Answering Our Dilemma: The Carolingians

If there are two words that could sum up the relationship between the Carolingians and the state, they are “power struggle.” The first confusing situation the church and state found themselves in was Charles Martel and Pope Gregory II. Pope Gregory II needed protection, and Charles Martel went to him and gave him security.[1] However, the empire became too aggressive in its relationship with the church. The state began to dictate doctrine to the church. This overstep led Gregory II to write a scathing letter to the empire, threatening them with a peasant and clerical rebellion if they dared to dictate doctrine to them.[2] The state recognized doctrine as the church’s responsibility and not their responsibility.[3] However, lest the church think it had power independent of the state, they were constantly reminded that the state had significant influence over the bishops by supplying “intellectual and financial resources” to improve their work.[4] This led to the second complicated situation the church and state stumbled into. Popes “conferred” imperial titles on the king.[5] Pepin III of the Merovingian empire sought to secure the Frankish crown and asked Pope Gregory II for it.[6] He sent messengers to the church to inquire about it.[7] Pepin managed to secure his permission and was crowned for the first time by “ecclesiastical law and papal sanction” in a ceremony loaded with religious imagery.[8]

This integration created a mess for Charlemagne—the final perplexing situation. Charlemagne flourished around 742 to 814 AD. His early life is lackluster in detail. However, according to his contemporary biographer, this lack of detail does not matter because his actions and character as emperor revealed all that needed known.[9] For most of his reign, Charlemagne consolidated his imperial power through many wars and battles against nations.[10] After a career of hawkishness, Charlemagne settled down and began to network with surrounding kings and kingdoms who legitimized his kingdom and reign.[11] However, the peace Charlemagne achieved did not last long. Pope Leo’s subjects in Rome persecuted him to the point that he called upon Charlemagne for protection and help.[12] When Charlemagne arrived on the scene, he accomplished what Pope Leo could never do—establishing structure and unity for the church.[13] After the long winter spent bringing peace to the church in Rome, he received the title “augustus” to add to his current title “emperor.”[14] This attribution meant that not only did Charlemagne have control over kings and kingdoms, he had authority over the papacy, too. With this newfound authority, Charlemagne could continue making reforms to the church, further unifying it in its structure and practice.[15] While Charlemagne did protect Pope Leo, his interests did not lie in securing special titles and privileges as evident in his coronation.

On Monday, December 25, 800 AD, the pope surprised him with a coronation.[16] In response, Charlemagne chose to not acknowledge the title and new responsibilities thrust upon him.[17] By Charlemagne’s indifference to the coronations significance, the papacy lost the last bit of power they had over the kingdom.[18] He did take his role seriously as protector of the church and kingdom,[19] but seemed to prefer an administration that could handle these responsibilities for him.[20] His primary responsibility was to secure protection of his subjects so all could benefit from his rule.[21] He took a cue from his predecessors and did not dictate doctrine to the church, but would encourage general practices they should adhere to.[22] Charlemagne’s death dashed the priests’ hopes for a stable peace, solidifying a long and confusing relationship between the church and state.[23] The kingdom fell apart through external attacks, which inhibited the church from performing its necessary works; the priests preferred the government to secure their peace.[24] The Carolingians attempted to regain control over the fracturing kingdom, and many priests provided moral support in this endeavor.[25] However, many priests turned to their communities and ignored what happened around their parishes.[26]

The main concern of the church and state relationship during the Carolingian period was how they would relate to each other—what were their places in society?[27] This main question revolved around where the locus of power lied: should the state run the church or not and vice versa?[28] The church had bifurcated the church-state relationship, resulting in power in both the church and state.[29] The state did not have the right to dictate to the church its doctrine and practice whereas the church did not have the right to dictate to the state. However, the state sought to integrate this relationship, governing the church under one sphere of authority.[30] As a result, the citizens were caught in the middle: they had responsibility to both the church and state and were unable to reconcile this relationship.[31]


  1. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 174.
  2. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 174.
  3. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 186.
  4. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 186.
  5. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 180.
  6. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 174.
  7. Volz, The Medieval Church, 53.
  8. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 195; Volz, The Medieval Church, 55.
  9. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1960), 27.
  10. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 24.
  11. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 42.
  12. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 56.
  13. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 56.
  14. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 56–57.
  15. Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 57.
  16. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 181.
  17. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 181.
  18. Volz, The Medieval Church, 55.
  19. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 178.
  20. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 191.
  21. Karl Frederick Morrison, The Two Kingdoms: Ecclesiology in Carolingian Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964), 53.
  22. Timothy R. LeCroy, trans., “Admonitio generalis,” March 23, 789. For example, lines 1, 6, 8, 11, 61, 71, etc.
  23. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 194.
  24. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 194.
  25. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 194.
  26. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 194.
  27. Morrison, The Two Kingdoms, 3.
  28. Morrison, The Two Kingdoms, 3.
  29. Morrison, The Two Kingdoms, 4.
  30. Morrison, The Two Kingdoms, 4.
  31. Morrison, The Two Kingdoms, 4.

This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy in Ancient & Medieval Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.