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Carolingians and Christian society (9th-10th centuries)

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King of Franks since the death of his father Pepin the Short in 768, Charlemagne started his policy of kingdom expansion and forced conversions from 772. In 800, he took advantage of the fall of the Byzantine emperor and of the benevolence of the Pope: he was crowned emperor and thus affirmed himself as the most important personage of Christendom. After his death in 814, his heirs succeeded one another at the head of the Empire and of the Frankish kingdom until the collapse of the Carolingian dynasty and the progressive takeover of power by the Robertians in the middle of the tenth century.

How did the Carolingians pose as protectors of Christian society?

We will first study the sacred role of Carolingian prince, then we will analyze his relationship with the Church and finally we will examine the ordering of society.

To start, since 723, Christians of the Eastern Roman Empire were persecuted because they venerated images. The emperor of Byzantium failed in his attempt to stamp out this iconoclasm. He was therefore unworthy of being emperor and, still more, head of the Church. From 791, King Charlemagne posed himself as a defender of the true faith. Indeed, on this date, he published the Libri Carolini, in which he recalled that the worship of images was forbidden but that the destruction of icons is a mistake. Then, in 794, he became Imperium Christianum, following the Council of Frankfort which he himself convened to fight the heresy of adoptianism.
In 799, in the East, the Basileus was dethroned by his mother who had his eyes pulled out and took his place. Alcuin then said about Charlemagne that « the Salvation of the Churches of Christ rested on him alone. » By being crowned emperor the following year, Charlemagne became a « new Constantine », defender of the Church and representative of God on Earth. He enjoyed an undeniable supremacy.
In 809 he didn’t hesitate to oppose Pope Leo III in the Filioque affair. He decided to validate, against the pope’s opinion, the formula according to which the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father but also from the Son. Until his death, Charlemagne never ceased to appear as the supreme leader of Western Christendom.
In the case of Claudius of Turin (the bishop had destroyed the images and relics of his diocese), Louis the Pious convened a council to recall the position of the Franks on the images. He then ordered a book on cult images, De cultuimagium. In the 830s, he was represented as a soldier, with a cross, a nimbus, defending the symbols attacked by Claudius. Louis, such as his father before him, posed himself as a defender of orthodoxy.


Shortly after his accession to the throne in 768, Charles embarked on a series of military campaigns to expand Christianity: it was the dilatatioregni. He attacked the Saxons from 772 to 804 and the Lombards between 773 and 774, then he annexed Bavaria and submited the Avars.
He also went down to Naples, then to Spain where he failed in front of Saragossa in 778. He was then furious and went to Pamplona to exterminate the inhabitants although it was a Christian city.
Once these territories were conquered, the king spread the Christian message among the population and laid the foundations of an ecclesiastical organization. In Saxony in particular, he didn’t hesitate to use force. He especially organized displacements of population, massacres of prisoners and forced baptisms. But soon, the missionaries reported their shock in the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae and Alcuin’s advice led Charlemagne to soften this regime of terror in 797.
The Christianization of Europe continued in Scandinavia, where a number of monasteries were implanted, including Corvey Abbey. But the most important effort wasn’t the extension of Christianity. It was the deepening of Christianization in the West.

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Carolingians were also sacred kings. The coronation had consequences: the king had duties to God and his goal was to set up a theocracy on Earth.
Such as David, who was anointed by Samuel, the Frankish king considered benefiting from the promises of God including that of reigning until the Apocalypse. His children therefore had the vocation to become king. The child was indeed a gift of God, a sign of blessing and fidelity. King thought that his children wiould reign successively as far as Parousia, that is to say the return of Christ on Earth. King had an eschatological mission: he must allow this return of Christ. After the book of Revelation, the whole world must be Christian for Christ to return.
For example, in his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, Charlemagne represented a scene of the Apocalypse which is visible only from his throne: he is the intermediary between men and Christ in glory.
The ultimate goal of the emperor was to lead the people to salvation. He expected to be accountable to God at the Last Judgment for the souls of all his subjects.

We have just studied the sacred role of Carolingian princes; we will now analyze the relationship between these princes and the ecclesial institution.

