Book Review: Charlemagne

Charlamagne: The Legend And The Man, by Harold Lamb

This particular book is an old book of a kind that is not written often anymore, at least not by ‘serious’ historians, a narrative biography [1]. Given the era in which this book comes from, there are some things that this book is missing that I would normally like, such as scholarly footnotes and end notes. Having not read a great deal about Charlemagne, it is hard to compare this particular book with other knowledge, considering only a few of the incidents of his reign are particularly well-known (most of them involving his attempts to revive the Roman Empire), and most of those incidents are as inscrutable as the mind of the king who was crowned and the pope who crowned him, or the Byzantines whose byzantine diplomacy strongly influenced the behavior of Charles Imperator.

This book takes a strongly chronological approach to the issue of the life of Charles the Great, who is often referred to as an Arnulfing, because of his ancestry. This reference is a consistent one, and is probably taken from the author’s sources, but it is likely to be puzzling to readers of this book. It is also worthy of note that this book is as concerned about the legend of Charlemagne and its repercussions for political and military and religious and literary successors as it is about the biography of the man himself. Charles the Great does not seem to have been a very complicated man. He was strong-willed, immensely afraid of darkness and uncertainty, and filled with a deep understanding and devotion for his people as well as being of a practical mindset. What is complicated about him is not his essential makeup but the shifting and impulsive moods that drove him intensely. Lamb does a good job at seeking out the best possible evidence to uncover the man and his noble failure.

Let us not mistake the matter, Charlemagne was a noble failure. By sheer force of will he attempted to drag his people out of darkness and complacency and rebuild the best of the Roman Empire. The task he attempted was impossible–there were no trade routes to provide wealth to his kingdom in an age of widespread raiding and piracy, no intellectual or physical infrastructure to provide a firm civic culture, and no rule of law to provide authority beyond the physical presence of the king or his agents. When these massive failures, along with the absence of cities or a tradition of centralization and the presence of numerous foes (the Arabs of Spain and North Africa, the Byzantines, the Lombards, the Saxons, the Avars, the Danes, and the Slavs, to name a few) are taken into consideration, then the first timid steps out of darkness that his age represents mark a wonderful achievement that is not to be neglected simply because what was lost over centuries could not be restored in a lifetime.

This is where this book provides a lesson to us. Charles is a flawed man, full of sincere piety but also full of anger and lust that had immense consequences. The failure of his namesake to survive and the fact that Louis, his heir, was a pious but ineffectual ruler whose realm was being attacked by the brutal Norse from the time of his coronation, made his realm too weak to endure as a mighty empire after his death, as the empire constructed by Charlemagne crumbled soon after his death into a lasting divide between French and German, setting the stage for many centuries of conflict between those two realms, whose peace is necessary for the success of European visions of a united Christendom. Those dreams of Charlemagine haunt Europe still, 1200 years after his death.

[1] There are some good examples of this, though:

And, of course, some bad examples too:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: Charlemagne

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