BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Charlemagne
Jeff Sypeck
Rating: 4 Stars — Recommended

The reign of Charlemagne is remembered as a brief flash of light in the midst of the Dark Ages: a time of revived respect for learning, of physical improvements, codification of laws, and relatively-enlightened and centralized administration. In this book, Jeff Sypeck tries to get beyond a thousand years of myths and portray the reality of the man and his time.

His real name wasn’t Charlemagne, of course: he was Karl, son of a Frankish king. Charlemagne–Karolus Magnus, Charles the Great, is an appellation bestowed upon him by scholars and keepers of legends.

Historical characters who appear in the book, in addition to Karl himself, include:

*Alcuin, the leading court intellectual, a theologian and poet. Also Theodulf, less well-known than Alcuin but an intriguing figure with a rather snarky sense of humor. At Karl’s direction, Alcuin and Theodulf undertook the preservation of old manuscripts, the recording of oral legends, and the creation of a Frankish grammar. Karl himself seems to have had intellectual interests considerably stronger than those of the typical warrior king of the time, although owing to a late start he himself was unable to learn to write. This did not keep him from objecting to poorly-phrased letters from others:

Letters have often been sent to us in these last years from certain monastaries, in which was set out what the brothers there were striving to do for us in their holy and pious prayers; and we found that in most of these writings their sentiment was sound but their speech uncouth.

One accomplishment of Karl’s scribes was to create a new and more legible form of handwriting, known as Carolingian minuscule. It so impressed the first European printers, 700 years later, that they assumed it must have come from the Romans and named it accordingly.

*Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, with whom Karl conducted long-distance diplomacy–Sypeck observes that Karl played on a “much larger game board” than is generally recognized. There is a vivid description of Baghdad by a contemporary writer;

In the entire world there has not been a city which could compare with Baghdad in size and splendor, or in the number of scholars and great personalities…Consider the numerous roads, thoroughfares, and localities, the markets and streets, the lanes, mosques, and bathhouses, and the high roads and shops–all of these distinguish this city from all others, as does the pure air, the sweet water, and the cool shade.

*Isaac the Jew, a merchant who became Karl’s emissary to the Caliph. It was a long journey, and on his return Isaac brought with him an elephant, the Caliph’s gift to the Frankish king.

The fact that Karl chose a Jew for such a sensitive mission says a great deal about the position of Jews in his empire…which was far better than it was to be in the later Christian kingdoms of Europe. The tolerance for Jews was probably partly due to economic reasons, but may have also reflected the strong interest that Karl and his court took in the Old Testament. (They referred to each other with Old Testament nicknames; Karl was “David.”)

*Irene, the empress of Byzantium, who had her own son blinded. Keeping Byzantium in check was an objective shared by Karl and the Caliph.

*The Pope, Leo, who in 800 AD crowned Karl as Karl, the most serene Augustus crowned by god the geat peaceful emporer, governing the Roman Empire, king of the Franks and Lombards through the mercy of God. The idea of the Holy Roman Empire, which was to last a thousand years, stemmed from this coronation–although the term was not actually used during Karl’s reign.

*Karl’s wives and daughters. Women’s lives in the Dark Ages tended to be short, and Karl’s wives were no exceptions. Theodulf described one of them, Liutgard, in a poem about life at Karl’s court:

The lovely maiden Liutgard joins their ranks
her mind is inspired with acts of kindness
her beautiful appearance is surpassed only by the grace of her actions,
she alone pleases all the princes and people.
Open-handed, gentle-spirited, sweet in words,
she is ready to help all and to obstruct none.
she labours hard and well at study and learning,
and retains the noble disciplines in her memory.

*The Saxons, Karl’s inveterate enemies, with whom he fought constant wars. These extended over decades, with terrible atrocities by both sides. Many Saxons were converted to Christianity at swordpoint–although Karl’s motivation was partly religious, territorial and economic factors also clearly played a role, as he was able to work amicably with Balkan pagans as well as with the Muslim Caliph and with Jews within his empire.

Alcuin argued for a kinder, gentler policy toward the Saxons:

Faith, as St Augustine says, is a matter of will, not necessity. A man can be attracted into faith, not forced…if the light yoke and easy load of Christ were preached to the hard Saxon race as keenly as tithes were levied and the penalty of the law imposed for the smallest faults, perhaps they would not react against the rite of baptism.

At its maximum extent, the Carolingian empire encompassed most of the areas now known as France, Germany, and Italy, along with part of Spain. After Karl’s death, his son Louis was a competent but uninspired ruler. His plan to divide the empire among his three sons, however, was a catastrophic failure, resulting in a dreadful civil war that marked the end of the Carolingian dream. At Verdun (843), the empire was divide into three parts. And it is chilling to reflect on the relationship between what happened at Verdun in 843 and what happened in the same place in 1916.

Karl’s reign has a great impact on the shape of succeeding centuries. As Sypeck notes early in the book, writing about Karl’s chapel in Aachen–now at the core of the city’s Gothic cathedral:

These stones–solid, unmoving, and easily unnoticed–are the foundations of Europe itself.

An important and very readable book. Recommended.


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