Becoming Charlemagne

I am a terrible person, you know. Jeff Sypeck sent me a copy of his book some time in 2008, in return for a donation to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. I was happy to do so, because I am pretty fond of disabled people getting better care, and also because it meant that I received a copy of an excellent book about one of my favourite medieval figures. At the time, I promised that I would review the book. It took me over a year to get around to it, and this is a repost of that review.

Becoming Charlemagne (2006) narrates in vivid detail the events that led a Germanic barbarian king to become Charlemagne, a name now associated with the idea of a greater Europe, the Holy Roman Empire -a term Karl would have never heard- and tainted by Hitlerian pseudo-history. It is not a complete biography of the man, and I think Sypeck did the right thing by focusing on the handful of years surrounding the coronation and constructing an image of the era in as much detail as possible.

The book is split in two parts; the first half details the setting, the empires and peoples of the late 8thC. There is one chapter on each of Aachen, Byzantium, Alcuin,1 Baghdad, and European Jews. The second draws together narrative threads from the first to construct the events which help define the next millenium or so of European history. The first half of Becoming Charlemagne is the most fascinating to me- I have studied Charlemagne before, and the details of his accession to imperator do not intrigue me nearly as much as the Sypeck’s portrayal of the powers of the time. Your mileage may vary.

As a general rule, this is most unusual for me. The kind of history I prefer to read is the dry, dull stuff so derided by generations of bored schoolchildren. I like political history, the careful analysis of sources, and king-names (even if I can never remember them). Then again, I enjoy etymology.2 Sypeck doesn’t write this kind of history, although his love affair with the oft-ambiguous source is clear in his notes and his attention to detail.

What Sypeck writes is more narrative, more flavoured with real people, real consequences, real emotions. He describes the medieval world in taste and scent as much as in political movement. One can imagine the riotous marketplaces of Baghdad, the mud-splattered contempt of Greek emissaries to the pathetic German capital of Aachen, the exhaustion of Isaac as he leads the elephant Abul Abaz across the entire world.3 The court of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid is described in terms which make me wish a West Wing-style television drama would be set therein:

When duty called [Harun] rode into battle or made the pilgrimage to Mecca; otherwise, he quietly enjoyed his world of earthly delights. He delighted in the company of his pious and wealthy cousin Zubayda, who was also his favourite wife and the mother of his heir apparent. His friends all came to him, among them the physician Jubrail bin Bakhtishu, who dined with him nightly, and Ibn Abi Maryam al-Madani, a storyteller and legal expert who lazed around the palace and haunted the harem.

These kind of details brings a level of detail to the political and social changes rippling across Europe a clarity and a narrative power exactly as required in popular history. Sypeck does an excellent job.

He is careful not to get carried away and ascribe as historical fact things which his imagination has conjured, but sometimes these things are some potent images. The events leading to King Karl becoming Karolus serenissimus Augustus are exciting and bloody, and would make for wealth-making film. After the famous botched blinding attack on Pope Leo, the pontiff escapes over a wall, perhaps lowered by his chamberlain. Sypeck speculates about details which medieval chroniclers would never give us:4

Albinus the chamberlain sneaking along a cloister in the dark or bribing a guard to look the other way; the pope, accustomed to fine robes and flattery, being lowered over the wall like a latrine bucket; and the furious Paschalius and Campulus [the conspirators] berating their flunkies at daybreak while wondering, with growing desperation, what in God’s name they were going to do next.

Screw the latest cartoon series from the 80s, Hollywood. Write me a movie about that.

[An aside: I have long bemoaned the loss of the Frankish epics and grammars to history, despite Charlemagne’s attempt to preserve them. Yet who could not grin at Sypeck’s note that “the monks who collected the old pagan songs probably had to extract them from weird old coots”?]

If I must, as I always do, bring up a note of discord in Becoming Charlemagne, it is this: there is so little about the women. Women are near-invisible in much medieval history, and Sypeck is hardly to be blamed for that. Indeed, if only because of Empress Irene of Byzantium, he includes more than some writers of medieval history do. Yet aside from noting that Karl loved his daughters, and turned a blind eye to their affairs, there is little about the women in this world. Is this caused by lack of evidence? Probably.

Yet when speaking of Irene, the impressively fierce empress who blinded her own son to ensure her rise to power, Sypeck falls back on stereotypically gendered language. This is irksome. She is described as ‘brooding’ over her fragile reign with ‘motherly zeal’. Seriously? Motherly zeal? This woman had her own son blinded. ‘Motherly’, whatever that means, is the absolute last word I would use to describe her. When describing the moment of her son’s butchering, he wonders if she prayed for a moment for Heaven to help for the way she is.

I find it difficult to believe that he would write such words into the mouth of any fierce, male usurper. Why write them into the mouth of a fierce, female usurper? Irene is one of the powerful women of the whole period, and she would surely not brook such disrespect.

On the subjects of Becoming Charlemagne, on the rise of Karl to become Charlemagne, on the intricate and fragile international state of Aachen-Rome-Constantinople-Baghdad, and on the eventual collapse of the empire, Sypeck writes with careful attention to detail and -to mix metaphors- paints an intricate picture of medieval Europe as the western half of the continent changes into something new.

I recommend Becoming Charlemagne as an good, solid starting point. It is a good book to start reading about Charlemagne, and his time, and the middle years of the early middle ages. It is a good book to get some personal details about peoples and lands. High schoolers and undergraduates in history who don’t know very much will alike find it a good place to start on the ninth century- as will anyone who gets their learnin’ about the middle ages from the movies.

Jeff Sypeck blogs about matters medieval, gargoyles grotesque, and applied paleobromatology over at Quid Plura?, one of the more consistently interesting blogs in the medieval blagocube.


1: He is just as fascinating as any city or Empire, so I was pleased that he got a whole chapter almost to himself. Go Alcuin!
2: I’m really exciting at parties.
3: Someone should novelise that particular journey. I would buy it.
4: Icelandic saga writers, on the other hand, would have. This may be the crucial point about the difference between the historical sagas and ‘history’.