History Weekend Walks: Alhambra, Granada, Spain

As we’d promised at the end of our earlier post in the series, we’ll be “walking” around the Islamic part of Alhambra’s palatial complex, which is located in Granda, Spain.

Having started as a small fortress that dates back to the times when southern Spain was part of the Roman Empire, Alhambra (arabic for “red one”) flourished predominantly during the late Nasrid dynasty and during the Reconquista. Even though some parts of the original Islamic palace have been either altered by the Spanish monarchs or destroyed during the Napoleonic wars and by the 1821 earthquake, it is still possible to witness some of the interchange between Islamic and European cultures in the architecture of the palace.

Here is a quick introductory video about Alhambra, filmed by the BBC.

Although the modern entrance to the palace doesn’t correspond with its historical counterpart, the overall touristy routes inside allow one to wonder around the complex in chronological order and witness for themselves how the fortress developed. Once one enters the surrounding areas inside the complex, it is possible to see various parts of the palace. For example, one can see the very early foundations of the fortress by the entrance.

These are the Roman and early Mediaeval foundations of the fortress. This is the location from which Isabella of Castille and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon signalled to the outside world that the Reconquista has finished in 1492, following their conquest of Granada Caliphate. One has to climb up to the Torre de Vela (the Watch Tower) to take panoramic photos like this one.

When inside the main palace, it is possible to wander around it as there is no specifically designated route. We decided to start our route from the inside and then walk outside. Given that the modern tourist route attempts to tell the story of the palace in chronological order, the visitors are recommended to begin with the Nasarid section.

This is the ‘official’ entrance into the Nazarinid section of the palace.

Through Sala de la Barca (Hall of the Boat), we went straight to the Hall of the Ambassadors (Salón de los Embajadores), which is coincidentally one of the largest rooms in the palace. The room is decorated in a typical Islamic style, just as the Hall of the Ambassadors in Seville.


The Hall of the Ambassadors had been fully developed in the Nasrid period, in the 14th century, and remained largely untouched by the Castilian and SPanish monarchs. The room is decorated in a typical Islamic style, with the ceiling decorations acting as a representation of the Seven Heavens of the Islamic Paradise.

To give you more context about the Islamic architecture and the concepts it attempts to convey or to depict, here is a playlist compiled by University of Nottingham about Islamic theology.

As the visitors walk deeper into the palace, they are able to witness more and more delicate carvings, which unify the complex stylistically. As an example, let us take a look at two most famous spaces of the palace- Sala de Dos Hermanas and Patio de Los Leones.

The Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), is a large room paved with white marble and is most famous for the intricate stalactite work on its dome. The origins of the room’s name is unclear. Some say that it’s named like this because of the two large marble slabs on the floor. Others point to a small city, which bears the same name as the room, and theorise that this room was either named after the city or re-named as means to commemorate the events of the Reconquista in 13th century. Sources remain silent on which interpretation is true.

The Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), is considered by specialists as a separate section of the overall Nasrid palatial complex. The section derives its name from a fountain, which is supported by several lion statues made from marble. The section and the fountain were commissioned by Muhammad V in the 14th century, when the Caliphate of Granada was at the height of its political power.

SOURCE TIME: Here is an architectural plan of the Palace of Lions, a video of the court near the Palace of Lions and a poem about the Lion Fountain. Look carefully at the plan (the labels, if read clockwise say: the watch tower; the Hall of the Kings; the Hall of the Abencerrajes; the Hall of Macarabes; the Hall of Two Sisters), then at the video and then read the poem. What does the architectural structure of the palace can tell you about the role of a ruler and their relationship to those below in Islamic Granada? Why do you think so? Focus your thinking on the positions of the rooms and the way they are placed in relation to the Hall of the Kings and use the poem to back your conclusions up.
The author of this poem is anonymous, but the historians theorise that it was either Ibn al-Jatib (1313-1375) or Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393). It was written at the time when the Fountain was constructed. (cc:https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/epigraphicpoems.asp)

Obviously, we cannot leave the readers without an honorary photo- dump of the garden that surrounds Alhambra!

If you’re interested in exploring the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the Moorish Spain, may we recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. It contains a very readable style and introduces core concepts that are related to this period in Iberian history.
  • If you’re interested in finding out about the architectural style of Moorish Spain, may we suggest either Moorish Architecture by Marianne Barrucand or Felix Arnold’s Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History.
  • If you’re interested in a more literary side of the Alhambra, may we recommend some authors who wrote about Alhambra and Granada.
  • If you would like to read some Arabic authors and poets, then Ibn al-Jatib and Ibn Zamrak are your go to writers(unfortunately, we were unable to dig out many sources in English, but there are plenty of more in Spanish- a link you could see below)
  • If you would like to read some sources in English, Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra is a good place to start. The book is quite short and contains engaging details about Alhambra. Please note that Irving did not have any training as a historians and was writing this collection of essays for general readers as a hobby, so take his stories with a pinch of salt!
  • If you’re interested in finding out more about Alhambra on its own, take a look at this documentary produced by National Geographic.
  • And as usual, we leave you with some music!
Have a lovely Saturday!

Historical Weekend Walks: Alcázar of Seville (al-Qasr al-Muriq), Seville, Spain

Lockdowns are frustrating. Especially in the autumn/winter season because festive spirit isn’t quite there yet and the weather is, quite frankly, bad. In fact, Lockdowns are a constantly ongoing greyish mess. To dilute your Lockdown blues, we’re introducing a series of posts that will be produced on weekly basis, ‘Historical Weekend Walks’. In these posts we’ll be choosing one historical location and we’ll be giving you a mini-tour of the place by using our very own photos(which were not made in 2020)!

Our first ‘walk’ will take place in Alcázar of Seville, or as it’s known in Arabic, al-Qasr al-Muriq.

Although the location of this royal residence could be traced back to 8th century, the Alcazar we see now was largely build during 11-12th centuries during the Mutamid and Almohad periods. Coincidentally, these periods corresponded with a rise in socio-cultural developments and permitted the location to become one of the key non-Christian centres of arts and learning on the Iberian Peninsula.

In our day and age tourists enter Alcazar through the Lion’s Gate, which is one of the side entrances to the palace.

SOURCE TIME: (and you thought that we’ll miss out the opportunity to introduce you to some literary sources!) This is a poem by a famous Islamic poet Ibn Zaydun. Although written about another palace, what can you find out about Islamic attitudes towards either palaces or an elite culture within the palaces? Think about how the construction of the poem helps you to understand what the palace culture was like. (cc: https://www.islamicspain.tv/arts-and-literature/poems-from-al-andalus/)

After entering the palace and passing through an ancient arch you end up in mini-square, called the Patio de la Montería (or the Court of the Hunters), through which you can proceed in different paths to explore the palace. As you can see from the photos below, the overall architectural style of the Alcazar combines a lot of differing architectural influences. Indeed, the traditional ‘flat’ columns cohabitate with the Islamic-style carvings, thus uniting the aesthetic of the façade. Such a somewhat patchy style occurred probably due to King Peter I and his architects attempting to incorporate traditional European styles into Islamic building in 1360s.

