Michael Wood: Charlemagne - Why Study Him?

Charlemagne: Why Study Him?

by Michael Wood


It was, as you know, the 28th of January. The weather, perhaps, was cold, wet and stormy, as it was last night in Aachen: a dusting of snow, chill winds, hovering above freezing: they were at the end of a decades-long cycle of severe winters with heavy snows which are vividly described in Northumbrian and Frankish and Irish annals. Difficult, perhaps, those last few weeks for a seventy-year old with gout – or a bad hip? At any rate: in Aachen, after the best part of half a century, the emperor is dead… candles are burning… the royal chaplains are chanting masses for his soul… Those closest to him, his children and friends, courtiers like ‘Shorty’ Einhard, who had treasured the bond of ‘dear friendship’ with Charles from childhood, were no doubt in tears. In the Royal Frankish Annals: ‘Domnus Karolus imperator, dum Aquisgrani hiemaret, anno aetatis circiter septuagesimo primo, regni autem quadragesimo septimo subactaeque Italiae quadragesimo tertio, ex quo vero imperator et augustus appellatus est, anno XIIII., V. Kal. Febr. rebus humanis excessit.[1] Far away on the very edge of the world in Ireland the Annals of Ulster record the death of ‘the Emperor of the whole of Europe’.

Medieval people, especially educated people, were very keen on commemorating anniversaries: especially obituaries. Among the Anglo Saxons too, great imitators of the royal cult of the Carolingians, Alfred’s obit, for example, appears in a calendar of saints in the British Library as ‘also worthy to be loved’. The deathday of his grandson Aethelstan, the Anglo-Saxon king who most internalised the legacy of Charlemagne, was kept by monasteries up and down the land. Loaded with ancient associations of auspiciousness, intensified through dreams, visions and omens, a king’s death was a huge event.

So, distant as we are in time, I feel that we have gathered today not just for a ‘dry’ academic conference – though of course it will be far from dry knowing those present! – but in a sense in an act of remembrance, even an act of piety, which will culminate in Carolingian liturgical music and a reading from Thegan. And that is entirely fitting: for in the course of the afternoon I hope we will get a little sense, not just of facts and interpretations, but of feelings: a little opening perhaps into the early medieval mind. For these were men and women of flesh and blood who for all their differences from us, for all their superstitions and cruelties, as Chaucer put it ‘sped as wel in love as we do now.’

In this introduction I’ve been asked simply to say a few words, if you like as a non-expert, as an appetiser before the main course, and my remarks are addressed really to the young students here today from schools. For you have chosen to study Charlemagne and his world: so you are most welcome!!! And I hope that maybe in time one or two of you may be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the scholars here today. (I well remember in the sixth form hearing an eminent medievalist give a talk at the Rylands Library in Manchester, and experiencing the excitement of engaging with great scholarship. They not only tell us things, but show us how to see. That’s what I am looking forward to this afternoon.)

So, first - why study Charlemagne at all, let alone in the UK?

Well, Stephen Fry, no less, said recently on QI, ‘all Europeans are children of Charlemagne’. He meant biological: I would say cultural. Intellectual. The point is, there’s truth in it: we are all touched by that time, the Renaissance named after him, Carolingian. Let me try to give a few pointers as to why.

Charlemagne, Carlo Magno, Karl der Grosse; his name recognition today of course is far higher in Europe. Along with Alexander and Caesar, he’s one of the kings on a French pack of cards… He’s one of the Nine Worthies, one of Dante’s Warriors of Faith. In Europe in myth and legend he has enjoyed a strange and wonderful afterlife almost as rich as the romances of King Arthur and the Round Table. In a dozen European languages, especially in Eastern Europe, his name Carlus is the very word for king. And different countries still claim him: in the First War the French and Germans both had battleships named after him!

