What I've been reading
Charlemagne by Derek Wilson. 226 pages, 2005, Vintage Books.
Despite my love of the Merovingians, the dynasty that preceded Charlemagne's and the last king of which was deposed by Charlemagne's father, the emperor has always been fascinating to me. If you're at all interested in medieval European history, Charlemagne is fascinating. He's that magnetic and that important to the study of European history.
This book is rather odd, as it purports to be a biography of Charlemagne, but it really isn't. Charlemagne dies on page 130, and the final 70+ pages deal with his legacy. The actual biographical section of the book is interesting, but Wilson doesn't uncover too much that's new. He goes over the major events of the king's life, which are fascinating enough, with a great deal of focus on his empire-building. He does get into the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, but not to the extent that it probably deserves. He is far more interested in showing how Charlemagne, through his use of Christianity to unite the disparate ethnicities in his empire, created an idea of "Europe" that outlasted both him and his descendants. This is the crux of his argument, and once Charlemagne shuffles off this mortal coil, that's when his book actually takes off.
Wilson tracks the way Charlemagne became a myth, a process that began almost as soon as he died. This was made easier by the fact that the emperor's heirs were nowhere near as competent as he was, so whether it was Einhard writing during the reign of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's son, or Notker the Stammerer writing during the reign of Charles the Fat, Charlemagne's great-grandson, the propaganda machine began making the empire-founder larger than life. Later in the Middle Ages, of course, the Chanson de Roland made Charlemagne (who doesn't appear very much in the poem) a godlike figure, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the romances flourished in France, Charlemagne became a paragon of knightly virtues and a supreme Crusader, even though he never went on Crusade. Wilson also tracks the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century, when Maximilian tried to emulate the great king and his son Charles V became ruler of a vast tract of territory even larger than Charlemagne's. Both of these men consciously looked back to Charlemagne in order to justify their actions, especially with regard to the Catholic Church and the new Protestant movement.
Wilson also looks at Louis XIV and Napoleon, two men who also consciously emulated Charlemagne, Napoleon more than most. As we move into the nineteenth century, it's interesting how Charlemagne becomes both a French and German hero, despite the fact that the two countries developed a fierce rivalry and Charlemagne wouldn't have distinguished between the two. This division between Romance-speakers and Germanic-speakers goes back to the Treaty of Verdun in 843, when the empire was split between Charlemagne's three grandsons and it's unlikely that Lothar I, as ruler of the "French" portion, and Louis the German even understood each other anymore, but in the 1800s, the division became even more pronounced. Germany had been reluctant to embrace Charlemagne, but under Bismarck and Wilhelm I and later under Hitler, who proclaimed the Carolingian Empire the "First Reich" (hence his "Third Reich," which followed the "Second Reich" of Wilhelm), the emperor was embraced as a paragon of Germanic values. Wilson shows the contradictory attitude of Hitler toward the king who fought for most of his life against the pagan Saxons, as on one hand he condemned the emperor for being a pawn of the Papacy, and on the other hand praising his martial virtues. Such was the myth of Charlemagne.
The examination of the myth is what makes this book so fascinating. It's not a horribly scholarly book, but Wilson does do a nice job with the survey of Western history since Charlemagne, and if he doesn't get too in-depth, he still gives us a good portrait of what Charlemagne meant to Europe. He reaches the modern world with his thesis intact, pointing out that Churchill and de Gaulle both spoke of a United States of Europe, and that the original European Economic Community was created from the countries that made up Charlemagne's empire: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Charlemagne's legacy lives on!
Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 by Jeff Sypeck. 284 pages, 2006, Harper Perennial.
Moving on, we get to a book with a tighter focus than Wilson's book, as Sypeck focuses on the five or so years around 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome. Sypeck examines the justification of this act, which was a bit of a breach of "international law," such as it was. In 800, the Byzantine Empire, as weak as it was at that period in its history, was still technically the "Roman Empire," nominally exercising suzerainty over the lands of the Roman Empire, which included Western Europe. Charlemagne's coronation was therefore a coup d'etat, theoretically.
