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22.05.08 Nelson, King and Emperor

22.05.08 Nelson, King and Emperor

Charlemagne fascinates us. Charlemagne confounds us. On the one hand, historians enjoy a staggeringly rich and diverse body of source material from which to learn about his life; no other early medieval figure comes close in either quantity or quality. On the other hand, the agendas and purposes of these sources, along with the extended afterlife of their subject in the memorials and myths of later medieval Europe, render the task of separating historical fiction from historical fact notoriously difficult. The sustained allure and consternation that Charlemagne has inspired in the 1200 years since his death have led each new generation of scholars to offer its own insights and interpretive contributions. We are lucky now to be able to add Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne to this long and distinguished tradition.

Janet Nelson’s erudition and generosity has inspired scores of medievalists, myself among them, to specialize in the mysteries and dramas of the Carolingian world. Her pathbreaking early work on Charles the Bald made her a doyenne of the field. And over the course of her career, her signature talent for perceptive close reading of the Carolingian documentary record has quite literally shaped our current understanding of ninth-century politics and Carolingian royal ideology.

In King and Emperor, Nelson believes that she can capture something of “the real Charlemagne”--not just an account of his exploits but his actual personality and character, his motives, and even his emotions (13). She argues that the careful historian need not relinquish the hunt for such quarry so long as she pays close enough attention and is willing to risk “skating on very thin ice” every now and again (3). While the long history of Charlemagne scholarship certainly informs her narrative, she writes in most direct dialogue with Johannes Fried’s Karl der Grosse and Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity. [1] Yet whereas both McKitterick and Fried organize their studies mainly by themes and genres of sources, Nelson presents her evidence as true biography, a story of a life told chronologically from birth to death.

Chapter 1 begins with a brief survey of the available evidence for Charlemagne’s life, both written and material. Nelson pays particular attention to how the nature of this evidence necessarily governs the stakes of the biographer’s game, methodically examining what we know or think we know of the Carolingian moment as it related to centuries before and after, and suggesting broad contexts for understanding our standard narratives of Charlemagne’s exploits and territorial expansions. Nelson presents a living, breathing Carolingian world in constant conversation and competition with Saxon neighbors to the north and the Byzantine, Umayyad, and Abbasid Mediterranean to the south.

Chapters 2 and 3 narrate Charlemagne’s earliest childhood and the family histories that would have shaped his worldview; this includes brief individual discussions of the texts by which historians have traditionally constructed the early history of Charlemagne’s family, then synthetic examinations of the entire corpus in an attempt to approximate the “grand narrative” that would have informed Charlemagne’s identity and sense of place in the world as a young boy. Charlemagne’s father Pippin looms large in this backstory, just as Charlemagne himself would haunt the biographies of Louis the Pious--crucial, Nelson argues, for understanding the man behind the legend.

Chapters 4 through 6 narrate the course of Charlemagne’s first two decades as King of the Franks. Chapter 4 begins with Charlemagne’s contentious relationships with his brother, Carloman, with Desiderius of the Lombards, and with the Saxons on the northeastern border. Nelson frames the early Saxon campaign less as a response to border incursions (as Einhard narrated) and more as a strategic plundering of Saxon wealth in order to fund Charlemagne’s tense dealings with Desiderius and, increasingly, Tassilo, Desiderius’s son in law. Chapter 5 treats Charlemagne’s bloodless seizure of the Lombard kingdom--an incidental outcome of circumstance rather than a planned invasion, Nelson argues. Chapter 6 deals with the years 774-9: Charlemagne’s campaigns in Saxony and the Pyrenees and the infamous massacre of Charlemagne’s baggage train at Roncesvaux. Also of note in Chapter 6 is a short but fascinating digression concerning Charlemagne’s legal manumission of a possible concubine.

Chapter 7 proceeds to tell the story of Charlemagne’s and Tassilo’s parallel careers and budding rivalry, the continuing flare-ups of the Saxon wars, and the death of Hildegard and subsequent new marriage to a far more controversial queen, Fastrada. This provides the necessary foundation for chapters 8 and 9, which narrate Charlemagne’s troubles and diplomatic dealings in the mid-780s culminating with Tassilo’s rebellion and the Admonitio generalis of 789. Nelson suspects that the lofty position that this document has held in Carolingian history, including history that she herself has written, might be overstated or at least in need of further contextualization.

