Charlemagne: The First 1200 Years / A Short Interview with Jinty Nelson

A Short Interview with Jinty Nelson

28 January 2014


Alice Rio: Charlemagne was a man of power; he was, by all accounts, deeply religious; and he was arguably the most successful warlord in early medieval history. You are a left-wing, pacifist, agnostic, academic woman. What's the attraction? Why did you pick him as an object of study?

Jinty Nelson: The attraction is quite simply that Charlemagne was so different from me and his world from mine. This means a huge effort of understanding is needed for me to make any sense of this character or to feel any confidence that he’s knowable. But I’ve become sure that the effort pays off. 

You’ve raised three very good points: being a war-leader and being deeply religious are often seen as opposite traits. But what I find so interesting is that a certain kind of Christian thinking can be perfectly compatible with making war – blessed by a God of Battles. Oliver Cromwell comes to mind as a comparable case. Then the question of how to understand gender: I used to be interested in women’s history but now I’m just as interested in masculinity, in different gender roles, and in gender relations, which require us to think hard about what power means. And a third reason for picking Charlemagne: because he lived in exceptionally interesting times, when massive changes were forcing all political and religious leaders and all elites to reorientate their thinking and retriangulate their relations with other regimes. There’s just enough evidence for Charlemagne’s contacts with both Byzantium and Islam to make these worth pursuing.

AR: You are currently writing a biography. Why did you choose to write your book on Charlemagne in this form? What are the advantages and challenges?

JN: There are obvious advantages. On the one hand, a strong focus and a uniquely well-documented figure, on the other hand, obvious challenges or problems: a focus on one man – a Great Man – makes for a skewed perspective. The narrative sources often thought to provide a firm structure for the past are in fact constructs often designed to exaggerate this man’s power and control while diminishing or marginalizing everyone else. Virginia Woolf called biography ‘a bastard, impure art’ – a quite different project from political narrative. The biographer, she commented, was driven to attempt ‘two incompatible things… providing us with sterile and fertile. Things that have no bearing upon the life. But he [sic] has to provide them. He does not know what is relevant. Nobody has decided.’ Writing a biography of someone who died 1200 years confronts you with all too many decisions on the allegedly relevant – starting with the decisions of his biographer Einhard writing in the late 820s. ‘Things’ are timebound, and must be historicized, against the grain of anachronism that grows with time. A balance has to be struck between the man and his context, and between what can be inferred to be his intended outcomes and contingencies and accidents that continually come between aim and effect.  And somehow other agents need to be drawn out from the shadows and understood in relation to the biographer’s subject: here letters and poems and even charters are more helpful than annals.

AR: Do you feel you know or can understand him?

JN: I don’t delude myself that I can really do either of those things. But I do think I can get closer to an understanding by looking afresh at bits and pieces of evidence for a life and reign: Charlemagne’s childhood; his relationships with parents, siblings and other close kin, and especially with women, whether wives or mistresses (a man who fathered 18 known children must have had a strong sex-drive); his emotional bonds with others close to him – his counsellors, his fighting-companions, clergy and monks who were his confidants; his conviviality; his sense of humour; his talking a lot; his piety (Einhard said he went often to church but never sang aloud, only under his breath and when everyone else was singing); and, harder to get at, his dreams and others’ dreams about him.  Finally, a life is always a life through time. Thanks to some 40 letters he received from Pope Hadrian between 774 and 791, and Charlemagne’s side of the correspondence that can sometimes be reconstructed from them, that relationship can be traced through ups and downs over time: Charlemagne was devoted to St. Peter, but sometimes found Hadrian infuriating. Anyone who lives to be 65, as Charlemagne did, experiences changes, suffers, evolves. Charlemagne’s religion was different in his 60s from what it been earlier: a more interior ‘New Testament’ Christianity came to grip him, and a sense of time on earth running out.

AR: To what extent are you really writing a book about Charlemagne, as opposed to a book about people who wrote about Charlemagne?

JN: The most influential writer about Charlemagne was Einhard, who had known him in the latter part of his life, and constructed memories of him after his death. Almost as influential was Notker the Stammerer, who recorded in the 880s other people’s memories of Charlemagne. Notker’s funny stories are among the most irresistible of the sources. Even the most nearly-contemporary sources are tendentious, hotly pushing particular interests and points of view. Charters and capitularies which seem to be ‘colder’ evidence turn out to be are partisan or polemical or prescriptive. Acts of cruelty, acts of rashness, are recorded by contemporaries inclined to present him in a favourable light. Charlemagne himself sometimes accosts the reader in the first-person singular, ‘Ego’ – as in the prologue to the General Admonition of 789, or in the epitaph he approved for Pope Hadrian, or in adverbs that spatter the margins of the great polemic on images written for him by one of his counsellors: ‘rightly!’, ‘acutely!’, ‘well-done!’ – now generally believed to record Charlemagne’s impromptu comments when the work was read out to him; and his urgent voice, heavy with concern, resounding in late capitularies where he denounces worldly clerics and commends New Testament ethics. Objects can be telling: a reliquary that may well have belonged to him; symbolic messages built into the architecture of the Aachen church, a new Temple of Solomon; the recent confirmation by tree-ring datings that the oaks Charlemagne’s men desperately drove into the collapsing banks of the canal they tried to construct, according to contemporary annals, in 793 to link the Danube and the Main were felled in 793. And then there are the biographies modern historians have written about Charlemagne: a dozen in the past fifteen years, no fewer than four published in Germany in the past six months. In the end, the biographer, having read and weighed all the secondary writings, has to stand by her own inferences and intuitions derived from the contemporary sources themselves.

AR: What do you think needs changing in the picture of Charlemagne offered in existing research?

JN: Enough of The Hero and The Great Man! We need a warts-and-all portrait of this man. Co-opting Charlemagne for a shop-worn European agenda, or making him a poster-boy for Christian values, are no longer attractive or honest options.  Fresh approaches have to be looked for, and new readings teased out of the evidence so that placing and grasping him in his own time and context become both ends in themselves and means to new understandings. What this man did, and what he got others to do, did have long-term effects which, if convincingly identified and assessed by the biographer, connect Charlemagne meaningfully with modern concerns, east with west, north with south, past with present and future.