Books interview with Janet Nelson: “The only way this huge regime could work was by Charlemagne trusting his own instincts”

Janet L Nelson talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new biography of medieval powerhouse Charlemagne, which reveals the relationships that kept his mammoth empire running

Professor Dame Janet L Nelson has published extensively on early medieval Europe. She is professor emeritus at King's College London, a fellow of the British Academy and a former president of the Royal Historical Society. Her previous books include 'Charles the Bald' (1992) and 'The Frankish World' (1996). (Photograph by Frank Monks)

This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Charlemagne (748–814) was one of the towering figures of the medieval world. Hailing from the Frankish Carolingian dynasty, he was king of the Franks and Lombards (Germanic peoples of western Europe) and went on to greatly expand the Carolingian empire. At its peak, Charlemagne’s domain stretched from modern-day Spain to Hungary. His reign is remembered as an era of cultural renaissance, the legacy of which left a lasting impression on Europe.


Ellie Cawthorne: You begin your biography by rejecting the popular title ‘Charlemagne’, instead choosing to simply call your subject ‘Charles’. Why?

Janet L Nelson: At my mother’s knee, I was taught to be very sceptical about the idea of ‘great men’, so I didn’t want to begin with the notion that Charles I’s ‘greatness’ – as the French title Charlemagne or the German title Karl der Große imply – was a foregone conclusion.

Looking back, of course, we know how the story unfolded, but it’s important to remember that Charles began his reign with a relatively small territory. There was no way of knowing that, as the decades went by, more and more lands would be taken into his empire until it finally expanded way beyond the Roman frontier of the Rhine. As a biographer, I really wanted to give the sense that the course of events wasn’t ever set in stone. Charlemagne was constantly experimenting, encountering new situations and having to make things up as he went along. I wanted the end of each chapter to feel like a cliffhanger.

How do you reconstruct a life from the early medieval period when the sources are so scarce?

All early medieval historians begin by moaning about how limited the material available is. But there’s more to go on than you might expect.

The first thing to look at is biography. Charles’s earliest biographer was the Frankish historian and court scholar Einhard (c770–840). But even though Einhard was a close advisor to Charles, who witnessed much of his reign, you have to understand the limitations of his biography. For example, Einhard borrowed heavily from Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars. And this inspiration was not just stylistic, but also structural. Roman biographers started by talking about their subject’s public affairs, politics and military matters, and then went on to discuss their private life separately – and so Einhard did the same. That style of writing can prove very disappointing, however, because when it comes to the subject’s personal life, it’s very enclosed.

You’ve got to find all sorts of other evidence to build up a picture around biographical writing. There aren’t many letters from Charle-magne, but however short and scrappy they may be, I still think they are valuable. Another source that I think historians could make much more use of is poetry. While it might look to us rather arcane and artificial, poetry was an important medium of court life at the time, so it can prove very illuminating. Just a couple of lines of a poem or a letter can act as a spyhole into Charles’s relationships.

Your book places a new emphasis on Charles’s personal and family relationships. Why?

I think that the importance of close kin relationships in the creation of Charles’s dynasty and empire has been underestimated. When we talk about the construction and maintenance of a medieval empire, we’re talking about not only political agreements or military manoeuvres, but also what emerges from encounters between family members in the private chambers or bedrooms of a palace. The entire system of dynastic succession flourished or failed because of the ways that family members either co-operated with one another or became rivals.

Charles was very aware of the fact that his whole family was involved in making his regime work, and used this to his advantage. He had around 20 children, marrying his daughters off to men he could trust, and getting his sons involved in government. And his network stretched beyond children: nephews, cousins, uncles and aunts were all, in some way or other, plugged into Charles’s regime.

Some of Charles’s most important relationships were those with his wives, who were important agents of government in themselves. He had several wives in succession; roughly speaking, they died every 10 years or so. And that meant a lot of changes, because each new wife would arrive with her own network of kin – a whole cadre of new people that needed to be put to use.

Was this ability to skilfully manage people and relationships the secret to Charles’s success as an empire builder?

Building a successful empire relied a lot on personalities, and Charles was certainly very good at managing people. The only way this huge governmental apparatus could work was by Charles trusting his own instincts about who would be reliable. He commandeered posts for people who he thought would do the job properly, and on the whole he was very skilled at choosing his agents, both religious and secular.

