Charlemagne lived between the late 8th and early 9th centuries CE – The Wikipedia dates are 2nd April 748 – 28 January 814 CE but I suspect that birthday is about as a reliable as a second hand car you buy cash-in-hand from a guy who only identifies by a nickname.
I much prefer his German name of Karl der Große – ‘Karl the Great’ and…not because me and him, we’re namesakes, or anything. I mean, I didn’t literally steal my rap name ‘Karolvs Rex’, King Karl, from Charlemagne. (By the way ‘Karl’ basically means ‘King’ so…KING KING!)
The reason that I’m talking about him is partially because, outside of the classical world, he is a figure from history I am drawn to. But mostly it is because when I learned about him and his devotion to the pursuit of education, knowledge, literature and art it was, well…We Lack Disciplinian!
But let’s talk The Great Karl first.
He was Frankish. That doesn’t mean he was a little bit Frank. The Franks were a Kingdom of Germanic peoples that were mainly spread across modern Germany and France in a territory then called Francia.
This Carolingian (of the Charleses) Frankish empire didn’t really happen haphazardly or by accident, though. Most of those territories expanded they into were either under dispute, or their leaders were disrupting existing, stable, Frankish territories. This is certainly true of those taken during Charlemagne’s reign. He was not aggressively expansionist, but rather took opportunities to expand where problems arose.
Charlemagne, being about 7 foot tall according to some contemporaries (likely some flattering hyperbole but he is estimated to have been between 1.8-2m tall, about 5 foot 10 to 6 foot 5 – Huge compared to the average man at the time) was not much one for sitting around enjoying being King. His trips abroad brought much territory under Frankish control, and possibly the most important incursion was into Italy, bringing the Kingdom of Lombardy under the Frankish sphere.
This, you see, put Rome under his control. Since around the 5th century CE Rome had been without a strong, Europe-wide leader like they used to have under their famous empire, so this Germanic conqueror seems like a perfect opportunity at a Roman Renaissance!
Lombardy was taken around 774 CE, but Charlemagne was not to inherit his most exalted title right away. So, what does one do? Some fightin’ round the world! Bavaria would fall by around 788 CE; the Avars, in an area leading into Hungary at the same time or just after; he had little skirmishes with Slavs as well, giving him a good solid 20 years of campaigning.
Then in 799 CE Pope Leo III had become unpopular in Rome. He fled to the King of the Lombards, at this point the King of most of Central Europe, Big Charlie.
They all went to Rome in 800 CE, and, funnily enough, escorted by the biggest, hardest bastard in Europe the Romans didn’t try to pluck out Leo’s eyes this time. They held a synod, a church council, to decide an appropriate path. Pope Leo swore an oath of innocence to The Great Karl, this was on December 23rd. On Christmas Day, during Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Charlemagne knelt to pray and was crowned ‘Imperator Romanorum’, Emperor of the People of Rome, by Pope Leo III.
There is debate as to whether or not Charlemagne had any awareness of the Pope’s intention. He was mostly illiterate, but he wasn’t stupid. His management of his empire demonstrates his effective skills as a statesperson and the inevitable conflict between West and East as a result of his new position would be spotted a mile away by anyone who had previously dealt with political conflicts from minor squabbles to Kingdoms clashing with Kingdoms. He was also, however, clearly very ambitious. Perhaps this was merely the classical tradition, established centuries prior by Augustus, of coyly refusing the honours to be bestowed before, “Well, if you insist!”
That said, this new Christendom, both Frankish and in Italy, was actually quite pleased to shed the image of the old pagan Romans, so how much they would have romanticised Rome and the idea of ‘bringing it back’ is debatable.
Regardless of knowledge or motivation it was a schism. The Western, Catholic Pope making a power play against the legitimacy of the Byzantines in the East to rule in the name of Rome. What’s more the Eastern Roman Empire was one of the few bodies with authority over the Pope. In crowning a new Western Emperor the Pope was creating not only a counterforce, but one beholden to the papacy for its legitimacy. The pope built himself a protection force!
Charlemagne declared himself “Renovatio imperii Romanorum” – The restorer, or renewer of the Empire of the Romans.