We Brits of course have never done that. We have always stood outside. Only in the last fifty years has Charles become a key academic subject here. The reasons for that I daresay are not just because of his huge intrinsic interest and importance; nor are they just due to the lessening in the post second world war of our academic insularity; but they are also a response to the growing realisation of how inextricably our history is bound up with that of Europe. And in recent years British scholars have made a very distinguished contribution to Charlemagne studies. The leading figures of the older generation are no longer with us: Walter Ullmann, Donald Bullough, Michael Wallace-Hadrill. But their pupils are still in full powers, Jinty Nelson, Rosamond McKitterick David Ganz, Paul Fouracre, Peter Godman… and their pupils… Stuart Airlie, Matthew Innes, Roger Collins, Jo Story, Alice Rio, etc, are carrying the torch on into the next generation. In the last forty years British scholars have made a very great contribution to Carolingian studies in a way inconceivable even when I was a graduate student in the early seventies, never losing sight of the links between the Carolingian world and the British Isles. For this is a period in which British historical research crosses national boundaries. You can’t view our history as separate from Europe now – and you certainly can’t then.

So what did he do, in a nutshell?

The real Charles was born perhaps in 742 (though 748 is possible). The exact day is commemorated in a necrology of Lorsch Abbey (‘April 2: the birth of our lord the most glorious emperor and forever Augustus Karolus’; ‘IIII. Non. Apr. Nativitatis domni et gloriosissimi Karoli imperatoris et semper Augusti’). Very briefly: as king he united the Frankish kingdom, conquered the Saxons, and spread the Frankish empire to the Elbe, incorporating Saxony, Bavaria, Carinthia (Southern Austria) and northern Italy into one great segmentary European state, bound by a common Latin Christian culture fostered in abbeys courts and noble houses. In so doing he and his advisers initiated a process of Christianisation both internal and external which prioritised literacy and learning, and which demanded charity, the giving of alms, private prayer, and the living of a moral life from a not always acquiescent nobility.[2]

Charles’ position as leading king in Europe was confirmed by his crowning as emperor by the Pope in Rome in 800: one suspects as much as an antiquarian and symbolic gesture as a literal assertion of a renewed Roman empire, but it was a powerful statement of a renewed Roman/Latin Christian world…

As you will hear this afternoon, Charles was a born leader and an administrative genius, a person of extraordinary practical skills; but the legacy I’d like to emphasise here is the cultural. He formed a think tank, a palace school, headed by the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin.[3] Through this he disseminated the ideals of his rule and oversaw the revival of Western European civilisation after what we used to call the Dark Ages: the first European Renaissance. One aspect was the rediscovery of classical antiquity by artists, painters, architects, and thinkers. Among the thousands of manuscripts which survive from the Carolingian age are some of the masterpieces of medieval art which (as we shall see) show the reintroduction of classical themes and styles in the West. Most of the surviving literary works of Classical Latin antiquity – Ovid for example, and Cicero –, were copied and preserved by Carolingian scholars.[4] As a vehicle for their ideas they also created a new reformed minuscule script, the most beautiful and practical ever devised in the West. (And all this despite the fact that Charles himself never learned to write! Indeed, perhaps he could not even read.)

There are too many other features of the renovatio for us even to summarise here: but for example Charles also opened up fascinating connections with the Eastern Christan Byzantine world, with the Holy Land, and with the Muslim Abbasid empire – he was nothing if not curious and open minded.

A very brief word on sources. When you study the Carolingian age, what is so remarkable is that although it is more than 1,200 years ago, it is amazingly well documented with astoundingly rich archives across France, Italy and Germany.[5] In the material culture, there is splendid architecture, archaeology, and the coinage (as you’ll hear later from Gareth). There are masses of legal texts, capitularies, charters, land documents (royal and private); estate surveys,[6] not to mention vast numbers of theological and philosophical works; there are fascinating literary texts – the rich corpus of Carolingian poetry is particularly interesting and often delightful.[7]

Nor is the legacy only texts, but sculpture, fresco, metalwork, and music: church music in the Carolingian age is a fascinating area of current research; with the development of systems of notation, for the first time European music was to be written down rather than orally transmitted.

So theirs was a world rich in delights for the senses: aural, visual and tactile. They even wrote on the joys of gardening!

