The Empire That Never Was

In 732 AD, Charles “The Hammer” Martel, military and political leader of the Franks during the Merovingian dynasty, attacked and routed an invading Moorish army at Tours, bringing to an abrupt end decades of incursion by Islamic invaders.

The Muslim invasion about which, even during the lifetime of Mohammed (571-632), no one had foreseen nor even prepared for, had struck the universe with the natural force of a cosmic cataclysm. It did not require more than fifty years to spread its force from the China Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing could resist its impact. On the first stroke, it toppled the Persian Empire (637-644); successively, it took away from the Byzantine Empire, Syria (634-636), Egypt ((640-42), Africa (698), Spain, (711), and then Corsica, Sardaignia, the Balearic Islands, Apulie and Calabria. Its invading march  only ceased at the beginning of the 8th century when, on the one hand, the walls of Constantinople (718), and on the other hand the soldiers of Charles Martel (732), were to break its great enveloping offensive against the flank of Christianity. Then it stopped. Its force of expansion was exhausted, but it was enough to change the face of the earth. This sudden Islamic push was sufficient to destroy the Old Europe. It was the end of the mediterranean community that had come out of the Roman Empire. (Mahomet et Charlemagne, Henri Pirenne,  Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, Extraits, Editions Robert Sand, Bruxelles, 1922. p. 85)


Future historians will hotly debate this phase of Islamic influence on the West, and often refer to these military struggles as prima facie evidence of the malign and colonialist intentions of the Mohammedans, but as we will explore in this article, this is a very long way from the whole truth of the underlying relationship between these two branches of the Abrahamic faith.

For by 800 AD, his great grandson, Charles the Great, Charlemagne, will preside over a revolutionary ecumenical alliance between Western Christendom and the Islamic world, even as he personally launches the Carolingian Renaissance and the attendant explosion of literacy, numeracy and educational potential amongst the common people throughout his Kingdom and beyond, under the direct tutelage and guidance of the Augustinian monastic movement which had taken root in Ireland in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Such an alliance was not an accident of history or some strange aberration, as argued by chauvinist neoconservative thinkers today, but a deeper strategic expression of historical and cultural forces that in times of great peril to civilization, have united against a common enemy, to defend humanity from the forces that have persistently and continually used the most advanced and pernicious weapons of subterfuge, deception and corruption, to foment strife and war amongst people of all religious denominations, to further their own selfish and Machiavellian goals of Empire building.

But what of those who, in addition to the stubbornly illiterate claims that Islam is by its inherent nature an implacable enemy of “The West”, accuse Charlemagne of forging a “Holy Roman Empire”, and ergo, of resurrecting the old, dead Pagan pantheonic gods to do battle with Christianity? Well, such claims are easily refuted by direct reference to the circumstances by which they arose in history. On Christmas Day in 800 AD, as he entered the Cathedral for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth, Charlemagne had no inclination that Pope Leo III intended to declare him “Holy Roman Emperor”. Indeed, as documented by Einhard, his official biographer, “He made it clear that he would not have entered the Cathedral at all, although it was the greatest of all festivals of the Church, if he had known what the Pope was planning to do”.

Since the restoration of a Roman Emperor would have meant an endorsement of the Papal Ultramontane policy in the disguised form of a revival of the titles of Augustus, Constantine, and Justinian, Charlemagne wanted none of it. Furthermore, he refused to be called “Roman Emperor” because this would have created unnecessary conflicts with the Byzantine Emperors. Objectively speaking, with his implacable resistance to unwanted Papal interference in the political affairs of the Frankish state, it could be said that Charlemagne was simply following the proud tradition of his great grandfather, who, to his great credit and historical honour, had refused an offer of the title of Consul by Pope Gregory III in 739 AD.

Despite outwardly trivial appearances, what was at issue here was no simple dispute over state pomp and ceremonial titles, but a harbinger of a schism between two factions of the Western Church: on the one side the emerging Ultramontane power of the Venetian financed Imperial Roman Vatican and its Benedictine monastic system, versus on the other the Anglo-Irish Augustinian order, which, while nominally loyal to Rome, was more closely allied with national monarchs, such as Charlemagne, in a struggle to found nation states, based on the Christian principle of the general welfare (Agape) with the intention of uplifting humanity from the bestial conditions of life during the dark ages before the “official” rebirth of Europe in the great Florentine Renaissance.

