of the Roman church or from the pontiff of the apostolic see. He affirmed under oath that he had not engaged in war so often to win the favor of any man but for the love of St. Peter and for the remission of his sins, and he declared that no enrichment of this treasury would persuade him to snatch away what he had once offered to St. Peter.”[12] Not surprisingly, Pepin’s act of devotion would lead to an even closer relationship between the Franks and the papacy; it would lead to an ever widening separation from the Byzantine Empire and the seat of the Eastern Church in Constantinople;[13] and it would plant the seeds of a new empire in the West by transferring this same sense of devotion to his son Charlemagne.

According to Church historian Philip Schaff, what makes Pepin’s act of devotion particularly interesting is that Pope Stephen III not only commanded Pepin “in the name of Peter and the holy Mother of God” to defend the city of Rome, he offered him eternal life in the largest estate in heaven if he obeyed.[14] Schaff did not spare any words when he commented, “To such a height of blasphemous assumption had the papacy risen already as to identify itself with the kingdom of Christ and to claim to be the dispenser of temporal prosperity and eternal salvation.”[15]

Like Father, Like Son[16]

The exhausted oriental idiom “Like father, like son,” seems to help summarize Charlemagne’s devotion to the Church; because as Einhard records, Charlemagne “cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion, which had been instilled into him from infancy.”[17] He would soon have his chance to prove that he was a chip off the old block, and even better.

After the death of his father in 768, there occurred another Lombard insurrection which tested the strength of Charlemagne’s dispatch and military leadership strength. In 774, during the third year of his reign,[18] he received a letter from Pope Hadrian I reminding him of his father’s donation of the lands that became sovereign Papal States in 756 after routing the Lombards, and offered to Charlemagne the same incentives that had been offered by Pope Stephen III.[19] After defeating the Lombards most historians believe that Charlemagne enlarged his father’s gift to the pope even though there are no records authenticating this. However, as Philip Schaff points out, since the gift “rested only on the right of conquest,” Charlemagne “styled himself ‘Rex Francorum et  Longobardorum, et Patricius Romanorum’.” Apparently this did not make Pope Hadrian to happy. Hadrian’s letters to Charlemagne indicate that he “considered himself as much an absolute sovereign in his dominion as pope as Charles did in his.”[20]

In 781, when Charlemagne visited Rome for a second time, an interesting precedent occurred in which Pope Hadrian anointed Charles “King for Italy.” Some historians see this as a forerunner to Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, when again “the most holy bishop and pontiff anointed his most excellent son Charles as king with holy oil.” In 796 Pope Leo III would give the keys of the standards of the city, and the keys of Peter’s sepulcher to Charlemagne as “tokens of submission.”[21]

Charlemagne’s Coronation Revisited

East-West Considerations

These events not only appear to be the forerunners of an orchestrated buildup of homage toward Charlemagne, but they also seem to indicate that as he conquered more and more territory in Western Europe, the Church was willing to live with Charlemagne’s caesaro-papal dictates as long as it meant further independence from, and eventual supremacy over, the East.[22] As Brian Tierney suggests,

The popes must have known . . . that their title was insecure so long as it was not recognized by the imperial authorities at Constantinople and, moreover, that the emperors there would never willingly acknowledge it. The only real hope of establishing beyond doubt the legitimacy of the papal claim lay in the institution of a new Roman emperor in the West on whom the popes could rely as a friend and protector. It was probably this factor more than any other which led to the dramatic climax of the Frankish-papal alliance: the coronation of Pepin’s son Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans in St. Peter’s church at Rome on Christmas Day, A.D. 800.[23]

As Charlemagne rose from prayer after receiving Mass, Pope Leo III is said to have seized a golden crown from the altar and placed it on the bowed head of the king, thus serving notice that the Church had certain demands on him that could not go unnoticed. The throng in the church shouted, “To Charles the August, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, long life and victory!”[24] Not surprisingly, the coronation had its intended effect. Shortly following Charlemagne’s crowning, Einhard records that the Eastern Roman emperors were “ill,” “envious” and “indignant” at Charles for accepting the title of Holy Roman Emperor.[25]

Church-State Ramifications

Even though it is recorded that Charlemagne graciously accepted his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, “Augustus” (what else could he do?), for medieval Europe this would remarkably symbolize the growing tension between Church and State, and remind him that the Church would do whatever it took to gain the upperhand. As Brian Tierney so eloquently states, “By one brilliant gesture Pope Leo established the precedent, adhered to throughout the Middle Ages, that papal coronation was essential to the making of an emperor, and thereby implanted the germ of the later idea that the empire itself was a gift to be bestowed by the papacy.”[26]  As Philip Schaff argues, “The pope, by voluntarily conferring the imperial crown upon Charles, might claim that the empire was his gift, and that the right of crowning implied the right of uncrowning.”[27] Given enough time, this would come true. There is a mosaic picture located in the triclinium of Leo III in the Lateran (from the ninth century) representing  St. Peter in glory. Peter is seen conferring a priestly stole as Leo is kneeling at his right hand, and Charles is being given the standard of Rome as he kneels at his left hand. As Philip Schaff suggests, “This is the medieval hierarchical theory, which derives all power from God through Peter as the head of the Church.”[28]

The debate as to whether Charlemagne had expected to be hailed as emperor may not seem readily significant. Yet, as Brian Tierney points out, Charlemagne must have known that “there was no historical justification for any participation by the pope in the creation of a new emperor; acclamation by the people was the constitutive act.”[29] This could explain the account by Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard that Charles had specifically visited Rome for the purpose of setting in order the affairs of the Church after Pope Leo III had claimed that he had been abducted and had had his tongue and eyes cut out, of which neither turned out be true. In other words, it appears that Charlemagne did not intentionally come to Rome to be coronated by the pope. Even though the Annals of Lorsch record that Charles had corroborated with Pope Leo to officially accept the title of Emperor at the synod of December 23, it appears that the event was altogether staged. As Brian Tierney states, it appears that the congregation was “evidently well-drilled beforehand” as they “broke into the ritual acclamations that greeted the accession of a new emperor: ‘To Charles, most pious Augustus . . . life and victory’.”[30] Thus, as Einhard recorded: “It was then that he received the titles of Emperor and Augustus, to which he at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they were conferred if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.”[31]  The papal record indicates that the pope would not have dared to act without Charlemagne’s knowledge. If Einhard’s account is true, it would perhaps explain why Charlemagne continued to follow his design of appointing the bishops of the various dioceses in the realm instead of the pope.

Conflicting Designs of Pope and Emperor

For Charlemagne, defending the Church in Rome became one step closer toward the realization of establishing Augustine’s City of God. But for Rome this meant the possibility of fulfilling its dream of breaking with the East. Moreover, it seems that it became reassuringly easier for the Church to champion what it believed was Charlemagne’s misapplication of Augustine’s City of God, especially if it meant stripping the supremacy of the Church in the East by re-establishing it in the West. The Church had one thing going for it: as Charlemagne “doubled” with the sword the territory that his father Pepin had conquered based on his dream to fulfill what he believed was Augustine’s design for God’s city on earth, he also endeavored to strengthen, nurture, and unify it with the cross.[32] In the long run, this could only mean rich dividends for the Church. As Jacques Boussard once put it, if Charlemagne’s coronation meant anything to the Church, they saw it as “the dawn of the Augustinian theory of the magistrature conferred by God, and its consequences: that royalty must be judged and controlled by the true delegates of God—the heads of the Church.”[33]

The Augustinian Motif and Historiographical Considerations

Augustine’s Influence on Charlemagne

Therefore, to what extent was Augustine’s City of God a motivator in Charlemagne’s desire to conquer Western Europe, and to what degree did Charlemagne understand Augustine’s theological intent in the political and/or magisterial use of compelling force to convert the unbeliever (and heterodox believer) to a life of Christian obedience? Was Augustine’s City of God a means to possibly justify an unfulfilled wish of his father’s, King Pepin III, and also to justify his own consistent devotion to the Church? Also, in the process of conquering the barbaric (“heathen”) and heterodox tribes of Western Europe, was it possible that Augustine’s work was misinterpreted by Charlemagne in another sense as well: Augustine’s belief that the disciplinary sword of the government was to be used only as a last resort in reforming the unregenerate? Charlemagne’s use of sheer, brute force to save Europe and to unify it for Christian ends perhaps represented the methodical nerve center in Charlemagne’s visionary quest for a Christian Empire.