The link between Empire and Church was very close. Elected on the 26th December 795, Pope Leo III was confronted by the Roman aristocracy who reproached him for being a commoner and his supposed immorality.
Aggravated, then released, he left Rome and went to Charlemagne to Paderborn. The latter establish him as a judge and asked the Pope to swear to God that he had nothing to reproach himself with.
After the pope took the solemn oath of his innocence, the king exculpated him and he could return to Rome. The 25th December 800, Charlemagne went to St. Peter’s of Rome, and knelt before the Pope to ask him to consecrate his children. The pope took the opportunity to crown him while the king wished to crown himself. The Pope thus became the one who made emperors. Paradoxically, the bishop of Rome was officially placed under the authority of the new emperor and had to conform to the rules that governed the Christian Empire. Thus, when a new pope was elected, his enthronement was subject to the approval of the emperor, who locked him in a role of collaborator. The pope was the vicar of St. Peter while the emperor was the representative of Christ.

Charlemagne crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III (800), Great Chronicles of France, Paris, XIVth century. This illumination is not faithful to reality; it is only faithful to the image that the kings of France wished to preserve from this event. The pope alone imagined the ceremony of the coronation to reserve the first role. He laid the crown on Charlemagne's head while he was praying in front of the tomb of St. Peter. The pope then invited the assembly to acclaim: "Charles, august, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor". By crowning Charlemagne first, before the acclamations, Leo III affirmed that all power comes from God (through the pope) and not from the people. This work illustrates the complexity of the relationship between the pope and the emperor, both claiming to be Christ's representatives on Earth.

Charlemagne crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III (800), Great Chronicles of France, Paris, XIVth century. This illumination is not faithful to reality; it is only faithful to the image that the kings of France wished to preserve from this event. The pope alone imagined the ceremony of the coronation to reserve the first role. He laid the crown on Charlemagne’s head while he was praying in front of the tomb of St. Peter.
The pope then invited the assembly to acclaim: « Charles, august, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor ». By crowning Charlemagne first, before the acclamations, Leo III affirmed that all power comes from God (through the pope) and not from the people. This work illustrates the complexity of the relationship between the pope and the emperor, both claiming to be Christ’s representatives on Earth.

After his accession to the throne in 814, Louis the Pious redefined the relationship between Papacy and Empire. In 817, he decided that the election and consecration of the popes must be free and they didn’t need validation by the emperor.
Seven years later, his son Lothaire adopted an inverse position. He required the new popes to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor and took a series of measures that aimed at limiting the pontifical actions. But at the same time the popes got more involved in the political affairs of the emperor and Pope Gregory IV, for example, didn’t hesitate to support the revolt of the sons of Louis the Pious against their father in 833. From the end of the ninth century, the pope thus posed little gradually as referee of the western world. In 875, Pope John VIII made the decision to crown the emperor Charles the Bald rather than Carloman.

During his reign, Charlemagne established a hierarchical institutional Church of which the king was the chief and whose bishops and archbishops were vassals. The episcopate was an honor. So, the bishop owed the military service, the duty of council and the lodging service to the emperor. Also, he could be appointed missi dominici.
The role and function of bishop were defined in 789, in the Admonitio generalis. Bishop must reside in his city, he was responsible for his diocese and he had authority over all its clergy. He had no right to be bishop of several dioceses nor to be a vassal of a great layman, but he was subject to the king who had entrusted him with his office.
There was an evolution in the appointment strategies. Indeed, Charles Martel nominated the members of his family and Charlemagne appointed his friends whereas Louis the Pious appointed the prelates for their capacity. During the reign of Louis the Pious, the bishops became veritable heirs of the prophets: they corrected the king, such as during the penance of Attigny in 822. Louis also considered that the bishops were responsible for their diocesans and their sins, that they were their servants and they mustn’t dominate them.
However, after the successive revolts of the sons of Louis the Pious from 830, the authority of the latter was challenged. To secure the fidelity of lords and bishops, he associated them with power. Thus, the bishops Ebbon de Reims, Agobard of Lyon and Jonas of Orleans directed the policy of the emperor. In 833, Louis the Pious was still deposed and excommunicated by a bishop’s assembly.
During the reign of Charles the Fat, the prelates were also guarantors of the Carolingian unity: they tried notably to make peace and concord between different kings, but without much success.
Bishops reminded kings of their duty to God and began to take the place of the failing Empire, but they contributed thus to the weakening of imperial power.

Charles the Bald receiving a delegation of monks from Tours, frontispiece of the Bible of Vivien, 845. Charles the Bald is represented sitting on a monumental throne, crowned and holding the scepter. Above the emperor, the hand of God appears and spreads rays of gold on the sovereign, who is his representative on Earth. The prince is represented in majesty and surrounded by his disciples: he is here assimilated to Christ and the kings of the Old Testament. Indeed, the king is the holder of temporal power and spiritual power. But, at the same time, the monks were represented in the process of offering the Gospels to the prince: they thus pose themselves as intermediaries between God and the prince.

