Why was Charlemagne so successful as a military leader?

This essay was given a high 2:1 in the second year of my undergraduate.

Why was Charlemagne so successful as a military leader?

Under Charlemagne’s rule from 768-814, the Carolingian realm experienced rapid expansion, largely as a result of military actions conducted by the ruler himself, or by his command. Charlemagne’s overall success as a military leader is undeniable, but there are many reasons for this.[1] Potentially most obvious are the actions and traits of Charlemagne himself, and this personal importance would seem to be definitively shown when contrasted with the latter part of his reign, when his sons played an increasing role, in the Danish campaigns among others.[2] The Carolingian military also clearly played a crucial role, and the reasons for this range from its equipment to its efficiency, its makeup and its size. Nestled among these factors are some important debates, including the extent of Charlemagne’s ability, the prevalence of heavy cavalry and the size of the armies he raised.

The obvious and possibly most important factor was Charlemagne himself. Many historians praise Charlemagne’s ability as being bordering on the supernatural, and argue that his personal qualities were vital in the military conquests of his reign, both in terms of the effectiveness of his administration and his organisational ability.[3] Oman even goes as far as stating that the ‘strong domineering spirit of the great king inspired his new subjects to undertake and carry out an adventure,’ while Nelson describes him as possessing ‘a certain constancy, steadiness or unswerving determination,’ something which he bases of Einhard’s Vita Karoli, where it is described as ‘constantia.’[4]  All of these would seem to suggest that Charlemagne was charismatic in the extreme and calm under pressure, and even if Contamine has pointed out that there is nothing to prove that Charles was an inspired strategist, he readily admits that the king was possessed of ‘extraordinary physical and moral endurance.’[5] In addition to these qualities, a recurring comment is that he was massively energetic, as is evidenced by the size of the his empire, the instance in 778 where he travelled from Spain to Saxony to put down a rebellion, and the fact that the royal itineraries were decided by campaigning needs.[6] These qualities were all useful in a military leader, and many of the historians above attribute his successes to them above all else.

Amongst these other qualities was Charlemagne’s aptitude for logistics and planning has been highly praised, both in general and with reference to the specific example of the 791 invasion of the Avar kingdom. Both contemporaries and modern historians such as Verbruggen, Halsall and France argue that Charlemagne was consistently organised throughout his reign.[7] Bowlus in particular makes the point that the use of Charlemagne’s typical ‘pincer’ movement required coordination and organisation on a large scale.[8] Others, including Collins, argue that the Charles’ long term planning only came to fruition in the initial 791 campaign against the Avars.[9] Brackmann argues differently, that the conquest of Avaria was a carefully calculated move in the series of events preceeding the imperial coronation.[10] Bachrach expands on this, stating that all long-term military planning was intended to cultivate imperial ambitions.[11] Both of these arguments would seem to strain credulity, as they would bestow upon Charlemagne an inhuman amount of foresight. While he may well have been working towards a Carolingian Empire, it is unlikely that Charles planned his military campaigns with imperial ambitions specifically in mind.

On the other side of this, Ganshof simply dismisses the Brackmann thesis, stating (correctly) that there is no evidence to support it, and this would seem to support the view that Charlemagne did not plan his campaigns with a view to being crowned emperor.[12] Collins among others argues that at least some of Charlemagne’s campaigns were purely opportunistic, and he cites both the Lombard campaign of 773/4 and the Spanish campaign of 778 as examples.[13] Both Reuter and Schieffer argue much more generally, with Reuter stating that early medieval warfare only consisted of raiding for plunder. They both continue to say that Charlemagne had no long term goals at all, and that even the 791 invasion of the Avar kingdom was merely for material gain.[14] While it is difficult to argue that Charles planned his military expeditions with his imperial ambitions in mind, it is potentially more so to contend that no preparation whatsoever went into his campaigns – as has already been pointed out: a degree of planning was required for the coordination of multiple armies. With regards specifically to the Avar campaign in 791, Collins argues that the invasion not beginning until September of that year is evidence enough of the amount of preparation.[15]