That’s about as short an introduction I can do. Personally I could run through the Merovingian-into-Carolingian history a lot more, and I may one day. What I wanted to do was place in context a man who has become so mythological.
Charlemagne was a perfect cross between a statesman and a warlord, probably the best Europe had seen for centuries, since the Western Roman Empire fragmented. The thing about those Roman guys though is they were well educated, literate, in fact they pretty much had to be to have any chance of survival in the elite, patrician world of Roman politics.
Charlemagne wasn’t. He was, as far as we can tell, barely literate. Yet his reign is often referred to as a Carolingian Renaissance, and arts and education flourished under him. He encountered other cultures in Moorish Spain, in Italy, that had their own expansive libraries of learning, of writing, of understanding and he seems to have revelled in it. Borrowing, taking, buying, obtaining whatever learning and arts he could to bring back to his main base in Aachen, Germany.
He increased monastic schools and copying of books across Francia, he would have books read to him. He encouraged scholarship of Latin, even commissioning books to make this accessible to his court and with this he encouraged his court to translate texts, especially Latin vulgate Christian texts, into the languages of the peoples under his dominion.
Many Classical Latin works we know of today as important for scholarship in Roman culture survive because of this blossoming systematic encouragement of intelligence and education under Big Karl! His court itself was a multi-cultural mix of people from across Europe.
He even, despite being a man of much respect and some years, took lessons himself! He is alleged to have been very interested in the movement of the stars and astronomy, so that’s another thing he and I have in common!
At a time when our politics is promoting falsehoods, half-truths and untruths, at a time when our leaders seem dependent on an ignorant electorate to pursue their agendas, I despair. I look back on the reign of Charlemagne, this brutish warrior-king who saw the importance not merely to himself but to his court, to his people, to his nation, of learning and intelligence. His hand-writing was known to be appalling and his ability to read barely even gets a mention, likely he was illiterate and yet he understood that a solid foundational knowledge is the single most important thing to a healthy nation.
Despite being illiterate he surrounded himself with people cleverer than him, had them read to him, learned from them and used those lessons in his life. He was clearly not afraid to be wrong, or to learn something new. In fact, it seems, he relished it.
In the UK we have a Prime Minister happy to surround himself with “Yes!” persons and boot-lickers (fetishised or professional), Charlemagne held a court of people he believed smarter than him, and he saw the importance of this! He was a very smart man, and only truly smart people recognise that there are others smarter around you and they are the single best defence against your own, inevitable, stupidity.
It is for this reason I am talking about Charlemagne today and making an official proposition that he become the Patron of our fine organisation, since I feel he upheld the Curious Idiot™ Pledge.
- I swear that I know only that I don’t know anything
- I vow to try to learn whatever I can about whatever I’m interested in.
- I aim to treat everyone like a Curious Idiot™ – With respect and an open mind.
- I shall give no reverence to anyone, no matter their station, beyond the equality and care due to all Curious Idiots™.
But there is also another side to Charlemagne’s curiosity and encouragement of learning. There is a warning that must be heeded.
Few, if any, of his successors shared Charlemagne’s passion for knowledge. Within a few generations the efforts of his labours were effectively undone. I know myself, from the work I do at We Lack Discipline, that it takes a lot of effort to learn, to study, to research, to write, to encourage others to participate – but it takes very little effort, indeed it may even save effort, to give up, forget and move on to more ‘entertaining’ things.
Charlemagne was not a beacon of enlightenment in a savage land lost since the Roman Empire dwindled. The tomes, the knowledge and the schools were still there – indeed it is from these places that the courts of Karolvs Rex obtained their books, scrolls and texts. The Carolingian Renaissance may have been a false dawn, but I am, and many others are, proof that the attitude, the fire, the passion for knowledge lives on.
Some of us, no matter how stupid, no matter how big of a bunch of idiots we may be, will always be curious.
Want more Karl the Great? I’m right here!
Nah just kidding.
You can actually freely access translations of the biographies of both Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (otherwise known as the Monk of St. Gall) at Project Gutenberg here.