CHAPTER 15.—CHARLEMAGNE TURNS ON THE LIGHTS.
For two centuries Europe stumbled about in the darkness. Men (a word Dr. Boli has chosen with particular care) have generally fallen into two broad classes throughout history: those who believe it is a noble work to build up civilization, and those who believe it is a nobler work to tear civilization down. In ordinary times, the two classes are just about evenly divided; but the Dark Ages were characterized not just by an inability to maintain civilization, but by an active passion for tearing it down that extended to almost every class. The inveterate duplicity of the government in Constantinople made the barbarians see civilization itself as equivalent to vice, and barbarism per se as virtue. On the other hand, the Christian Church, which kept little sparks of civilization alive, was not at all eager to fan them into flames. The memory of the notorious immorality of civilized Rome, where murder was a spectator sport and adultery the favorite parlor game, made any attempt at bringing back the luxuries of the old days suspect at best. The baths, for example, were never restored after the Goths cut the aqueducts, partly because the Romans never had the leisure or the funds to restore them, but more because the Christian leaders, who were really the only leaders left in Rome, were dead set against bathing. The prostitution and vice that had surrounded the public baths had made cleanliness itself an unforgivable sin in the eyes of most Christian thinkers.
Every line of thought converged on the same point. In every way, civilization had made itself to stink among the peoples. The clean and polite man must be in league with the devil; the ideal man of the Dark Ages was grubby, smelly, and violent.
Violence the Dark Ages had in abundance. If the only legitimate occupation for the ruling class is war, then peace must be an intolerable burden, and any excuse for avoiding it must be taken up at once. Nevertheless, there were among the Christian leaders those who longed for a restoration of civilization—perhaps purified of such gross vices as cleanliness, but still something recognizable as civilization.
Fortunately, no matter how thoroughly barbarized the world had become, civilization still had one weapon which only it could wield with any measure of effectiveness: viz., the weapon of deviousness.
Most of what people believe most vigorously and sincerely is fictional, and only a true adept in the mysteries of civilization knows how to manipulate those fictions to his advantage. It was, for example, a recognized and unquestioned fact that, just as the government of the Church depended on the Bishop of Rome, so the secular government all hung from the Roman Emperor, its living and theoretical embodiment. This was clearly a fiction, since the emperors in Constantinople had about as much influence in western Europe as they had on the moon; but because it was clearly false, the doctrine was maintained with tenacious earnestness even in the darkest corners of western Europe.
If only this inextinguishable ideal of universal dominion could be joined to the practical and efficient violence of one of the more ruthless barbarian princes, the resulting combination could rule the world. Then the power behind the throne, the truly civilized being who had arranged it all in the first place, could force civilization down people’s throats whether they liked it or not.
In the late 700s came the opportunity that the devious forces of civilization had been waiting to seize. Charles, the new king of the Franks, had used a judicious combination of valor, policy, and bullying to accumulate a larger share of western Europe than had been united under one head since the time of Honorius. Not only that, but he had actually gone on the record as being in favor of learning and culture. He wasn’t all that good at this reading and writing stuff himself, but he liked to watch other people do it.
At the same time, things were not going so well in what was left of the Eastern Empire. Fanatical “iconoclasts,” or image-smashers, had taken over the government, bent on destroying every work of religious art that came to their notice, especially if ordinary people loved it. We may take it as a general rule: anyone who believes that God demands the destruction of art will end by murdering people as well. There is but one step from the image of the image of God to the image of God.
Iconoclasm was bad enough, but it was infinitely worse from the Western point of view when the imperial throne was seized by a woman, of all things. Irene, whose name means “peace,” had blinded her own son to keep herself on the throne; but that was, after all, only politics as usual in Constantinople, and could probably have been forgiven easily enough in the West. But a woman on the imperial throne! It was simply unimaginable. It did not compute. As far as the West was concerned, the throne of the Empire was vacant. It made no difference that Irene had tossed out the iconoclasts and restored the remaining images to the churches and monasteries; women could not be emperors.
Here we must pause for a moment and contemplate what history might have been if one little detail had changed, for we have come to one of those rare junctions in history where everything might have turned out very differently with only the slightest push in one direction. Very serious efforts were made to bring Charles and Irene together in marriage—efforts that very nearly succeeded. The old Roman Empire was within months of a personal union with the new empire in the West. What might the world have been if Charles and Irene had ruled jointly over Rome and Constantinople? Could this restored European colossus have brought the Renaissance five or six centuries closer? Would the Greek learning still preserved at Constantinople have permeated western Europe again, as it did when Rome first conquered Greece? Would our technology today be half a millennium more advanced, so that we would finally have the flying cars we keep dreaming about? These are the questions no historian can keep himself from asking; but he cannot answer them without making such a long detour into certain peculiar subgenres of science fiction that the thread of his narrative would be lost entirely. If there are any science-fiction writers who would like to take up the story of the Roman Empire as revived by Charles and Irene, Dr. Boli wishes them well. He will confine himself to the tale of what actually happened, which was that the arrangements for the marriage came to nothing.
