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Reflections on the Teflon king, Charlemagne

Few historical figures have been as universally acclaimed as Charlemagne. Born on 2 April, probably in 748, he became sole king of the Franks in 771 and Emperor in 800. Charlemagne was always very careful to polish his own image. Official writing, like the Royal Frankish Annals, omits or misrepresents delicate events and glosses over military defeats. It is hardly odd that Einhard, a monk who had served at Charlemagne’s court and that of his son, wrote an admiring life in the 830s. Another monk, Notker produced a biography in the 880s which is shot through with wondrous stories about the great man, perhaps to contrast with the increasing chaos of his own age. In the Song of Roland, earliest of the great Chansons de Geste, written down about 1100, Charlemagne emerges as the champion of Christendom against the Muslims, although nothing supports the notion that his wars in Spain were ideologically inspired. French and German popular literature from the 12th century onwards created a vast mythology around the figure of the great king. Dante introduced him into the Divine Comedy as a warrior of the faith, and in the later middle ages he emerges as one of the nine worthies of all history. Such was his reputation that European aristocrats claimed descent, if not from the great man or his family, then at least from his paladins. In the 19th century French and German historians competed to claim him for their own nation. In the 20th he became the darling of the Eurocrats for whom his empire prefigures their vision of a united states of Europe. The European Union began, of course, in 1957 with the treaty of Rome of 1957, an earlier symbol of unity. But the key document governing its development was agreed at Maastricht in 1992, and that was an important Carolingian centre. The apparatus of European government commutes between Strasbourg and Brussels, effectively crossing Austrasia, the ancient Frankish realm which gave rise to the Carolingian house.

It is perhaps more surprising that he has received such considerate treatment by modern historians. The stock of great figures of the past commonly fluctuates. King John, once regarded as the worst English king, has been praised as a skilled administrator, while even in France Napoleon has his detractors. No such rise and fall marks the story of Charlemagne, he is indeed a blue-chip stock. The very titles of recent books about him (Charlemagne: Father of a Continent by Alessandro Barbero, “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and his Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship” by D.A. Bullough, and Charlemagne. The Formation of a European Identity by Rosamond McKitterick) are paeans of praise! It cannot be claimed that this roseate vision arises simply from the mythology enshrined in medieval stories and romances or from the subtly prejudiced products of the Carolingian court. Every shred of evidence has been scrutinised and reinterpreted. And every time the great king has emerged smelling of roses.

“Seen as equally impressive is Charlemagne’s cultivation of learning, patronage of scholars and promotion of reform in the Christian Church.”

Except once. The only genuinely critical academic study is that of H. Fichtenau (The Carolingian Empire) which was written in 1949, at a time when the idea of a strong man uniting the continent by force was perhaps less than welcome. Fichtenau’s take on a ramshackle empire inevitably reminds us of the chaos of the house that Hitler built under which this Austrian scholar lived for much of his life. But is this simply a product of its time, a sport, an exception that proves the rule of the glory of Charlemagne?

Historians have been impressed by his administration, and Fichtenau’s harsh comments are often seen as the inappropriate application of modern standards. But Charlemagne’s structure can fairly be compared with that of Byzantium. The emperors at Constantinople had to cope with aristocratic faction, but Charlemagne had to share his authority with an elite which he constantly consulted. Seen as equally impressive is Charlemagne’s cultivation of learning, patronage of scholars and promotion of reform in the Christian Church. This had the effect of creating a culture which looked back to Rome and its inheritance of law and justice. This cultural imperative was particularly evident from the 780s . But we need to consider why he was doing this? We might admire his administrative efficiency, promotion of the Christian Church, patronage of missionary activity, and promotion of cultural unity. The victims of the Verden massacre, all 4500 of them and their relatives and friends, might have had a different take on the great king. And year after year his armies visited fire and massacre upon the people of Saxony (and, indeed anywhere else where they went). This is not to judge him by modern standards of international law. It is to remember that the man was a soldier. That beneath the glory of empire and the praises of the court intellectuals was a reality of blood and iron. Charlemagne was first and foremost a soldier, and what he built was designed to bind his lands together to bolster his military power. Prestige, kudos, the praise of the learned the title of Emperorall were contributions to this end. Charlemagne may have been a man of visionor at least a man who developed a vision, but that served to underline his brute military power. He was man of his age, an age truly of iron when war was a norm and peace something exceptional.

Featured image credit: “Equestrian statue of Charlemagne” by Agostino Cornacchini, photo by Myrabella. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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