Tuesday, May 18, 2021

How the West Was One


(No, my choice of words is not in error.)

Picking up where we left off….

In a single act, Pope Leo’s coronation of Charlemagne changed all of that.  Christendom still may have possessed only one Church, but now there were two Roman Empires to claim her.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope.  This created two Roman Empires.  Until now, there was one empire, with its seat of power in the East: the New Rome of Constantinople.  But Charlemagne was not of the East, not recognized as Emperor of any regions in the East.  Hence, a second Roman Empire, headed by Charlemagne, and located…well, we will come to this.

As a result of the pope’s action, the door was now open to a wholesale reconfiguration of Western Christian romanitas.

The term “romanitas” is used to describe the Roman-ness of Christian civilization.  This identity spanned East and West, dating back to the conversion of Constantine.  Strickland offers:

The loss of western territories to the barbarian invasions of the fifth century had not greatly undermined romanitas, despite claims by modern historians since the time of the so-called Enlightenment.

This is a very interesting statement, and one that should have been obvious to me had I put the two-plus-two together of that which I already knew of history.  After all, Constantinople remained, whatever happened in the West; Constantinople was Roman; Constantinople was Christian.  There were no “Dark Ages” in the East, at least not at this time.  (Of course, to refer to the period as “Dark Ages” in either East or West was an error, at best.)

However, the East was not directly influenced by the Germanic (barbarian) tribes, and it was through these tribes that differences in East and West – theologically, politically, and culturally – would become apparent.  Looking back through history, it is clear how these differences played out regarding government and liberty. 

The root of this appears to be the differences in the tribal customs that separated East and West, and, perhaps, the relatively more important and longer lasting role of Islam in the East.  Perhaps as I get into further volumes of Strickland’s works, this issue will become more clear.

I have previously focused solely on the meaning of Charlemagne’s crowning within the context of the Western Empire: Charlemagne’s annual wars used to consolidate his authority over various recalcitrant European tribes, most famously the Saxons.  Strickland will tell the story of the time through the eyes of wider Christendom.

Charlemagne’s central project was to establish a Christian state, defined by a culture that was Frankish – and definitely not “Greek,” a term used pejoratively, as those in the East considered themselves as Roman, not Greek.

At the heart if this movement was a principle Charlemagne called “correction” (correctio).

It was an act of reformation, growing out of the conviction that it was the duty of a Christian ruler to supervise the religious life of his subjects – and to intervene when necessary.  For Charlemagne, this meant dealing with the ignorance of many of his subjects.

Outside of the monastic centers, in the vast swaths of rural territories, little Christian instruction occurred.  The illiterate parish clergy offered little help.  Christians were still offering to the pagan god Thor; children were baptized in the name of the Fatherland, and of the daughter, and of the Holy Spirit – an issue of incorrect Latin grammar, yet still an issue.

Such ambitions required a new capital.  This would eventually be Aachen, the Future Rome (ventura Roma).  Old Rome was no longer the capital, New Rome was not under Charlemagne’s domain – in any case, from the view of the West, it was corrupted beyond hope; even now, a woman was sitting on the throne, the Empress Irene.

Though unable to write, Charlemagne could read and speak several languages.  For him, however, Latin was the language of culture; he would reform it and use it as the official language of his court.  He would also reform the design of Christian temples, adding a monumental western entrance, known as the “westwork.”  Atop its tower, a spire would point to heaven.

Unlike the central dome that came to characterize Eastern Christian architecture, and which symbolized heavenly immanence, the spires of Western Christendom would direct attention away from the world to a distantly transcendent heaven.

Charlemagne would assemble a team of scholars at Aachen.  Very few were Franks; the best known was the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin, from York, who lived not far from one of the best equipped libraries in the West, at Bede’s monastery at Jarrow.  There was also Theodulf of Spain, Paul the Deacon from Lombardy, and Paulinus from Aquileia.  They would lead what has come to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance. 

They would publish the General Admonition (Admonitio generalis) in 789, directing local bishops to conform their practices to the court’s directives about correct beliefs and practices.  Alcuin’s nickname for the emperor was King David, but he might better be known through a different nickname, and one suggested in the Admonition – that of the Hebraic reformer, King Josiah. 