We can imagine how disappointed the fans of civilization must have been. One of those disappointed fans was Pope Leo III, who had been chased out of Rome in one of those frequent brawls the popes used to get into, but whom Charles had restored to the papal throne. Leo, unlike the other disappointed fans, was in a position to do something about his disappointment. He decided to give his friend Charles a nice Christmas present.
And so, on Christmas Day in the year 800, while Charles was in church kneeling at the altar, Leo sneaked up behind him, dropped a crown on his head, and proclaimed him Emperor of the Romans.
At least that was how Charles and Leo always told the story, although some historians, pointing out that the battle-hardened Charles was not the sort of man you could sneak up on from behind and live, suspect that Charles may have been in on the gag.
It would be hard to imagine a better move on the part of the forces of civilization. Charles was already encouraging art and literature, and now that he was Roman Emperor, he went at it full tilt. If he had anything to say about it, the glories of vanished Roman culture would live again. This was a tall order, to be sure, but Charles came nearer to accomplishing it than anyone had a right to expect.
How did the semi-illiterate chief of a gang of barbarian warlords bring classical culture back from the grave? Historians give us any number of theories to explain his success, but the real secret was in the inventive mind of Charles himself. Seeing that the task he set before himself was one that required a great deal of expertise, Charles thought the problem through and invented the consultant.
This was actually Charles‘ greatest management innovation, so it is a great pity that he is not given more general credit for it. Other despots had amused themselves by keeping pet philosophers, but the idea of assembling a team of qualified experts to advise the government and actually taking their advice was entirely new. No one had ever tried it before. No one has ever tried it since, either.
Heading the team of all-star consultants was an English monk named Alcuin, widely regarded as the smartest man in Europe. With Alcuin’s help, Charles put his whole empire through a crash course in literacy. Charles made it clear that he expected his nobles to be able to read and write if they wanted to get anywhere in government service. This was, frankly, not the most popular idea among the nobles. If you try to imagine how a Marine drill sergeant might react to orders from the Pentagon that he must take ballet lessons every Tuesday and Thursday, you probably have a fair idea of how the Frankish nobility reacted to the new literacy requirements. They could not understand why Charles, who could personally beat the stuffings out of any of them, was suddenly going in for all this sissy stuff. But they fell in line, because Charles could personally beat the stuffings out of any of them.
Charles’ team of expert consultants did their very best to create a sophisticated atmosphere at court, full of witty banter and clever retorts. It was, of course, absolutely essential that the Emperor should be the wittiest of them all, so the consultants spent much of their time devising elaborate setups so that Charles could not fail to deliver a zinger of a punch line. One of them might come running into the imperial presence and announce with breathless drama, “The Saxons are revolting!” Or they might propose a philosophical debate:—“Quaeritur: Whether the reason for the chicken’s crossing of the road can ever be determined with certainty.” Charles would think for a moment, and then his eyes would light up and he would deliver the punch line with tremendous enthusiasm, and everyone would laugh until tears poured down their cheeks.
All good things come to an end, however, and the reign of Charles the Great could last only as long as Charles himself was alive. On his death, the empire, following Frankish custom, was divided among his three sons. The two stronger ones soon squeezed out the weak one in the middle, leaving a mostly Germanic-speaking kingdom in the east, and a mostly Romance-speaking kingdom in the west. These two kingdoms immediately began beating up on each other, commencing a long run of nearly incessant wars that lasted until 1945. Nevertheless, though the empire itself unraveled, the accomplishments of Charlemagne were numerous and permanent. You have perhaps his greatest accomplishment in front of you right now: the simple and legible characters in which every Western European language is printed. Printers of the Renaissance copied them from old manuscripts, mistakenly believing that they were reviving the classical Roman style of writing; but in fact the earliest manuscripts of most classical Latin works date from Charlemagne’s time; and the so-called Carolingian minuscule, the basis of our modern roman characters, was Alcuin’s pet project. So you may well say that you owe every book in your library to Charles the Great. He may have been a semi-literate barbarian warlord, but he certainly knew a thing or two about consultants.