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32.6 The Personality of Charlemagne

In spite of the fact that we have a life of him written by his contemporary, Eginhard,[1] the character and personality of Charlemagne are difficult to visualize. Eginhard lacks vividness; he tells many particulars, but not the particulars that make a man live again in the record. Charlemagne, he says, was a tall man, with a rather feeble voice; and he had bright eyes and a long nose. «The top of his head was round», whatever that may mean, and his hair was «white». He had a thick, rather short neck, and «his belly too prominent». He wore a tunic with a silver border, and gartered hose. He had a blue cloak and was always girt with his sword, hilt and belt being of gold and silver.

He was evidently a man of great activity, one imagines him moving quickly, and his numerous love affairs, did not interfere at all with his incessant military and political labours. He had numerous wives and mistresses. He took much exercise, was fond of pomp and religious ceremonies, and gave generously. He was a man of very miscellaneous activity and great intellectual enterprise, and with a self-confidence that is rather suggestive of William II, the ex-German Emperor, the last, perhaps for ever, of this series of imitation Cæsars in Europe which Charlemagne began.

The mental life that Eginhard records of him is interesting, because it not only gives glimpses of a curious character, but serves as a sample of the intellectuality of the time. He could read probably; at meals he «listened to music or reading», but we are told that he had not acquired the art of writing; «he used to keep his writing-book and tablets under his pillow, that when be had leisure he might practise his hand in forming letters, but he made little progress in an art begun too late in life». He had, however, a real respect for learning and a real desire for knowledge, and he did his utmost to attract men of learning to his court. Among others who came was Alcuin, a learned Englishman. All those learned men were, of course, clergymen, there being no other learned men, and naturally they gave a strongly clerical tinge to the information they imparted to their master. At his court, which was usually at Aix-la-Chapelle or Mayence, be maintained in the winter months a curious institution called his «school», in which he and his erudite associates affected to lay aside all thoughts of worldly position, assumed names taken from the classical writers or from Holy Writ, and discoursed - upon theology and literature. Charlemagne himself was «David». He developed a considerable knowledge of theology, and it is to him that we must ascribe the addition of the word, filioque to the Nicene Creed, an addition that finally split the Latin and Greek churches asunder. But it is more than doubtful if he had any such separation in mind. He wanted to add a word or so to the creed, just as the Emperor William II wanted to write operas and paint pictures,[2] and he took up what was originally a Spanish innovation.

Of his organization of his empire there is little to be said here. He was far too restless and busy to consider the quality of his successor or the condition of political stability, and the most noteworthy thing in this relationship is that be particularly schooled his son and successor, Louis the Pious (814-840), to take the crown from the altar and crown himself. But Louis the Pious was too pious to adhere to those instructions when the Pope made an objection.

The legislation of Charlemagne was greatly coloured by Bible reading; he knew his Bible well, as the times went; and it is characteristic of him that after he had been crowned emperor be required every male subject above the age of twelve to renew his oath of allegiance, and to undertake to be not, simply a good subject, but a good Christian. To refuse baptism and to retract after baptism were crimes punishable by death. He did much to encourage architecture, and imported many Italian architects, chiefly from Ravenna, to whom we owe many of the pleasant Byzantine buildings that still at Worms and Cologne and elsewhere delight the tourist in the Rhineland. He founded a number of cathedrals and monastic schools, did much to encourage the study of classical Latin, and was a distinguished amateur of church music. The possibility of his talking Latin and understanding Greek is open to discussion; probably he talked French-Latin. Frankish, however, was his habitual tongue. He made a collection of old German songs and tales, but these were destroyed by his successor Louis the Pious on account of their paganism.

He corresponded with Haroun-al-Raschid, the Abbasid Caliph at Bagdad, who was not perhaps the less friendly to him on account of his vigorous handling of the Omayyad Arabs in Spain Gibbon supposes that this «public correspondence was founded on vanity», and that «their remote situation left no room for a competition of interest». But with the Byzantine Empire between them in the East, and the independent caliphate of Spain in the West and a common danger in the Turks of the great plains, they had three very excellent reasons for cordiality. Haroun-al-Raschid, says Gibbon, sent Charlemagne by his ambassadors a splendid tent, a water clock, an elephant, and the keys of the Holy Sepulchre. The last item suggests that Charlemagne was to some extent regarded by the Saracen monarch as the protector of the Christians and Christian properties in his dominions. Some historians declare explicitly that there was a treaty to that effect.

[1]Eginhard’s Life of Karl the Great. (Glaister.)
[2]The addition was discreetly opposed by Leo III “In the correspondence between them the Pope assumes the liberality of a statesman and the prince descends to the prejudice and passions of a priest.” —Gibbon, chap. ix.

« 32.5 Charlemagne becomes Emperor of the West |Contents | 32.7 The French and the Germans Become Distinct »

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