The Patio de la Montería. View from the entrance to it.

After leaving the Patio, you can wonder off into different directions. We decided to follow the steps of various diplomats and slip into the Ambassador’s Room.

Architectural details of the entrance to the Ambassador’s Room

The Hall of the Ambassadors, was build by Seville craftsman Diego Ruiz in 1389, following the orders of Pedro I. The room mainly uses a Moorish style as the bottom half of the room is rich with Islamic geometric patterns. However, the top half is decorated by methods that are traditional to Western architecture. This could be seen most clearly in the predominant usage of golden decorations as well as portraits of various kings in a usual high Renaissance or Baroque style.

To give you a better idea about the size and layout of the room, here is a very short clip of the room.

When we left the Hall of the Ambassadors we popped into the Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls). Decorated by delicate carvings and plaster works that seem typical to the Iberian Peninsula, the top section of the carvings in the balcony-like structure, were not part of the original ensemble as they were only added to the room in 19th century for Queen Isabel II. The lower half, however is the original work.

Think like a Historian:

Is it generally a useful idea for a figure in power to show off their lavish lifestyle if the country is going through a period of political and economic instability? Why do you think so? Can you come up with some historical examples?

Having cooled down within the walls of the palace we decided to face the blazes of the Spanish sun and we went on to explore the outside sections of the palace.

Located near the Patio of the Dolls, we found the Patio of the Maidens. This patio derives its name from an old local legend that mentions that this pond was originally filled with the tears of 100 Christian virgins as means to pay tribute to the Moors.

Think like a Historian:

Can local legends be used by historians to reconstruct a society that they’re studying? Why do you think so?

From this patio you can sneak into the Gothic Palace that was mostly developed by Charles V in 16th century and by Bourbon monarchs in 18th century. As you can see the architectural style is very different to the other parts of the palace.

Although not strictly related to the Alcazar, this video discusses the start of the Spanish Civil War. This video may be helpful for you to answer some of the questions which this post asks.

The key location to visit in this part of the palace are the Salones de Carlo V (Halls of Charles V) which consist of the Grand Hall and the Hall of the Tapestries. Whilst the Grand Hall, which was constructed in 1929 for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929 during the reign of Alfonso XIII, may not be as interesting for some, a location that may be more intriguing is the Hall of the Tapestries.

The Hall of the Tapestries was build during the 18th century. The construction was begun under Charles V, with an overall aim to celebrate his own military victories. However, by 18th century these tapestries began to wear down and needed to be fixed. As a result, the ‘updated’ tapestries now cohabitate with the ‘new’ 18th century tapestries that were made by the Royal Tapestry Factory in Spain following the commission of the Spanish Crown.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think different tapestries were chosen to be put into the same room to celebrate Charles V’s victories? Think about the way how some rulers chose to justify their reign throughout historical continuity.

If you’re interested to explore the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the Moorish Spain, may we recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. It contains a very readable style and introduces core concepts that are related to this period in Iberian history.
  • If you’re interested in finding out about the architectural style of Moorish Spain, may we suggest either Moorish Architecture by Marianne Barrucand or Felix Arnold’s Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History.
  • Unfortunately we were unable to find any historical documentaries that contextualise Alcazar in Seville. However, what we did find were some historical music from the region!
Enjoy the music and see you next week when we will travel to yet another Moorish palace this time in Granada! ☺️

LGBTQ+ Histories: Italy in the Renaissance

On the morning of 9th April, 1476 an anonymous note appeared on the square near the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. It read:

I notify you, Signori Officiali, concerning a true thing, namely that Jacopo Saltarelli… [who] dresses in black and is about 17 years old… has been a party to many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who exact certain evil pleasures from him. And in this way he has… served several dozen people about whom I know a good deal, and here will name a few: Bartolomeo di Pasquino, goldsmith who lives in Vacchereccia. Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, who lives with Andrea de Verrocchio. Baccino, a tailor, who lives by Or San Michele… Leonardo Tornabuoni, called il teri; dresses in black. These committed sodomy with said Jacopop, and this I testify before you.’

And as thus, this striking accusation that mentions Leonardo da Vinci can serve as a stepping point into the LGBTQ+ culture of Renaissance Italy; which will be discussed in this post.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think it is useful to base your understanding of a historical period on just one source?

Renaissance: A Brief Introduction

Traditional Historiography of the Italian Renaissance emphasises that this period emerged after the ‘Dark Ages’, when the majority of the knowledge of the ancients was lost or forgotten. It was a time of great cultural changes across Europe. One of the key features of the period which is highlighted by traditional Historiography is the re-discovery and consequently growing interest in ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, like Plato and Plutarch. Such changes are explained by some shifts from feudal-based to a more capitalist-based economies. The translated arguments, coupled with the gradual emergence of the printing press allowed the texts to be incorporated firstly into various cultures on the Italian peninsula and then spread to other European cultures European cultures via the trade routes. Consequently, traditional Historiography of the Renaissance implies to a large extent that Renaissance was a relatively new trend that came as a result of various socio-political and economic changes.

Yet, such an approach often side-steps the possibility that the Renaissance emerged from the Mediaeval monastic culture and its interaction with the scholars from the Islamic world. There is a possibility that the phenomena of the European Renaissance should be seen within the context of such events, like the Sack of Constantinople in 1453; whereby Byzantinian scholars brought over and translated the works of Aristotle. Such changes and arguments, thus, were added to the already existing knowledge of the classical authors, like Tacitus. Consequently, whilst traditional Historiography emphasises an idea that the Italian Renaissance resulted as a result of socio-economic changes within Europe, newer trends of Historiography emphasise that the Europe was constantly in a cultural dialogue with the Islamic world.

Here is a brief introductory video to what Renaissance was all about

Think like a Historian:

Should we pass judgement onto the society of the past for it being less progressive (or modern) than our own? Why do you think so?


Late 14th or early 15th century Italy, or Italian states, was a quite different place in terms of its approach to the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals. Homosexuality, or as it was known then ‘sodomy’, was considered as a serious crime. The severity of punishments varied from region to region given the uneven distribution of power and influence of the Catholic Church, which was one of the key forces in dictating contemporary laws. For example, whilst sodomy was punishable by death in Bologna, in Tuscany the punishment was or castration and and Pisa it was paying fines. Certain cities, in order to fight homosexuality, even created special armed forces for that specific purpose, such as Venetian Signori di Notte (Lords of the Night). As a result, one can conclude that the Renaissance Italy was by no means a safe space for LGBTQ+ community, given relatively wide-spread prosecutions that took place.

