Eighth Century : Europe and the Byzantine Empire
By the beginning of the 8th century the barbarian tribes in Europe had ended their migrations, except for the Scandinavians. But meanwhile the advance of islam had brought a new threat.
Collapse of the Muslim Advance. The century had barely opened when the Berbers and Arabs, formerly enemies, combined forces. After subjugating western North Africa they invaded Spain in 711. These Muslim forces were led by Tariq, a general in the service of the Arab governor of North Africa, Musa Ibn Nusayr. The Visigothic kingdom in Spain quickly collapsed after King Roderick’s army was overwhelmed in battle on July 19, 711, near the Laguna de Janda. Cordoba fell within two months, and the capital, Toledo, soon after.
Musa continued the conquest in person the next year, and by 719 one of his successors, al-Hurr, had led the Muslims across the Pyrenees and was hammering at southern Gaul. In Spain, only the mountain regions of Asturias remained as a pocket of Christian resistance. The coast of southern France was occupied as far as Narbonne, but Toulouse held out under Duke Eudes of Aquitaine. In October 732 the advance was stopped when a large Muslini raiding party, probably headed for Tours, was decisively beaten near Poitiers by the Frankish army under Charles Martel. By 759 the invaders had withdrawn from their last base north of the Pyrenees, and the Frankish realm was free from the Arab threat.
The Battle of Tours, or Poitiers, which lasted for several days, has loomed large in history, and indeed its importance should not be under-estimated. But it was not the foremost cause of the Muslims’ withdrawal, even though it marked the most northerly point of their advance. Divisions within islam—Arab and Berber feuds and discord in the east—helped bring its western expansion to a halt, and an earlier Muslini defeat at Constantinople is now generally regarded as even more important than Tours as a cause of the Muslim retreat.
In the Byzantine East the Muslims had been met by a series of undistinguished emperors. But in 717 an able general deposed the weak Theodosius III and established himself on the throne as Leo III, the founder of the Isaurian dynasty. He was immediately faced by the great Arab siege of 717-718, when Constantinople was beset by both land and sea forces under Maslama, brother of the Umayyad ealiph, Sulayman. Leo’s vigorous defense saved the city, and the Arabs subsequently withdrew on the eastern front.
Rise of the Carolingians. The Frankish victor at Tours, Charles Martel, is celebrated for his campaign against the Muslims, but he is also important for his larger historical role. With the power of the Merovingian dynasty in decline, Charles’ forebears had made themselves de facto rulers as mayors of the palace. One of them, Pepin of Heristal, had gained supremacy over both Austrasia and Neustria—eastern and western Frankland—by his victory at Tertry in 687. After the death of Pepin in 714, Charles, his illegitimate son, soon subdued his opposition and ruled as mayor of the palace for the ineffective Merovingians, who stili occupied the Frankish throne.
Charles Martel. A great warrior, Charles Martel continued his father’s campaigns against the Frisians in the north, fought several wars against the Saxons, and overcame independence movements in his realms, besides defeating the Muslims. In his attempt to maintain order in a chaotic time, Charles needed considerable military support and also considerable land with which to reward his warriors. The old Merovingian possessions had long since dwindled away in land grants, and so Charles confiscated church lands for distribution to his men, who were then obligated for military duty to the state. This action was important in the development of feudalism and in the use of land tenure to bind loyalty to the crown.
Although Charles Martel’s reputation suffered during the next centuries at the hands of ecclesiastical writers because of his use of church lands and treasures, there is no conclusive evidence that his land policy caused the decline of the Frankish church. He was, furthermore, concerned with religious matters more than these later sources might indicate. Charles supported both the mission of the St. Willibrord among the pagan Frisians and that of St. Boniface in Germany. Church reform, however, had to wait for Charles’ sons Carloman and Pepin the Short, who succeeded him when he died in 741.
Pepin the Short. In having his lands divided at his death, Charles followed the old Frankish custom, and one should not look for evidence that he held notions of Frankish unity or hereditary empire. These were later ideas. However, in 747, when Carloman retired to a monastery, the Frankish territories were united under Pepin the Short, who ruled in the name of Childeric III, one of the Merovingian “do nothing kings” (rois faineants). A combination of personal ambition and papal needs was to place Pepin on the throne.
