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Searching for the man behind the legend of Charlemagne

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The tale of Charles I, more commonly known as Charlemagne, has been recounted by historians for centuries. Between 768 and 814, he ruled as king of the Franks, king of the Lombards and, most impressively, Holy Roman emperor. An enlightened reformer with a warrior-like ferocity, he united most of Western Europe and spearheaded the Carolingian Renaissance that enhanced arts and culture in medieval society.

It’s an incredible and almost unbelievable story. That’s why some historians now wonder if it really happened or if it’s a tall tale that would make Baron Munchausen laugh with sheer delight.

Janet L. Nelson, a professor emerita of medieval history at King’s College in London, is determined to resolve this issue in her intriguing new book, “King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne.” With a small tip of the detective cap to Sherlock Holmes, she gathers the pertinent details (and there are many) in an attempt to unravel the mystery of who this king, emperor and man really was.

Nelson acknowledges that she’s sometimes “approached Charles from unfamiliar angles which can be unexpectedly illuminating.” She avoids the assumption that he perfectly fits within Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory and resists using Charlemagne’s moniker of “father” or “lighthouse” of Europe. Her book includes “an acceptance” that Charlemagne “colluded in the construction of his own story, thus making his biography in part an illusion.” She references German historian Johannes Fried, who has suggested that a biography “in the modern sense is impossible” because “not a single record of Charles’s words, or those of any of his five bed partners, or any of his children, has survived.”

If that’s true, his first biography, “Life of Charles,” published between 817 and 833 and written in Latin by a contemporary named Einhard, may not be the definitive volume of Charlemagne’s life we’ve been led to believe. Nelson’s “King and Emperor” could then serve an important modern role as an intellectual warehouse of ideas for his history — and leave existing historical interpretations open to debate.

Charlemagne was the eldest son of Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. He was a complex man who craved power, influence, love, lust and the thrill of victory. Each stage of his life represented a personal battle for supremacy — and his thunderous reign, be it real or imaginary, helped reshape the way Europeans think about king and country.

For instance, he treasured the “closeness to his father,” Nelson writes, and his “moves carefully replicated his father’s.” He was determined to regain control of Aquitaine, which Pippin had divided between his two sons. Carloman, his brother, rival and co-ruler, participated initially in this battle but abruptly left and returned home. This probably frustrated the more warrior-like Charlemagne, who decided to “shove his brother out of the frame,” Nelson writes. Tensions continued until Carloman’s unexpected death in 771, which occurred before the two siblings engaged in a potentially brutal family war.

Charlemagne was a fierce fighter, as evidenced in his battles in Aquitaine, Bavaria and Saxony. He laid to waste multitudes of people and property, and destroyed entire generations. But he was also a savvy and strategic warrior-king who realized what he needed to do to keep power — and gain more.

That’s what happened when he went to Italy to purchase custody of his two nephews being held in Pavia. He was briefly sidetracked after receiving permission from Hadrian to enter Rome, but he didn’t stay long. Why? He realized that he needed to “rage and storm against all the Lombards in Pavia,” with the aid of the “Almighty’s power, mediated through Peter’s intercession,” according to Einhard and the testimony of the Carolingian courtier known as Cathwulf. The Franks ultimately defeated the Lombards “without bloodshed,” and Charlemagne became their king in 774.

His imperial coronation by Pope Leo III in 800 turned Charlemagne’s life from a story into folklore. The decision to crown him as Holy Roman emperor and bypass Eirene of Constantinople’s claim would seem controversial today. Yet as Nelson writes, “Contemporaries in East and West were willing to agree: feminine rule was a contradiction in terms.” The man who “already ruled an empire” had suddenly taken the mantle worn by the great Caesars.

Meanwhile, he had an “active sex-life” with servants, Nelson writes, which was “exceptional enough to be remembered in a horrified monk’s nightmare years after his death.” (Although the monk’s vision isn’t discussed in the book, one can only imagine the raunchiness that would unnerve a pious man.) This apparently didn’t prevent Charlemagne from acquiring “manifested concern and affection” for two of his wives, which continued after their deaths. Hildegard, his second wife, came from a noble family and filled the role as “spouse and child-bearer,” while his new father-in-law, Gerold, “was the obvious great man to fill Carloman’s place.” Fastrada, who married him after Hildegard’s death in 783, had “family connections in the Rhineland,” which was helpful to Charlemagne’s ambitions. According to Fried, she was “young, beautiful, and cruel — vampiric traits,” while other historians have also suggested she was strong-willed, forceful and had a cruel nature.

Charlemagne was a unique thinker for his time, too.

He’s described as a “practical, down-to-earth man with a down-to-earthy sense of humour.” He was well-read and had a genuine interest in “late antique culture.” He expanded the Catholic Church’s role in daily life and rooted out paganism. He even had a surprisingly “gender-blind” view about his children’s education in the liberal arts and wanted them to study mathematics, grammar, astronomy and music — all the subjects he learned and adored.

While most of us aren’t medieval scholars, the challenge of trying to figure out which Charlemagne is the real Charlemagne is enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Whether Nelson has actually solved the centuries-old mystery isn’t, shall we say, elementary.

A New Life of Charlemagne

By Janet L. Nelson

Univ. of Calif. 668 pp. $34.95