Public attention across Europe these days seems to be directed towards the 100th anniversary of World War One. However, Europe’s roots reach back a lot further than that. This year also marks the 1200th year after the death of Charlemagne (748-814 AD). iversity commemorates the lasting influence of the emperor of the Kingdom of the Franks with a MOOC that starts today. The German city of Aachen, one of Charlemagne’s most important places of activity, hosts three major exhibitions about the man that is often referred to as “Pater Europae” – the father of Europe.
Image: Statue of Charlemagne in the German city of Aachen
The Empire of the Franks
In political terms, Charlemagne managed to establish a huge empire that stretched all the way from the Pyrenees to the Danube, and from Italy to the Baltic Sea. In doing so, he became the first post-antiquity emperor – with plenty of successors involved in bloody fights for the crown up until 1918, the end of the First World War, when four Empires (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) collapsed almost simultaneously.
Image: Largest extension of Charlemagnes empire
What many people don’t know about the man also known as “Charles the Great” is that apart from his military conquests, he kept his empire together by establishing the “Carolinian educational reforms”. In the late 8th century, the common literacy level of Latin had deteriorated so badly that many priests were unable to interpret or even read the bible properly. In an attempt to counteract the looming loss of knowledge (which, as everyone knows, maintains close ties to power), he gathered the best and most renowned Latin scholars in his court.
The roots of education
This included the scholar Alcuin, who created a curriculum and textbooks for Latin studies as well as the “seven liberal arts”: a blueprint for medieval education and a syllabus that consists of the so-called “Trivium”, the combination of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. In the eyes of Charlemagne’s contemporaries, this syllabus formed the basis of any critical thinking. With these as as starting point, students were then introduced into the “Quadrivium”, a second set of disciplines that encompassed mathematics, astronomy, geometry, and music.
Up until the late 18th century, generations of students in Europe were taught along those lines. Of course, during most of that time, education was a privilege of the few rich and the higher strata of society. Nevertheless, Charlemagne’s educational reforms also affected ordinary people’s lives, i.e. priests were better trained in Latin proficiency and bible studies. In effect, public thirst for education grew ever stronger and culminated in the foundation of the first universities less than 200 years after Charles the Great’s period.
To learn more about Charlemagne’s influence on European history, you have two great options: If you speak German, you can participate in the iversity MOOC “Karl der Große – Pater Europae?” offered by Prof. Rainer Leng from the German University of Würzburg, that deals with the aforementioned Carolinian educational reforms and other subject matter.
Secondly, regardless of what language you speak, you can visit the exhibition “Karl der Große – Macht. Kunst. Schätze” in Aachen, featuring original exhibits and documents from Charlemagne’s time. When opening the exhibition, German president Joachim Gauck had a clear opinion on Charlemagne’s impact: “That he’s called the father of Europe is still legitimate up to the present day.” Now he only has to convince the critical minds of Rainer Leng and his students.