Shortly after Charlemagne’s imperial coronation on Christmas Day, 800, a poet attached to his court wrote an epic poem, today called The Paderborn Epic. The poem tells how Pope Leo III, badly injured, fled to Paderborn, asking Charlemagne for help, which he provided. The poet heaps accolades on Charlemagne, including one that became popular: Father of Europe, pater Europae.
Charlemagne’s Enduring Resonance
Charlemagne’s enduring resonance owes much to two facts. First, he ruled over an empire that encompassed more of Europe than any empire had since the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire. Second, at a very early date, people seized upon Charlemagne and projected upon him everything that they wanted in a ruler.
While there is much truth in Einhard’s statement that he wrote his influential biography of Charlemagne because he was well qualified to write such a work, having known Charlemagne so very well, Einhard’s Charlemagne is an idealized figure whom Einhard holds up to Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis, as a model to be emulated.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Notker and Charlemagne’s Biography
Later in the 9th century, Notker wrote a biography of Charlemagne praising him for his effectiveness against the Vikings, for his ability to produce male children, and for his refusal to give more than one county to a count. That might seem like an odd assortment of compliments, but there is a logic at work here.
In actuality, Notker is using Charlemagne to deliver a series of messages to Charlemagne’s great-grandson, Charles the Fat, who, due to the deaths of other heirs, found himself at the head of a briefly re-unified empire. The messages were: do something about the Vikings; produce some male sons so that the Carolingian line doesn’t die out; and stop making your counts so powerful that you can’t control them.
Notker’s exhortation of Charles the Fat to be like Charlemagne proved to have little effect. But Notker’s failure to effect political and military change by invoking Charlemagne did nothing to diminish Charlemagne’s appeal. All those who had once known Charlemagne would soon be dead; the voices of his admiring court scholars were preserved in writing, while the voices of his victims were entirely stilled.
Under those conditions, it became easier and easier for subsequent generations to project their own desires and fears on Charlemagne, making him what they wanted.
Differing Views of Charlemagne
In many cases, those with differing views of Charlemagne stood on the equally solid historical ground.
Montesquieu saw in Charlemagne a consultative ruler with a talent for maintaining social harmony among various social groups. Hitler saw in Charlemagne a ruler who accepted the necessity and value of compulsion and killing. They were indeed talking about the same person. Moreover, they were both correct.
Machiavelli dismissed Charlemagne for having abased secular authority by allowing the pope to crown him, while Napoleon embraced Charlemagne for putting the papacy in its place and for asserting the superiority of secular authority. Once again, they were indeed talking about the same person. And, once again, they were both correct.
Charlemagne’s Characteristics and Behavior
Charlemagne was an 8th- and 9th-century ruler, who came from a world very different from the worlds inhabited by his later critics and defenders. Because he came from such a different world, Charlemagne possessed a range of characteristics and exhibited a range of behaviors that, in the eyes of many later generations, shouldn’t and couldn’t go together.
Charlemagne made his own nephews disappear, yet he commissioned moving epitaphs for dead infants and wives. Charlemagne struggled to write his own name and never succeeded in doing so, yet he promoted the Carolingian Renaissance and listened and responded as abstruse, lengthy theological works were read aloud to him. Charlemagne cared deeply about justice, yet he deposed Duke Tassilo of Bavaria through rigged judicial proceedings.
Confronted with combinations that made sense in the eighth and ninth centuries, but did not make sense in their own later periods, authors and rulers selected individual qualities that they wished to emulate and to admire, or that they wished to condemn and to abhor. And then they downplayed, dismissed, or ignored the rest.
Varied Assessments by Historians
Twentieth-century historians, too, have varied in their assessments of Charlemagne and his empire, leaning sometimes toward condescension and sometimes toward celebration. In the first half of the 20th century, those assessments tended to be bleak and unforgiving.
In the 1920s, the pioneering Belgian historian Henri Pirenne thought that Charlemagne’s empire represented the nadir of the European economy during the last two thousand years. The empire was impoverished and isolated from the outside world; Charlemagne’s government and culture reflected that deprivation.
In the years immediately following World War II, the two most influential historians of Charlemagne and his empire were the Belgian François-Louis Ganshof and the Austrian Heinrich Fichtenau. Both regarded Charlemagne as a failure—a failure with high ambitions, but a failure nonetheless.
In the final quarter of the 20th century, historians’ views on Charlemagne changed considerably, and they became positive about Charlemagne.
Common Questions about Points of View of Critics, Defenders, and Historians of Charlemagne
In the 9th century, Notker wrote a biography of Charlemagne praising him for his effectiveness against the Vikings, for his ability to produce male children, and for his refusal to give more than one county to a count.
Montesquieu saw in Charlemagne a consultative ruler with a talent for maintaining social harmony among various social groups. On the other hand, Hitler saw in Charlemagne a ruler who accepted the necessity and value of compulsion and killing.
n the 1920s, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne thought that Charlemagne’s empire represented the nadir of the European economy during the last two thousand years. The empire was impoverished and isolated from the outside world; Charlemagne’s government and culture reflected that deprivation.