King of the Franks from 768 and crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was the pivotal figure in the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the turbulence created by the Viking and Magyar invasions. His reign was notable for political, cultural, and theological reasons. Politically, Charlemagne united nearly all of modern Europe under one rule, defining in many ways what we now think of as Western Europe, and by dividing his kingdom among his heirs at his death he is viewed as the progeniture of both the French and German dynasties, setting the trajectory for the political conflicts of most of the Middle Ages. Culturally, Charlemagne’s was the time of the Carolingian renaissance, with its emphasis on educational and economic reform as well as the rise of new musical, architectural, and artistic styles. Theologically, Charlemagne followed the pattern of the Byzantine rulers by involving himself directly in ecclesial affairs – indeed it is with his direct support and encouragment that Western church leaders insisted on including the filioque in their creedal formulations, contributing directly to the later controversy between Eastern and Western church leaders, along with the mutual excommunications that resulted from the Photian controversy.
Thus, rather belying of the ‘Dark Ages’, Charlemagne’s reign was a pivotal time in the development of western culture and religion. The influence of the Carolingian age is certainly mitigated by the subsequent setbacks brought about by the Vikings and Magyars, much of the social and political history of the Middle Ages finds its roots during this time period. For a variety of reasons, then, the death of Charlemagne marked a significant turning point in the history of western civilization.