Charlemagne died 1200 years ago yesterday. Despite the great emperor lacking ‘brand recognition’ (apparently – although he was mentioned in Dr Who) people got excited. Some of these people were in Aachen, which made sense because that’s where he is buried. Some of them were in Frankfurt, where there was singing but no emperor. In the UK things were more excitable. Jinty Nelson, Alice Rio and Jo Story, amongst others, gave talks at KCL and there was singing there too.

But I was in Edinburgh, famous centre of Carolingian things, for a European Commission-sponsored day of academic reflection with no singing. There was a grad seminar with Mayke de Jong (Utrecht) and John Mitchell (UEA). And after that there was a public roundtable about Charlemagne’s life, legend and legacy, for which Mayke and John were joined by Stuart Airlie (Glasgow), my colleague Simon MacLean, and Alexander McCall Smith’s own Charlemagne biographer Roger Collins (Edinburgh).

l-r Mayke de Jong, Stuart Airlie, Roger Collins, Simon MacLean
l-r Mayke de Jong, Stuart Airlie, Roger Collins, Simon MacLean

The discussion took various turns and I summarise here only some of the key points:

1) Charlemagne was not one of the Good Guys, making his status as a symbol of European unity rather peculiar. Roger Collins indeed started by announcing that he had come not to praise but to bury the emperor. Well, as he admitted, Roger is a Merovingian historian by inclination – or used to be – and doesn’t see the great emperor in the same light as many of the scholars who really specialise in his reign. We could condemn his slaughter of Saxons, the brutal subjugation of Lombardy, or the blinding of Thuringian rebels. We could raise question marks about his possessiveness concerning his daughters or just how young Hildegard was when he married her. (He was seen in hell, his privates being gnawed by animals). Stuart raised some of these issues; Roger pushed the attack further by suggesting that Charlemagne was a failure, who could not establish an ideological and bureaucratic framework to see his empire last more than a couple of generations. Why were we celebrating this man?

2) Seriously, he is an odd choice of symbol for European unity. He consolidated rule over or expanded his territory into Northern Spain, Northern Italy, Bavaria, Saxony, and off into Slavic territories, mostly through conquest. (Einhard tries to present these conflicts as situations into which Charlemagne was invited or forced to act to defend the realm). Stuart pointed out that there had been going to be an exhibition about Charlemagne in Berlin, but the organisers decided that he said nothing about Prussia. The great emperor may have made a lot of sense as a symbol of unity to German and French intellectuals and politicians in the 1960s, but Europe has changed.

3) Charlemagne’s appropriation as a great historical figure tells us much about cultural memory and invention. Mayke argued that really he is the creation of people writing under his son, Louis the Pious. Simon  noted that it was strange that the Ottonians – who ruled Germany after the Carolingians – paid little attention to Charlemagne until AD 1000 when Otto III entered his tomb. Really, he only started becoming the lost hero of a Golden Age after Conrad II (d. 1039) started flirting with associations with the bloodline and when Frederick Barbarossa (d. 1190) sought to have his hero raised as a saint. The recent ‘Europeanised’ Charlemagne is part of a long tradition.

4) Charlemagne’s world was, anyway, more than just ‘Old Europe’. As John stressed, people in the West were well connected with people in Byzantium and the ‘Abbasid Caliphate. Everybody told stories about Charlemagne’s career and legend crisscrossing cultural boundaries. (Stuart even had a story about St Mungo of Glasgow which directly ripped off a story about St Arnulf of Metz, one of Charlemagne’s more illustrious ancestors). And, as came up in discussion, there was a fostering of the idea of a populus christianus, a Christian people, which owed a great deal to the contrasts that could be drawn with pagan and Muslim worlds – something I had actually been talking about a couple of weeks ago at the Ecclesiastical History Society winter meeting in London.

Thanks must go to Tom Brown at Edinburgh for organising the event and the European Commission for funding it. Charlemagne might lack ‘brand recognition’ but the large lecture theatre was packed and lively discussions were had. And then there was wine.