Of their vast outpouring of thoughts and ideas, over 7,000 manuscripts survive from the ninth century alone, and I’ve chosen a handful of painted images from them which I think are revealing about one characteristic aspect of their project. We talk of renaissance, renovatio: but what did that mean? They were undertaking a thoroughgoing transformation of society. But that had many aspects. Here are some manuscript paintings which give you a sense of the progressive reception and transformation of ideas from classical antiquity, which will infuse the humanism of the ninth century, and eventually give form to their ideas about a new kind of Christian society in the West.

Godescalc Evangelistary, fol 3r: Christ (BN nouv. acq. lat. 1203, Court school of Charlemagne, from 781-3)

Beginnings: the Reception of classical art. Charles’s artists at this point are feeling their way with styles new to Northern Europe: you can see the influence of Italy and Byzantium, both from manuscripts and ivories; and they are still striving to master their models. But as Florentine Mutherich put it, it’s a forecast: ‘a portent of the future ambitions and successes of the Court School of Charlemagne’.[8]

fol 3v: The Fountain of Life.

This fabulous Fountain of Life some have thought alludes to the actual font in the Lateran in Rome where Charles’s son was baptized. Again the models are Eastern, painted with some assurance, but still faithfully imitated..

Coronation Gospels, fol. 76v: Saint Mark (Vienna Schatzkammer, Court school, late eighth century)

Fabulous, don’t you think? Sombre, calm, the fixed icon-like gaze, and a Greek landscape setting (possibly by a Greek master?). This shows ambition now: late Classical Art has arrived in Northern Europe. The opposite page in the manuscript, incidentally, has a wonderfully impressive uncial page on purple, replicating the style of Late Roman stone inscriptions.

fol. 178v: Saint John

Another late antique portrait from the same manuscript, by a different artist, working for a patron and in an atelier whose aims were clearly to perpetuate the ideals of late Classical art.

St Medard Gospels, Soissons, fol. 81v: Saint Mark (Paris, BN lat. 8850, Court school, early ninth century)

The figural style you can see is advancing now. You can sense the court masters learning from their antique models now, and reimagining them. This is lively, animated, full of human energy.[9]

Hrabanus Maurus, ‘In Praise of the Holy Cross’ (Rome, Bibl. Vat. Reg. lat. 124, fol. 4v)

Perhaps the first portrait of a Carolingian emperor (from Fulda, c. 840), again using a late antique model, now in the service of kingship: Carolingian art takes up the imperial theme.

Arataea: one of the constellations (Cepheus) (Leiden, Bibl. der Rijksuniversiteit Voss. Lat. Q 79, fol. 26v, from Lorraine, c. 830)

Copied from a mid-fourth-century book, and an insight into the broadening taste of Carolingian noble and royal patrons: a first hint of what will become a great and very long-lasting theme in European art and humanism – what Jean Seznec called ‘the survival of the pagan gods’.

The Vivian Bible, fol. 215v: frontispiece to the psalms: David King and prophet (Paris BN lat. 1; Court school of Charles the Bald, from 845-6)

Charlemagne’s nickname among his court scholars had been David. A Ruler portrait in full glory. Look at the guards: late Roman soldiers, their nude bodies come from Late Antique Art. The Figures of Prudentia, Justicia, Fortitudo and Temperantia represent the qualities, the four pillars, which make up Virtus in Alcuin’s treatises on kingship, the de Rhetorica and the De Virtutibus et Vitiis: texts which provide the models of kingship for the many later Carolingian ‘mirrors of princes,’ handbooks on the via regia of Christian rule.

Lothair Gospels, fol. 1v: ruler portrait (Paris BN lat. 266, from 849-51)

This I’m sure you will agree is a wonderful image. Look at the way the artist has done the folds of the king’s cloak: it is based on a Late Antique ruler portrait but more compelling, with much greater vivacity and character. Look at the eyes. That is constantia for you! The strength of character of a great king. (Charles of course had it in spades!)

Now those are just a small selection from the vast outpouring of art, thought, ideas, theology and political philosophy in the Carolingian Age. It’s phenomenal in quantity – and don’t forget, scholars are at a relatively early stage handling all this – digitising, creating databases and so on. The one safe thing to say is that there is much more to come!

And so: why does it matter?

Well, this is about our roots as citizens of the Western world… and just because it’s a long time ago doesn’t mean that it isn’t (a) important, (b) fascinating, and (c) still working on us.