This is a very good video about the development of the Roman Inquisition, the inexpectant Spanish Inquisition’s older sibling.

LGBTQ+ Cultures in Venice and Florence

However, despite this, two large homosexual communities became prominent in Venice and Florence. Such communities included men from all kinds of background, with the greatest fraction of evicted sodomites came from non-elite circles. The records tell of shoemakers, weavers, clothes dealers, butches and even clergy. The possible reasons for emergence of such communities remain unclear. Whilst the likeliest reason for the Venetian community emerging and growing was tied to relative passivity from the State in attempting to deal with what many religious figures saw as an issue and relative political stability, the Florentine reasons for the growth of homosexual community is a peculiar one.

As mentioned above, historians are not entirely clear why Florentine community grew. Florence, oppositely to Venice, was often politically unstable and was often shaken by class conflict. During the Medicean regency arrests involving sodomy went up at an rapidly increasing rate. There were so many convictions in 1432 that the fine of 100 florins was judged insufficient and in 1440 the tariff increased. This change proved to be counter- productive as the magistrates complained that the majority of the evicted “sodomites” were too poor to pay the new fine and thus the fine was lowered. However, the issue with the new fine was that it was so low that the income from it damaged the city’s economy. As the result of this, the fine was lowered once again to 10 florins in 1459. Yet, this trend was reversed with the rise of Girolamo Savonarola, who argued in his public sermons that the reign of the Antichrist had begun and to prevent people of Florence facing a Doomsday they should reject all of the socio-cultural developments of the Renaissance. Conclusively, the fines and prosecutions increased. Consequently, whilst it is not particularly clear why the Florentine homosexual community grew despite the constant shifts in prosecutions, it is possible to suggest that some wider socio-economic factors came into play; which yet remain to be uncovered.

Think like a Historian:

If you were researching a particular social group, where would you find the necessary primary sources?

Suggested further reading:

The Golden Ages: Spain (2/?)

In the previous post we have briefly introduced and discussed a concept of the ‘Golden Age’ and how it is understood by those who study early-modern Spanish history. As promised, in the next few posts we will be diving more in depth of how the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ came to be and what kind of cultural artefacts it produced. This specific post will focus on the developments and strengthening of the Spanish government that allowed for relative political stability within the European part of the realm.

Think like a Historian:

What makes a strong government? Can you give historical or contemporary examples of situations where you think a government has been either strong or weak? Why do you think so?

The role of Isabella and Ferdinand

Given that Isabella and Ferdinand assumed their respective Crowns after a period of major political instability they had to focus on establishing strong, long-during, political ties with their subjects. A key element of this was the establishment of a stable relationship between the Spanish Crown and Spain’s nobility, which was mainly done by the Crown’s attempts to impose a higher degree of royal authority on the nobility throughout the course of their reign. The Crown’s attempts to foster such relationships mainly took a form of surrounding the Royal Court with prestige. For example, the power of nobility was limited by switching their attention from inner rivalries to pursuing the knightly culture and chivalric activities, such as jousts and tournaments as well as participating in motto writing competitions[1]. Furthermore, the majority of the nobles, who had fought against the Crown, were pacified by being granted various pardons by the monarchs[2]. Various actions, such as the ones mentioned above, allowed the Crown to establish a more positive image in the minds of the ex-rebels as well as the supporters of the Crown.

This is a brief video that explains the concept of chivalry and its role in a Mediaeval society.
This is another video that focuses on explaining what Mediaeval Romances were and places them within a literary context.

Just as Isabella and Ferdinand had to control various individuals to lay foundations to political stability, they also had to impose their royal authority onto the contemporaneous Institutions. One of such Institutions was the Cortes which had attempted to disregard the monarchy at the start of their reign.  In order to secure their power over the Cortes, the Crown employed the corregidores from 1480[3]; replaced all nobility within the Council of Castile with letrados, educated lawyers; and extensively used the royal progress[4]. This reform proved to be efficient as the revenue from Castilian lands increased from 800 000 maravedís in 1470 to 22 million in 1504[5], thus demonstrating that people accepted the royal authority of the Crown and therefore allowing the Crown to strengthen their control of the localities. Consequently, Isabella and Ferdinand managed to lay down the foundations for political stability as they mostly subdued the Spanish nobility and the local governing bodies.

The role of Charles V

Nevertheless, despite Ferdinand and Isabella vastly increasing the authority of the Crown in the eyes of the nobility, their successor, Charles V, was faced with a major revolt at the start of his reign. This revolt, led by the Communeros, challenged Charles’s authority as king.

Yet, due to the revolt disintegrating as soon as Charles met some of the demands, such as employing Castilians in governmental bodies, it was highly likely that Charles did indeed benefit from the previously established foundations in the relationship between the nobility and the Crown. As a result, Charles continued to extend his royal authority further.

Although the Crown and the Cortes continued to borrow extensively from foreign investors for his military campaigns despite the despite the 1530s influx of bullion from the New World, Charles was mostly successful at continuing to control the Cortes. This was achieved by predominantly by Charles employing skilful locals, such as Cobos, that constituted the majority out of pre-existing letrados[6]. Such personnel was able to effectively govern multiple councils, including the Council of Finance, created in 1523. Success of such changes was evident by the Cortes supporting Charles’ extensive military campaigns as in 1528 when the French forces besieged Milan and Naples, the Cortes willingly approved a subsidy of 533,333 ducats for Charles to utilise in the war[7]. Consequently, Isabella and Ferdinand certainly contributed for laying the foundations to the ‘Golden Age’ as the Crown relied on its stable authority, thus allowing Charles to have greater control of his empire.

A short video about Charles V’s foreign policy as well as some bits of his domestic policy. Don’t be alarmed at the fact that the video’s description says that he was a Holy Roman Emperor. He held two titles- that of the Spanish monarch and the Holy Roman Emperor.

The role of Philip II

As a result of the internal political efforts of Isabella and Ferdinand and Charles, Philip felt more secure in terms of his state’s unity than any of his predecessors. This could be seen in Philip’s preference of the centralised system of government throughout his reign, rather than continuing to utilise the peripatetic kingship. The Royal Court, having settled in Madrid in 1561, became the centre of Philip’s conciliar system. Such an approach allowed Philip to become personally involved with the matters of his Empire as all of the information about it went through Philip’s hands. Although such a process was a time-consuming one, it was nevertheless highly effective. This was mainly due to Philip’s continuing to use skilful letrados who performed both executive and legislative roles. This was beneficent for Philip because he was able to dictate his own rules to the Cortes, thus changing the prior trend. For example, despite the backward nature of the Council of Finance and Spain’s reliance on foreign bankers, the Spanish Crown was still able to collect triple number of ducats in 1590s in comparison to 1559[8]. Consequently, the fact that Philip managed to slightly alter the style of rule and to utilise it to his advantage demonstrates that he was working on already pre-established foundations, which were laid by Isabella and Ferdinand. 

