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Who Invented the Internet

David Cowles

Oct 27, 2022

“Al Gore claims the honor, but research shows that proof of concept testing began in 802 AD...”

The history of Europe is, in some sense, the history of the Franks (now the French). We first met this civilization in 8th grade Latin when, side by side with Julius Caesar, we fought a Gallic War. (Sad to say, most of us suffered more than Caesar.) 

We encountered the Franks again during the protracted fall of Rome (476 AD). After Rome, the mysterious Merovingian dynasty appeared and took control of the Frankish empire. The Merovingians ruled until they were gradually replaced in the 2nd half of the 8th century by the Carolingians.

On Christmas Day, 800 AD, the Carolingian king, Charles I (Charlemagne) was crowed Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (the Western Empire having been without an emperor since 476 AD).

Charles dreamed of restoring the military, economic, and cultural power of Rome but he lacked one thing: infra-structure.

Recall that in the 9th century there was no radio, no TV, and no printing press. Following the collapse of Rome, there were few good roads, fewer central markets, and almost no literacy outside of the monasteries; but worst of all, in 800 AD there was no internet! 

What’s an enterprising young emperor to do? Wait 1200 years for Al Gore to invent it? Or… build it himself! That’s exactly what Charles did! Al Gore claims the honor, but research shows that proof of concept testing began in 802 AD, a few years before Gore was born.

Charles revived a moribund Merovingian institution (the Missi) and made it the cornerstone of his imperial rule. It was a brilliant strategy. Charles acknowledged the natural tendency of his empire to fragment along pre-determined fault lines and he used the Missi to turn those faults to his advantage.

Missi were ‘sent’. Just as Jesus sent his apostles two-by-two, so Charles sent his Missi in pairs. Except Charles’ Missi were usually bishops and counts, not fishermen and tax collectors.

Their brief was thoroughly pragmatic but based on the fundamental belief that Church and State were ‘one and inseparable’, two hypostatic reflections of the Kingdom of God. For a more detailed treatment of various church/state models, visit "Church And State."

According to the Carolingian model, the relationship of Church and State is complementary. Just as the behavior of subatomic particles only makes sense when they are understood both as waves and as particles, so human society only makes sense when it is understood both as Church and as State. 

Note, we are not talking here about a quantum behaving first as a wave then as a particle (or vice versa). That’s how we perceive things, but it’s not how things are. To understand the behavior of quanta, we need to accept that a quantum is always both wave and particle, not ‘hare today, goon tomorrow’.

Accordingly, to understand the behavior of human society, we need to accept that society is always both Church and State. We may only be able to deal with one Gestalt at a time, but we must recognize that both are operating at all the times.

In another stroke of genius, Charles made sure that his Missi didn’t quit their day jobs. He took pains not to create a new, insulated, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. 

Like the ‘citizen legislators’ still governing in a few of our not-so-very-United States, Charles’ counts and bishops were still expected to perform all the duties of their respective stations but now they were also expected to spend a couple of months each year ‘in the district’, carrying the emperor’s water.

No doubt, being a Missi was inconvenient at times (months away from home, etc.), but each pair enjoyed power and authority beyond that of any other imperial functionary, save only the emperor himself.

As Roman Catholics regard the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, so the Carolingians regarded the Missi as Vicars of the Emperor. Reprising somewhat the role of the Old Testament judges, Charles’ Missi were empowered to right wrongs, adjudicate disputes, and impose the emperor’s will. Short of a rare direct appeal to the emperor himself, there was no way around the judgment of the Missi

The Missi gave the emperor extraordinary power. They were not only his eyes and ears ‘in the neighborhood’ but also his hands and voice. Missi were expected to report back to the emperor at least once a year on the ‘state of the neighborhood’ while communicating the emperor’s will to the ‘neighbors’.

Like Charles, we struggle today with the competing values of hierarchy and subsidiarity. We do ourselves a great disservice if we fail to draw on ideas from the past, just because they are ‘past’. Hurry, Charlemagne, a once and future king.


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