The Medieval Review 10.08.03

Noble, Thomas F. X., trans. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and The Astronomer. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. Pp. 320. $84 ISBN 978-0-271-03573-4. .

Reviewed by:

Scott Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

Think back (perhaps a long time back) to the very first college course that you took in medieval history. If this course took place after 1968, then there is a very strong possibility that your earliest encounter with the Carolingians was Lewis Thorpe's Two Lives of Charlemagne. [1] For almost forty years, Thorpe's translation of Einhard and Notker the Stammerer's biographical works on Charlemagne (r. 768-814) has been uncontested in the classroom. And since we tend to teach as we've been taught, those medievalists who came of age with these translations have introduced them to new generations of students. And why not? The contrast between Einhard's reverential sobriety and Notker's quirky humor makes these texts very easy to teach as a pair. Moreover, the progression over the course of the ninth century from the historical Charlemagne of Einhard to the romanticized Charlemagne of Notker provides an excellent foundation for a discussion of the eleventh-century Song of Roland (another perennial favorite of survey courses in medieval history) and the crusading narratives like Joinville's Life of Saint Louis. [2]

Thorpe's translations have been the common currency in our classrooms for a long time, but it is becoming increasingly clear that our reliance on them has had the unintended effect of circumscribing our students' discussions about Charlemagne and his family. In the last decade or so, historians of the Carolingian period have undertaken ambitious translation projects that show us just how much we've been missing in our reliance on Einhard and Notker. With unflagging industry, Paul Edward Dutton has produced two rich compilations of translated source materials from the eighth and ninth centuries: Charlemagne's Courtier appeared in 1998; Carolingian Civilization in 2004. [3] These works are veritable treasure troves of letters, sermons, treatises, and royal decrees, which flesh out in considerable detail the world described in Thorpe's Two Lives of Charlemagne. While Dutton's books are excellent resources for upper-division students (I use them primarily in seminars, where I can devote several weeks to their contents), they are very wide-ranging in terms of the texts that they present and lack the focus that would make them most useful for entry-level courses. To Dutton's impressive corpus, we can now add Thomas F.X. Noble's Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, a collection of new translations of Carolingian secular biography including not only the two lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker but also three accounts of the life of his son, Louis the Pious (r. 814-840), by Ermoldus, Thegan and an anonymous author known to scholars as The Astronomer, all written in the mid-ninth century. Unlike Dutton's compilations, which offer translations of almost every conceivable genre, Noble's book has a very specific thematic focus that makes it especially appealing for use in lower-division classes.

All of the texts in Noble's Charlemagne and Louis the Pious capture the anxieties and frustrations of ninth-century Carolingian intellectuals living through the political misfortunes of the reign of Louis the Pious and its tumultuous aftermath. [4] Most of them conjure idealized portraits of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious to provide exemplary models of kingship for their respective successors. Noble's book begins with Einhard, the trusted advisor to Charlemagne who is usually credited with reviving the genre of secular biography in the early Middle Ages. Written in 828 or 829, more than a decade after his patron's death, Einhard's Life of Charlemagne served several purposes. He composed it "partly to staunch the flow of criticism of Charles, partly out of frustration with the disastrous course of events in the late 820s, and partly to teach the new generation better ways by showing them the highlights of the previous one" (13). Notker's Deeds of Emperor Charles comes next. The monk of St. Gall composed this work in the late 880s, well after the three biographies of Louis the Pious included in this volume, so here Noble has chosen to sacrifice a strict chronological presentation for a thematic one (more on this below). Notker dedicated the Deeds of Emperor Charles to Charles III "the Fat," who was Charlemagne's great-grandson, but he left the book incomplete, probably due to court politics and the succession crisis that resulted from the death of Charles III in 887. Far removed in time from the historical Charlemagne, Notker's portrait of the great king is "a literary invention made from a bundle of anecdotes designed to teach lessons" (54).

Noble follows these two well-known biographies of Charlemagne with three more obscure ninth-century renderings of the career and character of his son Louis the Pious. The earliest of these is a prose translation of Ermoldus Nigellus' elegaic poem, In Honor of Louis, the Most Christian Caesar Augustus. Ermoldus composed this poem in the late 820s, while in exile for an undisclosed offence. His portrait of Louis as a pious and attentive Frankish leader, who was faithful to his God and mindful of his councilors, borders on panegyric. Ermoldus may have hoped that a favorable reading of the poem would result in his release from exile. The work comprises four parts which treat Louis' martial prowess against the Muslims of Barcelona (book 1), the events surrounding his assumption of the imperial office upon Charlemagne's death in 814 (book 2), his military campaigns in Brittany (book 3), and his diplomatic commerce with King Harald Klak of Denmark, which resulted in the conversion of the Danes to Christianity (book 4). In contrast to Nigellus, the shadowy author called Thegan wrote his biography of Louis the Pious in an annalistic style, covering the events of the king's life year-by-year from the time of his childhood to the year 835. Thegan's short and somewhat dry account of Louis' deeds stands in marked contrast to the third and longest text of Noble's triptych, the Life of Emperor Louis written in 840-841 by the anonymous author known as The Astronomer, due to his frequent references to astronomical phenomena. This work is a deeply sympathetic portrait of Louis the Pious, which refracts all of his actions and ambitions through the lens of cardinal virtues (wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage) and the ideals of monastic comportment (obedience, humility, and self-control). It is both an historical account of Louis' reign and an idealized account of the life of a virtuous Christian king, worthy of emulation by his successors.

We gain a tremendous amount by reading the lives of Charlemagne together with those of Louis the Pious, for it allows us (and our students) to trace the concerns of Carolingian intellectuals during the crisis of authority that followed the death of Charlemagne and to delineate much more clearly than ever before the functions of secular biography during the reign of his son and grandsons. This brings me to my only quibble with the volume. By presenting the texts out of chronological order and grouping them instead according to their subjects (two works on Charlemagne, followed by three works on Louis), Noble makes us work a bit harder to see the development of the great king's image over time. Moreover, since it is clear that the lives of Louis the Pious informed Notker's late ninth-century account of Charlemagne's character, it would have made more sense to me to present these works in the order in which they were written, so that we could come to Notker's text having just read the earlier lives with which he was familiar.

There is much to admire here. Noble has presented us with lucid translations of five important works of secular biography from the Carolingian period, each adorned with learned, if at times somewhat laconic, introductions and up-to-date bibliographies. It is a pity, however, that those of us who teach courses on Western Civilization or Medieval Europe will have to wait a little while longer before we can make use of this fine volume. For the moment, the publisher has only released Noble's book as a hardcover, the cost of which will keep it out of the hands of students until the appearance of an inexpensive paperback edition. Let us hope that The Pennsylvania State University Press does this with all haste, so that we can get this book into our classrooms, where it belongs. Our students will be richer for it.



1. Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) with many subsequent reprintings. In 2008, Penguin replaced Thorpe's introduction and translation with new ones by David Ganz.

2. Further on this line of inquiry, see The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith and Crusade, ed. Matthew Gabriele and Jace Stuckey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

3. Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard, trans. Paul Edward Dutton (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998); and Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, trans. Paul Edward Dutton, 2nd edition (Peterborough, Ontario, 2004). In 2008, the Higher Education division of the University of Toronto Press acquired the rights to Broadview's History catalogue and now publishes these two titles.

4. On the topic of Louis the Pious and his reign, see most recently Courtney Booker, Past Convictions: The Penance of Louis the Pious and the Decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); and Mayke De Jong, A Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), reviewed together by Kevin Uhalde in TMR 10.06.06.