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Western Society









Writing after the fail of Rome but before the emergence of Islam, Augustine (354-430) eloquently elaborated the Christian message and the force of its appeal in his chaotic times.

In his City of God he defended Christianity against those who held it responsible for the collapse of Roman civilization, allegedly because it rejected the Roman gods and because its message of love and forgiveness fostered weakness. 

He pointed out the empire's internal weaknesses and the constructive nature of Christian teaching, which he deemed superior to the ancient philosophies. He stressed in particular the discipline of the Church and the power of its sacraments to heal and unite humankind in a new spiritual empire.

The book became a favorite of the Frankish king Charlemagne nearly 400 years latter.


In the blending of the Roman and Germanic peoples and cultures, the Franks played an especially significant part. The kingdom of the Franks was not only the most enduring of all the Germanic states established in the West, but it became, with the active support of the Church, the center of the new Europe that arose upon the ruins of the western Roman Empire.

 Before the Germanic invasions the several tribes that made up the Franks lived along the east bank of the Rhine close to the North Sea

Late in the 4th century the Franks began a slow movement south and west across the Rhine into Gaul.

By 481 they occupied the northern part of Gaul as far as the old Roman city of Paris, and in this year Clovis I of the Merovingian House became ruler of one of the petty Frankish kingdoms.

By the time of his death in 511, Clovis had united the Franks into a single kingdom that stretched southward to the Pyrenees.


As a first step, Clovis allied himself with other petty Frankish kings to dispose of Syagrius, the last Roman general in Gaul.

The victor then turned against his Frankish allies and subdued them.

Clovis became converted to Christianity in 496 as a result of a battle against the Allemanni, a pagan Germanic tribe whose name became the French word for Germany.

On the verge of being defeated, Clovis called upon Christ for help, won the battle, and was baptized together with his whole army.

He became the only orthodox Christian in the West, for other Germanic tribes were either pagan or embraced the heretical form of Christianity known as Arianism.

 The conversion of the Franks was a decisive event in European history.

Ultimately it led to an alliance of the Franks and the papacy, and irrunediately it assured Clovis the loyalty of the Gallo-Rornan bishops, the leaders of the native Christian population of Gaul.

This was a political advantage not open to the heretical Arian Visigothic and Burgundian kings.

Thus with the help of the native population of Gaul, Clovis was able to expand his realm in the name of Christian orthodoxy,

 In 507 Clovis attacked the Visigoths, who ruled Gaul south of the Loire River and all of Spain.

The Visigothic king was killed, and his people abandoned most of the Gallic territory. Clovis died four years later at the age of 45 - a ripe old age for a barbarian

Although never hardly more than a Germanic chieftain, he had created France.


Clovis' sons and grandsons conquered the Burgundian kingdom and extended the Frankishdomain to the Mediterranean and further into Germany. At the same time, however, the Merovingian House began to decay from inner weakness.

The Germanic practice of treating the kingdom as personal property and dividing it among all the king's sons resulted in constant and bitter civil war.

The royal heirs plotted murders and became adept at intrigue and treachery. The Merovingian princes also engaged in all manner of debaucheries, including excessive drinking.

Soon the Frankish state broke up into three separate kingdoms; in each, power was concentrated in the hands of the chief official of the royal household, the major of the palace, a powerful noble who desired to keep the king weak and ineffectual. The Merovirigian rulers were mere puppets.


By the middle of the 7th century western Europe had lost most of the essential characteristics of Roman civilization T

he Roman system of administration and taxation had completely collapsed, and the dukes and counts who represented the Merovingian king received no salary and usually acted on their own initiative commanding the fighting men and presiding over the courts in their districts.

 International commerce had ceased except for a small-scale trade in luxury items carried on by the adventurous Greek, Syrian, and Arab traders, and the old Roman cities served mainly to house the local bishop and his retinue.

The virtual absence of a middle class meant that society was composed of the nobility, a fusion through intermarriage of aristocratic Gallo-Roman and German families who owned and exercised authority over vast estates, and, at the other end of the social scale, the semi-servile colonni  who were bound to the land.

These serfs included large numbers of formerly free German farmers. Only about 10 percent of the peasant population of France maintained a free status.


A new period dawned when Charles Martel became major of the palace in 714. His father, one of the greatest Frankish landowners, had eliminated all rival mayors, and Charles ruled a united Frankish kingdom in all but name. For the time being, however, the Merovingian kings were kept as harmless figureheads at the court.

Charles is best remembered for his victory over the Muslim invaders of Europe, which earned him the surname Martel (the Hammer). A major military reform coincided with the battle of Tours.

To counteract the effectiveness of the quick striking Muslim cavalry, Charles recruited a force of professional mounted soldiers whom he rewarded with sufficient land to enable each knight to maintain himself, his equipment, and a number of war horses.

Such grants of land later became an important element in feudalism.