Charlemagne’s ideas regarding the mastery of kingdoms for religious ends—achieved by means of political, legal, and religious force—was not considered unique or out of the ordinary in terms of understanding the natural tendencies of human nature. As Pierre Manent points out, “It is impossible to overemphasize just how powerful the idea of empire was in men’s minds, even long after the Roman Empire had fallen. Every king wanted to be “emperor of his kingdom.” Thus, he asks, “What is the content of the idea of empire? It is the bringing together of all the known world, of the orbis terrarum, under a unique power. The idea of empire does not refer primarily to the conquering zeal of a few individuals (Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, or Napoleon). It corresponds instead to men’s unity, to the universality of human nature, which wants to be recognized and addressed by a unique power.” This power, he argues, “is a natural political idea.”[34]

Augustine recognized this natural relationship, and characterized it as a tale of two irreconcilable, yet eternal cities: 1) the city of man, and 2) the city of God. While these cities are the antithesis of one another, they nevertheless need each other. The city of man represents everything that is temporal and is fleshly. Human nature is at once Godly and fleshly, a state in which sinful man requires the perfect grace of God. The City of Man is self-centered and relies on the very force of its nature, whereas the City of God is redemptive and relies on the spirit of love.[35] In other words, while loathing the political beast that man is by nature, the City of Man is necessary in the employment of God’s will on earth; and since it is naturally possessed by its own greedy and immoral seeds of self-destruction, it must therefore be guided by divine inspiration. For Charlemagne, that inspiration was found in Augustine’s City of God.

Einhard, Charlemagne’s son-in-law and official biographer, records that Charles was influenced by Augustine’s books, specifically the one titled “The City of God,” and especially enjoyed Alcuin’s readings of the same during dinner time.[36] John Neville Figgis suggests that Charlemagne was singularly attracted to the portrait of a Christian prince contained in Augustine’s fifth book, primarily because it inspired him to establish his empire upon noble virtues. He was fond of Augustine’s counsel that Christian emperors are happiest when “they reign justly, free from being puffed up with the glossing exaltations of their attendance or the cringes of their subjects; if they know themselves to be but men, and remember that; if they make their power their trumpeter, to divulge the true adoration of God’s majesty; if they love, fear and honour Him; if they long most for that empire where they need not fear to have partners; if they be slack to avenge, quick to forgive; if they use correction for the public good, and not for private hate; if their pardons promise not liberty of offending, but indeed only hope of reformation; if they counterpoise their enforced acts of severity with the like weight of bounty and clemency; if their lusts be the lesser, because they have the larger license; if they desire to rule their own effects, rather than others’ estates; and if they do all things, not for glory, but for charity, and with all, and before all, give God the due sacrifice of prayer for the imperfections; such Christian emperors we call happy, here in hope, and hereafter when the time we look for comes, indeed.”[37]

What intrigued Charlemagne the most were the eternal rewards that accorded such princely virtue. It was therefore inspirational for him to absorb the natural into the supernatural and to be driven to heroic conquests when hearing the words, happy are Christian emperors “if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship.”[38] Another translation of this same passage has it: “We call them happy when they think of sovereignty as a ministry of God and use it for the spread of the true religion.”[39] In another section Augustine advocated that emperors be Christian, not only for the advancement of the worship of the “true God,” but so that “good men should long reign both far and wide” for the common good of their subjects and for the reward “which is eternal.”[40]

However, Charlemagne did not visualize himself as the head of a Civitas terrena, of an earthly city. Instead, he sought to conquer and establish an empire in which Christ was King, “in which the true God was worshiped, and none other; a commonwealth inspired by justice in the strictest sense, including all the theological implications of S. Augustine.” In other words, the realm of ” ‘imperial Charlemagne’ was a Christian Empire, the City of God on earth.”[41]

Augustine’s Hierarchical Roles of Church and State

From the perspective of churchmen contemporary to Charlemagne, society and/or the City of Man, then, could only be saved through divine revelation, and the sole possessors of divine revelation were the people of faith. Therefore, their view of political Augustinianism posited that the City of Man is to be instructed by the people of faith—the Church—and is thereby to emulate the virtues of the City of God—goodness, justice and so on—as the Church directs.[42] Also, since it is useless to pursue a Christian end except by Christian means, then it is equally important for the City of Man to work in cooperation with God’s universal church to achieve a universal religious society. In other words, by playing off of Augustine’s statement that it was for the very reason of Rome’s moral and civic failures that divine authority intervened for its salvation in order to usher in the building of a new Empire, churchmen suggested that the City of God was the Church, and without the Church’s supremacy formally recognized, there could be no lasting and/or eternal City of God established on earth.[43]

However, as Vernon J. Bourke points out, “In spite of the enormous influence of Augustinianism in the development of medieval society and in spite of the fact that certain members of the medieval Church did become ambitious and desirous of temporal power—it is true that St. Augustine never preached in favor of the Church entering into earthly politics.”[44] The reason for this, Garrett Sheldon Ward explains, is because Augustine visualized the Church as “caught between the two cities, situated in both, but residing wholly in neither.”[45] This merely meant that God’s government in heaven was ultimately in charge of his own Church on earth. However, since the Church also represented God’s vicar and/or divine representative here on earth, and answered directly to God, the Church was thus naturally above the State because it was answerable to God through the Church. While each was to play a distinct and important role of its own, their hierarchical roles were spelled out in a sermon delivered by Augustine:

Consider these several grades of human powers. If the magistrate enjoin any thing, must it not be done? Yet if his order be in opposition to the Proconsul, thou dost not surely despise the power, but choosest to obey a greater power. Nor in this case ought the less to be angry, if the greater be preferred. Again, if the Proconsul himself enjoin any thing, and the Emperor another thing, is there any doubt, that disregarding the former, we ought to obey the latter? So then if the Emperor enjoin one thing, and God another, what judge ye? Pay me tribute, submit thyself to my allegiance. Right, but not in an idol’s temple. In an idol’s temple He forbids it. Who forbids it? A greater Power. Pardon me then: thou threatenest a prison. He threateneth hell.[46]

Despite this detailed hierarchy, Vernon Bourke argues that Augustine’s philosophy of history had nothing to do with “a charter for a Holy Roman Empire: the City of God is not a political institution.” He stresses that Augustine cannot be appropriately used as “a patron of the identification of the Church and State.” Moreover, he argues, Augustine emphasized the regeneration of the “individual” hearts of men, “rather than of political institutions.” But in another work, Bourke seems to soft-peddle a different spin when he posits that Charlemagne’s entire dream, and partial realization, of a Holy Roman Empire “may have owed its stimulus to a misunderstanding of the City of God.” He admits that Charlemagne was worthily obsessed with the objective of creating a society “embracing all good men,” but argues that what Charlemagne failed to understand “was the broad, supernatural scope of Augustine’s social thinking.”[47] Bourke even suggests that Charlemagne’s short-lived empire was not a “creature” of Augustine’s City of God, but owed much more to “Byzantine notion[s] of an all-embracing Christian society.”[48]  Edward R. Hardy backs up Bourke’s critique when the scholar turns his attention to Augustine’s own words, “we find that he is describing a human conflict” between two natures “rather than propounding a political program.”[49]

