History Professor Says Invocations of Charlemagne Often Cherry-Picked

dictators cite charles the great for their own purposes, professor says

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Invoking historical figures for one’s own agenda is Politicking 101. For centuries, tyrants have compared themselves and their ideologies to ancient leaders. Philip Daileader wants to separate Napoleon from Charlemagne.

Philip Daileader in Wondrium studio
In the series Charlemagne: Father of Europe, Dr. Philip Daileader, Professor of History at William & Mary, returns to Wondrium to shed light on the first Holy Roman Emperor. Photo by Wondrium

Napoleon Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck, and Adolf Hitler are just some of the big names to invoke the name or image of Charlemagne to suit their own needs. Hitler demanded praise for Charlemagne for his “forcible unification” of Germany, while Napoleon saw in Charlemagne a forerunner to Napoleon’s authoritarian and militaristic rule. However, these invocations of Charles the Great are as selective as they are self-serving.

This subject is at the forefront of Wondrium’s eye-opening series Charlemagne: Father of Europe, due in no small part to its presenter, Dr. Philip Daileader, Professor of History at William & Mary. In an exclusive interview, Dr. Daileader explained this aspect of the material and why medieval history is such a major part of his life.

Not So Fast, Monsieur Bonaparte

Separating fact from fiction is a common task for history experts. For example, even the name Charlemagne has been traced back through at least three languages, if not four. As Dr. Daileader helped shape Charlemagne: Father of Europe, he found that bringing lofty citations of Charlemagne back down to Earth was frequent enough to become a trend.

“Some of the legends are very contradictory,” Dr. Daileader said. “People latch onto different aspects of Charlemagne and see him as a progenitor for themselves. As a result, Charlemagne of legend was sometimes embraced by figures who you might expect—authoritarians such as Napoleon and Hitler, they’re going to like him.

“But in the 18th century, champions of Republicanism, they love Charlemagne! They think Charlemagne is their progenitor because he consulted with assemblies, which he did every single year, and they said ‘Look, it’s like a Parliament!'”

People from all along the political spectrum try to latch onto Charlemagne and see themselves in him. According to Dr. Daileader, they’re all partly right, but they cherry-pick what they do and don’t want to see in him, pretending that the parts of his life that don’t fit with their goals simply don’t exist. This became essential for forming the series Charlemagne: Father of Europe.

“Our purpose is not to fall into that trap, not to look for the bits of Charlemagne that we’re comfortable with and pretend the other elements aren’t there, but to try to get the whole picture, warts and all, no matter how it makes us feel.”

“Altar” Ego

Dr. Daileader was raised Catholic. He was an altar boy and found himself reading church missals, becoming fascinated with the history behind religion, especially Catholicism and Europe.

“I was always very intrigued by the names of the saints, because their names seemed outlandish to me and I had no idea who they were or why they were important,” Dr. Daileader said. “So, to some extent, I think I was drawn to the Middle Ages in part by those experiences.”

He also took Latin in high school while coming up through the Catholic educational system. He found Latin to be exceedingly useful to his future career path. In fact, it was through studying Latin at such an early age that he realized he could pursue a career in history.

Dr. Daileader started his career at the same time that Wondrium’s parent company, The Teaching Company, was coming into its own. He filmed his first series with the company in 2001 and has since returned for four more, including his Charlemagne series, which is his most recent.

Charlemagne: Father of Europe is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily