Pages and squires were expected to read many books about the lives of the great knights and other warriors who had come before them. They were encouraged to imitate the examples of these great men. One of the most popular of these books was Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, which means “Charles the Great,” was a Frankish king who was crowed as the first Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800. Charlemagne was admired even in his own lifetime for his great learning, great virtue, and skill as a military leader. In the selection below, Einhard discusses Charlemagne’s looks and the things Charlemagne enjoyed doing.
Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot. Even in those years he consulted rather his own inclinations than the advice of physicians, who were almost hateful to him, because they wanted him to give up roasts, to which he was accustomed, and to eat boiled meat instead. In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aixla-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years until his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him.
Charles was temperate in eating, and particularly so in drinking, for he abominated drunkenness in anybody, much more in himself and those of his household; but he could not easily abstain from food, and often complained that fasts injured his health. He very rarely gave entertainments, only on great feast-days, and then to large numbers of people. His meals ordinarily consisted of four courses, not counting the roast, which his huntsmen used to bring in on the spit; he was more fond of this than of any other dish. While at table, he listened to reading or music. The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of olden time: he was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, and especially of the one entitled “The City of God.”
He was so moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. In summer after the midday meal, he would eat some fruit, drain a single cup, put off his clothes and shoes, just as he did for the night, and rest for two or three hours. He was in the habit of awaking and rising from bed four or five times during the night. While he was dressing and putting on his shoes, he not only gave audience to his friends, but if the Count of the Palace told him of any suit in which his judgment was necessary, he had the parties brought before him forthwith, took cognizance of the case, and gave his decision, just as if he were sitting on the Judgment-seat. This was not the only business that he transacted at this time, but he performed any duty of the day whatever, whether he had to attend to the matter himself, or to give commands concerning it to his officers.
Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence. He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.
He cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion, which had been instilled into him from infancy. Hence it was that he built the beautiful basilica at Aix-la-Chapelle, which he adorned with gold and silver and lamps, and with rails and doors of solid brass. He had the columns and marbles for this structure brought from Rome and Ravenna, for he could not find such as were suitable elsewhere. He was a constant worshipper at this church as long as his health permitted, going morning and evening, even after nightfall, besides attending mass; and he took care that all the services there conducted should be administered with the utmost possible propriety, very often warning the sextons not to let any improper or unclean thing be brought into the building or remain in it. He provided it with a great number of sacred vessels of gold and silver and with such a quantity of clerical robes that not even the doorkeepers who fill the humblest office in the church were obliged to wear their everyday clothes when in the exercise of their duties. He was at great pains to improve the church reading and psalmody, for he was well skilled in both although he neither read in public nor sang, except in a low tone and with others.
He was very forward in succoring the poor, and in that gratuitous generosity which the Greeks call alms, so much so that he not only made a point of giving in his own country and his own kingdom, but when he discovered that there were Christians living in poverty in Syria, Egypt, and Africa, at Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage, he had compassion on their wants, and used to send money over the seas to them. The reason that he zealously strove to make friends with the kings beyond seas was that he might get help and relief to the Christians living under their rule.
He cherished the Church of St. Peter the Apostle at Rome above all other holy and sacred places, and heaped its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent great and countless gifts to the popes; and throughout his whole reign the wish that he had nearest at heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect the Church of St. Peter, and to beautify and enrich it out of his own store above all other churches. Although he held it in such veneration, he only repaired to Rome to pay his vows and make his supplications four times during the whole forty-seven years that he reigned.
One of the many challenges Christians face in the realm of education today is the decision of whether to and how to approach pagan literature. With the rabid secularism of the public schools, there is a tendency to an overreaction which results in an emphasis on the Bible to the exclusion of other great works of literature. The great founders of the Christian educational tradition, however, were unanimous in their declaration that a thorough acquaintance with the great pre-Christian literary traditions of Greece and Rome is essential to an education and even, in fact, to properly reading and interpreting the Scriptures.
