How Did Charlemagne's Economic Ideas Save Europe

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Statue of Charlemagne at Aachen

Charlemagne or Karl “the Great” (ruled AD 768-814) is regarded by scholars and lay people alike as one of the greatest Europeans in history. Today, both the French and Germans claim him as one of their earliest known and most revered monarchs due to his great deeds and the fact that he was one of the best recorded early medieval European kings. The early medieval scholar Einhard wrote an account of Charlemagne based on the time he spent with the emperor and numerous statues and other works of art that depict the sovereign were scattered throughout western Europe, especially at the royal capital city of Aachen, which was where thirty-one German kings were later crowned as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. What made Charlemagne “great” and the subject of Einhard’s biography, countless works of art, and numerous modern studies was his ability to pull Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the medieval period.

Charlemagne’s contributions to Europe cannot be overstated. Although he had a good template from which to build on thanks to his Frankish predecessors, Charlemagne showed incredible foresight and will as he brought stability back to Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. His support of the Roman Catholic Church brought unity to much of the continent, which culminated with his coronation as the “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 by Pope Leo III. Quite often Charlemagne used force to put recalcitrant Germanic tribes in line as he unified western Europe, but almost as important, although lesser known, were the economic initiatives he championed. The first Holy Roman Emperor also promoted a balanced economy based on free trade, industry, agriculture, and a monetary policy. As part of his monetary policy, Charlemagne championed silver as the standard currency in western Europe and also established a unitary system of weights and measures for coins and commodities. Finally, new farming techniques and technologies were introduced during Charlemagne’s reign that allowed the population of Europe to grow. Truly, Charlemagne’s economic policies allowed western Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages.

The Franks and the Carolingians

Map of the Carolingian (Frankish) Empire at Charlemagne’s Death
Charlemagne Being Crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III

The emperor Charlemagne was descended from an ethnic group known as the Franks, who came to prominence in western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in AD 476. The Franks, like many of their tribal neighbors of the time, were of Germanic origin and culturally different than the Romans. Despite their differences with the Romans, when the Franks settled in the Roman province of Gaul (roughly equivalent to modern France) in the fifth century they desired to be citizens of Rome. In their quest to be Romans, the Franks were among the first of the Germanic tribes to convert to Roman Catholicism and they even fought alongside the Romans to defeat Attila and his army of Huns in 451. [1] But as the Franks did what they could to impress the Romans, the empire collapsed, leaving the Franks and the other Germanic tribes to establish successor kingdoms throughout western Europe. The Franks would create the best organized and most enduring of all these states.

Most experts place the origins of the Frankish kingdom with King Clovis, who inherited his position from his father, Childeric, in 482. Clovis was able to conquer most of Gaul and brought back a considerable amount of political and social stability to the region that had been absent in the wake of repeated Germanic invasions and the withdrawal of Roman forces. Clovis also established a new dynasty, known as the Merovingian, which lasted for nearly 300 years. [2]

The Merovingian Dynasty continued successfully until a new dynasty arose through the marriage of two of the most influential Franks’ children. In the seventh century, Pippin, who was the Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia, married his daughter to the son of Arnulf of Metz, which resulted in a new Frankish dynasty known as the Carolingian Dynasty. The dynasty acquired its name from Charles Martel (ruled 718-741), who famously drove the Islamic Moors from France and back into Spain in 732. [3] Although there were many noteworthy Carolingian kings, none were more so than Charlemagne.

After Charlemagne assumed the Carolingian throne, he wasted no time instituting his ambitious plan to bring his kingdom out of the Dark Ages. Among the more important acts Charlemagne did early in his rule was the conquest and forced conversion of the Saxons in 785. For his efforts to spread Christianity in Europe, Pope Leo III rewarded Charlemagne by crowning him the “Holy Roman Emperor,” which became a title held by dozens of German kings during the Middle Ages. The emperor was also instrumental in reviving Hellenic ideas, promoting education and learning, and also his efforts to establish a reliably functioning government bureaucracy. [4] One does not have to look far to see the influences Charlemagne left in medieval Europe, but often overlooked are the many economic ideas he advocated.

Frankish Economic Ideas before Charlemagne

Before Charlemagne came to power, his Frankish ancestors were already noted for some of their far-sighted economic policies. Among those policies was the transition from using gold coins to silver coins for most day to day financial transactions in the 660s. The use of silver proved to be much more conducive for commercial transactions, which were increasing due to the Franks’ promotion of trade and commercial activities. The Frankish kings encouraged the establishment of market towns and trade fairs so that around the time silver became the standard coin currency, a thriving early free market economy was also alive and well, which Charlemagne took control. [5]

Charlemagne’s Economic Policies

Silver Coin of Charlemagne

Although the Carolingian Empire was a source of stability in the early Middle Ages and its economy was a big part of that, it was still an underdeveloped economy. Generally speaking, underdeveloped economies are comprised of four sectors – industry, commerce, monetary, and agriculture – which often overlap, at least they did in terms of the Carolingian economy. [6] As will be outlined below, Charlemagne focused his resources on creating this balanced economy, which eventually allowed the wool industry to dominate northern Europe’s economy in the High Middle Ages. [7]

