Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Johannes Fried, Charlemagne

Charlemagne (748-814) was one of the greatest European rulers, but he has few biographers. This is because, as German historian Johannes Fried explains in the preface to his very long and amazingly learned account, we really know very little about him:
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.

These sources show us two very different sides of the man. On the one hand there is the secular warlord of a semi-civilized tribe, who loved fighting and listening to "stories and deeds of olden times," whose favorite food was roast game fresh from the hunt, who married and divorced a series of women as his impulses and political needs dictated, besides taking numerous concubines. It is Charlemagne the warrior who appears most clearly in Einhard's Life, defeating one enemy after another, bedding the women who pleased him. Fried reviews this material but really he does not add very much beyond what one can read in Einhard and the Frankish Royal Annals. That is because two centuries of obsessive research into Charlemagne has turned up very little else about the military side of his reign, and nothing at all that can add to Einhard's two paragraphs on his private life. Fried has dug up some excellent material on matters like who served in the army, how they were summoned, and so on. For example he tells us that gear for an armored warrior – helmet, coat of mail, sword, leg armor, spear, shield, stallion – cost 40 pence, equal to 18 to 20 cows. To put it another way, it took 12 small farmsteads to support one armored, mounted warrior. (38)

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.

Early in his reign, when he was marching to war almost every year, Charlemagne may have been something like the warrior king portrayed by Einhard. But Charlemagne actually withdrew from active campaigning after 778. For most of his reign he left the fighting to other men, including his sons. Instead, Charlemagne focused on diplomacy (for example with the Byzantine Emperor and Caliph Harun al-Rashid), justice, education, and reform of the church. Fried's Charlemagne imagined a new sort of kingdom, sustained not by force of arms but by Christianity. Charlemagne and his advisers wanted to bring a religious order to the realm, beginning with the church itself but eventually spreading beyond it. To begin with, all priests must be able to read the Bible, and they must have accurate Bibles to read (or at least the parts that appear in the liturgy); they must be trained in the basics of Aristotelian logic, so they can understand and expound theology. Schools to train them must be established in all the major monasteries, besides which the monasteries must be brought to order, all following the same rule. Everyone must use the same calendar, so all the feasts are celebrated on the same day. Orthodoxy must be enforced and heresy wiped out. Only then can secular society be brought to some kind of order; only religion can really bring justice to the violent, savage world. Fried is not very good at summing up his arguments, preferring to expound them gradually over dozens of pages with hundreds of citations, but this gives the flavor of his approach:
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. . . .

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)
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.

Later in the Middle Ages there would be centuries-long conflicts over the boundaries of secular and church power, marked by several wars between popes and emperors. During the course of those disputes the popes used a number of documents that were supposed to date to the reign of Constantine or not long afterword, which established the superiority of the pope over the emperor. Fried shows that some of the most violently pro-church, anti-secular documents did not come from the papacy; they were forged in monasteries under the control of Charlemagne and his close friends, either at the end of his reign or during that of his son Louis the Pious. (E.g., the Decretals of Pseudo Isidore, and the first version of the document that evolved into the Donation of Constantine.) It was the men around Charlemagne who gave the popes the strongest arguments for their superiority.

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.


G. Verloren said...

This sounds like an interesting book.

A pity, then, about the choice of cover art: a hilariously anachronistic rendering from 1825, not only depicting plate armor which would not be invented for another half millenia after Charlemagne's death, but also emblazoning it with the German Eagle and French Fleur-de-lis from several centuries beyond even than that.

The most accurate thing in the image is the Aachen Cathedral he holds aloft, which is the oldest cathedral in Europe and which Charlemagne himself had built during his lifetime - although we see it in a form that wouldn't be achieved until much later, as it saw numerous rebuildings and additions over the centuries.

I wonder if this is a case of publisher and marketing insistance despite objections of historical inaccuracy, or if perhaps even Fried himself is ignorant of the inaccuracy.

I used to find it baffling to think that an otherwise learned historian could be unaware of certain incredibly important aspects of a time period they've intensely studied. But over the years I've found this be a surprisingly common occurance, owed I think largely due to intensely focused study through a single medium such as text, in which such details are almost universally missing. You quite frequently need to also draw from other fields such as archaeology or historical art to actually be aware of details like what armor people would have worn and what flags they would have flown during a given time period.

John said...

I think the Renaissance illustration is part of the point. There are no contemporary portraits of Charlemagne, so we are left with our own imaginations, just like the artists who created the cover painting.

G. Verloren said...


But we actually -do- know rather a good amount about 8th century armor, clothing, architecture, et cetera - unlike the 19th century painter who created that depiction.

hatever elements of Charlemagne's life may still remain mysteries to us, the type of armor and the garb he would have worn are not among them. These are not things we need to imagine, and thus it makes no sense to suggest it was done purposefully to emphasize the completely separate details that still do remain a mystery to us.

No, this smacks of corporate corner cutting and cost saving. The painting is in the public domain, meaning they didn't need to hire someone to create a cover image. It's entirely possible Fried didn't even have a say in the book's cover, and it was left entirely to the publisher's marketing team who likely neither knew nor cared of the discrepancies.

David said...


Thank you for this review. Fried sounds fascinating, and as you imply, raises a number of questions about both Charles and his legacy. One as you say is how true Fried's picture is to Charles himself. I wonder if Einhard didn't acknowledge the emperor's transformation in a sort of backhandedly critical way. My memory (for what that's worth, alas) is that Einhard closes the reign with a description of a somewhat doddering and housebound emperor who spent too much time with his daughters and not enough, I infer Einhard means, in the manly company of the heads of the great families. Perhaps this is an indirect indication and another side of the kind of transformation Fried is talking about. (I do remember that there's a churchy, pro-Louis the Pious source that criticizes Charles for excessive devotion to his female relatives, with a more priggish type of clerical stance, designed to heroicize the housecleaning Louis instituted upon his accession; and it could be I'm simply projecting this onto Einhard, and Einhard says nothing against the old Charles.)

Then there's the issue of the decline of order after Charlemagne's reign. Perhaps one could turn it around and say the decline of order resulted from too much preoccupation with the church and not enough with the basic task of herding those great families. In other words, relying too much on the church to create order brought the very disorder that Charles wanted to avoid.