Charlemagne’s ability to inspire loyalty was also crucial to his success as a military leader, as it meant that he was able to garner support for his various campaigns. Different historians are of varying opinions as to how exactly he went about this, with such as Fouracre stating that simply being successful was enough to promote loyalty.[16] Others are far more cynical but potentially more realistic, stating that Charlemagne bought their loyalty with captured treasure, as is shown especially following Pippin the Hunchback’s rebellion in 792.[17] The fact that this loyalty extended through the different social levels also meant that Charlemagne was able to make the utilisation of his resources much more efficient.[18] While this was directly applicable to the raising of military levies, it was also useful when mobilising workforces for construction projects, such as attempting to link the rivers Rednitz and Altmühl with a three kilometre canal.[19] Even though the project was ultimately unsuccessful, it proves the extent to which Charlemagne could galvanise the population, and would therefore imply that even if short of outright devotion, the loyalty he inspired was a potent force, and one he undoubtedly utilised in his military campaigns.[20]

The various tactics utilised by Charlemagne during the course of his military expeditions have also been argued as the crucial factor determining his success as a military leader. Collins, among others, argues that Charlemagne used ‘shock and awe’ style campaigns to demoralise his enemies, and this is shown in the winter of 784/5 in Saxony, as well as perhaps more obviously at the outset of the Saxon Wars in 772 with the destruction of Irminsul.[21] Alongside, and perhaps in concert with this was the use of terror tactics, particularly against the Saxons. Most notable of these was the infamous slaughter of some 4,500 Saxon prisoners at Verden, who were said to have taken part in the Frankish defeat in the Süntel Hills in 782.[22] The effects of such tactics would have been to demoralise the Saxons, and to cow them and perhaps other foes – argued by Bowlus as being a major factor in the Avar collapse in 791-6.[23] While one might argue that this was a more general, Carolingian approach to warfare, others might cite the ultimate success in ‘pacifying’ the Saxons under Charlemagne as evidence that he introduced new shock or ‘terror’ tactics to the theatre, and that they were potentially the reason for his successes both in Saxony and Avaria.

Charlemagne’s wider strategy also undeniably contributed vast amounts to his success, and is perhaps the most convincing aspect of the argument for the king’s personal importance. Charlemagne used novel winter campaigning in 784/5 in Saxony to great effect, as shown by the fact that he forced the Saxon leader Widukund to treat with him in 785.[24] As well as this, he was able to organise marching in parallel columns, as in 791 in Avaria and 804 in Saxony.[25]  The technique of converging on an enemy from several directions at once has also been promoted, and is heralded as one of the most significant factors behind Charlemagne’s successes, whether it was in Saxony in 774, Bavaria in 787 or Avaria in 791 and 796.[26] The success of the strategies seems clear, as the Carolingian army suffered only a few major defeats, most infamously at Roncesvalles in 778, although the same technique of splitting his forces up has been blamed for the defeat.[27]

While Charlemagne obviously played a part in his military successes, a strong case can be made that his role was not as much as is suggested above. One can argue that the Carolingian military was in fact the driving force behind Charlemagne’s success as a military leader. The speed and efficiency of the Carolingian army undoubtedly played a role in the successes it enjoyed in the period, notably in the Lombard invasion of 773/4, and later when responding to the Saxon uprising of 778.[28] Riché in particular argues that the ‘rapid mobilisation and concentration of forces’ was of paramount importance for the Carolingian military.[29] The contention remains when one asks the question whether this speed of mobilisation was down to Charlemagne’s personality or the legislation he created, or whether the system already in place was effective. It is debatable how much Charlemagne would have been able to change the levy system, even with the Capitularies he introduced, and it is perhaps more convincing that the Carolingian military was efficient before Charles came to power.

As well as the efficiency of the Carolingian army, the equipment of the individual soldiers has been the subject of scrutiny, with many historians arguing that Charlemagne was more interested in raising better-equipped forces than large ones, as perhaps he predecessors had been.[30] The majority of the evidence for this is found in the various Capitularies, although the ‘Capitulare de Exercitu Promovendo,’ in 803, and those of Aquisgranense in 805 and 813 have been examined more closely by Oman and France, as they are the ones which provision for the weapons and armour of the host.[31] The general quality of Frankish equipment would seem to be beyond contestation then, but Riché points out that the repetition of many elements of the Capitularies perhaps implies their ineffectiveness.[32]

