Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History

Date: 800

PROBLEM I.—The Coronation of Charles the Great


THE importance of the coronation of Charles the Great depends largely upon what contemporaries and succeeding generations thought of this event. From the disappearance of the Roman Empire down through the Middle Ages the idea persisted that universal empire was the ideal form of state. Men were still unable to free themselves from the political conceptions that they had inherited from Rome, and were mentally incapable of seeing that the old idea, changed as it was in being handed down through the centuries, no longer sulked the new conditions that were developing about them: The medieval empire was a false political conception, which was arbitrarily imposed upon society, and which was supported by a public opinion that derived its strength from tradition.

Society in 800 had lost all the essential elements of unity. The invasions had destroyed the old order, and the barbarians had settled in the empire in such numbers that a return to anything like former conditions was impossible. Society had disintegrated into small, self-sufficient communities, entirely dependent on agriculture, and with slight need for relations with each other. The demand for commerce had almost ceased, and communication was becoming increasingly difficult. With such conditions existing there was no possibility of recreating the bonds that had given the Roman Empire its unity. Notwithstanding all this, the Frankish race by a remarkable series of conquests had succeeded in welding western Europe into a crude empire. It was held together by force and the personality of Charles. Beneath the surface, forces were at work which were soon to disrupt the Frankish state, but during the reign of Charles men did not realize the weakness of this new political structure. The glorious achievements of the Frankish Kings and the intellectual revival, with its admiration for classical literature, produced a confident spirit that enabled men to see in the empire of Charles a likeness to the Roman Empire. Thus the imperial title was given to Charles and the Frankish state became the successor of the empire of Rome.

To understand how this was possible it is necessary to trace the persistence of the Roman tradition, and to understand how the conceptions of what the old empire had been had undergone a decided change, So deeply had Rome impressed itself on the ancient world that it was commonly believed that the empire was eternal. When the Roman government had disappeared, and had been replaced by barbarian kingdoms, men still cherished the delusion that the unity of the empire had not been destroyed, but that the western provinces were still nominally under the rule of the emperor at Constantinople. The armies of Justinian were welcomed in the West, and writers long continued to reckon time by the reigns of the eastern emperors. Even the barbarians never entirely lost their respect for Rome. They, too, seemed to believe in its eternity even when it had crumbled beneath their attack. They continued to serve as allies, their kings were flattered by the title of consul or patrician, and the effigy of the emperor continued to adorn their coins. They seemed to prefer to rule as representatives of the emperors rather than by right of conquest. Both conqueror and conquered strove to keep alive the fiction that the fruity of the empire was still intact.

However, the conceptions of empire underwent a transformation. The Church taught that the great mission of the Roman Empire was to preserve the Christian religion. As the idea of a universal Church grew up it identified itself with that of universal empire. The names of the Christian emperors were those which were cherished. Thus, the belief in the unity of the empire came to have a religious rather than a political basis. The city of Rome regained something of its former prestige, not as a political capital, but as a religious center. Pilgrims in great numbers journeyed to the eternal city to visit the shrines of the saints. The papacy profited by this, but popes, as well as kings and all of the West, continued to look toward Constantinople with respect, and the vague hope for the political and religious unity of East and West continued.

However, this dream of imperial unity did not prevent the gradual alienation of the West from the East. Friendly relations between popes and emperors were interrupted by controversies about differences in doctrine. The eastern emperors failed to measure up to the new imperial conception of the West. Moreover, the bitter discontent of the provincials with their Arian rulers led them to look to the more immediate aid that they might expect from the Franks, whose orthodoxy greatly aided them in their conquests. The Carolingians were more and more recognized as the defenders of the Christian religion, and worked hand in hand with the Church in converting the peoples whom they conquered. Thus the West was able to see in the Frankish state the Christian state that conformed to its ideas of what an empire should be.

Although Charles received his imperial title from the pope, the attitude of the papacy is not easy to understand. It would seem that Hadrian I., at least, was not anxious to have a new master that he could not control The papacy had been forced to call in Pepin and his son to check the encroachments of the Lombards, but it was careful to make its own position secure by the donations that it obtained from both Pepin and Charles. Far from encouraging imperial ambitions in the Frankish kings, Hadrian judiciously indicated that the title of patrician was purely honorary. The same pope apparently tried to balance the Byzantine ruler against the Frankish king to his own advantage, and showed no indications of desiring to make Charles an emperor. Events were to precipitate the coronation of 800.

