September 2014 Print

Charlemagne and the Long Frankish Pilgrimage to the Just War


by Dr. John Rao

If Rome was not built in a day, neither were the Christian Middle Ages. One prime example of this truth is the time that was required for the Eldest Daughter of the Church—the Franks—to produce one of medieval man’s major achievements: the concept of the just war and warrior. The fact that the path from the original Germanic glorification of pure butchery to a sense of noble Christian military mission was both purposeful as well as problematic can be seen in the work of the “second founder” of the Roman Empire—that Frankish King from the Carolingian Family that we know as Charlemagne (742-814). For Charlemagne’s career as soldier-emperor proved simultaneously to be a solid portent of a more promising Christian future and an indication of the distance yet to travel to that exalted destination.

“Charles” had a head start towards becoming “the Great” in matters combining Christianity with military action due to a number of already well-rooted stimuli directing the Franks towards using their massive physical power purposely and properly. The primal stimulus in this regard was the tribe’s passionate, open commitment to the True Faith and the realization that that commitment had practical consequences. This was stated clearly in Charlemagne’s father Pippin’s Prologue to his revised version of the “Salic Law” (763): the basic “constitution” of the so-called “Salty” Franks:

“The illustrious people of the Franks was established by God himself; courageous in war, steadfast in peace, serious of intention, noble of stature, brilliant white of complexion and of exceptional beauty; daring, swift and brash. It was converted to the Catholic Faith; while it was still barbarian, it was free of all heresy. It sought the key of knowledge under divine guidance, desiring justice in its behavior and cultivating piety. It was then that those who were the chiefs of this people long ago dictated the Salic law...” (Pierre Riché, The Carolingians, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, p. 83).

Thankfully, public Frankish dedication to Christianity benefited from a second stimulus of equal importance: the assistance of courageous teachers possessing a sound understanding of all that was needed for the education of their pupils and no illusions regarding their ignorance and recalcitrance. St. Boniface’s (c. 672/680-754) extensive correspondence—all of it available online—gives us a pretty sound indication of the tack such teachers felt they had to take. This “Apostle to the Germans” was absolutely certain that the Christian missions established by him required Frankish military protection for survival. Further still, he saw that the ability to mobilize such help made an immense impression upon the power-worshipping barbarians, aiding in their evangelization. (R. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions, U. of California, 1999, pp. 236, 242-243). I would venture to add that he recognized that the teachings of the intellect and the spirit are always “weak” in this, our valley of tears, and will, therefore, always need to demonstrate that it can call upon the aid of physical strength to give them practical backbone.

Nevertheless, Boniface was aware that he was summoning up the physical strength of a warrior tribe that was to a large degree only nominally Christian. The Franks were tempted to make an exact equation between the message and victory of the Gospel with the extension of Frankish borders and the consequent satisfaction of the political and financial needs of their ruling elite. Hence the willingness of the latter to combine physical support for the Church with the confiscation or misdirection of ecclesiastical property for military purposes, the appointment of unworthy but politically influential men to key bishoprics, campaigns of forced baptism, and the imposition of tithes upon those forcibly converted before they even were taught what their new Faith was all about. The Apostle to the Germans was disgusted by the inversion of the hierarchy of values that his dependence upon military clout could seem to condone. As a sound Christian teacher, he therefore exploited every opportunity he could find to change the “structures of sin” of the Frankish Kingdom and the still pagan mentality of his frightening and often perverse guardians. He had to show “might” that it only had meaning in the service of “right”.

A third and crucially important stimulus to purposeful direction of military action, long at work among the Franks before the accession of Charlemagne, was a commitment to the concept of life as a pilgrimage. The tribe inherited this vision from Christian Roman Gaul, which had produced some of the earliest pilgrims to the Holy Land to write extensively about their experiences. Their “pilgrim spirit” taught them that they were indeed on a journey through life, that that journey was by no means easy, that it had to be organized properly, that they, the Franks, had their own special role to play in its organization, and that their own salvation hinged upon whether they developed this role properly. All these themes were spelled out for them by other members of the Christian teaching “college”, with reference to a body of works with enormous influence throughout the Middle Ages ascribed to the man we call Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite.

Charles the Great did indeed inherit such stimuli. Still, he impressed them upon the new alliance of Christian, Roman, and Germanic elements forged in the lands of the old Empire with a particular intensity and strength of will that—as Pierre Riché insists—identify him as the true father of that socio-political entity we call Western Christendom. It was he who confirmed the goal of reunification of the whole of the old imperial ecumene through assiduous use of the power of the Frankish Army, which contemporaries referred to with the biblical name of “the Host”. It was he whose regal and imperial legislation showed that the power of the Host lay at the service of a comprehensive extension of Christian principles into every sphere of life—economic life included. It was he who most effectively made an attempt to provide serious education for the clergy, and to raise the moral and cultural level of the active population as a whole, encouraging the merging of a mélange of superior intellectual influences from Byzantium, Egypt, Lombard Italy, Visigothic Spain, Ireland, and Britain into a new Christian whole while doing so. It was he who invited teachers like Alcuin (735-804), the great English Benedictine, to head his so-called Palace School at Aix-la-Chapelle, and give new and eloquent expression to the pilgrim spirit so important to understanding the Frankish sense of mission:

“If your intentions are carried out, it may be that a new Athens will arise in France, and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the teachings of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit, and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom.” (Epistle 170, cited in C. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Image, 1991, p. 65).

