Charlemagne and the Rise and Fall of the Carolingian Empire
Charlemagne and the Rise and Fall of the Carolingian Empire
The Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne brought much of Western Europe together moving into the 9th century. In exacting his control over the vast expanse of territory that came to encompass the Carolingian empire, Charlemagne relied heavily on the work of loyal nobility placed throughout the empire and the power of the church (Moreland 325). With the nobility and church working to integrate and convert the peoples of the empire, the court under Charlemagne led a kind of revival of Roman thought and art that is known in modern times as the Carolingian Renaissance. Latin was the widely used language of the nobility in Charlemagne’s empire, as Charlemagne was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 which provided additional legitimacy to his rule over peoples like the Saxons and tied in Latin to the empire since it was the language of the church (Mayr-Harting 1118). In terms of the literature of the empire, the learned classes, who wrote and transcribed the works produced in the middle ages, were those who spoke Latin. Thus, much of the literature and poetry that came out of the Carolingian Empire is in Latin. Still “concerning vernacular literature, one can justifiably assert that the Carolingian Empire was seminal…In fact there seems to be enough evidence suggesting that European vernacular literature drew its first great inspiration from Carolingian literature” (Trompf 17).
Though the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne was relatively strong in terms of the unification of territory, after Charlemagne’s death in 814, his son Louis the Pious took the throne and fissures in the makeup of the Carolingian empire grew. However, it was due to the issues of his succession and his children’s inheritance that the empire underwent its great decline and divide. Louis the Pious had three sons in conflict: Charles the Bald, Lothair I, and Louis of Germany who engaged in a decades long civil war for the right to rule over certain territories within the empire. Threats of invasion coming from both directions with the Danes and the Magyars had resulted in the division of territory into the more easily defensible duchies of Franconia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Swabia (Salmon 4). Louis the German, as indicated by his moniker became king of the territory known as East Francia, which included much of the population which spoke German dialects. The continuous reconfiguration of boundaries under Louis the Pious’ rule made for a confusion of territories and identity, but still Latin unified the nobility though the Carolingian would soon end (Salmon 4).
Otto I and the Kingdom of Germany
Though what became known as the Ottonian dynasty began with Henry I, it was his son Otto I who was also the first German king to be given additionally the title of Holy Roman Emperor. In the wake of the end of the German Carolingian line, the peoples of the territory known as East Francia, under the Carolingian empire, elected a Saxon, Henry I, who sought to bring together the Germanic tribes to create a unified Germany (Salmon 4). When Otto assumed the throne after his father’s death, he too pursued and for the most part succeeded in achieving his father’s goal to create a strong and central German kingdom. Through Otto’s leadership and his crowing as Holy Roman Emperor in 962 the church continued to have strong influence in Germany. This influence did not necessarily have a detrimental effect towards the production of vernacular literature as one might assume since the church actually took part in preserving German literature, even transcribing it in some cases, but often the preservation of these German stories took place in translations to Latin (Salmon 5). The church under the Ottonian dynasty was actually known to be comprised of accomplished poets and scholars making the literature coming out of Germany at that time from the church all the more significant (Leyser 727).
The Hohenstaufen Era, which lasted in Germany from 1138-1254, was a time of great political instability with regards to the issue of succession and the divides between the German duchies in law and dialect. After the relatively weak leadership of the Salian dynasty in the 11th century, the Hohenstaufen line was able to earn election in 1138 with Konrad II (Salmon 40). Though Konrad’s successor Friedrich I, or Barbarossa, was relatively successful at maintaining control over the duchies, the deaths of he and his heir left a void in leadership since the heir apparent was only three years old (Salmon 41). The resulting chaos created a political climate in which warring duchies and factions struggled for power alongside the Hohenstaufen rulers. Despite the instability in leadership, the period saw an emergence in secular literature as the German courts became exposed to the tales of courtly love coming out of France and England (Salmon 42). The warring between the duchies and the tales of the Crusades also lent themselves to increased interest in the stories of knighthood and chivalry, thus the era saw an increase in the number of manuscripts produced.
By the early 14th century the economy of Medieval Europe could have been considered somewhat stable, but with a few exceptions. According to Kershaw, the prices of livestock, dairy produce, and most other foodstuffs rose considerably from about 1305, due mostly because of the currency depreciation and the large influx of foreign silver coined into sterling (Kershaw 6). Overall, the prices for goods rose to about 25 percent higher than prior years, but by 1315 the agricultural sector of the economy hit its all time low (Kershaw 6). The harvest of spring 1315 was considered to be the most disastrous Europe had ever witnessed. Due to torrential rain throughout the summer months of 1315, there was widespread flooding, which in turn ruined many crops, hay and corn included (Kershaw 7). Also, climatic changes resulted in a long-term trend towards cooler and wetter weather as well as unpredictable and extreme weather conditions during the decade following 1315 (Kershaw 7). The instability of the economy created major problems for the people of Europe.
By the spring of 1317, it was evident that there was a suffering in all classes of society, but the lower classes were hit the hardest. There was a common scene in Europe at this time, which included animals getting slaughtered, seed grain being eaten, and infants and the younger children being abandoned (Kershaw 14). On the other side of extremities, many times the elderly voluntarily starved themselves to death so that the younger members of the family could survive. At the same time, there was also a presence of cannibalism (Kershaw, 14).
By 1325 there was a slight sense of stability once again as the food supply production returned to normalcy. The population began to rise once again and for a second there was a feeling of stability among the people. Clearly, the Great Famine not only created an unstable economy, hunger, and widespread suffering for the people; however, the Great Famine also made it clear that an even greater storm was soon to come.
