King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne 
by Janet Nelson.
Allen Lane, 704 pp., £30, July 2019, 978 0 7139 9243 4
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When​ Charlemagne, king of the Franks, planned the division of his empire between his sons in 806, he allotted Aquitaine, Gascony, Provence and half of Burgundy to one son; Lombardy, Bavaria and southern Swabia to another; to the eldest, northern France, the other half of Burgundy, northern Swabia, Thuringia, Saxony and Frisia. Charlemagne was dividing up half a continent. The provisions of this document, known as the Divisio Regnorum, were never enacted, overtaken by the accidental deaths of two of Charlemagne’s sons a few years later, so that the youngest, Louis the Pious, ended up on his father’s death in 814 with an undivided inheritance (contested only by one of his nephews, who was soon tidied away by a blinding that proved conveniently fatal). But the Divisio provides a striking reminder of the extent of Charlemagne’s possessions: a million square kilometres of territory. Half of it he had inherited, but the rest was the result of the conquests that made his Frankish kingdom the dominant power on the continent. In around 799 he was lauded by an anonymous poet as pater Europae, the father of Europe.

In more recent times too, the name of Charlemagne has been used to evoke an idea of European integration. Immediately after the Second World War, when historians looked back at Charlemagne across the wreckage of the Carolingian heartlands, they saw the costs of his empire, and reflected gloomily on its – to them inevitable – failure. As recently as 2003, the eminent French historian Jacques Le Goff dismissed Charlemagne’s empire as an ‘anti-Europe’, created by brute force against the will of its inhabitants, and against the spirit of natural European diversity. Le Goff even ventured a comparison of Charlemagne with Hitler. Others have emphasised the precedents his reign set for European unity. An early version of the EEC was dubbed the ‘Union Charlemagne’ by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi in his 1950 speech accepting the inaugural Charlemagne prize, awarded by the city of Aachen every subsequent year to those who have advanced the cause of European unity. Receiving the award in 2018, Emmanuel Macron employed a similar rhetoric, claiming that the EU represented ‘the Carolingian dream’. Historians have also seen links between the European present and its early medieval past. In 2000, Alessandro Barbero introduced his book on Charlemagne with the declaration that ‘the peoples of our continent have found a way out from the dead end into which they had been driven by nationalist ideologies and seem to be moving towards an integrated and supranational Europe’ (this is the 2004 English translation; Barbero’s original Italian was even more emphatic). For Barbero, Charlemagne’s empire prefigured a democratic, open and pluralist Europe.

In her new study, Janet Nelson does things quite differently. Taking an approach which she says is ‘in some ways that of an old-fashioned biographer’, she offers a Charlemagne who is not the father of Europe. In fact, he is not even ‘Charlemagne’: Nelson prefers to call him Charles, stripping him (except in her title) of the compound name he has enjoyed in English since the mid-18th century, and which, in its original Latin form, Carolus Magnus, goes back to the late ninth century. As it promises, her book is a study of an individual man in his context, not an evaluation of Charlemagne’s place in a European history of which he could have had no inkling.

Not long after Charlemagne’s death, Einhard, the first person to attempt to write about his life, lamented that he knew very little of his subject’s childhood; in his Vita Karoli he filled in the many gaps with some deft cutting and pasting from classical Roman authors such as Suetonius. There have been countless studies of Charlemagne in many languages since then, not least the wave that arrived around 2014 to mark the duodecentenary of his death, but few have been as ambitiously biographical as Nelson’s. Historians of early medieval Europe are trained to interpret scattered clues and fragments, however, and Nelson is one of the very best; she can also draw on her experience of writing an important study of Charlemagne’s grandson King Charles the Bald, published in 1992. And if a biography can be written of Charlemagne’s prized elephant, Abul Abaz, the subject of Thomas Hack’s 2010 study, the same treatment can surely be afforded to its owner.