But to substantiate our evidence of this internal schism, we must first return to the story of the Irish monastic movement, and of their influence within the court of Charlemagne, in the personage of one of the greatest and most learned men of his era, an English monk by the name of Alcuin.

Alcuin the Wise

Alcuin was born in Northumbria circa 735 AD. While very little is known about his familial lineage, the Vita Alcuini asserts that Alcuin was ‘of noble English stock’, and this is generally accepted by scholars. As a young man, he travelled to York Cathedral, where he thrived under the tutelage of Archbishop Ecgbert, brother of King Eadberht, who had been a devoted student of the Venerable Bede. It was in this period that Alcuin developed his love of classical poetry, and the liberal arts, which would later serve as the basis for the curriculum at the school he was to found at the Frankish court.

In 781 AD he is dispatched to Rome by King Elfwald, to petition for confirmation of York’s status as an archbishopric. It is on his journey home from this mission that he will once again meet Charlemagne, in the Italian city of Parma. Charlemagne is so impressed with Alcuin’s intellect and demeanour that he presses him to join him at court in Aachen, which after much deliberation he reluctantly agrees to, arriving at the Palace School of Charlemagne in 782 AD.

Alcuin finds himself amongst illustrious and stimulating company, surrounded by the top intellectuals of the day. He is appointed director of the Palatine School, from which vantage point he institutes an educational revolution, first instructing the King and his three Sons, and later the entire court in theology, philosophy, astronomy and dialectics. The reforms which he instituted were so important that to this day, on January 28th, the anniversary of his death, all of the French Lycees and schools celebrate Saint-Charlemagne day to honour their best students.

Having established his school and set into motion the educational system that will revolutionise the Frankish world, Alcuin returns to England in 790 AD, on a mission to intervene in the degenerating state of the Northumbrian Kingdom under Aethelred, who had just returned to the throne after a coup against King Osred. A power struggle ensues, with Osred attempting to regain the throne, but he is defeated, captured and killed in September 792 AD. The following year, in the midst of this chaos and upheaval in England, Lindisfarne is attacked and destroyed by Viking raiders. Horrified by these calamitous events, Alcuin returns to Aachen, and writes a series of letters to Aethelred, rebuking his sins and misrule as being responsible for the calamity.  His Poem, De clade Lindisfarnensis monasterii, remains the only significant contemporary account of the event, wherein he laments:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain. Behold the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of God’s priests, robbed of its ornaments.

In the years that followed, Alcuin is despatched by Charlemagne to intervene on behalf of Orthodox belief, against the Arian heretics, which had resurfaced in the form of Adoptionism, which was making great inroads in Toledo and across the Frankish Kingdom. At the centre of the dispute was the issue of the Filioque, from which stemmed divergent interpretations of the Trinity. The Orthodox faith said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” as it was stated it in the First Council of Constantinople of 381. On the other hand, Charlemagne, following the Augustinian conception of Alcuin, proclaimed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, thus, the Latin Creed stated: “ex Patre Filioque procedit”.

[Note: Such disputes presented fertile political fodder for the Venetian oligarchs to provoke dissention and war between different factions of the Christian faith, and most emphatically, between the Western Catholic Church of Rome and the Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople. As such, where rapprochement between opposing factions proved impossible, decisive action to eradicate erroneous theological interpretations was of paramount importance to those whose interest lay in peace, order and economic progress for the people.]

Confronting the dispute head on, Alcuin writes a series of letters attacking the Adoptionist heresy. His efforts, while initially fruitless, begin to make an impact when he is given the opportunity to counter and decisively defeat the Bishop of Urgel, his chief opponent in the controversy, at the Council of Frankfort in 794 AD. Following this, his writings and argumentation on the subject are used by a specially established commission to attack and roll back the spreading heresy in Spain. As reward for his endeavours, Alcuin is awarded the honour of Abbot of Tours in 796 AD, to where he is dispatched with the instruction to discipline and train the monks according to his rigorous curriculum, with a special emphasis on his refutations of the Adoptionist heresy. It is surmised, with good reason, that during this time he also assisted Charles in writing protests to the Papacy on the practice of image worship which was rife within the Catholic Church.