SOURCE TIME: This is a portrait of Philip II’s son, Prince Don Carlos. This portrait provides an idealised image of the Prince and it was painted after his very mysterious death at a young age. Why do you think this portrait was painted? Also think about what it shows what Philip II saw as an important part of the government. (photo cc: Rimma)

Think like a Historian:

Do you think a conciliar government is useful for a monarch? Do you think conciliar government still exists today?

Important vocabulary

  • Chivalric (n. chivalry): a way of behaviour that was followed by Medieval knights, that placed emphasis on honour and courage
  • The Cortes: One of the key administrative institutions within the Spanish government
  • The corregidores (pl.): A Spanish government official
  • Letrados (pl.): A lawyer or a judge in early-modern Spain
  • Maravedís: A system of currency in early-modern Spain
  • Peripatetic kingship: A method of governing a country, that was popular amongst Mediaeval rulers. It is mostly characterised by the Royal Court continuously moving around the country, from one location to the other.
  • Conciliar system: A system of government that functions on many councils being responsible for an individual aspect of government, such as finances or education.

To explore this topic further…

  • If you’re interested in exploring the Spanish ‘Golden Age’, then I would recommend reading Henry Kamen’s Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005). It is a very neat discussion on how the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain came to be as well as its cultural implications.
  • If you’re interested in the roles of Isabella and Ferdinand, J. Edwards’ Ferdinand and Isabella: Profiles in Power is a very comprehensible source to begin with.
  • This is a quick link to the narrative of events of what had happened to Don Carlos.
  • To keep things interesting, there even is an opera that is based on these events. It’s called Don Carlos (surprising turn of events, we know).
This is an entire opera that was recorded in Vienna in 2015.


[1] J. Edwards, Ferdinand and Isabella: Profiles in Power (2013, USA), 136

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert S. Chamberlain, ‘The Corregidor in Castile in the Sixteenth Century and the Residencia as Applied to the Corregidor’ in The Hispanic American Historical Review (1943), pp. 222-257

[4]Henry Kamen, Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005), p.17

[5] Robert S. Chamberlain, ‘The Corregidor in Castile in the Sixteenth Century and the Residencia as Applied to the Corregidor’ in The Hispanic American Historical Review (May, 1943), pp. 222-257

[6] Aurelio Espinosa, The Empire of the Cities: Emperor Charles V, the Communero Revolt and the Transformation of the Spanish System (Netherlands, 2009), p. 211

[7] Aurelio Espinosa, The Spanish Reformation: Institutional Reform, Taxation, and the Secularization of

Ecclesiastical Properties under Charles V, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2006), pp. 3-24

[8] John Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs in Volume 1: Empire and Absolutism, 1516-1598 (Oxford, 1981), pp. 188-89

The Golden Ages: Spain (1/?)

When studying various topics historians come up with a wide range of terms to describe a specific period-‘Middle Ages’, ‘Classical Antiquity’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Modern’, ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Golden Age’. This series of posts will attempt to discuss and to explore a wide range of ‘Golden ages’, whilst keeping the content entertaining and informative as usual. We’re starting off with the Spanish one and then will be travelling around the globe to see whether any of them have any similarities. Enjoy!

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think historians come up with various names to describe a specific historical period?

What is a ‘Golden age’?

The ‘Golden Age’ is a term that is usually employed by historians to describe a period of cultural flourishing which manifests itself in prospering of the arts, such as painting and architecture. Depending on the conditions in which a specific ‘Golden Age’ arises there is a strong economy, but such cases are rare.

This a short introductory video to the Spanish ‘Golden Age’. It covers the core concepts extremely well.

Spanish ‘Golden Age’: A brief introduction

When historians discuss the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ they usually refer to the reign of Philip II, during which Spain experienced a rapid development of the arts and culture. The foundations to this phenomena were mostly laid by his predecessors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand as they established a strong political and religious unity within their kingdom after a period of civil unrest. Although the methods that were employed by them were cruel, they were effective. The consequent pacification led to political and cultural stability within Spain, which, in turn, was essential for Spain’s flourishing of arts under Philip II.

SOURCE TIME: This is a dual portrait of Isabella and Ferdinand. The date and the author of this piece are unknown. Your main task is to think how the two monarchs are depicted and whether the artist is trying to achieve anything. If yes, what do you think is the artist’s or the rulers’ aims is?

Nevertheless, the ‘Golden Age’ would not have occurred without Isabella and Ferdinand’s successors, mainly Charles V and Philip II himself contributing to its creation. Charles built on the pre-established foundations in order to strengthen the conciliar system of the Spanish government and thus exert an even greater degree of control over the Spanish Empire than his predecessors.

SOURCE TIME: This is the portrait of Charles V when he was already quite old and was in charge of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was painted by a famous contemporary European artist Titian. Your task is to compare how Isabella and Ferdinand were depicted in the painting above and the way Charles V is depicted. What stylistic differences can you see? Do you think that these differences can point to a ‘Golden Age’ creeping in? Why do you think so?

Philip II too contributed to the creation of the ‘Golden Age’. He exploited the pre-existing governmental system efficiently, thus allowing him to exert some control over the foreign policy. Due to this, Philip was able to expand his empire further, thus allowing him to focus on patronage and developments of the arts within Spain.

SOURCE TIME: This is a portrait of young Philip II. Which was painted in 1551, shortly before he married Queen Mary I of England. The artist is Titian (yes, the same one that painted his father, Charles V). What can you tell about Philip II from this painting? After thinking and discussing it, think about the role Titian played at the royal court. Why do you think he painted the two kings?

Think like a Historian:

Who is more important when it comes to cultural developments- a society or an individual creator? Why do you think so?
Important vocabulary:
  • Golden Age: a term that describes cultural flourishing during a historical period.
To explore this topic further…
  • If you’re interested in exploring the history of the ‘Golden Age’ as a concept, this article is a solid place to start as it discusses the way ancient Greeks and Romans used the concept in their poetry.
  • If you’re interested in exploring the Spanish ‘Golden Age’, then I would recommend reading Henry Kamen’s Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005). It is a very neat discussion on how the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain came to be as well as its cultural implications.
  • Watch this documentary about how the literary traditions of the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ and the English ‘Golden Age’ helped one another and produced Shakespeare

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (3/3)

In the previous post in the series about the historical myth of Charlemagne, we discussed whether Charlemagne had successfully united his realm and whether this realm corresponded to the modern day Europe. Now, it is the time to take a look whether Charlemagne managed to achieve economic unification of his realm and whether such unification lasted for a significant amount of time.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a ruler try to unite their realm by using economy? How would they do it? Can you think of any examples from the course you’re studying right now?

