August 21, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: The Franks save the Christian West

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

The most important event of the seventh century was the founding of Islam, and its followers’ conquest of the Holy Land and northern Africa. Then at the beginning of the eighth century, Muslims invaded Spain and, by 716, controlled the entire Iberian peninsula. For a while, it looked like the Christian West would fall to Islam.

This was not to be. Charles Martel and his army halted the Arab advance north of the Pyrenees with a great victory at the Battle of Tours, or Poitiers, in 732. The Muslims retreated back to Spain where they established a great civilization.

Charles Martel was king of the Franks, a Germanic tribe that converted to Catholicism after King Clovis did so in 496. Martel formed the Franks into a powerful tribe. After he died in 741, his son, Pepin III (also known as Pepin the Short) forged close ties with the pope. That was fortunate for the pope, who needed help when the Lombards conquered Rome.

In 754, Pope Stephen II traveled across the Alps (the first pope to do so) to meet with Pepin in Aachen, in what is now Germany. Wearing penitential garb, he knelt before Pepin and asked, “for the Apostles’ sake,” to deliver the Roman people from the Lombards. He solemnly anointed Pepin and crowned him King of the Franks and protector of the Holy See. In return, Pepin promised that the land he would take from the Lombards would be given to the pope. Called the Donation of Pepin, these lands would later form part of the Papal States.

Pepin and Pope Stephen marched south and decisively defeated the Lombards. Once the Franks re-crossed the Alps, though, the Lombards attacked Rome again, and the pope again had to ask Pepin to come to his rescue. This time, after Pepin defeated the Lombards, he left a small force behind.

But it was Pepin’s son, Charles the Great or Charlemagne, who exerted the most influence on the Church during this period. He became King of the Franks in 771, the year before the Lombards again moved against Rome. This time, it was Pope Adrian I who asked Charlemagne to come to the rescue. Charlemagne and his army descended on Italy from Aachen and destroyed the Lombard kingdom in 774.

Charlemagne then paid a surprise visit to Rome and met with Pope Adrian. He promised to give the pope approximately three-fourths of Italy as the Papal States. The pontiff took advantage of the peace established by Charlemagne to build, restore or beautify an extraordinary number of churches in Rome.

Charlemagne took as his role models the Old Testament’s Israelite kings. In his “Admonitio Generalis” of 789 (probably written by the scholarly Benedictine monk Alcuin), he compared himself to Josiah, who reformed the religious worship of Israel.

Charlemagne envisioned a society based on religious worship, with the Christian clergy advising the Frankish kings (later known as Carolingian kings) like Old Testament prophets. He had Alcuin organize a palace school that became a center of intellectual leadership, with many of the students later becoming bishops and abbots.

I’ll write more about Charlemagne next week. †

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