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Louis I, byname Louis the Pious, or the Debonair, French Louis le Pieux, or le Débonnaire, German Ludwig der Fromme, (born April 16, 778, Chasseneuil, near Poitiers, Aquitaine [now in France]—died June 20, 840, Petersau, an island in the Rhine River near Ingelheim [now in Germany]), Carolingian ruler of the Franks who succeeded his father, Charlemagne, as emperor in 814 and whose 26-year reign (the longest of any medieval emperor until Henry IV [1056–1106]) was a central and controversial stage in the Carolingian experiment to fashion a new European society. Commonly called Louis the Pious, he was known to his contemporaries by the Latin names Hludovicus or Chlodovicus, which echo the Latin name of Clovis (c. 466–511), the illustrious founder of the Merovingian dynasty. Louis was appointed king of Aquitaine in 781 and was already a seasoned 35-year-old politician and military commander when he became coemperor with Charlemagne in 813. He was the fourth monarch of the Carolingian dynasty, preceded by his father; his uncle, Carloman; and his grandfather, Pippin III, the Short.
King of Aquitaine
The vast realm Louis inherited stretched from the modern-day cities of Hamburg, Germany, in the north to Barcelona, Spain, 900 miles south, and from Nantes, France, in the west to Osnabrück, Germany, 720 miles east. The Frankish empire of the "First Europe" was actually an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural patchwork of Franks, Saxons, Bretons, Aquitanians, Spaniards, Lombards, Jews, Byzantines, Romans, Bavarians, Avars, Slavs, and other tributary peoples. Charlemagne attempted to manage his far-flung lands by establishing subkingdoms. In 781 three-year-old Louis was appointed king of Aquitaine, and he gained much valuable experience and matured greatly during the 33 years of his rule. Aquitaine was no sinecure. Incorporated into the Carolingian regime by force, Aquitaine needed watching, especially because it abutted the Spanish March, a military frontier region that had become even more dangerous after Charlemagne’s abortive Spanish campaign in 778.
As king, Louis had his own palaces, chancery, treasury, and mints. He commanded military expeditions and supervised the Frankish counts, abbots, and vassals that were sent to Aquitaine. In 794 Charlemagne picked a bride for 16-year-old Louis, already the father of two children by concubines. Irmingard, the daughter of Count Ingram, whose connections with the Carolingian family stretched back to the 7th century, completed Louis’s court in Aquitaine. Within 10 years the royal couple had five children. Irmingard also participated in her husband’s efforts to reform monastic life, which were spearheaded by Benedict of Aniane, a Goth who had founded a monastery on his family’s property. Benedict was only one of a group of southerners destined to play significant roles in Louis’s reign. Claudius, a Spaniard, and Jonas, an Aquitanian, became bishops of Turin and Orleans, respectively. Helisachar, a Goth, served as Louis’s chancellor and as the abbot of several monasteries. Agobard, a Spaniard, became archbishop of Lyon in 816. Not only did southerners retain close ties to Louis, but Franks who were close to him when he was the king of Aquitaine remained close to him as emperor. One of this latter group, Bego, became count of Paris. The most remarkable tie Louis forged in his youth was with Ebbo, the son of his peasant wet nurse, Himiltrude. Charlemagne gave his son’s servile playmate his freedom and an education and sent Ebbo to Aquitaine to serve as Louis’s librarian. In 816 Louis raised eyebrows when he appointed the former serf archbishop of Reims, the most prestigious bishopric in the Frankish empire.
The challenges of empire
The imperial title that Pope Leo III bestowed on Charlemagne on December 25, 800, was problematic. Laconic contemporary sources suggest that neither the pope nor the new emperor completely understood the meaning of the revival of the imperial office. (Tellingly, the precise term Sacrum Romanum Imperium, or “Holy Roman Empire,” was not used until the mid-13th century.) After reflection, Charlemagne seems to have regarded the office as personal. In 806 he ignored the uncertainties of the imperial title when he outlined the future division of the empire among his three legitimate sons, Charles, Pippin, and Louis. On September 11, 813, with his eldest sons dead, Charlemagne bestowed the office of emperor on Louis without benefit of papal consultation or approval.
With his father’s death five months later, Louis faced the task of running an empire that in Charlemagne’s seventh decade had suffered from disobedience, corruption, and inefficiency. In 811 Charlemagne had revealed the deep pessimism of his last years when he had asked the leaders of his empire, "Are we indeed Christians?" The answer to that question furnished Louis with a platform for a reform agenda that began at the centre. Aachen (now in Germany), where his father had established his palace, was cleared of its prostitutes; Louis’s unmarried sisters, who had consorted sexually with court palatines, were sent to monasteries. Louis also tackled wider issues. In his first year as emperor the chancery dispatched nearly 40 diplomas (legally binding written records) to all parts of the empire, nearly double the number Charlemagne had issued during his last 13 years.
In these documents and those that followed, Louis portrayed himself as emperor of the Christian people, not of various ethnic groups. In proposing a vision of Carolingian society based on the unity of the people in the body of Christ and in Christ’s church, Louis crafted a sophisticated notion of empire in which religion, society, and politics coalesced. The implications of his bold design—in effect an empire that challenged regional, dynastic, and papal visions of society—were breathtaking. The blueprint for this empire, the Ordinatio imperii of 817, attempted to deal with the centrifugal realities of the regions and Louis’s own family when it prescribed how to maintain the unity of the empire while dividing it among his three sons. Lothar (b. 795) became coemperor with Louis; Pippin (b. 797) and Louis the German (b. c. 804) were assigned subordinate roles as kings of Aquitaine and Bavaria, respectively. Like Charlemagne’s division of 804, Louis’s Ordinatio was conceived without reference to the papacy.
The historic Pactum Hludowicianum, also issued in 817, replaced the ill-defined "friendship alliance" between the Carolingians and the popes with a carefully arranged imperial-papal relationship that the emperor dominated. Louis later described the pope as his helper (adiutor) in caring for God’s people. He was no less dynamic in the political realm. When Louis’s nephew, King Bernard of Italy, challenged the emperor’s authority in 817, Louis swiftly quashed the rebellion, blinding Bernard and exiling the other conspirators. To forestall further dynastic challenges, Louis had his half-brothers, Drogo, Hugo, and Theoderic, tonsured and placed in monasteries.
In 822 at Attigny (now in France), Louis, firmly in control of the empire, added a new dimension to medieval kingship when he performed voluntary penance for his sins. The emperor’s spontaneous display of royal humility, preceded by reconciliation with his enemies, deeply impressed contemporaries. One, the anonymous author of the Life of Emperor Louis, paid his subject a high compliment when he compared Louis’s actions to those of the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great.