But John Neville Figgis takes the argument further.  While defending the notion that Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire was forged on the fundamental precepts of Augustine’s City of God, Figgis similarly argues that to attempt to ascribe such intentions to Augustine is going too far. In fact he says, “The notion of the ‘great State’ of the Middle Ages as the Civitas Dei—has nothing to do with the question of whether Augustine taught a doctrine of hierarchical domination or no,” but rather, it has everything to do with a cooperative working relationship between the Church and the State for the common good.[50] In the case of Charlemagne, this clearly meant that the Christian king should be able to exercise all the necessary powers within his benevolent control for the direction of both, and for the good of all. In other words, Charlemagne’s caesaro-papism, which was evident by his insistence on appointing bishops to the chagrin of Pope Leo III, was entirely consistent, as Bourke argues, with “Byzantine notions of an all-embracing Christian society.” Therefore, while being hailed as the champion of the Western Church located in Rome, Charlemagne held on to the established Constantinian practice of playing a significant role in directing the affairs of the Church. Defending the Church in Rome became one step closer toward the realization of establishing Augustine’s City of God—and for Rome this meant the possibility of fulfilling its dream of breaking with the East. Moreover, it seems that it became reassuringly easier for the Church (assuming this includes Church theologians) to champion Charlemagne’s misapplication of Augustine’s City of God, especially if it meant stripping the supremacy of the Church in the East by reestablishing it in the West.

The Duality of the Natural and Supernatural in Augustine’s Two Cities

It seems that such misunderstandings were commonplace in Charlemagne’s day, largely because Augustine’s City of God became more and more the grand manipulator of both Church and State hierarchies. As the Middle Ages wore on, Augustine’s phrases and ideas were tossed every which way on both sides of the great dispute within the Empire. The question of whether the pope or emperor was to be the dominating and controlling authority grew in intensity. Eventually the fruits of such debates were represented in Gratian’s ecclesiastical Decretals and Pope Gregory IX’s implementation of them (with the purpose of forever liquidating heretics within their midst), beginning in 1234. But these misunderstandings not only had their roots in the Church-State struggle for supremacy, they were also rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the natural and supernatural in Augustine’s two cities.

What Bourke meant by arguing that Augustine’s philosophy of history had nothing to do with “a charter for a Holy Roman Empire,” and that “the City of God is not a political institution,” is an important consideration at this juncture. John Rohr points out that Augustine’s understanding of the “ministerial function of the state—the stress on the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal, the City of God over the City of Men—does not affirm a rigid control of the state by the Church, for it is a commonplace of Augustinian criticism today that whatever the City of God may be, it is certainly not the Church, nor is the state the City of Men.”[51] Thus, for Bourke, “the City of God is not a political institution” per se. Then what is it? Rohr suggests that Augustine’s City of God “is not a question of institutions but of values.” This arises, he says, from Augustine’s simulation of Christian justice and the effects of human nature with the nature of the state, thus developing more of “a political theology than a philosophy.”[52]

Therefore, Augustine’s tendency to absorb the natural into the supernatural “is not” necessarily “a question of the Church absorbing the state, but rather of the spiritual absorbing the temporal. In the case of Charlemagne, when he takes Augustine’s words at face value—that Christian emperors are happiest when “they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship”—he sees an unequivocal calling to function as God’s servant who is duly charged to administer the greatest good for the common good, for both the Church and the State.[53] As Rohr argues, “Augustine’s own thinking was rooted in a political theology that considered the ruler as the minister of God and therefore of the Church because of its divine commission. He is the Church’s minister in a way that the schoolmen of a later age would call sensu aiente, i.e., he is the minister of the Church, but he is not only the minister of the Church, he has other functions that are independent of the Church’s influence.”[54] In other words, the concept of Caesaro-papism[55] was consistent with the political aspects of Augustine’s City of God, and therefore dialectically congruous in describing Charlemagne’s noble vision of establishing a Holy Roman Empire with a Carolingian flair.[56] This also seems to fit into Augustine’s view of history and the nature of man as it relates to the nature of the State. The nature of the sword was moral, thus disciplinary and reformatory.

Compulsory Missionary Methods

Augustine and the Civil Arm

Augustine’s initial reluctance to call on the civil power to administer repressive disciplinary measures in the Donatist controversy seems to stem from the contemporary opinion of his day that the Church had no business soliciting the government to take care of its own internal disputes.[57] But after seeing that many who had returned to the Church under legal pressure had become happy and praiseworthy Catholics, he concluded that it should be used; but only with the pastoral intent of bringing unity to the Church and salvation to the Donatists. In a letter to a Donatist named Vencentius, Augustine noted:

Originally my opinion was, that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason, lest we should have those whom we knew as avowed heretics feigning themselves to be Catholics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by the conclusive instances to which they could point. For, in the first place, there was set over against my opinion my own town [Hippo], which, although it was once wholly on the side of Donatus, was brought over to the Catholic unity by fear of the imperial edicts.[58]

As Leo Pfeffer once put it, Augustine believed that “it was better that the heretics should be purged of their error, even by punishment, than that they should die unsaved.” In fact, for Augustine “compulsion in such cases was benevolent, ‘for what is a worse killer of the soul than freedom to err.’ ” Augustine’s favorite scriptural passage backing governmental coercion for the sake of saving souls became Luke 14:23: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”[59] And in one section of Augustine’s City of God, Augustine asserts that the Catholic faith is affirmed by the obstinate resistance of heretics because it magnifies the Church’s longsuffering restraint and thus legitimizes her “terrible discipline.”[60] From this perspective, it is not hard to understand how medieval commentators could presume that Augustine advocated a church over state theory, from his spiritual over temporal theories contained in the City of God. Once this step was taken, Rohr argues, “history was on the long and tragic trail of political Augustinianism.”[61]

Alcuin v. Charlemagne: Promoting Augustine’s Theme of Peace

In Charlemagne’s case, Alcuin encouraged him to concentrate his political activities toward regulating and directing the religious affairs of the state instead of fighting never-ending wars.[62] Yet, it was Charlemagne who insisted that an empire full of pagans was an evil empire. Therefore, they must be conquered if they are ever to be won to Christ and His Church. Alcuin had a hard time accepting this obsession of Charlemagne’s, especially if it did not fit the intellectual and spiritual embodiment of “peace” that Alcuin believed was quintessential in properly understanding Augustine’s City of God. Among Charlemagne’s advisers, only Alcuin connected the Augustinian motif to the idea of peace.

Even though Charlemagne’s advisers dared not to question him on any matter regarding governmental policies, Alcuin did not spare any words in three specific written Epistles (107, 110, and 111). In all three he made known to Charlemagne how exasperated he was of his method of forcing the conversion of Saxons and the Huns—which many times meant whole villages were ran through with the sword, pillaged, or burned. It is true, that in an age when the usual penalty for defeat was death, Charlemagne several times spared the lives of his defeated foes. However, in one specific instance in 782 at Verden, after a Saxon uprising, he ordered 4,500 Saxons beheaded, and compelled the clergy and nobles to reform. Alcuin believed that such a practice was barbaric, and at best pagan in nature—having nothing to do with Christ’s method of dealing with enemies in the midst of war. He wrote at one point, “Under his shadow the Christian people live in peace and the pagan nations stand everywhere in terror.”[63] He pointed out to Charlemagne that contained within Augustine’s City of God was a golden thread that ran throughout: that “faith is a voluntary matter, not one of coercion.”[64] Moreover, coercion was only to be used as a means of last resort, never as a primary instrument.

