The groundwork for the eventual successes of Charlemagne was laid by Charles "The Hammer" Martel who was able to turn back a Muslim raiding party at the battle of Tours/Poitiers. (See, Anonymous Arab Chronicler, The Battle of Tours (Poitiers), in 732. Though a relatively minor skirmish at the time, it proved to be of crucial, long-term importance as it ended the Muslim advance into Western Europe and stabilized the Frankish kingdom.
Charlemagne was probably the most important figure to emerge in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman empire. (He was also one of the first figures about whom we have relatively detailed personal information. See, for example, The Monk of Saint Gall (Notker the Stammerer), The Life of Charlemagne, c. 883/4.) Charlemagne was the first leader able to restore some semblance of political unity to Europe since the fourth century; and, in fact, both his title of "Emperor" and that of his empire, "the Holy Roman Empire," indicated Charlemagne's intent to continue to uphold the traditions of Ancient Rome.
To accomplish control of Europe--Charlemagne never controlled all of Europe--he made use of an alliance with the Church. The Church provided Charlemagne with monetary and spiritual support ("obey the emperor or you will rot in hell") in return for Charlemagne's willingness to spread Christianity to newly conquered areas (often forcibly), which he did. Charlemagne was also responsible for a rebirth of widespread intellectual activity in Western Europe, which is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance.To bring most of Europe under the control of one man meant a lifetime of war, and Charlemagne was a great warrior. (See, Einhard, The Wars of Charlemagne, excerpts from the Life of Charlemagne.) His deeds lived on in many epics, especially the Song of Roland. This chanson de geste (or tale of glory), dating from the eleventh century, and recounting one of the battles of Charlemagne's reign, later became the French national epic and a symbol of "Frenchedness."
But the empire did not long remain united after Charlemagne's death. There was not a dynamic warrior king to keep it all together. (See The Ordinance of Louis the Pious dividing the empire in 817.)
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