Strict chronology becomes a bit muddier in the final chapters, doubtless an inevitable effect of maintaining a clear narrative of the periods for which we have by far the greatest amount of source material. Chapters 10 through 12 treat the early 790s: the conquest of the Avar khaganate, renewed wars in Saxony, and the establishment of the more permanent court of scholars at Aachen. Chapter 13 tells the story of the papacy in crisis during the late 790s, Charlemagne’s interventions, and his famous coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

Chapters 14 through 16 tackle the controversial final fourteen years of Charlemagne’s reign. Here Nelson refines and recontextualizes some of her most important published arguments about the growth and expansion of Charlemagne’s bureaucratic power during this period, contrary to what was once a more widely-held interpretation of decline. She carefully examines the evidence of Charlemagne’s preparations for the division of his empire, his relationships with his adult sons, his diplomatic correspondence with the Roman papacy and Byzantine East. And Nelson concludes her book with a final assessment of Charlemagne’s importance in the long history of medieval Europe, the debts owed to the foundational historical narratives of François-Louis Ganshof and Heinrich Fichtenau and the corrections to their tradition that the historians of Nelson’s own generation have contributed. [2]

On the whole, King and Emperor is every bit the masterpiece of impeccable source criticism that one would expect from this true master of the historian’s craft. Nelson is not only a gifted reader, but also a highly-skilled writer: stylishly straightforward, wielding punchy prose and folksy wit. Her critical voice is sharp, but never unfair or unkind. And she is unafraid to traverse the realm of the perhaps. She dares, that is, as the very best historians can, to surmise and to guess and to wager in the service of advancing the possibilities of bold interpretations and fresh ideas.

Particular strengths of the book include Nelson’s care to imagine the infancy and early childhood of her subject. She reads the sources of Charlemagne’s life looking backward toward Charlemagne’s father’s generation, as Charlemagne could only have done, more than forward in time to the figure whom Charlemagne would eventually become. She seeks to show both the internal and external orientations of Charlemagne’s political exploits without ever allowing her story to devolve into a narrative of teleological inevitability. And in so doing, she presents a Charlemagne who is perhaps freer from the dominant perspective of Einhard than any that has been written before.

As with any book that seeks to challenge its reader, certain aspects of Nelson’s narrative will spark debate and disagreement. Her chronological structure allows her to spend much more time discussing Charlemagne’s life before 795 than Fried or McKitterick. But because Nelson must compensate for the relative paucity of sources for Charlemagne’s earliest years by building her arguments upon broad contextual examinations of the available material, her book at times becomes difficult to distinguish from a grand history of the early Carolingian era. Any macroscopic view of the Carolingians must deal, by simple virtue of the nature of the extant evidence, with the fact that Charlemagne always stands as a colossus at center stage. But Nelson’s narrative frame probably exacerbates our vertigo. King and Emperor also elects not to problematize the category of Frankish identity as much as some might like. One could argue that the history of what it meant to be “Frankish”--of who actually called themselves by that name and when and where and according to which definitions--is not only more complex than the book suggests, but also crucially important for understanding how Charlemagne negotiated the identity politics of his expanding empire. And while the University of California Press made the wise choice to allow Nelson to include more than a dozen beautifully-rendered historical maps, her expressed hope to make use of them (22) is never truly realized.

These are, of course, simply the consequences of choices--choices that all historians must make and choices that pay great dividends in other ways. I must admit to mixed feelings when I heard some years ago that this biography of Charlemagne was in the final stages of publication. I was excited to see Janet Nelson’s name attached to the project, but the field had just seen such a flood of new publication about Charlemagne in commemoration of the 1200thanniversary of his death: could yet another new narrative of Charlemagne add significantly to the oceans of words already written about him? I cannot argue that King and Emperor will dramatically change our view of the man and his historical moment. Only specialists will be able to see clearly the nuanced differences that separate Nelson’s story from all the rest that have come before it. The book perhaps misses an opportunity to make new theoretical claims about the biography genre as a tool for historical inquiry, as did, for example, Jacques Le Goff’s Saint Louis. [3] Yet in the end, my concerns were assuaged by the same singular voice and unique brand of gentle scholarship that called me long ago to Carolingian studies. With this book, Jinty Nelson will call future generations as well.



1. Johannes Fried, Karl der Grosse: Gewalt und Glaube: eine Biographie (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2013). English translation, Charlemagne, trans. Peter Lewis (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2016); Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

2. See especially the English language collection of Ganshof’s major articles: François-Louis Ganshof, The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy. Studies in Carolingian History, trans. Janet Sondheimer (London: Longman, 1971); Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium (Zurich: Fretz and Wasmuth, 1949). English translation, The Carolingian Empire, trans. Peter Munz (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968).

3. Jacques Le Goff, Saint Louis (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1996). English translation, Saint Louis, trans. Gareth Evan Gollrad (Notre Dame, I.N.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).