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The Frankish Church Under the Carolingians in Detail

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From Merovingians to Charlemagne

Under the Merovingians, the Frankish Church was cut off from Rome, which targeted Byzantium and England, and the bishops fell into the mess of times. The Frankish Church was subject to the sovereign or the mayor of the Palace, who convened or even presided over regional councils. Those were the only organs of the Frankish Church of the time. They brought together the bishops, the metropolitan bishops - who were not yet called archbishops- and abbots. Church dogma had set itself in the 5th century. In that respect, although provincial, councils of the Frankish Church did not contradict each other. The bishops were linked to cities, which were also the seat of the county while still vaguely persisted the ancient Roman 'provinces' which cities were the capitals. Bishops were appointed by the sovereign and, around 700 A.D., a serious crisis was reached: lay people, who were no longer even bishops, ran the bishop's office, counts were bishops at the same time, etc. There were cumulative, bishops who carried out a policy of independent territorial rulers, bishoprics were vacant, illiteracy, transmissions from father to son, etc. It was around the year 700 that the Frankish Church reached the bottom: there was to be no more free councils between 689 and 744 A.D. First established, often, at the gates of the cities, on the tomb of the local saint, monasteries and abbeys saw their expansion then spread due to the evangelization of the countryside (Ligugé, Marmoutiers, St-Victor de Marseille, etc.), in the 4th century A.D. Then, between 500 and 600 and then 600 and 700 A.D., their creation were the work of kings and queens who succeeded Clovis and, for the second period, bishops. Monasteries were therefore the places where the Church was maintained against the decline of bishops. Monasticism was first eastern-inspired, and then, around 600 A.D., monasticism was strongly influenced by the Colombanians. Barely after, around 620, Benedictines arrived. The Columian monasticism was a mission monasticism, unlike until about 600 A.D., when it was of personal development. Church was only saved by the monasteries which were renewed by Irishmen of St. Colomban and then the Benedictines. Monks tended to variably understand their monastic rule in their relations to bishops, in the way they prayed, or in their relationship with the faithful of the place. In the end, it can be said that dogma was then understood uniformly but that discipline and liturgy varied. The uplift of Frankish Church was inseparable from the Frankish aims on the regions of Germania. Missions worked with the ost, which begand around the year 700 A.D. Emerging from these works of mission, St Boniface renovated the Frankish Church between 744 and 754 A.D.. He was o oppose both local clerics -bishops in decline- but also Pippinids who were concerned about that renewed power of the Church. Boniface applied to the Frankish regnum what he had applied in Germany as the sovereign on the other hand, would accept that the Church remain under his control or that the reform is held back or would be more typically Frankish. What the reform of St Boniface was? It createe a real power of the metropolitans (who he would like to see called 'archbishops') over their suffrageants, and no longer a mere primacy. There were only 4 archbishops in the Frankish dominions then, with Rouen, Reims, Sens, Mainz, when Charlemagne took power because his predecessors did not want this intermediate level between them and the bishops, they continued wanting to appoint. The Pope sent the pallium to archbishops as he did before, to the metropolitans. Boniface then, revived councils as these, on the other hand, had the support of Carloman and Pippin and they reformed (discipline against decadence, etc.) St Boniface's efforts were thus met with both Gallicanism and Caesaropapism. Bad bishops and even good ones wanted a typically Frankish reform. Thus Chrodegang, Bishop of Metz (742-766): for the rites, he accepted a Roman influence, but retained typical frankish rites -- the Adoration of the Cross, for example -- or he created the original institution of the canons and their chapters, inspired by St. Benedict and more clearly bringing the clerics around their bishop. Thus, practically, despite efforts, the Church, including monasticism, remained largely, in general, under the influence of the king. Efforts were also made to win back the people, as the countryside distanced themselves from Catholicism between 600 and 700. Priests must explain in the local language, superstitions existed, and even among rural and urban people well acquired from Catholicism, one still saw pagan or syncretic rites -- raised stones dedicated to saints or the Virgin, Saturnales in January, fires of St. John the Baptist -- that must be Christianized or eradicated. In fact, it seems that, until about 700 A.D., gods of Antiquity had even maintained themselves well... However, despite these ambiguities, the sovereigns will have endeavoured to make disappear all the earlier decadence, a movement that was to become clear under Charlemagne, a fortiori, with the effort on intellectual rebirth. Charles Martel and Carloman supported the renovation effort and it was Pippin alone who ultimately held it back, his Caesaropapism no doubt linking to the concern for the support of his aristocracy. This caesaropapism of Pippin the Short, which began to oppose the full authority of the pope, continued to intervene in contentious and disciplinary matters or respect for canonical rules about excommunication. The synods were to be in the Frankish dominions, and convened by the king. This Caesaropapism was to continue under Charlemagne. Only Louis the Pious was to leave the synods freer and present himself only as their executor. Rome, as far as it was concerned, was to have have about this reorganization of the Frankish Church, the concern for a careful hierarchy centered on bishops closely attached to the pope as well as a desire for unity, liturgy, dogma, administration. It seems that even Benedict of Aniane's reform of the Benedictines was one of the pope's options. Also weighed in on the time that the church lands had been allocated to his faithful by Charles Martel, which was justified by the fact that they were lands that had been given to the Frankish Church as taken out from the royal fiscus. It was thus a matter for the Church to accept the reallocation of these lands to defence. Charles Martel was the hero of Christendom because of his victory over the Arabs or by fighting against the Frisians, Saxons and other still pagan Germans. Boniface, in agreement with Pope Zacharias, had addressed the issue legally and disciplinaryly. The synod of 745 A.D. had decided to the return of the metropolitans' powers, the anality of councils, discipline, the regularity of the abbey and episcopal elections and, finally, the handing over of the entire Church building under the authority of the pope. Metropolitans took the name of archbishops; they were truly superior to the bishops, with jurisdiction and were the intermediaries between the bishops and the pope. That movement of St Boniface was to endure the opposition of the bishops on the basis of the Frankish Church; canons were another element of the Church's reform. In 760 A.D., there was to be a grouping in one body of all the priests of the cathedral church, with a common rule inspired by St Augustine; the meeting of canons constitutes a chapter

