This series has ten easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: After Charlemagne.
During the Dark Age civilization in Europe declined. The economy contracted; education retreated to the monasteries; population was less; the public safety from outlaws within and invaders from without all but disappeared. Every generation left the world less well off than when they had entered it. Decay of the governmental sector was both a cause and a result of the general decline.
During all of this a new system of society was forming — the feudal system. Below the central government an aristocracy was forming — dukes, earls, counts, and knights. What could not be ordered on a grand scale would be done on a smaller.
This selection is from A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times by François P. G. Guizot. published in 1869. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
François P. G. Guizot was France’s great historian and Prime Minister under King Louis-Philippe.
The first of Charlemagne’s grand designs, the territorial security of the Gallo-Frankish and Christian dominion, was accomplished. In the East and the North, the Germanic and Asiatic populations, which had so long upset it, were partly arrested at its frontiers, partly incorporated regularly in its midst. In the South, the Mussulman populations which, in the eighth century, had appeared so near overwhelming it, were powerless to deal it any heavy blow. Substantially France was founded. But what had become of Charlemagne’s second grand design, the resuscitation of the Roman Empire at the hands of the barbarians that had conquered it and become Christians?
Let us leave Louis the Debonair his traditional name, although it is not an exact rendering of that which was given him by his contemporaries. They called him Louis the Pious. And so, indeed, he was, sincerely and even scrupulously pious; but he was still more weak than pious, as weak in heart and character as in mind; as destitute of ruling ideas as of strength of will, fluctuating at the mercy of transitory impressions or surrounding influences or positional embarrassments. The name of Debonnaire is suited to him; it expresses his moral worth and his political incapacity both at once.
As king of Aquitaine in the time of Charlemagne, Louis made himself esteemed and loved; his justice, his suavity, his probity, and his piety were pleasing to the people, and his weaknesses disappeared under the strong hand of his father. When he became emperor, he began his reign by a reaction against the excesses, real or supposed, of the preceding reign. Charlemagne’s morals were far from regular, and he troubled himself but little about the license prevailing in his family or his palace. At a distance, he ruled with a tight and heavy hand. Louis established at his court, for his sisters as well as his servants, austere regulations. He restored to the subjugated Saxons certain of the rights of which Charlemagne had deprived them. He sent out everywhere his commissioners with orders to listen to complaints and redress grievances, and to mitigate his father’s rule, which was rigorous in its application and yet insufficient to repress disturbance, notwithstanding its preventive purpose and its watchful supervision.
Almost simultaneously with his accession, Louis committed an act more serious and compromising. He had, by his wife Hermengarde, three sons, Lothair, Pepin, and Louis, aged respectively nineteen, eleven, and eight. In 817, Louis summoned at Aix-la-Chapelle the general assembly of his dominions; and there, while declaring that “neither to those who were wisely minded nor to himself did it appear expedient to break up, for the love he bare his sons and by the will of man, the unity of the empire, preserved by God himself,” he had resolved to share with his eldest son, Lothair, the imperial throne. Lothair was in fact crowned emperor; and his two brothers, Pepin and Louis, were crowned king, “in order that they might reign, after their father’s death and under their brother and lord, Lothair, to wit: Pepin, over Aquitaine and a great part of Southern Gaul and of Burgundy; Louis, beyond the Rhine, over Bavaria and the divers peoples in the east of Germany.” The rest of Gaul and of Germany, as well as the kingdom of Italy, was to belong to Lothair, Emperor and head of the Frankish monarchy, to whom his brothers would have to repair year by year to come to an understanding with him and receive his instructions. The last-named kingdom, the most considerable of the three, remained under the direct government of Louis the Debonair, and at the same time of his son Lothair, sharing the title of emperor. The two other sons, Pepin and Louis, entered, notwithstanding their childhood, upon immediate possession, the one of Aquitaine and the other of Bavaria, under the superior authority of their father and their brother, the joint emperors.
Charlemagne had vigorously maintained the unity of the empire, for all that he had delegated to two of his sons, Pepin and Louis, the government of Italy and Aquitaine with the title of king. Louis the Debonair, while regulating beforehand the division of his dominion, likewise desired, as he said, to maintain the unity of the empire. But he forgot that he was no Charlemagne.
It was not long before numerous mournful experiences showed to what extent the unity of the empire required personal superiority in the emperor, and how rapid would be the decay of the fabric when there remained nothing but the title of the founder.
In 816 Pope Stephen IV came to France to consecrate Louis the Debonair emperor. Many a time already the popes had rendered the Frankish kings this service and honor. The Franks had been proud to see their King, Charlemagne, protecting Adrian I against the Lombards; then crowned emperor at Rome by Leo III, and then having his two sons, Pepin and Louis, crowned at Rome, by the same Pope, kings respectively of Italy and of Aquitaine. On these different occasions Charlemagne, while testifying the most profound respect for the Pope, had, in his relations with him, always taken care to preserve, together with his political greatness, all his personal dignity. But when, in 816, the Franks saw Louis the Pious not only go out of Rheims to meet Stephen IV, but prostrate himself, from head to foot, and rise only when the Pope held out a hand to him, the spectators felt saddened and humiliated at the sight of their Emperor in the posture of a penitent monk.
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