Karel de Grote.

Albrecht Dürer, Charlemagne, 1513 | Neurenberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Wikimedia Commons

Power & Resistance
c. 747 - 814
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The Franks

In Rome, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne Emperor. For Charlemagne the ceremony in the old St Peter’s Basilica had great symbolic value, since the king saw himself as the heir of the West-Roman emperors.

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In 771 Charlemagne, a nobleman from a family with roots in the valley of the Meuse, became the sole ruler of the Frankish kingdom. By making war he expanded his kingdom until it covered a large part of Western and Central Europe. He tried to organise that extensive area as well as possible. It was divided to districts headed by a district count, and royal inspectors paid frequent visits to check on the counts. Charlemagne stimulated the development of art and science. He had schools set up, invited scholars to court and promoted intellectual life in abbeys. His period of rule was referred to much later as the Carolingian renaissancerebirth of Classical antiquity, originally used only for the 15th and 16th centuries. .

Karel de Grote ruiterstandbeeld

Paris, Musée du Louvre

This image of Charlemagne on horseback was inspired by the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol in Rome. It makes it clear that the Frankish monarch placed himself in the line of the Roman emperors.

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The Franks

As early as the 3rd century, Germanic tribes moved across the border of the Rhine into the Roman Empire. Usually as unwelcome guests, but sometimes the Romans deliberately gave the newcomers a fixed abode in the Empire and made them military allies. The Empire also often organised campaigns across the Rhine during the 4th century, in order to deport such groups by force to the Roman part of the world and present-day France with the intention of putting them to work as farmers or soldiers.

Among them were the Franks, an alliance of culturally closely related Germanic tribes such as the Salians and the Chattuars. From the 5th century on they gained more influence in the North-Western part of the Empire and took over power from the Romans. Meanwhile the Franks and the local Gallo-Roman population merged. In about 460 they moved further south, where they gradually extended their power over present-day France.

Strong Frankish kings such as Clovis and Dagobert I expanded their power, but around 700 the leaders of that Merovingiannamed after king Merovech, the supposed founder. dynasty became weak. The real power fell into the hands of their major domos, officials who controlled their possessions. Ultimately the major domos took power formally. They formed the dynasty of the Carolingians, with Charlemagne as its most important representative.

Focal points


Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, col. 2706, f304

Miniature of St Catherine at the Gravensteen in Ghent, by Simon Bening and apprentices, 1517-1523. This is one of the oldest representations of the Gravensteen, from the end of the 12th century to the middle of the 14th century the residence of the Counts of Flanders.

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Pagus Flandrensis, from Flanders District to County of Flanders

Charlemagne had attempted to bring unity to his extensive territories via inspections, laws and a unitary currency. But the Frankish rulers were in the habit of dividing their kingdoms among their sons. Charlemagne himself had only one surviving son, but that son’s three sons each demanded a share of power. The splitting up of the kingdom was ratified in 843 by the Treaty of Verdun. The Scheldt formed the border between the Western and Central sections.

The separate kingdoms retained the system of districts. At first the district counts were royal officials, but they soon swore allegiance to their lord, the liege lord, and promised him military support in exchange for the area that they were entitled to rule as vassals. The bond between district counts and the king was hence much more personal than that of an official. Their title passed from father to son. That system of mutual trust formed the basis of what historians call ‘the feudal system’.

One of those districts was the Pagus Flandrensis, originally the (coastal) area around Oudenburg and Bruges. The term first occurs around 600 and may derive from flauma, a reconstructed Germanic word that means something like ‘marsh’ or ‘flooded area’. Hence the Flandrenses, originally just the coastal Flemings, were ‘the people from the marshy areas’. Later the districts around Kortrijk and Ghent were added and the county of Flanders was created. To the east of the Scheldt other principalities, such as the duchy of Brabant and the county of Loon, developed in a comparable way.

In the districts a small elite ruled which had a monopoly of economic and military power: the nobility. Ordinary people became less and less free, sometimes in exchange for protection. They had to surrender a large part of their harvest and work for nothing on the land of the noble lords. From the 12th century on that feudal system gradually disappeared from North-West Europe.

Ruïnes Sint-Baafsabdij.

Ghent, Historische Huizen

The ruin of St Bavo Abbey in Ghent, probably founded by the missionary Amandus in the 7th century.




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The Spread of Christianity

The Christian religion was introduced into North-West Europe by Roman soldiers, as one of the many Oriental religions they imported. However, the local population continued to believe for a long time in their own gods and religious narratives. A large-scale wave of conversions took place from the 7th century on as a result of the activity of peripatetic missionaries such as Eligius, Amandus and Willibrordus. They replaced pagan shrines with Christian ones, founded places of prayer everywhere and also the first abbeys. By the 8th century most people in the southern part of the Low Countries had converted to Christianity.

Important abbeys after 800 included Saint Peter’s and Saint Bavo’s in Ghent and the abbey of Lobbes in present-day Hainaut. Such great abbeys were at that moment the only intellectual centres, where writing and reading culture remained alive and knowledge of antiquity was in part preserved and transmitted. Nevertheless, much of that Classical knowledge was lost in Europe and would later partially return thanks to Arab scholars.

Abbeys were also centres of power and land ownership. Some owned thousands of hectares of land. They were mostly run by abbots who came from the Carolingian nobility. The abbeys suffered greatly from the incursions of the Vikings during the 9th century, but all through the Middle Ages they still remained important economic and cultural players.

Bijen Childerik.

Gold bees from the grave of Childerik. The Frankish king Childerik (436- around 481) extended his empire as far as the river Seine. His grave was discovered close to the church of St Brixius in Tournai, together with a substantial gold treasure.

Gouden munt met Dagobert I
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Gold coin with a portrayal of the Frankish king Dagobert I.

Karolingische minuskel.
Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. SAL. IXb, fol. 74v, around 980

The Carolingian minuscule is a clear and legible script and for centuries became the standard in Europe. Modern fonts are still based on it.

Philippe Lagae

The shrine of St Amandus (19th century) with relics in the church of St Eligius in Kortrijk. Relics of missionaries like Amandus, after whom many places and churches were named, are preserved in numerous locations.

De Duitse stad Aken kent jaarlijks de Internationale Karelsprijs toe aan een persoon die zich verdienstelijk heeft gemaakt voor de Europese eenwording. Door de omvang van zijn rijk en zijn belang voor de Europese geschiedenis beschouwen sommigen Karel als ‘de vader van Europa’.

The German city of Aachen awards the annual International Charlemagne Prize to a person who has distinguished themselves in the cause of European unity. Because of the size of his realm and his importance for European history, some people regard Charlemagne as ‘the father of Europe’.

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Karel de Grote
Vlaanderen Vakantieland

Bron: VRT archief – 16 mei 2009


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