The product of a lifetime of study in early Medieval European history, Janet Nelson’s new work on Charles the Great does not necessarily break the mold, but it does establish a new standard. A recognized expert on the Frankish peoples and the Carolingian dynasty, we are privileged to have her insights—gleaned over an illustrious career—on one of the most critical characters in European history. A student of the eminent medievalist Walter Ullmann, Nelson offers us a comprehensive and readable biography up to the highest of scholarly standards.
Charles is an historical shape shifter. In the middle ages he was alternately a standard bearer for the imposition of imperial authority, or a stock example of the subservience of the civil power to the papacy. In later, confessional times he became an instrument of Catholics wanting to vaunt the middle ages or Protestants wishing to downplay them. Indeed, even in the modern period, far from being seen as a monarchical relic, “Charlemagne” was resurrected, phoenix-like, by the founders of the EU as the “Father of Europe.”
As an historian, it is difficult to negotiate the many versions of Charles constructed over the previous millennium and more. In this work Nelson studiously avoids any suggestion of anachronism. She presents us a chronological Charles the Great, embedded in his social and religious contexts, without averring to any future uses of his name. We discover his life as he lived it, with all its local color, and in the inherent uncertainty of historical contingency. In this Nelson has done us a service, for she has in a certain sense liberated her character from later interpretations. While she certainly has her own positions and perspectives, this is a nonetheless refreshing look at this central figure.
In the first place, this is a very attractive book. Contentions are reinforced by well-curated black and white images. Of particular use are the excellent maps, which enable us to travel with Charlemagne on his itinerant journeys around his burgeoning realm, not to mention useful contemporary maps of tribal settlements, a plan of the city of Rome, and a chart of ecclesial establishments in the empire. The endnotes are clear and copious, even if unfortunately employed instead of footnotes. The bibliography is especially fine and comprehensive.
The book is written in an engaging, propulsive style that matches the ambitious, almost nervous, energy of its protagonist. She enables the seeming contradictions of Charles’ character to come to the fore. He was a warrior and a cultivator of peace, a supreme leader who (sometimes) deferred to the pope and to the consensus of his faithful retainers, a devout Christian who had many concubines, a man who could be at almost the same time exceptionally charitable and bellicose. Nelson allows the reader to work out these characteristics on their own, offering them numerous original texts to consider, making the book an enjoyable literary journey.
This effort is a biography in the classical sense. It is about one man and his interaction with others only as they crossed his path and with events only as they affected him. It is not the general history of an age, nor does it offer any new insights into the intellectual story of the period. Insights into political theory, economics, or administrative law are tantalizingly short and undeveloped in service to the main story. This is an old-school work in that—while using the latest research and at least nodding to contemporary theories—is what nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke called wie es eigentlich gewesen: the past as it really was (or at least as close as we can get, filtered through the experiences of twelve centuries).
She has an utter mastery of the sources, particularly the charters of the king, and her interpretations are usually quite well founded. That said, it is not nearly as institutional and political as older biographies, and Nelson’s contribution really shines when she speaks of Frankish family dynamics and cultural practices, while bringing unexpected resources into play, such as poetry, architecture, numismatics, and epigraphy. She is even able to convincingly give us insights into Charles’ emotional life, with some very clever readings of the available texts.
Faith and Kingship
In her initial pages she attempts a reconstruction of Charlemagne’s family story which is very successful. This is followed by a provocative effort to recapture the “family narrative” or the stories told within family circles that helped to establish its identity. This section is marginally less useful, as she prioritizes minor family squabbles and downplays events of such magnitude as the battle of Tours/Poitiers in 732 in which Charles’ grandfather checked the Islamic advance into Europe. She adeptly describes the rituals of kingship inaugurated by Charles’ father, and continued in his own imperial coronation in 800 in Rome.
While she deftly analyzes the political meaning of such solemn events, she sometimes only gives a nod to their religious significance. Nelson constantly repeats her belief that Charlemagne was ardently and seriously religious, but fails to follow up in a consistent way that would match her masterly handling of the political meanings. For example, she details that his desire to be buried at Saint-Denis in Paris meant that he was making a political claim on the region of Francia against his brother. This is very likely, however it masks his sincere religious reasons for the choice. Besides being the burial place of his father, Charles’ repeated endowments of the monastery and his devotion to the saints clearly indicate that politics did not necessarily trump religious motivations. To put it another way, political advantage in no way cancelled out spiritual aspirations in the premodern world. I do not wish to push this criticism too far, since Nelson always alludes to religious significance, and provides much detail about the religious policy of the king so that the reader can make an informed interpretation.