Derek Wilson, a biographer of Charlemagne, would note Charlemagne’s leaning on Augustine’s City of God.  Wilson writes:

It was the ruler’s responsibility to pay close attention to the minutiae of all regulations pertaining to the relationship between man and man, man and the state, and above all, man and God.

Charlemagne was thus obsessed with regulating the religious and secular life of his subjects.  The reform was no less ambitious than that found during the Protestant Reformation, and, ultimately, enforced in a similar manner: as noted earlier, much of this only occurred via the sword.  Unlike the Protestant Reformation, Charlemagne’s “correction” was emphatically linked to the papacy (and, of course, separate from any authority in the East).

However, without the printing press, Charlemagne’s reforms didn’t travel as far and as fast, and his empire did not survive for long after his death.  Still, it was a significant event in Christian history – his aim was the transformation of all of the people of his Frankish realm.


I cannot help but connect this description of Charlemagne’s centralizing actions to today’s project – throughout the West, but very evident in Europe through the various European Union activities.  Repeating the words of Charlemagne’s biographer:

It was the ruler’s responsibility to pay close attention to the minutiae of all regulations pertaining to the relationship between man and man, man and the state, and above all, man and God.

Other than striking the last part – as, certainly in Europe, a very effective job of eliminating God from any discussion has been achieved – one could read this as the EU charter.  Actually, perhaps it is better said that man’s relationship with God has been regulated quite effectively….

Which brings me to the Charlemagne Prize, awarded annually to individuals who best demonstrate this vision of a united and open Europe.  A few years ago, it was awarded to Pope Francis, who became the first pope to accept this prize for his work on behalf of European solidarity.

As noted in this post describing the award to the pope, Charlemagne could only accomplish what he accomplished through war and destruction.  To expand on this point and the parallels to today is, I believe, not necessary.  The one difference: today, a larger portion of the subjects are much more malleable.


A major point of controversy, introduced during this time, was the filioque – the introduction of a phrase in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son.  This was not included in the original creed, but was added by theologians in the West (or introduced as a “correction” by theologians in the West, depending on your point of view).  For purposes of this blog, it is sufficient only to note the impact this had on further dividing East and West, and the political and governance ramifications of this division.

If you are interested, you can read about this controversy here.


  1. In my thinking, the influence of the German conquer of Rome was probably more important to the freedom of Western Europe than the influence of German culture.

    Without Rome as a political center, political power flowed over to the Church and down to the lords and nobles in Europe. There was no would-be emperor there to unify control as there was in the East. The East during the same time had unbroken central, imperial rule.

    I suspect if Rome had never fell as a political power the two sides East and West would have had very similar political histories even as Western Rome was more influenced by Germans.

    I think this is born out by the fact that the Holy Roman Emperors like Charlemagne were all Germans. Germans (Goths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, etc) were all bent on unifying political power. But the project was so large and time consuming that in the years during the project, power stayed decentralized.

    Moving the capital out of Rome was probably even more of a factor and was why it was so difficult to rebuild. The imperial administration left and whatever political power was left was broken down. That was the only reason the Church was able to exert as much political influence that it did in the Middle Ages. In fact the Church took on some of the political role of Rome after the fall. Secular rulers were able to build back enough power to reassert control over the Church even as early as the 1300-1400s if I remember my reading on the 100 Years War well.

  2. Bionic, your epilogue illustrates a warning Jesus gave to His disciples.

    "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man's enemies will be those of his own household." -- Matthew 10:34-36

    It is certain that the West would not have developed as it did if the Roman Empire had stayed intact and hegemonic. It might be said that any power-broking structure discourages personal development of thought and action, thereby inhibiting freedom and growth. When governments and institutions (even as small as the family) are domineering and controlling, personal initiative is squelched, but when that smothering blanket is lifted, the individual entities beneath it spring up and come to life.

    Knowledge and understanding increase, not because we are in lockstep, but because our differences cause us to seek out the truth. Invariably, those differences will cause conflict and division.