By the end of the 5th century AD the decline of the Roman Empire is in full effect. Roman rule was fading away to the politics and expansionism of the numerous Germanic Kingdoms in the region. (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 209) As imagined there were many territorial disputes between the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain, and the Frankish Kingdom. The Franks themselves in 450 AD were a splintered bunch of tribes without much leadership or direction. It was during this time that the legacy of Merovich begins and emerges into wider history with the victories of his son Childeric. Known as the Merovingians, this Salian Frankish dynasty became increasingly more formidable with victories over the Visigoths and Saxons. However, it was Clovis, son of Childeric who would unite the Frankish Kingdom. When he took the crown in 482 he was to become the most famous of the Merovingian kings. However significant the unification of all of the Frankish tribes into the most powerful kingdom in the region, it was the introduction of Catholic Christianity to both himself and his people that he would be remembered for. His baptism and conversion to western Christianity was an act of immense importance in the subsequent history of Western and Central Europe.
The Merovingian dynasty continued intact until 751 AD. The Lombards, who were in the seat of power in Italy, were demanding tribute from the pope at that time. Pepin the Short, Duke of the Franks, had the power in the Frankish Kingdom but no authority to rule. Seeing an opportunity to help himself, Pepin approached and received from the pope the stipulation that whoever had actual power should be the legal ruler. It is clear that Pope Zachary sanctioned this act because he needed a protector. Upon his coronation, Pepin agreed to armed intervention against the Lombards in support of the papacy and finally stopped them in 756. The title of the Exarchate of Ravenna was transferred over to the Pope and essentially made him the official ruler of the Papal States. This alliance between the papacy and the Franks would affect European history for many centuries to come. (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 241) (John Moreland, 1992, p. 322)
The appointment of Pepin as king effectively ended the Merovingian dynasty and the Carolingian one was born. Since the coronation included an anointment with holy oil in imitation of an Old Testament practice, it formally recognized the king as a representative of the Pope. With Pepin's death in 768 came the ascension of his son Charles I to the Frankish throne. A powerful ruler known to history as Charles the Great or more commonly Charlemagne, he was a devout Christian and became a fervent protector of the papacy and Catholic Church. "Charlemagne also realized that the Catholic Church could provide valuable assistance in governing his kingdom." (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 242) While Charlemagne expanded the empire in the name of Christianity he helped to reform the Catholic Church and use its hierarchy to help govern his people. By advising the monks and priests to label their enemies as descendents of the devil, he was able to justify his actions as the will of God. The Frankish Kingdom was expanded through this mutualistic relationship
So why did the Frankish rulers choose Christianity or more specifically, Roman Catholicism as the tool for their political gain? What began as a reform movement within Judaism spread quickly but quietly through the common man. This growing class of oppressed and despised people saw Christianity as the only faith that viewed them without contempt and offered them the hope of a better life. It did not get recognized until 313 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine, in a crucial battle to gain control of the Roman Empire, used a Christian symbol as his war banner. It gained the support of the Christians and consequently won the battle for him. (Lynn Harry Nelson, 2007) Constantine rewarded his supporters by decreeing that Christianity would be henceforth tolerated. He soon saw that it would be to his empire's advantage if the zeal of the Christians could be harnessed. So in 325, at the First Council of Nicaea, the Nicene Creed was adapted. By agreeing on the basic formula of the Christian faith, it would turn the fledgling religion into an institution. "One could argue that Jesus may have founded the Christian Faith, but that Constantine founded the Christian Church." (Lynn Harry Nelson, 2007, p. 4)
"One of the far-reaching developments in the history of the Christian church was the emergence of one bishop- that of Rome- as the recognized leader of the Western Church." (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 216) When Attila the Hun approached Rome in 453 it was Pope Leo I (the Great) who negotiated on its behalf and arranged the tribute that purchased his withdrawal. More importantly though, was the proclamation that the bishops of Rome were heirs to Peter, who had died in the city (Rome), and so had inherited Peter's preeminence in spiritual affairs. It was Peter in which Jesus had granted in his famous words "Thou art Peter and on this rock, I will found my church." Since Jesus had chosen Peter to head the Christian church, and Leo I portrayed himself as his heir, he set the precedent that the Bishop of Rome was the head of the church. This would be known as the doctrine of Petrine Supremacy and essentially granted supreme power to one bishop otherwise known as the Pope.
With the Council of Nicaea and the Doctrine of Petrine supremacy we see Christianity grow from a small persecuted sect to a respected establishment that was shaped into an eminently Roman institution. Because it was the state religion and an official government agency, the medieval church was simply a continuation of the Roman regime. The political aspect had been made part of its structure by Constantine and his successors. This made the church an ideal ally for any ruler who wanted to legitimize his conquests in which the militarily defenseless church was more than willing to sponsor in return for any protective services.
