Charlemagne: Father of a Continent by Alessandro Barbero (trans. Allan Cameron)

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

If there is one name from the mediaeval world that most people recognize it is that of Charlemagne. Ask those same people what they know about the man and rarely do you get a comprehensive answer. The printing of Alessandro Barbero’s classic edition in paperback is sure to gather a flock of admirers. Barbero employs a flexible, strong style. He knows what he wants to say and does so without hesitation. Many of his ideas are innovative and authoritative.

Often when a writer gets into the ‘nitty-gritty’ of his subject, he becomes absorbed in his own ideas and bores his reading audience. Barbero’s writing is not like that. A good example of this occurs when Charlemagne distinguishes the Carolingian state (and later empire) from the Romans. The placement of markets, trade routes, seaports, and resources was critical. What could be simpler and how appropriate is an explanation that involves the lie of the land in supporting Charlemagne’s endeavour in economic reform? Charlemagne used the rivers, or trails through the mountains, or places in the forests where his enemies e.g. the Saxons gathered. This was a very hard time requiring a ruthless and/or driven ruler such as the decapitation of 4 500 Saxons in one day shows Charlemagne to be.

In fact, the early part of the book details Charlemagne’s treatment of the wars against the Saxons, Lombards, Avars and Arabs and their eventual defeat. Barbero does not confine his history to military matters alone but includes with the political circumstances distinguishing each, finely drawn descriptions of the impact of his military strategies upon the people in the regions he conquered. Where his invasion caused severe hardship (as in Italy) he wrote and enacted a law to reverse the situation viz. “where we or our army has passed” that law nullified transfers of property and persons and deeds of sale negotiated because of hunger; donations to churches were subject to investigation (36), all, perhaps as others have said, a means of driving a wedge between the common people and those nobles who were chary of assisting his case.

One of Barbero’s interesting ideas is that Charlemagne believed that Frankish supremacy was attained through the creation of a common memory of conquest (106). He denies that Carolingian hegemony is appropriately described in an ethnic framework since a shared linguistic identity does not necessarily create a sense of community. He demonstrates an extensive knowledge of what shapes human experience. Barbero’s discussion, ranging over political, military, economic, legal, and social actions and consequences, makes exciting reading. The truth is the goal Barbero pursues e.g. he won’t have it that Charlemagne’s wars with the Saxons and their subsequent defeat was the spur that led to wholesale conversion to Christianity. There was more than baptism at sword point (242). These are valid truths about Charlemagne’s policies but I was struck by his little anecdotes, or gossip if you will, that makes the book charming to read. Barbero reports that Alcuin, that well-known advocate of the virtues of leading a life of poverty, when he had reached an advanced age “began to be disturbed by this contradiction, and he regretted his greed, fearing that it might endanger his soul. To put this right, he invested some of his gold in prayers, mainly through large donations to churches in his native England” (217).

Holders of high church office in lands under Frankish control did not mean a life devoted exclusively to church affairs. The expectation encompassed much more than those important duties. The abbot of Fontenelle was responsible for the efficient running of the English Channel ports, including the busy market of Quentovic, and was charged with collecting Charlemagne’s dues (170). Barbero has a useful passage about Church property (178) and the levying of the produce of estates, the census, and the supply of men and goods to the army (181 -184).

There is so much of interest in this book that it is difficult to cover adequately in a short review. Chapter Eight contains an anecdote about Charlemagne and the bishop’s cheese. The presentation of gifts expressed acknowledgment of the king’s supremacy but also triggered a response from the king that was often very much to the original donor’s advantage. In brief, Chapter Eight describes and assesses the government of the empire through the allocation and use of the resources within it. Chapter Nine is a thorough description and assessment of the justice system including local tribunals, oath taking, trial by ordeal and so on, but most importantly, under Charlemagne, the reforms of the judicial system including the fight against corruption.

Chapter Ten leads us into Barbero’s elucidation of the intellectual strengths of Charlemagne himself. Any formal education he may have had would have been conducted in Latin since vernacular languages lacked sufficient vocabulary. He spoke German, his native tongue, and attempted to learn Greek. As Barbero reminds us, “Charlemagne amazed his contemporaries and quickly became a legendary figure after his death [with] his unbounded intellectual curiosity” (213). His interest in linguistics alone would have been very useful in governing a multiethnic empire. In typical Barbero style we learn that Charlemagne could read but never mastered the art of writing since the two skills were not taught together. (And I have allowed Barbero to lead me away from the real substance of my review, an easy thing to happen with this writer). Chapter Ten deals with reforms to the Church and education. As an aside [again] Charlemagne instituted a re-write of the Bible, out of which came a version by Theodulf of Orleans and another by Alcuin. Scholars today value Theodulf’s version for its comprehensiveness, but Alcuin’s publicity machine carried his version into common use. There were reforms in book production and libraries, as well as defending the faith against superstition (since most of the population could not distinguish superstition from the true faith, this was a major undertaking).

Chapter Eleven describes the Frankish military machine and could be read together with the earlier chapters on waging war. It is a comprehensive chapter dealing with recruitment, the treatment of shirkers, the formation and use of cavalry, and even the place of clergy in the ranks.

Chapter Twelve is a huge chapter containing a mass of material that requires a review on its own. It is called A New Economy and its subheadings will reveal its content in general terms. It covers the myth of a closed economy, the manorial estate, the exchange economy, the king’s policies (on such matters as weights and measures, the currency, and food rationing) and finally, a case study of a village at the time of Charlemagne). Chapter Twelve is an important chapter that is immensely readable.

Chapter Thirteen deals with patronage and servitude – the role of the nobles, landowners and peasantry. The situation of slaves and especially the fate of freed slaves. Charlemagne had no interest in slaves whether freed or not. His blunt remark “there are only free men and slaves” (330) demonstrates that the subjection of the peasant multitude was not a political problem. Finally, Chapter Fourteen is entitled Old Age and Death. It is as interesting as the earlier chapters with Barbero’s interpretations of Charlemagne’s actions as the old man neared death. The incursions of the Danes on Frankish territories, of the Viking raids to the North and Arabs to the south. Yet through it all, the powerful figure of Charlemagne looms over all.

What an engaging, enjoyable and challenging book this is. It would be foolish indeed to overlook it.

Charlemagne: Father of a Continent


By Alessandro Barbero (trans. Allan Cameron)

UCLA Press

ISBN: 978-0-520-29721-0

$US25.00; 440pp      (paperback)


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