Another Time


In many ways the European Union is an attempt to set the clock for Europe back just over a thousand years. In 771, Charles became the sole king of a relatively small German kingdom whose capital was Aachen. In fifty-three military campaigns, and by having the distinction of being one of the most competent administrators in history, he was able to carve out an empire that was larger than anything Europe had seen since Rome. He worked hard all his life to create a prosperous and united kingdom, generally succeeding. Literacy grew, and the economy of central Europe, including today’s Germany and France, surged. But law and tradition waited to doom the first united Europe.

The law that put an end to one of the brightest periods in the Dark Ages was a long tradition that attempted to deal with the often murderous rivalry between the heirs of a king or other noble. This law decreed that any kingdom or noble’s holding was to be divided between all of the sons of a king. This may help minimize the rivalry between siblings, but it also meant that large viable kingdoms and fiefdoms were split and split again.


This was going to happen to Charlemagne’s empire on his death, but all the possible heirs except one, Louis, died before their father. So Louis became the sole ruler of the empire and also did a good job of ruling. Unfortunately, he also did an equally good job of begetting sons. His three, Pepin, Lothair, and Louis, all proved ready and anxious to inherit their third of the kingdom. They even accepted that they would have to share with their two brothers. But in 823 Emperor Louis’ second wife had a fourth son, Charles. When Louis tried to change his will so that the new son got a fourth part of the empire, the older sons organized a revolt within the palace. The conflict simmered and likely threatened to become open civil war. Louis tried to meet with Lothair, hoping to restore their relationship. When he arrived at the meeting place, all three of the older sons were there with their supporters. They forced Louis to abdicate. At this point, the empire was split into three parts, never to be united again.

Had the law been different, with one son inheriting, the history of Charlemagne’s family might well have been bloodier and all of Europe much more peaceful. If his empire had not been split apart by a tradition that created rival kingdoms every generation, a united Europe might have been the norm. Millions of deaths could have been avoided if the wars between the nations formed from the pieces of his realm would not have been fought. The unity that the European Union strives for might well have been achieved a thousand years earlier. That law, created to keep peace within a family, was a terrible mistake for Europe, and the continent paid for it with a millennium of chaos and war.

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