After the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, Europe entered a period of war and anarchy that later historians would label the Dark Ages. Rival tribes fought constantly over the decaying remains of the empire. Progress in the arts and sciences stalled. Without the unity provided by Rome, there was little holding the continent together.
Charlemagne (742–814), the leader of a kingdom in modern day Germany, created a large European empire in the eighth century that for the first time reunited many of the territories that once belonged to the Western Roman Empire. On Christmas Day in 800 AD, the pope crowned him the first Holy Roman Emperor, the leader of newly resurgent Christendom.
At the time of his coronation, Charlemagne’s empire included modern-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and most of Germany. Charlemagne was a king of the Franks, a German tribe that had annexed many of its neighbors. The Holy Roman Empire proclaimed in 800 AD never actually united Europe. As Voltaire joked in the eighteenth century, it was neither “holy,” nor “Roman,” nor an “empire.” By one count, it comprised more than 300 semi-independent principalities, some of them no bigger than a few square miles. Still, it was a major force in central Europe for centuries to come. Charlemagne’s forces spread Christianity and fought (unsuccessfully) to reclaim territory held by the Muslim caliphate in Spain.
Charlemagne’s legacy is still seen across Europe—literally. Recent genetic studies show that a large percentage of Europeans descend from the Frankish king. He is considered one of the founding fathers of France and Germany. His empire, in reduced form, endured until the last Holy Roman Emperor abdicated in 1806.
- The sword Charlemagne carried into battle was named Joyeuse; a weapon thought to be the famous sword is now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
- In popular medieval legend, Charlemagne was one of the “nine worthies,” the greatest knights of history. Other worthies included King Arthur and Alexander the Great.
- During a battle in Spain in 778 AD, one of Charlemagne’s noblemen, Roland, was killed by Basques. The story of Roland’s courageous death became the foundation for the Song of Roland, one of the most famous pieces of medieval literature