Alcuin believed that just as divine providence fought in Charlemagne’s behalf, so too could divine providence just as quickly take his developing empire away from him. He said, “I know in Whose Hands are the powers of all kings and kingdoms.” It is not the size of the kingdom that counts, but its moral fiber. He pointed out that many of “the greatest empires in the world” had vanished due to their own brutal natural and internal dissensions, whereas many a small town or province had flourished because it had learned to live by means of love, forgiveness, and peace. Finally, Alcuin reminded Charlemagne that his power and authority was not unlimited, and that he was not above the law. Furthermore, he was especially not above the laws of the Church, or of his father’s imperial forerunners.

Reform and Implementation

The Legal Mess

After his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, Charlemagne declared war on the political and constitutional anarchy that existed among the Franks and throughout much of the empire, by establishing a centralized legal code and through an organized network of (missi dominici) itinerant judges from the royal court who made legal inquiries (inquisitios) and issued decrees or changes in the laws in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor.[65] He then paid an enormous amount of attention on reforming the spiritual condition of his subjects by improving their liturgical practices; by calling for deeper personal devotion to the Church; and by reforming canonical laws more in conformity with Rome’s. And last, but not least, he promoted cultural reform through a formal educational training that gave special attention to the liberal arts.[66] Charlemagne expected the common people to receive as good an education as his own children.[67]

When seeking to reform the existing legal code, Einhard simply states that Charlemagne, upon “finding the laws of his people very defective (the Franks have two sets of laws,[68] very different in many particulars), he determined to add what was wanting, to reconcile the discrepancies, and to correct what was vicious and wrongly cited in them.” However, he records, “he went no further in this matter than to supplement the laws by a few capitularies, and those imperfect ones.” But in reference to all the various common laws that existed among the tribes that were located throughout the empire, he ordered them “to be compiled and reduced to writing.”[69]

In many respects, however, Charlemagne’s attempt to reform the expanding empire was difficult at best, exhaustingly complex, and often ineffective. As Edward Peters points out, “Charlemagne’s actual legal reforms were greatly outnumbered by the reforms that he wanted to institute but could not. The material and political limitations on monarchy, even one as great as Charlemagne’s, were substantial. Charlemagne’s emphasis and insistence upon judges’ obligation toward written law was overshadowed both by custom and by the reluctance of judges and litigants themselves. Above all, the accusatorial procedure of litigation in both civil and criminal cases came virtually to eliminate the inquisitorial procedure that had taken over Roman law and been introduced into the law of the Church in the fourth century. To charge anyone with any offense, public or private, once again required an accuser, and the limited institutions of social control in eighth- and ninth-century Europe made the process difficult and cumbersome. Even in the days of Charlemagne’s greatest power, the administration of the law was more a matter of reaching agreeable truces between contending parties than impersonally administering a common law for all people.”[70]

What was even more troubling about administering the law in a continually expanding empire was the amount of legal codes available to Charlemagne, and the variety of peoples attached to these codes. Besides possessing two constitutions for the Franks, the Salic and Ripuarian, including Charlemagne’s promise to recognize the legality of the Barbarian Codes of the various Germanic tribes within his empire (until he could get around to amending them in accordance with the changing social and political conditions), he was at a loss on how to apply justice toward a non-Frankish ethnic minority living in the midst of a completely Frankish environment, especially when the Frank, Bavarian, Burgundian, and Lombard each appealed to be judged in comformity with his own respective national law book.[71]

As Luitpold Wallach asserts, this legal mess lends credence to the notion that “neither Charlemagne nor any member of his court could have been familiar with each one of the national codes used in the empire,” and thus “the presence of legal experts at his court was an administrative necessity.” In accordance with his legal advisers, Charlemagne reluctantly adopted the use of the Lex Romana Visigothorum, also known as the Breviarium Alaricianum, when sending forth the (missi dominici) itinerant judges from the royal court to make legal inquiries (inquisitios). This code incorporated both the Salic and Ripuarian constitutions of the Franks, and thus became the principal representative of Roman law among the Franks.[72]

The Breviarium Alaricianum was the law code for persons of Gallo-Roman origin—the remnants of Spanish Visigoths in Septimania, Aquitania, and the Spanish Marches, as well as for the Frankish Church.[73] Alaric II, king of the Visigoths in Spain, published this code in 506 A.D. as a revision of the Codex Theodosianus (a code compiled by emperor Theodosius the younger in 438 A.D.), specifically for the use of his Roman subjects. Even though both the Theodosianus and the Breviarium codes were later superseded by the Justinian Code in 528 A.D., it was apparently ignored by Charlemagne altogether.[74]  Henry Campbell Black, of Black’s Law Dictionary fame, seems to imply that Western Europe, at least the secular rulers, purposely ignored the Justinian Code due to the expanding rivalry between the East and West. This seems to be a rational explanation in light of Charlemagne’s newly established Holy Roman Empire in the West at the expense of the Byzantine Empire and Church in the East. He states that the Theodosian Code “was a collection of all the imperial constitutions then in force. It was the only body of civil law publicly received as authentic in the western part of Europe till the twelfth century, the use and authority of the Code of Justinian being during that interval confined to the East.”[75]

To confuse matters even more, when Charlemagne made legislative decrees these were called in Frankish terminology “capitularies.” Initially capitularies often took on the form of civil decrees, but they would also have a specific ecclesiastical function as well. But in 774 Charlemagne received from Pope Hadrian I a copy of the collection of conciliar canons and decretals compiled in the sixth century by the monk Dionysius Exiguus. Charlemagne would use this collection as the basis for religious legislation, and for his ecclesiastical capitularies. However, because he wanted to avoid the Church’s manipulations, he used this collection as it suited him. The main reason was because Charles knew that the papacy wanted him to develop a unified canonical pattern worked out under its supervision.[76]

Reforming the Church through Educational Enterprise

Even though Charles was extremely devoted to the Church, he could not bring himself to accept the concept of a Church and State united. Instead, he envisioned a theocracy based on the Old Testament and Old Testament laws; and especially upon the Church-State relationship manifested in the roles of Moses and Aaron. While Aaron served as the high priest and functioned in strictly spiritual terms, Moses was both magistrate and prophet, and could also go into the temple holy places when necessary, thus giving him direct oversight over all matters pertaining to God and man.  Charlemagne viewed himself as the divinely appointed protector, regulator, and executor of the external and internal affairs of the Church. For example, he not only appointed bishops without the pope’s permission, he also called imperial synods without even bothering to ask the pope. In 794 he presided at the Council of Frankfurt. At this particular council, Charlemagne, upon Alcuin’s advice, and upon appeals of certain nonconformists, rejected The Second Council of Nicaea’s (787) approval of image worship even though it went against the declared views of several popes.

Charlemagne for the most part possessed noble goals. But if he had one weakness, it was that he thought of himself too highly. He was often compared to King David by his chief counselor Alcuin.[77] (This Frankish custom actually began with King Clothair II in 614 in a conciliar canon, which also invited the prince to serve the people of God and the Church faithfully.) Charlemagne’s ecclesiastical policies were largely based on precedents of the Old Testament. In a 789 capitulary (law) intended for the clergy and scholars of the Church (in the Admonitio generalis or General Admonition), Charlemagne decided to be brash and compared himself to King Josiah in his absolute authority over the religious life of the kingdom of Judah.[78] Charlemagne essentially saw himself as not only the conquering emperor, but also as the great reformer of the Church. Furthermore, he believed that his own devotion to the virtues of Christianity and to the Church should be reflected throughout the empire.