To understand Charlemagne’s significance as a unifier, one also has to grasp the extent of the economic fragmentation of Western European territories prior to his reign. The Western European economy, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, “moved exclusively to the rhythms of the ancient world”[1] being aided by trans-Mediterranean trade and the three cultures—Persian, Semitic and Graeco-Roman[2]. However, the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE of the eastern and southern Mediterranean prevented the various trading sea routes from being used. Cut-off from their main trade routes, the newly formed tribes of Northern Gaul and Germany had to adapt in order to survive. Due to the lack of acceptance of new types of gold currency local rulers were forced to turn to another valuable unit to reward their supporters with—fertile land.[3] As a result, European feudalism, a political system based on land distribution, was developed circa sixth century CE.

Here is a video that gives a short explanation of the tactics that were used during the Arab conquests in the during the early 7th century.
Here is a video that explains the basics of European feudalism.

All of these factors caused early feudal societies, such as the one during Charlemagne’s reign, to have subjects that were “scattered rather evenly throughout the realm on smallish, individual farms”[4]. Large estates belonged either to a select number of families, or monasteries. The crop yield from these lands was low due to the undeveloped farming methods, which resulted in little surplus and limited trade opportunities. As a result, contemporary Medieval economy was primarily dependent on the positive relationship between the ruler and the local military elite — after all realms of various tribes required protection from expansionist neighbours who often gained resources via aggressive methods.

In this harsh economy Charlemagne attempted to unify his Empire. The main way in which Charlemagne attempted to do so was minting his celebrated portrait coin circa 812.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two images of two coins. The one with a person’s face on it, was created during Charlemagne’s reign. The one that has a symbol that looks like the capital letter ‘R’ was created in the reign of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short. What differences can you notice if you were to compare these two coins? Why do you think Charlemagne changed the appearance of the coin? Does Charlemagne remind you of someone else on the coin?
SOURCE TIME (cont.): Another two coins for you to compare, since this post is all about the ‘money moves’. Again, here is a coin that was created under Charlemagne. The coin on the left, was created under ancient Roman king, Constantine, who was famous for his administrative and financial reforms that strengthened the Roman empire. What is Charlemagne trying to do with his portrait on his coin? What does it tell a historian about the ways the Mediaeval rulers saw ancient Rome?

Despite the regional differences between individual mints of coins (i.e. individual versions of the coins) their purpose is evident—to demonstrate the extent of Charlemagne’s power after his coronation as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE. The implication of imperial propaganda in this case is exceptionally clear. The latter form of a portrait coin conveyed imperial power and the consequent imperial status, by evoking the Roman emperors by depicting Charlemagne in the classical dress on the obverse and a Christianised temple on the reverse. This depiction would have signalled Frankish supremacy to Charlemagne’s contemporaries within as well as outside his empire. This style of coinage was very different to those minted before as they usually used the name of the person who minted the coin and the location where the coin was minted. Such stark contrast between two types of coins had contributed to the creation of early Medieval European unification as subjects within Charlemagne’s empire saw themselves as living under the rule of one of the greatest monarchs of the day. The same message was sent off to other rulers that surrounded Charlemagne’s realm.

Think like a Historian:

Are coins a useful type of source to use when trying to find more things about a certain historical period?

This standardisation of coinage, however, would have produced limited achievements, had Charlemagne not had any idea of what to expect from his own tax- payers. The fact that meticulously organised documents, such as the polyptych of Saint Germain des Prés, which was, in this case, a detailed survey of monastic property as well as its inhabitants demonstrated a degree of desired economic unification. The question-answer format of the polyptych served its purpose as this method allowed to categorise the sort of buildings on the land, thus allowing to categorise their inhabitants and finally to calculate the total sum per each manor. For example, in the case of Saint Remi and Lorsch the lands contained “25 manors, 1690 holdings, and about 9400 names”.[5]Long-term unification in this case could be seen, as not only the overall survey of the land was conducted, but also this information could have been used for future purposes, such as management of each estate for the empire to flourish. This was equivalent to the English Domesday Book as the government clearly required a reliable survey of its lands in order to assess the situation clearly in order to rule the conquered land effectively.

Here is a short informative video about Mediaeval manuscripts.
Another short video in case anyone is interested in the ‘weird’ side of Mediaeval manuscripts. (Also, useful for some NicheTM knowledge for when you’re using Mediaeval marginalia for memes cc: Rimma)

However, it is more justifiable to argue that Charlemagne merely laid foundations to what later would become national European economic identity in accordance with the states. After the death of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious in 840, Louis’ sons fought for the larger half of the empire. Consequently, after the end of the conflict, the trade ceased to be profitable as whilst making the journey across the former empire a merchant had to cross up to eleven borders and to pay an import duty he crossed each border to the local ruler. This was an expensive and inefficient way to trade as by the time the merchant reached the desired market the reclaimed cost for the goods was so high that no purchaser would want to acquire the goods. Consequently, both the purchasers and sellers returned to producing and consuming products on the site.  As a result, the trade system collapsed and each economic system enclosed within itself to cultivate individual identities that would come out as a result in the space of two hundred years.

This leads to the conclusion that, had Charlemagne been the true “father of Europe” his economic policies would have had a more lasting unificatory impact than mere thirty years. The terminology used in the accolade implies that Charlemagne had united Europe during his lifetime to such an extent that his empire would become economically important to the whole of Europe even after his death. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the economic system of Charlemagne’s empire did not withstand the challenge of the civil war Charlemagne’s claim to the ‘fatherhood’ of Europe is indeed limited.

Think like a Historian:

Why are historical myths created?

Although Charlemagne’s accolade had been discussed as if having a fixed meaning, it must be ultimately said that just as any set of words, the meaning of the “father of Europe” changed with time. It could be argued that Charlemagne was no “father of Europe” simply because the term became a mere political myth and that it did not hold any political implications and therefore it be discussed in terms of political unity. It was a useful formula employed by contemporary authors which was then forgotten and rediscovered in twentieth century by politicians and historians after the Second World War in order to “contribute to the creation of a more peaceful European state”. Although “Europe” for Charlemagne and his contemporaries may have been part of their claims to political authority, this notion of Charlemagne ruling the “realms of Europe” had acquired a nostalgic tone by the start of his son’s reign. Consequently, Charlemagne’s “fatherhood” of Europe cannot be true simply due to the fluidity of the term, which had been applied by later generations of chroniclers. It must ultimately be concluded that Charlemagne’s title of “father of Europe” was a political myth promulgated by those in power at their discretion at various points in time. Charlemagne did not do any more than his father and the implication that his legacy resonated through the tides of history is simply not credible to discuss, considering about 900 years of political, linguistic and religious disunity. Having considered the evidence, Charlemagne was more of an outlier in the European history of disunity, with various powerful figures, like Napoleon, attempting to become the next Charlemagne. As a result, Charlemagne’s existence was useful means for these people to push their agendas, which was in turn reinforced by their obsession with cultural and political continuity, hence allowing for the myth to be developed into what it is today. 