Another area in which the Carolingian military is argued to have led to Charlemagne’s military successes is in the makeup of the various armies raised. As one of the areas of greatest contention in not just Carolingian history, but wider medieval history, there is considerable debate over the role of heavy, ‘shock’ cavalry in Charlemagne’s armies. The portrayal of shock cavalry as the dominant force on the medieval battlefield was introduced by Lynn White Jr, and then developed by Brunner, and it still finds support among more modern historians.[33] The view rests on the spread of the stirrup occurring during the reign of Charles Martel, and has been challenged strongly by Bachrach and Bullough, who argue that it was only the combination of stirrups and the development of the saddle which allowed a couched lance to be used.[34] Bowlus offers an alternative, stating that artillery was the decisive arm of the Carolingian military, which seems somewhat convincing due to the primacy of sieges and fortifications in particularly the Saxon Wars.[35] Both Bowlus and France also point out that the presence of cavalry in Charlemagne’s armies did not necessarily mean that they were shock troops – that horses were used for their strategic rather than tactical value.[36] While the use of heavy cavalry might have explained some of the Charlemagne’s successes, it is unlikely that they played such a prominent role as some have portrayed, and the thesis that horses were used more as a mode of transport is much more convincing. Mounted troops did exist, as there is evidence of such in contemporary chronicles, but they were nowhere near as common as has been suggested.[37]

The size of the Carolingian army is also the subject of intense debate, and depending on the more convincing figure, is an obvious area in which one can argue Charlemagne enjoyed having superior tools at his disposal.[38] So-called ‘Minimalist’ historians such as Reuter and Bachrach argue that the armies raised by Charlemagne were smaller, more elite affairs, based around ‘scarae,’ although Bachrach does concede that there was also a mass levy, but that Charlemagne was reliant on a more select one.[39] Primarily opposing this is Werner, who argues that the ‘striking element’ of Charlemagne’s armies consisted around 35,000: part of a total of 100,000, although Reuter dismisses this as wild guesswork, stating that no town north of the Alps had a population a third that size.[40] France strikes a middle ground of sorts, arguing that armies raised by Charlemagne would not have numbered more than 20,000, but they were by no means as small as is suggested by the Minimalists.[41] Verbruggen supports this to a certain extent, although his view arguably more simple: he points out that the ‘convergence’ technique noted above by its nature required more than one amry.[42] Although the estimates are somewhat diverse, France puts forward a convincing argument, and the number he has suggested would not indicate any overwhelming numerical advantages in most theatres.

It would seem then that the most convincing reasons why Charlemagne was such a successful military leader were his personal characteristics and ability, coupled with the execution of his plans. While one might argue that he was only able to complete the extraordinary campaigns that he did due to the versatility and strength of the Carolingian military, one can also contend that a lot of this strength was a result of Charlemagne’s actions, the most obvious example being how the Capitularies affected the general standard of equipment in the Carolingian army. It also seems convincing that the efficacy of the Carolingian military was a product of the cooperation between Charlemagne and his magnates, and that by rewarding loyal service as stated above, he promoted such support.[43] In short then, while the Carolingian military clearly was important, it was nowhere near as much of a foregone conclusion as has perhaps been suggested: Charlemagne himself provided a crucial catalyst to spark the rapid expansion, and constant campaigning which characterised the greater part of his reign, and for which he is considered a greatly successful military leader.

Word Count: 2,981

 

[1] P. Contamine, War in the Middle Ages (Oxford & New York, 1984), p.23.

[2] P. Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul to 814,’ in ed. R. McKitterick, The New Cambridge Medieval History vol.2: c.700-c.900 (Cambridge, 1995), p.105, R. Collins, Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 (2nd edition) (Basingstoke, 1999), p.279, Charlemagne (Basingstoke, 1998), p.171.

[3] P. Riché, The Carolingians: A Family who forged Europe (trans. M.I. Allen) (Philadelphia, 1993), p.88, J. France, ‘The Composition and Raising of the Armies of Charlemagne,’ The Journal of Medieval Military History 1 (2002), p.82, G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London & New York, 2003), p.153.

[4] C. Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, vol.1: 378-1278 AD (London, 1998), p.78, J.L. Nelson, ‘Charlemagne the man,’ in ed. J. Story, Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester & New York), p. 34.

[5] Contamine, War, p.24.