Of the many religious reforms that were put in place, none were more noticeable than the ones aimed at reforming the lower clergy, the monasteries, and especially liturgical practices. It was common knowledge that the clergy had gotten lazy and more licentious; had been ill-equipped; and the young men coming up through the ranks were largely illiterate and poorly uneducated. Taken straight from Charlemagne’s Admonitio generalis mentioned above, Charlemagne urged “the ministers of the altar of God [to] adorn their ministry by good behaviour, and likewise the other orders who observe a rule, and the congregations of monks. We implore them to lead such a life as befits their profession . . . . Let them join and associate to themselves not only children of servile condition, but also sons of freemen. And let schools be established in which boys may learn to read. Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing, the sons, the calendar, the grammar, in each monastery or bishopric, and the Catholic books; because often men desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of incorrect books. And do not permit mere boys to corrupt them in reading or writing. If the Gospel, Psalter, and Missal have to be copied let men of mature age do the copying, with the greatest care.”[79]

Other reforms included the demand that the clergy abide by a stricter observance of the canons, especially in the monasteries. It would not take long for Charles to produce a considerable amount of religious legislation: 1) mandatory Sunday observance; 2) the duties of priests; 3) laws regarding parishioners and godparents; 4) the dating of Easter; and 5) the contents of sermons. Charles wanted more meat in the sermons, but spoken in the common vernacular and with allegorical meaning as a stimulus to personal understanding and enrichment. Besides this, he also wanted the sermon content to be more focused on such basic tenets as the gospel, the holy trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, and topics on Christian virtues such as chastity, humility, modesty, charity, liberality, compassion, moderation in eating and drinking, and abstinence from everyday activities and marital sex on Sunday.  He also raised the qualifications for priests: “A priest was to know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the rites of exorcism, the Book of Pennances, the calender of the church’s year, the texts for Sundays and holy days, and ‘Roman singing’ – the office as it was given in Rome. Such modest demands show that the further injunction that a priest should also be able to read and understand the gospels was probably a counsel of perfection.”[80]

Charles’ chief administrative concern was the reorganization of the parish clergy. This involved a higher standard of bishopric supervision of the rural clergy. This meant more frequent checkup visits by the bishops through a new system of rural deans and archdeacons. New rules were laid down for parishioners as well. “Every subject had to belong to a parish, and was forbidden, except in unusual circumstances, to take part in another priest’s services; attempts were made to define parish boundaries, and, to ease the manpower problem, to lay down a minimum distance from an existing church with which a new one could not be built.” Essentially this meant that the laws demanded better from the religious aristocracy, and at the same time provided for the common people.[81] More than anything else, these new standards were to serve as an attempt on the part of the emperor “to change the moral outlook and way of life of a whole society, and a touching faith in the ability of the . . . gospels to achieve this end.”[82]

The Growing Role of Bishops

Merovingian Church-State Influences

Much of the backdrop for understanding the Church-State and/or caesaro-papal mindset of Charlemagne can be traced to the Merovingian period of the sixth and seventh-century Frankish Church. As Robert Folz points out, “The Merovingians had heaped favors upon the Church; in return, they imposed upon it an authoritarian protection, intervening in the nomination of bishops, convoking the [religious] councils, giving the force of law to their canons, and legislating even in Church affairs . . . . We stand here at the starting-point of the christianization of Germanic royalty.” During this period was established the practice of state officials to “distribute bishoprics at their own will,” many times “to their retainers or servants.”  Finally, a practice that became all-too familiar during Charlemagne’s rule was the assigning of civil duties and jurisdictions over to bishops in cities and provinces throughout the realm.[83]

The alliance between Church and State hammered out under the Merovingians not only became the standard for the Carolingian dynasty, but under Charles, it went further. It meant that the Church was incorporated into the State and thrown into service for the crown. As Robert Folz explains, “Entry into the ranks of the clergy was subject to the prince’s consent, and all clerics had to take the oath of allegiance; the bishops and abbots led their vassals and the freemen from their estates to the royal army. Moreover, the higher clergy played an active part in political life. The positions occupied by the arch-chaplain and the chancellor in the palace were of primary importance; both were Churchmen. In the cities, the bishop and the count exercised joint control, and the capitularies were promulgated by them together. One of the missi was always a bishop or an abbot, and seems always to have had the greater prestige and to have commanded confidence as a Churchman.”[84]

Asserting Secular Authority

R.W. Southern points out that the bishops did not rush forward with banners advertising their willingness and eagerness to jump into the civil administrative affairs of the local provinces, cities, villages and towns. They understood Luke’s counsel in Acts 6:2 in which the apostles said that “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” They understood well that they were to be men devoted “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” However, during one of Charlemagne’s councils it was decided that “A bishop should indeed undertake secular duties ‘not by choice but on account of the people’s need’.” In other words, it was the responsibility of the ruler to apportion secular duties out to bishops, and they were to be ready to dutifully respond at any given moment.[85]

This policy would sow seeds of their own making. Not only would bishops serve as itinerant judges (missi dominici), as military supply commanders, as lawyers, provincial governors, and so on, they literally became the law, and as a result, Charlemagne would end up putting into place the very idea of the ecclesiastical state/empire. As R.W. Southern makes clear,
Bishops grew to their full strength at this time. Rulers who had difficulty in securing loyalty and obedience from others needed the support of their bishops. At the same time the great spiritual and temporal resources of the episcopate, their clear aims and well-defined laws, gave them a growing sense of their corporate power. It is not surprising that, as the Carolingian dynasty declined in power, the bishops began to assert their superiority over the secular rulers. Already in the mid-ninth century Hincmar of Rheims could write: ‘This world is chiefly ruled by the sacred authority of bishops and the power of kings . . . . But the episcopal dignity is greater than the royal, for bishops consecrate kings, but kings do not consecrate bishops.'[86]

Essentially the Church was learning what the emperor had taught them, to be Christian yes, but to be exacting as a result of being well-versed in the laws, especially canon laws. As canon law mounted, so did the power of the Church to cleverly use the civil code for its own legal demands and conveniences. But more importantly, as executors of the law it began to understand what it meant to assert secular, as well as spiritual authority. Even though spiritual matters would give way to more secular concerns, in both cases this new found experience would serve the Church well. As Le Roy Froom put it, “The church soon developed aggressive characteristics following the pattern Charlemagne had given on how the Vicarius Christi on earth must rule.”[87] Therefore, in the long run the Church had everything to gain and nothing to lose from Charlemagne’s policies in this regard.

Stamping Out Pagans and Heretics

One of the bishops chief duties was to root out paganism from their locale. According to one of Charlemagne’s capitularies, practices that were cited as pagan included “sacrifices of dead bodies, divinations, auguries, incantations, animal sacrifices which foolish men perform according to pagan rites near churches in the name of the holy martyrs’.” These were to be stamped out.[88] What is significant about this particular kind of reform is the fact that Charlemagne was painstakingly intense in his insistence that paganism be wiped out for the glory of God and His Church. As Edward Peters points out, “In eighth-century Europe, improvement meant ‘reform,’ and ‘reform’ meant a return to an idealized Christian political past.”[89]

To do this Charlemagne hired out those most predisposed to understand the law—lawyers and bishops. They were the missi or “those sent.” They would be itinerant judges with broad powers to make inquiries into peoples affairs, especially if there was an accusation, which most of the time involved character-liable suits. In capitulary 802 Charlemagne outlined that these judges were to “inquire diligently” into the law itself and its administration, and they were to “make diligent inquiry” into accusations of injustice. These inquiries were known as inquisitio[s]. Such inquiries by the judges often involved property disputes. These disputes were usually settled in one of two courts: county or ecclesiastical, depending on the nature and content of each case. However, as Edward Peters points out, the use of the inquisitio procedure was largely “limited to the more general right of inquest and to ecclesiastical circles, where for some specific reasons, they survived better than elsewhere.”[90]

