The study of Charlemagne, and the broader field called Carolingian history, has changed markedly in the last 25 years or so. Carolingian refers to the dynasty to which Charlemagne belonged. All were members of the dynasty that ruled much of continental Europe in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries.
Einhard: Member of Charlemagne’s Court
The richest and most contemporary account of Charlemagne’s life is the Life of Charlemagne, written by a member of Charlemagne’s court, named Einhard.
Einhard was born circa 770. He was educated in a monastery, and the monastery’s abbot sent Einhard around 790 to the royal court at Aachen, where he remained until Charlemagne’s death in 814, nearly a quarter of century later. During that time, Einhard became an important political counselor and a friend of Charlemagne.
At Charlemagne’s court, Einhard became a central figure within a revival of learning called the Carolingian Renaissance. He was a skilled writer of Latin, and well acquainted with classical authors such as Cicero and Suetonius. Some 15 years after Charlemagne’s death, Einhard put his literary talents and personal knowledge of the emperor to use when he composed his biographical Life of Charlemagne. Existing in more than one hundred medieval manuscripts, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne became the definitive account of its subject.
Life of Charlemagne
Einhard describes how Charlemagne looked, which is helpful, as the only contemporary portrait of Charlemagne is a profile view of him on coins issued late in his reign.
According to Einhard, Charlemagne had eyes that were large and lively, and hair that was magnificent in its luxuriousness. At the same time, Einhard’s physical description can be confounding. Charlemagne was tall; his height was seven times the length of his foot, which Einhard mentions because he regards those proportions as excellent—but he never tells how long Charlemagne’s foot was.
More straightforward are his descriptions of how Charlemagne loved hunting and, especially toward the end of his life, bathing in the warm geothermal springs of Aachen.
But one must always keep in mind that Einhard admired Charlemagne and felt gratitude toward him, which shapes everything that he writes about Charlemagne.
Why did Charlemagne separate from his second wife so abruptly, after only a year of marriage? According to Einhard, Charlemagne did so “for some unknown reason”. Why, when Charlemagne’s brother died, did his sister-in-law and nephews flee precipitously from the Kingdom of the Franks and go to Italy? “For no apparent reason,” said Einhard. When the subject matter turned sensitive, Einhard’s memory and knowledge mysteriously failed him.
One strongly suspects that he knew the reasons, but chose not to share them.
This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of Europe. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Tracking Charlemagne through Charters
Besides the testimony of Einhard, there are charters that Charlemagne issued, which generally consist of grants that Charlemagne made to religious institutions such as monasteries.
The charters help us to track Charlemagne’s movements because, as best as we can tell, he made these grants in person. We have to be careful though, because some charters are forgeries, created to fabricate property claims and false historical connections to Charlemagne.
Of equally great importance are the written acts of Charlemagne’s government; both then and now, those acts are called capitularies.
Throughout his long reign as the King of the Franks, from 768 to 814, Charlemagne in most years met in assemblies with the most important people from his kingdom. Attending the assemblies were warrior aristocrats from Frankish families much like the Carolingians themselves, as well as Christian bishops and abbots. These assemblies dealt primarily with a wide variety of issues: war, justice, taxation, religion, and education, to name some of the major ones.
Out of these assemblies came capitularies. The term capitulary derived from the document’s organization into various ‘chapters’, known in Latin as capitula.
Capitularies from Charlemagne’s Reign
From Charlemagne’s reign, about ninety different sets of capitularies survive today. Sometimes the capitularies consist of laws that all subjects were to follow; sometimes they consist of administrative instructions for royal and ecclesiastical officials to follow; and sometimes they consist of harangues and moral exhortations.
In the capitularies, we see Charlemagne identifying and tackling problems like how to convert the Saxons to Christianity, how to make certain that there were enough farm tools on his estates, and how to improve the study of Latin.
The capitularies reflect Charlemagne’s concerns. But they also reflect the concerns of other attendees. Each capitulary may have had Charlemagne’s approval, but his is not the only voice present. The multitude of voices speaking at Charlemagne’s assemblies probably accounts for the nature of these capitularies. The capitularies tend to be vague, disorganized, and repetitive, reflecting the ebb and flow of verbal exchange.
The Royal Frankish Annals
Another crucial source for understanding Charlemagne is a text known as the Royal Frankish Annals.
Charlemagne himself seems to have initiated the production of the Royal Frankish Annals around 790, and to have overseen their production until his death in 814. The Royal Frankish Annals provide a year-by-year narrative of events starting with 741, seven years before Charlemagne’s birth. After Charlemagne’s death, authors continued the Royal Frankish Annals through 829, and then someone in the 830s revised many of the earlier entries pertaining to Charlemagne. Both the Revised Royal Frankish Annals and the original ones are extant today.
In the Royal Frankish Annals, we see Charlemagne as he and those in his entourage wanted others to remember him. And they wanted others to remember Charlemagne admiringly, which sometimes required a selective approach to the historical record. For example, the Royal Frankish Annals for 778 provide a succinct account of Charlemagne’s famous military expedition to Spain that year. It is generally reliable—aside from omitting the fact that Charlemagne had been defeated in Spain.
So, there are biographies favorable to Charlemagne, charters issued by those who received gifts from Charlemagne, capitularies that reflect what Charlemagne approved of during assembly meetings, and annals that give us Charlemagne’s side of the story.
The adage that history is written by the victors holds true of Charlemagne.
Common Questions about Knowing Charlemagne through Historical Accounts
The Life of Charlemagne was written by a member of Charlemagne’s court, named Einhard.
Capitularies from Charlemagne’s reign consist of laws that all subjects were to follow; sometimes they consist of administrative instructions for royal and ecclesiastical officials to follow; and sometimes they consist of harangues and moral exhortations.
The Royal Frankish Annals provide a year-by-year narrative of events starting with 741, seven years before Charlemagne’s birth. After Charlemagne’s death, authors continued the Royal Frankish Annals through 829.