It is an unfortunate fact that many of the records pertaining to ancient and medieval history have faded and disappeared with the passage of time, leaving many towering figures with little in the way of concrete record to mark the scale and duration of their passage on Earth. Such is the case with Charlemagne, one of the most singularly important figures in European history. What we know now to be true is the product of centuries of ever-advancing scholarship and patient sifting through the historical record. That we know as much as we do is a minor miracle abetted partly by the very same scholarly discipline instilled by Charlemagne himself in the literate classes of western Europe. The notion of objective “history” as we understand it today was still another thousand years in the offing, so our understanding will forever be obscured by propaganda, myth, and obfuscation.
It is to Derek Wilson’s estimable credit that he does not allow our slightly gauzy and befogged view of Charlemagne the man to obscure the very real importance of Charlemagne the historical phenomenon—and to a degree Wilson even manages to convert the discrepancy between these two competing figures into a narrative virtue. The first two-thirds of Charlemagne are devoted to the life and times of the man and his world, the political machinations and military campaigns that defined his long and peripatetic life. It is the final third of the book where Wilson allows the tight focus on the man’s temporal affairs to recede into a broader scope, taking in the entirety of European history from the king’s death in 814 through to the present day. While some might quibble with the expansive scope of the book’s later chapters, Wilson’s object is never obscured by the pageant of passing history. Following in Gibbon’s footsteps, Wilson understands that the story of Charlemagne’s long afterlife is the story of Europe.
After Charles’ death, the kingdom that he had constructed did not outlive him by even half a century. In the incessant chaos of post-Roman warfare and tribalism, there was simply no centralized mechanism that existed to keep a post-Carolingian empire intact. As a semi-hereditary kingship, it was inevitable that the lands controlled by Charles would fall apart in his absence. The warring factions of western Europe could only be held together by the strongest of wills—and, as Wilson takes pains to illustrate, the unity of his empire was far less cohesive than anything a modern polity would recognize as a coherent nation. But the idea of Europe originated exclusively with Charles. The cultural and societal innovations brought by Roman conquerors had faded with the Roman presence, but Charles built an impressive network of societal conventions that lingered long after his passing.
Much of the book is involved in the interaction between Charles and the papacy, and with good reason. Western Christendom in the eighth and ninth centuries was under siege. The Great Schism left Rome and Constantinople in a state of perpetual cold war, and the rise and incredible expansion of Islam had brought the threat of infidel invasion flooding over the borders of Europe with the Muslim conquest of Spain. Other non-Christian threats such as the Vikings and Avars made increasing inroads in this time as well. The Pope and Charles found in each other exactly what they needed: the Pope a powerful emissary who could protect Rome and amplify the Pope’s sorely lacking temporal authority, and Charles a vehicle through which his rule could be solidified throughout disparate and fractious territories. The crown of Emperor which Leo III placed upon Charles’ head on Christmas day 800 was almost besides the point, being mainly a ceremonial title bestowed by the Pope as means of further solidifying the Frankish king’s pan-European stature—there is evidence that Charles was actually disinclined to assume the crown, wary as he was of courting dispute with the crowned heads of state at Constantinople who considered themselves in actuality to be the direct lineal descendants of the crowned heads of Rome. But an eastern capitol weakened by generations of internecine strife and civil war created the perception of a power vacuum, and it was in this context that Leo III made Charles the titular Western Emperor—an idea that lingered with the Holy Roman Empire into the time of Napoleon.
The legacy of Charlemagne has remained strong for over a thousand years, tracking the development of the modern European nation state and forming an ideological basis for almost every war of expansion or conquest undertaken in the last thousand years. The idea of Europe as a unified entity, for good or ill, has never really died in all this time. The gift of a unified class of Christian scholars and ecclesiastics brought forth a unified Christian community that shared an appreciation of Hellenistic learning and helped the task of streamlining the transference from tribal society to an early feudal model. Language and culture deviated into modern nation-states, but the communal origins and shared religious language formed a bedrock of understanding that has never been superseded, arguably not even when the authority of the medieval church was split irrevocably in the 16th and 17th centuries. The overt specter of Charlemagne was the guiding principle behind Napoleon’s pan-European conquests, with the Corsican styling himself as a latter day Charles, even crowned Emperor by the pope himself. Although Napoleon’s infamous example sullied the appeal of overt references to the Carolingian model for subsequent tyrants, it is also worth noting that the hodgepodge of Frankish folklore from which Hitler created the pan-Germanic myth of a “thousand-year Reich” had its origins in subsequent permutations of the Charlemagne myth.
There is a concept of Europe as a common cultural identity that simply does not exist in Asia, and has only recently come into being in Africa as well as central and South America. Despite the inefficiencies and fractiousness of the modern European Union, at the organization’s core is a solidarity of purpose that can trace itself to the reign of Charles. When Western commentators comment on the seeming incongruousness of Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals’ stated desire to restore the territorial and cultural supremacy of the centuries-dead Abassid caliphate, it would be wise to remember that the west carries a long memory as well, even if the original impulses have faded beyond the boundaries of our communal memory.
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