The nations of Europe have been homes to various wars for centuries, until a bunch of the countries got together after the Second World War to create a common economic market and perhaps prevent any more of these conflicts. It created a form of European identity that has now become the European Union. But the idea of Europe, a unified area of diverse cultures that nevertheless falls under the rule of one authority, can be traced back to Charlemagne, the Frankish emperor of the late eighth and early ninth centuries.
In his new book, Charlemagne, Derek Wilson examines the emperor's life, but he also examines the myth of Charlemagne through the ages. He looks at how subsequent rulers have used the Charlemagne for their own ends, and how his attempts to conquer and hold together as much of Europe as possible, to have one Europe, has been a precursor to what we have now. Many rulers have tried to duplicate his achievements, but none of them have done so as completely, or perhaps as fairly, as Charlemagne did, even if it was done through conquest.
Charlemagne is a fairly short book, but it does pack a lot of information into it. Wilson begins by giving a short history of Europe up until the time of Charlemagne's birth, including an interesting set of maps, one of which is the European Economic Community in 1957 and one that is the extent of Charlemagne's empire in 814. The two look very similar, with only the southern part of Italy not being included in Charlemagne's area. Food for thought, but Wilson goes on to say that, while Charlemagne's story demonstrates this desire for unity, it is basically a story, full of military actions, barbarian invasions, and political/religious intrigue. His father and grandfather began all of this, but it was Charlemagne's force of personality that really made it work.
This introduction is a good one, setting the scene in an interesting manner but never losing sight of the fact that many stories have been added to Charlemagne's over the years to support what somebody wants to do. The whole thing is a story, and we don't have a lot of primary sources about his life. Those we do have could very well be biased, as the most prominent biography of the time was written during the reign of one of Charlemagne's sons, and it really makes the son look good. Contemporary biographies seem to gloss over military defeats, with scarcely a mention of the disastrous foray into Moslem Spain, for example.
What's even more interesting is that a full third of the book doesn't talk about Charlemagne himself, but about how his image has carried on through the years since his death. We see the beginnings of it as the Empire falls apart shortly after his death, as his sons just don't have the forcefulness that their father had. The Empire does survive through one of his son's reign, but not for long. Wilson uses this to show how much the idea of Europe was a personal thing at the time, with the various warring factions that were under one umbrella starting to feel the chafe as Charlemagne's personal influence waned with his death.
Wilson then proceeds to give us a brief history of Europe up to the modern day, placing the legend of Charlemagne within that context, from the rise of the Holy Roman Empire through the years until its final death. Wilson details the fall of remains of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, after a long period where it survived basically in name only, as well as how Napoleon (and even Hitler) used the legend of Charlemagne to further their own ends. I found this part of the book fascinating as I was fairly unfamiliar with him and his influence, despite knowing the basics about him being the first emperor of Western Europe. One interesting bit of history that I did not know is that Charlemagne divided his empire into three pieces for his three sons. One basically takes the shape of France, one the shape of Germany (at least Western Germany), and there's a piece in the middle that encompasses the land which Germany and France have been fighting over for centuries.
Intriguing things like this make Charlemagne a great read. Wilson deftly gives Charlemagne's history, too, of the man both as he is growing up and becoming king, wresting control of the entirety of his father's kingdom from his brother, as well as his time as Emperor when Pope Leo III crowned him (though the details of this crowning, as well as the impetus for it, remain obscured by history) Emperor of the West and as he expanded his lands. Wilson gives us as much detail as probably exists about Charlemagne's life and times, emphasizing how religious he was and how learned (he could read, but he couldn't write, and he loved scholarly discussions to be carried out over dinner). He doesn't gloss over the bad parts, however, even saying that, in modern times, Charlemagne would be considered a tyrant. But he points out that many of the cultural traditions in the lands that he conquered were allowed to remain, though he admits this perhaps was because of the difficulty in governing far-away provinces.
What I found most interesting and well-presented about this section, however, is how Wilson gives us a sense of the time around Charlemagne. The political struggles between the two remaining parts of the Roman Empire, as well as the religious ones (even giving a brief accounting of the controversy in Constantinople over the use of iconography in Christian practices) were simply fascinating. This, combined with the examination of Charlemagne's legacy (as well as his legend) makes Charlemagne a wonderful read for anybody interested in the history of the Middle Ages. It may even be of interest to those looking for the history of European unity. It all started right here, even if it was by the sword. And the idea, though sometimes submerged, has never truly died.