Charles the Great looms out of the swirling obscurity of post-Roman Europe like the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, signaling simultaneously radical renewal and an alteration of everything that came before. As Janet Nelson illuminates in her new book, it is impossible to imagine the West without Charlemagne as figurative and literal progenitor.
The King of the Franks and the Lombards was physically imposing and long-lived, garnering greatness through both circumstance and character. His grandfather Charles Martel, nicknamed “The Hammer” for his prowess in battle, had been duke under Merovingian monarchs, but after almost three centuries they had become poor and decadent “do-nothing kings,” reduced to traversing their fraying domain in a peasant’s oxcart.
By 717, The Hammer was de facto monarch, a status reinforced by his epochal 732 victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours. In 751, his son, Pepin The Short (amusingly betrothed to “Bertha Broadfoot”) dispensed with the fiction and consigned poor King Childeric III “The Stupid” and his son to monkhood. He expelled the Moors from France, added Aquitaine to his kingdom, and on his death in 768 left two of his sons, Charles and Carloman, a jointly-held realm extending from Brittany to Regensburg and Frisia to the Pyrenees. Carloman died in 771, probably averting civil war.
From childhood, Charles was involved in affairs of state. At five, he rode out to greet Pope Stephen III on the pontiff ’s first visit to the land of the Franks; by nine he was attending governing councils. He distinguished himself in war, backing up the dreaded furor teutonicus with good generalship and excellent weaponry. Franconian fearsomeness flavors the account of Charlemagne’s 773-4 Siege of Pavia in the 1881 popular history Bulfinch’s Mythology: “Iron covered the fields and the roads; iron points reflected the rays of the sun. This iron, so hard, was borne by a people whose hearts were harder still.”
What uplifted Charles above others were his interests in education, law, and religion, and a willingness to take good advice. This man, who always had difficulty reading and writing, unexpectedly facilitated a renaissance in a continent seeking a new idea of civilization. This idea was explicated in a plethora of admonitions, annals, capitularies, and charters written in the elegant Carolingian minuscule script. Alcuin of York, leading light of Europe’s scholars, became his tutor, and helped Charles found schools, endow monasteries, negotiate alliances, navigate theological disputes, promulgate ideals of Christian kingship, and hone his legacy as a continuator- cum-harbinger of the civilizational heritage of Rome.
As in later renaissances, classical culture was refreshed and reimagined—this time as Catholic, and around a new ethno- national conception called Europe. Great buildings rose, the first notation for European music was written, and the coinage was reformed, satisfyingly at Frankfurt, which is still the center of German finance. The literature of Ovid was among the innumerable manuscripts retrieved from the Roman wrack, alongside statues and other spoils brought to Aachen from Rome and Ravenna. Aachen’s church-palace was modelled on Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre and Antioch’s Golden Octagon and built from reclaimed Roman masonry, while its undercroft cement is tinged pink with crushed brick.
Relations between Aachen and Rome warmed and cooled, but when Leo III crowned Charles Holy Roman Emperor in 800, both benefited. Charles obtained spiritual sanction and public prostration from the Vicar of Christ, and Leo had secured the Eternal City’s right to anoint the arbiter of Europe. The continent was theoretically more united than at any other time since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, its subjects at least notionally followers of one faith.
The freshly renewed imperium developed neither a centralized administration nor even a coherent unifying idea— Voltaire’s joke that it wasn’t Holy, Roman, or an Empire has force. But it elicited instant respect. Harun al-Rashid, of Arabian Nights fame, sent his new equal a lavish tribute, including a white elephant.
But by that point, Charles was aging, his kingdom beset by famines, epidemics, and Danish raiders, and his favorite sons died. Suffering from gout and grief, he was troubled by ill omens: the elephant’s demise and a lightning-strike on the golden apple finial on Aachen church. He slowly withdrew and absorbed himself in his favorite book, Saint Augustine’s City of God. His only possible heir was son Louis, whose sobriquet “The Pious” suggests essential unsuitability. So it proved, because shortly after the “Lighthouse of Europe” was interred in 814, the Carolingian peace unraveled. Franks reverted to their fratricidal traditions, non-Franks renewed attacks, and soon Charles’s reign seemed like a land of lost content.