The Frankish Church under Charlemagne

Charlemagne pursued the Caesaropapism of Pippin and Chrodegang. The Church had to be united and led and renovated morally and intellectually but for the usefulness of the Frankish kingdom, and Charles arrogated himself the right, on the basis of Isidore, Alcuin and Paulin of Aquileia, to govern the Church as entrusted to him so that he may protect her. That Caesaropapism will unravel since the reign of Louis the Pious and the pope was to gradually reaffirm the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal. Caesaropapism is both the will to intervene in what is the sole responsibility of the Church -- we will see how the Carolingians used the reforms of ritual and texts in the sense of serving the unity of the Frankish regnum -- and the desire to include clerics in the service of the royal and then imperial politics. Clerics as educated, were the scribes of the kingdom, the advisers of various services of the Court, the bishops supported the counts or served as missi dominici. These centuries generally, lived in the absence of reference to the past. They didn't really know what monastic rules were observed before St. Benedict, for example, etc.) A important concept that ended up politically translated, even up to into the Treaty of Verdun seems that of the precision of the Trinity by the filioque, one in three, which Charlemagne had kept in the Creed. Rites of the West were imbued with Roman customs, but in return these Roman customs renewed by the Frankish world returned to Rome. In general, Caesaropapism ended up in the Carolingian liturgy. The Frankish king, as early as 762 A.D., on the basis of the common oath of loyalty to the king, even established a mandatory solidarity of prayer in the regnum... Clerics must pray for each other, hence monasteries were seen to draw up lists of other monasteries for which they were to pray; the solidarity of prayer was added to the common respect for Benedictine rule. Here, one sees the concept of 'religious affiliation' emerging in the regnum, another sign of Caesaropapism. There was a Church of the Frankish kingdom. It should also be noted that the tradition of the influence of the Church by the State was, above all, located in the Byzantine tradition and the Frankish caesaropapism was hardly different from Gallicanism, that willingness of Frankish clerics to maintain their particularisms and a form of independence from Rome. There is thus a 'Church of the Frankish kingdom' and not the Church in the Frankish kingdom. Finally, it must be remembered that Charlemagne undertook a vast movement of construction, reconstruction or renovation of cathedral or monastic buildings throughout the kingdom

