17
Feb
15

Two Lives of Charlemagne: Various, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe

Two Lives of Charlemagne: The Life of Charlemagne; Charlemagne (Penguin Classics)Two Lives of Charlemagne: Various, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe

After reading a mammoth biography of Nixon and a pulpy detective story, I decided to plunge into something quick, enjoyable and far removed from our times: two ancient biographies of King Charlemagne.

I’m the kind of reader who digs reading ancient history and especially primary sources, but generally my knowledge is limited to ancient Rome and Greece, not to medieval history. So this collection of Charlemagne stories was something of a start point for me. I think it’s a good one for anyone, too.

In a nutshell, Charlemagne was a Frankish king who lived in the eighth century. He didn’t quite found the Carolingian Empire, but he greatly expanded it to include most of modern-day France Germany. In 800, Pope Leo III named Charlemagne emperor at a ceremony in Rome, giving him a formal grip of this vast territory. Ruling such a large area was no mean feat: he employed a large number of public servants to keep things running as he fought battles throughout his kingdom.

Sure, he could command an army, but consider the Carolingian Renaissance, too. As Lewis Thorpe points out in his introduction, Charlemagne was illiterate, but had a healthy respect for learning: his schools, where students copied works of ancient writers, kept many Roman writers from falling into oblivion.

So by anyone’s standards, he was an interesting guy. Which is why the two biographies included here are so interesting. Einhard, an adviser at Charlemagne’s court, wrote the first only a few years after the king’s death. An anonymous monk wrote the second a few decades later. The difference between the two shows how quickly the man’s legend was growing into mythology.

Of the two, Einhard’s is the drier and more formal. Structurally, it’s a lot like Suetonius: a formal biography of an emperor. It lays out the life and the man in a set order, dealing with his actions in one book, then his personal life later on. It’s a dry read, where Charlemagne deals with one war after another, subduing them as he goes. But there are interesting little touches, like how he used to enjoy wearing a jerkin made of sheepskin. Still, these details are key to this book because of what comes next.

The second biography is a lot looser and more colourful. Written either by someone named Notker the Stammerer or The Monk of St. Gaul (who may even be the same person), this book is fast and loose with the facts, but doesn’t let anything get in the way of a good yarn.

If the Charlemagne of the first biography seems like a kingly ruler, a smart tactician on the battlefield and a patron of learning at home, in the second he seems less like a statue and more like a real person. Notker packs his book with anecdotes that might not be completely true, but serve to illustrate a point.

My favourite is when a bunch of nobles show up in their finest clothes while Charlemagne breaks out his old goatskin. After spending a day hunting and a night drinking, they’re ordered to show up in the same clothes the next morning. Of course, their clothes are a mess; Charlemagne can’t resist showing off how clean and comfy his simple goatskin still is.

Here’s another. After short riding cloaks become popular among nobles, he demanded they only wear longer ones, saying:

“ ‘What is the use of these little napkins,’ he asked. ‘I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the winds and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.”

Only a few decades after his death and the man is quickly becoming a legend. From here it’s not too far to the anonymous epic The Song of Roland (Back in 2011, I looked at Dorothy Sayers’ translation here), where Charlemagne plays a key role. It’s a little like reading about the legends surrounding Romulus in Plutarch – or even about George Washington and the cherry tree. Note how quickly famous figures pass into legend as their stories spread and shift like a game of broken telephone!

But if Notker is more entertaining, he can also be more frustrating, too. His account is wildly inaccurate, getting names and dates all mixed up. And he intersperses his biography with stories about bishops and monks behaving badly, none of which really have anything to do with Charlemagne.

This is where Thorpe’s great editing comes in. In my edition – originally published in 1969 – Thorpe prepared a lengthy introduction, breaking down the history of the Franks and taking detailed looks at each book. And in the back are nearly 30 pages of notes, plus a large index. In all, that’s nearly half the book! His notes are largely helpful, pointing out inaccuracies and allusions (Notker was a fan of Virgil, it seems) and explaining obscure references: which ancient people inspired which story, for example.

There are some things I wished he’d have included, like translations for the many writers he quotes in other languages, usually en francais but sometimes in Latin. I understand a little French (and almost no Latin) and suspect reading them in Google Translate means I’m missing something. Some more maps – there’s only one, showing the empire as it stood in the mid 8th century, well before Charlemagne was named emperor – would’ve been nice, too.

Side note: Penguin has a newer edition out, translated by David Ganz. I’m not familiar with it, but I should point out that at 160 pages, it’s a slimmer volume than this. The notes are probably a little more up-to-date, however.

But really, those are minor gripes for an interesting read. And for someone like me, who was relatively new to this period, it was a good starting place, focused on a key figure and showing both his importance and influence. I’ve already grabbed a copy of Gregory of Tours History of the Franks, too!

Rating: 8/10

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