On Christmas Day in the year 800, the Frankish king Charles the Great, who better known as Charlemagne, was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor.
Christmas stories are various and sundry. There are children’s stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the scriptural narratives of Jesus’ birth, or morality tales like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story of Charles’ coronation stands apart from the rest by being both factual and mainly a matter of academic discussion.
Unlike Rudolf or Scrooge, Charles is an actual historical figure. Unlike Jesus, the contested meaning of his earthly life does not inspire cultural crusaders to draw up battle lines. Though impressive in his own right, Charles cuts a rather mundane figure across the backdrop of human history. With so many other impressive figures from which to choose, he easily slips from view.
But this is not to say his story should not be taken down from the shelf and dusted off once and awhile.
The details of his are uncontroversial. Charles entered St. Peters to celebrate Christmas mass. While kneeling before the altar, Pope Leo III placed a crown on his head and proclaimed him the Holy Roman emperor.
No one contests that a coronation took place on Christmas Day in the year 800. Owing to the distance in time and the scanty amount of evidence presently available, however, the meaning of the coronation is not entirely clear. Was the coronation the brainchild of the king or the pope? Which party stood to benefit? His biographer Einhard tells us that Charles was caught unawares when the pope named him emperor. Doubtless this was a well-crafted piece of political theatre. The humble king may be seen by all not to have sought this high office. The pope, as the exalted head of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, raises another up to oversee the mundane, worldly affairs of Christendom—its administration, defense, and the like, so that he could get back to the business of shepherding men’s souls to their eternal home. Both the ends of Church and State were served.
Now, since he already had a kingdom, Charles gained nothing but a title in his coronation. The oldest son of Pepin the Short, he was co-ruler of the Franks with his brother Carloman from 768-771. Just as war between the siblings seemed about to break out, Carloman died from what were apparently natural causes. The source materials give us no reason to suspect any misdeed on Charles’ part. Nor would we expect them to. It is almost inconceivable that any medieval historian would begin the narrative of the reign of so successful of king as Charles with betrayal and murder. Lacking evidence, we may only gesture into a speculative void about what was actually the case.
But it is fairly easy to infer from the events of his life that Charles wanted an empire--and by implication the title that went along with it. Much of his life was spent in the saddle. He saw action in present-day France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Everywhere the borders of his realm were extended, northwards into Saxony, southward beyond Barcelona, and eastward towards the Danube. To his credit, Charles was also responsible for a series of economic, monetary, educational, and ecclesiastical reforms. These efforts were collectively responsible for the brief flowering of Frankish culture known as the Carolingian Renaissance. They could not have been affected, except for the support Charlemagne lent to the Church and to its institutional reform.
Ties between the Frankish court and the papal curia grew apace. The Church was a source of both clerical (i.e. religious) and clerical (i.e. administrative) support. So when Pope Leo fled Rome in 799, he went to Charles for help regaining the papal throne. Charles made his way to Rome in November of 800 at the head of an army. And a little more than a month later, at Christmas mass in St. Peters, Leo crowned him Imperator Romanorum, ‘Emperor of the Romans’. The moment had a double significance: it restored to the West the imperial authority that had departed three centuries earlier to Constantinople in the East; and it formally severed ties that had already been severed in practice with the Roman (read: Byzantine) Empress Irene in Constantinople. The material resources of the Eastern Roman Empire had long since become insufficient to maintain the temporal holdings of the Church in Rome proper against the depredations of the Lombard lords. The Western Church needed a Western champion.
Einhard claims Charles had no knowledge of the pope’s intention, and would not have agreed if he had: ‘[H]e at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.’
As we call know, every Christmas story ought to have a moral. That being the case, we must search for moral to the story of Charles’ imperial coronation.
Perhaps we might see in Charles’ coronation a caution against confusing the jurisdictions of Church and State. The pairing of Charles and his biographer Einhard are strikingly similar to Constantine and his biographer Eusebius. The latter pair has come under considerable criticism in recent centuries for drawing the politics and religion closer together than our modern liberal sensibilities are comfortable with. We might also draw a salutatory lesson about the grand pretensions of political theatre. The vociferous claims Charles made about not having wanted an imperial mantle do not pass the smell test. The formal imperial inauguration only confirmed in theory what had already come to pass in practice.
These assessments contain a measure of truth in them; but they both go against the grain of human history. Time always moves forward, even as we look back and assess from where exactly we have come. The past was no different. Whatever judgment we pass against Charles must be made with this in mind.
So we ought to judge Charles against his predecessors, just as we must judge ourselves against our predecessors—one of whom among was Charles.
The appropriate comparison is made with the pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Babylon, and the emperors of Rome. Set alongside their imperial rhetoric, Charles’ denial to have sought an imperial mantle is startling. It matters very little, in this light, whether Charles’ display of humility was only pretense. What matters was that pretense was necessary in the first place. Over the course of a millennium, the basic forms of political legitimation had been entirely inverted. The rulers of the ancient empires claimed to be gods or sons of gods. At least in theory, even if theory was not completely realized in practice, they were the all-powerful manifestations of divinity on earth. They were the soul animating the body politic; the lives of men were theirs to dispense with as they saw fit. The degree of divinity to which a ruler in the ancient could lay claim, in fact, appears a function of the density, size, and sophistication of the civilization. The larger the political entity, the more precarious its existence; which meant that the measure of authority required to maintain a political entity increased exponentially, until it became only natural for kings to liken themselves to gods.
A clear division between Church and State is the first indication that something fundamental had changed in the transposition from the Ancient into the Medieval worlds. The authority of the gods over men is no longer concentrated in a single person; it is differentiated into separate forms, which serve to limit each other. The key to the transposition is in the pretended humility. The basic form of authority in the Ancient world was of the gods over men. Whereas the basic form of authority in the Medieval world was of God become man, and more precisely, a vulnerable infant. The actual exercise of authority may still entail the command of one man over the rest, but, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, it now slouches towards Bethlehem.