Secular Clergy

The election of bishops became theoretical, as they were chosen among the clerics of the Court or in the high Aristocracy. Those views eventually led, in 921 A.D., to a form of Carolingian Reichskirche. The Carolingian Church, on the other hand, remained worked by Gallicism, that resistance of some Frankish clerics to too much authority from Rome. The canons were imposed (817) the rule that Chrodegang had created in Metz and played an important role in the choice of bishops. There were a hundred bishoprics in the Frankish regnum, most of which were heirs to Roman civitas, while the metropolitan bishops took over the ancient Roman provinces. The metropolitan bishop had a moral supremacy but, in fact, he merely convened and presided over synods, sometimes called councils. Bishops were one of the bases of the annual meeting of the Franks, to which all the clergy of the regnum was present. In general, an overhaul, a reordering, good management was encouraged. The Capitular of Thionville, in 805 A.D. reminded bishops that they had to be concerned about churches without servants, services or luminaries. It evoked clerics who perceived tithes but did not maintain their churches. In the episcopal city, one found first the cathedral church, the one where the bishop's cathedre is. It was surrounded by a baptistery and useful buildings (for charity, school) as well as the episcopal palace. It was in the cathedral church that the main services, ordinations and episcopal consecrations took place. If the possible size of the city required it, one might have a second place of worship (served by a vicar of the bishop); when there was only the cathedral church, the city constituted only one parish. Clerics of the episcopal diocese lived from the heritage of the Church (own or donated -by the king, the Greats) which, at the time, tended to divide between the part assigned to the bishop and that assigned to the canons and other clerics of the cathedral (the canons, moreover, were installed in a new building, the cloister - in line with the reform of Chrodegang who wants more common life; what spread in the 9th century A.D. -- the reform of Chrodegand, which dated from around 750, really became widespread then -- since the Council of Aix of 816). The Regula Canonicorum of Chrodegang imposed on its canons a claustral discipline even if they kept their personal fortune (if they gave their property to the community, they kept the usufruit); they didn't take a vow of poverty. The 'claustrum' was the home of the canons and their staff (with refectory, dormitory, even personal rooms for clerics authorized by the bishop); the 'domus', apart, was the residence of the bishop. In 816 A.D., the 'Rule of Aachen' authorized each canon to a personal house. From the beginning of the 6th century a trend appeared to the multiplication of parishes in the diocese: previously, a diocese was only one parish, around the cathedral church, but then there was the emergence of autonomous chapels, where the Mass could be celebrated (but the great feasts: Nativity, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and St. John the Baptist and baptisms, etc. kept having to be done at the main parish). These chapels, however, eventually became parishes in their own right and it was these parishes which, in Carolingian times, were in turn dismembered (and the private owners intended to control the appointment of the parish priest): against this tendency the king reacted (already Pippin and Carloman in 742 and 744, then Charlemagne: the bishop had to control those appointments); these new centers, due to the demogaphic boom, wre in turn at the origin of new parishes (in practice, that swarming was, however, hampered by the question of tithing payments; the Herstal capitular of 779 had made it mandatory for priests of recognizes parishes in order to deal with the issue of the 'precaires' created in the time of Charles Martel; the beneficiaries had first to be the parish priests of the official parishes, as they are generally less the object of lay people's donations; the servants of the new parishes as far as they are concerned, did not perceive tithing but must receive it and then hand it over to the priest of the main parish. Thus, the payment of tithing customarily made evolve, between the 9th and 10th centuries A.D., the parishes, some becoming official and benefiting from tithing, others not. Rural parishes could still progress in faith. Reofs of paganism were still present and bears, or sacred trees were the figures of paganism. Those symbols was to be eliminated in large numbers, but if the ancient pagan deities had been easily eradicated, all that was magical or supernatural persisted