In Italy, the papacy was feeling the pressure of Lombard consolidation. King Liutprand had brought the duchi.es of Spoleto and Benevento under Lombard subjection, and in 751 the fiery King Aistulf conquered Bavenna, the seat of Byzantine power in Italy. Alarmed, the papacy sought a protector against this threat. It could hope for nothing from the Byzantine Empire, though, because the popes opposed Emperor Leo III and his successor, Constantine V, in the Iconoclastic religious controversy.
The Holy See had offered the title of consul to Charles Martel in return for aid, but Charles had refused, in 739, to turn against his Lombard allies. During Aistulf’s campaigns, however, an embassy from Pepin the Short arrived in Rome to ask Pope Zachary whether the title of king should be held by one who did not hold the royal power. The famous reply was that he who held the power of king should also have the royal title. immediately, in 751, Pepin the Short was elected king by the Frankish magnates. Childeric III and his son were shorn of their long hair, symbol of royalty, and forced into the abbey of St. Bertin.
Pepin, the first king of the Carolingian dynasty, was anointed by St. Boniface at Soissons in 751. Three years later Pope Stephen II (III), on a visit to Pepin to seek aid against Aistulf, anointed the new ruler a second time. Thus Pepin was the first of ali western European rulers to be anointed by a pope. A sacred character was given to the new family of kings, and this combination of altar and throne was to be a constant factor in medieval French history.
On this same visit Pope Stephen bestowed the ancient title of patrician on King Pepin and his two sons. The title could be legally bestowed only by the Byzantine emperor, but it associated Pepin with Roman authority in Italy. In 754 and 756, the new king descended into Italy and forced the Lombards to abandon Ravenna and other recent acquisitions. Before the first expedition, Pepin had promised to give certain lands to the pope. On the expedition of 756 he confirmed this promise by the Donation of Pepin, giving the papacy the Byzantine cities of the Exarchate of Ravenna and the Pentapolis in Italy. The Donation of Pepin became the basis of the church’s temporal power in Italy, whieh blocked the unification of the peninsula until the 19th century. Hence, the papacy had gained a protector in the Franks.
Besides his Italian campaigns, brought about by his new alliance with the papacy, Pepin the Short waged a long war (752-759) in Septimania. There the last Arab center in southern France, Narbonne, fell after a siege that was to be celebrated in medieval chansons. In 768, following the final campaigns of his war against Aquitaine, in which he was more successful than his Merovingian predecessors, Pepin died. His sons Charles (then 26 years old) and Carloman succeeded to their father’s lands, for division of the kingdom was no less characteristic of the Carolingians than it had been of their Merovingian predecessors. Within three years, however, Carloman died, and Charles was left as sole ruler from 771 until his death in 814.
The Age of Charlemagne. Charles, or Charlemagne (Charles the Great), has become so entangled in legend and saga that it is almost impossible to distinguish the historical man from the massive warrior-emperor of tradition. Medieval kings of France emulated him, and the Carolingian dynasty—the “second race” of French monarchs—was named after him. Medieval German emperors traced their empire through him, and a 12th century antipope, Paschal III, named Charlemagne a saint. More is known about Charlemagne than about his predecessors. Our information comes from such sources as the monastic annals, some of which are practically official accounts of his reign, and the capitularies of his legislation, some of them very detailed. The court itself, once the intellectual revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance had set in, poured out a fairly brilliant succession of poems, letters, and biographies.
Charlemagne’s Conquests. The impression of ubiquitous power that Charlemagne seems to have given his contemporaries was due in part to his being almost constantly on the march. His fîrst campaign was against the Lombards, whose territories he invaded in 773 after repudrating his wife, the daughter of the Lombard Kİng, Desiderius. Pavia fell to the Frank the next year, and he himself was crowned with the Iron Crown of the Lombards. Meanw.hile, Charlemagne had spent Easter of 774 in Rome, becoming the fîrst Frankish ruler to visit the Eternal City. He was received with great honor, and he confîrmed his father’s Donation, a grant that was to bring northern rulers into Italy repeatedly.
