Wednesday, April 13, 2005


I am on a mission to read as many biographies as I can this year. So far, I am at a total of one. Yeah slow start. However, Charlemagne, Father of a Continent, by Alessando Barbero translated by Allan Cameron, was an excellent book. I would have preferred a little more focus on Charlemagne’s theology and church life, but this book was not by a Christian scholar and the author was more focused on Charlemagne’s political impact on the world. So, overall I enjoyed it.

If you all do not know much about Charlemagne, shame on you. He was King of the Franks, became Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, and conquered Europe as far as the Ebro river in Spain, the Papal lands in Italy, half way up Denmark, and to the Oder river on the Eastern front, making him ruler over all of what we now know as Western Europe save England and part of Spain. Not too bad.

Yet, he did much more than just conquered lands. He standardized the weights and measures as well as the making of coins in his lands. He traded a great deal with other kingdoms helping grow the economy of Europe, he had begun naval reforms that may have prevented the Viking invasions if they had been followed and kept up. He showed mastery over warfare and tactics, crushing his opponents and rarely losing battles. Yet, he showed great mercy, usually making rival leaders join monasteries rather than execute them.

One thing the biography shows well is Charlemagne’s love of his family. He cherished his children, especially his daughters, which was not common for rulers of his time. He took care of all of his children, even the one who tried to start a rebellion against him. He canceled a marriage for one of his daughters to the heir to the Eastern Empire because he did not trust the moral character of him nor his mother, Empress Irene. It turned out to be an astute judgment, as Irene later butchers her own son to make herself queen. Charlemagne loved his daughter more than the political ramifications of his actions. An excellent example.

In the church he was clearly more powerful than the pope, since Charlemagne instituted the ‘filioque’ clause into the Nicene Creed against the objections of Pope Leo. He over ruled the 7th Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, declaring that images are not to be worshiped and have no profit at all. He surrounded himself with great thinkers and men such as Alcuin of England and Theodulf of Orleans. Yet, perhaps his most amazing feat is his acceptance of change when the Bible speaks. In the 700’s the church did not have a clear teaching on marriage. Thus, several types of marriages existed. There was a legal arrangement, which could easily be undone, and then the marriage done by the church. Early in his life Charlemagne had one of those legal arrangement marriages and had a son from it. Yet, during the reign of Charlemagne the church began to look down on this sort of marriage, and thus, he never entered into another one, even though Charlemagne himself had been born to one of the legal only marriages. Most telling is that Charlemagne’s children do not follow the practice and soon the church has rid the world of the legal (read try it for a while and see) marriages. It takes a great man to stare his own roots, and his own actions in the face and raise his children differently.