Regular Clergy

The administrative role assigned to the secular clergy resulted in that spiritual and missionary activity passing to the regular clergy (to which Charlemagne imposed the Benedictine rule and then the reform of Aniane). Monasteries were somewhat escaping to both Gallicism and Caesaropapism, but the fact that they are integrated into the nascent feudalism often left them in the hands of lay people. Charles's Caesaropathist will also consisted in the intellectual work was of the ressort of monks as monasteries were being placed under the authority of the bishops, to which responsability was the exercise of hierarchy. Around 800 A.D., there were 650 monasteries in the Frankish Empire. It is those monasteries that beared most of the weight of evangelization and the maintenance of peoples in Catholicism and that, for the 2 to 3 centuries that was to follow the year 800. Some abbeys were very ancient and very powerful (royal patronage, Frankish abbots, economic weight, intellectual influence) and some served as a support point for the Frankish progression in newly attached territories (Aquitaine especially, Italy). Were founded at the time: Aniane (by St Benedict of Aniane), Conques (by Louis d'Aquitaine). Monasteries and abbeys, in the lands of evangelization or at borders, had the main role (Prü, Corvey, Fulda). Despite the spread of the Rule of St Benedict, each abbey or monastery often followed its own rule, a mixture of provisions of the Rule of St Benedict and uses of the monastery. The success of the Rule of St Benedict was due to the fact that it corresponded to the Western mentality -- both against the exaggerated asceticism of the Irish and the tendency towards eremitism that continued to strongly mark the East. The Rule of St. Benedict wa made of "balance, spiritual independence and economic wisdom." Benedictine monasticism had thus eliminated the forms of monastic life that were too obviously imported (the rules of Lérins, Cassian, Césaire d'Arles and that of St Colomban). All former monasteries eventually adopted the Rule of St Benedict and the new ones adopted it from the outset. According to the Rule of St Benedict, time was divided into three thirds: common liturgical prayer and private meditation, manual work, intellectual work. The common prayer ensured the rectitude of the faith and was accompanied by the collective singing of the service and the readings of the Bible; the work allowed the development of land gifts from lay men and thus material independence; by reading and copying the manuscripts, the monasteries participated in the Carolingian Renaissance. Some abbeys became prominent, often with the king's support; the great figures of the Carolingian renaissance were all personalities of influential monasteries. Monasteries and abbeys, as well as private owners, created new parishes for the populations of their domains, which also triggered opposition from the bishops. In that conflict, Charlemagne took a appropriate attitude (and not just that applied to the churches of lay owners) because it was difficult to convince a abbot that he did not have jurisdiction to decide who to entrust a church to. And Charlemagne, moreover, saw the risk that a double-hierarchy of the Church develop: that of the bishops and that of the monasteries. One unified thus. Only the bishop controled any place of worship offered to the public; the monks must live only in the cloister. Monastic parishes in Saxony and Bavaria, newly Christianized countries, were simply abolished moreover and all places of worship and their servants were the responsibility of the bishop only. Since Charlemagne by 811 A.D., Benedict of Aniane, with the emperor's assent, wanted to impose the Rule of St. Benedict throughout the Empire; but Charlemagne hesitated because he noted that St Martin was a monk long before St Benedict and asked the clergy to know what rules were followed by the monks before the Rule. The 5 councils of June 813 also remain indecisive: the tendency was that each abbot could decide, that monasteries tended to defend their independence, the principle was agreed upon but that not everyone was ready to adopt it still; they procrastinated, and they did not want a alignment - on which they agreed - that would be imposed. Monasteries, despite the Benedictine Rule, prized their independence much; they yielded only to the general councils. Benedict d'Aniane then began the reform of the sole monasteries in his region, Septimania, and then progressed to the Loire River (at the end of the reign). His effort really generalized the Benedictine Rule because he did not impose, but convinced (it was to be Louis the Pious only, at the Council of Aachen who in 816 A.D., was to decree the rule mandatory, and Charlemagne also made it a obligation for any monastery newly created). But Benedict of Aniane moreover changed the original Rule: in addition to the 3 times, he obliged monks to preach and go on a mission to evangelize the pagans: it was as urgent to convert the Germans or even the campaigns of the regnum as to copy manuscripts. Benedict of Aniane, moreover, in Aquitaine, placed the monasteries directly under the authority of Louis d'Aquitaine, to the detriment of the control by the bishops, favoring their unity. To conclude on that point of the monasteries, it should be noted that the Benedictine unity existed before Charlemagne and that it was a element of the unity of the Frankish world, and in no way a consequence of the work of Benedict of Aniane

Canon Law

The sources of canon law in Carolingian times were clear, but the collections of it were still imperfect. Sources were the Scriptures, the Patristics, the decrees of the popes -- or decretales -- and canons of the councils; Roman law was used as a 'personal law;' ecclesiastical chapters were used in the case of the Carolingian kingdom and customs too. There was not, in general, a single official collection for the Frankish dominions, but private collections for such or such national church. In the Frankish world, they used the Dionysio-Hadriana collection, which dated from 500 A.D., written by Denis the Little and donated by Pope Hadrian to Charlemagne; these were the rules of Rome. The Hispana collection, which came from Spain, contained Spanish, African and Gallic canons. Around 850 A.D., false collections were circulated that aimed to assert the authority of the clerics in the face of secular encroachments and to strengthen the power of bishops. The movement, like that of the false lay capitulars came from either Le Mans or Hincmar de Reims: they constituted the 'False Decretales.' There was a very particular technique that Charlemagne has put in place to engage bishops, clerics and monks to study 'ecclesiastical antiquity' and to use their pen and knowledge: he sent them, in writing, questions about 'history, dogma, discipline;' collections of these questions were created. Most remarkable questions related to baptism and the ceremonies that preceded and accompanied it; the most extensive questions on the subject took place in 811 A.D., in the letter to Odilbert, Bishop of Milan. Those to whom the questions were sent had to answer them (which gave rise to several treaties of the time about baptism). In addition, Charlemagne also asked questions to Alcuin (who also had worked about the baptism ceremonies); Alcuin moreover, also congratulated Charles on this means of written questions, which excited study

