The CarolingiansPretty much every person who has taken a college-level World Civilizations class has heard about the infamous Carolingians. They were Franks, as in the Germanic ancestors of modern-day France, and they had the largest European empire of the Middle Ages...well, for a short while. The funny thing with the Carolingians is that they are completely misunderstood dynastically. For example, most western Europeans think of Charlemagne—Charles the Great—as the Founding Father of Europe. I think they are completely wrong by one degree of descent. Let me explain.
The Carolingians were descended from the seventh century (that's 600s) majordomos of the Merovingian Frankish court. The Merovingians were descended from Clovis, the first Christian king of Gaul. They had a pretty large empire that stretched across most of France, all of the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands & Luxembourg), Switzerland, half of Germany, and a little bit of north-west Italy. It was massive, in fact, but almost always divided into three or more parts because of Partible Inheritance Salic Law. Thus it was usually divided into Neutria, Austrasia, with Aquitaine, Burgundy, and other regions sometimes also getting parsed out. This gave the ancestors of the Carolingians, the so-called Mayors of the Palace (majordomos) a chance to grab power. It started rather subtly but picked up speed by the end of the 600s. Then, the last legitimate Mayor was succeeded by his bastard son, Charles Martel, or Charles the Hammer! It is from Martel, not Charlemagne, that the name Carolingian comes from. Carolingian simply is Latin for Descendant of Carolus (karolingi). Martel was responsible for stopping the Muslim invasion of Europe from Spain and was de facto king of the Franks from 737-743. But in the end, Martel declined all titles of nobility and returned control of Gaul to the Merovingians.
Martel had a son, Pippin, who was slightly more bold, however. Like his father, he served as Mayor of the Palace, but in 751 he got fed up with all the incompetency of the rather lackluster kingship. He went to the pope and asked that the current king, Childeric III, be deposed and he be crowned in his place. The pope amazingly consented and Pippin the Short became the first Carolingian king of the Franks. He set out to conquer Italy from the Lombards and the Muslims, to expand his eastern borders, and to secure his northern borders from the Vikings. Then that unfortunate thing that happens to people happened: he died.
Enter Charles the Great, Charles the Magnificent, Charles the Overrated. Sure from a historical perspective he was a great and noble dynast, but in dynastological history, he was a flop. You see Charlemagne did something that later kings learned not to do: he didn't marry off all his daughters. In fact, he left them unwed and available, thereby neglecting one very important aspect of dynastology. When Charles' son, Louis, took the throne, he went one step farther and tossed all his sisters into convents and abbeys to keep them from marrying and rising up against him. Prudent, but short-sighted. Indeed, Charles also failed to produce more than one surviving son despite having married at least four times. In truth he had quite a few sons, but most were illegitimate and so he made them clergy, and of his four legitimate sons, only Louis survived. His co-king, Charles, died in 811; Carloman of Italy died in 810; and his disenherited eldest son Pippin died in 811 as well. Of the three, only Carloman had a son and he was a bastard. That left the entire Frankish realm to Louis the Pious. Thus, Charlemagne almost completely failed at continuing his dynasty.
Louis, therefore, is the true Founding Father of Europe. Sure it was Charlemagne that was crowned the first medieval Roman Emperor on Christmas Day at St. Peter's Basillica, 800, and he certainly did a decent job at expanding and securing the Frankish Empire, but his progeny resided solely in Louis thus leaving him the role of continuing this great empire. Louis was a pious and relatively do-nothing emperor compared to his father, but he succeeded in having not one but three surviving sons, all three of whom would found cadet dynasties of their own. His eldest, Lothair, would ironically end up in the worst position of the three, while Louis II and Charles II ended up with the best bargains. Dynastically speaking, all three sons were the true founders of the major three medieval states. Lothair founded Lotharingia, or Lorraine, and through his male and female descent can be found the early kings of Italy and the dukes of Burgundy. Louis II the German was, in reality, the first true king of Germany and his descendants can safely claim both the kingdom of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Charles II the Bald was the youngest of the three children so only inherited peasly Gaul, which was the basis for the kingdom of France.
More importantly for Louis the Pious, though, was the fact that he married his daughters off to important nobles as well. The descent of Gisela, who married Eberhard of Friuli, would produce not just a Holy Roman Emperor but almost the entire royal family of Castile. Another of his daughters, Hildegard or Rotrude, married Gerard of Auvergne, and their descendants become the incredibly wealthy and powerful rulers of Aquitaine, which eventually ended at Eleanor of Aquitaine who married into the English royal family. Even Louis' marriages were important dynastically. His first wife was Ermengard of Hesbaye whose family were the ancestors of the Capetians who ruled France for 900 years, and rule Spain and Luxembourg today. His second wife was Judith of Bavaria, who was descend from a prominent Bavarian family.
Despite the bad rap Louis' received over the centuries, I think it is fair to argue that Louis is just as important in creating the modern states of Western Europe as his glorified father, Charlemagne. While he may not have created the Frankish Empire, he certainly helped break it down into its modern components through the civil warring of his various children.
Dynastically, Louis is the real deal while Charles is a major fail.