A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance

Author: Einhard

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CHAPTER IX. The Age of Charlemagne


Charlemagne the Man

Source—Einhard, Vita Caroli Magni ["Life of Charles the Great"], Chaps. 22–27. Text in Monumenta Germaniœ Historica, Scriptores (Pertz ed.), Vol. II., pp. 455–457. Adapted from translation by Samuel Epes Turner in "Harper’s School Classics" (New York, 1880), pp. 56–65.

Personal appearance

22. Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not excessively tall. The upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair auburn, and face laughing and merry. His appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting, although his neck was thick and somewhat short and his abdomen rather prominent. The symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; toward the end of his life he limped a little with one foot. Even in his later years he lived rather according to his own inclinations than the advice of physicians; the latter indeed he very much disliked, because they wanted him to give up roasts, to which he was accustomed, and to eat boiled meat instead. In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, in which sports scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the vapors from natural warm springs, and often indulged in swimming, in which he was so skilful that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his later years.1. . .

Manner of dress

23. His custom was to wear the national, that is to say, the Frankish, dress—next his skin a linen shirt and linen breeches, and above these a tunic fringed with silk; while hose fastened by bands covered his lower limbs, and shoes his feet. In winter he protected his shoulders and chest by a close-fitting coat of otter or marten skins. Over all he flung a blue cloak, and he always had a sword girt about him, usually one with a gold or silver hilt and belt. He sometimes carried a jeweled sword, but only on great feast-days or at the reception of ambassadors from foreign nations. He despised foreign costumes, however handsome, and never allowed himself to be robed in them, except twice in Rome, when he donned the Roman tunic, chlamys,1 and shoes; the first time at the request of Pope Hadrian,2 the second to gratify Leo, Hadrian’s successor.3 On great feast-days he made use of embroidered clothes, and shoes adorned with precious stones; his cloak was fastened with a golden buckle, and he appeared crowned with a diadem of gold and gems; but on other days his dress differed little from that of ordinary people.

Every-day life

24. Charles was temperate in eating, and especially so in drinking, for he abhorred drunkenness in anybody, much more in himself and those of his household; but he could not easily abstain from food, and often complained that fasts injured his health. He gave entertainments but rarely, only on great feastdays, and then to large numbers of people. His meals consisted ordinarily of four courses, not counting the roast, which his huntsmen were accustomed to bring in on the spit; he was more fond of this than of any other dish. While at table, he listened to reading or music. The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of olden time. He was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, and especially of the one entitled The City of God.4 He was so moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. In summer, after the midday meal, he would eat some fruit, drain a single cup, put off his clothes and shoes, just as he did for the night, and rest for two or three hours. While he was dressing and putting on his shoes, he not only gave audience to his friends, but if the Count of the Palace1 told him of any suit in which his judgment was necessary, he had the parties brought before him forthwith, heard the case, and gave his decision, just as if he were sitting in the judgment-seat. This was not the only business that he transacted at this time, but he performed any duty of the day whatever, whether he had to attend to the matter himself, or to give commands concerning it to his officers.

Education and accomplishments

25. Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with ability to use his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have been taken for a teacher of oratory. He most zealously cherished the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man.2 Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon birth, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning.1 The king spent much time and labor with him studying rhetoric, dialectic, and especially astronomy. He learned to make calculations, and used to investigate with much curiosity and intelligence the motions of the heavenly bodies. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he began his efforts late in life, and not at the proper time, they met with little success.

interest in religion and the Church

26. He cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion, which had been instilled into him from infancy. Hence it was that he built the beautiful basilica at Aix-la-Chapelle, which he adorned with gold and silver and lamps, and with rails and doors of solid brass. He had the columns and marbles for this structure brought from Rome and Ravenna, for he could not find such as were suitable elsewhere.2 He was a constant worshipper at this church as long as his health permitted, going morning and evening, even after nightfall, besides attending mass. He took care that all the services there conducted should be held in the best possible manner, very often warning the sextons not to let any improper or unclean thing be brought into the building, or remain in it. He provided it with a number of sacred vessels of gold and silver, and with such a quantity of clerical robes that not even the door-keepers, who filled the humblest office in the church, were obliged to wear their everyday clothes when in the performance of their duties. He took great pains to improve the church reading and singing, for he was well skilled in both, although he neither read in public nor sang, except in a low tone and with others.

