Charlemagne’s furniture

by David A. Michelson

Whatever happened to the Holy Roman Empire?

WHEN CHARLEMAGNE DIED on January 28, 814, his will listed an unusual set of matching furniture. Charlemagne owned three ornamental silver tables, each with a map or image of a city engraved on it. The first bore an image of the city of Rome. The second depicted the Byzantine capital city Constantinople, which thought of itself as “New Rome.” In his will, Charlemagne left these two tables to two different bishops. He sent the “Constantinople” table to the bishop of Rome and the “Rome” table to a bishop of former Byzantine territory that he had conquered.

These gifts were a calculated symbolic gesture, their meaning clear when compared with the third silver table. This one Charlemagne left to his heir, Louis.Biographer Einhard notes that this last table was far larger and superior to the other two, showing not just a single city, but “a plan of the whole universe, drawn with skill and delicacy.” With this bequest Charlemagne left his son not merely a symbol of authority over old Rome, or even over new Rome, but also a claim to rule over the whole civilized world.

But this claim did not reflect reality. At the time of his death, Charlemagne controlled only a small fraction of the former Roman Empire. He left his heirs limited influence over Rome and no authority at all over Constantinople. In fact over the next two generations, Charlemagne’s empire declined rapidly. While Charlemagne was memorialized as “the Great,” his son Louis earned the less impressive nickname “the Pious.” His grandchildren began a civil war between themselves that permanently shattered the empire; its last ruler was Charlemagne’s great-grandson “Charles the Fat,” only 70 years after Charlemagne’s death.

Nevertheless Charlemagne left a noteworthy heritage, embodied by these three tables. It was a vision of uniting east and west into a single universal empire under a Christian emperor. Charlemagne’s most influential and lasting legacy was intangible: the idea of “Christendom.”

A New Roman Emperor

Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne was the pivotal moment in that idea’s arrival. This short-lived revival of the Roman imperial title in the west struck a chord that resonated in the political imagination of western Europeans for over a millennium.

Called “Emperor and Augustus,” Charlemagne restored to the city of Rome the glory of having an emperor after nearly 300 years without one. Although Charlemagne’s biographers noted his “surprise” at the “impromptu” coronation, it was quite likely the result of careful political calculations by both the Roman church and Charlemagne himself, and it increased his status as legitimate and divinely ordained ruler of western Europe. As a “Roman emperor,” Charlemagne could not only claim to be an equal with the empress then ruling over Byzantium, but he could even aspire to be on par with Christian Roman emperors of old, such as Constantine the Great.

For the next 1,000 years, the monarchs of Europe cited Charlemagne’s title as the key link that connected them, and the many kingdoms of medieval Europe, to the Roman Empire. The memory of Charlemagne’s claim to the Roman imperial title emboldened the dream: if Charlemagne, no matter how briefly, could reunite the Roman Empire (or at least western Europe and the city of Rome) under a single Christian ruler, then perhaps it could be done again by someone else.

This vision of a united church and state became a long-running political and religious goal of western European Christians. It was a frequent theme in western European art and literature; one poet gave Charlemagne the title “the Father of Europe.”

The dream shaped how European kings thought of themselves. It affected how Christians perceived their encounters with Muslims in southern Europe and on the Crusades. It shaped how the Catholic Church viewed its political authority and relationship to the kings of Europe. Even after the Reformation ended most hopes of uniting Europe under one Christian king, Charlemagne’s memory still held power over faith and politics. And even at the end of the twentieth century, Charlemagne’s Christendom was whispered as the forerunner to the modern European Union.

Saint Charlemagne?

Charlemagne’s larger-than-life reputation developed little by little with new traditions and legends attaching to his name like the annual rings of growth around the trunk of a tree. First came highly flattering biographies and tributes. These described Charlemagne as an ideal Christian ruler, a task made easy by ready comparison to the civil war under his grandchildren. Because of that political chaos, the title of emperor itself eventually lapsed for almost half a century. Not until Pope John XII crowned king of the Germans Otto I “the Great” as Holy Roman Emperor in 962 could western Europe once again claim to have a “Roman emperor.” His son, Otto II, and later heirs also claimed the imperial title.

Otto II married a Byzantine princess, renewing the eastern connection. In the year 1000 their son, Otto III, opened Charlemagne’s tomb in Aachen and “discovered” that Charlemagne’s body was miraculously preserved without decay (seen as a divine sign that the deceased was worthy of veneration as a saint). In this way Otto expanded Charlemagne’s reputation as a truly “holy” Roman emperor.

Enhancing Charlemagne’s Christian credentials gave later Holy Roman Emperors political legitimacy and connected them to religious authority at a time when an intense rivalry over political and religious power was developing between the papacy in Rome and the various monarchies of Europe. By emphasizing Charlemagne’s role as defender and ruler of all Christians, the emperors reminded the Roman pontiffs that popes were not the only ones with a God-given charge of leadership over the church.

A long christendom

About a century and a half after Otto opened Charlemagne’s tomb, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (reigned 1155–1190) had Charlemagne formally recognized as a saint and changed the official name of his empire to “the Holy Roman Empire.” The idea of Christendom was now captured in a name.

Frederick I Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II, carefully imitated the now-idealized Charlemagne. Frederick II was crowned publicly in Charlemagne’s old capital, Aachen, in 1215, and while there he ceremonially reburied Charlemagne’s relics in a magnificent reliquary. Frederick then took a vow that he would lead a crusade to Jerusalem in the defense of Christendom. Now Charlemagne was not only remembered in folklore as the great Christian emperor of Europe, but as the first, even greatest, Crusader.

In real life Charlemagne never set foot in Jerusalem. But in popular songs by minstrels across Europe he now performed legendary feats, liberating Jerusalem and even conquering Constantinople. Heroic myths of Charlemagne and his mighty companions were beloved by knights and nobles. When Pope Urban II called for an army to liberate Jerusalem from Islamic rule in 1095, he urged, “Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements; the glory and greatness of king Charles the Great, and of his son Louis, and of your kings, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the pagans, and have extended in these lands the territory of the holy church.”

As this army began to march on the First Crusade, they followed a highway across eastern Europe that they believed to have been built by Charlemagne. They even circulated rumors that the ghost of Charlemagne had been seen among their number. Even when the Crusades failed, Charlemagne’s legends continued to flourish—perhaps to satisfy a European longing for what might have been.

After the political and religious fragmentation of the Reformation, the ideal of unifying Europe under one Christian emperor became more unreachable. But the dream of Christendom did not disappear. European rulers and intellectuals continued for centuries to use Charlemagne to support visions of empire and culture. In 1811 a statue of Charlemagne was set up in Aachen with the inscription: “Only Napoleon is greater than I.” From the 1950s to the present, the International Charlemagne Prize has been given in Aachen to people who have contributed to the development of Western Europe as a community.

Although Charlemagne’s actual empire was short-lived, it cast a long shadow. Christians today are sometimes wary over alliances between secular and ecclesiastical power. But the fact remains that for centuries, western Christians dreamed of sitting at Charlemagne’s universal tables. CH

David A. Michelson is assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

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