The Social Role of Church

Finally, since the Admonitio Generalis of 789 A.D., the Church had to take charge of the hospitality and care of the sick and the traveller. That was done in the form of 'charitable houses,' a practice already existing since previous times, and filled by churches and monasteries. These houses multiplirf along the roads and in the cities (the bishop gave or built the building, the clerics provided the service; the distinction did not exist in the monasteries). The 'hospice' of St. Gallen was typical of what existed in the countryside; in a city, buildings are less important and the poor and the sick prevailed over the travellers and pilgrims (it was then more a matter of healing than of housing; then, near the cathedral, the 'hôtels-dieu' constituted the infirmaries; they also appeared in the monastery, which often existed at the gates of the city); in the cities moreover, for the same purpose, pious foundations were being made by which some lay people fulfilled their obligation of charity, and they gave rise to 'hospitals.' The Church, despite Charlemagne's Caesaropapism, benefitted from certain advantages: tithing (a idea from the Old Testament), immunities, that removed ecclesiastical lordships from the common law, and Church was to be renewed anyway (deposition of debauched clerics, better bishops -- subject to their metropolitans -- who are called archbishops from around 850 A.D. because although Charles had slowed down the creations of new archbishops beyond the four originals (Rouen, Sens, Reims, Mainz), he did not want to, like his predecessors, that intermediate level between him and the bishops. 21 archbishops eventually existed at the end of the reign). Moreover, in response to the heyday of the Carolingian system, the Church was to benefit from its weakness: the synods of bishops were to intervene in turn in public affairs


All that meant that, even if the reluctance of Chrodegang's time had passed and the reforms eventually settled, the Church was not fundamentally renewed under Charlemagne. Faced with resistance, the ruler had to recall the injunctions of reform, it was necessary for priests to to pass ritual and sacraments 'exams.' It was not only necessary to practice the rites but to understand them to explain them to the people (circulated manuals of explanation, one consulted the court or Alcuin). To prevent these burdens would have need to be able to have better priests (which was not the case) or to fight against long lived particularisms (a Lyon rite, a Parisian rite still kept for centuries traits prior to the reformation; or the Ambrosian rite resisted in northern Italy). Moreover, as early as 794 A.D. at the Council of Frankfurt, it was necessary to move on to preaching in the vulgar language: the very simple Latin that was spoken still a century earlier in a part of the Frankish kingdom, was no longer understood and it was no longer enough to read distinctly from the pulpit; that endorsed indeed a practice that actually existed; Frankfurt's encouragement became a obligation to the Council of Tours in 813 (the sermon should be done in Germanic or Romanesque). The Hadrian's Sacramentary was used for 20 years, only by a few bishops and abbots who wanted to please the king... The lack of skills of the Greats, moreover, forced the king to be counseled -- and he is often deceived, like by the Roman clerics concerning Gregorian singing, for example. In Rome, Caesaropapism was to result in the emergence of -several - Frankish clans, which continued until the year 900 A.D. It is possible that this Western caesaropapism was lighter in Rome than the Caesaropapism of the East: Charlemagne wanted a empire in order, administratively and morally; the Emperor of Byzantius imposed on the pope the various schisms of the East and wanted to replace the pope with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Despite all this effort to control the Church and for many reasons, the reform of the clerics was still a question and the disorder resisted: the bishops and abbots continued to want to make a personal fortune, clerics were not obedient to bishops, everyone had concubines; the Bible was hardly read; monks did not respect the Rule of St. Benedict; bishops did not pay enough care for discipline; parents imposed religious vocation on children to get rid of them; free men simulated their vocation to escape the taxman or the ost; the same for the serfs who wanted to earn the status of free man. Previous errors maintained or emerging new problems? Charlemagne in any case, thought that the problems are all due to the fact that the Church meddled in the 'affairs of the century' -- which is contradictory in some respects since the system of vassality installed by Charlemagne included the bishops in the hierarchical, administrative and military structure of the regnum and bishops had to be used because there were not enough competent staff or effective instruction to assist the Counts or find competent staff. In fact, for all that was not war and justice, they often turned to bishops: supply to avoid food shortages, control of weights and measures, organization of markets, health, teaching and, finally, at the time of Viking threats, bishops were even to take over the ost together with the counts!

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 10/26/2019. contact us at
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