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Charlemagne: A Funny Thing Happened One Christmas Day

When most people consider the Middle Ages in Europe, they think of a strong Catholic Church which dominated nobility and society. Often the Catholic Church was the only stable institution in medieval Europe. It was within the churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and convents that learning, lodging for travelers, and medical practices often took place. So the idea that the Catholic Church had such control during the Middle Ages is generally seen to be a good thing, because it provided the "glue" which held Europe together. (Until the rise of the nation-states, but that is for a latter column.)

Now, a discussion of church and state relations in the Middle Ages may seem out of place at Christmas, but it is not. For, as many Christians go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day to remember the newborn babe, so did Charlemagne one Christmas day over 1200 years ago. What happened to him while there changed European church/state relations.

Charlemagne (742-814) was the son of a Frankish (French) king (Pepin III) and grandson of a Frankish ruler (Charles Martel). He did what his father and grandfather were unable to accomplish: He brought much of Europe under his control.

During Charlemagne’s rule, from 771 until his death, the Catholic Church had two popes: Hadrian I (772-795) and Leo III (795-816). The pope before Hadrian I, Stephen III, had sided with the Lombards (a germanic people) against the Franks; partly because the Lombards had invaded much of Italy. When Hadrian became pope, he backed Charlemagne. Charlemagne then attacked the Lombards and destroyed their kingdom. Charlemagne and Hadrian enjoyed such warm feelings for each other that when Hadrian died Charlemagne sent a marble monument of him to Rome. (Which can be seen today in Vatican City in St Peter’s Basilica.)

Leo’s pontificate began badly. He displeased many of the local rulers in Rome, and, under the direction of Paschalis (a nephew of Hadrian I), in 799 a group of thugs attacked Leo on the streets, beat him severely, and left. They then came back, dragged him into a nearby church, and beat him again. Realizing that he needed outside help, Leo decided to turn to Charlemagne.

Leo headed out to meet Charlemagne, as did his enemies with "reports" of misconduct by the Pope. Charlemagne agreed to hear the complaints and make a decision, but only in Rome. On December 23, 800, all the parties were in Rome and Charlemagne, after hearing the complaints plus an oath of innocence by Leo, decided the charges were baseless. Since he was in Rome, he decided to attend Mass at St Peter’s on Christmas Day two days later.

And now we get to it. On Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne was kneeling down to take communion, Leo walked up behind him with a crown and, placing it on Charlemagne’s head, announced: "To Charles, most pious Augustus crowned by God [a reference to the Roman emperors], mighty and peaceable emperor, long life and victory!" Thus, he crowned Charlemagne an emperor, who had only been a king.

And there we have it: For you see, a lesser figure does not crown a greater figure, but a greater figure crowns a lesser figure. While we do not know Leo’s real motive, we do know how later middle age popes interpreted this: the state was subservient to the church. And so on Christmas Day in 800 another step was taken toward the domination of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved