Charlemagne (Charles the Great, Charles I)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Charlemagne (Charles the Great, Charles I)

Charlemagne (Charles the Great, Charles I) (742-814) Emperor of the Franks

The Frankish warrior king Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, furthered Western Christendom by creating the Frankish Empire out of much of central and western Europe, a realm that rivaled the Byzantine Empire. He was the son of the Frankish king Pepin (or Pippin) the Short and grandson of the great Frankish ruler Charles Martel. After Pepin's death in 768, Charlemagne became co-ruler with his brother, Carloman I, succeeding to sole kingship after Carloman's death in 771.

In an era of growing pan-Europeanism, Charlemagne's imperial boundaries reached from southern Bavaria and Thuringia in central Germany to northern Holland, and from the Pyrenees to northern Italy. A forerunner of the chivalric knight, he combined the strengths of a professional soldier, governor, educator, translator, and evangelist. More than three and a half centuries before the First Crusade (1095-99), he launched a campaign to proselytize the Lombards and Saxons. In 778, he attempted to secure Spain from the Moors. His empire building spread Frankish influence from Bohemia in 788 to the Danube in 796. On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the first Holy Roman Emperor. A thousand years later, the French Bonapartists extolled Napoleon Bonaparte for resurrecting Charlemagne's vision of a Gallic empire.

Around 830, Einhard, Charlemagne's adviser and emissary, became the emperor's biographer. The publication of Vita Caroli Magni (The Life of Charlemagne) introduced a model of the literary BIOGRAPHY, a succinct yet thorough accounting scrupulous in its objectivity. Patterned on the Roman historian SUETONIUS'S De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars, ca. A.D. 121), the life story written by Einhard pictures Charlemagne in public and private but offers no citations of the emperor's own words or reenactments of his conversations or speeches. Of Charlemagne's campaign skills, Einhard admires his persistence: “With no small perseverance and continued effort, he brought to complete fruition what he was striving to achieve” (Einhard 1969, 59). Attesting to the significance of the emperor's passing, the biographer retreats to the style of the Greek historiographer HERODOTUS and connects Charlemagne's failing health in the last three years to eclipses of the moon and sun and a black spot on the sun.

A Rebirth of the Arts

During the Carolingian Renaissance (late eighth and ninth centuries), the Charlemagne years saw the flowering of architecture, the arts, and literature; and the scholarship of the educator and royal councilor Alcuin, the epic poet Angilbert, the historian and fabulist Paul the Deacon, and the Carolingian poet laureate Theodulph of Orleans. Legends picture the emperor in battle against Saracens and as the leader of paladins commanded by Roland, hero of the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland, ca. 1080), the oldest French text and a touchstone of CRUSADER LORE. The emperor served as the model monarch in courtly literature and a cycle of anonymous chansons de geste (songs of deeds) developed from peasant tales—for example, a SATIRE of chivalric feats in the Holy Lands in Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne (The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne, ca. 1140); the emperor's exploits in company with his 12 retainers in The Sowdone of Babylone (The Sultan of Babylon, ca. 1250); and the emperor's journey to Constantinople in Roland and Vernagu (ca. 1325), which concludes with a duel in Galicia, Spain.

Around 1262, with the waning of Provencal lyric poetry, the Genoese ambassador and troubadour Luchetto Gattilusio (fl. 1248-1307), honored Charlemagne in passing. In the song “D’un Sirventes M’es Granz,” Luchetto notes that Charles of Anjou deserves respect just for bearing the same name as the Carolingian king. Less specific are images of Charlemagne as commander in chief in a conversion-by-combat story of a Saracen knight in Spain in Otuel (ca. 1325), the glorification of the French king and his knights in The Sege of Melayne (The Siege of Milan, ca. 1350), and the reconquest of Spain in Sir Ferumbras (ca. 1375) and Duke Rowlande and Sir Ottuell of Spayne (ca. 1390s). An endearing Scots fable, the rags-to-riches story of a sturdy French yeoman meeting the king incognito in The Taill of Rauf Coilyear (The Tale of Ralph the Collier, ca. 1475), exemplifies a Renaissance shift in emphasis from feudal hierarchy to respect for the individual. In 1995, the French actor Christian Brendel recreated early episodes from the emperor’s life in the film Charlemagne.


Einhard. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969.

The English Charlemagne Romances: Sir Ferumbras. Boston: Adamant Media, 2001.

Oelsner, Herman. History of Italian Literature to the Death of Dante. Translated by Adolf Gaspary. London: George Bell & Sons, 1901.