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History of the Middle Ages
GA 51

V. Charlemagne and the Church

15 November 1904, Berlin

If you take up one of the ordinary school books, or any other of the usual presentations of the Middle Ages, dealing with the period of which we are now going to speak—the 8th or 9th century—you will find that the personality of Charlemagne (768–814) occupies an inordinate space in it. Following the feats and triumphal marches of Charlemagne in this way, you will hardly understand what it was that actually made the significance of this epoch. All this was only an external expression of much deeper events in the Middle Ages, events which will appear as the converging of many significant factors. In order to study these factors, we must mention certain things which we have already touched upon, and which will throw light on this subject.

If you remember the description of European conditions after the folk migrations, when, after these occurrences, the Germanic tribes came to rest in different places, you will think of the way these races brought their ancient institutions, their manners and customs, with them into their new homes, and developed them there. And we see that they preserved their own peculiar character, a kind of social order, consisting in the distribution of private and common property. There were little social assemblies, which formed their original organisation: village communities, then, later, hundreds and cantons; and in all these, what could be common property was so: forest, meadow, water, etc. And only what a single individual could cultivate was assigned to the private family and became hereditary; all the rest remained common property.

Now we have seen that the leaders of such tribes received much larger territories at the conquest, and that on this account certain positions of mastery sprang up, especially in Gaul, where much land was still to be reclaimed. For the working of these domains, it was partly members of the former population, partly the Roman colonists or prisoners of war, who were taken. In this way, certain legal conditions grew up. The large landowner was not responsible to others for what he did on his own property; he could not be brought to book for any orders that he gave. Hence he could rescind for his own estate, any legal prescription or police regulation. So, in the Frankish Empire, we meet with no united monarchy; what was called the Empire of the Merovingians was nothing more than such a large landed estate. The Merovingians were one of the families which possessed much land; according to civil law—through the struggle for existence—their rule extended farther and farther. New territories were constantly added to it. The large landowner was not such a king as we have been accustomed to in the 13th, 14th, yes, even in the 16th century; but private government gradually became legal rule.

He transferred certain parts of his domain, and with them his rights; to others with less land; that was called being “under exemption"; this judicial authority had grown out of the irresponsible position in such circumstances. In return, this type of landowner must pay tribute, and do military service for the king in time of war. In the expansion of such proprietary relationships, the Merovingian stock as conquerors took precedence of all others, so that we must retain the formula: the ancient Frankish Empire progressed through purely private legal conditions.

Again the transition from the Merovingian to the Carlovingian stock, from which Charles Martel descended, took place in the same way, out of the same conditions. The Carlovingians were originally stewards of the domains of the Merovingians; but they gradually became so influential that Pepin the Short succeeded in putting the imbecile Childeric into a monastery, and, with the help of the pope, in deposing him. From him was descended his successor, Charlemagne. In a cursory survey we can only touch upon the external events; for, indeed, they have no further significance. Charlemagne made war on the neighbouring German tribes and extended his control in certain directions. Even this empire, however, cannot be called a State. He waged lengthy wars against the Saxons, who clung to the ancient village organisation, the old manners and customs, the old Germanic faith, with great tenacity. Victory was won after wearisome wars, fought with extraordinary ferocity on both sides.

Among such tribes as the Saxons, one personality in particular would stand out, and would then become a leader. One of these was Widukind, a duke with great possessions and a strong military retinue, whose courage withstood the most violent opposition. He had to be subdued with the greatest cruelty, and then submitted to the rule of Charlemagne. What did the rule amount to? It amounted to this: if the authority of Charlemagne had been withdrawn, nothing special would have happened. Those tribesmen who in their thousands had been obliged to submit to baptism, would have gone on living in the same way as before.

It was the form Charlemagne had given the Church which established his powerful position. Through the power of the Church these territories were subdued. Bishoprics and monasteries were founded, the large properties formerly possessed by the Saxons were distributed. The cultivation of these was in the hands of the bishops and abbots; thus the Church undertook what had formerly been done by secular landholders protected by “exemption,” namely, judiciary authority. If the Saxons did not acquiesce, they were coerced by fresh inroads of Charlemagne. Thus the same things went on as in western France: the smaller landowners could not carry on alone, hence they gave what they had to the monasteries and bishoprics, to receive it again under feudal tenure.

