Charlemagne by Johannes Fried (Translated by Peter Lewis) - review by Thomas Shippey

Thomas Shippey

No Arthur

Charlemagne

By

Harvard University Press 673pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

The main facts of Charlemagne’s life are, by early medieval standards, well documented. He was born in around 742, crowned as Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 and died on 28 January 814. A life of him was written fifteen or twenty years later by a monk called Einhard, who had known Charlemagne personally and been his adviser. Some seventy years after this, when stories about Charlemagne could still have been in circulation at second or third hand, another more anecdotal life was written by a monk called Notker, possibly ‘the Stammerer’. (Both, translated by Lewis Thorpe, were published by Penguin Classics in 1969 in a splendid single volume, cheap, short and accessible.) Public events, including Charlemagne’s many campaigns against Lombards, Saxons, Avars and Saracens, were recorded in several series of Frankish annals, while we also have eighty ‘capitularies’ (or legislative collections), a great deal of royal correspondence and many lives of his contemporaries. The overall picture is unlikely to change much.

How does one account, then, for the increasing interest in him, as manifested in this undeniably weighty and exhaustive volume? The answer can be found in the title of Rosamond McKitterick’s life of 2008, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, and also in the Charlemagne Prize, an annual

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