Monthly Archives: December 2014

Charlemagne and me

The builders have gone, so have the decorators and the Christmas guests are not yet knocking at the door. Time for a swift blog entry.
In between making tea and making soothing noises, I have been reading Steffen Patzold’s ‘Ich und Karl der Grosse’, subtitled as ‘The Life of Einhard the Courtier.’ I acquired this after a visit to the Charlemagne exhibitions in Aachen earlier this year, having always been interested in the eminences behind the throne rather than the guy sitting on it. Einhard was Charlemagne’s biographer, educated yet not a cleric, accustomed to being at the seat of power, yet not from a noble family. He outlived Charlemagne, was one of the few courtiers to remain in post under his son, Louis the Pious, and even managed to tiptoe his way around all the political factions which bedevilled the latter’s reign, to die at the ripe old age of 60+ of natural causes and be interred next to his wife in the tomb he had prepared for them both and for which he had ensured a religious setting which would enable them both to be ready for the hereafter. A sort of Vicar of Bray for the early middle ages.
The book is an irresistible blend of scholarship – plenty of footnotes – and creativity. Patzold himself feels it necessary to justify this. His epilogue starts with a number of ‘Am I allowed to?’ questions. Is he allowed, basically, to use his 21st century brain to fill in the gaps left in the records and present Einhard as a real person? The Einhard he presents is, he admits, merely a creation of his own, for ‘Imagination is required if I want to set out the fragments that remain in relation to each other and fill in the gaps between them’. That said, he does very carefully distinguish between imagination and record, at the same time acknowledging that the records themselves may be just as much a work of imagination as his own 21st century contributions.
This adds an extra dimension to the narrative. It is much more than the time worn biographical tactic of filling in little known periods of the subject’s life with generalisations culled from records of her contemporaries. The extra dimension is a perfectly controlled sense of irony and a deliberate fusion of what we presume to be ‘us’ or ‘now’ and what we presume to be ‘them’ and ‘then’. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the account of the translation of the saints Marcellinus and Petrus. The major source for this is Einhard himself. Most will agree that this work is based on a true story but concede that a lot of the detail was in essence a political tactic, the power of which was obvious to ‘them’ but not to ‘us’. In Patzold’s account, it reads like something from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: ideas shared over dinner lead to a trip to Rome with clandestine adventures in the catacombs of Rome and feats of clever diplomacy to ensure the support of the monks and the Emperor. The whole is rounded off by a mysterious visit from Louis the Pious to the shrine many years later. In other words, exactly the kind of fictional reality we are accustomed to accept, which thus connects ‘us’ to fictional reality which was usual ‘then’.
Scholars will differ as to whether this is legitimate history writing. But I think it does make a much neglected period of history come alive for those for whom the early medieval period is not their bread and butter. At least it will for German speaking readers. Anyone up for translating it for the rest?

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