[Flower logo of the Medieval History Course] Charlemagne (*742 or *747, +814)

Kenneth Clark: Civilization [Disk 1, Section 1, Episode 7, 13"]
Charlemagne (Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse, Carolus Magnus)

Charlemagne is the first great man of action to emerge from the darkness since the collapse of the Roman world. He became a subject of myth and legend.
This magnificent reliquary made about 500 years after his death to hold a piece of his skull expresses what the Gothic Middle Ages felt about him in terms that he himself would have appreciated. Gold and jewels and antique cameos.
But the real man wasn't so far from that myth. He was a commanding figure, over six feet tall with piercing blue eyes. Only, he had a small, squeaky voice and a walrus moustache instead of the beard.
He was a tireless administrator. The lands he conquered, Bavaria, Saxony, Lombardy, were organized beyond the capacities of a barbarous people.
His empire was an artificial creation. Yet the old idea that he saved civilization isn't so far wrong. Because it was through him that the Atlantic world re-established contact with the ancient culture of the Mediterranean world.
There were great disorders after his death, but no more skin of our teeth. Civilization had come through.

How did he do it?
Well, first of all, with the help of an outstanding teacher and librarian named Alcuin of York he collected books and had them copied.
People don't always realize that only three or four antique manuscripts of the Latin authors are still in existence. Our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne.
This is the more extraordinary when one remembers that for over 500 years practically no lay person, from kings and emperors downwards, could read or write.
Charlemagne learnt to read. But he never could write. He said he couldn't get the hang of it.
Alfred the Great, who was an exceptionally clever man seems to have taught himself to read at the age of 40 and was the author of several books, although they were probably dictated in a kind of seminar.
Great men, even ecclesiastics, normally dictated to their secretaries, as they do today and as you may see one of them doing in this 10th-century illustration.
Of course, most of the higher clergy could read and the pictures of the Evangelists which are the favorite, often the only illustrations in early manuscripts, become in the 10th century a kind of assertion of this almost divine accomplishment.

This ivory is a glorification of writing with its inspired concentration of St Gregory and its three smug little scribes below. In copying these manuscripts Charlemagne's scribes arrived at the most beautiful lettering ever invented. Also the most practical.
So when the Renaissance humanists wanted to find a clearer and more elegant substitute for the crabbed Gothic script they revived the Carolingian. And so it has survived, in more or less the same form, until the present day.

Charlesmagne's adoption of the imperial idea led him to look not only at antique civilization but at its strange posthumous existence in what we call the Byzantine Empire.

For 400 years, Constantinople had been the greatest city in the world and the only one in which life had gone on more or less untouched by the wanderers.
It was a civilization all right. It produced some of the most nearly perfect buildings and works of art ever made.
But it was entirely sealed off from Western Europe, partly by the Greek language, partly by religious differences, chiefly because it didn't want to involve itself with the bloody feuds of the Western barbarians. It had its own Eastern barbarians to deal with.

I am in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna, which for a part of the 5th and 6th centuries was the seat of the Byzantine court.

Charlemagne came here on his way back from Rome. No emperor had visited Rome for almost 500 years. And when Charlemagne, the great conqueror, went there in the year 800, the Pope crowned him as the head of a new Holy Roman Empire, brushing aside the fact that there was another emperor in Constantinople.
Charlemagne was afterwards heard to say that this famous episode was a mistake. He advised his son to crown himself. Perhaps he was right. By crowning Charlemagne, the Pope could claim a supremacy over the Emperor, which was the cause or pretext of war for three centuries.

But historical judgments are very tricky. Maybe the tension between the spiritual and worldly powers throughout the Middle Ages was precisely what kept European civilization alive.
If either had achieved absolute power, society might have grown as static as the civilization of Egypt or of Byzantium itself.

Anyway, Charlemagne saw these mosaics of Justinian and Theodore ... and realized how magnificent an emperor could be. I may add that he himself never wore anything but a plain Frankish cloak.
And when Charlemgane returned to his residence at Aix-la-Chapelle - he settled there because he liked swimming in the hot springs - he determined to build a replica of San Vital as his parish chapel.

Those mosaics are a reconstruction done in the 19th century. And we can see that by comparison with Ravenna, the octagon at Aix is rather stiff and monotonous. But those magnificent iron grilles, which were made locally, are an impressive technical achievement.

And when one thinks that nearly all the buildings in northern Europe, including the greater part of Charlemagne's palace, were of wood, and that such stone buildings as existed were the converted husks of Roman remains, it is the most extraordinary feat.

Charlemagne's throne. Of course, the craftswomen who made those frills may have come from the East, because under Charlemagne Europe was once more in touch with the outside world.
He even received a present from Harun al-Rashid, caliph of the 1001 nights. An elephant called Abul-Abbas. It died on campaign in Saxony. Its tusks were made into chessmen, which still exist.
As ruler of an empire stretching from Denmark to the Adriatic, he amassed treasures from all over the known world. But in the end, it was the books that mattered.

There have never been more splendid books than those illuminated for the court library and sent as presents all over Western Europe.
In their own day these books were so precious that the practice arose of giving them the richest, most elaborate bindings conceivable. Usually they took the form of an ivory plaque surrounded by beaten gold and gems. And these small pieces of sculpture are in some ways our best indication of the intellectual life of Europe for almost 200 years.

Only Charlemagne could hold the Europe together. After his death it broke up and Europe entered a phase which historians usually consider almost as dark and barbarous as the century before him. Well, that's because they look at it from the point of view of political history and the written word. If we read what Ruskin called the book of its art, we get a very different impression. Because, contrary to all expectation, the 10th century produced work as splendid and as technically skilful, and even as delicate, as any other age.