[6] Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ pp.101-2, J.L. Nelson, ‘Kingship and royal government,’ in ed. R. McKitterick, The New Cambridge Medieval History vol.2: c.700-c.900 (Cambridge, 1995), p.386.

[7] France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ p.68, Halsall, Warfare, p.149, J. France, ‘The Military History of the Carolingian Period,’ in eds. J. France and K. DeVries, Warfare in the Dark Ages (Aldershot & Burlington, 2008), p.326, Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ pp.103-4.

[8] C. Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria: The Grand Strategy behind Charlemagne’s Renovatio Imperii in the West,’ The Journal of Medieval Military History 1 (2002), pp.55, 59

[9]  Collins, Early Medieval Europe, p.287, Charlemagne, p.93.

[10] Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ p.45.

[11] Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ p.46.

[12] Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ p.46.

[13] Collins, Charlemagne, p.75.

[14] Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ pp.43-4.

[15] Collins, Charlemagne, p.93.

[16] Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ pp.102-3.

[17] France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ p.64, Halsall, Warfare, p.76, R. McKitterick, ‘Politics,’ in ed. R. McKitterick, A Short Oxford History of Europe: The Early Middle Ages, 400-1000 (Oxford, 2001), p.53

[18] Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ p.102.

[19] Riché, Carolingians, pp.91, 108, Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ p.103.

[20] Innes argues against this to a certain extent, see Halsall, Warfare, p.77.

[21] For the winter of 784/5, see Collins, Charlemagne, p.55. For the sack of Irminsul, see T. Reuter, ‘Charlemagne and the world beyond the Rhine,’ in ed. J. Story, Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester & New York, 2005), pp.187-8, Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ p.102, Collins, Early Medieval Europe, p.280, Charlemagne, pp.47-8, R. McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge, 2008), p.103, France, ‘Military History,’ p.329.

[22] Collins, Early Medieval Europe, p.285, Charlemagne, p.54, Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ p.103, McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.104.

[23] Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ p.56.

[24] Collins, Charlemagne, p.57.

[25] Oman, Art of War, p.85, Collins, Charlemagne, p.93.

[26] In general, see Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ p.49, Halsall, Warfare, p.147, France, ‘Military History,’ pp.329-30. For Saxony specifically, see Collins, Charlemagne, p.48.

[27] Halsall, Warfare, p.147.

[28] Contamine, War, pp.26-7, for the invasion of Lombardy, see Bowlus, ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria,’ p.47, for 778, see Fouracre, ‘Frankish Gaul,’ p.102.

[29] Riché, Carolingians, p.91.

[30] Halsall, Warfare, pp.168-9, McKitterick, ‘Politics,’ p.49, Riché, Carolingians, p.90, S. Coupland, ‘Carolingian Arms and Armour in the Ninth Century,’ Viator 21 (1990), pp.30, 38.

[31] Oman, Art of War, pp.78-80, France, ’Military History,’ pp.326-7.

[32] Riché, Carolingians, p.90.

[33] L.T. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962), pp.1-38, also see A. Ayton, ‘Arms, Armour, and Horses,’ in ed. M. Keen, Medieval Warfare: A History (Oxford, 1999), p.188, Riché, Carolingians, p.90.

[34] D.A. Bullough, ‘Europae Pater: Charlemagne and his achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship,’ English Historical Review 85 (1970), pp.84-90, B.S. Bachrach, ‘Charles Martel, Shock Combat, the Stirrup and Feudalism,’ Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 7 (1970), pp.47-75.

[35] C. Bowlus, ‘Warfare and Society in the Carolingian Ostmark,’ Austrian History Yearbook 14 (1978), pp.4-5.

[36] France, ‘Military History,’ p.325, Bowlus, ‘Warfare,’ p.12

[37] McKitterick, ‘Politics,’ p.49 and Oman, Art of War, p.84  both argue for an upsurge in numbers, challenged in Halsall, Warfare, p.185.

[38] Oman, Art of War, pp.79-80, Riché, Carolingians, p.90, France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ p.62, Halsall, Warfare, p.119, Contamine, War, p.25.

[39] France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ pp.62, 69, Riché, Carolingians, p.90,

[40] See France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ p.69, T. Reuter, ‘The End of Carolingian Military Expansion,’ in eds. P. Godman and R. Collins, Charlemagne’s Heir: New perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-40) (Oxford, 1990), pp.391-405.