Another field of war was Spain, where Muslim discontent with Emir Abd al-Rahman I, grandson of the Umayyad caliph of Damascus, drew Charlemagne into an attempted invasion in 778. After a futile siege of Saragossa, Charles ordered a retreat, but on his way back across the Pyrenees, his rear guard, under Count Roland of Brittany, was attacked by Christian Basques and annihilated at the pass of Roncesvalles. Out of that incident arose the epic Song of Roland, in which the Basques were changed to Moors. Charles eventually conquered northeastern Spain as far as the Ebro River and founded the Spanish March (Catalonia) on the frontier of his empire.
A third conflict, the Saxon Wars, ragea for over 30 years (772-804) through 18 campaigns, during which Charlemagne combined political conquest with forced Christianization, including mass baptisms. In a fourth war Bavaria was incorporated into Charlemagne’s realm by an unsavory episode in which Duke Tassilo was deposed (787-788). Other campaigns were against the Avars, whose power was broken in 795-796; the Danes, with whom the Franks came into conflict when Erisia was overcome; and the Slavs.
In his reign of 46 years, Charlemagne waged over 50 major campaigns, mostly in the 8th century. Like his barbarian predecessors, he had to face revolts against his power. There was a general outbreak in 778, and in 792-793 revolts flared not only in Italy, Saxony, and Spain, but also in his own homeland, where his son Pepin the Hunchback organized a conspiracy. Nonetheless, Charlemagne’s rapid growth of power and famous mobility of action discouraged opposition and did as much as anything to consolidate the Carolingian position.
Charlemagne’s Relations with the Church. Political motivation cannot be severed from missionary fervor in Charlemagne’s wars, for his task as anointed king, as well as that of his Franks, the “new sacred people of promise” as the papacy had called them, was to convert the heathen. The missionary enterprises founded by Anglo-Saxon Christians among the Germanic tribes in the east were supported by Charlemagne, as they had been by his father and grandfather, and the forced baptism of his enemies was part of his political policy. His relations with the papacy were also strengthened by his role as defender of the church, although he made clear his position as ruler over even the states of the church, while treating the pope with due respect.
The growing relationship between Frankish power and Roman church, strengthened by the needs of the papacy, is clearly seen in Charlemagne’s confirmation of the Donation of Pepin. It is also evident in the coronation in 781 by Pope Adrian I of Charlemagne’s son Pepin (not Pepin the Hunchback) as king of Italy, and of another son, Louis, as king of Aquitaine. The culmination of this relationship, however, was in the great event of the year 800, the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor in Rome—often called the central event of the Middle Ages. Although scholarly perspective has somewhat diminished the glory assigned it by some historians, it was nonetheless of great importance to the Franks and, indeed, to the Middle Ages.
The preparation for the coronation came in large part from the ideal of uniformity with Roman Christianity that had been instilled in the Frankish church by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon scholar at Charlemagne’s court, had styled the Frankish kingdom an “empire” (imperium) even before 800, probably in the sense of hegemonic rulership. He also played a prominent role in the identification of Charlemagne’s realm with the Christian Empire (imperium Christianum) of the liturgy, which undoubtedly served to familiarize the King with the notion of a Christian empire in the West and provided much of the spiritual background for the event of 800.
In 799 a rebellion drove Pope Leo III north to seek aid from Charlemagne, who sent him back to Rome with a Frankish escort.
The next year Charlemagne went to Rome himself to investigate the situation. Leo was allowed to clear himself on oath of ali charges that had been made against him. While in Rome, on Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo in St. Peter’s. Einhard, the Emperor’s secretary and biographer, states that Charlemagne regretted the coronation, but the Frankish ruler’s policy had apparently been turning in the direction of empire, even if the timing of the event or the papal role in it may not have been to his liking. Indeed, the Byzantine East, which claimed the universal empire, did not recognize the new title, and Charlemagne may have wished to continue his negotiations already begun with the East before assuming the imperial office.
