A Special Study of Charlemagne
Dr. Scott G. Birdseye is Director of the Global Protection Foundation; a non-for profit group dedicated to ensuring successful proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to needy Third World Nations.
Primary documents are of utmost importance to the study of history, for both establishment of fact and for understanding of the insight and views of those who lived in the past. While historical accounts do not necessarily record the complete truth, as they are biased by the perceptions and personal circumstances of their authors, these documents do fully illustrate how people viewed certain figures and events of later historical importance.
Three works which represent this construct of the aspects of primary documentation are Vita Caroli, De Carolo Magno, and Chanson de Roland, each of which shows a different view of Charlemagne relative to the authors’ own historical and social framework. Study of these documents can show how the image of Charlemagne changed greatly in the years following his death and how Charlemagne’s image evolved from that of a respected leader into that of a firmly established figure of myth and legend.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Charlemagne, as he is now known, is remembered as the
premier figure of Medieval Europe, the most influential and well-known ruler to rise from the anarchy and chaos of the post-Roman Imperial world. Born in 742, he became King of the Franks, and in 800 Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a post which he held until his death fourteen years later. Today, Charlemagne is seen, by some scholars, as the founder and defining force of what would become the modern European society, as, through his administration, brought together German, Roman and Christian cultures into one unique model, which would influence the image of both kings and government in Europe for centuries. This description of Charlemagne, however, is based upon earlier written works, works written during various times and for various reasons.
The first of these early works on Charlemagne was Vita Caroli, (The Life of Charles), which was written sometime between 829 and 836, by Einhard, a member of the court of Charlemagne at Aachen, and a personal friend of the magnate. Vita Caroli was written as an official history and was an attempt to record the life and deeds of the king. The close relationship of Einhard to Charlemagne would, as it seems, create an air of historical accuracy to the work, as Einhard was, in many cases, writing about incidents and events to which he was a personal witness.
However, this close proximity to the subject can also create inconsistencies, as Einhard was undoubtedly loyal to Charlemagne as both friend and subject. Thus, it becomes conceivable that Einhard’s writings held a favorable view of Charlemagne. However, despite the contiguity of Einhard and Charlemagne, Vita Caroli was written based upon earlier public records, to which Einhard, as an official, had ready access, thus negating some of the proximal validity held by the writing. Einhard also chose to neglect some aspects of Charlemagne’s life, particularly those which could be considered scandalous or lacking in propriety, in one case, the questions about the legitimacy of Charlemagne’s birth.
Einhard’s biography does illustrate how contemporaries of Charlemagne viewed the Emperor. While the writer does neglect the king’s improprieties, he mentions many details about the king’s private life, and tells about Charlemagne’s wives and concubines. The work does not overly glorify Charlemagne as a general, and speaks honestly about how limited his actual battle experience is. In all, the tale describes a normal man, who goes through simple daily tasks, dressing and eating, but a man who is also greatly respected for his advancements of learning and for his military campaigns. The fact that several groups of conspirators try to kill Charlemagne points to the idea that he may have been respected, but that this respect was not universal. Einhard, recorder of the documents, even doubts their place in history, and questions whether or not the stories of the life of Charlemagne would even be remembered in the future, despite his then current respect.
This respect had grown however, and by the time of Notkar the Stammering Monk of Gall, some seventy years after Charlemagne’s death. The writer, an elderly monk, living in the same monastery as the infamous Pepin the Hunchback, wrote De Carolo Magno as a trilogy describing Charlemagne’s piety, military prowess, and administration, although the final book was either never written or has been lost. The Stammering Monk never knew Charlemagne, and hence, all his knowledge of the man and his life, came from other sources. De Carolo Magno puts Charlemagne in the realm of the epic hero, and throughout the books, anecdotes and stories are told, the wholes of which form a mythical saga about Charlemagne, those around him, and the events of their lives.
There are important and obvious historical inaccuracies throughout De Carolo Magno, and these are borne out by the mythic nature of the saga and its heroes. The first book describes how bishops encountered the Devil and hobgoblins, and a story in the second book tells about Pepin and his encounter with the Devil. These supernatural occurrences lead to an interpretation of De Carolo Magno as a historically inaccurate document, written not to provide actual reference, but rather as a simple story book, illustrating moral lessons and using Charlemagne’s life as a vehicle for transmitting these moral lessons.
The idea that Charlemagne could be the subject of a collection of moral lessons about how to be courageous, loyal, observe holidays, and live a pious life, shows how Charlemagne’s image had changed only a few decades after his death. The Stammering Monk’s description of Charlemagne is not that of a completely human man who did many extraordinary deeds, but rather that of a noble hero, cultural icon, and nearly sanctified emperor whose gallant life is an example to all. With no powerful successor, Charlemagne had secured for himself an esteemed place, as with his empire in decline, the people, including the Stammerer, had no living cultural hero and thus looked back to the man who had provided astounding things for their world, but who was no more. Thus, did the enmythication of Charlemagne begin.
This ascendance of Charlemagne from respected king to cultural hero had become established as early as two hundred years after his death, as can be seen in Chanson de Roland, the epic tale of the defeat of the infidel expansions into Western Europe. The tale, written to describe the historical events in manner of epic quality, was written some time in the latter half of the twelfth century. While Charlemagne is not the central figure of the story, his place within the story provides important insight into twelfth century views of the first Holy Roman Emperor.
His role in the story is that of the benevolent king, commanding and overseeing the campaigns of Roland, the hero. As he sends Roland to battle, Charlemagne gives to Roland a sacred bow, a symbol of power, promises him almost divine protection, and speaks praising courage and heroism. Thus, Charlemagne is seen as the source and wielder of great power, and as a holy protector, who can promise supernatural safety, and as the personification of the virtues of courage. Therefore Charlemagne, while not the hero of the tale, is an important figure, one of mighty strength and majesty, and as a holy magnate, blessed by God and controlling his power on earth. Gone is the image of a well respected king, replaced by a nearly god-like figure who is the embodiment of all virtue.
While these three documents describing the life of Charlemagne do differ in many ways, and do contain information that is at times apocryphal, biased, and blatantly wrong, they each, in their own way, illustrate the ways in which the first Holy Roman Emperor was seen by people throughout three hundred years of history. As primary documents, the stories show how Charlemagne, a real figure and normal man who engineered important changes in European society, became known as a mythical hero of epic tales, and a near-saint of Herculean proportion, and why today, he is remembered as one of the greatest, if not the premier figure of Medieval European history.