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The Emperor Charlemagne by Einhard

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Einhard (~770-840) was born in Franconia. In 791, he went to Charlemagne's court, where he was educated by an Anglo-Saxon monk named Alcuin. He got to know Charlemagne and became close to his son and heir, Louis the Pious. Einhard wrote a biography of Charlemagne that became one of the most famous books of the European Middle Ages. This selection from the biography describes Charlemagne's character and his coronation in 800CE.




Charlemagne was the the first Holy Roman Emperor in European history. He received this title from Pope Leo III because of his ancestry and accomplishments. Charlemagne was born about 742. He was the son of Pepin the Short, the "mayor of the palace" who was elevated to the rank of "king of the Franks" by an earlier pope (Gregory III) after the Merovingians proved themselves unable to "keep the peace" (to use the words of Augustine of Hippo). After he inherited his father's kingdom in 771, Charlemagne expanded it by conquering more territory in Europe than any leader since the end of the western Roman Empire. Using the Frankish army -- the most powerful military force in Europe since the Roman army collapsed -- Charlemagne began the Christian reconquest of Spain from Islam by establishing an area that became known as the Spanish March on the south side of the Pyrenees Mountains. He defeated the Lombards in northern Italy and thereby saved the papacy in 774, and defeated the Saxons in Germany in 785. He also established diplomatic relations with Muslims in Cordoba (Spain) and attempted to marry into the Byzantine imperial family. In addition, he made treaties and fought wars with the Danes, and fought against the Saxons for thirty years.

During his lifetime, Charlemagne visited Rome four times (774, 781, 787, 800). He also encouraged Roman missionaries to spread Christianity throughout his empire, and his victory over the Lombards made the Roman popes completely independent of the Byzantine emperors, with whom they had had disagreements since 710 (the Iconoclastic Controversy). As a result, it was natural for Roman popes to think of Charlemagne as a valuable ally, and so on Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne "Holy Roman Emperor" in exchange for his support against the rebellious citizens of Rome. Charlemagne kept the title of Holy Roman Emperor, plus that of king of the Franks, until his death in 814.

Map of Charlemagne's empire
Charlemagne's empire
Stained glass portrait of Charlemagne
Stained glass portrait of Charlemagne holding a model of his cathedral in Aachen

Under Charlemagne's rule, civilian government in Europe began to function better than it had since the Roman Empire. For example, Charlemagne's subjects rebuilt many of the aqueducts that brought water to cities, and stocked silos with food as a way to protect against famine. Historians view these kinds of activities as particularly good evidence of a strong centralized government, since they required people to work together on large projects that did not produce immediate benefits, they required long-range planning, and in the case of food storage, they showed that society was peaceful and prosperous enough to create surpluses.

The peace brought about by Charlemagne's rule allowed trade, agriculture and other non-military activities to resume and even flourish. During this period, called the Carolingian Renaissance by later historians, Charlemagne promoted Christian literacy and learning among the Catholic clergy and some nobles. Monks, especially those from Ireland, had already begun to revive Roman learning in the previous century -- for instance, an author known as "the Venerable Bede" (lived around 673-735) wrote a scientific history of England and created the "Anno Domini" system of dates, using Jesus' birth as a beginning point. Charlemagne supported monks financially and sent them into the territories he conquered to preach and work as teachers. One of them named Alcuin (lived around 735-804), a Northumbrian (Irish) monk, went to live at Charlemagne's court and served as a tutor to his son Louis.

Charlemagne's relationship with the Roman church was a bit more complex. While he readily supported Christian monks and their missionary activity in Britain under the leadership of Augustine of Canterbury, he paid much less attention to the bishops who represented the pope's authority over religion. This was not a coincidence -- by relying on Northumbrians instead of Romans, Charlemagne was better able to keep his independence from the pope.

The success of Charlemagne's government and centralization depended to a large extent on his personal abilities and charisma. Charlemagne was a physically strong man with great endurance who continuously toured his kingdom to maintain the loyalty of his nobles. His first two sons died before he did, and his third son, Louis the Pious (ruled 817-840), was devoutly religious but no warrior. He was barely able to hold the Carolingian Empire together during his lifetime, and divided it between his sons Lothair, Charles the Bald, and Louis the German. After Louis the Pious died, his three sons fought until the Holy Roman Empire was partitioned into the Western, Middle and Eastern Frankish Kingdoms by Treaty of Verdun in 843.


  1. What characteristics of Charlemagne's personality did Einhard consider important?
  2. Do you think that Einhard presented Charlemagne's interest in religion accurately? Why or why not?
  3. What impact do you think that group bathing had on Charlemagne's power?
  4. Charlemagne was a successful leader. Was he a good leader? Why or why not?
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