The Carolingian Age lasted a short time, from the middle of the eighth to just beyond the brink of the tenth century. It is a period that differs sharply from what came before and after, distinguished by abundant sources, expansive military campaigns, very bad poetry, mass public bathing, an elephant, and several failed public works projects.
Why did the Carolingian Age happen? What made the Frankish kingdoms under the Carolingians different? Why did they vanish when they did?
These are complex questions. Here I propose to give them an inadequate, reductive, unoriginal and oversimplified answer.
No small part of what makes the Carolingian Age different from prior Ages, is a compromise the Carolingian kings achieved with the church. This compromise related to ecclesiastical property and gave rulers a new kind of access to the church’s stuff. Enforcing the terms of the compromise, however, required the Carolingians to maintain a measure of unified authority and control. When the Frankish world fragmented politically, reformers were suddenly free to defend the property of their religious institutions directly. This was bad. It hastened the decline of the Frankish kingdoms and brought an end to the era of roasted (rather than boiled) meat.
1. By the eighth century, generations of pious aristocrats had bequeathed the western church untold wealth. This wealth was an entombed resource. Kings might get at it, but only at the risk of provoking a fearsome hue and cry. This might hurt their feelings, or worse, ruin their hold on power. There was also the problem of irritating God and spending eternity in hell.
2. The Pippinids nevertheless pillaged church property as necessary, and this put them on a collision course with their clergy. Happily, they lived in an era when the Frankish church was being remade by missionary-reformers such as Boniface. People like Carloman and Pippin III had a natural interest in managing and directing this remaking. This paid dividends, in that they struck a compromise with ecclesiastical interests in the new era. This compromise was multifaceted. One important facet, was that kings won the right to grant certain church properties to their magnates in benefice, while the church remained the formally recognised owner of the leased property and was owed the nona et decima from the proceeds. Everybody knows this history, it is boring even to type it. There were other devices too. Carolingians could appoint lay abbots at royal monasteries. They might leave wealthy sees vacant for a few years now and again and attach the revenues, while a chorbishop on a modest salary saw to it that the smells and the bells maintained the usual schedule.
3. This pragmatic interest in the property of the church enmeshed Carolingian monarchs in church affairs, and it enmeshed the church in governmental affairs. Thus the entire nature of our source material changes in the Carolingian Age, as the world of literate clerics and monks is allowed to gaze upon the inner-workings of power. Charlemagne finds himself presiding over a palace school where learned types gathered to assign each other flattering classical nicknames and read the emperor bedtime stories from Augustine’s City of God. The church found it easier to overlook some appropriations after it was ceded this political prominence. A generation of clerics grew up within this compromise and took charge of the wealthiest dioceses and monasteries.
4. Alas that was not enough. Thanks to fanatics and moral botherers, reform sentiments in Frankish aristocratic circles adopted a trajectory that was wholly their own. With each passing decade, the reformers found ever more impieties that called for ever more reform. Suddenly the lay abbacies made everyone uncomfortable. The vacant sees made everyone uncomfortable. And the precarial grants issued by kings – the details and the practice of these, too, began to make many people uncomfortable.
5. The Carolingians had no choice, therefore, but to control the moral apparatus. From the beginning they favoured a hierarchically organised church, and it was a happy coincidence that the reformers also wanted this. It brought the points of control at the top nearer to the king and made the means of control more legible to him. Increasing cultic focus on Rome and reverence for its bishops – a legacy of the Anglo-Saxon mission – also played into this program. To overstate matters, Charlemagne assimilated the papacy. Many individual actors throughout the church might resent the way ecclesiastical property was appropriated for foreign wars and the enrichment of favourites. Oh well. The preaching and the legislation of the Christian church was coordinated along Carolingian-friendly lines under Charlemagne and particularly under Louis the Pious. Dissenting voices were shut out. We see this particularly at the height of episcopal reform in the 820s. From the great reform councils of 829, only the Paris acta achieved circulation. These were not ordinary conciliar decrees, but an extended manifesto composed by the emperor’s close collaborator, Jonas of Orléans. This was the maximum reform Louis the Pious would permit the church, with whose resources he governed. Other views of reform have hardly survived from this period.
6. The defenders of church property are heard clearly only when Carolingian political unity begins to fall apart. The first big moment follows the failed coup of 833/834. The 836 Council of Aachen directed a long letter to Pippin of Aquitaine, deploring his appropriations of church estates. This document again represents the work of Jonas of Orléans. Crucially, the rhetoric is directed outwards, to Louis’s son, rather than towards the center of imperial power. It was but an early sign of the coming breakdown. After 840 our sources speak in defense of church property like never before. For one thing, the increasingly assertive papacy, no longer dominated by the Carolingians and newly positioned to play one ruler off against the other, could speak openly on behalf of the church and its possessions. Ecclesiastical institutions in France and Germany, now governed by weaker monarchs, also began demanding changes to the compromise. They had long regarded many aspects of royal interference in their property as impious and abusive. Pseudo-Isidore forged many ancient decretals and capitularies defending the inviolability of church possessions. This was more fuel to the fire.
7. Thereafter a great many other things happened, most of them minutiae such as the Ottonian period, which I will not go into because this is already long enough.
Now, even though everything above this is wrong, I will write this concluding bit as if it were all set in stone and absolutely the truth of it all.
The management of the reform trajectory was central to the Carolingian program. As reform grew more insistent, the Carolingians depended on unified political power and a regularised ecclesiastical hierarchy under their control. Pseudo-Isidore’s vision of a church withdrawn from Carolingian political influence, and governed by an independent Rome – this would not have been amenable to Carolingians like Charlemagne or Louis the Pious. The idea that Pseudo-Isidore concocted his forgeries as a member of the (now -defunct) ‘Unity Party’ was always wrong. Pseudo-Isidore’s brand of reform is precisely the thing that Carolingian political unity and its associated reform-management was designed to prevent. Once Carolingian rulers lost control of reform, they had all kinds of problems. They could not even divorce their wives and marry their mistresses. This was not supposed to happen.