[41] France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ pp.67, 81.

[42] See France, ‘Composition and Raising,’ p.68.

[43] Halsall, Warfare, pp.73-5.

Bibliography

Airlie, S., ‘Charlemagne and the aristocracy: captains and kings,’ in J. Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester & New York, 2005), pp.90-102

Ayton, A., ‘Arms, Armour and Horses,’ in M. Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History (Oxford, 1999), pp.186-208

Bachrach, B.S., ‘Charles Martel, Shock Combat, the Stirrup and Feudalism,’ Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 7 (1970), pp.49-75

Bowlus, C., ‘Italia-Bavaria-Avaria: The Grand Strategy behind Charlemagn’es Renovatio Imperii in the West,’ The Journal of Medieval Military History 1 (2002), pp.43-60

Bowlus, C., ‘Warfare and Society in the Carolingian Ostmark,’ Austrian History Yearbook 14 (1978), pp.3-30

Bullough, D.A., ‘Europae Pater: Charlemagne and his achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship,’ English Historical Review 85 (1970), pp.84-90

Collins, R., Charlemagne (Basingstoke, 1998)

Collins, R., Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 (2nd edition) (Basingstoke, 1999)

Contamine, P., War in the Middle Ages (Oxford & New York, 1984)

Coupland, S., ‘Carolingian Arms and Armour in the Ninth Century,’ Viator 21 (1990), pp.29-50

France, J., ‘The Composition and Raising of the Armies of Charlemagne,’ The Journal of Medieval Military History 1 (2002), pp.61-82

Fouracre, P., ‘Frankish Gaul to 814,’ in R. McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol.2: c.700-c.900 (Cambridge, 1995), pp.85-109

France, J., ‘The Military History of the Carolingian Period,’ in J France and K. DeVries (eds.), Warfare in the Dark Ages (Aldershot & Burlington, 2008), pp.321-40

Halsall, G., Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London & New York, 2003)

McKitterick, R., Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge, 2008)

McKitterick, R., ‘Politics,’ in R. McKitterick (ed.), Short Oxford History of Europe: The Early Middle Ages 400-1000 (Oxford, 2001), pp.21-58

Nelson, J.L., ‘Charlemagne the man,’ in J. Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester & New York, 2005), pp.22-37

Nelson, J.L., ‘Kingship and royal government,’ in R. McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol.2: c.700-c.900 (Cambridge, 1995), pp.383-430

Oman, C., A History of The Art of War in the Middle Ages, vol.1: 378-1278 AD (London, 1998)

Reuter, T., ‘Carolingian and Ottonian Warfare,’ in M. Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History (Oxford, 1999), pp.13-35

Reuter, T., ‘Charlemagne and the world beyond the Rhine,’ in J. Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester & New York, 2005), pp.183-94

Reuter, T., ‘The End of Carolingian Military Expansion,’ in P. Godman and R. Collins (eds.), Charlemagne’s Heir: New perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford, 1990), pp.391-405

Reuter, T., ‘Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire,’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 35 (1985), pp.75-94

Riché, P., The Carolingians: A Family who forged Europe (trans. M.I. Allen) (Philadelphia, 1993)

White, L.T., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962)

Feedback:

68%

All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Excellent

Critical approach to historiography: Excellent

Focus on question: Excellent

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Good

Use of examples: Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good

Factual accuracy: Excellent

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Excellent

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Excellent

Sources cited correctly: Outstanding

General Comments and Advice: You generally make good use of the historiography (but don’t name historians without citing them), and give your own opinions, but you need to use the evidence of, and quote from, primary sources. Try to pull the answer back to the question at the end of each section; it would have been particularly helpful had you summarised at the end of sections of more than one paragraph – you have, for example, two paragraphs on planning and logistics, but you end with a specific instance rather than a helpful summary of your argument. There was more to say about how Charlemagne achieved aristocratic buy-in – without it, all his tactical ability etc would have been worthless and he wouldn’t have been able to raise armies of any size. Christian ideology was another, related area worthy of consideration. And what about opposition to Charlemagne – was it up to much?

The formatting of the footnotes and bibliography is very nearly perfect (small issues highlighted).

 

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