By 496, Clovis was already a successful king with his victory in the battle of Soissons behind him (which symbolized the final collapse of the Roman Empire) (J.B. Bury, 1924, p. 197), however he faced a formidable enemy in the Alamanni at the Battle of Tolbinc. With his narrow victory over them he was inspired to convert to his wife's Catholic faith. He was the first German king to become Catholic Christian as the others before him chose the Arian sect of Christianity. "The Roman Catholic church regarded the Arians as heretics, people who believed in teachings that departed from the official church doctrine. Clovis found that his conversion to Catholic Christianity gained him the support of the Roman Catholic Church, which was only too eager to obtain the friendship of a major German ruler who was a Catholic Christian." (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 212)
It is not clear if Clovis was aware of the political implications of his conversion before it happened but history is clear on how he used it to his advantage once he did. In his campaign against the Visigoths, his new found religion ensured him the support of the Roman Catholic Aristocracy. He was able to drive them from southern Gaul (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 212). By 510, Clovis had united the Frankish tribes and created a powerful new Frankish Kingdom in what is modern day France and Western Germany. Shortly before his death in 511, he called for the First Council of Orleans in which he used it to create a strong link between the Crown and the Catholic Church. It essentially set the duties and obligations of individuals, the right of sanctuary, and discipline within the affairs of the church.
The conversion of Clovis to Christianity was the most significant accomplishment of his legacy. Not only was that the religion of the majority of his people but also strengthened the bonds between his Roman subjects (acquired from the Battle of Soissons) which were led by Catholic bishops. From a political standpoint this was a genius move. Whether or not he realized it early on, he identified with and became part of the majority of his subjects. He also made himself an ally of the papacy and its protector as well. "By posing as defender of the orthodox Catholic faith... he justified the expansion of his empire." (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 212) The relationship between the church and Clovis proved to be very beneficial to both sides.
When Charlemagne took the throne in 768, the Frankish kingdom was a growing force with an allegiance to the papacy. During his reign, though, Charlemagne expanded his kingdom into the might Frankish Empire that incorporated much of Western Europe. He fostered the Carolingian Renaissance which was a revival of art, religion, and a culture "through the medium of the Catholic Church." Regarded as the "Father of Europe", his empire united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Romans and the Carolingian Renaissance encouraged the formation of a common European identity. His importance cannot be understated, however neither can his association with the Catholic Church.
Charlemagne continued the policy of his father towards the papacy and became its protector. When the Lombard king threatened the territories of the Papacy (in Italy), they called to him for help. Under the orders of the Church, the Lombards were defeated by Charlemagne and removed from power in Italy. No doubt this action was justified because they were deemed enemies of the church. This alliance, which began with Pepin, only grew stronger. "The popes welcomed this support, and in the course of the second half of the eighth century, they severed more and more of their ties with the Byzantine Empire and drew closer to the Frankish Kingdom. Charlemagne encouraged this development." (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 243)
In 799 Pope Leo escaped from Rome after a rebellion questioned his authority. Charlemagne offered his assistance and when he returned the Pope to Rome in 800, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans. This act was the most important in Charlemagne's reign and it was the ultimate example of a king using the church for his own political devices. In reality both sides had a lot to gain from it. The ceremony revealed the desire for a united Europe and by crowning him emperor the pope took the initiative of being a maker of emperors and assumed a position of superiority. (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 244) "There was a central legitimizing principle of the medieval, feudal-theocratic order. The sacral status of early medieval kingship was an important legitimizing principle for a society that lacked a secular conception of the legitimacy of a social order or a political regime." (Rodney Bruce Hall, 1997, p. 601) The title of emperor would also prove useful to Charlemagne because he was now equal to the Byzantine emperor, at least in name. Consequently the papacy had a defender of great stature, even though it was itself that created it. "This seems legitimate, since the pope owed his worldly dominion to the military power of Charlemagne, and the latter his ideological legitimation to his coronation by the pope." (Hugo O. Engelmann, 1962, p. 297)
The title of emperor also proved its usefulness in conquering the Saxons, something that had eluded Charlemagne throughout his most of his reign. "He understood that Saxony, if independent, would always be a menace to his states. Conquest was a necessity; it was the only way to gain North Germany to the Christian religion, which Charles considered more than ever it was his duty to spread." (Francois L. Ganshof, 1949, p. 521) "Not until 804, after eighteen campaigns, was Saxony finally pacified and added to the Carolingian domain. " (Jackson J. Spielvogel, 2009, p. 241) "...it is that Charlemagne needed the imperial coronation of 800 because emperorship was the only conceptual framework within which he could validate and make acceptable his rule of the Saxon aristocracy after he had defeated them." (Henry Mayr-Harting, 1996, p. 1113) With their conquest he had shored up the northern boundaries of his empire in which he next focused on its development.