Sypeck argues that part of the reason why Charlemagne took this dramatic step was because the "emperor" in Constantinople in 800 was a woman named Irene. Irene was not a good empress and apparently not a nice woman, as she had her own son blinded so that he could no longer rule (as Byzantine custom dictated) and took over. Sypeck has a low opinion of Irene, but it's perhaps a bit undeserved - her son, Constantine VI, was universally reviled, and Irene had few options when dealing with him. She also tried to solve the Iconoclast controversy, which came close to tearing the empire apart. Iconoclasm was a movement in which people destroyed icons of the church because it was too close to worshipping graven images. It was partly inspired by Islam's rejection of representations of Muhammed. Irene was a factor in squashing the Iconoclast movement, which had upset many citizens throughout the empire who, frankly, enjoyed their icons! So perhaps the judgment of history on Irene is a bit harsher than the reality. But Sypeck does make a decent case that because of the fact that a woman was on the throne, technically nobody was on the throne, and that helped Charlemagne make his case.
Another point that Sypeck makes is that, in the 790s, Charlemagne was powerful enought to shape international policy, and that meant dealing with the Abbasid Caliphate ruled by Harun al-Rashid from Baghdad. This was another spur to his establishment of the empire - the need to deal with the caliph as an equal, especially as the Abbasids were, as it turned out, natural allies to the Carolingians, despite their religious differences. One of the most interesting points of Sypeck's book is how he explodes the myth that these Christians and Muslims were so ideologically opposed that they couldn't work together, which is absolutely false. In Spain, the original Arab Caliphate, the Umayyads, still ruled, which made Harun nervous. The Byzantines were still trying to enforce their rights in southern Italy, which made Charlemagne nervous. It was much better for Charlemagne and Harun to ally, although neither man made much practical use of the alliance.
Sypeck does a good job explaining the role of the small Jewish population within Charlemagne's empire (another example of the Christians ignoring religious differences, as the Jews were allowed many rights under Charlemagne) in bringing about the alliance with the Abbasids, and he also does a nice job with Alcuin, the British monk who served as Charlemagne's mentor for years before retiring to Tours. Alcuin was a driving force behind the coronations, and Sypeck uses his letters from the late 790s well to show how he shaped Charlemagne's mindset in those crucial years.
Finally, Sypeck nicely shows how the situation in Rome led to the coronation. In 799, Pope Leo III was attacked in the streets by factions hostile to his rule, and he managed to escape and flee north. He reached Aachen, Charlemagne's capital, and convinced the king to return with him to Rome and hold a trial exonerating him of various charges laid against him. Charlemagne obliged, and Sypeck makes it clear that his price for this assistance was a crown. The scene in St. Peter's on Christmas Day, 800, is fairly familiar, as later propagandists proclaimed that Charlemagne didn't actually want to be emperor and was surprised when Leo crowned him, but that's simply a tale to lionize the emperor and has no basis in fact - Charlemagne knew what was going on, as did everyone else in the building.
The aftermath of the coronation is handled less well, as Sypeck appears to lose interest in everything but the famous elephant that Harun al-Rashid sent north to solidify the alliance. The elephant is a fascinating piece of history, but in the grand scheme, it's not that important. Sypeck does go over Irene's downfall and the fact that it took over a decade before a new Byzantine emperor would recognize Charlemagne's new title, but again, it's a bit of an afterthought. For a book that is called Becoming Charlemagne, he spends too much time with the "becoming" part and not enough time with what it actually meant. He does skim the impact this event had on both the present and the future, but not enough. He also doesn't spend enough time in Constantinople and Baghdad. He spends more time with Irene than Harun, but it seems odd that he doesn't place Charlemagne in more context. He sets up the book as if it will be much more balanced among the three empires, but he quickly abandons the Abbasid and Byzantine states, which makes me wonder why he introduced them in the first place. The actual text of this book is only 206 pages, and it's in fairly large print, as if Sypeck was assigned a 200-page essay to write and he wanted to stretch out his 150-page essay to fit. This could have been a much more in-depth book without being much longer in terms of page count. It's a very readable book, I'll admit, and not a bad piece of purely popular history, but it's a bit disappointing that it lingers too often on trivia.
So those are the two Charlemagne books I read recently. If you've never read anything about the man and are interested in a quick read, Sypeck's book is probably fine for you. Wilson's isn't a dry tome, but it does get a bit more into what Charlemagne's impact on Europe is, and his focus on Charlemagne's life is a bit broader. Wilson's is certainly a better book. (Sypeck's blog is pretty keen, though.)