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What were Charlemagne's successes and failures?

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Charlemagne's successes include unifying large parts of Europe, spreading Christianity, advancing education, and improving agriculture. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and promoted learning and standardized currency. However, his failures involve the brutality of his conquests, such as the Massacre of Verden, and the collapse of his empire after his death, as his sons could not maintain unity. He also failed to unite the Byzantine East with the Roman Catholic West.

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The man known as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was born in 742. In 768, he became king of the Franks upon the death of his father Pepin the Short, although he co-ruled with his brother Carloman I until his brother died in 771. In that year, 771, Charlemagne began a military campaign to unite the Germanic states and convert them to Christianity. Firstly, he conquered the Lombards, the Avars, and other peoples. He waged a long and bloody three-decade war against the Saxons that ultimately resulted in victory for the Franks. As an acknowledgment of the power that Charlemagne had already won, Pope Leo III crowned him Holy Roman Emperor on December 25, 800.

When assessing Charlemagne's successes and failures, it is important to understand that from a historical standpoint, much depends on context and point of view. For instance, Charlemagne has been extolled as the father of a unified and Christianized Europe, and many people would consider this to be a success. However, this unification was bought with the price of horrific wars and bloodshed. Charlemagne was a brutal and violent leader. At one point, in 782, he ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxons in an atrocity known as the Massacre of Verden, hoping that this would crush the Saxon's will to resist. This propensity for warfare and violence, even if it was ostensibly to promote Christianity, must certainly be considered a failure. The only way that Charlemagne was able to secure and maintain his empire was through constant bloody conflict. Think of the trauma this must have inflicted upon the people he was supposed to govern and protect.

The unification of Charlemagne's empire did lead to some clear successes in the areas of education and agriculture. Charlemagne undertook reforms of monasteries, churches, and seats of learning throughout his empire. He also instituted a standardized writing form that became a precursor of modern alphabets. The literacy rate improved during the reign of Charlemagne. Agricultural advances included crop rotation, a better type of plow, and the use of water mills for grinding grain.

It must be accounted a failure, though, that his legacy did not carry on after his death. His empire was divided among his three sons, who warred with one another for supremacy. Although in 843 the conflict was resolved with the Treaty of Verdun, his sons were never able to work together, and the unifying infrastructure that Charlemagne had set up soon fell apart.

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Charlemagne was the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He ruled the largest European empire since the fall of Rome. He was crowned by the Pope, and he was instrumental in spreading the Church's influence throughout the Germanic states. He created the Palatine Chapel in Aachen. He was also important in spreading church music throughout his empire.

Charlemagne was also instrumental in the nonreligious progression of Western Europe as well. He promoted learning by creating a highly legible alphabet that remained in use until 1200. He also standardized the currency used within his empire. This currency would later be the model for the British pound and the Italian lira. Charlemagne authorized the building of many universities, thus helping to create the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne was also quite favorable to the Jewish people, making one Jew an ambassador to the Caliphate of Baghdad and even encourage Jewish immigration.

Despite all of these successes, Charlemagne had some failures as well. He could not unite the Byzantine East with the Roman Catholic West. Charlemagne's empire collapsed soon after his death, as the various parts of the empire were not as loyal to Charlemagne's successors. Charlemagne, despite his numerous wars against Avars and various Slavic groups, could not end the threat of non-Catholic groups against his empire. He could also not subdue the Slavic kingdoms in Eastern Europe.

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Charlemagne was born sometime around 740 in what is now Belgium. He initially shared power with his brother, Carloman, who died unexpectedly around the year 771. After Carloman's death, Charlemagne began to invade and conquer other countries in an effort to enlarge his kingdom. He first invaded Saxony and then overthrew the monarchy in northern Italy. He subsequently annexed Spain, and then Bohemia. Around the year 800, Charlemagne sent military forces to assist Pope Leo III in quelling an uprising. The Pope was so grateful for Charlemagne's aid that he declared Charlemagne emperor of Rome, crowning him in a ceremony on Christmas Day.

Charlemagne had a life-long interest in education and became a patron of many of the top scholars of the day. Because of Charlemagne's enthusiasm for learning, much of Europe enjoyed an artistic and intellectual awakening. Charlemagne also introduced a system that regulated measures and weights, helping to greatly invigorate business and trade systems throughout his kingdom.

However, Charlemagne was so intent on converting the conquered to Christianity (partially due to his close relationship with the Pope) that his military conquests were often barbarous and bloody, especially his campaign against the Saxons, which lasted for almost 30 years. In 782, nearly 4,500 Saxons were butchered in what is now known as the Massacre of Verden. Those who were not slaughtered were compelled to convert to Christianity.

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Charlemagne (r. 768-814), also known as Carolus Magnus or Charles the Great, expanded the Frankish Kingdom into the northern Balkans, Hungary, Bohemia, Italy, eastern Germany, and northeastern Spain. His court promoted meritocracy by employing the most skilled workmen and brightest minds from across his kingdom. Charlemagne's coronation as emperor, or augustus, by Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) set him up as a rival to the Roman emperors in Constantinople and thus signaled western ambitions for independence from the Byzantine East. He worked toward establishing a centralized state with a comprehensive legal system, a network of churches and schools, and rudimentary infrastructure.

Charlemagne had some failures and moral flaws as well. In 782, he had thousands of Saxons murdered for having lapsed in their Christianity. He failed in his quest to marry the Byzantine empress Irene, who reigned in Byzantium from 797 to 802. Finally, Charlemagne's empire fell apart soon after his death. Some historians blame his successors, but one wonders how sound the empire was if it fell apart almost immediately after his death.

Einhard's "Life of Charlemagne," linked below, provides more direct information on Charlemagne's life than any other source; however, it should be read with a critical eye and in tandem with other sources, since Einhard considered the king a benefactor and father figure.

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Charlemagne was one of the most lauded kings of the medieval era. During his reign (768-814), he led more than 50 military campaigns and conquered nearly all of western Europe, metaphorically rebuilding the Western Roman Empire. His empire, in fact, became known as the Holy Roman Empire and created a close link between the Church and the state. He was such an efficient and organized military commander that his campaigns inspired Napoleon.

Unfortunately, Charlemagne's success as a ruler did not extend to his descendants. Charlemagne's son, Louis, was a weak ruler; his sons, in turn, divided the empire into three parts at the Partition of Verdun (843), and the empire further dissolved from there. Thus, one could say that while Charlemagne successfully built the Holy Roman Empire, he failed to ensure that the empire would remain strong after his death.

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