Charles Martel's son, Pepin the Short, who ruled from 741 to 768 legalized the royal power already being exercised by the mayors of the palace when he requested and received from the pope a ruling which stipulated that whoever had the actual power should be the legal ruler.

In 754 the pope crossed the Alps and personally anointed Pepin, in the Old Testament manner, as the Chosen of the Lord.

In exchange, the pope secured Pepin's promise of armed intervention in Italy and his pledge to give the papacy Ravenna, once it was conquered.  Known as the Donation of Pepin, the gift made the pope a temporal ruler over the Papal States, a strip of territory that extended diagonally from coast to coast.

The alliance between the Franks and the papacy affected the course of politics and of religion for centuries.

 It  accelerated the separation of Latin from Greek Christendom by providing the papacy with a dependable western ally, created the Papal States which played a major role in Italian politics until the late 19th century.

 In  addition, by virtue of the ritual of annointment, it provided western kingship with a religious sanction that would in time contribute to the rise of monarchs strong enough to pose a treat to the papacy.


Under Pepin's son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who ruled from 768 to 824, the Frankish state and the Carolingian House reached the summit of their power.

One of the most important single events in Charlemagne's reign took place on Christmas Day in the year 800.

The previous year the unruly Roman nobility had ousted the pope, charging him with moral laxity.

Charlemagne came to Rome and restored the pope to his office.

Then, at the Christmas service while Charlemagne knelt before the altar at St. Peter's, the pope placed a crown on his head

Charlemagne was crowned not only by, but presumably with the consent of the pope.

 He was emperor by the grace of God, with heaven and its earthly agency, the Church, on his side.


The extent of Charlemagne's empire was impressive.

His territories included all of the western are of the old Roman Empire except Africa, Britain, southern Italy, and most of Spain.

Seven defensive provinces, or marks, protected the empire against hostile neighbors. The Carolingian territories were divided into some 300 administrative divisions, each under a count or margrave.

In addition, there were local military officials, the dukes.

In an effort to solve the problem of supervising the local officials, Charlemagne issued an ordinance creating the missi dominici (the king's envoys).

Pairs of these itinerant officials, usually a bishop and a lay noble, traveled throughout the realm to check on the local administration.

To make the missi immune to bribes, they were chosen from men of high rank, were frequently transferred from one region to another, and no two of them were teamed for more than one year.


Charlemagne also fostered a revival of leaning and the arts.

In 789, he decreed that every monastery must have a school for the education of boys in "singing, arithmetic, and grammar."

At Aixi-la-Chapelle, his capital, the emperor also sponsored a palace school for the education of the royal household and the stimulation of leaning throughout the realm.

The reform of handwriting and the preservation of classical manuscripts were significant achievements of the Carolingian revival.

 Charlemagne is one of the great constructive figures of world history.

He extended Christian civilization in Europe

Set up barriers aganst invaders

Created a new Europe whose center was in the north rather than on the Mediterranean.

Restored a measure of law and order to society.

Left a cultural heritage that later generations would build upon in producing a European civilization distinct from the Byzantine to the east and the Muslim to the south.


Under Charlemagne's weak successors the empire disintegrated amid the confusion of civil wars and devastating new invasions. Progress toward an advanced civilization in the new Europe founded by Charlemagne was delayed for two centuries.

 During the 9th and 10th centuries, the remnants of Charlemagne's empire were battered by new waves of invaders.

Scandinavian attacked from the north, Muslims from the south, and a new wave of Asiatic nomads, the Magyars, struck from the east.

Christian Europe had to fight for its life against these plundering and murdering raiders, who did far more damage to life and property than the Germanic invaders of the 5th century.


Europe's response to the invasions was not uniform

In England by 900 Viking occupation initiated a strong national reaction which soon led to the creation of a united English kingdom.

Similarly, Germany in 919 reacted to the Magyar danger by installing the first of a new and able line of kings who went on to become the most powerful European monarchs since Charlemagne.

The Viking attacks on France had the effect of accelerating the trend toward political fragmentation that began under the Merovingians.

When Charlemagne's successors were unable to cope with the incessant Viking assaults, people increasingly surrendered both their lands and their persons to the many counts, dukes, and other local lords in return for protection.

The decline of trade further strengthened the aristocracy, whose large estates, or manors, became economically self-sufficient.

In addition, the old Germanic band of foot soldiers, who provided their own arms when called to battle, was dying out in favor of a professional force of heavily armed mounted knights, who received land grants from the king in return for military service.

 Out of these elements, new patterns of society -- feudalism and the manorial system -- took shape:

The disintegration of central power

The need for protection

The decrease in the class of freemen

The rise of a largely independent landed aristocracy

The creation of the mounted knight.


Why was Clovis important to the Christian Church?

How was the pope involved in making Pepin the first Carolingian king?

How did the pope benefit?

How did Charlemagne help preserve Roman culture?

How did Greco-Roman culture and the Germanic tribes blend together to form the foundation of medieval Europe?







Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999