Generosity and charities

27. He was very active in aiding the poor, and in that open generosity which the Greeks call alms; so much so, indeed, that he not only made a point of giving in his own country and his own kingdom, but when he discovered that there were Christians living in poverty in Syria, Egypt, and Africa, at Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage, he had compassion on their wants, and used to send money over the seas to them. The reason that he earnestly strove to make friends with the kings beyond seas was that he might get help and relief to the Christians living under their rule. He cared for the Church of St. Peter the Apostle at Rome above all other holy and sacred places, and heaped high its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent great and countless gifts to the popes;1 and throughout his whole reign the wish that he had nearest his heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect the Church of St. Peter, and to beautify and enrich it out of his own store above all other churches. Nevertheless, although he held it in such veneration, only four times2 did he repair to Rome to pay his vows and make his supplications during the whole forty-seven years that he reigned.3

1 Thomas Hodgkin, Charles the Great (London, 1903), p. 222.

1 The German name for Aix-la-Chapelle was Aachen. From Roman times the place was noted throughout Europe for its warm sulphur springs and for centuries before Charlemagne’s day it had been a favorite resort for health-seekers. It was about the middle of his reign that Charlemagne determined to have the small palace already existing rebuilt, together with its accompanying chapel. Marbles and mosaics were obtained at Rome and Ravenna, and architects and artisans were brought together for the work from all Christendom. The chapel was completed in 805 and was dedicated by Pope Leo III. Both palace and chapel were destroyed a short time before the Emperor’s death, probably as the result of an earthquake. The present town-house of Aix-la-Chapelle has been constructed on the ruins of this palace. The chapel, rebuilt on the ancient octagonal plan in 983, contains the tomb of Charlemagne, marked by a stone bearing the inscription "Carolo Magno." Besides Aachen, Charlemagne had many other residences, as Compiègne, Worms, Attigny, Mainz, Paderborn, Ratisbon, Heristal, and Thionville.

1 A loose, flowing outer garment, or cloak. It was a feature of ancient Greek dress.

2 Hadrian I., 772–775. Charlemagne’s first visit to Rome was in 774.

3 Leo III., 795–816. The Roman dress was donned by Charlemagne during his visit in 800 [see p. 130].

4 St. Augustine, the greatest of the Church fathers, was born in Numidia in 354. He spent a considerable part of his early life studying in Rome and other Italian cities. The De Civitate Dei ("City of God"), generally regarded as his most important work, was completed in 426, its purpose being to convince the Romans that even though the supposedly eternal city of Rome had recently been sacked by the barbarian Visigoths, the true "city of God" was in the hearts of men beyond the reach of desecrating invaders. When he wrote the book Augustine was bishop of Hippo, an important city of northern Africa. His death occurred in 430, during the siege of Hippo by Gaiseric and his horde of Vandals.

1 The Count of the Palace was one of the coterie of officials by whose aid Charlemagne managed the affairs of the state. He was primarily an officer of justice, corresponding in a way to the old Mayor of the Palace, but with very much less power.

2 When Charlemagne captured Pavia, the Lombard capital, in 774, he found Peter the Pisan teaching in that city. With characteristic zeal for the advancement of education among his own people he proceeded to transfer the learned deacon to the Frankish Palace School [see p. 144].

1 Alcuin was born at York in 735. He took up his residence at Charlemagne’s court about 782, and died in the office of abbot of St. Martin of Tours in 804.

2 During the Napoleonic period many of these columns were taken possession of by the French and transported to Paris. Only recently have they been replaced in the Aix-la-Chapelle cathedral. Most of them came originally from the palace of the Exarch of Ravenna.

1 These statements of Einhard respecting the lavishness of Charlemagne’s gifts must be taken with some allowance. They were doubtless considerable for the day, but Charlemagne’s revenues were not such as to enable him to display wealth which in modern times would be regarded as befitting a monarch of so exalted rank.

2 In 774,781,787, and 800.

3 Charlemagne became joint ruler of the Franks with his brother Karlmann in 768; hence when he died, in 814, he had reigned only forty-six years instead of forty-seven.


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Chicago: Einhard, "Chapter 9. The Age of Charlemagne," A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951) (New York: American Book Company, 1908), 108–114. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XHMMWCGMHSZQNF7.

MLA: Einhard. "Chapter 9. The Age of Charlemagne." A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, edited by Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951), New York, American Book Company, 1908, pp. 108–114. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XHMMWCGMHSZQNF7.

Harvard: Einhard, 'Chapter 9. The Age of Charlemagne' in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance. cited in 1908, A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. , American Book Company, New York, pp.108–114. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XHMMWCGMHSZQNF7.