By the tenth and eleventh centuries, not only did the bishops (who many times happened to be the missi dominici) continue to make regular episcopal visits in the various parts of their diocese as Charlemagne had set in motion years earlier, on such occasions it had become customary for the synodal witnesses to “have prepared a list of offenses and individuals of whom it is proper for the bishop to take cognizance by virtue of his legal rights.” As Peters points out, “Genesis 18:21 was invoked to remind bishops that God did not condemn the wickedness of Sodom from afar, but went down into the city himself to discover its offenses.” In other words, it was the duty of the bishop to investigate and discipline his flocks to keep it pure from heresy and heretics. And as Peters notes, by this time “episcopal rights of visitation now constituted the shape of ecclesiastical disciplinary authority over both clergy and laity in an age when secular powers were too weak or intermittent to collaborate on anything like a regular scale.”[91]

Thus, the Church was at a significant launching point in history. Inquisitions would become more and more commonplace, and the power of the Church would continue to grow into a totally different Holy Roman Empire than Charlemagne could ever envision. In other words, he could never have envisioned how his empire crumbled at the hands of a Church who had inherited Charlemagne’s magisterial wisdom. Charlemagne’s attempt to purge paganism from Western Europe now lay in the hands of a Church which sought to purge not only pagans, but also heterodox believers—that is, all those Christians who refused to pay homage to the supremacy and lordship of the new resident leaders of the Holy Roman Empire.

Breakdown of the Empire

There were three singular reasons for the breakup of Charlemagne’s empire. As a result of the growing civil role of the bishops, abbots, and the growing feudalistic claims to immunity as well as large landholdings, the breakup of the Carolingian empire was inevitable. As Southern states, “He who cannot give cannot rule.” One explanation is that the breakdown in royal power meant the breakdown in financial income, largely because one of the significant sources of landholdings and deep pockets were the Churches and the bishops themselves. This meant that when the kings needed help, the bishops could and often ignored their pleas for money. Furthermore, in a large empire where legal enforcement was significantly dependent on the missi dominici, who were almost entirely bishops and Churchmen, this meant that they would be able to ignore all kinds of directives from the throne, and would lead to the Church’s ability to appoint its own bishops throughout the realm. Under these circumstances the Frankish kings who ruled after Charlemagne and tried to keep the empire together, were essentially what today we call “lame ducks.”

On the flip side, “The ‘sacred unanimity’ broke down because the kings failed to maintain their strength. As they became unable to offer bishops the support they needed, the bishops were forced to look elsewhere.”[92] In other words, when the kings could no longer control their own local officials due to all their hereditary landholdings (and/or feudal fiefdoms), or keep them from establishing positions of hereditary power, neither could they protect the churches from local corruption and/or bribery. These landholders not only administered justice, collected fines and local taxes, and raised military forces, but many of them included “dukes, marquises, counts, and the greater ecclesiastics.”[93] As Carl Stephenson explains, “All these magnates came to be royal vassals, their offices, together with the attached estates, naturally appeared to be their fiefs. And as royal vassals passed on bits of their own privilege to sub vassals, feudal tenure became inseparable from the exercise of political authority.”[94] Essentially they were becoming a law unto themselves with the potential threat of establishing regional kingdoms within the Empire. Thus, when secular rulers had no other recourse but to rob the Church coffers to pay a badly overdue debt for services rendered to the crown by local officials, this was a sign that the kings were in trouble and were losing their power. More importantly, as Southern points out, this practice would prove to be disastrous in the post-Carolingian period “because bishops had been raised so high that they had become aware of their corporate sacerdotal power. It made no difference that the bishops owed their great power to kings who now needed their help. Gratitude to benefactors is not a characteristic of great institutions, especially when the benefactors are dead and their successors appear as plunderers rather than protectors. The bishops therefore began to look elsewhere for support”—to themselves and to Rome.[95]

One of the obvious breakdowns of the Empire was Charlemagne’s death in 814. His descendants could not match the strong man image, or the benevolent and devoted Christian philosopher-king that he had represented to the people. What is remarkable is that many emperors who followed Charlemagne, while lacking his religious devotion and enthusiastic zeal, have tried to recreate Charlemagne’s dream. From Otto the Great in 962, when the dream of the Holy Roman Empire was revived, to Charles V, to Napoleon, to Bismarck, to Hitler—all failed to achieve what Charles did over a forty-six year reign.

Out of the above four names, Napoleon came the closest to modeling his empire after Charlemagne’s. Yet both had entirely different world views. It is important to compare these men, if only to contrast their goals. Charlemagne possessed the bearing of a noble philosopher-king who held to classical republican traditions, while Napoleon did whatever he could to glorify himself. While mentioning Napoleon by name, Philip Schaff  does not have much use for him when compared to Charles. He wrote, “Since Julius Caesar history had seen no conqueror and statesman of such commanding genius and success; history after him produced only two military heroes that may be compared with him, Frederick II of Prussia, and Napoleon Bonaparte (who took him and Caesar for his models), but they were far beneath him in religious character, and as hostile to the church as he was friendly to it.”[96]

Two Empires Collide

Napoleon and Charlemagne Contrasted

Early in 1804 Napoleon proposed to suspend the constitution and replace the French Republic with an empire modeled after Charlemagne’s.[97] Later in the year, on December 2, at the age of 35, Napoleon was to be officially coronated as Emperor of Europe. Although Pope Pius VII was invited to Paris for the ceremony, Napoleon insisted on placing the crown on his own head.[98] By so doing, he reversed an uninterrupted practice dating back to another December day when Pope Leo III crowned an unsuspecting Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor.[99]

However, their coronations signified radical differences. In an illusionary yet symbiotic sense Napoleon (1769-1821) could claim that “For the Pope’s purposes I am Charlemagne—like Charlemagne I join the crown of France with the crown of the Lombards.”[100] Like Charlemagne, the Church, including the pope, was to be an obedient patriarchy. A revival of caesaro-papism was the ideal to be reached, where bishops were to be appointed by the emperor’s dictums. But for Charlemagne the chief aim was to reform the Church as well as the empire—for Christian ends. Charlemagne visualized himself as the champion of European unity with the purpose of saving Europe through means of Christian reform. He saw himself as the Conqueror of everything pagan and heterodox and the divinely destined builder of Augustine’s City of God on earth. Yet, as Alcuin kept reminding Charlemagne, Augustine’s emphasis was on peace, not on the necessity of never-ending wars.[101]

Napoleon ruled with a worshipful eye toward the furtherance of his own enlightened, even so-called “infallible,” self-interest—a liberalism run-amok.[102] In fact, one of the rumored accusations made against Napoleon supposedly came from some of his own generals who said that he was merely a “Corsican ogre” who sacrificed millions of men to satisfy his own ambition.[103] To many churchmen, Napoleon represented the antithesis of everything noble that the legacy of a decaying Holy Roman Empire was intended to inspire. In fact on August 6, 1806, after the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon reordered German-Austrian affairs by formally abolishing the very Holy Roman Empire that Charlemagne had revived.[104]

Of Force, Power and Human Nature

But if there was one basic particular the two had in common, and at their ready disposal, it was the use of force. As Napoleon himself reflected one day at St. Helena, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded great empires; but upon what did the creations of our genius depend? Upon force.” He said, “Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions would die for Him . . . . Men wonder at the conquests of Alexander, but here is a conqueror who draws men to Himself for their highest good; who unites to Himself, incorporates into Himself, not a nation, but the whole human race.”[105] Coming from someone who lacked almost any semblance of piety,[106] and from someone who warred with other nations for the so-called natural sake of global dominance and the overpowering illusion of competitive self-interest,[107] it seems that Napoleon was on to something that neither he nor Charlemagne—who employed force in the name of Christ and for the sake of saving Europe—fully understood. Furthermore, it seems that the biblical idiom from Revelation, “he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword,” had realized its prototypical satisfaction in the Carolingian rise and Napoleonic fall of the Holy Roman Empire (to borrow Gibbon’s forlorn phraseology to describe the rise and fall of the old Roman Empire).[108]

Summary Analysis

Charlemagne’s Legacy

While it appears that Charlemagne kept the spirit of Augustine’s City of God alive, he apparently misunderstood the letter of intent. In other words, if Charlemagne was truly devoted to, and well-versed in Augustine’s City of God, it seems that he made Augustine’s exceptional use of force, the rule. This may effectively explain Charlemagne’s design for a royal and imperial theocracy based on conquest. While Charlemagne failed to achieve his ultimate goal of uniting all the Teutonic and Latin races under his scepter, in a broader sense Charlemagne’s visionary quest for a Christian empire (although short-lived in its initial construct) signaled the beginning of an enduring revival of the Holy Roman Empire initially begun by Caesar Constantine nearly five-hundred years earlier, and abolished by Napoleon in 1806 (slightly more than a thousand years later).

