A Bridge Through the Dark Ages: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Dynasty

Cantiga 166 by Vox Vulgaris 

A Bridge through the Dark Ages

To most historians the period in western European history known as the Dark Ages began with the collapse of the western Roman Empire in AD 476 and ended in the late eight or early ninth century with the rise and establishment of the Carolingian Empire. The Carolingian Empire and its greatest king, Charles the Great, more commonly known as Charlemagne (742-814), are credited by historians as the forces that brought not only political stability back to western Europe, but also for providing the essential features that make up Western Civilization. Charlemagne and other Carolingian kings initiated the feudal system that spanned over the hundreds of years of the Middle Ages and supported the authority of the Catholic Church. Charlemagne in particular was also a patron of education and the arts, which are all reasons why scholars point to the Carolingian Empire as being a bridge that connected the long past glories of Rome with the nascent Western Civilization during the Dark Ages. Government, arts, and education no doubt were all cultural aspects that helped propel western Europe from the ignorance of the Dark Ages into the light of the Middle Ages, but equally important were the economic and monetary policies that Charlemagne and the Carolingians pursued.

The economic policies that Charlemagne and the Carolingians advocated are often overlooked because there is a dearth of primary sources concerning the subject and economic history is often less popular than political, social, and cultural history. An examination of Charlemagne and Carolingian economic policies in the late eight and early ninth centuries reveals that not only did these ideas help end the Dark Ages and bring stability to western Europe, but many ideas continued long after the demise of the Carolingian Empire well into the modern period.

The Historical Context

In order to completely understand the economic policies of Charlemagne and the Carolingians a brief historical survey is warranted. Long before the Carolingian Empire, the dominant political force in Europe, and the Near East for the most part, was the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire provided political, social, and economic stability for hundreds of years and hundreds of years before when it was still a republic. But like all great things the Roman Empire came to an end with the death of the last emperor in the west in AD 476. Rome was primarily a victim of its own problems and it was essentially internal problems that brought it down, but in its last few decades it fell victim to groups of well-organized, marauding war bands known collectively as the “barbarians,” who helped usher in the period known as the Dark Ages.

Most, but not all, of the barbarian war bands were of Germanic linguistic and cultural origins with one the Franks being one of the fiercest. Like many of the Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages, the Franks wished to settle down and establish kingdoms, ironically, often in emulation of the Romans. The Franks eventually settled down in the Roman province of Gaul, which they would later give their name to – France. The Franks soon established a monarchal government where they borrowed some the regal styles from Rome. The first Frankish dynasty is known as the Merovingian, but it is the second Frankish dynasty, the Carolingian, that affected the course of world history. The Carolingian rulers quickly set to work by conquering most of western Europe and formed a true empire that was to last almost 100 years (751-843). Charlemagne was ruler of the Empire at its apex from 768 to 814 and was given the symbolic title of “Holy Roman Emperor” by the pope in 800. By all accounts Charlemagne was a visionary ruler who promoted arts and education in his realm, but his economic policies were also a vital part of his program that helped bring western Europe out of the Dark Ages.

The Economic Policies of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Dynasty

Although there was no true “economy” to speak of in Europe during the Dark Ages, the Merovingian Dynasty provided some economic precedents for the Carolingians. One of the most notable economic ideas produced during the Merovingian Dynasty was the establishment of market towns in Europe. Market towns were focal points of trade where farmers and artisans traded their goods, which were for the most part done in a strictly barter format. It is not known if the Merovingian kings actively built or even supported these towns, but their existence provided base for which the Carolingian kings would later create a medieval market economy. The barter based markets of the Merovingians gave way to a Carolingian market economy that was more heavily based on coins and precious metals.

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The numerous building and cultural programs that Charlemagne supported during his reign, such as the construction of many cathedrals, was funded largely by silver. In the early ninth century new trade routes opened up that brought Norse traders to the Carolingian Empire with silver bullion from the Abbasid Empire. After the Carolingians obtained the bullion from the Norse merchants they then sent it to their mints where it was turned into coins. Although gold coins from the Carolingian period have been discovered, silver was apparently more important as it was the metal used to make most coins. Carolingian silver was not only used to construct cathedrals and other works of art, but its circulation stimulated the entire Carolingian economy for the first fifty years of the ninth century. Silver truly proved to be the backbone of the Carolingian economy, which was actually more advanced than is commonly believed.

When analyzed according to modern economic models, the Carolingian economy was one of balanced growth where several different sectors operated in a symbiotic fashion. Essentially, the three primary sectors of the Carolingian economy were the following: trade, industry, and agriculture. Some aspects of trade have already been noted, but a more thorough examination is needed. The Carolingians developed extensive trade routes, which in many ways superseded those of the Romans as they tapped into previously unknown regions and resources. The Carolingians developed extensive routes in the North and Baltic Sea regions where they traded with peoples as far away as England and Scandinavia. The center of Carolingian trade was in the Rhine Valley region, particularly around the city of Dorestad, where such commodities as slaves, wine, grain, handcrafts, and millstones passed through on their way to the Mediterranean region. Besides Dorestad, numerous other market towns formed throughout the Carolingian Empire, some of which were probably supported by the kings. In the later Carolingian Empire permanent connections were made with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world that would keep exotic goods flowing back to the west. Although the Carolingians were impressed with rare imported items such as silk and silver, they also exported commodities to the east.

