Short Teaching Module: The Legacy of Charlemagne through the Ages

Christopher Flynn
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Teaching about the interplay of history and memory is fascinating. This is particularly true in an age when students are so highly attuned to source bias through news, life experience, online and social media interactions, and of course, learning about such issues in school. It can be deeply revealing for students, taught to be ever-vigilant and critical, to learn the nuance of how to learn and read sources that, like anything else in the world, are rife with bias. The way that each successive generation and age writes, remembers, and learns history naturally changes according to contemporary circumstances, as well as the lives and values of the authors themselves, which remains as true today as it did thousands of years ago. Here I present excerpts from three sources relating to the memory of Charlemagne (r. 768-814), the most revered of Carolingian monarchs. They are a useful lens through which to view issues of history and memory, and certainly, Charlemagne was a man whose influence bears much remembering.


The formidable figure of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, who was famously crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day of the year 800, left quite the lasting legacy upon European history. Known as Karolus Magnus—Charles the Great—even during and immediately after his own lifetime, it was clear to his Carolingian contemporaries and to posterity that this was a man worthy of emulation, one whose great deeds and military fortitude made him the terror of his enemies and the envy of European monarchs and military commanders for centuries. Charlemagne’s legacy and memory called upon the idea of translatio imperii, the translation of empire, to facilitate the transmission of Roman imperial power through the medieval period and well into the modern one. Even Napoleon Bonaparte deliberately cultivated this legacy of Charlemagne’s greatness to mold himself in the image of the medieval monarch when proclaiming himself the emperor of nineteenth-century France. This had multilayered significance: bound up in Charlemagne were ideas of Frankish proto-Frenchness, Roman imperial power, military might, and European unity achieved largely through conquest.

The study of the progression of Charlemagne’s legacy through time can be illuminating and fruitful. As might be expected, the further we get from contemporary source material, the more fantastic and imaginative Charlemagne’s prowess and great deeds become. Herein, we shall have a look at excerpts from three different primary sources, to watch the progression of Charlemagne’s memory through the centuries: from the great man and military commander himself as known to his contemporaries, to the veritable mythological giant that he would become in the minds of men a few centuries after his death.

I often use the three sources presented below in conjunction with one another as a platform for students to investigate the legacy of Charlemagne through the ages. Throughout my world history courses, we investigate the inherent bias of sources and authors, and we discuss the ways in which that bias affects how we as modern history scholars utilize that source material. To that end, I introduce students to these particular sources during units on early medieval and Carolingian history. Have the students do some basic research on the authors through encyclopedic sources, in order to discuss basic issues of historical criticism: who was the author? When did they write? What was their purpose for writing? What sort of work did they intend to produce? Who was the intended audience?

With this basic information ascertained, I ask students to delve into the image of Charlemagne that each source presents. Given who the author was, the purpose of the composition, and the intended audience, why do the authors present the portrait of Charlemagne that they do? Most profoundly, how does each individual author’s portrayal contribute to their contemporary age’s memory of Charles the Great, and why is that particular image of the king profound and important in the context of the author’s reason for writing?

Primary Sources

Excerpts from the Vita Karoli Magni

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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.

Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great

Later in the 9th century, Notker “the Stammerer” of St.-Gall wrote his Gesta Karoli Magni Imperatoris (Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great). He dedicated the work to Charlemagne’s great-grandson Charles the Fat (r. 876-888), a son of Louis the German, and indeed, Notker intended the work, at least in part, to serve as an exempla for Charles the Fat on the proper way to rule a kingdom. Notker’s Gesta is full of topics that are tangentially related to Charlemagne, revealing the author’s profound interest in bishops, corrupt clergy, the singing of mass and prayers, and divine justice. As such, Notker’s work is no cohesive biographical sketch; rather, it is full of anecdotes and isolated episodes, often involving the emperor’s interaction with bishops and clerics. When Notker recalls, for Charles the Fat’s benefit, stories about Charlemagne’s conquests, his narrative is consistent in several regards. First, Charlemagne embodies military prowess and good generalship. Notker consistently calls him things like victoriosissimus, invictus, invincibilus—most victorious, unconquered, invincible. Second, “unconquered” Charles’s victories are wrought by bringing massive armies to bear against his enemies, so large that the enemy cannot profitably resist Charles’s host (what we might these days call the doctrine of overwhelming force). Here, Notker hits the mark. This was one of the preferred Carolingian methods of winning victories, one which decided conflicts without pitched battles and unnecessary loss of troops. This was particularly the case regarding sieges: direct assaults on fortified positions, even successful ones, resulted in large numbers of casualties for the attacking force, which obviously could be avoided if the enemy simply surrendered in the face of a force so large as to render the prospect of defense hopeless. Even if we accept that this was a useful Carolingian strategy, however, it seems clear that Notker has rather exaggerated the invincibility of Charles’s armies. Certainly, there were exceptions to this perceived military dominance, such as the famous Pyrenean slaughter of Charlemagne’s baggage train immortalized in the Song of Roland and the necessity for nearly three decades of Saxon campaigns to bring Saxony successfully to heel. The following excerpt concerns Charlemagne’s wars against King Desiderius and his Lombard kingdom early in Charlemagne’s reign. Here we can clearly see the image of Charlemagne’s army that Notker wishes to convey, a force of unimaginable size and power that strikes terror into the hearts of its enemies, even of rival kings like Desiderius. This source is a part of the The Legacy of Charlemagne through the Ages teaching module.

Speculum Historiale by Vincent of Beauvais

Earlier accounts of Charlemagne’s life, rife with positive bias though many may be, pale in comparison to the heavily legendary account present in the thirteenth century’s memory of Charlemagne. By the time that the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais wrote his Speculum Historiale (Historical Mirror), the figure of Charlemagne had become infused with the stuff of legend and myth. Vincent was not an original author but a compiler of other texts, and Speculum Historiale was but one part of the massive work Speculum Maius (Greater Mirror). As such, Vincent applies no real historical criticism, but incorporates parts of other works into his text unchanged, a relatively common medieval practice. This makes the encyclopedic source particularly interesting, as Speculum Maius received huge readership and thus spread this composite image of Charlemagne widely, playing a large role in dictating the thirteenth century and later reception of his memory and legacy. Vincent’s Charlemagne is a legitimate giant, a man who could lift a fully armored knight in his hand, eat a dozen or so pounds of meat in one sitting, and led armies to the Holy Land on Crusade—fully three hundred years before Urban II’s famous call to the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095. This, of course, was entirely fanciful, though one can find the kernels of inspiration for the stories in Charlemagne’s own life. He certainly was a large man for his time, standing over six feet tall and with a hefty build, owing to his deep fondness for roasted meats, according to Einhard. He had some diplomatic contact with the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate at Baghdad, though certainly not remotely crusade-like or even military in nature. It was from Caliph Harun al-Rashid that Charlemagne received the embassy that brought the immensely popular elephant Abul-Abbas to Aachen. In this selection from Speculum Historiale, Vincent, excerpting from the Chronicon, another thirteenth-century work by the Cistercian Helinand of Froidmont, Vincent tells of Charlemagne’s purported—though entirely ahistorical—journey to the Holy Land. It is full of the trappings of romantic myth: a great journey at the head of an army, getting lost in the forest, and relying upon the intervention of birds to find the correct path out of the wood. Vincent addresses the military encounter that never happened in one quick phrase: “with the pagans put to flight and the land regained…” Apparently, the encounter itself must have been a foregone conclusion once Charles had brought his armies to bear upon the enemy! This source is a part of the The Legacy of Charlemagne through the Ages teaching module.


Christopher Flynn earned his PhD in history from the University of Minnesota in 2020. He specializes in Carolingian, early medieval, and late antique military history. He currently teaches European and World History courses at Minnesota State University - Mankato and Normandale Community College.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: The Legacy of Charlemagne through the Ages," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-legacy-charlemagne-through-ages [accessed December 6, 2021]