Nelson tracks Charlemagne’s life chronologically, from his birth on 2 April 748 at the Frankish rural palace of Quierzy, near Rheims, to his death on 28 January 814 at the palace of Aachen, which he had had constructed. The book follows Charlemagne as he conquered, negotiated and married his way from the Atlantic to the Carpathians, from the Elbe to the Apennines. Whereas Rosamond McKitterick’s 2008 study rigorously confined itself to what can be known of him from contemporary sources – thereby excluding even Einhard’s biography – Nelson takes a more catholic approach. As well as annals, chronicles, letters and Einhard’s work, Nelson invokes an account of a saint’s miracle that she believes may record Charlemagne’s memory of losing a milk tooth in 755, and legislation in which she suggests his distinctive voice can be heard. Sources on Charlemagne are available in relative abundance for an early medieval figure, and Nelson quotes frequently from them, often in her own characteristically fresh English translation.

As king of the Franks, the most powerful of the peoples in what had been the western Roman empire, Charlemagne had inherited a huge territory, but was determined to have more. As well as a great deal of warmaking, this required a great deal of ruthlessness. Participants in a rebellion in 785, once caught, were first sent on pilgrimages to monasteries and shrines to repent and swear oaths of fidelity, then arrested and mutilated on their return. At Verden in 782, Charlemagne ordered the deaths of 4500 Saxons, in a bid to end resistance to a conquest that had been dragging on for a decade. That episode was a one-off, but Nelson points out that it was followed by deportations, including one in 804, which according to one source saw ten thousand Saxons expelled from their lands.

Charlemagne also acted decisively when it came to his own family. Nelson’s list of his victims is long: the family of his brother (and fellow king) Carloman, who after Carloman’s unexpected death in 771 fled to the safety of northern Italy, and then vanished after Charlemagne laid hands on them three years later; his cousin Tassilo, duke of Bavaria, who was placed in lifelong monastic imprisonment along with his entire family when Charlemagne conquered the duchy, and wheeled out only to make a staged confession; Charlemagne’s own first and second wives, who seem to have been summarily put aside for political convenience (a manoeuvre his successors would find trickier to execute as rules about divorce hardened).

Yet Nelson is also keen to tease out indications of Charlemagne’s emotional attachments. One of the relationships she highlights was with his highly educated younger sister, Gisela, who became abbess of the wealthy convent of Chelles, near Paris. Gisela, who probably commissioned a set of annals which centre on her and Charlemagne’s ancestors, left her convent in 799 to travel to Charlemagne’s new palace at Aachen for a family meeting; a few years later it was Charlemagne who came to her, to consult on the plans for the succession that resulted in the Divisio Regnorum. Nelson argues, too, that there is evidence that he felt genuine affection for at least one of his queens, Fastrada. She also believes that he mourned his children who died in infancy, reading their surviving epitaphs as sincere representations of family grief. Nelson’s Charlemagne is ultimately sympathetic: a hard but not unfeeling man, with a temper, a crude sense of humour and a remarkable strength of character.

She uncovers a man of action and response, not a visionary or ideologue. Although, according to Einhard, Charlemagne could not write, Nelson follows the historiographical consensus in attributing marginal notes on a manuscript of a theologically complex Latin work known as the Opus Caroli to Charlemagne’s spoken remarks when he heard the work read aloud. Apparently the king was moved to exclaim ‘bene’ (great) and ‘optime’ (perfect) several times, and once even ‘syllogistice’ (syllogistically), from which Nelson infers that he was better schooled than Einhard let on. But the gathering of scholars headhunted from across Europe at Charlemagne’s court, which is central to other historians’ accounts of his reign (Johannes Fried has called it a key turning point in the European ‘learning process’), is – if not played down – at least not presented as a programmatic initiative.

As Nelson remarks trenchantly in her conclusion, Charlemagne was a person who had ‘no truck with teleology’. She suggests that he had no fixed intentions when he invaded Italy in 774, and that the resulting conquest of the former Lombard kingdom was therefore not part of a predetermined plan. When in 793 his attempts to dig a canal between the watersheds of the Danube and the Rhine – whether intended for famine relief, military logistics or commercial benefit it’s not clear (perhaps it was all three) – were thwarted by heavy rainfall, he simply cut his losses, sent home the six thousand labourers, and moved on. (The canal was eventually completed along a slightly different route in 1992.) For Nelson, most significant was his ability ‘to switch ideas in new directions in response to new conjunctures’. Here, she chimes with Jennifer Davis, whose 2015 study of Charlemagne’s government also emphasises improvisation and bricolage.