Easterners demanded exotic western commodities such as walrus ivory, oils from whale blubber, slaves, and woolen cloth to the extent that the Carolingians were forced to manufacture some of those items to keep up with the demand. The demand for woolen cloth led to the creation of a wool manufacturing industry in the Carolingian realm that impressed outsiders thousands of miles away. Famously, Carolingian woolen cloths were given to the Abbasid caliph, Harun ar-Rashid (766-809), as a token of friendship between the two kingdoms. Obviously, the Carolingian industrial base cannot be accurately compared to those of modern countries, but the production of woolen cloths certainly provided a boom to the Carolingian economy. Closely associated with the Carolingian wool industry, as it provided the source of the wool, was Carolingian agriculture.

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Since most of the Carolingian Empire was rural, agriculture was the largest sector of the Carolingian economy. A number of agricultural inventions and innovations were made during the Carolingian Empire that survived until the modern period in one form or another. The heavy wheeled moldboard plow became a regular sight in fields during the Carolingian period and the modern horse harness can also be traced back to the Carolingians. Both of these technologies made it possible to farm more land quicker and by extension allowed the population to grow. Perhaps the greatest agricultural innovation made in the Carolingian Empire was the transition from the two to the three-field crop system. In the three-field crop system farmers would grow two different crops in two different fields and then leave a third field fallow where livestock grazed and left their droppings for fertilization. The three-crop system proved to be much more efficient than the two-crop system and was used throughout Europe long into the modern period. The symbiotic structure of the Carolingian economy was important, but perhaps most important were economic and monetary the reforms that Charlemagne made.

Charlemagne made a few important changes concerning measurements and currency that affected the entire economy and influenced the economies of Europe for centuries. One of the most significant policies that Charlemagne undertook was to decree a standard of weights and measures. The pound became the standard of Carolingian measures, with twenty schillings equaling a pound and twenty pence being an ounce. The system was not revolutionary in itself as the Carolingian pound was based on the Roman pound, but it provided the basis for measurements across Europe until the advent of the metric system. The systems of measurements that Charlemagne decreed were used in a variety of different applications, but they were inextricably intertwined with Carolingian currency.

The silver and gold coins that were made in royal Carolingian mints had to meet a standard weight, which shows that Charlemagne was one of the first post-Roman, European leaders to embark on a legitimate monetary policy. Charlemagne’s monetary policy was for the most part elementary compared to later leaders who dealt with more complex economies, but his policy towards coin weights was not the only step he took to protect Carolingian currency. Laws were passed that made it illegal to refuse official Carolingian coins in economic transactions and counterfeiting became a crime punishable by death. Charlemagne also set prices for grain at the Synod of Frankfurt in 794, which resulted in a high rate of monetary circulation and a new series of silver pennies were minted. Truly, the Carolingian economy was vibrant and much more complex than it is given credit for, but like with most things, it eventually ran its course.

The Decline of the Carolingian Economy

A number of factors led to the decline of the Carolingian economy and the Empire itself. Perhaps the biggest blow to the Carolingian economy was the end of the eastern silver supply between the 820s and 830s. The lack of silver obviously had detrimental effects on the Carolingian economy, which was dependent on the commodity for its monetary policies. The Norse traders who brought most of the silver bullion to the Carolingian realm in the late eighth century and early ninth centuries looked for new revenue streams and so focused their energies on raiding and became the Vikings. The Vikings though were little more than a nuisance to the Carolingians who devised both political and military tactics to deal with their northern neighbors; it was Carolingian internal factors that ultimately proved to be the ruin of their system.

After the death of Charlemagne, the Carolingian Empire was ruled by kings who were more concerned with greed, power, and personal advancement than preserving the kingdom and ideas of Charlemagne. In 843, under the Treaty of Verdun, the Carolingian Empire was split into three kingdoms and although the Carolingian line continued for some time after, its status as a true empire was over. Despite the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, many of the economic and monetary policies of Charlemagne and the earlier Carolingian rulers lived on into modern Europe. Truly, the economic policies of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Dynasty were a vital factor in Europe’s emergence from the Dark Ages.

Bibliography

James, Edward. “The Northern World in the Dark Ages, 400-900.” In The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, edited by George Holmes, 59-108. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Jotischky, Andrew and Caroline Hall. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Medieval World. London: Penguin Books, 2005.

Misbach, Henry L. “The Balanced Economic Growth of Carolingian Europe: Suggestions for a New Interpretation.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 3 (1972): 261-273.

Miskimin, Harry A. “Two Reforms of Charlemagne? Weights and Measures in the Middle Ages.” Economic History Review 20 (1967): 35-52.

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