Reposing at Tours and increasingly anxious to divest himself of involvement in the secular affairs of state life, Alcuin devotes his final years to administering to the monastic possessions, and exercising his eloquent pen on behalf of those requesting aid in the continuing struggles with the Adoptionists. He finally passes away on May 19th 804 AD, leaving behind a robust Augustinian theological foundation upon which the spiritual life of the Frankish Kingdom will rest, as his legacy and living embodiment of the great work which St Patrick and the Irish monastic movement had started centuries before.

The Carolingian Renaissance

The Carolingian Empire, which as we have shown was almost entirely educated by Alcuin and his monastic movement, was contemporaneous with the Islamic Renaissance. The movement had created a Christian alternative to the pagan Roman Empire dark ages of the Middle Ages which signified the beginning of the end for the aristocratic feudal system which had arisen in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse. Contrary to some historical accounts of the period, it was not the creation of town-like bourgs which explain the advent of the Carolingian Renaissance, but the creation of hundreds of Monasteries outside of Ireland that became, in France, Germany, and Italy, the equivalent of “city-centres” for the development of culture and commerce. Each “city” was a typical partly-circular, partly rectangular Irish Monastery. These were, in reality, the equivalent of town-centres surrounded by enclosed walls, and which represented the monastic “cities” of the Carolingian Renaissance.

The Benedictine synods of Aachen, in 816, had called for a single and unified binding code in order to replace the multitude of monastic rules that prevailed for centuries all over Europe. The new monastic code, oriented toward teaching lay people, was the centrepiece of these monastic “cities”, which included the redesigning of new monasteries and churches, and simultaneously created new working quarters for craftsmen and artists of all qualification. One of the most remarkable features of this Carolingian Renaissance was the art work done by the copying of ancient manuscripts and the introduction of the lower case.

After the synods, Alcuin established a plan for such monasteries which had been dubbed the St Gall Plan. The new architecture called for constructing a church, industrial buildings, iron works, manuscript making, textile, study areas, farm equipment construction and repair, and large domestic and residential quarters for up to 4,000 monks and workers, all of this to be contained within a walled enclosure. This plan was not merely aimed at building monasteries, but also a few Charlemagne palaces as the one planned for Ingelheim. Hundreds of new gothic styled churches were built, and among them, the Cathedral of Cologne, which was completely reconstructed on the site of an old Merovingian church. The Cologne Cathedral became the true exemplar of the Carolingian Renaissance.

As can be seen in the Plan for the Palace of Charlemagne, the complex of Ingleheim represented a quasi-urban community centre based on a mixture of education and work. Indeed, the different Carolingian palace-complexes in Aachen, Ingleheim, and in Nijmegen, which also served as universities and administrative centres for the Empire, were built in the same spirit and with the same functional purpose as were the monastic “cities”. Reflecting the microcosmic idea of the Augustinian City of God, these Monastic “cities” radiated throughout France and Germany for almost a century before they were destroyed by the civil war which erupted after Charlemagne died.

Charlemagne had also proposed extensive construction projects “aimed at making his kingdom more attractive and at increasing public utility”, as part of his education program. He built bridges over the Rhine River, schools, new monasteries and churches, as well as an extensive fleet to ward off unfriendly Northmen in the North Sea. Thus, the historical transformation of the Carolingian Empire by the Irish-Augustinian Monastery Movement represented the germination of a profound axiomatic change in the body and soul of European Civilization, which later culminated in the Brotherhood of the Common Life, the Augustinian Jeanne d’Arc project, the Renaissance of Nicholas of Cusa’s Council of Florence, the birth of France under Louis XI, and the establishment of the English commonwealth under Henry VII.

