Einhard’s Biography Of Charlemagne

Einhard initial
Initial from the Vita Karoli

The next source you should know about is a biography of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli, written not long after his death. But like all sources from this time (or any time), you have to approach it with caution.

A noble and learned man named Einhard, born around 770 of a noble family from the eastern part of the realm, wrote the biography in his retirement, about a decade after Charlemagne’s death. Einhard came to the king’s court in 791 after an extensive monastic education, a group of scholars that Charlemagne had been gathering around him. He was a tiny man with a busy mind – Lewis Thorpe, translator of a popular edition of , notes that the Bishop of Orleans compared him to a busy ant. Einhard was apparently one of the brightest stars in the firmament, and it fell to him to write the great man’s biography after his death in 814.

After serving Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious for another sixteen years, Einhard retired and returned to the eastern provinces. There he collected his documentation, including the Royal Frankish Annals, and began to write. Just as he had come to court, a young man of a favored family, so familiar a trope today, he left public service to write his memoirs. Unlike today, he apparently had no axe to grind.

Einhard set out to write a biography that was, as he put it, “omitting from all this nothing which ought to be known or, indeed, which is worthy of being recorded.” Which puts Einhard in the position of being the one to decide what should be known and what should be omitted, and it is here where the reader needs to read with open eyes.

Einhard is frankly and openly Charlemagne’s biggest fan. He wants to record “the extraordinary life of this most remarkable king, the greatest man of all those living in his own period.” The king is always described as more energetic, possessed of more determination, a “mettlesome spirit.” He is also known for “his imperturbability, which remained as constant in adversity as in prosperity.”

Now, I have no doubt that Einhard caught many aspects of the great man’s personality correctly. Charlemagne must have been one of the most extraordinary men of all time, a leader like Alexander or Napoleon. But Einhard’s desire to glorify masks much knowledge that went unrecorded. Only one defeat is mentioned, the battle of Roncevalles in 778. Another example are his daughters:

These girls were extraordinarily beautiful and greatly loved by their father. It is a remarkable fact that, as a result of this, he kept them with him in his household until the very day of his death, instead of giving them in marriage to his own men or to foreigners, maintaining that he could not live without them. The consequence was that he had a number of unfortunate experiences, he who had been so lucky in all else that he undertook.

Einhard scene
Scene from a 13th century manuscript

Well! Who doesn’t want to know what those “unfortunate experiences” might have been? But the busy ant, having writ, moves on. He wants to tell us how the king’s favorite food was roast meat, that he had a thick neck and a belly “a trifle too heavy.” One of the delightful things about Einhard is how he easily moves between high strategy and telling details.

The Vita Karoli is written in the first person, using a familiar, almost chatty tone. It is short, maybe 50 pages, and easily digestible in a sitting or two. Einhard’s Life is available in many translations and formats.

2 thoughts on “Einhard’s Biography Of Charlemagne

  1. I like to know from what book (reference and what folio) your first illustration comes (the miniature with the initial from, the Vita Karoli), its likely date and reference, if possible.
    Many thanks,

    J.B.

    • Johan, I’m afraid paleography is not my field, and the image is merely from the Wikipedia commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/%C3%89ginhard_Vita_Caroli_magni_imperatoris-Lettrine_V_histori%C3%A9e_Charlemagne_assis.jpg

      Best of luck with your search, and thanks for stopping by my little corner of history!

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