Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Europe's Dark Ages ended when Charlemagne came along."

From LiveScience:
How Charlemagne Changed the World
by Heather Whipps

After the break up of the Roman Empire in the late 5th-century, its eastern Byzantine half flourished while the western region disintegrated into a collection of fragmented kingdoms without any central authority.

Europe was entering its fourth century of the "Dark Ages" when Charlemagne was born in A.D. 742, a time marked by frequent warfare, few important cultural achievements and the virtual cessation of learning.

Charlemagne became ruler of one of those kingdoms in Germany in A.D. 768 and immediately set about expanding his territory. Through the course of more than 50 battles, most of which he led in person, he'd conquered almost all of mainland Europe.

Everywhere his rule was established, Charlemagne instituted the same reforms, creating a common identity in people from eastern Germany to southern Spain.

One of the most important changes Charlemagne made was abandoning the gold standard and putting all of Europe on the same silver currency. Trade became easier and the continent prospered, aided by laws that took some power away from the nobles and let the peasantry participate in commerce.

The lower classes benefited in other ways under Charlemagne, who was frustrated with the nobility's sense of entitlement and had deep sympathy for the peasants, according to historians. Among other legislation, all local regional governors were subject to regular inspections by royal emissaries to make sure no injustices were being done.

Educational reform was also high on Charlemagne's agenda. The progressive leader loved to learn, historians say, and so encouraged schooling throughout his kingdom in his chosen lingua franca, Latin.

All of a sudden, not only were the once-fractured regions of Europe connected by peaceful trade networks and common laws, but people could communicate with each other too.

Charlemagne was the elder son of Pepin the Short... Pepin the Short indulged in the monopoly of the coining of money, deciding on the opening and closure of minting shops, the weight, title and the subjects represented.

European coinage began with Pepin the Short who revived the system put in place by the ancient Greeks and Romans and kept going by the Eastern Roman Empire (1 libra = 20 solidi = 240 denarii).

Pursuing his father's reforms, Charlemagne did away with the monetary system based on the gold sou. Both he and King Offa of Mercia took up the system set in place by Pippin. He set up a new standard, the livre (i.e. pound)— both monetary and unit of weight— which was worth 20 sous (as per the solidus, and later the shilling) or 240 deniers (as per the denari, and eventually the penny). During this period, the livre and the sou were counting units, only the denier was a coin of the realm.

Charlemagne applied the system to much of the European Continent, and Offa's standard was voluntarily adopted by much of England.

After Charlemagne's death, continental coinage degraded and most of Europe resorted to using the continued high quality English coin until about 1100.

Charlemagne also changed European commerce through the construction of new roads and bridges, and through standardized weights, measures, and tolls. He developed a money economy through the minting of the first silver coin since the Roman Empire's denarius.

Mr. Donn writes:
Standardized Money: Each count appointed tax collectors to collect the yearly taxes. The amount of the tax was set based upon the population. Everyone knew how much tax they owed. But there was a problem. Since most people paid their taxes through barter, the local tax collector could set the value for the barter. Charlemagne came up with a better system. He created silver coins, each with a set value to use instead. Thus a farmer could sell his crops for silver coins and then pay his tax with the silver coins. There was no way to cheat on this. Everyone, especially the peasants, loved the new system.

In Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England, Michael Wood points out that Charlemagne's monetary system -- "12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings, or 240 pence, to the pound" -- was in use for 1300 years.

Okay. I thought Charlemagne came from the region we call France, not Germany. And I don't know if Pippin is the same person as Pepin the Short. But now I understand that it was Charlemagne who made the switch from gold coin to silver. I think he put money in a form that was more accessible to more people. Me, I use $20 bills and I'm comfortable with $20 bills. But give me a hundred and you'll stop me cold. Is it real or counterfeit? Will the guy at the Quick-Stop accept it? Should I accept it? I mean it's money, but is it useful? Hundred dollar bills make me hesitate.

I imagine gold coin was useful for bigger purchases, like if you were buying the neighbor's village. But silver coin was more useful for everyday purchases, like if you were buying the neighbor's cow or bringing your vegetables to market.

Gold coin was a money of account -- a money to keep in your counting-house or in your dragon's hoard. People would hesitate to spend it. Silver was a money of exchange. Charlemagne helped to create an economic environment where markets could thrive. The economy started becoming monetary again, and the Dark Age ended, with Charlemagne.

Tomorrow: A look at Page 97 from Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne.

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