The one condition was, then, that the large properties should belong to the Church, as in the newly established bishoprics of Paderborn, Merseburg and Erfurt, which were cultivated for the bishop by the conquered tribes. But even those who still had their own possessions held them as fiefs and had to pay ever-increasing taxes to the bishoprics and abbeys. This was how the rule of Charlemagne was established: with the help of the great influence obtained by the Church whose suzerain he was, his position of authority was achieved.

Charles extended his authority in other regions, just as he was extending it here. In Bavaria he succeeded in breaking the power of Duke Tassilo and sending him to a monastery, so that he might bring Bavaria under his own dominion. The Bavarians had allied themselves with the Avars, a people who may be called the successors of the Huns. Charles was victorious in this struggle and fortified a strip of land as a boundary against the Avars, the original Avarian limit of the land which to-day is Austria. In the same way he had protected himself also against the Danes.

Like Pepin he fought in Italy against the Longobards, who were harassing the pope; again he was victorious, and established his authority there. He experienced too against the Moors in Spain, and almost everywhere he was the victor. We see Frankish rule established over the whole of the European world of those days; it merely contained the germ of the future State.

In these newly won regions, Counts were inaugurated, who exercised justiciary authority. In the places where Charlemagne alternatively held his court—fortified places called Palatinates—were the Counts Palatine, mostly large landowners, who received certain tribute from the surrounding districts. It was not only tribute from the land and soil, however, which fell to their share; they also received revenues from the administration of justice. If a murder were committed, the public tribunal was convened by the Count Palatine. A relative, or someone who was closely connected with the victim, brought the indictment. At that time certain compensation could be paid for murder, a recognised sum, differing in value for a free man and an unfree, paid partly to the family of the murdered man, partly to the justiciary of the canton, and partly to the king's central fund. Those who looked after communal concerns—actually only such as concerned taxes and defense—were the land-graves, who travelled from one district to another, ambassadors with no special function.

Under these conditions, the divergence between the new nobility of landowners and the serfs became more and more marked, and also between the landowners and those freemen who were indeed personally still free, but had fallen into a condition of servile dependence, because they had to pay heavy tribute and to render compulsory military service. These conditions grew more and more critical; secular and ecclesiastical property became increasingly extensive; and soon we see the populace in bitter dependence, and already we meet with small conspiracies—revolts—foreshadowing what we know as the Peasant Wars. We can understand that, in the meantime, material culture developed more and more productively. Many Germanic tribes had had no concern with agriculture before the folk migrations, but had earned their living by cattle raising; now they were developing agriculture more and more; especially were they cultivating oats and barley, but also wheat, leeks, etc. These were the essential things which were important in that older civilisation. There was, as yet, no actual handicraft; it was only evolving under the surface; weaving, dyeing, etc. were mostly carried on by the women at home. The arts of the goldsmith and the smith were the first crafts to be cultivated. Still less important was trade.

Actual cities were developed from the 10th century onwards, and therewith a historical event began to take shape. But what sprang up with these cities, namely trade, had at that time no importance; at its best it was only a trade in valuables from the East, carried on by Israelite merchants. Trade usages hardly existed, although Charlemagne had already had coins minted. Nearly everything was barter, in which cattle, weapons, and such things were exchanged.

This is how we must picture the material culture of these regions; and now we shall understand why the spiritual culture also was bound to assume a certain definite form. Nothing of what we picture as spiritual culture existed in these regions, either among the freemen or the serfs. Hunting, war, agriculture, were the occupations of the landowners; princes, dukes, kings, even poets, unless they were ecclesiastics, could seldom read and write. Wolfram von Eschenbach had to dictate his poems to a clergyman and let him read them aloud to him; Hartmann von der Aue boasts, as a special attribute, that he can read books. In all that secular culture catered for, there was no question of reading and writing. Only in enclosed monasteries were Art and Science studied. All other students were directed to what was offered them in the teaching and preaching of the clergy. And that brought about their dependence on the clergy and the monks; it gave the Church its authority.

When we read descriptions today of what is called “the dark Middle Ages”—persecution of heretics, trials of witches, and so on—we must be clear that these conditions only began with the 13th century. In the older times nothing of this kind existed. The Church had no more authority than the secular large landowners. Either the Church went hand-in-hand with the secular authority, and was only a branch of it, or it was endeavouring to cultivate theology and the science of Christianity.

