Book Review: Charlemagne
by Johannes Fried
translated by Peter Lewis
Harvard University Press, 2016
“The following book is not a novel, but it is a work of fiction all the same” – so begins Johannes Fried’s big, immensely satisfying life of the semi-legendary medieval Frankish king Charlemagne, in a note of affecting directness that’s sounded throughout the 600 pages of his 2013 life Karl der Grosse, now expertly translated by Peter Lewis as Charlemagne for Harvard University Press. Fried, the author of 2009’s excellent Das Mittelalter (translated for Harvard by the indefatigable Lewis in 2015 as The Middle Ages), here digs deep underneath the many myths that began to cling to King Charles within a century of his death in 814 and blossomed in the high Middle Ages into a full-blown myth-cult of the pioous “doctiloquax,” the wisdom-seeking king who led his kingdom fiercely but stood humbly in the eyes of God.
But even before that cult reached its full height under the loving care of Tasso and Ariosto, a scribe much closer to the king’s own time could write “Charlemagne, our guiding light, adored by the people, you pious king and wise leader, renowned for your virtues and your feats of arms, most deserving of all the praise that the world heaps on you.” Fried carefully and confidently strips away the bright varnish applied by contemporary writers such as the monk Wetti or the king’s friend and chronicler Einhard, whose Vita Karoli Magni has always been the somewhat problematic template for Carolingian biography.
Instead of a legend, Fried builds a convincingly three-dimensional portrait of a man – a complicated, forceful, often contradictory man who was, according to our author, “characterized by a thirst for knowledge.” For Fried, the Christian church that would later do so much to extol the memory of the man who would come to be known as Charles the Great is central to understanding the ruler and his time. “Charlemagne was a king who set great store by order while at the same time being a devout Christian,” Fried writes. “He demanded rationally structured thought; the order of the world permitted such a mindset.”
Charles did more than any single individual in centuries to establish the order of his world, uniting territory after territory in what came to be the Carolingian Empire and keeping it all firmly in hand for over a decade, providing, among other things, the stability necessary for the arts and culture that had fallen into desuetude during dark centuries to revive and move back to the center of court life. As in his earlier big book, so too here: Fried is refreshingly comfortable with the king of exuberant narrative flourishes that were once upon a time encouraged at his glorious alma mater, the University of Heidelberg. Lewis does him proud in these not-infrequent moments:
The green shoots that began to appear in the Frankish Empire were still tender plants that could as yet hardly hope to compete with the blossoming civilizations of the Byzantines or the Arab world, but they were original, and they would one day bear abundant fruit. The intellectual elites of the Frankish Empire learned to think in Latin once more.
The most enjoyable aspect of Fried’s book is its relentless humanization of its subject (the most enjoyable aspect is certainly not the ridiculous cover design of the American edition, which not only uses an 1825 painting showing the king in segmented metal bloomers but also slaps the book’s title smack across Der Grosse’s codpiece); Charles intentionally surrounded himself with some of the fiercest intellectuals of his day, but like all very forceful men, he had a predilection for self-exoneration and a dislike of contradiction – with the result that figures like Alcuin and Theodulf could only get so far in any attempt to poke at the carapace of what passed for the official Court narrative. Fried is under no such restrictions, and his inquisitions are sometimes downright thrilling to read, as when he pictures the king before the only greater power Charles might have acknowledged, forced to account for the blood deeds that hagiographies tend to sweep under the carpet:
The Christian Caesar, the devout princeps, could not have failed to imagine being called to account by God. Charlemagne, where is your cousin Tassilo? He betrayed me – And where is your eldest son, Pepin? He rose up against me – Charlemagne, where are your brothers’ sons? They … Would he come through such a trial? Thou shalt now kill; he knew this only too well. Had he violated God’s commandments? “We must take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask whether we are true Christians,” Charlemagne had told his clergy in 811. The emperor did not exempt himself from this.
There has never been a Charlemagne biography to appear in English that comes close to matching this big book from Fried; even Derek Wilson’s 2007 life, as excellent and readable as it is, lacks both the scope of this book and its wry omniscience. For all the copious records of the reign, and despite the very real and very curious sensation that Charles wanted posterity to know him, Charlemagne has always been oddly aloof from the biographer’s art. Fried has come as close as we’re every likely to get to knowing the man.