Charles the Great looms out of the swirling obscurity of post-Roman Europe like the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, signaling simultaneously radical renewal and an alteration of everything that came before. As Janet Nelson illuminates in her new book, it is impossible to imagine the West without Charlemagne as figurative and literal progenitor.
The King of the Franks and the Lombards was physically imposing and long-lived, garnering greatness through both circumstance and character. His grandfather Charles Martel, nicknamed “The Hammer” for his prowess in battle, had been duke under Merovingian monarchs, but after almost three centuries they had become poor and decadent “do-nothing kings,” reduced to traversing their fraying domain in a peasant’s oxcart.
By 717, The Hammer was de facto monarch, a status reinforced by his epochal 732 victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours. In 751, his son, Pepin The Short (amusingly betrothed to “Bertha Broadfoot”) dispensed with the fiction and consigned poor King Childeric III “The Stupid” and his son to monkhood. He expelled the Moors from France, added Aquitaine to his kingdom, and on his death in 768 left two of his sons, Charles and Carloman, a jointly-held realm extending from Brittany to Regensburg and Frisia to the Pyrenees. Carloman died in 771, probably averting civil war.
From childhood, Charles was involved...