Noll, Ch. 5: The Coronation of Charlemagne (800 CE)

One of the signal events of the early Middle Ages is the subject of Noll’s chapter 5: Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.  As Noll says at the beginning of the chapter, this event was important for a variety of reasons: it says something about the growing power and influence of the popes by this time; it says something about the changing face of Western Europe, as a Germanic tribe (Franks) had surpassed the Romans as the dominant political force on the continent’s mainland; and it speaks about the growing web of links between the secular powers and the spiritual powers (the church) of the day.

coronation of charlemagne

For many American Christians, that last item is most important. Charlemagne’s rule was significant because it was during this period that a political philosophy was built that still holds sway in many places and hearts. That philosophy essentially says this: that there are secular powers in the world (mayors, governors, presidents), and they have rules, enforce laws, and are installed by certain ceremonies. Their job is to take care of the people in the realm that God has given them: secular matters, like protecting the borders, maintaining peace, and levying taxes. There are also spiritual powers in the world (churches, priests, bishops, etc.), and they also have rules, enforce laws, and are installed by certain ceremonies. Their job is to take care of the people in the realm that God has given them: spiritual matters, like forgiving sins, conducting worship, and maintaining Christian morals.

Ideally, those two powers work together for the sake of the people and the kingdom – in a parallel sort of way – but most of the time, there is tension between them. For example, what is the best way to maintain good morals in a country? Is it effective preaching or laws that have teeth? Or who gets to appoint the leaders in the church? Is it the church itself and its people, or the secular leaders who keep everyone safe so that they can actually have church services? As you can see, this philosophy has challenges, but it shaped church-state relations until the Reformation in most of Europe, and even to the present day in the United States.

You may find helpful this link to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, mentioned in the chapter:

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on the chapter:

  1. The first long section of the chapter is devoted to the papacy. At this time, secular power had begun to accrue to the papacy, and with that power came the possibilities of influence and also various temptations.  Given the challenges that spiritual leaders (like bishops and ministers) face, what is the best balance between spiritual piety and worldly influence in a church’s leaders?  How do we negotiate that tension?
  2. Follow-up: you have probably heard the classic quote that goes like this: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Based on what you have read and what you know from other sources, do you think the papacy affirms this idea, contradicts it, or nuances? Why do you think this is the case?
  3. Gregory the Great is one of the popes who has been highly admired by non-Catholics, including in the present day, just as many Protestants and even non-Christians admire the current Pope Francis. Is it consistent to reject the Catholic view of papal authority, and yet to still admire specific popes? Why or why not?
  4. One of the weaknesses of many church history books is the relative short shrift they give to the importance of Islam in the history of Christianity.  How did you respond to Noll’s presentation of Islam in the section “The Rise of Northern Europe?  Was this new information?  Was it surprising? What does it make you think about, in light of the current uneasiness regarding the place of Islam in American life?
  5. “Christendom” is the word we use to describe the established position that Christianity enjoyed within western culture.  Google a bit on manifestations of Christendom, and then answer these questions: How does Christendom still manifest itself in the circles you inhabit in America?  How do you see it passing away?
  6. In modern America, many Christians of Western- and Northern-European descent follow religious practices sharply differing from those of their ancestors. If you are from this background, how does it feel to think that you would most likely not have the faith that you have today, if it were not for the rise of “Christendom”? That your faith depends on your ancestors to some degree, even if your practice of Christianity sharply differs from theirs?

Image credit for Jean Fouquet’s Crowning of Charlemagne (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 6

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  1. Pingback: Noll, Ch. 4: Benedict’s Rule (530 CE) | CHEF

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