In her impressive new biography, Janet L Nelson meticulously sifts all the available evidence. At the start she notes (a little terrifyingly) that some 7,000 charters survive from his reign. You can believe she has looked at every single one, so thorough and expansive is this work of scholarship. Charlemagne is not actually born until page 67 – this is a biography that seeks to place the man carefully within a larger European context... For all her careful examination of his military campaigns and political manoeuvrings, Nelson also brings out the human dimension of the story – and there is plenty here. Some details paint her subject in a poor light: he repudiated one of his wives, and his brother and co-heir died in mysterious circumstances. But others make him more relatable. He seems to have had a sense of humour, to have been troubled by the deaths of loyal retainers and to have grieved deeply for the loss of his children.
Nelson tracks Charlemagne’s life chronologically, from his birth on 2 April 748 at the Frankish rural palace of Quierzy, near Rheims, to his death on 28 January 814 at the palace of Aachen, which he had had constructed. The book follows Charlemagne as he conquered, negotiated and married his way from the Atlantic to the Carpathians, from the Elbe to the Apennines. Whereas Rosamond McKitterick’s 2008 study rigorously confined itself to what can be known of him from contemporary sources – thereby excluding even Einhard’s biography – Nelson takes a more catholic approach. As well as annals, chronicles, letters and Einhard’s work, Nelson invokes an account of a saint’s miracle that she believes may record Charlemagne’s memory of losing a milk tooth in 755, and legislation in which she suggests his distinctive voice can be heard. Sources on Charlemagne are available in relative abundance for an early medieval figure, and Nelson quotes frequently from them, often in her own characteristically fresh English translation.
Nelson is up for that challenge (“difficult is not impossible”, she quips), and assembles an astonishingly rich picture from the most unrewarding of texts. The way she puzzles out probable facts and motivations, based on a complete reading of the existing texts, is a joy to witness. She draws on and shows off the clever work of earlier historians, while giving short shrift to their more biased assumptions. The narrative voice emerges as that of a patient, inquisitive, incisive and helpful master detective, with funny asides, a beautiful style and sensible politics. The picture she paints is of someone born into great privilege, with boundless energy, a good sense of humour, pragmatism and an eye for a political opportunity, with strong moral principles and Christian faith. Though Nelson rightly rejects the label of a “great man”, Karl seems to have been one.
England and Britain were never part of Charles’ empire, and yet they were very much part of the Charlemagne and European stories. This magnificent book brings alive the man at their heart.
It is not often that a book’s blurb gives any idea of what’s inside, but Helen Castor’s endorsement — ‘a masterclass in the practice of history’ — is as good a description of this brilliant new biography of Charlemagne as we are likely to get. The broader contours of the life will be familiar to many readers, but what we have here — pace Janet Nelson — is less the ‘old-fashioned’ biography that she claims but a wonderfully generous sharing of knowledge that combines the conversational tones of the ideal classroom with the intensity of the trained anatomist, poised, knife in hand, to reveal the musculature beneath the skin.
Nelson’s decision to let the sources propel her narrative is especially admirable. The general reader may occasionally be left disoriented by the resulting twists and turns, but this is a small price to pay to see one of Britain’s – indeed the world’s – leading historians ply her trade. If Nelson expects a lot of her readers, it’s because she has so much to offer. This is by any measure a superb book. Charlemagne, the greatest of medieval emperors, has finally found an equally great modern biographer.