The Carolingian Renaissance. The last 14 years of Charlemagne’s reign lie beyond the 8th century, but a revival of leaming was well under way by 800. The motivation of this revival was the practieal need for biblieal and liturgical texts and for an educated clergy. Nevertheless, the Carolingian Renaissance encompassed a wider scope than such needs might indicate, and secular knowledge was defended for its usefulness for religious ends. Charlemagne gathered about him scholars from many regions of his empire, including the historian Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon), the grammarian Peter of Pisa, and the poet Theodulf the Visigoth.
Much of the vital energy of the Carolingian Renaissance came from England, and the greatest example of this influence was Alcuin, a close friend of Charlemagne who had absorbed the intellectual atmosphere of the flourishing cathedral school of York. His work shows a lack of originality, but his role in theological controversy was important, and no contemporary was his equal in the field of liturgics. He was a noted teacher as head of the palace school established by Charlemagne. The King often attended the classes, and he took an active role in court discussions, even though his attempts to learn to write came too late.
Among the more important results of the intellectual renaissance was the emergence in the late 8th ceutury of Carolingian minuscule. The developmeut of this script was more influential than is often realized, for it was the basis of later medieval and modern lowercase letters.
England. Contacts between England and the Continent in the 8th ceutury consisted of much more than the migration of Alcuin, for the insular civilization was as flourishing as any in the West in this period. The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian who spent almost his entire life at the monastery of Jarrow, was the greatest writer of the century and one of the greatest in the entire medieval period. His knowledge of Greek and Latin is probably indicative of the influence of the Irish schools, yvhich had been of noted repute in the preceding century.
Among the many missionaries who went from England to the Continent were Willibrord, missionary to Frisia and bishop of Utrecht, and winfrid, apostle to the Germans, who was renamed Boniface by Pope Gregory II. The activities of English-born missionaries on the Continent provided the background for the Rome-oriented policy of the Carolingians, as well as the educational revival. The devotion to Rome of these missionaries, who represented both the Northumbrian and Wessex traditions, prepared for the 8th century Frankish-papal relations. Indeed, the first instance known of cooperation between a Carolingian and a pope occurred when Pepin of Hemstal sent Willibrord to Rome to be made archbishop of the Frisians, just before the opening of the 8th century. Pilgrimages, ecclesiastical business, desire for manuscripts, and trade ali brought England into steady contact with Rome and the Continent at large, thus supporting the missionary activity and opening two-way channels of communication during the century.
Byzantine Empire. In the Eastern Empire the Isaurian, or Syrian, dynasty established by Emperor Leo III occupied the throne from 717 to 802. The Iconoclastic Controversy associated with that house resulted in highly unfavorable relations between East and West. In 726, Leo pronounced against the worship of images. The turmoil following the destruction of icons of Christ and the saints throughout the Eastern Empire caused reaction in the West and unrest in the East. Pope Gregory II (reigned 715-731) denounced Iconoclasm, and Ravenna revolted against Byzantine rule. In retaliation, Leo removed Sicily, Calabria, and Illyria from papal jurisdiction and gave them instead to his own patriarch.
Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V Copronymus (reigned 741-775), carried out his father’s Iconoclastic policy during his own reign, in spite of the opposition of the Iconodules and the need for unity in the wars against the Bulgars, Slavs, and Muslims. Leo IV the Khazar (reigned 775-780) continued the same religious policy. However, in the reign (780-797) of Constantine VI, the Emperor’s mother, the powerful regent irene, favored the restoration of images, and in 787 she summoned a council at Nicaea that condemned Iconoclasm and restored the old veneration of images. In 797 she had her son imprisoned and blinded and assumed the crown herself. Charlemagne, to gain Eastern recognition of his title, even contemplated marriage with irene, but before anything came of this idea she was deposed in 802.
Scandinavia. Viking raids from Scandinavia brought the 8th century in Europe to a tumultous close. About 787 the Danes made their first raids on England. In 794, Scotland was attacked, and in 795 the raiders reached Ireland. The problem of the Vikings was to occupy much of the next century, and it commanded the attention of ali who wished to inherit the power and title of Charlemagne.