Feudalism: Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire

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  1. 0:05 Fall of Rome
  2. 1:32 Birth of European Feudalism
  3. 2:45 Europe Under Charlemagne
  4. 5:55 Europe After Charlemagne
  5. 6:49 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson explains the rule of Charlemagne and his control over the Holy Roman Empire. It highlights his many military conquests and his divine rights as king, while also focusing on the role feudalism played before, during, and after his reign.

Fall of Rome

I'm guessing most of us have heard the saying, 'When the cat's away, the mice will play!' Although it's usually used to describe things like students when the teacher leaves the room, or workers slacking off while the boss is on vacation, today we're going to use it as a historical metaphor for the rule of the über famous Charlemagne, the man who pulled Western Europe from chaos, and united it under his ruling thumb.

In doing this, Charlemagne will be our cat, and the unruly people groups of Europe will be our mice. As we take a look at our cat and his mice, we'll also undercover the role feudalism played in their interactions.

The components of the European feudalism system
European Feudalism

Before we get to our big cat, let's grasp an understanding of feudalism. Feudalism is a system of government in which power is based on land ownership. In this system, all land is officially owned by the sovereign but divided among the nobility.

Although feudalism is usually linked to the time of Charlemagne, its roots go back to the 5th century fall of Rome when the people groups of Europe, or tribes, began fighting for domination. To say the least, it was a violent and dangerous time, and although the leaders of these tribes were usually referred to as kings, their power was not absolute, and they were always in danger of being overthrown by a challenger. In other words, they were a bit closer to kittens than big cats!

Birth of European Feudalism

To gain some semblance of control, these kings began giving fiefs or portions of land to the nobility. Those given the land came to be known as vassals. In return for the gift of land, the vassals would offer the king their allegiance. Yes, they would raise armies to protect their land but their first official duty was to fight for the king should challengers arise.

In order to make their lands productive and profitable, vassals would also offer protection to the peasantry who farmed the land. These peasants gained the name serfs. Obviously, the life of the serf was far from glamorous, but it was protected. In short, that's what the whole feudal system was about: offering protection in a very chaotic time, making it possible to govern and protect large territories in the absence of a centralized government.

Although feudalism did offer some stability, it had one very large drawback. Since each noble raised an army to defend his own fief, the nobility became very powerful. As their power increased, they began warring among themselves. With this, Western Europe found itself continually in turmoil.

Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor

Europe Under Charlemagne

Enter Charlemagne, our big cat. Although he continued to use the system of feudalism, he made sure his mice were under his firm control. To understand how he did this, we'll focus on two main things: his military conquests and his divine rights as king.

To understand the significance of Charlemagne's military conquests, let's remember Western Europe had pretty much been in chaos since the 5th century fall of Rome. It was a time in which might made right, and lucky for Charlemagne, he proved to have the most might.

As king of the Franks, or modern-day France, Charlemagne wielded an impressive fighting machine. Through brute force and determination, he conquered the Lombards of modern-day Italy, the Avars of Austria and Hungary, the areas of Bavaria, the Germanic Saxons, and many others. Not only would Charlemagne conquer a land but as a Christian king, he would force his faith upon its people. For example, at the 782 Massacre of Verden, it is believed he ordered the slaughter of about 4,500 Saxons. Those who survived his tyranny were eventually forced to be baptized into Christianity or face death.

Although these tactics were ruthless, they worked to forcibly unite the modern day areas of Northern Spain and Italy, through France, Germany and even Poland, under one faith, thus laying the ground work for what become the Holy Roman Empire. Yes, feudalism still held a part in the political landscape but Charlemagne and his Christianity prowled around as undisputed king of the system. All lands were his, and no one dared try to tame him!

Speaking of one faith, Charlemagne not only forced people to convert, he also zealously protected the Papacy, or the office of the Pope. For example, when Pope Leo III found himself actually attacked in the streets of Rome, Charlemagne rode upon the city and restored order. When Pope Leo III regained his power, he awarded Charlemagne with the crown of Holy Roman Emperor. This famous crowning occurred on Christmas day in the year 800 CE. With this move, Charlemagne added his divine rights as king to his grip on the empire.

Map showing groups conquered by Charlemagne
Charlemagne Conquered Peoples

The Divine Right of Kings is a political and religious ideology that recognizes a monarch as free from any earthly authority since his right to rule has come directly from God. For this reason, a king is not subject to the people, the nobility or any other earthly institution. Taking it a step further, the doctrine holds that any attempt to remove a king from the throne or to restrict his powers is in direct violation of God's will and punishable by damnation.

Making this doctrine an even greater tool for Charlemagne, we need to remember he was not only a king; he was made emperor by the Pope himself! With this, Charlemagne went from being a controlling cat to a full blown lion. With his military and his divine right as king, not many dared to challenge his vicious roar.

Europe After Charlemagne

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which point of view you have), despite his god-like hold on Europe, Charlemagne's rule was not eternal. He succumbed to death in the year 814 CE, and like the old saying goes, with the cat away, the mice began to play! In other words, tribes again began to war, and nobles began fighting for more territories. Deprived of the strong centralizing force of Charlemagne's rule and facing the new threat of Viking invasions from the north, the people of Europe began scurrying like mice, trying to find protection from the coming storm.

Ironically, just as it had done at the fall of Rome, Western Europe turned back to feudalism. This time the continent sank even deeper into the feudal system, trading allegiance for protection in a time of chaos that would last until the dawning of the Renaissance.

The Christmas Day crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor Crowning

Lesson Summary

After the 5th century fall of Rome, Western Europe dissolved into chaos. In order to offer protection and maintain some sort of order, the people turned to feudalism, a system of power based on land ownership. Although this offered some stability, it also led to wealthy nobles warring for power in a day when might made right.

During this time period, Charlemagne, a Frankish King, used his might to rise to the position of Holy Roman Emperor. He was a man of influence and power who used military conquest and his divine rights as king to pull the continent from chaos.

In order to unify Europe under his rule, he went to war, reigning in the tribes of Western Europe. Using his position of Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled under the divine right of kings, a political ideology which recognizes a monarch as free from any earthly authority. With such power, Charlemagne not only waged war, he brought the continent a stability which lasted throughout his life time. However, upon his death, Western Europe again fell into political chaos, turning once again to feudalism as a means to establish a semblance of protection and order.

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