In the Christian Latin West you could argue that the renovatio in the ninth century set a pattern for the later European story (of which the transmission of the classical tradition, important as that is, is only one part). It provides the cultural glue that connects the various European countries over a very long time. To borrow a phrase from the novelist Milan Kundera, it is a memory to which we all belong…

From that time, if not before, we (even in Britain) began to see ourselves as part of an imagined European Christian community. Take this from Alcuin, educated in York, a key figure in the court of Charlemagne; viewing the Viking sack of Lindisfarne in 793 from the perspective of Aachen, he already felt ‘all of Europe’ was under attack . His letter to the abbot of Lindisfarne is prefaced by a remark, an assumption, about European culture:

‘Rome, home of the holy apostles and countless martyrs was destroyed (at the time of the fall of the empire)… Almost the whole of Europe was denuded with fire and sword by the Goths and Huns, but now by God’s mercy is as bright with churches, shining as the heavens are with stars, and in them the offices of the Christian religion grow and flourish…’

From Alcuin’s time, that idea of a Christian culture of ‘the whole of Europe’ is present in all the different phases in which European culture renewed itself, through its history. In tenth-century England for example, with Dunstan, Aethelwold and Abbo of Fleury. Thoroughly Carolingian-inspired, strong on its links with Europe, it is impossible to understand the creation of England in the tenth century, the Anglo-Saxon reformatio, without taking into account the legacy of the Carolingians. Think of Alfred with his scholars from Saxony, the Rhineland and St Bertin; Aethelstan with his Frankish and German think tank; plugging into European ideas on culture, governance, and religious observance to create their Carolingian-styled kingship. In practical government, ideology, the arts, in every way they saw what the Carolingians had done and took the lessons to their own society. And the key lesson above all else, it seems to me, was that Christian society itself, when administered by a just and learned king, a rex doctus, was itself the means to salvation for the people – a vehicle for redemption. That was the real meaning of the via regia of Christian kingship; the core idea of the Carolingian Renaissance.

And the legacy of Charlemagne doesn’t stop there. Then the twelfth-century Enlightenment: one might say that this was entirely a development of the Carolingian renaissance… Think of Abelard and John of Salisbury, the classical curriculum, the translation projects , the philosophy and theology, the poetry and the songs.

And if one were really to push out the boat, in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Renaissance: even just in England, think of Erasmus and Colet; Shakespeare studying his Ovid at King Edward School in Stratford…

And the time you get to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism: after the ravages of the Revolutionary wars, again the old ideal surfaces in Germany, Italy, France and Britain: Schlegel’s Europa, Chateaubriand’s Christian humanism. Now perhaps I am being over romantic (and there are those present far more competent than I to pronounce on such things!), but the idea of common cultural bonds across Europe over the last twelve hundred years owes more surely to the Carolingians than to any other rulers: and it helps explain European culture’s capacity to progressively reimagine itself… as we still doing today in the current phase of renegotiating the legacy of Charlemagne.

So, to study the Carolingians, I would argue, is part of exploring afresh a long continuous and living tradition. It is to say that in a sense, for all its pronounced regional differences, Europe also has a common culture in the way we say India or China do, or the way the world of traditional Islam once did.

And finally, if you want a single image which for me encapsulates how the Carolingian Age saw the cultural history of Britain and Western Europe… Connected, intertwined, almost like a double helix… How about this?

Theodore of Tarsus and John the Scot, from the frontispiece of Honorius of Autun’s Clavis Physicae (Paris BN lat. 6734, twelfth century)

This is a manuscript from the twelfth century: Honorius of Autun’s excerpts from John the Scot’s great treatise On Nature, a picture surely copied from an older Carolingian era archetype. Here’s the seventh-century Greek Theodore of Tarsus (portrayed as a Greek apostle or philosopher) and the ninth-century Irishman John Scottus, the greatest European intellectual between Aristotle and Aquinas, portrayed as a Roman deacon: faith and reason; doctrine and philosophy; East and West.

