Charlemagne, king of the Franks*, was the greatest ruler in Europe in the centuries following the fall of the Roman empire. In a long reign that lasted from A . D . 768 to 814, he conquered most of western Europe and converted many of its pagan peoples to Christianity. In 800 he became the "Emperor of the Romans." Under Charlemagne's rule, Europe experienced a great revival in learning and the arts, which had declined dramatically after the collapse of Rome. The legends that grew up around Charlemagne focus on his military and political skills and on his moral conduct.
Life and Achievements
Born in about 742, Charlemagne was the son of King Pepin III (known as Pepin the Short). Pepin and his brother together ruled the Franks, whose kingdom included parts of present-day France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Upon Pepin's death in 768, Charlemagne and his brother Carloman inherited the kingdom. When Carloman died three years later, Charlemagne became the sole ruler.
Charlemagne the King. Soon after Carloman's death, Charlemagne defeated the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy and made himself king of the Lombards. He then turned his attention to the Saxons, a group of pagan tribes in central Germany. By 777 he had defeated the Saxons in several battles and converted large numbers of them to Christianity. In that same year, some Arabs from Spain asked Charlemagne to help them overthrow the Muslim ruler of Córdoba in southern Spain. Charlemagne marched against Spain in 778 but failed to defeat the Muslims. During the retreat to France, a group of mountain people known as the Basques ambushed and destroyed part of Charlemagne's army. A famous epic about Charlemagne called the Song of Roland commemorated this event.
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Despite this setback from the Basques, Charlemagne greatly expanded his kingdom during the first ten years of his reign. Just as importantly, he brought together the most learned men in the kingdom
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
with the goal of making his court the intellectual center of Europe. He established an extensive library and founded an academy for educating young Frankish knights. He promoted religion and morality and made strong efforts to produce an educated clergy. He also established a system of justice in which nobles and clergymen traveled about the kingdom hearing court cases and bringing the law to every town and village. These cultural, religious, and legal reforms are often called the Carolingian renaissance (after Charlemagne's Latin name, Carolus Magnus).
Other entries related to Charlemagne are listed at the end of this article.
Charlemagne the Emperor. In the early 780s, the Saxons rose up again. Charlemagne waged a bitter war against them, executing thousands of people. It was not until 804 that he fully defeated the Saxons and made them part of his empire. During this time, he formed close ties with Pope Leo III to ensure that the church supported his rule. In 800, while Charlemagne was visiting Rome, the pope surprised him at Christmas mass by proclaiming him emperor of Rome. This announcement was not well received by the empress of the Byzantine empire, who considered herself the only legitimate ruler of what remained of the old Roman empire. However, by 812 the new Byzantine ruler recognized Charlemagne as emperor, and from that point on, Charlemagne and his successors were given the title Holy Roman Emperor. When Charlemagne died two years later, his son Louis took over as emperor but was unable to hold the empire together.
Charlemagne left behind an impressive assortment of political, military, and social achievements. He united many different peoples into a single kingdom and led the spread of Christianity after the fall of Rome. His educational reforms laid the foundations for the educated clergy that preserved learning in Europe during the Middle Ages. Charlemagne's accomplishments were so great that many legends grew up around him to celebrate his power, wisdom, and devotion to Christianity.
The most popular legends about Charlemagne fall into two general categories. Battle stories tell of his military exploits and celebrate the adventures of his 12 most loyal warriors, called paladins. Morality stories focus on his moral strength and devotion to Christian principles. Many of the legends first appeared in a work called History of Charles the Great and Orlando (Orlando, or Roland, was Charlemagne's nephew). Some sources say the archbishop of Rheims, a friend of Charlemagne, was its author It is more likely, however, that the tales were written by a monk who used the archbishop's name to lend authority to the work.
A collection of French epics called the Chansons de Geste (Songs of Deeds) brings together the main Charlemagne legends and characters. Dating from the 1100s to 1400s, these poems generally blend history and fiction.
Battle Legends. The most famous of the battle legends about Charlemagne and his followers appears in the epic Song of Roland. The tale concerns Charlemagne's defeat while retreating from Spain in 778. The rear guard of his army had fallen behind and was ambushed and wiped out. According to the Song of Roland, a paladin named Ganelon caused the defeat because he was jealous of Roland, the bravest and most loyal warrior.
To get Roland out of the way, Ganelon revealed to the Muslim enemy the route the army would take. He also arranged that Roland and his troops would become separated from the main army. The Muslims waited for Roland, ambushed him, and killed him and all of his men. In reality, the ambush was carried out by Basques, not Muslims, and there was no evidence of any betrayal by Ganelon. However, in the Middle Ages, the legend became a symbol of the bravery of Christian warriors and the treachery of Muslims.
Chansons de Geste
The Chansons de Geste consist of more than 80 epic poems. Most tell of events during the reign of Charlemagne, and many concern the struggle between Christian France and the Muslim enemy. The earlier chansons celebrate strength and heroism and focus on battles and feuds. Later chansons are concerned mor e wit h romance and love. The chansons were popular throughout Europe and strongly influenced the literature of other countries.
Another legend says that St. James the Greater appeared to Charlemagne in a vision and told him to free Spain from the Muslims. Acting on the vision, Charlemagne led an army to Spain and attacked the city of Pamplona. His attack continued for two months
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
but did not succeed. Finally, Charlemagne prayed for God's help, and the walls of Pamplona miraculously collapsed, allowing him to capture the city. He spared the Muslims who agreed to convert to Christianity but killed those who refused. This story is clearly based on the biblical story of the fall of the walls of Jericho.
Morality Legends. One well-known legend concerns the practice of knights taking the property of others. In the story, an angel woke Charlemagne and told him to steal something. Charlemagne set out and met a strange knight who challenged him to combat. The king won, knocking the knight from his horse. The knight turned out to be a notorious thief named Elbegast. Charlemagne agreed to let him go free if he would help the king steal something. Together, they went to the castle of one of Charlemagne's advisers and hid in the bedroom. While there, they overheard the adviser telling his wife of a plan to murder Charlemagne the next day. After the couple went to sleep, Charlemagne and Elbegast took a worthless item and returned to the king's castle. The next day, Charlemagne exposed the plot but agreed to pardon the plotters if they swore loyalty to him. Elbegast was so impressed with Charlemagne's compassion and wisdom that he gave up his life of crime and entered the king's service. This story is often cited in other legends in which knights accused of unjustly taking others' property remind the king that he, too, was once a thief.