General History III: 700–900
This period began with the frontiers of Christendom shrinking under the impact of Islam to the smallest area that it ever occupied after Constantine’s conversion. It concluded with writers using the word ‘Europe’ in a recognizably contemporary sense. One of the pivotal periods of European history by any standards, it was also one of expansion in almost all areas of human activity.
The central episode from most points of view was the reign of Charlemagne, king of the Franks 768-814 and ‘emperor’ from his coronation at Rome on Christmas Day 800. He was the most powerful ruler that Western Europe saw between the end of the Roman empire and the reign of his namesake Charles V: his significance for the history of medieval Europe was comparable to that of Napoleon for modern times. The ruthlessly effective leader of the army of the Franks, the West’s ‘superpower’, Charlemagne could be said in his famous biography by Einhard to have doubled the area of his kingdom: at his death, it stretched from the Ebro and Volturno to the Channel and the Danish border, and from Brittany to Bohemia. His reign also saw an explosion of visible government activity, whether in law-making or economic management (through coinage). More important, it was an era of ideological reform: of a Renaissance conceived literally as society’s spiritual rebirth through observance of the Bible. The pressure to reform generated prodigious growth in the output of books: three times as many Latin manuscripts survive from ninth-century Francia as from the entire period prior to 800. So important was this activity to the survival of the Classics that Italian humanists believed its elegant and versatile ‘Caroline minuscule’ script to be that of Cicero’s time, which is why its letter-forms are those we still use today. The object of the exercise, however, was not to rediscover antiquity but to forge a Christian Society; intellectually, the period was one of vigorous theological controversy, which was already raising some of the central issues of the Reformation (predestination, the Eucharist) 700 years before Luther, and which featured in the Irish John the Scot one of the most brilliantly original philosophers of any age. Developments in the visual arts left no less palpable marks in manuscript illumination of vivid creativity, and in the first monumental buildings to survive north of the Alps since Roman times – most obviously Charlemagne’s own palace chapel at Aachen.
The Franks may be the central characters of the period, but it was also one of major developments in other parts of the documented world. The Papacy began to reorientate itself from allegiance to the emperor at Constantinople in favour of a more obviously western outlook. Having narrowly escaped extinction at the hands of Islam, the Byzantine empire began the recovery that would restore most of its old frontiers and glory by 1000, and also commenced the expansion of its influence among the Slavs, leading to the conversion of the Bulgars (and the creation of Cyrillic, another script still in use). The Islamic caliphate itself, based at Baghdad, was certainly the most prosperous, urbanized, literate and generally ‘civilized’ society that the known world had seen since the end of Antiquity: it was a culture capable of creating from scratch a city the size of Greater London. At other corners of Europe, a rival Arab dynasty in Spain was forging the state and culture that would make it the most formidable and colourful polity in the tenth-century West; while in the far North, the ‘Vikings’ burst into the consciousness of literate man in a movement that was not only one of ‘Vikings’ (i.e. raiders) but also of urban and commercial growth throughout the North and West of Europe – one whose settlements east of the Baltic are the acknowledged origins of Russia, and whose North Atlantic adventures created in the Icelandic republic the first major stepping-stone in Europe’s route to the New World.
Among the most attractive features of earlier medieval history is the amount that is not and never will be known about it. There is always scope for debate and speculation. But this much is certain: while any period of western history can lay claim to its own special importance, the Carolingian era saw more seminal developments than most.