History Books


Surely the most convenient date in all of Western history is the coronation, as "emperor," of Charles, King of the Franks, on Christmas Day, 800. Charles is of course known to us as Charlemagne - Charles the Great. He was certainly as great as anybody else who has been awarded that sobriquet, but his aura is clouded by the fact that his vast empire dissolved quite rapidly after his death in 814, never to be restored. The bonds between Austrasia and Neustria, the two Frankish kingdoms that Charlemagne inherited, were severed forever in 840. Austrasia would become part of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, while Neustria would make up Northern France. The Christmas coronation was itself shrouded in ambiguities. Of what, exactly, was Charlemagne the emperor? And by placing the crown on his head, had Pope Leo III manifested papal supremacy?

I find myself thinking of Charlemagne as an island of calm in a turbulent sea - relative calm. Perhaps it would be better to say that Charlemagne imposed focus, with himself at center of Christendom's perspective, upon a huge territory. The groundwork for his supremacy had been laid by his grandfather, Charles Martel, the mayor of the Austrasian palace who is credited with turning back the Muslims after the Battle of Tours in 732, and by his father, Pepin the Short, mayor of both palaces until 751, when Pope Zacharias acknowledged him as the effective king of both countries - a concession that the next pope, Stephen III, transformed into a pact when he made an unprecedented trip across the Alps and anointed Pepin himself. The alliance between the Papacy and the Carolingians increased the prestige of both parties, and it was as defender of the Church that Charlemagne launched his campaigns in Saxony and Spain. Close association with the Church also permitted the king/emperor to appoint monastic revenues to the benefit of his leading men, a device that would prove to be a mainspring of feudalism. Given the opportune and early death of his siblings, Charlemagne may be said to have held all the cards.

The details of Charlemagne's life are not easily established. We do not know, for example, when the man was born. We know nothing of his education except what we can infer from his behavior as an adult - curious but authoritarian, fluent in Latin but unable to write. We know that he was tall, but we don't know much about his military capability. It can be assumed from his record that he was very capable of something, but was he more brilliant as a quartermaster than as a tactician, or equally good at both? He fought surprisingly few battles, and lost two big ones, but battles were not the true stuff of war; sieges were. Hence the question about quartermastering.

Making sense of the records, and confuting a lot discredited historiography, Alessandro Barbero's Charlemagne: Father of a Continent (2000; California, 2004; translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron) does as good a job as I can imagine being done at bringing an pivotal but distant personality to life. He is able to explain the huge differences between the eighth century and now without making them seem bizarre. Perhaps his most important point is that what's often called 'the Carolingian renaissance' ought to be called 'the Carolingian rectification. Charlemagne, who believed himself to be descended from a prince of Troy, sought above all things to restore the strong and Christian empire that had been brought down by Huns and Goths. There never had been such an empire, but everybody knew that things had been better at some point in the past. Cleaning up obvious abuses, particularly in the administration of the Church, seemed to be the best way of recapturing the vanished moment. While this might look like reform to us, it was actually more like reaction. Charlemagne's eyes were set firmly upon a glorious past.

That may well explain both his personal success and the failure of his descendants. Things were already changing during Charlemagne's life. In 793, Norseman sacked the monastery of Lindisfarne in England. By the end of the ninth century, Norsemen had become Normans, in control of the mouth of the Seine as well as half of England. The Hungarian incursions, which reached as far as Bremen, Rome, and Orléans, had begun in the 860s, and the Saracens had established their viper's nest at Fraxinetum on the Mediterranean, from which they managed to make the Great Saint Bernard Pass unsafe, thirty years later.

But Charlemagne's empire had fallen apart from within. Civil war among his grandsons led to its tripartition in 843. What would become France lay to the west, the Empire to the East. The wide strip in between, running from the North Sea to Northern Italy - the effective frontier between speakers of Romance and Teutonic dialects - would gradually crumble into a string of smaller, often-contested states: the Netherlands (including Belgium), Lorraine, Burgundy, Switzerland, Provence, Savoy, and Lombardy. These would all nominally remain part of the 'empire,' but they would not be part of Germany. But if Charlemagne's empire fell apart in 843, it did so to form a pattern that is still recognizable on the map of Europe, and in that sense Charlemagne deserves to be known as 'the father of Europe.' Under his firm command, and by his subjugation of Saxony, Bavaria, and Pannonia, what had been the ghost of a Roman province was transformed into the heart of what would become 'The West.' Charlemagne's mightiest legacy was the dream of a unified Europe - a dream that only recently came to be conceived in consensual terms.

The success of Charlemagne's empire rested on a coordination of men and matériel - not to mention food - that amounted, despite the drawbacks of pre-industrial transport through underpopulated regions and the Mafia-style exercise of power, inherited from Rome, that flourished on local levels, to the nearly miraculous. Mr Barbero ably anatomizes the organization that made this possible, and disabuses the reader of some received ideas about Carolingian life. (For example, it is not true that monarchs of that time were peripatetic because they and their retinue of men and horses invariably ate up all the food in the neighborhood.) He makes it very clearly that government turned on the king/emperor and his counselors, not on established institutions. It was altogether a personal achievement. That's why Charles still seems great to us and, as I say, why his greatness has the bittersweetness of the transitory.

Mr Barbero leaves one mystery unexplained. As noted, he points out that pitched battles were rare. Why, then, did the fulcrum of Charlemagne's army gradually but irreversibly shift from infantry to cavalry? Are horsemen better in sieges than foot soldiers? Or am I simply missing something in my general ignorance of military matters? (If so, enlighten me, please!) The question is important because, whatever its cause, the increased emphasis upon cavalry altered the cost of warfare, making it much more expensive for far fewer fighters. It was this skewing of costs that would send the free men who had served in infantry into servitude to men who rode horses, so that by the beginning of the eleventh century those who fought would never be those who worked. Feudalism's roots received a whopping dose of fertilizer under Charlemagne. I'd like to know why.

Permalink | Portico

On 10 February 2005, I received the following courriel, which I reprint with permission:

Dear Sir,

As the author of Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, I was very pleased to stumble upon your website and read your comments on the man and my book. Thank you very much! As for the point you not unreasonably make - why should heavy cavalry become so important in an age when pitched battles were rare and sieges made up most of warfare - I would suggest that battles were rare exactly because Charlemagne's cavalry dominated the field so that no Saxon, Arab or Avar force would have any hope against it; that's why they locked themselves into their walled towns and left resistance in the field, if any, to partisan warfare.

What do you think about that?

All the best,

Alessandro Barbero

My answer:

Dear Professor Barbero,

Thank you for your email! It is a most delightful surprise, to find that an author has found what I’ve been up to!

I must confess to asking my question somewhat tendentiously. Your suggestion, of course, makes perfect sense; it was, after all, the rationale of the Cold War. But the more I read about early medieval Europe, and early medieval Franks in particular, the more positively I detect a growing taste for bifurcating the social structure into aristocrats and serfs, with the aristocrats becoming ever more obsessed with their bloodlines – an obsession that cannot really be said to have disappeared, actually, even today. The emphasis on cavalry did more than anything else to promote the bifurcation, and if it was indeed the cause, then it seems equally true that no one objected to the effectual enslavement of most Europeans. No élite voices, that’s to say.

It is very good to hear from you, and I hope to stumble upon other books by you!

My very best,

R J Keefe

(With thanks to Professor Barbero.)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me