This leaves open the question of Charlemagne’s motivation. He would prove an abiding model for rulership in medieval Europe, but what was his inspiration? The question is particularly relevant given Nelson’s justified insistence that his empire did not run out of puff after 800, as many have claimed. Territorial expansion continued around the Adriatic and the Pyrenees, and in 808 he launched a remarkable survey of the state of the church in distant Jerusalem, with his envoys counting every stylite, hermit and nun they could find. In 813 he initiated yet another round of reforming church councils. This is not the behaviour of a king who was slowing down. What spurred him on, well into his sixties?

Charlemagne was keenly aware of his own place in his family line. Though the crown had been held by his family only since 751, when his father ousted the ancient Merovingian dynasty in a coup, Charlemagne could claim many famous ancestors. A contemporary writer, Paul the Deacon, recounted an anecdote about a man he identified as Charlemagne’s great-great-great grandfather, the seventh-century bishop Arnulf of Metz, who was said to have found a ring he had thrown into a river inside a fish served up to him at dinner, a story apparently told to Paul by Charlemagne himself. Consciousness of his place in the dynasty brought expectations that doubtless weighed heavily. Yet by any conceivable measure Charlemagne’s achievements outdid those of his Frankish predecessors. He undoubtedly would have seen himself as favoured by God, but Nelson plays down the apocalypticism in Charlemagne’s reign – despite the resonances of the year 800 in some contemporary calculations of the date of the end of the world – and warns against an overly religious reading of his motives. She even suggests that his circle may have deliberately suppressed the discussion of signs and portents in contemporary annalistic writing during troubled years.

The roots of Charlemagne’s restless energy may lie elsewhere. In a 2017 book on Salic law, a Frankish lawcode that was centuries old by Charlemagne’s time and much copied and adapted during his reign, Karl Ubl noted the friction between ethnic and imperial forms of legitimation in Charlemagne’s rule. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor in Rome, recognising his unparalleled authority while at the same time binding him more closely to the Eternal City. Charlemagne acquired the new title of ‘emperor governing the Roman Empire’, with all its seductive and ancient resonances, but did not surrender his inherited one, remaining also ‘King of the Franks’. For Ubl, these two titles represented fundamentally incompatible logics of authority, one particularist, the other universalising, with a latent tension between them that remained unresolved. The ideological underpinnings of Charlemagne’s rule were consequently unstable, which perhaps ruled out his resting on his laurels, pressed as he was to juggle, and to reconcile, the duties these new honours brought with them.

And what of Charlemagne and Europe? The poet who described Charlemagne as father of Europe was not a lone voice. As the historian Klaus Oschema has shown, there was a discernible increase in references to ‘Europa’ during the reign of Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious, with contemporary writers casting about for flattering labels commensurate with the scale of the territory under their rule. In her previous work, Nelson was forthright about the connections between Charlemagne’s Europa and today’s Europe. In a piece published in 2002, she acknowledged the less attractive features of Charlemagne’s rule while suggesting that it nevertheless had a positive legacy: an ease with legal plurality, a stress on political consensus, an economy balanced between public and private interests, and a religiously inspired insistence on justice and peace.

There is much less of this kind of analysis in Nelson’s new book, partly because her close biographical focus necessarily pushes such considerations to the background. But times have changed too. As the concept of Europe continues to develop in response to successive jolts to the continent’s political and institutional configuration – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the introduction of the euro in 2002, the eastern accessions in 2004, and now Brexit and populism – the relationship between the early medieval European past and the shifting present is becoming less clear, despite Macron’s nostalgic evocation of the Carolingian dream.

When the European federation opened a new office in Brussels in 1967, it seemed natural to call it the Charlemagne Building. But the House of European History, a museum established by the European Parliament in 2017 (and target of UK tabloid opprobrium since it was first mooted), begins its historical coverage only with the French Revolution. Around the same time, the Council of Europe decided to stop sponsoring exhibitions focused on history, as it had for the past fifty years (a famous one dedicated to Charlemagne was held at Aachen in 1965), and to focus instead on promoting ‘European values’. As Nelson’s book indicates, a little more distance between Charlemagne and Europe might be healthy for early medieval history. Time will tell whether it will be good for Europe.

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