[1] Peter Brown , ‘“Mohammed and Charlemagne” by Henri Pirenne’, Daedalus 1 (1974), pp. 25-33, pp. 26-27

[2]  Robert. S. Lopez, ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne: A Revision’, Speculum 1 (1943), pp. 14-38, pp. 15-18

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Mayke  De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 15

[5] Devroey Jean-Pierre, Ordering, measuring, and counting: Carolingian rule, cultural capital and the economic performance in Western Europe (750-900)

To explore this topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • Another good book to start with is Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne. It would be useful for those who would like to learn about Charlemagne’s reign overall, without any ‘fathers of Europe’ and historical myth-making.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a smaller topic to explore.

cc: Rimma

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (2/3)

In the previous post in the series about Charlemagne and the historical myth of his fatherhood of Europe, we discussed the overall implications of what on earth is a ‘historical myth’ and whether accolades can help historians to decipher anything about the past.

In this post we will be unpicking Charlemagne’s ‘fatherhood’ of Europe further and will be discussing the political implications of the accolade as in order to make a claim to be called a “father of Europe” the various political reforms have to last long enough to make a unified ‘Europe’. Furthermore, because we cannot separate the language from its context, when writing about history, we will have to discuss what political ‘unity’ meant for Charlemagne’s contemporaries.

Think like a Historian:

Do historians need any other skills apart from analysing the past events? If yes, what are the skills required?

Due to Charlemagne living in a galaxy far, far away a time far removed from ours, historians who study his reign do not have many sources to rely on to find out absolutely everything about Charlemagne’s reign. As a result, historians are not entirely certain about the way Charlemagne’s contemporaries treated political unity. In order to solve such issues with the understanding of any historical period (including the reign of Charlemagne), historians debate whose understanding of the events and of the contemporary is more plausible. These debates are referred as “Historiographical debates” by academics.

Think like a Historian:

Can a group of people ever absolutely agree on something, which they can never find out for certain?

So what do historians who study Charlemagne’s reign think the concept of ‘unity’ in early Mediaeval Europe meant? On a governmental level, Johannes Fried, argues that ninth-century Frankish sources demonstrate no sign of “transpersonal or abstract concepts”[1] of a politically unified community, hence suggesting that the early medieval government, in its core, was not aiming to create unification between the king and his lords.  The only possible exception from the rule was the far-removed belief in “ecclesia”, or the Church,[2] which signified the Christian empire[3] and was based on the belief that the multi faith society was undesirable. As a result, the historians should consider the religious unity of the empire as part of political unity. However, others disagree with such a claim. Hans-Werner Goetz countered the notion that “ecclesia” was not the only concept which referred to political unity.[4] A more appropriate concept, in his view, was the concept of “regnum” which referred to “a territorial unit that existed regardless of personal ties between a ruler and his magnates”.[5] Nevertheless, Goetz’ view may not be the most valuable one in this situation as he tends to disregard the connection between “ecclesia” and the medieval empire.[6] Consequently, we have to look at religious and other political ways how a kingdom may have to be united to make our judgement about Charlemagne’s ‘fatherhood’ of Europe.

Think like a Historian:

How can a ruler unite a country?

Understanding the geo-political context in which Charlemagne ruled his empire is vital to comprehend his strive for unification of his realm. With Saxons raiding the Northern border, the Moors having solid control over the Mediterranean[3] and the Holy See (The Pope in Rome) being constantly threatened, it was unsurprising that Charlemagne wanted to impose a degree of unity to his empire. As a result, the newly invaded territories were subdued by brutal force. The author of the Annales Nazariani conveys that after a rebellion of a newly subdued Thuringian nobles they were killed off, having their eyes “torn out”, bit by bit after returning from giving “fidelity to the king and his children” in the tomb of St Peter.[4] In a similar light, Charlemagne’s men have been said to have slaughtered 4,500 people within one day in 782 during Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons.[5] This degree of unjustifiably harsh control demonstrated that Charlemagne was somewhat fearful about the potential threat posed by the hostile tribes, given that ultimately these slaughters were aimed to conform the conquered peoples to the Christian faith. There was certainly a personal element to Charlemagne’s strive to unify his realm. It is highly likely that he  saw it as his personal mission to unite Christendom.[6]Consequently, both the geo-political and religious contexts are vital to understand that Charlemagne attempted to emulate an ideal “father” king and thus on a personal level he saw himself as the “father of Europe”.

Charlemagne managed to quickly establish himself as an effective unifier by adding an ecclesiastical element to his role as a king whilst ruling his realm.[4] Charlemagne managed to introduce the Old Testament and teachings of St Augustine of Hippo to promote the idea that the king’s position was bestowed by God for making a divine plan for the universe hence allowing the king to take care of both  spiritual and material matters within his own kingdom. This is evident by such acts and decrees like the 789 decree that demanded for “every single monastery” to “provide instruction in the singing of psalms, musical notation, [Gregorian] chant, the computation of the years and seasons, and grammar”.[6] The long-term goal of this act had been to root Christianity within the empire and thus to unite its inhabitants. Similarly, the 802 Capitulary for the Missi (an act that demanded people to swear an oath that confirmed their Christian faith) allowed for the imposition of unity throughout Charlemagne’s empire. These reforms radically changed the role of the monarch, therefore allowing for a conclusion that Charlemagne was indeed an omnipotent “father” monarch to his contemporaries given his care for the spiritual well-being of his subjects.

This is a 7th century chant Deum Verum (True Lord). Such chants would’ve been sung during Charlemagne’s reign by Gregorian monks and nuns in the monasteries.
To make your life funkier, here is a Gregorian chant cover of Coldplay’s song ‘Viva la Vida’ (hopefully, you’ll know the original, otherwise we’ll feel old). Enjoy!

Think like a Historian:

Why can verbal oaths be important in a society that does not have an overall literate population?

Yet, despite Charlemagne’s efforts legislation that was passed to unite religiously his empire was not sufficient. This was because Christianity was not widespread within early Medieval Europe. Even the most devout Christians that lived outside the monasteries, were considered lucky if they saw a priest once a year.[1] It appears that the most predominant form of religion were multiple tribal pluralistic faiths. After all, in contemporary world, the North half of Europe remained pagan[2] and the vast majority of Charlemagne’s empire was Christian only in name, but not in practice. This is evidenced by Charlemagne’s continuous struggle with the Saxons, who had continuously practiced paganism. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that due to the multitude of pluralistic faiths it was difficult for Charlemagne to establish a religiously united empire and thus factually Charlemagne has very little actual claim to be called a “father of Europe”.