Charles the Bald receiving a delegation of monks from Tours, frontispiece of the Bible of Vivien, 845.
Charles the Bald is represented sitting on a monumental throne, crowned and holding the scepter. Above the emperor, the hand of God is appearing and spreading rays of gold on the sovereign, who is his representative on Earth. The prince is represented in majesty and surrounded by his disciples: he is here assimilated to Christ and to the kings of the Old Testament. Indeed, the king is the holder of temporal power and spiritual power. But, at the same time, the monks were represented in the process of offering the Gospels to the prince: they are thus posing themselves such as intermediaries between God and the prince.

The Carolingians also attempted to reform their Church. Through many capitulars, Carolingians provided a code of conduct for clerics to control and encourage them to be role models for their followers. For example, priests had to be always available to baptize sick children.
Carolingians were also working to unite the liturgy throughout Christendom. Charlemagne insisted on Romanization rites: he introduced feasts celebrated in Rome and spread Gregorian chant throughout the kingdom. Also, he asked Alcuin to create a new sacramentary that was distributed throughout the empire. During the ninth century, his heirs continued to promote this Romano-Frankish liturgy, which progressively established itself in most Western countries.
During the reign of Louis the Pious, the reform to unify the monastic world under the rule of St. Benedict was finally put into practice. While still king of Aquitaine, he entrusted the reform of Carolingian monasteries to St. Benedict of Aniane. The reform was imposed on all the monasteries of the Empire by the monastic capitulary of 816-817. The specificities of Carolingian monks (the importance of closure and cenobitism in particular) were redefined. In 816, the emperor also inspired the reform of Chrodegang and promulgated the Institutio canonicorum, a rule for the canons, that is to say the members of the chapter of a cathedral who refused the rule of St. Benedict.
Monks were also closely associated with the prince’s entourage, like Hilduin of Saint-Denis. Monasteries were in the service of the emperor; their members must pray for the king and perform their military service.
We examined the relationship between the Carolingians and the Church, we will now analyze the ordering of Christian society.

For everyone to achieve salvation, society was to be perfect. The kingdom of the emperor was to resemble the heavenly Jerusalem. Then, the king legislated against blasphemy and wizards.
During the reign of Louis the Pious, society was divided into three orders: clergy, monks and lay people. The only way to bring the whole society to salvation was that everyone stays in his place. It was also necessary that each order be in solidarity with the others.
According to the Carolingians, balance, peace, concord and prosperity could only be achieved if these rules were respected.

Carolingian princes also participated in framing the Christian society.
First, the sacraments were essential. Baptism was the most important. It marked not only the entry into the Church; it was also a political act : the baptized person became a subject of the king. The kings thus paid a great deal of attention to the course of the ritual.
King also supervised the religious education of his subjects. He maintained the nutriti, who were educated teenagers in the royal palace.
The sovereign, through the notion of parishioners, that is to say the inhabitants who payed tithing in their church assigned, also participated in the territorialization of the Empire.

Several basilicas were directly controlled by kings. These abbeys were controlled by the Pippinids and naturally became royal properties when they came to power.
The king then named the abbots, who could be lay lords, and who named the provosts themselves. Angilbert of Saint-Riquier was for example named by Charlemagne.
The monasteries were effective in rewarding the faithful, who, after having been appointed by the king, were considered his vassals. It was also a way to control the territory by placing trustworthy people in it.
The king could also give certain abbeys immunity. This allowed the abbey to be removed from any form of county authority. It was then the abbot who gave justice, who took charge of the collection of taxes and taxes and summoned the army. This allowed the king to counter the secular aristocracy.

To conclude, the Carolingian princes, considered like holders of a sacred mission, posed themselves as true leaders, reformers and protectors of the Church as well as Christianity. For this, they imposed themselves as the holders of an undisputed authority in all matters of ecclesial affairs, although the pope and religious tried to retain some of the power. Kings and emperors led their mission of divine elected with great zeal: in 1165, Charlemagne was even canonized by antipope Paschal III.
Over the succession, their power crumbled, their temporal authority was gradually replaced by that of Robertians and their heirs, while their spiritual authority was gradually transferred to the hands of the Pope.

The priests of Aachen praising the chief-reliquary of "Saint Charlemagne" during his liturgical feast (28th January).

Catholic priests of Aachen insensing the chief-reliquary of St. Charlemagne during his liturgical feast (28th January).

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