Until the current of spiritual influence came from the Arabs, all spiritual concerns were fostered only in the monasteries; the activities of the monks were completely unknown to the world outside. All that was known outside the monasteries was the preaching, and a kind of spiritual instruction given in the primitive schools.

The authority of the Church was enhanced by the fact that it was the clergy themselves who carried out all the arrangements for promoting knowledge. The monks were the architects; it was they who adorned the churches with statues, they who copied the works of classical, too, the emperor's chancellors, were, for the most part, monks.

One form of culture which was fostered in the monasteries was Scholasticism. A later was Mysticism. This scholasticism, which flourished until the middle of the 14th century, endeavoured—at least at one juncture—to inculcate a severely disciplined way of thinking. There were severe examinations to undergo; nobody could make progress in absolutely logical discipline of thinking without hard tests; only those who could really think logically, were able to take part in the spiritual life. Today that is not considered. But actually it was because of this training in consistent logic that when the Moorish-Arabian culture came to Europe, this science found disciplined thinking there already. The forms of thought with which Science works today were already there; there are very few arrangements of ideas, which are not derived from thence.

The concepts with which the Science—still operate today, such as subject and object, were established at that time. A training of thought, such as does not appear elsewhere in world history, was developed. The keen thinker of today owes that which flows in the veins of his intellect to the training fostered between the 5th and 14th centuries. Now some may feel it to be unjust that the masses at that time had nothing of all this; but the course of world history is not directed by justice of injustice, it follows the universal law of cause and effect. Thus we see here two definite currents flowing side by side: 1. Outside, material culture, absolutely without science; 2. A finely chiseled culture, confined to a few within the Church. Yet the culture of the cities was based on this strict scholastic way of thinking. The men who carried through the great revolution were ecclesiastics: Copernicus was a prebendary, Giordano Bruno was a Dominican friar. Their education and that of many others, their formal schooling, was rooted in this spirit of the Church. They were not powerful men, but simple monks, who, indeed, often suffered under the oppression of those in power.

Nor was it bishops and rich abbots, but on the contrary, poor monks, living in obscurity, who propagated the spread of Science. The Church, having allied itself with external powers, was obliged to materialise itself; it had to secularise its teachings and its whole character. Very long ago, up to the 12th century, nothing was held more solemn, more sublime, by the Christians, than the Lord's Supper. It was regarded as a sacrifice of grateful remembrance, a symbol of the intensifying of Christianity. Then came the secularisation, the lack of understanding for such exalted spiritual facts, especially as regards the festivals.

In the 9th century there lived in the land of the Franks, at the court of Charles the Bald, Scotus Erigena, a very distinguished Irish monk, in whose book De Divisioni Naturae we find a rich store of profound intellectual thought—though, indeed, not what the 20th century understands as Science. Erigena had to fight against hostile criticism in the Church. He defended the old doctrine that the Lord's Supper represented the symbolism of the highest Sacrifice. Another, materialistic, interpretation existed, and was supported in Rome, namely, that the bread and wine was actually transformed into flesh and blood. This dogma of the Lord's Supper originated under the influence of this continuous materialisation, but it only became official in the 13th century.

Scotus Erigena had to take refuge in England, and at the instigation of the pope, was murdered in his own monastary by the fraternity of monks. These struggles took place, not within the Church, but through the interpenetration of secular influence. You see that spiritual life was confined to a few, and was closed to the masses, upon whom lay an ever-increasing pressure, both from the secular and the spiritual side. In this way discontent continued to grow. It could not be otherwise than that dissatisfaction should increase among these people of divided loyalties. In country, on the farms, new causes of discontent kept cropping up. No wonder that the small towns, such as those already established on the Rhine and the Danube, should continually grow larger and form themselves anew from the influx of those who could no longer get on in the country. The fundamental cause of this reorganisation of conditions was the people's thirst for freedom.

It was a purely natural motive which gave rise to the culture of the cities. Spiritual culture remained undisturbed for the time being; many cities developed round the bishoprics and monasteries. From the city-culture rose all that constituted trade and industry in the Middle Ages, and afterwards brought about quite different relationships.

The need to develop the full life of the human personality, was the cause of the founding of the cities. It was a long step on the path of freedom; as, indeed, according to the words of Hegel, history signifies the education of the human race towards freedom.

And if we follow the history of the Middle Ages farther, we shall see that this founding of the city-culture represented, not an insignificant, but a very important step on the path of freedom.