Primary Source

Excerpts from the Vita Karoli Magni


Let us investigate the work of Charlemagne’s courtier Einhard, the Vita Karoli Magni, or Life of Charles the Great, which was composed during the reign of Louis the Pious, probably during the long decade from around 817-830. Einhard owed his position at court to Charlemagne, and he continued to serve Charles’s son and successor, Louis the Pious, after Charlemagne’s death. Einhard also credits Charlemagne with serving as a parental figure to him, to the extent that Einhard believes himself eternally in Charlemagne’s debt. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that Einhard’s work is court history, one which paints a highly favorable picture of Charlemagne. Heavy positive bias notwithstanding, the information he provides is extremely valuable and highly personal, a first-hand glimpse into the life of the emperor, at least the version of him that Einhard wanted to preserve for posterity. Moreover, Einhard does not attempt to hide his bias toward the king at all. Indeed, he gives it openly as part of his reason for writing, the main impetus for which was that “I judged it better to hand over these things, with other things, to the memory of posterity, as if mandated communally by letters, than to suffer that the most illustrious life of the most excellent king and greatest of all men of his age, and most distinguished and scarcely to be imitated deeds by any men of modern times to be banished to the darkness.” With this statement, Einhard also reveals himself to be acutely aware of the interplay between history and memory, and his version of Charlemagne’s life speaks to those issues. The excerpt here derives from Einhard’s own introduction to his work. Herein, he carefully acknowledges his substantial debts to and admiration for the emperor Charles, and he explains why he thought himself particularly well suited to record an account of Charlemagne’s life. This source is a part of the The Legacy of Charlemagne through the Ages teaching module.


Einhard’s Introduction

After my mind decided to write the life and manner, and not a few deeds of my lord and parent Charles, that most excellent and deservedly famous king, I was able to discover so much in a short time relevant to the work, in order that I might omit nothing concerning those things which were able to arrive at my notice, nor offend the minds of the particular folks, neither by the length nor newness of my narration, if this is able to be avoided in any way, that those men who scorn the compiled monuments by the ancient, most learned, and most eloquent men, might not be offended by new writing. And although I may not doubt there to be many, who in their leisure are devoted to letters, who decide on the stance that the present age ought thus to be disregarded, as all things that occur within the present ought to be given over to oblivion in silence, as if worthy of no memory. And there are those unlearned ones who, for love of eternity, would prefer to insert the famous deeds of others into whatever writing, than to carry off from the memory of posterity the fame of their own name by writing nothing. Still, I did not esteem being put off by writings of this type, because I knew for myself that no man is able to write these things more truly than me, at which things I myself was present, and which, present to the eye, as they say, I knew in truth, and which, whether or not they were written by others, I would
be able to know clearer. And I judged it better to hand over these things, with other things, to the memory of posterity, as if mandated communally by letters, than to suffer that the most illustrious life of the most excellent king and greatest of all men of his age, and deeds most distinguished and scarcely to be imitated by any men of modern times, to be banished to the darkness. This cause is at hand, as well as other reasonable things, as I imagine, which even alone ought to suffice, that it should compel me to this writing: namely, the immoderate and perpetual nourishment he put into me, after I began to live in his palace, with the friendship of him and his children. This obliged me to him and established me as a debtor, as much as life as in death, such that I would been seen and judged ungrateful, if I were heedless of so many collected benefits to myself, and if I passed over in silence the deeds of merit towards me from the best, most famous, and most illustrious of men, or to abide, as if he never had lived, that he be without letters or deserved praise. No indeed, it is not my capacity for this writing, which is thin and small, nothing that would exert Tullius’s eloquence. Behold! For you: a book containing the memorial of the most famous and greatest of men, in which, besides the deeds of that man, there is nothing which you ought to admire, except perhaps, that a barbarian man, very little trained in the Roman tongue, believed himself to be able to write somewhat decently and agreeably in Latin

How to Cite This Source

"Excerpts from the Vita Karoli Magni," in World History Commons, [accessed January 29, 2023]