How I came to terms with Charlemagne

Today is the 1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne — Charles the Great, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor. Like many people, I used to have a somewhat low opinion of Charlemagne. I considered him an upstart who fooled no one with the staging of his coronation as Roman Emperor in the year 800. And when I began to learn more about the ongoing existence of the Roman Empire based in Constantinople, I found myself even less impressed with this johnny-come-lately Frankish usurper to Roman glory.

My opinion has shifted in the past few years.

First of all, I read Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. In this book, I actually got to spend time with the period of western mediaeval history leading up to and away from Charlemagne and put it in its wider context of the post-Roman Mediterranean world.

The Frankish world and Frankish kingdoms of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages are not simply a bunch of marauding barbarians out to seize land from Rome — indeed, they, and the other successor kingdoms of the continental West, initially began as bodies within the Roman system of power and rule over the provinces. When that power was effectively lost in the course of the fifth century, why get angry at the people who tried to restore order? (For more on these moments, see Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568).

With the early context for people like Childeric and Clovis in the late fifth/early sixth centuries and their establishment of a fairly stable state that continued many Roman traditions, the later context of Charlemagne is seen more clearly. He is the successor to the great Frankish kingdoms that brought order and stability to Gaul and Germania in a time of instability. He is no more an illegitimate upstart than Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Leo II the Isaurian (r. 717-741).

Such are the political thoughts about Charlemagne — but they aren’t really what turned me into a Charlefan.

It’s the art, the books, the literature.

Charlemagne, as you probably know (but just in case you don’t …), is the greatest and most renowned king of the Carolingian Dynasty that had effective rule of the Frankish realms from 711 to the late 800s, although only officially from Charlemagne’s father, Pippin III (r. 751-768). Preceding the Carolingians were the Merovingians, who allegedly united all Franks and Frankish realms under one ruler during the reign of Clovis (d. 511).

Although many Roman traditions and the rule of law were upheld during the Merovingian age, towards the end there was a cultural decline (just as there was a political decline on the part of the kings).

Under the Carolingians, and especially Charlemagne, there was an intellectual revival, renewal, renaissance (if you will). This was driven largely by Charlemagne’s concerns for religious correctness, but it managed to save for us many pagan authors, some of whom (such as Lucretius) can be traced back to one Carolingian manuscript. It was also fuelled by the gold flowing in from Charlemagne’s conquests, of course.

The facts are mind-blowing:

 For the first eight hundred years of the Christian era some 1,800 western manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts remain, while over 7,000 survive from the ninth century alone. (Giles Brown, ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, 34)

The statistic derives from Rosamond McKitterick, I believe. It’s very impressive. Charlemagne was the most powerful Carolingian, with the most resources at his disposal for the funding of such manuscripts, the widest ability to make his will known, and the most thoroughgoing legislation of reform, thus putting Carolingian reform and renaissance into high gear. The results are amazingly impressive.

We could leave it there and I’d be happy with Charlemagne.

But think of the literary men and scholars associated with him and his court — Alcuin, Einhard, Walahfrid Strabo — and the precedent that set for the ensuing century. And think of the books themselves as works of art  — not just the simple, elegant Caroline Minuscule bookhand but also the illumination and decoration of Carolingian books.

Finally, think of Aachen, of Charlemagne’s palace chapel.

So, maybe Charlie Main wasn’t a direct, constitutional successor of the Roman Emperors. Maybe there was no Senate to hail him Emperor. Maybe the East never recognised him as Emperor of the West.

But he’s still an enormously significant figure to whose reign and era we today owe so much. So don’t dismiss him with a derisive, Byzantine sniff — especially if you’re a westerner!


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