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Emperor Charlemagne - Education, Women, and War

Quote: "By the sword and the cross."

Like military leaders before him, Charlemagne (742 - 814) was a ruthless warrior bent on expanding his vast domains. Yet by all accounts he was a religious man who promoted and funded monasteries. The oldest son of Pippin III and grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne grew up in a military family that controlled a large portion of what is today Switzerland and France. His mother, Bertha, a daughter of royalty, brought prestige and lands to the marriage.

Little is known of his childhood but, according to his earliest biographer, his physical presence as an adult was unmistakable: "He was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale. He had beautiful white hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose . . . always stately and dignified." Disciplined in eating and drinking, his mealtime entertainment was not the usual fare of court jesters. Rather, an aide read aloud the best literature of the day. He was conversant in other languages, believing that "to have another language is to possess a second soul."

On his father's death in 668, when Charles is in his mid-twenties, he and his brother Carolman become co-heirs to the vast kingdom. When Carolman dies three years later, Charles becomes sole king of the Franks. His mother arranges a marriage with Desiderata, daughter of the king of the Lombards, for obvious political gain, but the marriage is annulled the following year. Charles then marries thirteen-year-old Hildegard, a duke's daughter. She bears him nine children, several of whom grow up to be their father's land-grabbing warriors. With Desiderata out of the way, Charles conquers the Lombards in northern Italy. From there he pushes the borders of his kingdom into what is today Spain, Hungary, and Germany. Ruthless as a commander, he reportedly executes more than four thousand Saxon prisoners in a single day.

Though Charles holds back invading Muslims, expansion is his forte, often through relatively peaceful means with little dismantling of local culture. Indeed, surrendering to his forces has positive effects. With a unified administration, local wars diminish, and commerce, farming, and education are vastly improved.

The turning point in Charlemagne's reign comes in 800. A year earlier Pope Leo III had appealed for protection. Having risen up through the ranks from the lower classes, Leo is scorned by Roman aristocrats and fears for his life. Charles uses the opportunity to boost his own standing. He comes to Saint Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day 800 to pray, and there the pope crowns him Holy Roman Emperor. Labeled "Charlemagne's Pope," Leo reigns until he dies in 816. Yet he stands his ground against the emperor on some matters, particularly when Charlemagne, motivated by expansionist aims, seeks to change the Nicene Creed by adding the filioque ("and the son"), a move considered heretical by the Eastern Church.

With wars yet to wage, Charlemagne reforms the realms already under his rule. Inaugurating the "Carolingian Renaissance," he courts scholars and encourages education across the empire. His court at Aachen becomes an impressive cultural and educational center. He creates a university town, drawing talent from all social levels and fostering a wide range of academic disciplines. Music, art, architecture, roads, bridges, and thermal baths add to the city's prestige.

But to the end of his life, Charlemagne the warrior is sending troops into battle, sometimes leading the charge himself. In 811, as he marches his men north to attack King Godefrid and his Norse army, he learns that the king has been murdered. The seventy-year-old Charlemagne turns back. It would be his last campaign. He dies in 814 with his son, Louis the Pious, succeeding him. His long reign of forty-seven years can be summed up in his own terms: "By the sword and the cross." Most of his subjects had known no other ruler. A monk penned lines that spoke for many:

From the lands where the sun rises to western shores, People are crying and wailing . . . stung with mourning and great worry . . . the young and old, glorious nobles, all lament the loss of their Caesar. . . . The world laments the death of Charles.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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