Here is a short video that gives a brief overview of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons.
SOURCE TIME (yes, this time it is a video source, rather than a written one): Listen to this account of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, which was originally written by the chronicler Einhard. Einghard knew Charlemagne and his court personally.However, Einhard did not participate in the military campaigns. How does Einhard describe the Saxons? Can you fully trust Einhard’s account? Give your reasons for or against.

Although Charlemagne did fail to unite his empire on religious basis he attempted to do so by utilising his civil authority as a “father” monarch to unify his empire. Charlemagne had created a backbone to his government by placing his most loyal and capable followers in charge of an individual area. The said, counts enjoyed a wide range of administrative powers, such as raising troops and collecting taxes.

However, their legislative power was extremely limited as this body was in turn checked by another set of separate corps, missi dominici, who acted as Charlemagne’s personal representatives. There was a strong link between Charlemagne and the said corps as the primary sources usually contained “the royal capitularies” and “quasi-legislative documents” that would be “dispatched across the kingdom in order to provide instructions for king’s will”.[2] Charlemagne cared about the content of the reports that reached him. Adalard emphasizes Charlemagne’s personal concern with the reliability of the information by stating that each man, who entered Charlemagne’s court regardless of his status, was made to verbally state the political situation in the region which he came from.[3] This was very different from the older model based on Roman tradition of gathering intelligence in which class mattered and the testimony from those of lower class was seen as less valid.[4] The same degree of meticulous control was employed at Charlemagne’s court. At his court Charlemagne fully exploited the traditional Frankish annual assembly by cementing his personal ties with the attending trusted clergy and nobility as during these assemblies the king “heard their complaints, accepted their advice, gained their assent for his policies, and delivered to them in his own words his commands for ruling his realm.”[5] Consequently, such meticulous control over nobility allowed Charlemagne not only to watch over his empire, but also to be perceived as an ideal medieval King given almost omnipotent qualities he gained by this degree of control. As a result, it was clear how Charlemagne became to be perceived as a “father of Europe” given the means he used to protect and to unify his empire by gathering more information about his realm than any of his predecessors; given the fact that it was surrounded by hostile tribes, such as the Saxons and the Lombards.

Think like a Historian:

Can a modification of a previous governmental or administrative system be of use for a ruler? If so, why and how? Can you think of any examples?

Nevertheless, the actual political strength of Charlemagne’s empire, given various factors outlined above, was limited and Charlemagne’s empire fell apart soon after his death. This has occurred predominantly due to the civil war that had occurred between his three grandsons. The civil war ended in August 843 with the treaty of Verdun and the empire was subdivided three parts once again—Lothar took majority of lands that stretched to Italy, Louis took the east of Rhine and Charles took Aquitane. As a result, it is certainly could be argued that Charlemagne was not a political “father of Europe” due to his inability to establish a long-lasting political unification of his empire.

This is a video that explains the short-term and long-term importance of the Treaty of Verdun.

Ultimately it must be said that, as much as Charlemagne desired to unite his empire via religious beliefs, he was unable to do so, simply due to inability to spread Christianity across his empire to such an extent which would unify various tribes that lived within it. The case is clear once various divisions created by the 843 Treaty of Verdun are considered in contemporary context. Given that these divisions had been created in the first place highlight that Charlemagne’s empire was never unified in the first place. As a result, Charlemagne cannot be considered the political “father of Europe” simply because it was almost impossible to fully unite his realm in contemporary context, despite him evidently attempting to do so.

[3] Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire and M. Shane Bjornlie, ed.,  Emerick Judson, The Life and Legacy of Constantine (New York, 2017), pp. 133-161, p. 148; Starostine Dmitri, “ …in die festivitatis: Calendar science, everyday rhythms and the ritual structuring of time in the early medieval communities of the Frankish kingdom”, accessed May,  2019 at https://www.academia.edu/33221752/Book_to_send.docx

[6] this was done by increasing the number of the scheduled meetings, which would have occurred between the monarch and his council; from Jinty Nelson, ‘Charlemagne and Europe’ in Journal of the British Academy, 2 (2014), pp. 125–152, p. 138

[3] Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire

[6] Britannica, accessed June, 2019 at


[2] Lat. ‘divine cult’; a stately concern that the duty of a true Christian monarch was to “combat heresy” and “care for his people”, from ‘Ecclesia and the early medieval polity’. in eds., W. Pohl, H. Reimitz and S. Airlie, Staat im frühen Mittelalter. Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 11 (Wien, 2006), pp. 113-132, pp.115-116

[3] De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 17

[4]  Britannica, accessed June, 2019 at


[5] Ibid.

[6]  Konrad Nordland, ‘Carolingian Empire’, accessed May,  2019, at https://www.academia.edu/38718066/Carolingian_Empire

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Elizabeth Freeman, “Charles the Great, or Just Plain Charles: Was Charlemagne a Great Medieval Leader?”, Agora: Journal of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria, 52 (2017), pp. 10- 19, p. 15

[3] Colin M. Wells, ‘The Maghrib and the Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages’, Florilegium 16 (1999), pp. 17-29, p. 20

[4] McKitterick Rosamund, Charlemagne: The Formation of European Identity, pp.266-267

[1] Mayke De Jong, ‘The Empire that was always Decaying: The Carolingians (800-888)’, Medieval Worlds 2, (2015), pp. 6-25, p. 17

[2]  Ruth Horie, ‘The concept of Ecclesia’ in Perceptions of Ecclesia: Church and Soul in Medieval Dedication Sermons, pp.35-44, p.35

To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • If you’re interested in Charlemagne as a ruler, and how his contemporaries perceived him, a good starting point is Two Lives of Charlemagne: The Life of Charlemagne; Charlemagne (Penguin Classics). It has a very comprehensible introduction and notes for you to understand the text and begin researching for yourself.
  • Any of the books and articles in the footnotes of this post, can be of use, if you’re looking for a niche topic to explore.

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (1/3)

This series of posts will be dedicated to a discussion on power relations and how they affect the formation of a historical myth in popular culture. Given that various politicians often refer to Mediaeval rulers as means to push their agendas, rather than referring to historical facts, we decided to do some historical ‘myth-busting’ and chose Charlemagne as our case study to separate the myth from the historical fact.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think the phrase “historical myth” means?

Charles or Karl I, Carolus Magnus, “father of Europe”, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, first Emperor of the Romans, lighthouse of Europe, Charlemagne—these are only some of the names this king had received during his lifetime.

Here is Charlemagne, depicted in a Mediaeval manuscript.

