Charlemagne
Charlemagne statue, Notre Dame, Paris

 

Sitting high upon a massive plinth, guarding the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, is the bronze equestrian statue of King of the Franks, Charlemagne, and his guards. Who is this King from the Middle Ages and why is he so beloved in French history?

I recently listened to a history podcast whose author claimed that the life of Charlemagne was actually a myth, as King Arthur of the Round Table: Sacrilège! Quel Fromage!

How could one believe that the great, “King of the Franks” who united much of western and central Europe during the Middle Ages could be just another historical figure who captivated the imagination of generations based upon his ideals and values? The fact that the Anglo-Saxons have been in conflict with the Franks since the eighth century and that the source of this myth in question is an editor of the BBC could have something to do with that!

According to Dr Marco Nievergelt, a senior teaching fellow in the department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick:

 “Multiple versions of the mythical Charlemagne were conjured up over the following centuries. He was reimagined as a proto-crusader, a charismatic military leader, a new King David, a saintly king and benefactor of the Church and even an apocalyptic king, prophesied to return after death to defeat the forces of Antichrist”.

I get the contemporary argument; however, I am a hopeless romantic at heart and cognoscente of French history and therefore, for the purpose of this blog post, will present the history of Charlemagne from the point of view of Richard Winston and Harry Bober, Professor of Humanities, New York University in their book CHARLEMAGNE (albeit a 50-year-old PoV!!).

CHARLEMAGNE (French for “Charles the Great”) is beautifully illustrated with authentic prints and relics from the world archives of: Modena, Venice, Munich, BNF of Paris, Bremen, Berlin and Vienna among others.  These auspicious privileges are afforded when you teach for NYU!  This is more of a personal look at Charlemagne than a political argument of his campaigns which is in my wheelhouse!

Charlemagne crown
King of the Franks, Charlemagne’s coronation

[photo credit: Charlemagne, Harper & Row]

A little background of this great King.  Charlemagne became the sole King of the Franks after the death of his father and sudden death his brother, Carloman. During his reign from 800 to 814 A.D., he conquered and “Christianized” (at times upon penalty of death, yikes) much of western Europe including France (Aquitaine, Burgundy, Neustria, Lombardy, Bavaria), Belgium, Netherlands, W. Germany and a part of Switzerland.  Charlemagne traveled to Rome in 774 and met with Pope Hadrian and gained his support through this campaign. He was eventually named the “Holy Emperor of Rome”. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne played an important role as he protected orthodox Christianity against prevailing medieval heresies.

There is insightful, detailed political history throughout this book of Charlemagne’s conquests. The history behind the epic poem of The Song of Roland, The Count Roland (Hruodland) is explained in great detail here. Of course, much of the historical truth of Roland is debated as it is mainly pieced together by art work (pp. 50-53). In one scene from the Grandes Chroniques de France, St. James appears to Charlemagne and asks him to liberate his tomb from the Moslems.  The following print shows Roland in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass where his Chanson de geste (song of heroic deeds) was penned. This is the oldest surviving major work in French literature.

Charlemagne’s grief when he returns to the pass at Roncesvalles is conveyed in these lines from Song of Roland:

 “In Roncesvalles Charles now has set his feet/ And for the dead he finds begins to weep…
“My friend Roland, God lay your soul on flowers. / In Paradise with all the glorious host.
You came to Spain with a cruel overlord. / No day shall pass henceforth that I’ll not mourn”.

 

roland
Roland

[photo credit: Charlemagne, Harper & Row]

 However, the parts of greatest interest for me have more to do with the role of language, grammar, manuscript, humanities and arts that Charlemagne introduced to the world.

After his attempts of conquest in Spain, Charlemagne began to concentrate more on improvements in his homeland. He was seized by a passion for learning and studying grammar, astronomy and music.  He began to study the Bible and gathered around himself scholars of theology. In addition, his group of poets, grammarians, mathematicians, architects and philosophers influenced him greatly. He even included women in his study groups. Scholars from all over Europe began to attend his court.

Through this court, Charlemagne was introduced to his tutor and mentor, Alcuin, who was schooled in the classics and theology. Alcuin also amassed a library for Charlemagne, so cool, and edited and wrote many textbooks, so so cool. Charlemagne learned through Alcuin the Carolingian minuscule in which Latin was copied. He had the regular practice of someone reading aloud St. Augustine’s’ City of God at the dinner table. One of the most important legacies that Charlemagne left was the translation and copying of classical literature that we are able to enjoy today.

Latin carolingian minuscule
Carolingian Latin minuscule

[photo credit: Charlemagne, Harper & Row]

In his remaining days, he crowned his son, Louis, as co-emperor in 813, and shortly fell ill. He proposed that his son be elected emperor at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He commanded his son to:

 ”love God and fear Him, protect the Church, be kind to his kin, honor the priests, love the common people, help widows and orphans and the poor, and be just to all men”(135).

Unfortunately, by the time Louis the Pious died, his father’s empire had totally fragmented.Charlemagne died shortly after and gave most of his fortune to the Church.  He was buried in his imperial city of Aachen, Germany.

Charlemagne, mythical or not, has been an inspiration for many world leaders including Hitler and Bonaparte who desired to unify all of Europe. Unfortunately, these leaders did not emulate Charlemagne’s zealous defense of Christianity in these pursuits.

Copyright 2018. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

WORKS CITED

Richard Winston. CHARLEMAGNE. New York: Harper and Row. 1968.

HISTORYextra website:https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/charlemagne-creating-the-myth. Retrieved July 6, 2018.