It seems that everything Charles did as Emperor—whether religious, political, educational, or legal, or stamping out heresy by putting to the sword pagans who would not convert—was to fulfill his dream of establishing Augustine’s City of God on earth. In the final summation he set up an empire in Western Europe that allowed the Medieval Church to eventually flourish as an ecclesiastical state, exercising all the powers of a state. In other words, just as Charlemagne had dominated the Church in a caesaro-papal way, the Church would gradually begin to achieve a role reversal. By heavily involving the higher clergy in civil and political matters, especially by appointing them as missi dominici, as feudal and/or provincial governors, as military supply commanders, and as lawyers, Charlemagne planted the roots of an ecclesiastical empire, and, in many respects, prepared the way for the Church to outlive his version of the Holy Roman Empire.


[1] Augustine, The City of God, Marcus Dods, trans. (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), 5.24:178; 4.3:112.

[2 ]Frederic Austin Ogg, A Source Book of Mediaeval History (New York: American Book Company, 1935), 111.

[3]Alcuin (735-804) was probably the most learned man in Europe at this time. He was a liturgical reformer and was largely responsible for the revival of Latin scripts under Charlemagne.

[4]Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1989), 33.

[5]Charles L. Wells, Ten Epochs of Church History: The Age of Charlemagne, 10 vols. (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1898), 4:195-198.

[6]Friedrich Heer, Charlemagne and his World (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), 95.

[7]Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960), 40, 41.

[8]Richard E. Sullivan, Aix-la-chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 33-36.

[9]Peters, Inquisition, 34.

[10]See Brian Tierney’s The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), 16, 17. Note: The Papal States were located in mid-Italy, in the southernmost region.  They included the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, Modena, Romagna, Urbino, Spoleto, Castro, and the provinces of Bologna, Perugia, and Orvieto. By the 16th century the area embraced 17,000 square miles and 3 million people.  In 1929 the Lateran Treaty involved Italy’s recognition of the pope as both the temporal and spiritual ruler of Vatican City. In February of 1984 the Papal States were sold back to the Italian government, but the Vatican was soon recognized as a sovereign state by many countries.

[11]Contextually, the term Exarchate was a reference to the ruler of any province within the Byzantine Empire.

[12]Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 20.  Cf. Vita Stephani II, ed. L. Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, I (Paris, 1886), 452-454.

[13]By the 8th century, Byzantine control of Italy had virtually vanished. The Lombard kingdom of northern Italy had driven out the emperor’s representative in Ravenna in 751. There were also strong religious differences between the pope and the church in Constantinople; differences that would lead to a complete break in 1054. Confronted with this situation, the Roman popes sought political protection from the only people who would give it—the kings of the Franks, the strongest power north of the Alps. In 754 the Frankish king Pepin the Short invaded Italy and conquered the Lombard kingdom. Cf. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Medieval Christianity, From Gregory I to Gregory VII, A.D. 590-1073, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910), 4:234, 235.

[14]This is according to Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), the father of papal historiography, in his Annales ecclesiastici a Christo nato ad annum (or Ecclesiastical Annals), 755 A.D. This is a twelve-volume set covering up to the year 1198, and published in Rome over a period of nineteen years (from 1588-1607). Cf. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 234. Also see Schaff’s Theological Propaedutic: A General Introduction to the Study of Theology [containing] “Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical” bibliographical sources for students, 4th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 298.


[16]Charlemagne’s character was contradictory: he divorced two of his four wives without any cause; he forced kings and princes to kneel at his feet, yet his mother and his two favorite wives often overruled him in his own household. Cf. Heer, Charlemagne and his World, 23; and Sullivan, Aix-la-chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne, 65-68. Note however, Charlemagne’s pious devotion to the Church was unquestioned. For example, he not only regularly attended the Basilica that he had built as Aix-la-Chapelle, but he went “morning and evening, even after nightfall, besides attending mass; and he took care that all the services there conducted should be administered with the utmost possible propriety, very often warning the sextons not to let any improper or unclean thing be brought into the building or remain in it.” He embellished the basilica with “sacred vessels of gold and silver” and provided clerical robes for priests and doorkeepers alike. He was very exacting regarding the conduct of public worship services; nothing was to be out of order. This included readings from the Latin Scriptures and the singing of psalms. On a lighter note, Einhard also mentions that Charles was quite discretionary in his liturgical participation at public worship services: “Although he never read in public,” he sang only “in a low tone and with others.” Cf. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 54-55.

[17]Ironically, Einhard also records that “It would be folly, I think, to write a word concerning Charles’ birth and infancy, or even his boyhood, for nothing has ever been written on the subject, and there is no one alive now who can give information of it. Accordingly, I have determined to pass that by as unknown.” Cf. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 27.

[18]In 768 Charlemagne and his brother Carloman inherited Pepin’s throne. In 771 Charlemagne became the sole ruler upon his brother’s death.

[19]Hadrian I, “Letter 1 to Charlemagne,” in Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova, et Amplissima Collectio, Mansi, Joannes Dominicus, ed., 53 vols. [A photographic facsimile reprint from the edition of Florentiniae: Expensis Antonii Zatta Veneti, 1759] (Parisiis: Huberto Welter, 1901-1927), 12:819-821. Cf. Johann J. Ignaz von Dollinger, The Pope and the Council, by Janus [pseud.] 3d ed., rev. (London: Rivingtons, 1870), 132, 133.

[20]Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 250, 251. “King of Lombardia, Patrician or Lord of Rome.”

[21]Ibid., 251. Schaff alludes to this by using these events to build up to the big coronation day in 800. Cf. Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 23.

[22]It seems Rome would do anything to keep from being placed under the insecure position they were placed in 730 by Leo the Byzantine Emperor. Henry Bettenson says that Leo “deposed the patriarch of Constantinople, seized part of the papal lands, and placed the dioceses of S. Italy and Sicily under Constantinople; but incessant wars against the Arabs prevented him from enforcing his decision in the West.” Cf.  Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 94.

[23]Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 17.

[24]The coronation ceremony, Vitas Leonis III (795-816), ed. L. Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, II (Paris, 1892), 7.  See Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 23.

[25]Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 57. Cf. Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 23.

[26]Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 18.

[27]Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Medieval Christianity, 253.

[28]Ibid., 253, 254.

[29]Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, 17, 18.

[30]Ibid., 17.

[31]Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 57.

[32]”By the sword and the cross” has been a favorite cliche among historians. Cf. Sullivan, Aix-la-chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne, 27.

[33]Jacques Boussard, The Civilization of Charlemagne, Frances Partridge, trans. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company—World University Library, 1968), 39.

[34]Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Rebecca Balinski, trans. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3.

[35]Garrett Ward Sheldon, The History of Political Theory: Ancient Greece to Modern America (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1993), 47. Cf. St Augustine, The City of God, excerpted in The Political Writings of St. Augustine, Henry Paolucci, ed. (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1962), 1-8.

