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Penguins on Parade: Charlemagne!

By (March 6, 2013) No Comment


Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted, represent the tip of an iceberg – which can sound strange when we’re talking about fairly ancient works whose physical survival was certainly no given thing, but which is certainly true when it comes to records dealing with the Frankish emperor Charles the Great, known to all subsequent times as Charlegmagne.

penguin charlegmagne-jpg1For his long reign, we have a downright embarrassment of documentation. There’s the Annales regni Francorum and its subsequent revision, the Annales Mosellani, the annals of Murbach, Lorsch, Saint-Amand, Fulda, Salzburg, and half a dozen other places, the Capitularia regni Francorum, the Codex Carolinus, and the Epistolae Aevi Carolini, a host of biographies of contemporary figures, a slew of more strictly ecclesiastical nature, dozens of later histories and biographical sketches, and the two works translated by the great Lewis Thorpe and combined to make the 1969 Penguin volume called Two Lives of Charlegmagne: Einhard’s Vita Caroli and the De Carolo Magno by Notker the Stammerer, who almost certainly also went by the name The Monk of Saint Gall.

They’re two very different little works, and Lewis’ deft translating perfectly preserves those differences. Einhard lived at Charlemagne’s court, travelled with the king and his ramshackle group of courtiers and family, and states over and over in his Life that he personally witnessed all the things he writes about, that he was there and saw it all (an easily disprovable claim, but you find yourself a little impressed by his sincerity just the same). By contrast, Notker the Stammerer never met or even saw the king – he wrote his account in 883-4, some seventy years after Charlemagne’s death. What the two have most in common, oddly enough, is an excellent taste in just who to plagiarize: Notker the Stammerer, beetling away at his account in the Benedictine abbey of Saint Gall in the valley of the Steinach, kept Einhard’s account open before him at all times, and Einhard himself mapped his Life carefully on the Twelve Caesars Suetonius, especially the life of Augustus. Einhard wants us to know that his hero was very nearly perfect; Notker the Stammerer, as Thorpe points out, was writing at a time when the innumerable legends of Charlemagne were already beginning to take shape (those legends would reach their most famous point with “The Song of Roland” – and they’d achieve their greatest expression in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) – his Charlemagne isn’t quite as wooden as Einhard’s and can come out with better quips, as Thorpe observes:

His condemnation of the short Gallic riding-cloaks is magnificently Wellingtonian: ‘What is this use of these little napkins?’ he asked. ‘I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the wind and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.’ Maybe this is the jocular old Monk speaking, or maybe we are simply moving on from the Charlemagne of history towards the Charlemagne of romance.

There’s human pathos in Einhard’s more focused and worshipful account as well, but you have to pay a bit more attention to find it. Here, too is this good man, fighting constantly to hold onto (and expand) the kingdom he inherited with is brother when their formidable father died in 768, and that he ruled alone when his brother suddenly died in 771. Charlemagne fought constantly with his warlike neighbors, and he won often enough so that his renown reached even the far north of Ireland and was well-known at the splendid court in Baghdad. In the infrequent respites from all this fighting, he took pleasure from a not-particularly-Christian number of concubines (fathering children as illegitimate as he himself had been, although not quite so formidable), and with a humility exceedingly rare in princes, he set in motion the famed “Carolingian Renaissance” of learning and cultural advancement. Einhard himself was a beneficiary of that advancement for his entire adult life, and he wrote his account of his great emperor and patron verylucy reads charlemagne much with that in mind.

So his Vita Caroli isn’t quite so full of misbehaving monks and felonious bishops as is that of Notker the Stammerer, and it’s a bit of genius to package the two lives together as Penguin has done here. Genius also to enlist Thorpe, whose calm intelligence is also on hand in the Penguin Classic version of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales. He’s the perfect companion in what this volume represents: the first step in learning more about Charlemagne, whom one historian rightly called “the least-known most important person in history.”

After this first step, lots of others – the whole rest of the iceberg – but the Penguin Thorpe is a fine place to start.