During the Christmas Mass in Rome in 800, Pope Leo III placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head, and the inhabitants of Rome acclaimed Charlemagne as their emperor. There had been no Emperor in western Europe for more than 300 years. Charlemagne shared special ties with Europe, and his connection with Europe continued well beyond his death. How?
The Charlemagne Prize
The annual Charlemagne Prize was created in 1950 by the German city of Aachen, located on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands, to honor those who worked to foster western European understanding.
In 1990, as the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union were disintegrating, Aachen broadened the criteria for winning. Since then, the prize has honored those who worked for the ‘overall unification of the peoples of Europe’—not just western Europe anymore, but all Europe.
Among those who have been given this award are Winston Churchill, Emmanuel Macron, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Pope Francis and the entire population of Luxembourg—a rather eclectic list.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Connection with Europe
The city of Aachen and Charlemagne had close historical ties. Aachen was his favorite residence late in life; he built his most famous palace there.
Aachen’s post-World War II invocation of Charlemagne was not unique to that city. Today, several departments of the European Commission (which constitutes the executive branch of the European Union) are housed in the European Commission Charlemagne Building, built in Brussels in 1967. Two years after moving into their Charlemagne building, the European Commission itself won the Charlemagne Prize.
In September 1944, Germany’s ruling Nazi party organized the Waffen Grenadier Brigade of the SS Charlemagne. The SS Charlemagne consisted primarily of French volunteers; after the war, these volunteers stated that they had served in the SS Charlemagne because they loved and wanted to defend Europe. Admittedly, these retrospective justifications might have been intended to obscure other motives. Nonetheless, the fact that veterans of the SS Charlemagne offered the ‘love of Europe’ as a plausible explanation for their service is evidence of how, more than one thousand years after Charlemagne’s death, people across the political spectrum linked him and Europe.
The ‘Paderborn Epic’
The link between Charlemagne and Europe extends all the way back to the emperor’s own lifetime.
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. Modern scholars have dubbed it the ‘Paderborn Epic’.
The poet bestowed on the him several appellations intended to flatter him. One was ‘Lighthouse of Europe’. That one never caught on. The poet’s ‘Apex of Europe’ did not catch on either. ‘Father of Europe’, on the other hand—pater Europae—did catch on.
About thirty years after Charlemagne’s death, a chronicler named Nithard likened him to a good father who had made beneficial bequests to Europe. Nithard’s testimony reveals that, already by the 840s, Charles was known as Charles the Great: Karolus magnus in Latin. 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.
‘Father of Europe’
But even ‘Father of Europe’ is understated compared to some of the accolades that contemporaries heaped on Charlemagne. The anonymous author of the ‘Paderborn Epic’ describes the recently crowned emperor Charlemagne thus:
He is 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.
However, not everyone has viewed Charlemagne in such a positive light, not during his lifetime, and not since then.
The ‘Vision of Wetti’
Ten years after Charlemagne’s death in 814, a monk named Wetti, who was himself dying, experienced a religious vision. He related what he had seen to his fellow monks, one of whom composed a prose work called the ‘Vision of Wetti’ in 824. Another monk expanded on this work in verse form three years later.
According to these accounts, Wetti had seen individuals undergoing purgatorial punishment for the sins that they had committed while alive. Among those whom Wetti saw was someone whom he clearly recognized, a former ruler over Italy and the Roman people. An angel told Wetti that God had denied this ruler immediate entrance into heaven because the ruler had “defiled himself with vile lechery”. As punishment, a wild animal was lacerating and tearing off the ruler’s genitals. Wetti does not name the ruler, but the verse version of 827 takes the form of an acrostic poem. The first letters of each line, when put together, spell out a name and a title: Carolus imperator, Charles the emperor, which is to say, Charlemagne.
In sum, many have lauded Charlemagne; others have regarded him as having much to answer for. And this debate has been going on for over a millennium.
Common Questions about Charlemagne, the Father of Europe
The Charlemagne Prize honors those who work for the overall unification of the peoples 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. Modern scholars have dubbed it the ‘Paderborn Epic’. The poet bestowed on Charlemagne several appellations intended to flatter him.
Ten years after Charlemagne’s death in 814, a monk named Wetti, who was himself dying, experienced a religious vision. He related what he had seen to his fellow monks, one of whom composed a prose work called the ‘Vision of Wetti’ in 824. According to these accounts, Wetti had seen individuals undergoing purgatorial punishment for the sins that they had committed while alive. Though no names were used, the first letters of each line, when put together, spell out a name and a title: Carolus imperator, Charles the emperor, which is to say, Charlemagne.