The term 'Carolingian' refers to the second dynasty of the Franks (about AD 751-987). In 751, Chilperic III, the last ruler of the Merovingian dynasty (about 450-751), was deposed by Frankish nobles with the sanction of the Pope. The title of 'king' was given to Pepin the Short, who was a member of the Austrasian aristocratic clan of the Arnulfings. Pepin's son and successor Charles, who became known as Charlemagne (reigned 768-814), gave his name to the new Carolingian dynasty.

The Carolingians maintained the unity of the Frankish realm but, like the Merovingians, regarded it as personal property to be divided between their heirs. This eventually led to the dissolution of the empire. Also, as the fiefs granted to officials became increasingly hereditary, semi-independent regional aristocracies began to gain power, as in Saxony, Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia.

Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious (814-840), saw the Carolingian Empire more as a religious ideal and on his death it was partitioned between his sons. The brothers disputed the succession in civil war until the Treaty of Verdun, in 843. The last effective Carolingian ruler was Charles the Bald, king of the western division (843-877). In 888 Frankish aristocrats led by Arnulf of Carinthia seized power from Charles the Fat. The old realm was again divided into the kingdoms of France, Germany and Italy, Provence and Burgundy, bringing the Carolingian empire to an end, although Carolingians still ruled in Germany until 911 and France until 987.

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