The Western Alliance

But the tectonic political and economic revolution which Charlemagne unleashed in Europe did not occur in a vacuum , or by the inspiration of Christianity alone, but through an ecumenical alliance with the Islamic revolution of Harun Al Rachid, under the Baghdad Caliphate. The seeds of this alliance were planted in 765, when Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, sent an ambassador to Baghdad. Three years later, he received an Arab ambassador from Spain into Aquitaine. Following this example, Charlemagne maintained a close diplomatic, military and strategic dialogue with Baghdad, by means of the exchange of his own most trusted ambassadors, throughout his reign.

In 797, Charlemagne sent his Jewish delegation bearing gifts to Harun al-Rachid, among which were beautiful wool woven garments from Flanders, and his best German hunting dogs, which were highly prized. This first mission lasted three years, after which Haroun al-Rachid sent his own ambassador to Charlemagne, the governor of Egypt, Ibrahim Ibn al-Aghlab. The scene of the meeting between the Jewish Ambassador and Harun al-Rachid, was reported Einhard as follows:

With Harun al-Rachid, King of the Persians, who held almost the whole of the East in fee, always excepting India, Charlemagne was on such friendly terms that Harun valued his good will more than the approval of all the other kings and princes in the entire world, and considered that he alone was worthy of being honoured and propitiated with gifts. When Charlemagne’s messengers, who he had sent with offerings to the most Holy Sepulchre of our Lord and Saviour and to the place of His resurrection, came to Harun and told him of their master’s intention, he not only granted all that he was asked but even went so far as to agree that this sacred scene of our redemption should be placed under Charlemagne’s own jurisdiction.

And so it happened that for the sake of peace and universal concord, the Holy Land was ceded to Christendom and held in thrall for Charlemagne by Harun Al Rachid, who, although representing by far the superior military and economic power of the two Empires, understood that Charlemagne did not command sufficient military forces to control the region without his direct support. This remarkable historical development lies in stark contrast to the events that followed in the centuries after the decline of the Carolingian dynasty, with the Norman crusaders invading and taking by force that which had been yielded without war by effective diplomacy, in a true harmony of interest for the greater glory of both.

Later, in 802, Charlemagne sent a second embassy which lasted until 806. One year later, when Charlemagne’s last embassy had arrived in Baghdad, Harun al-Rachid had just died, which ended the crucial strategic relationship between the two empires. In 812, Charlemagne signed a peace treaty with El-Hakem of Spain, but the Spanish Islamic ruler never understood the elephantine relationship Charlemagne had with Harun al-Rachid. Indeed, Charles and Harun had been such good personal friends that when, after becoming Emperor, Charlemagne had jokingly asked that Harun send him an elephant, Harun sent him the only elephant that he had, and which became the famous “white elephant” by the name of  Abu’l-Abbas.

Reflecting on the significance of this incredible Islamic expansion of about 160 years, it will confound many, and perhaps infuriate some people to admit that Western Civilization in fact has much to be thankful for with this initiative on the part of Islam. It is arguable that Western Civilization would have folded completely under the dead weight of the Roman Empire if it had not been for the intervention of the Muslim world into Europe. On a deeper level, the alliance between Islam and the Carolingian Empire had, with the support of the diligent work of Islamic scholars, restored a humanist culture of the Classical Greeks as the most advanced form of civilization in the world as a whole. To emphasize this fact, we quote the famous Belgian anti-Nazi dissident historian, Henri Pirenne, who stated that:

without Islam, the Frank Empire would probably have never existed, and Charlemagne, without Mohammed, would be inconceivable.

The Merchants of Venice

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the swamp denizens of the Adriatic coast, a motley collection of ancient pagan noble families who had escaped the collapse of Rome and retreated to a defensible position in the Venetian Lagoon, were less than enthusiastic about the rising power of the Carolingian Empire and the threat this represented to their interests. Smarting at the ejection from Ravenna that they suffered at the hands of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, in 754 AD, the Venetians reacted by adopting a policy of unbridled usury, slavery and manipulated religious and civil warfare.

Knowing that the Venetians would attempt to undermine his Empire after his death, Charlemagne had split his domain in the most equitable manner possible between his three sons. However, this attempt to maintain peace failed. Two generations after the death of Charlemagne, his Empire was dismembered, and the path wide open for the Venetian horrors that were to come, but we will return to tell the story of the rise of Venice from the ashes of the Carolingian Empire in Part 4.