Here, in a post I never published, I left the normal track of talking about intellectual and cultural history, and veered into territory where I could discuss the formation of what became Europe in the Middle Ages. This has an impact on cultural history for some pretty obvious reasons, but most notably were the solidification of a unified church throughout Europe and the establishment of court culture. I post this at the same time that I post various updates to the list, all of which have to do with the literature and music. These go hand in hand during this period. A big chunk of musical production came from the church, in which the liturgy and the office was sung. Various styles developed around singing masses and the office, and innovations in these songs paved the way for polyphony and more complex music, even outside of the church. In the secular realm, the formation of courts allowed for the rise of court entertainers, who were the primary transmitters of stories and songs that became mainstays of European culture for centuries. Similarly, the new system came with new values, like chivalry and courtly romance.
Europe saw a transformation from disorder and chaos to a new order and system. It became a place of many kings to a place of central power sources, endorsed by the church and beholden to regional barons, and had the vestiges of the first states. Beowulf represents they way things were before this transformation. It’s full of themes that remind me of the Iliad–doing things not for material gain per se, but for the honor that gain represented. Material reward was an indication of achievement, and thus represented a personal legacy. While kings that ruled over regions had existed for millennia, it’s at this point that we see the transformation from something akin to tribal chieftains to a totally different system of authority–and the idea of heroism changes with it. That’s the moment that interests me, where it all changes.
In Beowulf we see the original–a warrior who comes to the aid of a foreign king out of a sense of debt. He comes from his native land, and he slays Grendel and Grendel’s mother at the request of the other king. After that, he returned home with riches to become king of his own land. Fifty years later, he has to contend with a dragon in his kingdom, which he defeats but which leaves him mortally wounded.
The thing that really stuck with me from Beowulf was the warrior king aspect–probably because I’ve spent so much time lately trying to make sense of the stories of other, real-life warrior kings of the middle ages prior to the Crusades and who brought about the high middle ages. These men were themselves the stuff of legend, reaching mythic heights and creating the environment in which so much intellectual and cultural history came to pass. Three of these hero kings come to mind in particular: Otto the Great, Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great. The system that developed in the wake of these men became known as feudalism, and their ethic became known as chivalry (much more on this in the essay I have planned for the crusades and the songs and stories of that period). Their world became the basis for what we now mythologize as medieval times. However, there’s a clear transition between the terrifying and superstitious time of Beowulf and the world of lords, knights, serfs, and bishops, and these three men helped bring that transition about.
The first and probably most famous of these three transformative figures was Charlemagne. The name Charlemagne comes from Charles Magnus, from the birth name Charles given to him by his father, Pepin III, also called Pepin the Short. Pepin’s other son, Carloman, was to share the realm that Pepin had taken with papal support from the Merovingian dynasty of kings within the region of Gaul, but when Carloman died Charles became sole heir, and became one of the most impressive and highly revered rulers that Europe has ever seen. Campaigns in Italy, Bavaria, Spain, and on the eastern frontier of Charles’s domain expanded Charles’s reach to the extent that by the end of his rule, Charles controlled more territory than that even controlled by the Byzantines.
To say, though, that Charlemagne’s strengths were purely military would be be a huge oversight. Charlemagne went to great lengths to administer the territories he held, and created an incredible administrative system to manage them. Most notably, he enforced a common law and required military service for landholders through the realm. To do this, he split his entire dominion into counties, at the helm of which he placed a count responsible for the military fitness of all the area’s freemen and the final word on legal disputes. This was easily the first central administration that Gaul had seen for centuries. Charlemagne promoted the heros of his military to the count role for new areas taken, and established a central bureacracy managed by him to administer the whole system, which required huge buy in from landholders and the barons that served under him. He spread Christianity throughout his realm with the help of the pope, who paid him back by crowning him head of the Western Roman Empire, called the Holy Roman Empire. The pope, trying to keep his own seat by gaining the support of Charlemagne and keeping outside of the sway of the emperor in Constantinople, made a bold and smart move in doing so, but the Byzantine Emperor endorsed the rule, and so Charlemagne became Holy Roman Emperor, with all the vestiges, pomp, and circumstance of the western roman empire of old.
In his old age, Charlemagne split his empire into three parts, each controlled by one of his sons. The move was the complete undoing of the empire Charlemagne had built. His sons were weak, and while the dominions remained in place for some time, the kingship came to mean far less, and the barons relied on their own resources to get by rather than rely on a central power source. As a result, those barons stopped regarding the central power with any respect or deference.
Alfred, up north in England, has a similar success story. He inherited a kingdom that was slowly consolidating thanks to the work of his predecessors, but faced challenges on all its borders that slowly chipped away at the domain he sought to control. In his case, Danes invaded and did it well, taking much of the region carved out by the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons after the Battle of Deorham. Alfred reconquered much of this territory in his role as king of Wessex, and subsequently became king of Wessex, Essex, Sussex, and Mercia as well. He administered all the areas taken centrally just as Charlemagne had done in his Empire and established central rule. As a result, many consider King Alfred the first king of England.
And then there’s Otto, one of the most interesting and, to me, least understood monarchs and the true founder of the Holy Roman Empire. The realm that Otto inherited was the dying and frayed East Francia, the easternmost third of the dominions carved out of Charlemagne’s massive empire. Otto’s primary challenge was the conflict between the feudal barons and royalty, and getting the barons in line and behind him for numerous conflicts on his frontiers, he united them and the Germanic tribes he conquered into a new a massive force. He invaded Italy twice, the first time marrying the widow of his foe and the second time at the request of the pope, and like Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. But his state was entirely different from that of Charlemagne’s. Although like Charlemagne he unified his realm and focused on its welfare and proper functioning, it had no need to be seen as a continuation of the Western Roman Empire. It was its own entity, with its own legitimacy, and became one of the most powerful forces in Europe for centuries.
So what was the result of all this? The beginning of Europe, to say the least. Still brutish and wild, but systems and institutions were put in place that shaped the thinking and culture of millions for many centuries. Among those institutions the developed was the system of counties or duchnies rules by counts, dukes, or lords, depending on where you were, each nominally under the sway of the king but enjoying great power of their own.