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Charlemagne, translated into English as Charles the Great, was the King of the Franks, who expanded his empire to as further south as Italy. We learn from the two biographies that Charlemagne was instrumental in the spread of culture and arts to all corners of his kingdom. By closely associating himself with the Papacy, he helped spread the Christian message to much of Europe.
As a result of his contributions in various fields, his reign was properly called the Carolingian Renaissance. The reader will be able to get a summation of his lifetime achievements as well as a sense of plebeian life in medieval Europe by reading through the two biographies in discussion.
The book Two Lives of Charlemagne contains two different biographies of Charlemagne, who ruled a large swathe of western Europe during the 8th and 9th century AD.
The first version is titled ‘Life of Charles’ (original name Vita Caroli) and is written by Einhard. The second version is titled ‘Of Charlemagne’ (original name De Carolo Magno) and is thought to be authored by Notker the Stammerer, who is referred to in related publications as Monk of Saint Gall. Both these works were written in Latin and were translated to English and other European languages only in recent centuries. While these two biographies of Charlemagne are classics of medieval literature, they differ in their points of view and focus.
In the case of Einhard, he was a prominent member of the Royal court and hence was privy to the personal and official lives of the King. Indeed, his closeness to the King was such that he was able to recollect the entire account of the King’s life during his twilight years, when he retired from his duties and was staying in a monastery. By the time he undertook this project, the King had already passed away, which goes on to show how well the author’s memory and observation had served him during the writing process. The main focus of Einhard’s work was the official life of Charlemagne, which entailed the wars he participated in, the key political decision that he took, the civil society projects he implemented, etc. The coverage of King’s family and personal life is kept to a minimum, as is the convention of the time. As for the literary qualities of the work, Einhard’s style is reminiscent of Suetonius who wrote during the peak of the Roman Empire.
The alternate biography written by Notker the Stammerer (or Monk of Saint Gall) comes across as less academic and more light-hearted. Here, the author takes several literary liberties and seems to sacrifice historical accuracy in order to achieve aesthetic effect. The language is florid and the picture painted of the King larger than life. Of the two biographies, this is certainly the more hyperbolic (if not also sycophantic). Notker the Stammerer’s book is certainly the more humorous. In a display of self-depreciating humour, the author refers to himself as the stammering, toothless old man as a way of distinguishing from other Notkers in the King’s court. Notker also focuses on the personality attributes of the King, such as his generosity, acuity of mind, etc. The King’s prudent decision making, the set of principles he follows, etc were also touched upon. He also brings out the darker sides of the King, such as his tendency to be spiteful, his intolerance for dissent, and the brutality of some of his punishments. Indeed, reading through ‘Of Charlemagne’ one can’t escape being in the world of magic realism. If novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie were said to pioneer this new genre in literary fiction, then it is fair to say that Notker’s work is one of its earliest expressions in the non-fiction form (irrespective of factual inaccuracies and exaggerations in the book).
Notker’s work is directed to the plebeian lot, as can be learned from the style of prose employed, the areas in which emphasis is laid, etc. In contrast, one gets the impression that Einhard’s work was directed to an elite audience such as fellow historians, courtiers and other intellectuals of the age. For example, as translator Lewis Thorpe notes in his introduction to the book,
“in his introduction Einhard states his aims: they are to write the public history of Charlemagne and to describe the Emperor’s life and his day-to-day habits, omitting nothing which is relevant and yet remaining as succinct as possible….Einhard himself says: ‘I am very conscious of the fact that no one can describe these events more accurately than I, for I was present when they took place and, as they say, I saw them with my own eyes. What is more, I cannot be absolutely sure that these happenings will in fact ever be described by anyone else’.”
We should keep in mind though that despite this authorial declaration, there are obvious biases and inaccuracies. Einhard’s summing up of his work as one “which perpetuates the memory of the greatest and most distinguished of men” does give away the lack of objectivity and balance in what is to follow. In the case of Notker, there is not even a pretense of bringing veracity to the work, as the author himself claims to have never visited the King or his Kingdom. Hence, most of the content is conjured from hearsay accounts and the author’s own imagination. But despite these constraints, the fertility of Notker’s imagination comes through in passages like this: “I saw the King of the Franks, in full regalia, in the monastery of Saint Gall, Two gold-petalled flowers stuck out from his thighs. The first of these rose up so high that it was as tall as the King himself; the second, growing gradually upwards, adorned the top of his trunk with great glory and protected him as he walked.”
The anecdotal approach to biography that was adopted by Notker gives the reader a comprehensive view of the lifestyles and social customs of medieval Europe. From Notker’s work we understand several things about 8th century life. These include the centrality of the Church to everyday affairs, the congregation and singing that took place in its premises, the flaws in the bureaucratic structure of the court, the stigma associated with red-haired people, the fact that people lived on houses built on stilts, etc. Notker’s anecdotes endeavor to show the king in good light. Here we see how the wise king manages to catch conspiring bishops, how he rounds up unbelievers such as pagans, etc. But since Notker is seldom critical of the king’s actions throughout the work, it is difficult to place such anecdotes in historical and political context.
We also understand from these biographies, that Charlemagne, despite being illiterate, was a patron of the written arts. Indeed, prior to his reign, there is virtually no body of Germanic Literature to speak of. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Charlemagne kick-started the tradition of written literature as we understand it today. Prior to that the mode of dissemination of information was primarily oral and dependent on human memory. He also encouraged the development of Western culture by promoting music, dance and theater (however rudimentary this art form might have been during medieval times).
The two biographies cover different facets of the King’s life and hence compliment each other. It would be futile to debate which of the two books is superior, for they are of different kinds and not given to easy comparison. But they both remain vital texts in understanding one of the most influential Kings during the early medieval Europe. Even discounting for the authors’ hyperbole, it is a fact that Charlemagne played an important role in shaping historical currents of the time; and these two biographies give us a glimpse of the social, religious and political atmosphere under which Charlemagne’s ruled his domain.
Two Lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, translated by Lewis Thorpe, published in 1969 by Penguin Classics.