The Black Death
The Black Death was a disastrous event in European history that affected the state of the economy, daily life, and the culture of the continent. After the Great Famine, Europe began to get back on its feet through flourishing production in agriculture and manufacturing (Benedictow 55). However, by 1347, the Black Death was described to be more fatal than the Great Famine, wreaking havoc on the population (Benedictow, 55).
Much earlier in European history, from 540-565, there was an attempt by Byzantine ruler Justinian to re-conquer the lands of the Western Empire. However, this resulted in increased isolation, with people scattered throughout large portions of land, and essentially a lack of intercommunication among villages and communities throughout Medieval Europe (Benedictow 57). By the 14th century, there was a revival in commerce and trade with merchants and buyers traveling long distances different places and regions. The need to travel from place to place allowed there to be an exchange of goods, but with that also came the exchange of culture and more importantly diseases. The people of Western Europe were more susceptible to disease since the diet, housing, and clothing of the average men and women were relatively poor, and a shortage of wood for fuel had made hot water a luxury and thus personal hygiene was not easily maintained or a priority (Benedictow 60). It was believed that the Black Death rose from somewhere in Asia since it was thought that a Mongol commander loaded a few of the plague victims onto his catapults and hurled them into the town. Some of the merchants left Kaffa for Constantinople as soon as the Mongols had departed, and they carried the plague with them. It spread from Constantinople along the trade routes, causing tremendous mortality along the way. The Black Death first penetrated into Germany in south-western Bavaria from the Austrian province of the Tyril as early as the late autumn of 1348 (Cohn 186). The way of transmission was mainly through fleas and rats. The stomachs of the fleas were infected with bacteria known as Y. Pestis. The disease appeared in three forms: “bubonic [infection of the lymph system -- 60% fatal], pneumonic [respiratory infection -- about 100% fatal], and septicaemic [infection of the blood and probably 100% fatal]” (Benedictow 257).
The plague lasted in each area only about a year, but a third of a district's population would die during that period. People tried to protect themselves by carrying little bags filled with crushed herbs and flowers over their noses, but to little effect. Those individuals infected with bubonic would experience great swellings ("bubos" in the Latin of the times) of their lymph glands and take to their beds. Those with septicaemic would die quickly, before any obvious symptoms had appeared. People with respiratory also died quickly, but not before developing evident symptoms: a sudden fever that turned the face a dark rose color, a sudden attack of sneezing, followed by coughing, coughing up blood, and death (Cohn 200).
The effects of both the Great Famine and the Black Death resulted in economic instability, a multitude of deaths, and a disturbed social structure. However, there was more to this, which in turn affected the development of a new vernacular language. The effects of the famine and the plague resulted in new attitudes toward death, the value of life, and of one's self. There was also a growth of class conflict, a loss of respect for the Church, and the emergence of a new pietism, which involved the idea of personal spirituality. The idea of personal spirituality greatly altered European attitudes toward religion (Kershaw 24). This new attitude toward the church targeted the change in language as they began to stray away from Latin instead adopting vernacular language to express their hardships. Giovanni Boccaccio's, The Decameron, from 1350, is a collection of tales describing the hardships through Black Death as told by the people themselves was a collection from the people to the people and it was written in vernacular Florentine language (Kershaw, 24).
The Gutenberg Printing Press
As Europe entered the secular age, the monastery scriptoria lost their centuries long monopoly on manuscript production. The establishment of universities allowed literature and language to be more accessible and therefore increased the demand for books by the populous. However, most books were still in the form of illuminated manuscripts on parchment or vellum. The preparation process for the parchment or vellum as well as the scribing and illuminating system of creating each manuscript were time-consuming, costly and limited in numbers, making manuscripts only affordable to wealthy people (Hargrave 222, 224).
Around 1440, Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, two goldsmiths worked together and invented the Gutenberg Printing Press (Gray). Gutenberg’s press is a mechanical movable type letterpress that allows the printer to set metal types once and print unlimited copies of a text (Hargrave 226). Although, printing with movable type was invented centuries ago in China, this system of printing proved much more efficient used for languages with a limited alphabet (Hargrave 225). This invention revolutionized book production because books no longer need to be handwritten and proofread one at a time. In conjunction with the introduction of papermaking into Europe, which reduces the materials cost, the Gutenberg press significantly decreased book production cost and increased production volume, making books widely available and affordable to the general public. The access to books gave rise to a larger literate community throughout Europe and the more educated people there are, the more texts they demand market (Hargrave 226). This cycle caused a large increase in vernacular texts and works in languages other than Latin (Howard 413).
After printing became more readily available in the early 1500s, the Catholic Church was able to produce and “sell” more Indulgences, or pardons, to people, who commonly believed that these pieces of paper would wash them free of their sins (Tingle 182).
Martin Luther, who grew up a devoted monk in a monastery in Erfurt in Saxony of the Augustinian Eremites, was ordained priest in 1507 (Mullett 46). He became increasingly concerned about the fact that sinners were not actively doing good deeds to wash away their sins but passively believing that God would forgive them if they simply bought pardons (Mullet 47). This prompted him to write the “Ninety-five Theses” in 1517 to criticize the long tradition of Indulgences in the Catholic Church. This publication later became the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (Tingle 181).
The Protestant Reformation divided the population into those who wished to read and interpret God’s teachings and those who were afraid to read themselves. The increasing number of enthusiasts who were unafraid encouraged the creation of new vernacular texts (Newman 95). In 1522, Luther published the vernacular New Testament in Wittenberg. This lead to a significant increase in the number of German texts compared to Latin texts due to the increasing number of Protestant people (Newman 96). In general, the number of manuscripts were decreasing due the increasing popularity of printing.The spike in manuscripts in 1550 is similar to the spike in 1450; it is likely because undated manuscripts from around that time period are all assumed to be from 1550.