A page from St Johns Gospel of the St Gall's Scriptures

The Carolingian Empire

The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 left a giant rift in Western Europe. Without any central authority, fractured kingdoms waged intense warfare. Citizens struggled to survive, the arts and education all but disappeared. Europe entered the Dark Ages, a chaotic period of the early Middle Ages.

Then a turning point in the history both of Western Europe and of church-state relations occurred in 751, when Charles Martel’s son Pepin III (c. 714–768) sent a message to the Pope Leo III asking if it would be a ‘sin’ to remove the at the time Merovingian king from power. When given the go ahead from the pope, Pepin ordered that the last of the Merovingians be thrown into a monastery. Thus the pope blessed the establishment of a new dynasty; the Carolingians.

Pepin dealt the Lombards a harsh blow in 756, after which he turned their territories in eastern Italy over to the church in an act known as the ‘Donation of Pepin’. These areas were called the Papal States that would exist until the 1800s.

The Carolingian Empire spread across Europe

Charlemagne: Emperor

The name Carolingians came from that of Pepin’s son Charles, sometimes known as Carolus Magnus, meaning “Charles the Great.” He is better known as Charlemagne (742–814; ruled 768–814), and he was the single most important Western European leader of the Early Middle Ages. Under Charlemagne, Western Europe had something it had not seen for centuries: a vibrant, growing empire.

Charlemagne completed the conquest of the Lombards, receiving their crown as his own in 774. Further campaigns resulted in Charlemagne unifying virtually all German territories, including the kingdom of Bavaria in southern Germany making Charlemagne the undisputed master of the Christian West except for Britain, Ireland, parts of southern Italy, and northern Spain.

On Christmas day in 800, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Restored Romen Empire by Pope Leo III. Central to the maintenance of the empire was the education of an administrative elite, and some of the greatest scholars in Europe, including a number of Irish, were brought to the imperial capital at Aachen. The liberal arts were promoted, classical texts were copied and preserved, and a new script was devised — Carolingian minuscule—which was adopted in Ireland.

St. Galls Scriptures - St. John's Gospel

It is believed that for Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor, he was gifted a copy of St. Johns gospel which is thought to have either originated from Ireland or at least created by Irish monks at the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, due to its heavy Irish influence in its iconography and script. For example, the facing pages with which each gospel begins an impressive portrait of the evangelist is on the left and a beautifully crafted incipit lays on the right. The balance of these double-page compositions is one of the supreme accomplishments of Irish book art. The gospel, bound in ivory, is one of the earliest and exquisite examples of Irish literature in existence, good enough to gift an Emperor!

A page from St Johns Gospel of the St Gall's Scriptures

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