In terms of monetary policies, since the Carolingian economy was still underdeveloped, Charlemagne pursued a policy that was simple by modern standards. Charlemagne benefited from circumstances outside of his control, though, as a large amount of silver was introduced to the Carolingian economy through trade with the Norse/Vikings from Russia, who had “liberated” large amounts from the Abbasid Empire in the Middle East. The emperor used the injection of silver into the economy, which was the equivalent of a modern “stimulus,” to fund ambitious building projects such as the numerous cathedrals that are still standing across western Europe. [8]

As the large amounts of silver poured into the Carolingian Empire in the late eight century, Charlemagne realized that the coins, as well as the commodities they were used to purchase, needed to be standardized in order to prevent counterfeiting, fraud, and the black market. Charlemagne established royal mints and a system by which all coins were minted according to a mean weight, both of which drastically cut down on counterfeiting. [9] Along with standardizing the weight of the silver coins, Charlemagne also introduced standards of denomination. For instance, twenty shillings equaled one pound and twelve pence was equal to one shilling, which remained the standard in most of Europe well into the thirteenth century. The emperor also introduced severe penalties for counterfeiting and refusals to accept officially minted money. [10]

One of the unintended negative side effects of the injection of so much silver into the Carolingian economy was inflation. Since there was so much money in circulation, the prices naturally began to rise during the middle of Charlemagne’s rule. In order to combat the inflationary cycle, Charlemagne introduced price controls for grain and other food products at the Synod of Frankfurt in 794. Although the emperor may not have had a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago, he knew that the price increases would continue and eventually become unmanageable unless something was either done about the money supply or the commodity prices. [11] Charlemagne’s price controls eventually allowed the money supply to return to a manageable level and the economy was able to self-correct.

Like his Frankish ancestors, Charlemagne saw the importance in fostering trade within his realm. The emperor continued with his predecessors’ policies of promoting trade fairs and towns, but then took things to the next logical level by expanding trade to neighboring kingdoms. Slaves, wine, grains, and hand made goods were exported from the Carolingian Empire along the Rhine River to the North and Baltic seas where they arrived in such places to the north as London and Sweden. The trade network helped to revitalize the depressed economic conditions of former Roman territories of the west and north and brought regions such as Scandinavia, which were not part of the Roman Empire, into this new system. Charlemagne also developed regular trade with the Byzantine Empire to the east and the various Islamic dynasties in North Africa and the Near East. [12] The creation of a widespread trade network was truly remarkable, but it would not have been possible without technological advances that were made in the agricultural sector during the Carolingian Empire.

When the Carolingian Empire came to power, most western European peasants were still using Roman era farming methods and technologies. Not only were most of these methods and technologies outdated and extremely labor intensive, they were also better adapted to the longer growing seasons of the Mediterranean basin. Two of the most important technological advances in farming that were made during the Carolingian Empire were the invention of the heavy wheeled moldboard plow and the modern horse harness. [13] These innovations helped to make farming less labor intensive, which meant that either more land could be worked by an individual or more time could be dedicated to other pursuits. Along with these agricultural inventions, Charlemagne and the Carolingians began view farming itself in a much different and more efficient way than the Romans did.

Toward the latter part of Charlemagne’s reign, the three-field crop system was introduced to western Europe. In the system, farmers would leave every third field fallow in order to replenish the nutrients in the soil. Western European farmers soon learned that the technique was a big improvement on the Roman two-field system as they were able to get two harvests per year, even in the colder climates of the north. For example, barley, oats or legumes would be harvested in the fall, while barley, wheat, or rye was harvested in the spring. [14] The three-field system was so successful that it was common well into the modern period throughout Europe and was duplicated in other areas of the world.


The Emperor Charlemagne is rightly remembered for his many accomplishments that made him one of the greatest monarchs in European history. Charlemagne brought stability back to Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire and essentially provided a bridge from the Hellenic Civilization into what is known as Western Civilization. The emperor did this through force of arms and by forging an alliance with the Church, but almost as important were the economic policies he instituted. Charlemagne promoted a sound economic policy that resulted in a balanced economy that was able to withstand the vicissitudes of the Dark Ages. By promoting both local and long-distance trade, installing a sound monetary policy, and introducing new agricultural techniques and technologies, Charlemagne brought western Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the medieval period.


  1. James, Edward. “The Northern World in the Dark Ages, 400-900.” In The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. Edited by George Holmes. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 65
  2. James, pgs. 65-67
  3. James, p. 90
  4. Jotischky, Andrew, and Caroline Hall. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Medieval World. (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 26
  5. James, p. 85
  6. Misbach, Henry L. “The Balanced Economic Growth of Carolingian Europe: Suggestions for a New Interpretation.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 3 (1972) p. 264
  7. Misbach, p. 266
  8. James, p. 99
  9. Mishkimin, Harry A. “Two Reforms of Charlemagne? Weights and Measures in the Middle Ages.” Economic History Review 20 (1967) p. 37
  10. Misbach, p. 268
  11. Misbach, p. 271
  12. Misbach, p. 267
  13. Misbach, p. 268
  14. Jotischky and Hull, p. 75