His government relied on sociable two-way relationships with his agents. Einhard tells us there were Roman baths at Charles’s capital at Aachen. As well as stating that Charles was the best swimmer in the whole empire, Einhard tells us that he would welcome 100 or more of his trusted agents to come and swim with him at the same time. Everyone wanted to get closer to the emperor, and make the relationship work for them as well as him. It was these kinds of reciprocal relationships that made the regime function.

What stopped such a massive empire falling apart?

The expansion and maintenance of the Carolingian empire relied on a combination of military, institutional and religious aspects, all of which fed into a sense of shared identity.

By the latter part of Charles’s reign, he had built up a formidable military machine, but holding the empire together required more than just military might. By the end of his reign, those who lived in the empire had come to share in a tremendous sense of solidarity. For example, by initiating Latin as a common language Charles made it easier for people to communicate. This led to new ways of collaborating, particularly when it came to projects like building schools.

What role did religion play in the creation of the empire?

You could argue that religion was the dynamo that kept the whole thing going. Charles was deeply religious and really embraced the church – he believed that his regime had been blessed, and that God was directing his actions. A sense of mission and conversion was a powerful subcurrent that ran through his whole reign.

He set up an amazing religious capital at Aachen, which you can still go and visit today. This was very much part of a centralisation effort, but I think he also genuinely believed that by constructing it he was communing with God.

Charles’s interest in managing – or interfering in – religious matters went right down to the very local level too. He employed a team of able enforcers to make sure that the dioceses in his regions were being operated in the way that canon law dictated, and wanted feedback from these local agents, even at the parish level. For example, baptism was seen as the entry card into a Christian empire, and so Charles wanted to keep track of how widespread this practice was. At his request, dozens of reports on baptisms were sent from far-flung parts of the empire to his capital at Aachen, where they were archived.

In the latter part of Charles’s reign, there were very few people in the empire that could remember a time when he hadn’t been around

Inevitably, this missionary zeal also involved violence. Many people on the peripheries of the Carolingian empire – like the Saxons, or those in Scandinavia and Hungary – were pagan, and waves of violence would cascade down from Charles’s court to ordinary people in the countryside.

At a grassroots level, the spread of Christianity didn’t happen exactly as Charlemagne might have dreamt, but his religious ideals were nonetheless put down in laws. The whole legal system became deeply infused with Christian practices, right down to parish priests being told that they had to make sure babies were baptised and that each village had a religious teacher. These instruments of communication, conversion and implementation outlasted Charles’s reign, and continued to be used long after he was dead.

How has Charlemagne been reimagined as a symbol after his death?

One medieval court poet praised Charles as the “lighthouse” of Europe, and in the modern era he’s most commonly been evoked as a symbol of European unity. Much as EU politicians might want to re-use that image, though, it’s obviously anachronistic. What united the people of Charles’s empire after 800, and continued after his death under his son Louis, was the identity they felt as Christians and Franks and an abiding sense of the fidelity they swore to God and to their emperor.

But it’s not only in the modern age that Charles’s legacy has been evoked. At the time of the crusades, a set of myths emerged about Charles being a great crusader who went to the Holy Land. There was a grain of truth in this idea, in that Charles was indeed very concerned about what was happening in the Holy Land – he was worried that churches were falling into disrepair and about the rise of Islam. He sent agents to write up a detailed account of all the holy places and Christian hermits in Jerusalem. But he never visited himself. However, later crusaders got the notion that Charles had gone there and they were following in his footsteps. This wasn’t true, but that’s how they pictured themselves.

How significant was it that Charles had such a long-lasting reign?

Charles lived to be 65, which was a ripe age at that time. Even in his later years, he was still striving for more. Gladstone was often called an “old man in a hurry”, and I’ve used this phrase myself about Charles.

I think you could liken his reign to that of Queen Victoria – she was a symbol of continuity, and the late Victorians really did believe that they were in a stable situation that wasn’t going to collapse. The same could be said for those living in the Carolingian empire in the latter part of Charles’s reign. Between 800 and Charles’s death in 814, there were very few people in the empire that could remember a time when he hadn’t been around.

If we strip back the idea of ‘Charles the Great’ to get to Charles the man, what are we left with?

If we strip back the myths of greatness, we find a man who was practical, down-to-earth, humorous and sociable.

I think that if you met him, his personality wouldn’t be overwhelming. But he had a real driving energy. He was absolutely determined to make his system work, and even in his later years, he was always looking to achieve more.

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Professor Dame Janet L Nelson has published extensively on early medieval Europe. She is professor emeritus at King’s College London, a fellow of the British Academy and a former president of the Royal Historical Society. Her latest book, King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne (Allen Lane, 704 pages, £30) is out now.