During the last years of the eighth century a changed attitude toward the Byzantine emperors developed. The rule of a woman, Irene, was regarded as wrong, and was interpreted to mean that the throne was really vacant. A proposed marriage between the daughter of Charles and the son of Irene was broken off by the empress. The Libri Caroli, which were composed at the court of Charles, were filled with violent criticism of the acts and pretensions of the Byzantine emperors, and were evidently intended to create a public opinion hostile to the eastern empire.

In 795 Hadrian died and was succeeded by Leo III., who was of humble origin, and to whom the Roman nobles, who had supported his aristocratic predecessor, were hostile. Insecure in his position at Rome, Leo was forced to look to Charles for protection. On April 25, 799, the enemies of Leo attacked him and attempted to cut out his tongue and put out his eyes. The pope was rescued, and as soon as he had sufficiently recovered from his injuries he set out for Germany to ask Charles for aid. He found the Frankish king at his camp at Paderborn, and was received with respect and consideration. The enemies of the pope had also forwarded their accusations to the king, upon whom devolved the task of settling the trouble in the Roman Church, if he chose to accept such responsibility. The next year he made the journey to Rome which resulted in his coronation.


In studying any historical problem it is first necessary to know when, where, by whom, and how the different accounts were written. The account of an eye-witness, written shortly after the occurrence of the events described, is more reliable than an account composed a generation or more later. Next to the time element the character of the author must be considered. What were his qualifications for accurate observation? Did he have a conscious or unconscious bias that caused him to write a prejudiced narrative? The prejudice of an author may be purely personal, or it may be explained by the circumstances amid which he lived and wrote. The modern historian strives to reach accurate and impartial conclusions by a thorough study of the sources. During the Middle Ages the general mental limitations of the period prevented all writers from reaching such an impartial and impersonal viewpoint. Thus the medieval writer was not only lacking in critical ability, but his account was always colored by the political, religious, and intellectual ideas of the age.

The sources of Carolingian history were written by the educated churchmen. Judged by modern requirements, they were men of very slight knowledge and limited intelligence. Their purpose in writing history was to instruct their readers in the religious significance of historical events. After the coronation of 800 they further endeavored to show that the Roman Empire was restored by the Franks, and that the medieval empire was a direct continuation of the imperial power of the Roman emperors.

Much of the historical writing of the period was in the form of annals, which are brief accounts of events, year by year. This method of writing history has an interesting origin. Many of the feast days of the Church depended upon the day upon which Easter came each year. So difficult was the computation of this date that the dates for Easter were worked out for long periods of years, and each monastery obtained one of these calendars. As the years were on the left side of the parchment and the Easter dates on the right, the monks began to make a brief record of any events that happened in a given year in the space found in the center of the parchment and along the margins. From this unambitious beginning we have the annals developing into longer chronicles of the events of the different years. They were written by monks, whose names we do not know, but presumably they were strictly contemporary. Unfortunately, copies of these annals were carried from one monastery to another, and the copyists were usually so inaccurate in their work that it is difficult to estimate the value of the variations or to know which manuscript may have been the original source.

1. The Annales Laurissenses, or the Annals of Lorsch, are so named because one of the early manuscripts came from the abbey of Lorsch, and an early German editor concluded that they had been written in this monastery. However, it is now generally believed the annals after the year 789 were written by men who either lived at the court of Charles or were very closely connected with the court. They become a veritable chronicle of the deeds of Charles, and are often called the Royal Annals, and critics have tried to prove that they were written by Einhard or other famous men of the time. Another theory that has been advanced is that Charles himself had them written by Iris chaplains, and that they were thus official annals. None of these opinions can be accepted absolutely, but in any event we can be certain that the Annales Laurissenses were written by prominent men who probably lived at the center of political life and had access to the best sources of information.

2. The Annales Laurishamenses were also attributed to the monks of Lorsch. Certain references to the monastery of Lorsch gave them their name, but it is not possible to know whether they were actually written there or were merely copied from other annals. They treat events in a very different manner from the Annales Laurissenses, and neither could have been a copy of the other. After the year 786 they develop into a more complete narrative of the events of each year and show a decided improvement in style. They relate military events, political and state affairs, thus giving every indication of having been written by intelligent and well-informed men.

