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©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse24 Oct 2019 3:27 p.m. PST

"This is a terrific book – but that statement needs context. Charlemagne does not lack biographers. Jinty Nelson in an early footnote lists ten, just in the last 20 years. Why, and why add another? As to the first of these questions: Charlemagne was, as Nelson says on her first page, ‘by any standards extraordinary'. Living from 742 to 814, king from 768, emperor of the West from 800, ruler of the largest empire to have existed in Europe after the end of the western Roman empire in the fifth century (excluding the short-lived realms of Napoleon and Hitler), and conqueror of nearly half of it: if he was not extraordinary, he was at least extraordinarily lucky.

Charlemagne simply means Charles ‘the Great' in French, Karolus magnus in Latin; the ‘magnus' was not an adjective used much in his lifetime, and Nelson just calls him ‘Charles'. He was not just a conqueror; he was also an innovator. The pan western-European governmental structures which developed in his reign lasted in many cases and places for centuries. He set up a court full of intellectuals, who made a lot of money out of being there and who wrote jokey poems praising each other, but who also helped him write legislation that was startlingly ambitious and occasionally even effective. He kept an array of greedy, touchy and self-important aristocrats around him and eager to come to his regular assemblies, without (hardly) ever revolting against him. They all benefited from the conquests, but the ambitious always want more; still, Charles kept control of them. And, on top of this political, military and pragmatic skill, Charles seems to have had a good time, with jokes, a lot of sex and swimming, as well as hunting (though not, his contemporary biographer Einhard said, a bit implausibly, drinking). What's not to like? Well, his ruthlessness for sure. Plenty of people died because they were in the way. But people have been able to forgive that because of his success; historians, and not only them, bow down to power more than they should…"
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