Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember the man credited with reviving both state and church in the Middle Ages: Charlemagne.

It is the 2nd of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Today, we remember one of the most significant people in the history of the Western world and the church. In fact, he is one of those rare people to be given the appellation “the great,” but you might not recognize that as “Charles the Great,” born on this 2nd of April in perhaps 747, is better known by the Latin version of Charles the Great—Carolus Magnus or better yet: Charlemagne.

When it comes to the relationship between the church and state, it is only Constantine the Great who had more of an effect on the relationship between the two.

So, let’s head back to the early Middle Ages to get a look at the terrain and see what Charlemagne did that would have ramifications for centuries to come.

By the 500s, Rome is dead. The so-called “barbarians” had overthrown the once mighty empire, and Europe became a disparate collection of tribes and peoples. The church continued to be influential on account of missionaries sent out amongst these people, but conversions tended to be “top-down” and ordered by local rulers who themselves converted. One such was King Clovis of the Franks, whose Merovingian dynasty would spend 200 years as the dominant power in Western Europe.

However, as his successors wielded less and less power, a new concern arose regarding the birth and spread of Islam. By 750, the spread of the Caliphate had reached modern Iran and the Middle East, through North Africa, and up into Spain and the Pyrenees on the modern French border. A series of weak Popes and the threat of the Lombards led the Pope to seek political power and aid from the Merovingians, beginning an interdependency that would prove significant.

Charlemagne’s father, Pippin the Short, acted as the mayor of the Merovingian Palace and usurped the crown by promising to protect Pope Stephen II. With papal blessing, the title came to young Charles, who would oversee one of the most remarkable rebirths in both secular and sacred endeavors. It has come to be known as the “Carolingian Renaissance.”

First, using military power, the Frankish kingdom subdued its neighbors from the English Channel to near the modern Austrian border and into central Italy (with the Papal States carved out) up to the modern German border with Denmark.

To unify the disparate peoples he used his war chest to dole out gifts, privileges, and land- non less important than those given to bishops and ecclesiastical leaders.

Through his friend and confidant Alcuin- an Anglo poet and scholar, he set up a royal Scriptorium to collect texts and encourage the building of these in conjunction with others in other cities. These interconnected libraries would encourage the collection and translation of texts and a codification of both Latin and a common script (scripts had become so embellished and varied it became difficult to read- the Carolingian Minuscule would become the ancestor of today’s Times New Roman- what I’m reading right now). Churches established cathedral schools to train priests and scholars. Not only would theology and law be taught, but the so-called 7 Liberal Arts would be taught by way of the Trivium and Quadrivium- this would lay the foundation of the modern university.

He was hailed as, among other things, a “New Constantine”, a “New David”, the head of a “New Israel” and eventually the “Father of Europe”. But it was in the year 800 that he received his most significant title- on Christmas Day of that year he was crowned by Pope Leo III “Emperor of the Romans” a title harkening to past glory and giving birth to the new “Holy Roman Empire” that would last until the time of Napoleon.

As with Constantine and the actual Roman Empire this forged a unified church and state with all of its benefits: authority, security, unified culture and theology- to some extent and everything deleterious about that relationship from war in Gods name, conversion by force, unbiblical hierarchies, and a cultural supremacy often at odds with a church called to humility and service.

So, it’s a mixed bag, but the church of the Latin West would never be the same- with rebirth, we also see the seeds of its eventual demise, but such is the cyclical nature of temporal power and authority. Charlemagne would die in 814, leaving bickering heirs who would eventually divide the Empire, but the foundation had been laid- this father of a “new Israel” had cast the die. Born on this day, likely in 747, Charlemagne would have been 67 years old.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, more Eastertide goodness from 1 Corinthians 15:

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”


“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who shuns Times New Roman and writes all his sermons in Comic Sans- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by who refuses to read any text typed in a font designed to look like handwriting- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.

More From 1517