The Medieval Review 11.12.14

Gabriele, Matthew. An Empire of Memory: The Legend of Charlemagne, the Franks, and Jerusalem before the First Crusade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 202. $99. ISBN 978-0-19-959144-2. . .

Reviewed by:

Thomas F.X. Noble
University of Notre Dame

"Charlemania" has been a growing industry in recent years and Matthew Gabriele now takes a significant place on the shop floor. His brief and readable book demonstrates how, especially in the eleventh century, a Frankish "Golden Age" was constructed, and with what consequences. There is a line in Flannery O'Connor about the danger of parking your buggy on the track when the Dixie Special is coming down the line. Gabriele is the buggy and Anne Latowsky's forthcoming book is the Dixie Special. Nevertheless, I do not think the buggy was flattened by the train. I really like this book and learned a lot from it. Occasionally its prose is over the top and, in many instances, it is more colloquial than some traditionalists find congenial. The argument and research are critical, thorough, and sound.

Gabriele's method is basically aggregative. He continually puts layers of evidence on top of each other until they add up to a cohesive, coherent picture. In the first chapter "The Birth of a Frankish Golden Age" gives away the story and the remaining chapters flesh it out. Gabriele shows, following other good scholars, that in the ninth and tenth centuries, Charlemagne was not always visible and was often contentious when he did emerge. Yet a deep tradition was implanted. Then he, and with him his age, became a figure of prime interest, a holy figure, and the ruler of an empire that stretched from Iceland to Jerusalem. Demonstrating these points alone would have been original and important but what sets this book apart is its careful explanation of how and why this happened and why it matters. Specialists in vernacular literature know perfectly well that Charlemagne exploded in the twelfth century. Robert Folz famously showed that the liturgical Charlemagne took flight in the same period, only to soar ever higher in later times. Anne Latowsky, who ironically teaches in a French department, is going to reveal the continuing power of the Latin tradition. What we have lacked is the essential background.

Interest in Charlemagne appears in various settings. For example, 68 of 97 forgeries of Charlemagne's charters come from religious houses that sought to claim him as their founder. No other ruler even comes close as a "source" of legitimacy. But historical writers added to the dossier, beginning with Benedict of St. Andrea who, around 970, was the first to attribute to Charlemagne a journey to Jerusalem. Materials dating from the late eleventh century and stemming from Charroux also have this fictitious journey. Around 1080 the Descriptio Qualiter also has the story and adds a visit to Constantinople where Charlemagne received relics and acknowledgment. Crusade narratives sometimes said that armies followed Charlemagne's path to the East. These sources seem to have drawn on a common fund of tradition; they are not demonstrably dependent on one another. Little by little Charlemagne was portrayed as the preeminent earthly power. Why?

Drawing on late antique and biblical resources, the Carolingians had defined their realm as a Davidic kingdom based on Old Testament models with Aachen as a new Jerusalem (it was a new Rome too, but that is not Gabriele's theme). In the post-Carolingian world, Jerusalem assumed growing prominence. More churches emulated Jerusalem's churches, especially the Anastasis. The liturgy increasingly drew on themes pertaining to Jerusalem. Relics of the passion proliferated. This constant and rising emphasis on an imaginary Jerusalem made the tangible city more important, more desirable. The eleventh century witnessed a dramatic increase in pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In 1026 Richard of St.-Vannes led perhaps 700 people to the East and then both the number and size of pilgrimages expanded sharply. As many as 12,000 people left Germany for the Holy Land in 1064-65.

The Carolingians uncoupled empire from Rome which opened up real and imagined possibilities for assigning Charlemagne rule over all kinds of lands and peoples. The imaginary and expanded Carolingian Empire came to be seen as a kind of imperial Christendom with roots in an historic past but relevance in a fraught present. Prophetic texts said that at the end of time a Frankish king would lay down his scepter on the Mount of Olives and thereby bring Roman and Christian imperium to an end. So an "empire of memory" lived on and one of its key dimensions was that a Frankish ruler would defend Christendom from its enemies right to the end. In complex ways Antichrist, pilgrimage, Charlemagne, and a Christomimetic emperor entered a coherent narrative: "Charlemagne's militant, Frankish, Christian empire prefigured the Last Emperor's; and in the eleventh century, past and future began to converge" (128).

Talking about Charlemagne was, thus, a way of unlocking a glorious past that mattered in new ways in the present, particularly as that past was seen as a militant one. Gabriele has much to say about the coalescence of a European identity built on a constantly shifting Frankish one. He demonstrates the importance for historians to be attentive to many kinds of sources. To be sure, he is alert to the potential relevance of his findings for the First Crusade. But he is wise enough not to claim that he has explained that phenomenon. Urban II, Gabriele notes, never mentioned Charlemagne. But Urban's words were sounded, and resonated, in a world with a thick web of associations which Gabriele disentangles beautifully.

In addition to his, let us say, empirical findings, Gabriele has another agenda that will give the attentive reader a lot to think about. He quotes (66) Keith Michael Baker--a distinguished historian of modern France--who said that "[h]istory is memory contested; memory is history controlled and fixed." I might have wished that Gabriele's approach to this fascinating, original, and important exposition of the theme was a little less allusive, or implicit, but I think he is absolutely correct to place emphasis on how, with specific reference to Charlemagne, history and memory were manipulated, adjusted, intertwined, and differentiated.

Here is a suggestion: take Gabriele's book, Amy Remensnyder's Remembering Kings Past (1995), Jay Rubenstein's Armies of God (2011), and Anne Latowsky's forthcoming (2012) book and teach a terrific seminar.