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Revisiting Charlemagne as Europe Disintegrates

Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, a new book on the towering Frankish king finds he was indeed 'great' in every sense.

Charlemagne at Alcuin, painted 1830 by Jean-Victor Schnetz, at the Louvre. (public domain)

King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne, by Janet L. Nelson, University of California Press, September 2019, 704 pages.

Towering over the World War I battlefield at Verdun, a giant statue of Charlemagne—the Frankish king crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD—rests its arms on a mighty broadsword. Inaugurated in 1929, the monument boldly announced France’s triumph over its German enemy a decade earlier by claiming the two countries’ shared progenitor as its own.

More recently, Charlemagne—or “Charles the Great,” as he is known in both French and German—and his 9th-century empire, which united France and Germany, have been evoked in support of a united Europe that is now faltering. Since 1950, prior to any political agreements, deserving promoters of European integration (including even a few Americans) have been awarded an annual “Charlemagne Prize” to celebrate contributions to what used to be called an “ever closer union.” That union now looks more and more like yesterday’s familiar patchwork of distinct nationalisms.

Janet L. Nelson’s meticulous biography of Charlemagne is as magisterial as the man himself. Writing a book about such a man is certainly a daunting feat. Neither Charlemagne nor any of his family members left any written records. Some (not Nelson) have doubted that he was even literate. We do not even know with certainty what language he spoke. The consensus favors a Charlemagne who was trilingual in an early Germanic dialect, a vulgate Latin ancestor of French, and scholarly Latin, but we will likely never know with certainty.

Nelson’s task in laying out a narrative of his life relies on an exhaustive empirical exploration of various sources attesting to his actions and attitudes and the events and personalities he encountered during his reign. Surviving letters from other rulers and potentates figure prominently, as do chronicles and narratives by lesser mortals who knew him, various decrees he issued in his own voice (if not necessarily his own pen), and even courtly poems and other literary forms that told of his deeds. Nelson’s five-decade career studying Carolingian Europe acquainted her as thoroughly as anyone with these sources, and she weaves them together with a level of empirical skill and corroborative persuasion rarely seen in academic writing today.

Nelson admits a lifelong bias—instilled in childhood by her mother—against the “great man” theory of history. In the intervening decades, her colleagues in academia have declared that school of thought dead and buried while their more celebrated competitors outside the ivory tower have seized on it and run all the way to the bank. Nelson, whose biography put this discord to what is in many ways the ultimate test, refers to her subject simply as “Charles,” avoiding the common fusion of his given name with his aggrandizing epithet.

A healthy dose of skepticism should underlie any empirical endeavor, but there can be no doubt from Nelson’s deft exploration of the extant record that Charlemagne proved himself “great” in every sense.

Born to an ambitious father who sidelined his own older brother and then usurped royal power by deposing the earlier Merovingian dynasty, Charlemagne inherited a legacy shaky in legitimacy. He proceeded to defend it by outwitting, outfighting, and outsurviving all of his enemies, a fair number of his friends, and fractious members of his own family. In separate episodes, his eldest son Pippin and cousin Duke Tassilo of Bavaria both rebelled against him, failed, and were confined to monasteries after being spared execution.

Not only did Charlemagne hold on to his inherited Frankish realm, he expanded it by sheer will and right of conquest to incorporate much of Italy, the forested heartland of Germany, some lands liberated from Muslim-dominated Spain, and swathes of Central Europe extending as far east as what would become the Hungarian plain. He pulled it off while centralizing and standardizing administration under a more or less reliable network of feudal vassals, building palaces and religious establishments to project his own power, cultivating alliances and friendships with faraway realms, leading nearly annual military campaigns, vigorously hunting for weeks on end, and still finding the time and energy to sire 19 children by five wives and numerous other attachments.

He had a practical and down-to-earth nature given to the wry irony upon which European statesmen had relied until the peasantry seeped into their ranks two or three generations earlier. He could seemingly adapt to any situation at any moment and turn it to his advantage. Even the seminal event of his life, his coronation as the new Emperor in the West, resulted not from grandiose planning but from impromptu action in saving the reigning Pope Leo III from his local enemies at a tough moment. He stood well over six feet tall and lived to the ripe old age of 65 at a time when most mortal men were prone to slouching two or three heads shorter and lucky to make it past their 40th birthdays.

In addition to charting Charlemagne’s rise in a way that is unlikely to be surpassed, Nelson also gives a powerful impression of life in what used to be called the “Dark Ages,” but has more recently become known as “Late Antiquity.” While Charlemagne’s antecedents originated in the migratory tribes that wrecked the Western half of the Roman Empire, their Latinization pulled them into an adaptive understanding of themselves as heirs to the imperial legacy. The status of a Roman patrician stood prominently among Charlemagne’s titles. His armies marched along Roman roads that remained usable. News, orders, and gossip traveled quickly, carried by paladins who moved over territory united by Rome’s Latin Christian heritage. Even when approaching death, the Roman legacy proved strong, with daily happenings interpreted through the lens of omens noted in relation to earlier Roman emperors by Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars.

Sometimes Nelson’s feminist bias comes through gratuitously. Is it really worth commenting that Charlemagne’s marital relations were chronicled only by male observers? Would a woman’s marital relations chronicled only by women be equally problematic? Similarly, was disapprobation of the Byzantine Empress Eirene’s murder of her own son the result of “patriarchy and good old-fashioned misogyny”? Would filicide be more acceptable in some kind of gender-neutral utopia? These foibles notwithstanding, it is noteworthy that Nelson voluntarily chose to cap an already distinguished career with a biography of the kind of man Charlemagne truly was: a great one.

Paul du Quenoy is President and Publisher of Academica Press

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