"The coronation of Charles is not only the central event of the Middle Ages, it is also one of those very few events of which, taking them singly, it may be said that if they had not happened, the history of the world would have been different." Such was the judgment of a noted scholar, James Bryce, concerning the significance of the event that occurred in Rome on Christmas day, 800. Probably few of the many historians who have concerned themselves with the history of Charlemagne and his dynasty would express themselves quite so categorically as did Viscount Bryce in weighing the significance of Charlemagne's coronation. Most of them would, however, admit that the coronation was an event of major importance in the history of Western Europe and would insist that any student who was seeking a full understanding of the broad pattern of Western European development must try to grasp the nature and the significance of the events of 800. Perhaps more important, many scholars would argue that one's interpretation of much of Western European history depends upon his interpretation of Charlemagne's imperial coronation.
As is the case with almost any historical event of major significance, there has never been and there is not now agreement on the nature and the significance of the proceedings that occurred on December 25, 800. Even the earliest descriptions of the action, the chief of which have been included among the selections that follow, gave evidence of sharply divided opinion on the fundamenal issues involved in the coronation. These source materials provide more than just an indication of a difference of opinion concerning what happened in Rome; they supply a clear indication of what has been the source of disagreement dividing the many historians who have tried since 800 to explain the imperial coronation of the Frankish king. The questions that the sources pose are relatively simple, yet fundamental. Who was responsible for the decision that resulted in the elevation of the Frankish king to the exalted dignity of emperor? What motivated those responsible to act as they did? What exactly did they think they were achieving by their extraordinary action? This book hopes to provide a representative, fairly inclusive group of answers that have been given to these questions. It is hoped that the answers and the differences of opinion they reflect will help to clarify the importance of the imperial coronation of Charlemagne and to suggest what the role of that event has been in the total stream of Western European history.
To assess the responsibility, the motives, and the intentions of the parties who arranged the coronation of Charlemagne demands that the reader recall certain powerful developments that were unfolding in the eighth century. For this was truly a century of decision, a century of dynamic changes which determined the shape of several future centuries. These changes affected a large geographical area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean eastward across Europe and North Africa far into Asia. However, their impact was greatest on Western Europe, especially Gaul, Western Germany, and Italy. Western Europe was vitally affected because it had in prior centuries suffered the greatest dislocations in its political, economic, cultural, and . . .