In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Carolingian Era

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  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
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Medieval Studies Carolingian Era
Thomas F.X. Noble
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0012


The almost mythical character of Charlemagne (b. 748–d. 814)—Carlo Magno, Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse—has ensured that his age and dynasty would always receive attention. Charlemagne’s courtier, Einhard (b. c. 770– d. 840) prepared in about 828 The Life of Emperor Charles, one of the most successful medieval biographies. During Charlemagne’s reign—as king from 768 to 800 and as emperor from 800 to 814—writers began to explore the genealogy of the Carolingian (from Carolus) family, tracing it back to an alliance between the powerful families of Arnulf of Metz (d. c. 640) and Pippin I (d. 640). In older scholarship the family is sometimes called Arnulfing or Pippinid. The family rose to power as mayors of the palace, sort of prime ministers, to the Merovingian kings of the Franks. Pippin II decisively defeated his rivals in 687 at Tertry and consolidated power until his death in 714. His son, Charles Martel, overcame opposition and ruled as mayor until 741, sometime without a king on the throne. Charles’s sons, Pippin III and Carloman, shared the mayoral office until Carloman retired to a monastery in 747. In 751 Pippin III became king of the Franks and reigned until 768. His kingdom was divided between two sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, but the latter died in 771. Charlemagne was succeeded by only one legitimate son, Louis the Pious, who reigned until 840. Louis’s three surviving sons, Lothair (d. 855), Louis the German (d. 876), and Charles the Bald (d. 877) divided the Carolingian realm at Verdun in 843, and they and their heirs divided it again on several subsequent occasions. The east Frankish Carolingians died out in 911 and the West Frankish branch of the family alternated with the Robertian family, formerly counts of Paris, after 888. In 987 the last living Carolingians were bypassed, and Hugh Capet, a Robertian, ascended the throne that his descendants would hold until 1328.

General Overviews

To some historians the Carolingian era marks the end of late Antiquity, the final resolution of Rome’s centuries-long transformation (Folz, et al. 1972, Schneider 1995). To others, the era is the first Europe, the beginning of the Middle Ages (Ehlers 2004, Fried 1991, Schulze 1987). Others still see it as a distinctive period that was transitional between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (McKitterick 1995, Mühlbacher 1959, Schieffer 2000). Hence one might cite overviews treating the 8th and 9th centuries or the entire period ranging from about 600 to 1000. Scholarship has continually revolved around basic themes such as centralization versus regionalism, the effectiveness of royal/imperial institutions, social structures, the reform of the church, economic life, and intellectual life. The volumes gathered here are broad in approach and contents. Studies that address specific aspects of the Carolingian era will be found below under separate categories.

  • Ehlers, Joachim. Das westliche Europa. Munich: Siedler, 2004.

    Essentially a political narrative, this book sees the Carolingian era as foundational for the states of western Europe.

  • Folz, Robert, André Guillou, Lucien Musset, and Dominique Sourdel. De l’antiquité au monde medieval. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972.

    Largely a political narrative this readable volume attaches the Carolingian era to late Antiquity.

  • Fried, Johannes. Die Formierung Europas 840–1046. Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte 6. Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1991.

    Rigorous, thematic, and historiographical, this work sees the Carolingian era as preparatory to Europe.

  • McKitterick, Rosamond. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    The chapters by Paul Fouracre, Janet Nelson, and Johannes Fried constitute a connected narrative; the other chapters take up themes.

  • Mühlbacher, Engelbert. Deutsche Geschichte unter den Karolingern. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1959.

    Remains unsurpassed as a narrative political history.

  • Schieffer, Rudolf. Die Karolingern. 3d ed. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2000.

    An excellent brief narrative history by a master historian.

  • Schneider, Reinhard. Das Frankenreich. 3d ed. Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte 5. Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1995.

    Like Fried 1972, which is part of the same series, this volume is rigorous, thematic, and historiographical. The “kingdom of the Franks” in the title encompasses the Merovingians and the Carolingians.

  • Schulze, Hans K. Vom Reich der Franken zum Land der Deutschen. Berlin: Siedler, 1987.

    Readable and comprehensive this volume situates the Carolingians within a broad historical sweep.

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