The Carolingians were a powerful noble family of the Germanic Frankish tribe. The Carolingians initially served under the Merovingian dynasty which ruled the Franks.
During this period, the Carolingians steadily gained influence, especially through the historical victories of Charles Martel against the Muslim invasions of Western Europe. By the 8th century, the Carolingian dynasty had taken over the rulership of the Franks from the Merovingian rulers.
Charlemagne, the most notable Carolingian ruler, forged a vast Empire in the latter part of the 8th century and laid the basis for the kingdoms of Germany and France. By the end of the first quarter of the 9th century, Carolingian power had begun to dwindle and it came to an end before the century was out.
Charles Martel was a key figure in the Carolingian family. Although he didn’t become the ruler of the Franks, he played a decisive role as a Frankish military leader. As a military leader, he was exceptionally successful and defeated Muslim forces at the historic Battle of Tours in 732.
By the middle of the 8th century, the Merovingian dynasty was unpopular and the Carolingians had the support of the Pope as well as the nobility. So the Carolingian ruler “Pepin the Short” became the King of the Franks in 751. This marked the beginning of the Carolingian power.
Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became the King of the Franks in 768. He instantly set upon a campaign of expansion on all sides of his realm. By 774 he had control of most of Italy and had himself crowned the King of Italy. He also subdued Saxonia and Bavaria from 768 to 800, effectively bringing the entire region under his rule and converting the pagan Saxons into Christianity.
By 800, Charlemagne’s power stretched from the frontiers of Moorish Spain to Bavaria, Italy, and Carinthia. He also had the direct backing of the Papacy and was a patron of the Church. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope and became the first Emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.
Charlemagne died in 814 and the Empire was divided between his three sons. This soon led to infighting and instability. The first half of the 9th century was continuously plagued by civil war between members of the ruling Carolingian dynasty.
In the second half of the century, the Empire began to face the threat of Viking invaders coupled with internal instability. By 886, Vikings had marched on Paris and had to be bought off by the Carolingian Emperor, Charles the Fat. In 887, Charles lost power and the Empire disintegrated permanently.
The Carolingian renaissance was a precursor to the European culture of the Middle Ages. During this period, the court of Charlemagne and his successors became a hub of cultural and literary activity. While such activity was mostly limited to the clergy, it helped bring back the rich heritage of Western Roman culture, including the Latin language.
In many ways, the Carolingian renaissance defined the early medieval culture of Western Europe and laid foundations of the later European renaissances.