How Did Charlemagne Get His Name?

poets, biographers, latin, french, german lead to the english "charlemagne"

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The word “Charlemagne” traveled far from Latin to English. From “the Father of Europe” to “Charles the Great,” he had as many aliases as the whole mafia combined. This week on Wondrium Shorts, trace their origins.

Named after his grandfather Charles Martel, the man known as Charlemagne was born simply as Charles. He was also known as Karolus Magnus, meaning Charles the Great; the father of Europe; Charl-le-magne, in French; and some nicknames that failed to catch on, such as Lighthouse of Europe and Apex of Europe. He was also the first Holy Roman Emperor.

By modern standards, his most common moniker is Charlemagne. In the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe, Dr. Philip Daileader, Professor of History at William & Mary, explains where Charlemagne’s many names came from.

The Father of Europe

“At some point between 800 and 803, an anonymous poet attached to Charlemagne’s court wrote an epic poem, only part of which survives today, that modern scholars have dubbed ‘The Paderborn Epic,'” Dr. Daileader said. “The poet bestowed on Charlemagne many appellations intended to flatter him.”

One of those appellations was “Lighthouse of Europe,” which never caught on; nor did the poet’s “Apex of Europe.” However, “Father of Europe”—or pater Europae—did. According to Dr. Daileader, a biographer named Nithard first compared Charlemagne to a benevolent paternal figure.

“Nithard likened Charlemagne to a good father who had made beneficial bequests to Europe,” Dr. Daileader said. “‘Charles of happy memory, and deservedly known as the Great, called emperor by all nations and dying at a ripe old age, left Europe filled with every good thing.'”

Also, as the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne brought together a great swath of European territory which still shares a loose fraternity today. This legacy lends to the image of Charlemagne as the “Father of Europe.”

The Great King, and So On

Nithard heaped this praise upon Charlemagne 30 years after the emperor’s death. Charlemagne passed in early 814 CE. However, another compliment Nithard paid him, in this same passage, says much about how he was seen as early as the mid-9th century—and provides a massive clue as to his modern name.

“Note how Nithard’s testimony reveals that, already by the 840s, Charles was already known as Charles the Great: Karolus Magnus in Latin,” Dr. Daileader said. “Centuries later, as early German and early French came into being, that became Karl der Grosse in German, and Charl-le-magne in French, whence the English Charlemagne.”

As Dr. Daileader pointed out, such lofty titles as “Father of Europe” and “Charles the Great” pale in comparison to the likes of which the anonymous author of “The Paderborn Epic” pinned on him.

Citing the original epic poem, Dr. Daileader said that the poet describes him as “powerful, wise, knowing, prudent, brilliant, approachable, learned, good, mighty, virtuous, gentle, distinguished, just, pious, a famous warrior, king, ruler, venerable summit, august, bountiful, distinguished arbiter, judge, sympathetic to the needy, peacemaking, generous, clever, cheerful, and handsome.”

Basically, an all around “Great” guy.

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily