Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire

By Simon Maclean | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
INTRODUCTION

THE END OF THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE IN
MODERN HISTORIOGRAPHY

The dregs of the Carlovingian race no longer exhibited any symptoms of virtue or power, and the ridiculous epithets of the Bald, the Stammerer, the Fat, and the Simple, distinguished the tame and uniform features of a crowd of kings alike deserving of oblivion. By the failure of the collateral branches, the whole inheritance devolved to Charles the Fat, the last emperor of his family: his insanity authorised the desertion of Germany, Italy, and France … The governors, the bishops and the lords usurped the fragments of the falling empire.1

This was how, in the late eighteenth century, the great Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon passed verdict on the end of the Carolingian empire almost exactly 900 years earlier. To twenty-first-century eyes, the terms of this assessment may seem jarring. Gibbon’s emphasis on the importance of virtue and his ideas about whoor what was a deserving subject of historical study very much reflect the values of his age, the expectations of his audience and the intentions of his work.2 However, if the timbre of his analysis now feels dated, its constituent elements have nonetheless survived into modern historiography. The conventional narrative of the end of the empire in the year 888 is still a story about the emergence of recognisable medieval kingdoms which would become modern nations – France, Germany and Italy; about the personal inadequacies of late ninthcentury kings as rulers; and about their powerlessness in the face of an increasingly independent, acquisitive and assertive aristocracy. This book is an examination of the validity of these assumptions, and aims to retell the story of the end of the Carolingian empire through the prism of the reign of its last emperor, Charles III, ‘the Fat’.

1 E. Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, new edn (2 vols., Chicago, 1990), vol. 2, chap. 49, p. 213.

2 See R. McKitterick and R. Quinault (eds.), Edward Gibbon and Empire (Cambridge, 1997), esp. R. McKitterick, ‘Gibbon and the Early Middle Ages in Eighteenth-Century Europe’, pp. 162–89.

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