Today marks 1200 years since the death of the great early medieval king and emperor, Charlemagne. Even with all the fuss about the First World War, the date hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Aachen, the German town most closely associated with Charlemagne, has arranged an set of exhibitions, there’ll be a scholarly conference in Paris, while in Liège, a talk will address the crucial question of whether Charlemagne was Liégeois. Those reluctant to cross the Channel could choose between events in Edinburgh and London (the latter even boasting early medieval music).
All this is relatively low-key, however, compared to the attention that used to be lavished on Charlemagne. In post-war Europe, Charlemagne was an absolutely pivotal historical figure, ideal as a means of overcoming Franco-German mutual suspicion. After all, did not a contemporary poet praise him as pater Europae, the ‘father of Europe’? In 1950, the ‘Charlemagne prize’ was instituted to recognise those who contributed to European integration (the Karlspreis is still awarded annually). In 1965, a massive Charlemagne exhibition was put together in Aachen. Even as recently as 1999, major exhibitions took place in Paderborn, Barcelona, Brescia and Split (and a small one in York, too).
The European Union and its precursors were directly involved in funding these exhibitions, in precisely the kind of sponsorship that the British media decries as politically motivated (as opposed to national sponsorship of history, of course, which is only right and proper). These days, though, the European Union is moving away from pre-contemporary history, and recently announced that it would no longer fund grand historical exhibitions. It’s no coincidence that the museum of European history in Brussels, whose opening is so eagerly anticipated by the Daily Mail, will apparently begin with 1945.
This foreshortening of historical perspective, conflating the history of the European Union with the history of Europe, is short-sighted in every sense. Charlemagne’s utility for the European political project may have depreciated, but his significance in European history remains undiminished: relevance, after all, is not quite the same thing as importance. His conquest of Saxony and Bavaria brought Germanic-speaking areas into cultural proximity to the Romance-speaking areas of modern-day France; his conquest of northern Italy, above all, was part of a fundamental political, cultural and economic re-orientiation away from the old Mediterranean structure that characterised the old Roman world towards a configuration based on a north-south axis, linking the western Mediterranean to the North Sea.
So while it’s true that the ‘Father of Europe’ tag has been over-used – it was after all just a throwaway line in its original 799 context – its resonance is not entirely artificial. It’s worth sparing Charlemagne a thought today. And that’s true even in England, where Charlemania has always been a little less intense. Admittedly, the English kingdoms of the time were not part of Charlemagne’s territories (something which only enhanced his appeal for Charles de Gaulle), and there is no English equivalent to the Napoléon who declared in 1804 ‘Je suis Charlemagne’. Yet in point of fact, Englishmen were absolutely integral to Charlemagne’s empire. A man from Devon helped lay the foundations for Charlemagne’s rule with his preaching (Boniface), and a man from Yorkshire helped Charlemagne co-ordinate his cultural politics (Alcuin).
Today, then, is a good day to remember Charlemagne: and in so doing to remember that English participation in European history, for better or for worse, goes back a very long way.
Further reading: an excellent article by Marie-Céline Isaïa, discussing the modern political use of the Carolingian empire, is available here (Word doc., French).
Charles West lectures on Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. His book, Reframing the Feudal Revolution. Social and political transformation between Marne and Moselle, c.800-1100, is out now with Cambridge University Press. You can read Charles’ other History Matters blogs here and find him on twitter @pseudo_isidore.