Monday, August 06, 2007

Another look at Charlemagne

I just finished Charlemagne by Derek Wilson. It was interesting to compare this book to the previous Charlemagne: Father of a Continent biography. Wilson’s book was not even close to as scholarly as the other. He did not go into as much detail about the Carolingian Renaissance, which was a clear drawback to the book. He did not have as many stories are takes on Charlemagne telling me it was not as well researched. Wilson did make some improvements on the other biography. Wilson’s biography is written in a popular style that anyone could read, as opposed to a stilted, translated, prose. Wilson takes the biography along a chronological path rather than each chapter exploring every aspect of a different subject. That may also appeal to some. Wilson does one other thing that is enlightening. Wilson adds an entire third section of the book that deals only with the Charlemagne myth. He traces the use of Charlemagne from his death to the modern day. I found this last section fascinating. Charlemagne was almost immediately turned into an icon. Poems, biographies, and plays appear almost immediately. Both Germans and French pointed to Charlemagne the Great as a rallying point. German leaders as late as the 13th century were claiming Charlemagne talked to them in visions along with Frederick Barbarosa and Otto I. French kings did the same. Louis 14th claimed King Charles as his own. Napoleon patterned himself after the First Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, Napoleon crowned himself emperor to correct the one mistake of Charlemagne, and did not undertake that endeavor until after a pilgrimage to Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital. After Napoleon failed to live up to Charlemagne as was defeated the legend of first great French man almost died. He was too intertwined with Napoleon, and thus he was avoided. Adolf Hitler would resurrect Charlemagne by passing laws against Charlemagne. Hitler forbid anyone to use the name of Charlemagne because he was the ‘butcher of the Saxons.’ The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Charlemagne was again a hero. He is now occasionally invoked by the promoters of the EU because Charlemange referred to his territory as Europe. He united the different regions and country and made the firs European Union, which the many now try to duplicate.

In the end, I liked the book, but probably only because I love the subject. Wilson did not do justice to the great accomplishments of Charlemagne. He also clearly did not understand the Christian religion nor how it motivated Charlemagne. He does admit occasionally that an action fit nicely with his piety, but then proceeds to tell us how it was all about politics. So, I disagreed a lot with the characterization of Charlemagne as a political machine. Several things in his life militate against such an understanding. He turned down numerous things that were politically better such as the marriage of one of his daughters to the future Byzantine Emperor. Wilson also makes Charlemagne too much of a loyalist to the pope. True, Charlemagne did many things to help the pope out, but he also actively opposed the pope on several issues such as the 7th Ecumenical council that dealt with worshipping images and by inserting "and the Son" into the Nicene Creed. No small matters. A decent book, but I bet there are better biographies out there. I intend to find them.


bob said...

I read your review of Derek Wilson's book, Charlemagne. It seemed, maybe, a little too critical. It was an easy read and I would have to agree that Charlemagne was more interested in land and power than in truely spreading the Christian theology. You seem to understand the Early Middle Ages, are you a historian or teacher?

Lee said...

Perhaps I had hopes that were to high for the book when I began reading it. It was an easy read, which is often an accomplishment for a biography.

I am a pastor in the Reformed Church who just happens to love history. Especially the Early Middle Ages, and particularly Charlemagne. I hope to have a review of a book about Theodulf of Orleans up soon.

What drew you, Bob, to this book about Charlemagne? And do you have any recommendations for a book-a-holic like myself?

bob said...

I am writting a review of the book for a history class. I attend Concordia Seminary. and do not have a big history background. Here are a few of the things I am reading: Age of Reform, Steven Ozment; The Medieval Church, Joseph Lynch; The Middle Ages, Morris Bishop; History of Christian Thought, Justo Gonzalex; The Medieval Theologins and my favorite A History of the Christian Church, Williston Walker