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