This lack of attention to religious concerns becomes acute when Charlemagne crosses the Alps for his first trip to Rome in 774. For some reason these few pages are riddled with errors, some editorial, some historical. In the space of a few paragraphs a duration of time is described three different ways and a distance is given both as 45 and 48km. The Flaminian way is distinct from the pilgrim Via Francigena, only following it for a few miles. The tomb of Hadrian was already popularly called Castel Sant’ Angelo, and the basilica of St. Peter was never a civil law building, for it was purpose-built by the emperor Constantine. Finally, the Vatican hill is certainly across the Tiber, but is not in the Trastevere district. This is the only section where I found evidence of significant editorial or factual error, but in a book that sets itself up for historical precision, it needs to be noted.
In spite of that, Nelson’s skill is on display in her sections on Frankish familial and social customs. She in no way sugarcoats her subject. She essentially accuses him of murdering several of his nephews, and consistently notes her subject’s sexual energies, which involved activities both within and without wedlock. She describes the terrible slaughter of Saxon captives. Yet at the same time she also presents a Charles who was a patron of intellectuals, a loving family man, a devout Christian, and a good friend and admired leader. Charles was a complex character, and Nelson’s portrayal of him allows the reader to peer into the original sources in order to judge for themselves, indeed she gives us a picture of a serious man struggling to balance political and religious responsibilities. Her social history is exceptionally penetrating, and she is quite good in describing the rising sense of romanitas among the peoples of the north, both religiously and culturally. She gives generous helpings of original source material, which in turn help the reader to form his or her own judgments on the matter at hand.
She also offers rich accounts of Carolingian political practice. While Charles saw himself as king and emperor, we should not allow our view to be colored by early modern concepts of monarchical absolutism. Medieval kingship was a wholly different animal. Charles had to balance his authority against the wishes of his nobles, the dictates of the Church, and the customs of the various peoples he ruled. Rulership at this time was consultative in a very high degree, a process of negotiation that allowed much room for free action.
Charles as Leader
Charles’ leadership was primarily on display in two areas, in war and in support of the intellectual life. While he waged dozens of campaigns (here described in consummate detail), he also tried to model a cultural revival. This is perhaps the most disappointing part of the work, in that what has come to be known as the “Carolingian Renaissance” receives short shrift. While it is always a temptation for a reviewer to wish that a different kind of book had been written, still Nelson leaves us with only tangential glimpses of the glittering court life during Charles’ reign. Also almost totally neglected is the educational revolution begun under his rule, particularly in consultation with the brilliant Alcuin.
These leaders were confronted with one of the most novel situations in history. How does one govern an empire of free men? For the first time in history, a kingdom came into existence that was not built on the backs of slaves. It was part of the insight of Charles and Alcuin to revivify the liberal arts as the education proper to such a kingdom. Alcuin’s retrieval of grammar, rhetoric, and logic was undergirded by the principle that if one cannot think, speak, and write for oneself, the title of freedom is merely nominal. Nelson hardly mentions such considerations, and Alcuin is only woven into the story when he interacts with Charles directly.
With all this said however, the strength of Nelson’s book is that she has provided the solid foundation for later intellectual historians to build upon. With the chronology and context well established, we can look at the Carolingian intellectual and educational projects anew. With this information in hand, we can begin anew to understand this first laboratory of free education, under a leader who could write, “It is our responsibility. . . to repair by vigilant study the workshop of learning, which now lies almost ruined by the laziness of our predecessors, and to summon to thorough knowledge of the liberal arts whomsoever we can, even by our own example.”
Nelson is much better on the administrative and political organization of the empire. She recognized the significance of the fact that all free men took oaths to obey the emperor, and not just his immediate retainers. She outlines in detail how Carolingian government was by its nature devolved and participatory. Both the king and his ministers circulated through the kingdom, rendering justice to all and sundry. He was especially vigilant about eliminating bribes. He expected all within his kingdom to fulfill their responsibilities as free men, just as he was conscientious about fulfilling his. Capitularies of law were issued, creating standardized legislation, while at the same time rigorously respecting local customs of various groups. He was solicitous for the reform of the Church and the purity of Christianity. Her description of the construction of the palace and chapel at Aachen is exceptionally fine and useful.
In the end we must accept the book for what it is, a biography executed with relentless focus on the man himself. This is the object set by the author and she has accomplished it marvelously. The fruits of a lifetime of close historical reading and immersion in the sources are evident here. This work will be a standard reference for years to come, and hopefully will be the wellspring of many new studies on the significance of the intellectual firmament, educational policy, political theory, and religious insights of the age of Charles the Great.