"In spite of his reverence for the Holy See, Charlemagne appears to be, far more than the pope, the real head of the church in the west. When Leo III ascended the pontifical throne in 795, on the death of Hadrian, Charles stated precisely their respective positions in a letter which leaves no doubt on the subject. The pope became more or less the first of his bishops." (Francois L. Ganshof, 1949, p. 524) What made Charlemagne different was that instead of exploiting it for his gain he realized the Catholic Church could provide valuable assistance in governing his kingdom. Since the Roman Church system had mostly crumbled at this point, Charlemagne took up the cause of church reform. He created new bishops and restored old ones. He saw to it that the clergy accepted the orders of their superiors and executed them as well. With this structure in place he then focused on educating his people. "Based on the writings of Early Christian thinkers... a fundamentally Christian political philosophy was produced. Christianity and the Church were to unite the different ethnic, linguistic, and social groups of the Empire; within the philosophy produced by the clerical advisers, the Church and the State were to be essentially one, and people of all orders were encouraged to think of themselves as being part of a single divinely-ordained system... the Carolingians understood that the ordinary people of the Empire must be made aware that they too were part of the populous Dei. To this end, Charlemagne and other Carolingian rulers encouraged the use of sermons as a means of inculcating the lower orders with the message of unity.." (John Moreland, 1992, p. 328)
The Council of Nicaea in 325 was significant not only for establishing Christianity as a Roman institution but it was also convened in response to the Arian challenge concerning the Holy Trinity. Aryanism, initially based on the teachings of a church priest Arius, viewed God the Father and Jesus as separate, non-equal entities. In short, he was consequently deemed a heretic and exiled. Even though this left the Nicene church (catholic churches that believed in the Holy Trinity) as the Roman institution, we see a race between Nicene and Arian factions to convert the Germanic tribes from paganism. Due to the dissolution of the Roman establishment in the west, the following rise of Arian based belief in most of the German nations, and an increased threat from the Eastern Orthodox church, the Catholic church was losing its influence. It is why the conversion of Clovis to Roman Catholicism represented such a huge boost to its authority.
One final question remains then, "Why did the people accept Catholicism?" In 530, St Benedict developed the doctrine (Rule of St. Benedict) as a model for church society. Monasteries not only became a focus for secular life but it functioned as an economic, agricultural, and production center for the local community. These spiritual centers became the centers of its civilization by preserving craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within its schools and libraries. Charlemagne used this as the main method to educate the common man during his reign. By enlightening his citizens with education and religion he gave them a more intellectual way to contemplate life. People respected the church in this manner and chose to live life according to the way God had put forth. Because the church was the distributor of the religion it became the authority figure in their lives. "Moral authority acquires utility as a power resource when it becomes socially embedded in a system of actors whose social identities impel them to recognize it as a power resource." (Rodney Bruce Hall, 1997, p. 594) Thus Catholicism became the moral authority of the people in which was manipulated to the political advantage of the dominant ruling class to maintain its power which many scholars refer to it as the "Dominant Ideology Thesis" "This thesis suggests that there is in most societies a set of beliefs which dominates all others and which, through the incorporation in the consciousness of subordinate classes, tends to inhibit the development of radical political dissent." (Nicholas Abercrombie, 1978, p. 149)
The loss of a central secular government was the result of the collapse of the Roman Empire. The institution of the Catholic Church remained intact even though its power was limited without a regime to support its decisions. It persevered as the moral and legitimizing authority even with the rise of Aryanism and the threat of the pagan Germanic tribes present. This no doubt was from its past significance still embedded in the social consciousness of the remnants of the Roman peoples. Whether or not Clovis or Charlemagne preconceived it, their ensuing rise and success was greatly increased through an alliance with the Catholic Church. The papacy itself derived its power base from the social force we come to know as moral authority. In return, the endorsed leader was only too ready to provide its protective services as defender of the Holy See. This relationship was best represented by the leaders who linked their political ambitions to the dominant religious force in Europe, Roman Catholicism. They were the conquerors who not only shaped the Frankish Kingdom by utilizing Christianity as a political weapon, but the rest of medieval Europe as well. This combination of church and state, which was a blend of German and Roman customs, governed by the principles of Christianity, created the necessary social and political circumstances for the survival of western civilization.
- Benno Teschke. (1998). Geopolitical Relations in the European Middle Ages: History and Theory. International Organization, 52(2), 325-358.
- Francois L. Ganshof. (1949). Charlemagne. Speculum, 24(4), 520-528.
- Henry Mayr-Harting. (1996). Charlemagne, the Saxons, and the Imperial Coronation of 800. The English Historical Review, 111(444), 1113-1133.
- Hugo O. Engelmann. (1962). The European Empire: From Charlemagne to the Common Market. Social Forces, 40(4), 297-301.
- J.B. Bury. (1924). The End of Roman Rule in North Gaul. Cambridge Historical Journal, 1(2), 197-201.
- Jackson J. Spielvogel. (2009). Western Civilization (7th ed., Vol. 1). Boston: Wadsworth.
- John Moreland, Robert Van de Noort. (1992). Integration and Social Reproduction in the Carolingian Empire. Archaeology, 23(3), 320-334.
- Lynn Harry Nelson. (2007). The Rise of the Western Church. In Virtual Library (Ed.), Lectures in Medieval History (Medieval Lectures, pp. 1-5). Retrieved January 20, 2010, from Virtual Library Web site: http:/?/?www.vlib.us/?medieval/?lectures/?western_church.html
- Nicholas Abercrombie. (1978). The Dominant Ideology Thesis. The British Journal of Sociology, 29(2), 149-170.
- Rodney Bruce Hall. (1997). Moral Authority as a Power Resource. International Organization, 51(4), 591-622.