Despite this, or perhaps because he died before his kingdom fell into disorder, Charlemagne’s name today encapsulates good luck. His likeness is the model for the King of Hearts on playing cards, and gamblers say that those who have left a game in good time have done a “Faire Charlemagne.” After his death, nostalgists like Einhard and Notker “The Stammerer” started to make the man of parts into a Man of Destiny. Charles metamorphosed into Charlemagne, central to the Matter of France, paralleling the Matter of Britain, a mythology of Trojan tales, slain giants, swan-knights, semi-sentient swords, and transfiguring relics. The French flavor added Bayard the magic horse, the arch-traitor Ganelon, and Roland going down in glory with the Roncesvalles rearguard. This fictive Charles could be gullible or unjust, but he still seemed a paragon whose lost example leached into songs and verses carried continent-wide by jongleurs, cementing fond beliefs in perfect knights and a just king, a warrior for Christ against the exotic paynim.
The elevation of Charlemagne to the status of legend soon merged his memory with the history of Rome, as Alain Schnapp noted in The Discovery of the Past, “…the Romans were confused with Charlemagne…[t]heaters, amphitheaters and temples became towers of Roland, palaces of Pepin le Bref, gates of Ganelon.”
At Hastings, the Normans discovered La Chanson de Roland—the Conqueror’s cleric half-brother Odo perhaps identifying with the poem’s soldier-martyr Bishop Turpin. Such songs were sung by Crusaders—whom the Muslims generically called “Franks”—and Spanish Reconquistadors devoted to Santiago’s cult of St. James the Moor-Slayer.
He and his paladins charge through the epic verse, political and religious metaphors, and folklore of Europe, from da Varagine’s Golden Legend to Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, the Dutch Aiol, Denmark’s Holger Danske, and Wales’s Campeu Charlyamen. “Charles” became the root-word of Bulgarian, Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, and Slovak terms for king. He was canonized, albeit by the Antipope Paschal III, and at the ceremony Frederick Barbarossa presented a reliquary and mantled himself in Charles’s incorruptible aura.
Charlemagne was painted by Raphael and Durer, brought to the stage by Lope de Vega, and emulated by Napoleon. During World War I, the French and German navies both named ships after him. All these combative connotations notwithstanding, he rose irrepressibly after 1945 as an icon for Christian Democrat believers in a new kind of continent.
Nelson’s major new English-language biography is exceedingly welcome, because Britain and Charles mattered, and matter, to each other. Alcuin, from the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, was far more than a codifier of Charles’s commands. He interpreted classical and patristic texts for Europe’s most influential individual and corresponded copiously with Hiberno- Saxon ecclesiastics on both banks of the Rhine. Charles aided Northumbria’s rulers and mediated a matrimonial alliance with Mercia. The earliest extant manuscript of La Chanson de Roland is held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and Bayard’s legendary leap took place in Lincolnshire. Later republicans paid ambivalent homage, Blake portraying him as personification of War and Dominion, and both Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams claimed descent. What one 1990s scholar sniffed at as “the Carolingian moment” is in a sense ongoing.
Nelson makes sense of this mythopoetic melange by cleaving to sources and making modest inferences where others have been carried away. She presupposes basic knowledge; those new to the subject could start with an overview like Friedrich Heer’s Charlemagne and his World (1975). She is an historiographer’s historiographer, proficient in several languages, averse to extrapolations yet sensitive to suggestions, performing analytic miracles with sketchy and tendentious documentation. Because of her caution, she persuasively paints a portrait of a man “radiating energy,” a shrewd interrogator, humorous, family-oriented, mourning dead comrades, seeing himself as joined with his subjects in “a bond of peace.” Nelson parses everything from poems to grain-price edicts to give fresh insights. She doesn’t overlook the things 2019 finds unsavory, such as the murky fate of Carloman’s young sons, or the mass beheadings of prisoners, but clearly wants to find the good behind the Great.
Scrupulous care is strictly inconsistent with chivalry, and King and Emperor is admittedly more edifying than it is exciting. However, as Bulfinch observes, “This prince, though the hero of numerous romantic legends, appears greater in history than in fiction.” Truth is mightier than myth, and Nelson’s powerful treatment is the closest we can get to a perennially compelling person who, through real deeds, bequeathed us a vast imaginative empire.
Image Credit: King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne, by Janel L. Nelson