CHARLEMAGNE’S LEADERSHIP RESHAPED “DARK AGE” EUROPE AND OFFERS IMPORTANT LESSONS FOR LEADERS TODAY
On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charles the Great (Charlemagne) Holy Roman Emperor. Under Charlemagne’s leadership, Europe had begun to emerge from the long dead ruins of the fallen Western Roman Empire into something more civilized, at least for a time. Long-standing conflicts were put to rest; learning and trade grew, and the concept of justice become more than a relic. This has led historians to call Charlemagne’s reign, “The Carolingian Renaissance”; and Charlemagne himself, “The father of Europe.” As one of the most successful leaders in history, Charlemagne’s reign conveys lessons for leaders today.
The royal dynasty that preceded the Carolingian (Charlemagne’s) was called the Merovingian. For over 200 years the Merovingian monarchs ruled the Kingdom of the Franks in a political climate of shifting borders, unsteady allegiances, cruel assassinations, and a culture of near constant conflict. Theirs is what we think of when we think “Dark Ages”. More than anything else, the early Merovingian kings were powerful warlords. Yet as time wore on, custom and tradition began to weaken their real power. Eventually they became little more than ceremonial do-nothings. By the end, custom had become so ossified their role that they could neither cut their hair nor their beard and had to ride in an ox-pulled cart whenever they traveled.
Real power came to rest with the mayors of the royal household. This office had been held for several generations by Charlemagne’s family. In 751, Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short (c. 714 - 768) deposed the last Merovingian king, Childeric III (c. 717 – c. 754). With the blessing of the Pope, he became King of the Franks and started the “Carolingian” dynasty. Pepin went on to expand Frankish territory and assist the papacy by acting as its protector against group of barbarians in northern Italy called the Lombards. For this he was given the title, “Patrician of Rome” – which would be passed on to Charlemagne, his son.
When Charlemagne took on the mantle of King of the Franks, he made improvements that not only drastically improved its practices and institutions but expanded his father’s kingdom to the greatest it had ever been (or would be). The successes and reforms that resulted from his leadership altered the face of Europe and made the Medieval Renaissance periods possible.
BE HUMBLE AND LET YOUR COMPETENCE SPEAK FOR ITSELF
By the time of his imperial coronation, Charlemagne had defeated the Lombards (and declared himself their king), expanded the Frankish kingdom to include Saxony and Bavaria, and improved the administration and infrastructure of his kingdom beyond what any of it had known since Antiquity.
Yet Pope Leo’s coronation of him came as an unwelcome surprise to Charlemagne. In fact, Eginhard, his royal biographer, states that Charlemagne so disliked the title of emperor that he would have never entered the church that day had he known the Pope was going to do such a thing. Despite the coronation being against his will, no one could deny that Charlemagne had earned it. His humility in this regard therefore only magnifies the quality of his character and enhances the depth of his accomplishments.
GET THE BEST PEOPLE AND EMPOWER THEM
The office of missi dominici (Envoys of the Lord) was one that began with Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel and was meant to represent the king and ensure his orders were followed. The position lasted a year and those assigned the role were usually sent out in pairs; 1 from the Church and 1 from among the lay nobility. Until Charlemagne they were only used sporadically. Recognizing their potential for information gathering and local influence, however, Charlemagne made them a regular feature in his administration. They were highly effective because they were fully empowered to affect change and set things right.
He granted them greater authority that included the investigation and execution of justice, the enforcement of royal rights, the administration of courts, and the supervision of both secular government and clergy. In order to ensure impartiality, Charlemagne also gave the missi dominici jurisdiction over regions they were strangers to. He also appointed those who were already wealthy enough to not be swayed through bribes. Likewise, their word carried the weight of the king or emperor himself and any violation of their person was considered a violation against the royal family.
BE VISIBLE AND UNPRETENTIOUS
Charlemagne had no permanent capital. Until the last few years of his life, his was a traveling court. It followed a circuit of palaces and estates located at key points in the kingdom/empire. This served a dual purpose. The first was that he could reduce local expenses by not relying on the resources of any one region for too long. The second, and more important, was that it allowed his subjects to see him; and to witness local lords setting the example of paying homage and reinforcing their allegiance to him.
Apart from special occasions, he preferred common clothes. He was not above resolving disputes at any time; even while putting on his clothes and boots. His visibility and unpretentious nature no doubt made him more likeable. This would have inspired a greater degree of loyalty than if he were content to issue commands from the Dark Age equivalent of the Executive Suite.
For generations the nations that Charlemagne ruled over had their own local laws. Charlemagne allowed the national laws to remain intact and even had them codified. However he did enact decrees of his own called "capitularies". These were similar to modern federal laws and dealt with items like military obligations, criminal law, the conduct of clergy, and the authority of the missi dominici.
By allowing nations to maintain their individual laws, the acceptance of capitularies would have been much less onerous. They were designed to improve rather than impose. One example is the capitulary issued in 794 at the Synod of Frankfurt. In it, he introduces a new standardized coinage across his kingdom to facilitate trade: “'these new denarii shall be legal tender in every village, town and market, and shall be acceptable to everyone.”
Had Charlemagne insisted on more direct interference in every aspect of his subjects' lives, internal unrest would surely have followed; making territorial expansion impossible.
INVEST IN LEARNING
Apart from his military and civic achievements what makes Charlemagne had a keen mind and love of learning.
At a time when the sword was mightier than the pen and the overwhelming majority of the population could neither read nor write, Charlemagne required that his officials be literate in order to govern effectively. He also gathered about his court the most learned men of the day and funded a network of monasteries (where most education took place) and even established schools for secular clergy and lay persons.
His efforts resulted in a revival of classical studies and production of manuscripts; without which, few ancient texts would have survived to today. Some scholars even assert that had the monks of this period not so laboriously copied the writings of antiquity, the Medieval and Renaissance periods (and the Modern Era) would not have been possible. He also reformed the style of writing so that it was easier to read; even titling one of his capitularies, On Scribes – That They Should Not Write Corruptly.
On a personal level, he studied and understood both Latin and Greek, and educated his children in the liberal arts – Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. While he ate, he had the deeds of men of old sang or read to him. This served as both entertainment and learning from past examples of excellence – much like you’re doing now.
After Charlemagne’s death in 814, his empire began to disintegrate. Infighting and the lack of strong leadership such as he provided contributed much to this. By contrast, however, it only highlights how effective his leadership actually was and why we can learn from it today. In short, because it worked.
Burbank, Jane and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Coupland, Simon. “Charlemagne and his Coinage.” in Rolf Große and Michel Sot (eds), Charlemagne : les temps, les espaces, les hommes. Construction et déconstruction d’un règne (Turnhout, 2018), pp. 427-451., 2018, www.academia.edu/41560329/CHARLEMAGNE_AND_HIS_COINAGE.
Davis, Jennifer R. Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Eginhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Translated by A.J. Grant, In parentheses Publications, Medieval Latin Series, Cambridge Ontario, 1999.
Ganshof, François L. “Charlemagne.” Speculum, Vol. 24, No. 4, October 1949, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Medieval Academy of America, pp. 520-528.
Tierney, Brian and Sidney Painter. Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300-1475. 5th Edition, McGraw-Hill, 1992.
“Missi Dominici.” Encyclopedia Britannica 1911. theodora.com/encyclopedia/m2/missi_dominici.html.