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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: September 2011

15 - Ecclesiastical foundations and secular institutions

from Part III - Themes, topics and trajectories


After the fall of Rome and the disappearance of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century, the sixth and seventh centuries are considered to represent the low point of medieval civilization in the West, when Roman administrative and political systems had crumbled and there was little to take their place. The Christian church was scattered, fragmentary and unable to exert any universal authority. As society became largely rural again under the control of local lords, and as towns and cities declined, the light of classical learning came close to being entirely snuffed out.

In Frankish territory, the sixth and seventh centuries are referred to as The Merovingian period, after the Merovingian kings. By the eighth century The Merovingian kings had become such ineffectual figureheads that the real ruler/administrator was the Mayor of the Palace, supposedly the king's chief assistant. The Carolingian dynasty stemmed from two Mayors of the Palace – Charles Martel (r. 714–41) and Pépin III the Short (r. 741–68), the father of Charlemagne (r. 768–814). Pépin enquired of the pope if the person who ruled as king of the Franks ought not to be called King of the Franks, and the pope agreed. Thus in 751, with papal sanction, Pépin deposed the last Merovingian king, sent him off to a monastery, and assumed the throne in name as well as in fact.

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