Charlemagne is among the most notable in this regard as the man who stimulated the Medieval renaissance which follow the Dark Age period in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In his “Capitulary of 787,” a document in which he gives orders for the foundation of a sound educational program within his empire, Charlemagne encourages the abbot of a monastery, one of the many which had become centers for learning, to teach “not only a regular manner of life and one conformable to religion, but also the study of letters.” He reasons that “know of what is right [must] precede right action.” The knowledge to be learned from the great literature of the past, in other words, is, when properly understood, a prompt toward a life more fully lived in conformity to the Gospel.
Similarly, Rhabanus Maurus, a monk and teacher of the same period as Charlemagne, listed “an acquaintance with Holy Scripture” alongside a number of other academic disciplines, including even such things as “the different kinds of medicine, and the various forms of disease,” essential elements of a liberal education. According to Maurus, “any one to whom all this remains unknown, is not able to care for his own welfare, let alone that of others.” He even went as far as declaring that a knowledge of pagan literature is necessary to a proper understanding of Scripture. “All of the forms of speech, of which secular science makes use in its writings,” he said, “are found repeatedly employed in the Holy Scriptures.” After providing a few examples, he continues, “this art [grammar, as learned through the pre-Christian Latin and Greek authors], though it may be secular, has nothing unworthy in itself; it should be learned as thoroughly as possible.”
A Christian education, then, properly defined, is not an education in the Bible only nor does it define itself through a reaction against non-Christian forces. The purpose of a Christian education is not to avoid learning about Darwin or grappling with Nietzsche. It is, rather, a kind of education which embraces all knowledge as the provenance of God and one great gift from him to man. The avoidance of pre-Christian, non-Christian, or even anti-Christian literature within a Christian education is a grave error which has no precedent in the early and great examples at the roots of Christian education. It can only lead to distortion, not only of that un-Christian literature itself but also and even of the Christian Faith and Scriptures. As Hugh of St. Victor, another leading figure in Medieval Christian education, once state with precision, “not knowing, to be sure, springs from weakness; but contempt of knowledge springs from a wicked will.”
As has already been mentioned, writing is perhaps the most important aspect of being a historian. It is through writing that historians are able to share their ideas with others. For this reason, the historian must be able to communicate clearly and in a way that makes people want to listen to his story. If a historian does not have both of these abilities, all of the detective work he put into gathering and analyzing the clues will have been for nothing.
To write well one must first have a good grasp of the basics of writing. First and foremost among these are, of course, spelling and grammar. Someone who frequently misspells words, especially words that are very common or that are important to the topic he is writing about, is not someone that people want to read. Similarly, people do not want to listen to someone who cannot speak or write with correct grammar. Both of these are fundamental, which means basic but important, aspects of writing well.
Another of these basic aspects of writing well is having a large and growing vocabulary. Words are the way human beings express their thoughts and desires. Without words we would not be able to do things either great or small, from something as simple as asking for a glass of water to something as big as discussing the meaning of life. The more words you know, then, the more thoughts you can have. The less words you know, the less thoughts you are capable of having. Being able to find the right word for the right situation is an important part of writing well.
Mastering all of these basics of writing, including spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, applies to writing well on any topic, whether that topic is history or science, mathematics, literature, or your favorite sport. In addition to these basics, there are writing skills that apply specifically to history as well.
Because the historian is both a detective and a storyteller, he has to find a balance between these two roles. The historian has to be able to tell a story that is both interesting and informative. The historian has to be able to educate as well as entertain. Nobody wants to read a dry list of dates and names. At the same time, a historian must not be so interested in telling a good story that he forgets the facts and starts to write fiction instead. An example will help us understand the sort of writing we want to avoid. We will then look at an example that strikes a perfect balance between entertainment and education.
First, here is a short sentence describing an event from history:
Charlemagne was crowed Roman emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day of 800.
While this works as an entry on a timeline, a tool a historian uses to keep track of when events happened, this would make a terrible paragraph in a book or an essay. Imagine if learning history was just reading a bunch of paragraphs like this one!
