Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Life of Charlemagne

There are two "Lives" of Charlemagne, one by Einhard who was a member of the Carolingian court for decades, and one by a "Monk of St. Gall." The Monk writes that he was given the idea for the biography when Emperor Charles III visited St. Gall for three days; this can be dated to 883, meaning the Monk was writing 70 years after its subjects death, and 60 years after Einhard's eyewitness account.

Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni ("Life of Charles the Great") is not just a list of wars fought and won—and there were many—but offers insight to the habits and interests of its subject, and in so doing gives a glimpse of daily life in the Frankish court.

One thing we learn is of the close relationship Charlemagne had with the scholars with whom he surrounded himself: they had nicknames for each other. Charles himself was called (King) David, while Einhard's skill at managing building projects and his knowledge of Scripture saw him named Bezaleel, from a character in the Bible

...filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, and in carving of timber. [Exodus, xxxi]

Einhard, writing after Charles' death, forsakes the idea of making up tales of his subject's youth, claiming that no one was currently alive who could tell him anything about the king's life before his time as king. As much as Einhard writes because of his admitted great admiration for Charles, he refuses to do what so many medieval biographers would do: embellish his subject's early life with tales of his prowess, etc.

Of the 47 years' worth of wars discussed, the penultimate with the Huns stands out because of the near-total victory by Charlemagne, after which the spoils of war changed the Franks from "a poor people" to a land with so many riches that their coinage was devalued and commodity prices rose.

Of Charlemagne's personal life, we learn of his wives and concubines and their respective children (Einhard even admits that one name escapes him; the honesty of his account in places is refreshing). We learn that he quarreled with his mother Bertrada only once (when he divorced his first wife whom he had married on Bertrada's advice), and that he treated his sister with the same reverence he treated his mother.

As soon as his sons were old enough, he had them taught to ride and hunt and use weapons. His daughters were taught the arts of the spindle and distaff and to avoid idleness; all his children were taught the liberal arts, and to adopt high principles. When he was at court, dinners were always with the family. His attachment to his children was strong, and he openly wept when two sons and a daughter pre-deceased him. He also wept for the death of Pope Adrian I, whom he considered a great friend.

His sons and daughters also traveled with him, the sons riding up front and the daughters in the rear, guarded. One failing in Charles as a king was the fact that his daughters would have made him some powerful alliances through carefully chosen marriages, yet he never allowed them to be married, keeping them always with him. He had betrothed his eldest, Hruotrud, to Emperor Constantine VI, but it was broken off, possibly because of religious differences, or the distance she would have been from her father?

Despite the affection he showed for his family, he was a king and emperor who had to be harsh at times. Some of those times will be explored tomorrow.

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