Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Charlemagne's Contribution to Literature

Complete with Holy Hand Grenade!
Hi there folks, been a little while. I've been a little busy and my computer has been a little anti-social as of late. Just a wonky power supply, nothing I can't handle.  Just need the time to install the part I ordered and fix it. While I'm at it I would just like to plug Newegg - awesome site. Anyhow, I am here at the lovely East Longmeadow, MA library for a spell and I am going to send one out for you.

What I wanted to touch upon today is something that I read. My latest strolls of leisure reading have taken me to the nefarious Dark Ages of Europe. Now in my previous blogs you know that this is a favorite haunt of mine. In particular I've been reading the biography of Charlemagne. As a historian, I know that this guy was pretty darn important for the formation of Europe. Non-historians out there may have heard of him, but really unless you've done some study he's just the guy with the really cool name. That's alright though, I'm the historian it is my job to know this stuff and get the yellow pie piece in Trivial Pursuit for you.

Without going into too much detail what Charlemagne basically did was give the collapsed, fragmented ruins of the Western Roman Empire a much needed shot of logistical administration. He pulled Pope Leo III's bacon out of the fire. Founded the Holy Roman Empire. Made strides in reforming the clergy and local magnates. Engaged in some very frank ;) diplomacy. Almost married Empress Irene of Byzantium (now that is a What If). At Aachen founded one of the first major cities since the heyday of Rome. And most importantly he lived long enough to do all this. He lived a life.

His strength, charisma, longevity and pious devotion allowed him to do all this. Although there is one thing that is often overlooked when discussions of Charlemagne emerge. Yes, he made an honest attempt at bringing the learned academics and philosophers together to rekindle Western civilization. That did create some sparks in the doldrums. However what is more important to me is that he acted to preserve many old classical texts.  From Charlemagne by Derek Wilson:
From A.D. 0 to A.D. 800 some 1,800 manuscripts and fragments survive. From the following 100 years we have more the 7,000.
That is a really big deal. The old manuscripts were very fragile constructions. Fires, mold, insects, neglect, re-purposing, vandalism all were very real threats to these old texts. It is a miracle that many have survived. Education during this time was restricted and not terribly necessary. Charlemagne, to many, was a barbarian king. To be completely honest this was true of many leaders of the day. Martial survival was the Maslow self-actualization of the day. No self-respecting Frank would be caught dead living the effete life of a Byzantine noble.

Charlemagne was lucky to have the scruples to recognize the importance of education. He did benefit from some education in his youth, but truly he was a man of war and not letters. The imprint of his respect for those who were educated was felt all through his reign and his attempt to create a civilized empire. Without Charlemagne to save these texts what would have been lost? Yes, the Renaissance had had many factors contributing to its flowering, but how important was the Carolingian Renaissance? How important were the existence of these texts in the monasteries and abbeys? The collection started by Ptolemy and which had been floating around the Roman world would they have been lost for good. It is a question.


  1. An unanswerable question, I suppose, but a good one to ponder. What a guy.

    1. As I was writing the post I was thinking of how much of a similarity there was between him and the King Arthur of legend. I wonder how much of their stories fed into each other. Both legends grew far beyond their days.

    2. There's probably some of Charlemagne in the King Arthur story. It's difficult to sort history from myth, as you know, but the more I read the more it seems that Arthur is a fantasy of what people wanted a leader to be. It's likely he's based on real people, or even one real person. But the Dark Ages are just that; it's hard to see in there.

    3. Very true. As I was thinking about it today it seems that over time King Arthur became more real as people created his mythos, but Charlemagne became more myth as his deeds (great as they were) garned more embellishment as his foibles and mistakes were glossed over. And yes, those times certainly have that name for a reason.