Book Report: The Life of Charlemagne by Einhard (1960, 1972)

This is what happens on the last day of a book fair. It’s a couple dollars for a bag, so suddenly, you’re not justifying the purchase of a book, you’re looking for an excuse. So when I’d put down $3 at the Webster Groves Book Fair this year, I had only to acknowledge that I didn’t actually have a biography of Charlemagne. Suddenly, I had one on my to-read shelf.

Fortunately, this is a brief book. At seventy some pages, it took me a little under an hour to read. Written by a contemporary of Charlemagne who was in the court of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, this book doesn’t interpret the Frank leader in some sort of modernistic mechanism. Einhard didn’t come to bury Charlemagne, Einhard came to praise him. The author, a member of the ninth century court, praises Charles the Great for his marital exploits, but also for his love of learning and his role in the Carolingian Renaissance. Although he couldn’t write, Charles I liked to read and to hear readings and encourage scholarship throughout his expanding realm.

Although I’ve read my Cantor a decade ago, it’s good to touch base with some medieval history–even if it’s French. So if I’m asked whom the line of kings Charlemagne replaced (the Merovignian, like that dude from The Matrix) or who succeeded him (his son Louis, the Pious), I’m set. I’d better hie to a Trivia Night hence.

However, before I go, I’d like to note, briefly, some of the things which struck me as I read this book:

  • Man, the “great” leaders from history ruled a long time, ainna? Charlemagne ruled for 45 years in a time where that exceeded the life expectancy by a factor of 2. He was ruling his original subjects’ grandchildren. Think of Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower as our president.
  • Charlemagne carried on a war, hot and cold, against the Saxons for 33 years. Obviously, he didn’t have a mainstream media complaining the whole way.
  • Man, these old-style books are short. I mean, this weighs in at under 75 pages, The Prince weighs in at under 100…. The unfortunate rising tide of science and the standard of living has propelled modern books into the 300-400 page range and beyond, which slows down a “scholar” like me who reads any old thing I can stuff in a bag at a book fair.
  • Sometimes, footnotes are less than worthless. In the edition I have, I started following the endnotes (which meant I was flipping back and forth, not only looking down), but many of the notes were only the names of other Frank rulers I should know if I were using this as a primary source in a college class or a reference to another freaking end note (see 93). I mean, unless you’re going to shed some light outside the translator’s/editor’s particular section of a college class, why bother?

Hey, all silliness aside, I’d recommend this book if you can grab it cheaply. If you click the link below, you’ll find a number of options, including the latest version available as a college textbook. This was the sort of textbook I loved in school: something I could borrow from the library and Xerox cheaply. Still, gentle reader, please take a moment to look for this book or similar material for low prices on eBay, Amazon, or your local book fair or garage sale. They give one such perspective into human history and the modern day.

Books mentioned in this review:

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