Yes, Charlemagne put all of the essential elements of international medieval Christendom firmly in place—and he did so, first and foremost, as a military man; as commander of the Frankish Host. “Might” was publicly identified as being at the service of Christian “Right”, but it was “might” that nevertheless held the final word in determining what this actually meant in practice. Sadly, the Frankish “old Adam” was still all too powerfully visible for this predominance of strength over teaching to be a good thing. For the Frankish pupil was, to a large degree, the same recalcitrant student that St. Boniface had had to confront. Hence, Charlemagne used his strength to do things that indicated that the just use of military might remained a concept very much in its formative stages. The most important example of this truth, bitterly lamented by Alcuin himself, was the policy of forcible baptism of the Saxons, and, once again, the impression that the payment of taxes to the powers-that-be and Christianity were one and the same thing. Alcuin, like Boniface, knew that “might” was there to be instructed, not to instruct. But Charlemagne, good-willed Christian though he was, could never quite seem to grasp that fact.

After all, how could someone publically recognized as a Christian Emperor violate his charge?

Such a mentality showed that the task of putting “might” at the service of “right” was not complete, and, quite frankly, given fallen human nature, can never be “completed”. Our pilgrimage never ends, even when we call ourselves Christians. Not surprisingly, the failures of the Carolingian system and the first Father of Christendom would become all too clear as the chaos of the ninth and tenth centuries progressed.

Nevertheless, the Eldest Daughter of Christendom survived the age of iron that followed this first attempt to build a Catholic society. It was to be in the Second Age of Christendom, the High Middle Ages, that the heirs of Charlemagne—saints like the Emperor Henry II and King Louis IX, along with the monks and popes who served as the Bonifaces and Alcuins of the new era—were to build a more solid concept of the just war and the just warrior. This concept, constructed around the idea of the Crusade and the crusader, was destined to become so Christian in character that a St. Francis of Assisi could happily adopt its themes and its literary expression, mobilizing them for his own spiritual combat.

Such a purified vision of the just war and warrior was obliged to temper the spirit of “exceptionalism” that Pippin’s Prologue to the revision of the Salic Law and Charlemagne’s career reflect; a spirit that claims that once a people like the Franks proclaims itself to be Christian, it has by that fact alone escaped all need for further correction and transformation in Christ; an erroneous spirit that is, unfortunately, a temptation to all Christian men and women in every age, American Catholics in 2014 included.

But our purified vision was also obliged to recognize that it was cleansing a spirit that was in and of itself a pearl of great price. That “pearl” emerged due to the incredibly courageous first step of Carolingian men of might and right to abandon their fallen human tendency to reject one another and admit their necessary interdependence. Interdependence alone gave raw power a lasting strength. It alone saved the intellect and the spirit from impotent paralysis. That interdependence, to quote Rick in Casablanca, “was the beginning of a beautiful friendship” that can only continue so long as the soldierly spirit thrives, Catholic teachers openly form it in obedience to the Truth, and the two work together: and this modernity abhors.

It was enough for him that he called himself “the most Christian Emperor” to consider that his task was over.

But the task is never over; the pilgrimage never ends, so long as we are alive. The failures of the Carolingian system and the first Father of Christendom would become all too clear as the ninth and tenth centuries progressed. Still, the Eldest Daughter of Christendom survived the age of iron that followed this first attempt to build a Catholic society. It was to be in the second Age of Christendom, the High Middle Ages, that the heirs of Charlemagne—the Saints Henry II and Louis IX, and others like them—were to truly work towards a more solid concept of the just war and the just warrior.

That more solid concept would have to temper the spirit of “exceptionalism” that even Pippin’s Prologue to the revision of the Salic Law reflects; the spirit that thinks that once a people like the Franks has proclaimed itself to be Christian, it escapes all danger of error and need for further correction and further transformation in Christ. The courage of these people, their acceptance of opportunities and labors against appalling odds is what counts. What that more solid concept did not have to change was the basic courage of the actions of the Franks in general and Charlemagne in particular. This was a courage that enabled the man of strength to recognize rather than reject contemptuously the serious wisdom and spiritual vigor that alone can root his work in a great mission and give it staying power; a courage that also impacts upon the man of wisdom and spirit, giving him the strength to escape the paralysis that often comes with nuanced learning and feeling and commit himself physically to do what needs to be done to give his convictions serious clout.