The following book is not a novel, but it is a work of fiction all the same. . . . It is impossible nowadays to fathom the depths of a life lived more than twelve hundred years ago, so the only thing remaining for a writer to fall back on is his own imagination. (vii)What, exactly, do we know? We have narratives of Charlemagne's long reign, but, says Fried, these are paltry, biased, and tell us little about the king's motives or aims. We have a large body of laws and administrative orders enacted by his council, and an even better record of church councils over which he presided. Scattered among the documents saved by Europe's oldest monasteries are copies of some of these decrees marked with corrections, as if this were the very parchment brought into the royal council for final debate and approval. We have a handful of official letters from Charlemagne to the Pope and other worthies, and a fair sample of letters by churchmen who knew the emperor well. We have poems written to praise him. We have two dialogues written by Alcuin, a priest who was one of Charlemagne's closest advisers, that take the form of conversations between Alcuin and emperor himself; some historians think these might vaguely approximate actual discussions between the two men, or at least cover topics they actually discussed. Most famously we have a brief biography written by a man who knew Charlemagne well, the courtier Einhard. But Einhard is oddly silent about most of the things modern readers would like to know, which makes his text as much a frustration for biographers as a help.
The other Charlemagne was a pious son of the church who worked all his reign to spread the Christian faith, reform and purify the church, uphold the authority of the pope, and educate his people in the basics of Christian doctrine. This is the Charlemagne who interests Johannes Fried. Fried is an expert in the intellectual history of this era, and he knows the ins and outs of every text. Fried is out to show that the church reforms and educational programs launched by Charlemagne were crucial to intellectual life in Europe over the next several centuries, that Charlemagne was personally involved in all of this, and that his immersion in Christian thought and church administration completely change the emperor's approach to ruling.
This renaissance in knowledge and aptitude was not sought for its own sake, nor was competence in Latin revived just for the purposes of logic. The purpose of both, as the Church Father St. Augustine had stressed in his writings, was to promote the soul’s redemption, the true faith, the correct observance of sacred rites, and the understanding of the Holy Scriptures and of the world order ordained by God, and thereby to support a form of rule that was pleasing to God and included welfare provision for the poor and disadvantaged, another key requirement of religion. Religious motives really did drive Charlemagne’s concern for education, and along with this his desire to establish the first step in the rationalization of European intellectual culture. . . .These are radical ideas, but Fried has some strong arguments. For example, Charlemagne's council enacted several laws over the years trying to keep the free men who made up his army from being turned into serfs by powerful lords, each law prefaced with a statement saying that the old laws had been ignored. The counts, the chief secular officials of the empire, were criticized on this point again and again. In his last set of laws Charlemagne enacted that henceforth no count could strip a man of his freedom unless a bishop were also present and concurred in the ruling. This seems like a clear attempt to rectify the shortcomings of secular justice with the church's help.
This culture of learning was meant to shape every aspect of life, including divine worship, the Church in general, and even the decisions taken by the royal council. The defense of the faith, resistance to heresy, and order within the realm all cried out for it; grammar was needed for prayer, rhetoric for ruling, and dialectics for faith, while the sum total of knowledge was required to maintain the divine order of the world. These arts provided a theoretical grounding for real life, for the philosophy and exercise of power, and for Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire as a whole. (284)
Fried's Charlemagne despaired of secular power. He gave up thinking that he could bring his great empire to order by more laws and more wars. He came to believe that only divine order, flowing through a perfectly ordered church, administered by learned priests and bishops, backed by the great learning of the Church Fathers, could bring peace and justice to this fallen world. Captured by the logic of theology and canon law, he saw in the rationality of Catholic learning and the holiness of the church the only hope for his fractious age.
I can't decide what to make of Fried's Charlemagne. If Charlemagne really turned against the whole basis of his ancestors' rule, it seems odd that his friend Einhard would have failed to mention it. It has happened many times in history that the court of an aging king was taken over by a faction of ideologues, and I can imagine that this might have happened to Charlemagne; perhaps the imperial acts that fascinate Fried were more the product of a cabal of churchmen than of the emperor himself. But on the other hand the subsequent history of Europe to some extent bears out the views that Fried attributes to Charlemagne: secular authority did fail to maintain order, the empire collapsed into civil war, and whatever order, justice and learning survived in the crumbling Frankish empire was maintained by the church.
This is a thick book dense with learning, not for the faint-hearted. But the writing is good and there are lots of interesting little stories and small triumphs of research to keep things moving, so anyone with interest and plenty of time can learn a lot about the Carolingian age from Fried. Even more, you can see in this book the mind of a great scholar at work. Fried displays here the kinds of arguments and insights that are possible for someone who has mastered the vast apparatus of historical scholarship on an intensely studied period. Fried has also delved deeply into the available sources, squeezing them to the limit for the stories they can tell. It is an amazing performance. If it fails to completely convince, that is partly because Fried is honest about the limits of our understanding. He has, as he warned in his preface, gone beyond what can be proved to what can only be imagined; and he has done this in a very impressive way.
Johannes Fried, Charlemagne. Translated by Peter Lewis, from the Harvard University Press, 2016; German original 2013. 554 pages of text, 75 pages of notes.