And what are they doing together? What is it that links the Irish neo-Platonist and the Greek bishop educated at Antioch and Edessa on the Euphrates who later initiated Bede’s ‘golden time’ in 600s England? The answer is provided in a tenth-century text which describes a living chain of transmission of a kind still encountered in the Muslim world, of learning and ideals passed from teacher to pupil over the generations. It is nothing less than the cultural / intellectual pedigree of the early West (if a monkish perspective, to be sure). It goes from Theodore and his Anglo-Saxon pupils down to the Carolingian Renaissance. For Theodore and Hadrian, it says, taught Aldhelm, Bede and Alcuin… and they taught Hrabanus Maurus, Smaragdus, and the Christian humanist Theodulf of Orleans… and after them came John the Irishman who in turn was the teacher or inspirer of Heiric of Auxerre, Remigius and Israel Scotigena, the last of the great Carolingian palace scholars who taught in Aethelstan’s court – and who, our unknown tenth-century author says, ‘made Britannia famous through the sevenfold Minerva’ (i.e., the liberal arts).

Those who study today’, our author concludes, speaking for the Western European Latin Christian tradition as a whole, ‘drink from their fountains, the brooks of their wisdom, and serve up cups of knowledge to the thirsty…’[10]

And that surely is what it felt like to those who drove Charles’s renovatio. The story this text tells is how Greece and Rome, Latin civilisation and Roman Christianity fed Anglo-Saxon culture after the conversion; how the Anglo- Saxons in turn fed the Frankish and German; and how the Carolingians surpassed all in the sheer riches and weight of their achievements. But they were always mutually interdependent.

Aachen reliquary, fourteenth century

Bestriding that chain of transmission ‘like a colossus’ is Charlemagne himself, who died 1200 years ago today.

And let’s not forget, he’s a man of flesh and blood, not the great figure of legend commemorated in this magnificent fourteenth-century reliquary portrait. If you are starting off, on Charles himself, read Einhard in David Ganz’s exemplary translation in Penguin. Look too at Jo Story’s volume on Charlemagne which is packed with new insights: and a special mention here of Jinty Nelson’s intriguing essay on ‘Charlemagne the Man’: the stories about his childhood, which Jinty explores convincingly, suggest an inquisitive child, brave bold and curious, with independence of thought and sharp powers of observation. A telling insight into the man who in his maturity had the great gift of thinking outside the box. As a man he was big, tough-minded: six feet tall, with ‘large and lively eyes and a bright and cheerful expression’. He loved especially to swim, Einhard tells us. Like most medieval men he had issues with sex: he had children by many women but he kept his daughters close by him. A thickset man, he was plagued by gout in his last years, and evidently suffered from high cholesterol, but was infuriated by his doctors who urged him to give up his favourite high-fat, roast meat diet: ‘so even at the end he stubbornly did what wanted’ says his biographer… in a mix of exasperation and real affection.

On all that we await with excitement Jinty’s forthcoming biography – the tale of the key figure in Europe’s first renaissance – the foundation of all our renaissances?

[1] ARF, s.a. 814, 140.

[2] To get a sense of how those demands were met, and how those ideals were internalised, read for example the Handbook of Dhuoda, a practical guide to living by a member of the lesser aristocracy to her son and one of the most moving sources of the age.

[3] Alcuin’s letters are available in an English selection translated by Stephen Allott and they are a goldmine for all interested in the period – this was an age that loved communication, and in these letters you can hear their voice – always a key task for the historian!

[4] For a wonderful sense of what it actually felt like, the sheer excitement of intellectual discovery, look for example at the correspondence of the youthful Lupus of Ferrières, ed. G Regenos 1966.

[5] On the sources of the Carolingian Age as a whole, an indispensable guide is Paul Dutton’s Carolingian Civilisation sourcebook.

[6] for these look at the Leicester University website: https://www.le.ac.uk/hi/polyptyques/

[7] On this read Peter Godman’s terrific anthology Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, which opens up their world of thought and feeling to anyone with ‘small Latin and less Greek’.

[8] ‘Carolingian Painting’ (1977), p. 32.

[9] Still valuable on this is the discussion in Carolingian Art by Roger Hinks, 1935.

[10] Full text and translation in W. Berschin, Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages, 124-5.