Church History:  The 800s


What happened in this century?

  • The century began with a high point:  Charlemagne ruled much of Europe, brought Christianity to new areas, and instituted the Carolingian Renaissance.

  • At the end of the century the papacy began to experience difficulties that continued into the next century.   

Contact Mark Nickens, Ph.D. in Church History, at  Questions, comments, and observations are welcome!


Go to Study Church History here.


2011  Mark Nickens

800        Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.  This was probably a surprise; to find out more click here.  In the people's minds, this illustrated that the pope was more powerful than the emperor.  This tension between spiritual and temporal power in Europe continued until the Reformation of the 1500s.        Nevertheless, Charlemagne greatly increased the scope of the popes' influence since all his conquered territories were Catholic and therefore these people were subject to the pope.  This territory included present-day northern Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, western Germany, Luxemburg, Switzerland, western Austria, and northern Italy (which included Rome).  In addition, Charlemagne institute a wave of learning in his empire which became known as the Carolingian Renaissance.  This movement was possible because of the stability which Charlemagne produced in most of Europe.  It resulted in an increase in knowledge, education, copying of manuscripts, cultural awareness, art, architecture, and biblical studies. 

c. 700s or 800s        The Donation of Constantine was fabricated sometime in these two centuries.  It purported to be a document in which Constantine gave Pope Sylvester I (d. 335) superiority over Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem along with making the Pope judge of all clergy.  The document was proved false in the 1400s. 

The Big Picture:  Pope vs. Emperor

Up to this point, popes had struggled with two authority issues:  authority over the patriarch in Constantinople (the Eastern half of Christianity) and authority over political leaders.  The issue with Eastern Christianity will ebb and flow until 1054 when the two halves separate for good.  The issue with political leaders intensifies with the crowning of Charlemagne by the pope (in which he shows his authority of the political realm since the greater crowns the lesser) and the Donation of Constantine.  The papacy will continue to exert more and more authority until the Unam Sanctum of 1302, which declared that the pope was the supreme spiritual head of the Church on the earth, with the insinuation that popes were to be obeyed without question. 

814        Charlemagne died.  His son, Louis the Pious, would rule the empire until his death in 840

840        Louis the Pious died.  Over the next three years his three sons would fight a civil war which culminated in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. 

842        The Emperor Theophilus' death ended the iconoclastic controversy.  The Patriarch Methodius celebrated a feast in honor of the icons. 

843        The Treaty of Verdun divided Charlemagne's empire between the three sons of Louis the Pious.  They agreed to split the Empire founded by their grandfather Charlemagne into three parts.  This further weakened the unity of Europe which had been enjoyed during the time of Charlemagne. 

846        Muslims sack area outside Roman gates.  In this year Muslims worked their way up the western coast of Italy and landed close to Rome.  They did not take over Rome but sacked the churches outside of the city gates.  This included St. Peter's Basilica.  They did not stay to complete the conquest. 

849        Muslims again threaten Rome but were repelled.  A Muslim navy moved toward Rome but were defeated in the Battle of Ostia (a naval battle).

897        Pope Stephen VI shows the beginning of the low point in the papacy.  He was elected in 896 and had Formosus (who was pope plus one ahead of  him) exhumed and placed on trial as a corpse.  It was subsequently thrown into the Tiber.  Stephen was imprisoned and then strangled to death. 

897        The reign of the next pope, Romanus, was only four months long:  August to December.  He may have been deposed and became a monk in order to end his pontificate. 

897        The reign of the next pope, Theodore II, was only one month long; he was elected as pope and died in the month of December.  He had the body of Formosus reburied. 




Cross, Frank L., ed.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Second Edition, 1993.  ISBN:  0192115456.