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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 10: “Latin Christendom: New Frontiers (500 – 1000)” – Part I » Chapter 10: “Charlemagne, Carolingians, and a New Roman Empire (800 – 1000)” – Part II

Chapter 10: “Charlemagne, Carolingians, and a New Roman Empire (800 – 1000)” – Part II



The section about the “Donation of Constantine” and other forgeries of the Catholic Church were very interesting moments described in the chapter.   The “Donation of Constantine” grants the Pope and all his successors not only the honor of primacy over the universal Church but also temporal power in the territories of the Western Empire, including Byzantium.  However, most scholars now believe that it was a forgery produced before the coronation of Charlemagne and most likely written in the late eighth century.  It was most likely produced during a time where tensions between the ByzantineChurch and the Catholic Church were very high.  Later popes would see it as a manifesto for the Church to rule all of society at large.  Again, the lust for political power in the Church at large creeps its head again within its history and shows to what lengths the church would go to rewrite history to consolidate power to herself.

Furthermore, even after the “Donation” came the “creative rewriting of the papal past” (loc. 6879) under Nicholas I (857 – 67).  He became aware of a rare collection of WesternChurch law (aka “canon law”) that was gathered not in Rome but during a dispute in a local FrankishChurch which came to be known as ‘False Decretals’ (loc. 6887).  These collections, which combined old historical documents with newer ones,  emphasized the power of the pope to overrule or reverse any decision of a local Church council.  It also suggested that the papacy could construct Church law for itself, without the deliberations of bishops gathered in general councils of the Church.

MacCulloch concludes by stating that in the years following 800, “empire and papacy, consolidated claims for the future by looking to the past.” (loc. 6890)  These creative reconstructions of the past triggered Charlemagne’s building of monumental churches by imitating basilican churches from the early Christian past, but in new ways.  Like any other government or political/religious institution, past or present, those in power have the ability and means to reshape how to reinterpret history to fit their own agendas.  This means that we should be wary of other church traditions that use history or tradition to back up their own claims to authority.  Their claims to legitimacy, whether on doctrinal or church matters, might be based on forgery or deceit.  This is why reading about the historical development of a doctrine or tradition is so paramount in getting a fuller understanding of a particular doctrine or tradition.  It will be interesting to see what other reconstructions of the past the Church (including the Protestant churches later on I’m sure) did to advance their imperial pursuits.  I’m sure, just as history repeats itself, it’s still going on as we speak.




Charlemagne’s greatest achievement was his copying ancient tests. Prior to this, ancient church texts were lost and sometimes the only copy that was left was already disintegrated. I can’t believe that this wasn’t already put into practice. For instance wouldn’t all the gospels be copied as a matter of principal? Prior to Charlemagne copied manuscripts were done by illiterate monks, so it could be sloppy. Also they were very difficult to read; there was no spaces in between words, no punctuation and all the letters were written in capital. Through the help of Alcuin and his school, Charles the Great standardized a way of copying dubbed ‘Carolingian minuscule’: only the first letter of sentence was capitalized, punctuation and spaces between words, which is the close to the way that we publish today. Charlemagne also standardized Latin, so it was much easier to pass on writing within the Kingdom as well as between other Kingdoms. This Ancient Latin was also used in church mass at the time and created a conformity that was used up until the fourteenth century.


The explosion of literacy among monks and the implementation of copying classical texts was executed primarily by Alcuin, whose rise to Charles’s friend and leader of the school for monks in Aachen alone is impressive. Alcuin was just a deacon and an Englishman scholar when he was promoted by Charlemagne. The golden age of monasteries being centers for learning and perpetuating ancient texts is attributed to Alcuin’s learning center. I don’t know why Charlemagne didn’t choose a monk, traditionally, but I think it is really awesome that he thought outside of the box and chose Alcuin! Most of the classical literature that we have today, including Augustine’s City of God is earliest dated back to this period.


One reason Charlemagne iniatied the copying of texts was to perpetuate the idea that he was chosen by God to rule. This ‘information explosion’ was the basis of an attempt to remodel and instruct society on Christian lines. The Emperor’s advisors drew up systems of law to regulate all society by what they saw as the commandments of God. He even published a reform of church and laity, in Admonitio Generalis, he was compared to King Josiah of Judah who implemented the ancient books of the law, it also mentioned Moses as the original lawgiver. Charlemagne likened himself to an emperor placed by God, like the rulers in the Old Testament in order to yield power. You could say that he saw himself as a continuation of the stories of the Bible.

Even though Charlemagne might have used the copying of ancient texts to yield ‘divine power’ over his kingdom, I am happy that he was organized enough to produce the texts, without which I would not be able to read today. We would not have most of the ancient texts from Jesus’s time to Charlemagne’s time, in which there were such exciting times in Christianity. If we didn’t have these ancient texts today I feel like the church could use manipulation a lot more because it doesn’t have texts to hold it accountable to any standard. Information is the most powerful tool and because of Charlemagne we have it available to us today.


After reading this chapter, however, I want to read a history of real Christians’ lives and not just the history of the church. Wouldn’t it be cool to read the prayers of regular Christians from the time the New Testament was written up until today? I think that would almost be a continuation of the Bible or at least a continuation of Psalms. I think I would find a book about people’s personal relationship with God a lot more interesting and revealing, than the history of the leaders of the church, which is just a constant power struggle over the possessions on earth.



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