Now, here is the description of the same event given by a historian:
Charlemagne lingered in [Rome] until Christmas Day. He went to morning mass, knelt for prayers, and as he began to get to his feet, [Pope] Leo III came forward and put a gold crown on his head. The crowd, which had been coached, cheered: “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus, the great, peace-loving Emperor, crowned by God!” He had been crowned imperator et augustus, two titles that belonged to the emperor of Rome…1
Notice that instead of just listing the facts Bauer has given us a narrative, or story, of the event. She has also provided us with details about where the crowning took place, which pope crowned Charlemagne, and the reaction of the people present. We get a better idea of what happened from reading this narrative and it keeps our attention. You should also notice that Bauer does not give her own opinion about whether what Pope Leo did was right or wrong. This is called impartiality. Being impartial means not picking sides in a fight. Although we are allowed to have opinions, historians should be as impartial as possible when presenting their stories. We should try to be as fair as we can to the people we are writing about and present the truth to the best of our ability.
Good writing in any subject is writing that includes correct spelling and grammar. Good writing also demonstrates a large vocabulary and the use of thinking skills by the writer. In history, this means doing the research well and presenting our research in a way that is both interesting and informative. It also means keeping an open mind and avoiding being unfair to the people we are writing about. In short, good writing is writing that effectively communicates well thought out ideas. This is the sort of writing we should strive to produce when we write about history.
1. In a paragraph, identify some of the qualities of good writing. Use your own words.
2. Now, write another paragraph identifying some of the aspects of good writing that are especially important in history. Use your own words.
1 Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 393.
The Song of Roland is an often overlooked masterpiece of medieval literature. This short epic is an introduction to the virtues and ideas of chivalry. Here, the good old king Charlemagne leads the good forces of Christian France against the evil Paynim. The greatest warrior of Christendom, Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, is slain in the battle, but the Christians achieve victory nonetheless. Charlemagne himself kills the Paynim king in single combat. He then orders of the Paynim baptized and takes the queen herself to his palace to be catechized and baptized.
The relationship between Charlemagne and Roland is an obvious allegory of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Christian Trinity. Charlemagne is the Father, the Ancient of Days, two centuries old and possessing a long white beard. Roland is the Son who enters into the world to defeat the forces of evil through his death and resurrection. Roland is betrayed by a friend, dies and rises while on a hill with a tree and four silent witnesses. Charlemagne the Father then becomes Charlemagne the Spirit, completing the Trinity, as he leads the Christian army in the apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil and takes up the task of spreading the Gospel — both the Gospel of Christianity and the “gospel” of Roland in telling the tale of his deeds.
The Paynims are the equal and opposite of the Christians with their unholy trinity, their idolatrous statues, and their priests lacking proper ordination. Although historically the enemy were Muslims, they have become instead anti-Christians. Whatever is opposite to Christianity is what the Paynim is.
An interesting feature in the story which caught my eye is the habit of pairing. Each of the 12 great warriors of the Christians is paired with another of their group. There is a Paynim warrior who looks like a Christian and a Christian who betrays his fellow men to the Paynim. There are two deaths of Roland, one temporary and the other permanent. The betrayer Ganelon is killed through the use of water and the Queen of Spain enters new life through the waters of baptism. There are, the poet shows us, two ways: the way of life and the way of death.
This translation is by the erudite Dorothy Sayers, perhaps best known for her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” now very popular among advocates of classical education. Of particular interest here is the use to which she puts her theory of literature, most fully explicated in The Mind of the Maker, in translating this work. Her introduction serves as an excellent crash course in chivalry in addition to laying a framework for interpretation of The Song of Roland.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in literature, particularly in Christian/Western literature, the Middle Ages, and/or the epic. I believe, however, that any reader will enjoy this work for its wonderful storytelling and thought-provoking themes.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book, containing the two earliest biographies (really, nearly hagiographies) of Charlemagne, was a very interesting read. Charlemagne is, of course, one of the most important figures in the history of Europe and understanding the life and especially the legend of Charlemagne is essential to understanding medieval culture and the entire history and mythology of knights, nobility, and courtly life. Both of these short lives of Charlemagne were interesting not necessarily for the light they shed on the man himself (which is very little in the greater scheme of things) but in the mythology that group up around him and in the ideals that would dominate in the middle ages. Both are also surprisingly engaging and humorous reads, particularly in their treatment of the medieval episcopacy. I recommend this book for anyone interested in Charlemagne, in the Middle Ages, and in the history of Europe.