People, Places, and Backgrounds
Published by Ziereis Facsimiles on 0 comment(s)

Charlemagne, Part II

The Man Behind the Legend

Charlemagne in the Cologne Cathedral: the famous stained-glass window shows Charlemagne as one would have imagined him in the Middle Ages. The images and statues of him bear only a remote resemblance to the historical person because portraiture as we understand it did not yet exist.

Charlemagne is a historical figure whose importance and impact on history is difficult to overstate. He was a great warrior-king who conquered and ruled over more territory than any other medieval monarch in Latin Christendom, but whose contributions to European culture, art, and society were even more far-reaching. His reforms to education, such as the implementation of Carolingian miniscule, assemblage of Europe’s greatest minds at his royal court of Aachen, and the scriptoria founded there, make him the great-grandfather of the Renaissance. In truth, what is commonly referred to as the Renaissance today was only the third of three, the first two of which were stunted by periods of instability.

The Carolingian Renaissance begun under Charlemagne was disrupted by the chaos of the 10th century as his empire was subject to internal division by his successors, a time when the raids of the Vikings turned into all out invasions from the north, and Saracen armies were conquering Sicily and Naples to the south. The so-called Scholastic Renaissance that emerged at the turn of the 12th century produced such great minds as St. Thomas Aquinas and lead to development of the new Gothic style in art and architecture. Emerging out of the crises of the 14th century – famine, plague, and incessant warfare across Europe made worse by a lack of papal mediation due to the Pope/Anti-Pope crisis of the Avignon Papacy – and in spite of it, the Renaissance which began in Italy that everyone knows today had its foundations laid by a Frankish warlord who could write his own name and not much else, but who nonetheless recognized the value of education. Who was this man, this complex figure of legendary proportions who rulers modeled themselves on for centuries?

From Frankish Warlord to Great-Grandfather of the Renaissance

An interior view of the magnificent Byzantine-style dome in the original part of the Cathedral at Aachen - Charlemagne wanted his empire to rival that of the Byzantines, not only in might but also in culture.

The Franks, who were less of a clearly definable ethnic nation and more of a confederation of tribes sharing a common language and customs, settled the region of northern Gaul spanning from the Meuse to the Rhine and Mosel. Even among the warlike Germanic peoples, the Franks enjoyed a particularly pugnacious reputation. Although numbering no more than 200,000, they successfully drove out the Visigoths and subjugated the indigenous Gallo-Romanic population and Burgundians, establishing themselves as the unrivaled masters of Gaul, eventually lending it their name. To this day in German, France is called Frankreich, “the kingdom of the Franks.” They quickly strove to adopt the learning and culture of the Romans, even fashioning their own Trojan origin story (that they were descended from a Trojan prince named Brucio) to grant them legitimacy on par with the Romans, which Charlemagne would have learned as a boy. Charlemagne sought to reconcile the often contradictory natures of these two cultures both in himself and in his empire.

A modern view of Charlemagne's cathedral in Aachen, it's varied architectural style reflects the various time periods during which it was expanded.

On the surface, Charlemagne more closely resembled his barbarian warrior ancestors than the Roman emperors whose mantle and succession he claimed. After all, he was King of the Franks for over 30 years before he became Emperor of the Romans. He was a large man in every sense of the word (especially for that age), nearly 6 and a half feet tall with a heavy build, thick neck, round head, big eyes and nose, short hair, and a long mustache in the Frankish tradition. He wore a tunic and pants, a cloak when it was cold, and was always clad with sword and mace. He greatly enjoyed riding and hunting, even up to the last months of his life, and his favorite food was roasted meat, especially game, attributing to his more corpulent stature in later years. He was, of course a more complicated man than that. He was both affable and quick-tempered, well-meaning but menacing, religious yet sensuous. 

The Lorsch Gospels, which was commissioned by Charlemagne himself and held in his hands, belongs among the most outstanding book treasures in the world.

While he ate, Charlemagne enjoyed listening both to bawdy songs and stories sung by minstrels, as well as readings from histories and moral treatises, particularly from classical sources. To pass time during the long, cold winter, he judged poetry competitions. He attended mass daily, but felt free to bend the rules of fasting, a large man like himself would naturally have a large appetite. His large appetites were not limited to food: the strict precepts of monogamous Christian marriage were still being established in his time, and he still held to old Germanic marriage traditions which differentiated from legal marriages and love matches, and the two were not mutually-exclusive. As a result, Charlemagne had five wives, six concubines, ten daughters, and ten sons. The fact that a clear doctrine for Christian marriage was laid out by the church in the year following Charlemagne’s death highlights the problems and contradictions this behavior created.

A Medieval Crisis of Identity?

The Coronation Gospels of the Holy Roman Empire, created in 800 in Aachen, represents a highpoint in Carolingian Manuscript Art. This work is centrally important, as it is one of the imperial crown jewels on which any of the Roman-German Kings must take their oath during their coronation.

The rivalries in Charlemagne’s inner circle reflect the complex identity of Charlemagne as he sought to balance the expectations of being a Frankish king and a Roman Emperor. On the one side were his trusted Frankish warriors, who were always by his side in battle and while hunting. These were very physical, powerful, and often illiterate men. On the other side were the scholars he assembled from across Europe, very few of whom were Frankish and mostly consisted of Italians, Irishmen, Englishmen, and Goths from Spain. Latin Christendom produced around 1,700 manuscripts before the 9th century, with the onset of the Carolingian Renaissance, book production exploded: 7,000 manuscripts from the 9th century alone have survived to this day. This is incredible considering that although Charlemagne could read and was skilled in rhetoric and logic, he could not write, but he tried to learn how later in life--by which time it was too late. Reading and writing were not taught together in those days because learning to read was largely oral and based on memorization, while writing was seen as a highly-specialized skill which was unnecessary on a daily basis, and Charlemagne could only sign his name. Nonetheless, his personal quest to improve and educate himself was extended to the whole of his empire as he sought to strike a balance between Frankish warrior-king and learned Christian emperor.