Are you of European descent? Congratulations! You’re related to Charlemagne!
the rise of the franks
Just 5 years after Rome fell for the final time, a 15-year-old named Clovis became ruler of a Germanic group called the Franks. He soon came to control most of Gaul (modern-day France – that’s where the name comes from) by uniting all the various Frankish tribes under his rule. He is considered the first king of France and his Germanic name comes from two phrases that mean fame and combat (hlod and wig)… this gets changed eventually into Louis and will be the name of a ton of kings in French history, some of which got to keep their heads.
The biggest thing that Clovis does is convert to Christianity, mostly at the urging of his wife (she becomes a saint – Clotilde – because of this). When he converts, a ton of the Franks also convert, creating a massive, united Christian kingdom in northwestern Europe. They are going to expand under a few other notable leaders.
Fast forward 200 years and there is a guy in charge called Charles Martel. He is famous for two HUGE things.
1. He leads his military into Spain and defeats the advancing Muslim army at the Battle of Tours. We’ll talk about it more next episode but Islam was on the rise and was spreading across north Africa and up into southern Spain (they’re called the “Moors” from the European perspective).
It’s generally thought that without the Frankish kingdom to stop their advance, the Muslims very easily could have swept through Europe, taking advantage of the decentralization and weak unity. So without Charles Martel, we all could be speaking Arabic today!
2. The second thing he is famous for is having an important grandson. His son is hilariously named Pepin the Short, but let’s skip past him and get to another “the Great” in history, Charles the Great, or Charlemagne.
who is Charlemagne?
Charlemagne has been nicknamed the “Father of Europe.” I mean this literally. If you are a white person and you go to ancestry.com you can probably trace some part of your lineage back to Charlemagne. Really. He had 18 kids. EIGHTEEN. We don’t need to get into the exponential aftereffects of procreation but just trust me, if you have European heritage, congratulations you’re related to Charlemagne!
Metaphorically, he was the Father of Europe because he reunited most of Europe into an empire for the first time since the Romans and the descendants of him and his empire are going to become the royalty of most of the European kingdoms.
Charlemagne’s rule sees a flowering of cultural and intellectual activity that helps Europe come out of it’s so-called “Dark Ages.” Latin is dying even amongst the clergy so he forces all church officials to re-learn proper Latin, helping preserve a lot of ancient scholarly traditions.
the holy roman emperor
This brings me to a big turning point in the Middle Ages. In the year 800., Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. This is a crucial moment in which we have the leader of the Church crowning a Germanic person as the new Roman Emperor. This is mostly symbolic but it marks the end of the Dark Ages and the reunification of Europe (even though Charlemagne’s empire will fall apart after his death.)
This event also upsets the people who had been holding down the Roman Empire for the last 300 years… oh did I not mention that? Yeah, only half the Roman Empire fell…