It might be thought that the word ‘Carolingian’ derives from the greatest person of that dynasty, Charlemagne (Carolus magnus, Charles the Great), but such is not the case. The word ‘Carolingian’ derives from Charles Martel, whose son Pepin became the first king of the dynasty. At the height of their power under Charlemagne, the Carolingians controlled a vast area of Western Europe, not just the area of modern France nor even of Napoleonic France. The Frankish campaign into Spain famously failed at Roncesvalles (778), giving us the epic Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland) and fixed the south-western border of their lands at the Pyrenees. Yet their south-eastern lands extended deep into central Italy. And their power extended from the western sea well into central Europe, including Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria, thus neutralizing the Avar threat to the eastern borders. In the north, Carolingian dominion stopped only at the inhospitable Danish march. Europe was not to see such massive territorial control by one power until the time of Napoleon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Hitler in the twentieth century. It was in the context of this Frankish aggrandizement that the church was to play a major role. The relationship of the kings of this dynasty, particularly Pepin III (751-68), Charlemagne (768-814) and Louis the Pious (814-40), with the papacy profoundly influenced that institution and the Christian religion more generally. It was a dynasty too soon, a dynasty too ambitious in its aims and too weak even at its strongest moment to survive long. Within ninety years from the coronation of Pepin (751) the Frankish lands, the new ‘empire’, were divided into three parts and soon into even more parts as centrifugal forces left it in pieces. Yet, on that account, its accomplishments should not be denied: they were considerable, like nothing before, and they touched the church on many levels and in many ways that continued long after the grandsons of Charlemagne were engaged in unseemly fratricidal warfare.
Events in Italy and Francia combined to form the central political alliance of the Middle Ages. More than political and, indeed, more than an alliance, the