[36]Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 52.

[37]Augustine, The City of God, Marcus Dods, trans., 5.24:178.


[39]St. Augustine, The City of God, Gerald G. Walsh, trans. (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1958), 5.24:118.

[40]Augustine, The City of God, Marcus Dods, trans., 4.3:112.

[41]John Neville Figgis, The Political Aspects of S. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ (Gloucester, MA.: Peter Smith, 1963), 84.

[42]St Augustine, The City of God, excerpted in The Political Writings of St. Augustine, 245-246, 271, 287-288.

[43]See Etienne Gilson’s Forward in St. Augustine, The City of God, Gerald G. Walsh, trans., 18. Cf. St. Augustine, Letter 138, 2.15 (Dods, ed. 206).

[44]Vernon J. Bourke, Wisdom from St. Augustine (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies — University of St. Thomas, 1984), 162.

[45]Sheldon, The History of Political Theory, 48.

[46]St Augustine, The City of God, excerpted in The Political Writings of St. Augustine, 311-312.

[47]Bourke, Augustine’s Quest of Wisdom: Life and Philosophy of the Bishop of Hippo (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1945), 299.

[48]Bourke, Wisdom from St. Augustine, 195.

[49]Edward R. Hardy, Jr., “The City of God,” in A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, Roy W. Battenhouse, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 257.

[50]Figgis, The Political Aspects of S. Augustine’s ‘City of God’, 85.

[51]John A. Rohr, S.J, “Religious Toleration in St. Augustine,” Journal of Church and State 9 (Winter 1967): 70.

[52]Ibid., 69.

[53]Saint Augustine, The City of God, Marcus Dods, trans., 5.24:178.

[54]Rohr, S.J., “Religious Toleration in St. Augustine,” 70.

[55]The term Caesaro-papism is a description referring to the supremacy of the State and/or ruler over the Church.

[56]Figgis, The Political Aspects of S. Augustine’s ‘City of God’, 85.

[57]This is an illusion to the apostle Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. See also Rohr, “Religious Toleration in St. Augustine,” 54-56. Donatists were a group of Christians in North Africa, who, with Bishop Donatus of Carthage, claimed that to offer incense to pagan deities during the pagan persecutions of Diocletian, and at other times during the early church period, was to “lapse,” “backslide,” or “apostasize.” Because of this they claimed to represent the true Church. Furthermore, they refused to recognize the legitimacy of appointed bishops who were “lapsed,” and thus refused to receive communion from their hands. Augustine insisted that the Church be forgiving toward the lapsed. But he also came to believe that the pastoral care of souls meant the discipline of obstinate and unforgiving Donatists via the sword of the civil authorities. Cf. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984), 1:151-157.

[58]Augustine, Letter 93 (to Vincentius), in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff, et al., 14 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 1:388.

[59]Leo Pfeffer, “Old World Antecedents,” in Church, State, and Freedom, Rev. ed. (New York: Beacon Press, 1967), 15.

[60]Augustine, The City of God, Marcus Dods, trans., 18:51:661-662.

[61]Rohr, “Religious Toleration in St. Augustine,” 70.

[62]Luitpold Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Liturature (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1959), 24.

[63]Sullivan, Aix-la-chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne, 31.

[64]Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Liturature, 26, 27.

[65]Ibid., 74, 78.

[66]Sullivan, Aix-la-chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne, 27-30.

[67]Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 46-47. Charlemagne had “his boys and girls” instructed in the Greek and Latin classics (i.e., Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine). When his boys were of age they were required to learn “horsemanship” and the art of warfare; and his girls learned domestic trades such as “cloth-making,” and how to effectively operate “the distaff and spindle.”

[68]According to Einhard, the Franks had two constitutions: The Salic and Ripuarian. The difference between the two is not clear. Cf. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 57, and endnote 66 on page 73.

[69]Ibid., 57.

[70]Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1989), 34.

[71]Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Liturature, 138.

[72]Ibid., 138, 139.

[73]Ibid., 130, 137-138.

[74]However, according to Derek Davis at Mary Hardin-Baylor University, the Justinian Code was used by Canon lawyers employed by the Roman Catholic Church, and grew in frequency in the mid-twelfth century resulting in part in Gratian’s Decretals, which were later codified as the ecclesiastical laws of the Church, and published as the Liber extra or Decretales, by the decree of Pope Gregory IX in 1234. Cf. J.N.D. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 190.

[75]Henry Campbell Black, et al., Black’s Law Dictionary: Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, 6th ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1990), 258.

[76]Heer, Charlemagne and his World, 175. Cf. Folz, The Coronation of Charlemagne, 49.

[77]Sullivan, Aix-la-chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne, 30, 31. Cf. Wilbur Samuel Howell, trans. The Rhetoric of Alcuin & Charlemagne (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965), 71.

[78]Folz, The Coronation of Charlemagne,  J.E. Anderson, trans. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 48.

[79]Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 97-98.

[80]Heer, Charlemagne and his World, 175, 176, 180.

[81]Ibid., 178.

[82]Ibid., 180.

[83]Robert Folz, The Coronation of Charlemagne, 19, 20.

[84]Ibid., 20.

[85]R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Penquin Books, 1970), 173, 174.

[86]Ibid., 176.

[87]Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 4 vols. (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herld, 1978), 1:537.

[88]Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, 174.

[89]Peters, Inquisition, 34.

[90]Ibid., 35.

[91]Ibid., 37.

[92]Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, 177.

[93]Carl Stephenson, Mediaeval Feudalism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1942), 337.


[95]Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, 178.

[96]Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 239.

[97]Even in May of 1803, prior to the distribution of the Legion of Honor medals, Napoleon had Charlemagne’s casque transported from Notre Dame in order to house the white enameled crosses that would be pinned to the uniforms of deserving soldiers. As David Chandler points out, “The symbolism was clear: the deliberate link with the splendors of the Carolingian dynasty was evident to all participants.” Cf. David C. Chandler, The Illustrated Napoleon (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1990), 169.

[98]Ibid., 42, 169.

[99]Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960), 57.

[100]Desmond Seward, Napoleon and Hitler: A Comparitive Biography (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1989), 224.

[101]Wallach, Alcuin and Charlemagne: Studies in Carolingian History and Liturature, 27.

[102]Chandler, The Illustrated Napoleon, 120.

[103]During the Napoleonic Wars (1804-1815) alone, France lost a total of more than 500,000 men. Cf. Ibid., 135-169.

[104]Ibid., 47.

[105]Cunningham Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ, 2 vols. (London: Strahan and Company Limited, 1879), 1:3.  Cf. Bertrand’s Memoirs (Paris, 1844).

[106]Note Napoleon’s perverted outlook on women and sex in Seward, Napoleon and Hitler, 91-92.

[107]Francois Guizot, a French philosopher who sought to restore philosophical notions of liberalism’s ability to govern, according to Peter Manent, viewed power as “something essentially, even emphatically, natural.” As Guizot illustrated, “Take free, independent men, unfamiliar with any previous necessity for subordination to each other, united only by an interest, a common intention; take children in their games which are their business. How is power born amidst these voluntary and simple associations? To whom does it flow by its natural and unanimously recognized inclination? To the bravest, the cleverest, the one who convinces us that he is the most capable of exercising it and of satisfying the common interest, of accomplishing everyone’s thought. As long as no exterior or violent cause occurs to upset the spontaneous course of things, it is the brave who command, the clever who rule. Among men left to themselves and to the laws of their nature, power accompanies and reveals superiority. In making itself recognized, it makes itself obeyed.” Cf. Francois Guizot, Des moyens de gouvernement et d’opposition dans l’etat actuel de la France (Paris, 1821), p. 271, in Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Rebecca Balinski, trans. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 98.

[108]See Revelation 13:10, King James Version.

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.