Magazine article History Today

Charlemagne the Pragmatist: Hywel Williams Revisits an Article by Peter Munz, First Published in History Today in 1959, and Asks Who Needed Whose Approval Most, the Great Ruler of the Franks or Pope Leo III?

Magazine article History Today

Charlemagne the Pragmatist: Hywel Williams Revisits an Article by Peter Munz, First Published in History Today in 1959, and Asks Who Needed Whose Approval Most, the Great Ruler of the Franks or Pope Leo III?

Article excerpt

By the late 1950s western Europe's political elites were claiming to be the heirs to Charlemagne (d.814); all the signatories to the original Treaty of Rome (1957) represented countries whose lands had formed part of the Carolingian empire. These were important continuities, but Peter Munz, fine historian that he was, takes us back to the particular context of the year 800; his analysis of Charlemagne's imperial coronation in Rome suggests that the leader of the Franks was more a political fixer than an imperial visionary.

Recent historiography confirms Munz's account of Pope Leo III (750-816) as a clever operator, surviving the physical assault on him which took place in Rome in 799. Charlemagne was in Paderborn at the time of the attack, engaged in the latest of his military offensives against the Saxons, and it took him over a year to get to Rome and intervene personally on the side of the pope. Conquering the Saxons and forcing them to be Christians was the central preoccupation of Charlemagne's reign, though Munz's article underplays the significance of the quarter of a century of military campaigning from the late 770s onwards. It was an epic struggle and the making of medieval Germany, as well as the first of the great Crusades. Charlemagne only moved south to Italy once a final settlement of the Saxon question was thought to be in sight during the winter of 799-800.

Too much has been made of the order by the great intellectual and theologian Alcuin (c.735-804) to destroy the letter describing the results of official investigations into Leo's alleged offences. These were sensitive matters after all and governmental secrecy is hardly unusual. Leo's real offence was to be humbly born and he had upset Rome's oligarchs by appointing non-aristocrats to offices in the papal court. The ruler of the Franks was an obvious choice as papal protector, especially since sacral kingship in Christian form had been a Frankish motif since 749-50 when Charlemagne's father, Pepin the Short (d.768), had deposed the Merovingian dynasty. Charlemagne therefore was not quite as indifferent to monarchical claims of supernatural power as Munz considers him to have been. But his legal status in Rome was uncertain. Crowned by Leo on Christmas Day 800, as imperator Romanum gubernans imperiuma ('Roman emperor governing the empire'), the title he eventually adopted in 801, Charlemagne possessed what he did not have before: the right to sit in judgement within Roman territory and to issue a sentence on Leo's attackers. …

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