3. The Vita Karoli (the Life of Charles) was written by Einhard, who was born between 768 and 770, and died March 14, 840. He was educated in the monastery of Fulda, but became attached to the court about 794 or 796. He was intimate with Charles, and occupied a prominent position in public life. The Vita was written shortly after the death of Charles, and no one was better qualified to be the emperor’s biographer. Einhard was one of the group of learned men that Charles had gathered about him from all parts of the West, of which Alcuin was the guiding spirit and teacher. His interest in classical literature led him to imitate the Life of Augustus by Suetonius when he wrote the Vita Karoli. For this reason the subject matter and form of his biography are distinctly different from that of other writers of the period. From a literary standpoint, Einhard’s work is one of the very best productions of the Carolingian renaissance.

4. The Chronographia of Theophanis, called the "Confessor."

Theophanis was a contemporary of Charles the Great and an important Greek writer. He was born in the reign of Constantin Kopronymos (741–775). He was involved in the image-worship controversy, and was in prison for twelve years, being finally banished to the island of Samothrace, where he died about 817. Because of his sufferings in the cause of the Church he was honored as a confessor.

At the death of Georges Synkellos, who was writing a history of the world, Theophanis promised to complete the chronicle which his friend was forced to leave incomplete. He thus worked on the Chronographia ((History or Annals) from about 810 or 811 to 814 or 815. The Chronographia was a chronicle of world history, which was to have a great influence on the writers of history in the East and West, for it was soon translated into Latin, and thus became familiar to western scholars. The first part of the work is a mere compilation, but for the time of the coronation, Theophanis was a contemporary, and can give us something of the Byzantine attitude toward this event.

5. The Vita Leonis III. comes from the Liber Pontificalis or the Book of the Popes. There has been a great deal of controversy about the reliability of this work, which consists of the lives of the popes from the earliest times down to the fifteenth century. These biographies were written by various authors, for there seems to have been a desire to make it a complete record of the lives of the popes. From the eighth century on the biographies were probably contemporary or nearly so. The Life of Leo III. was probably written somewhat later, but it contains details that are not found in the other accounts, and it is particularly valuable in that it gives a version of the coronation written from the Church’s point of view. It should, however, be used with caution.

6. De Gestis Karoli Magni, or The Deeds of Charles the Great, by the Monk of St. Gall.

This account of Charles was written between 884 and 887, at the request of Charles the Fat, who had visited the monastery of St. Gall in December of 883. It has been attributed to Notker Balbus; but it is not certain that he wrote it, although the style resembles other works of Notker.

This Life of Charles, which was written three-quarters of a century after his death, is interesting chiefly because it shows how men of later generations regarded this great hero of the Middle Ages. As the account of the Monk of St. Gall indicates, a legend was already growing up which was to obscure the real Charles. The work is filled with anecdotes and mythical tales about the emperor. Many of them were purely local and had grown up and developed in that part of Germany in which St. Gall is located. The account of the coronation shows how this event was regarded by a man of the late ninth century:


1. What reasons did Charles have for going to Italy?

2. How did Charles adjust the troubles at Rome?

3. Did Charles actually try the pope in the council that he assembled?

4. What reasons can you find for the oath of purification taken by the pope?

5. How did Charles deal with the enemies of Pope Leo?

6. Do the actions of Charles indicate that he had greater authority in the city of Rome than the pope?

7. What reasons can you find for Charles sending such important missi to accompany Pope Leo back to Rome?

8. What was the pope’s attitude toward Charles, and how did it affect the coronation?

9. Work out the details of the Coronation ceremony?

10. By what right was Charles made emperor?

11. What evidence can you find which would indicate that Charles owed his title to the papacy?

12. From the evidence in the accounts, what do you think was Charles’s attitude toward the Christian religion and the papacy?

13. How can you explain Einhard’s statement that Charles was not eager to be crowned emperor?

14. What difference in point of view and what wrong information do you find in the account of the Monk of St. Gall?

15. Criticize the account from the Vita Leonis III. by comparison with the other accounts.

Other topics might consist of criticisms of the accounts given in standard secondary works by a comparison with the sources. The use of Bryce’s Holy Roman Empire in this way would be an extremely profitable exercise.


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Chicago: "The Coronation of Charles the Great," Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History in Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, ed. Frederic Duncalf and August C. Krey (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1912), 1–12. Original Sources, accessed August 13, 2022,

MLA: . "The Coronation of Charles the Great." Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, in Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, edited by Frederic Duncalf and August C. Krey, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1912, pp. 1–12. Original Sources. 13 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: , 'The Coronation of Charles the Great' in Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History. cited in 1912, Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.1–12. Original Sources, retrieved 13 August 2022, from