Charlemagne’s achievements in the eyes of his contemporaries were numerous. He considerably expanded Pepin the Short’s domain, whilst simultaneously spreading Christianity, throughout the majority of barbarian Europe.  The most fruitful campaigns occurred in the first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign, expanding the Frankish kingdom from the Spanish Pyrenees in the West to the Rhine river in the East. This territory later became known as the Holy Roman Empire, a geo-political body that would be a political centre of European political power until 19th century. He conducted the cultural revival which is known as the Carolingian Renaissance—that is all in addition to being the first man to be crowned ‘Emperor’ since the fall of the Roman Empire. Perceived by his contemporaries as a great king, he acquired the title of “the king, father of Europe” in his lifetime via his political and economic policies which aimed at uniting his empire. It is widely accepted by historians that the chronicler, Notker the Stammerer, was the first to use the epithet “Rex, pater Europae” during Charlemagne’s lifetime. This imagery was perpetuated further by such literary works like the Song of Roland and such other romances that idealised Charlemagne and his empire during the times of trouble.

In case anyone reading these posts is interested in linguistics and languages in general, here is a video that has some bits of The Song of Roland in Mediaeval French. This video is also helpful to see how the poetic meter functions in the original language, rather than in the English translation.

The actual figure of Charlemagne was influential on the way modern Europe came to be perceived. His impact is recognised in the fact that every year since 1950, the ‘Charlemagne prize’ has been presented in the German city of Aachen, the capital of the Carolingian Empire. The prize is given to an individual considered to have made an outstanding contribution to European unity. The late German chancellor Helmut Kohl admitted that the Charlemagne Prize is “the most important honour Europe can bestow”. Winston Churchill, Tony Blair, Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron were one of the prise recipients. Nevertheless, Charlemagne’s impact on unification of Europe was extremely limited, given how long ago he had lived. Yet European citizens and politicians seem to be obsessed with the idea of a European unity that had never existed as a pan-European entity. Consequently, Charlemagne- as- a -unifier- of- Europe, is a mere myth that had been utilised by various rulers after his death.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think people would chose to name a prize after a historical figure? Does it serve a wider, political purpose?

That said, this myth had been nourished by Charlemagne’s contemporaries insomuch as the future rulers. Chronicler Einhard had composed a very popular biography of the king and Notker the Stammerer in his Gesta Karoli Magni depicted Charlemagne as a caring father figure for the entire state. Such descriptions were unsurprising as Charlemagne was one of the founders of the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural movement that manifested itself in various educatory reforms, including the preservation of the Classical texts. This in turn allowed for Charlemagne to create an ideological image of himself as the “father of Europe”, and through this image it was possible to create an “imaginary community”. Consequently, it was this specific image of Charlemagne that had survived through the ages and it was this specific image that was perpetuated further by subsequent generations of rulers in the medieval and modern periods. For instance, such rulers included Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler. Whilst the future rulers had twisted the original implication the accolade had, such as in the case of Hitler’s revival of the accolade, it nevertheless clear that the actual figure of Charlemagne has very little to do with actual unification and thus the “fatherhood” of modern day Europe given that his empire did not survive long enough to have so much geo-political impact on the continent.

Think like a Historian:

Who is more responsible for creation of any historical myths– the people or the ruler? Why do you think this?

Who was historical Charlemagne?

It is necessary to lay out who was the man who stood behind these illustrious titles. Born in about 742 Charlemagne was an illegitimate son of Pepin the Short, and Bertrada of Laon. Charlemagne’s childhood years are covered by darkness, although it is known except that he was tutored at the palace school by Fulrad, the abbot of St. Denis. At twenty-six Charlemagne became the King of the Franks, following his brother’s death. Given that Charlemagne lived for an impressive seventy two years, during his lifetime, he considerably expanded Pepin the Short’s realms and attempted to unify his empire through implementation of Christianity both by peaceful and forceful means.

Here is a short overview of Charlemagne’s reign.

What on earth does the “father of Europe” mean?

In order to discuss why Charlemagne was given the “fatherhood” of Europe, we need to look at what the terms “Europe” and “father” meant to his contemporaries.

For centuries “Europe” had been a mere “geographic notion”, whose origins laid in Greek myth and used as in reference to mainland Greece[1]. Yet, by fifth century this view was advanced by Herodotus and the world was supposedly divided solidly into three parts—Europe, Asia and Libya.[2]

Here is a map that is based on the view of the world described by an ancient Greek philosopher, Herodotus.

However, during Charlemagne’s reign the term “Europe” grew to signify his own empire, supposedly united under the banner of Christianity and a strong feudal based economy[3].

A map which shows how Charlemagne’s empire developed throughout his reign.

Evidently, Charlemagne’s “Europe” encompassed a geographical area in Western Europe, rather than how modern individuals understand it as. Charlemagne’s “Europe” does not encompass neither the Iberian peninsula, nor the British isles, nor the Nordic states like Sweden or Denmark. As a result, one ought to focus on Charlemagne’s contemporary definition for “Europe”, rather than its modern one.

Furthermore, one must examine what Charlemagne’s contemporaries understood by “father”. The term “father” for Charlemagne’s contemporaries, as suggested by Janet Nelson, was similar to the contemporary role of father in a household, which was to be responsible for the protection of his people, only with the household being an entire nation under king’s rule.[4]. Just as this legendary King Arthur, any early medieval monarch should “not only set in motion the formal processes of the law, but also be motivated by an inward feeling for natural justice”[5]. As a result, following the contemporary implications the term “father” had, the term within this and the consequent posts will be understood as synonymous to “unifier”. This will be done to merge contemporary and modern definitions to achieve a fluid discussion. Subsequently, a “unifier” king would aim protect his people by unification of his realm to such an extent that this unity would exist even after his death. Overall, the term “father of Europe” within the context of this and future posts will suggest that the extent of unification and consequent long-lasting success of Charlemagne’s political and economic policies.

[1]Mia Rodriguez-Salgado, ‘In Search of Europe’, History Today 42 (1992), pp. 50-60

[2] Ibid, p. 50

[3] Ibid., p. 53

[4] Rosamund McKitterick, ed., ‘Kingship and Empire’, in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 52-87

[5] Bernard Srone, ‘Models of Kingship: Arthur in Medieval Romance’,  History Today 37 (1987), pp. 62-73, p.63

To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • If you’re interested in a more cultural angle of Mediaeval history, and are interested in literature a good starting point would be The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne, which had been translated by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt. This book has a very readable introduction and notes to help you understand the text better.
  • If you’re interested in finding out how different communities and identities form, a good starting point would be Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. It’s a must read for any students who are considering of studying History at a university level.
  • If you would like to have a chill, here is a very funky playlist with Mediaeval music