Louis I (778-840), or Louis the Pious, was king of the Franks and emperor of the West from 814 to 840. The son and successor of Charlemagne, he was the last ruler to maintain the unity of the Carolingian Empire.
Born in Aquitaine, Louis I was the third son of Charlemagne and his second wife, Hildegard. Most of his youth was spent in Aquitaine, where he received a clerical education of high quality. In 806 Louis, along with his brothers, Charles and Pepin, was assigned to his inheritance, being designated king of Aquitaine. His brothers received equal territories within the empire. At this time Aquitaine included Burgundy and the Spanish March; however, it was in no sense independent of the overlordship of Charlemagne.
Between 806 and the death of Charlemagne in 814, Charles and Pepin died, leaving Louis, the least aggressive and warlike of the three, as the sole heir to the empire. In 813 Louis was personally crowned by Charlemagne as coemperor, a practice initiated at the Byzantine court. In the following year Louis succeeded to his full inheritance.
Upon receiving the empire and establishing himself at the imperial court at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), Louis, much inclined toward the asceticism of religious life, immediately purged the court of those whose morals or conduct were in the least suspect. He sent his sisters to convents and banished the women of the palace who had formed part of his father's entourage. In addition to these severe measures, Louis brought in Benedict of Aniane as his chief counselor on religious matters and made him the abbot of the nearby monastery of Kornelimünster. At the court itself, Louis's chancellor, the chief official of the palace, was a priest. Aside from his reliance on ecclesiastical advisers, Louis took further steps to place himself under the protection and approval of the Church. In 816 Louis asked the Pope to recrown him as emperor, thus encouraging the principle of papal supremacy and the theory that the Pope must personally bestow the imperial title.
Partitions of the Empire
Most of the troubles that beset Louis's well-intentioned reign stemmed from conflicts between the Emperor and his sons and the problems of inheritance and imperial succession. Louis had three sons by his first wife, Irmengard. They were Lothair I, Pepin, and Louis (called Louis the German). In 817, following the tradition of his father and ancient Frankish practice, Louis divided his empire among his sons. At the same time, however, he sought to preserve the unity of the empire. Louis designated his eldest son, Lothair I, as his successor and as superior to the other two. This solution, however, proved unworkable and initiated a series of conflicts among his sons and other relatives.
The problems caused by the division of 817 were further complicated by Louis's second marriage, to Judith, a noblewoman of Bavaria, and by the birth of a fourth son, Charles (later known as Charles the Bald). At the request of Judith, Louis was persuaded to redivide his empire in order to provide for his infant son. In 829 the reapportionment took place, and Charles, often favored by Louis, received a kingdom that comprised much of Germany. The other sons, particularly Lothair, angered by this decision, rose in revolt. Captured by his sons at Compiègne, Louis was forced to surrender the empire to Lothair. Because of disunity among his sons, Louis soon regained his crown, but a second revolt occurred in 832. The Pope joined forces with Lothair, and Louis was again obliged to submit to his eldest son. At a council at Soissons, made up primarily of bishops who supported Lothair and the principle of imperial unity, Louis was thoroughly humiliated. His other sons, however, came to his defense, and Louis was once again reinstated as emperor. Despite his efforts to appease his sons and to reapportion his realm again in 838 after the death of Pepin, internal strife and shifting allegiances continued throughout his reign and into subsequent generations.
Louis's Major Achievements
The major achievements of Louis's reign centered on his program of Church reform and in the expansion of the Carolingian intellectual revival initiated a generation earlier. The monastic schools, the most notable of which was Fulda, produced a series of important scholars. Like his predecessors, Louis frequently intervened in ecclesiastical affairs, but his reforms were not only more extensive but different in nature. Earlier Carolingian reforms dealing with the Church had been primarily educational and institutional. Louis's reforms, largely inspired by Benedict of Aniane, aimed at a revival of the inner spiritual and moral life of the clergy. In order to achieve this goal, Louis called two councils at Aachen, the first in 816 and the second in 817.
At the first council Louis and his advisers presented a complete program of reform and clarification of Church discipline. Of particular importance, because it was later widely enforced, was the legislation concerning canonical life, the Canones, or Instituta patrum. These laws reinstated a common life for cathedral and collegiate chapters and ensured the independence and safety of the temporal possessions of churches.
The second council devoted itself to the reform of the regular clergy, issuing the first general code for monastic life, the Capitulare institutum. Primarily inspired by Benedict of Aniane, this code stressed a strict observance of the Benedictine Rule. The religious reforms had special significance because of the collapse of political unity due to the partition of the empire. The ecclesiastical sphere maintained the ideology and the unity of the Carolingian Empire for a long period after its political demise.
Final Partition and Louis's Death
In 838 Louis made a new partition much to the favor of Charles and at the expense of Louis the German, the latter receiving only Bavaria as his inheritance. The remainder of the empire was divided equally between Charles, who received the western lands of France, and Lothair, who received Italy and the lands immediately east of the Rhone-Saône valley. In the following summer Louis settled Charles's claim to the kingdom of Aquitaine and attempted to counteract a rebellion of Louis the German. During his campaign against Louis, with whom he was never reconciled, the Emperor was overtaken by illness and died in Germany at Ingelheim on June 20, 840.
Further Reading on Louis I
A contemporary biography of Louis was edited and translated by Allen Cabaniss, Son of Charlemagne: A Contemporary Life of Louis the Pious (1961). Bernard Walter Scholz, with Barbara Rogers, Carolingian Chronicles: "Royal Frankish Annals" and Nithard's "Histories" (1970), is a specialized translation of two medieval works of official history which together narrate the rise and fall of the Carolingian Empire. The standard treatment of the reign of Louis the Pious is in The Cambridge Medieval History (8 vols., 1911-1936). Also useful are the brief but excellent evaluations in Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire (1949; trans. 1957), and Eleanor Duckett, Carolingian Portraits: A Study in the Ninth Century (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Charlemagne's heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840), Oxford England; New York: Clarendon Press, 1990.