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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #87: Becoming Charlemagne

"The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Discuss."

I have a fascination with Middle Ages Europe, in particular with the period between the fall of Rome and the coming of the Renaissance. This was largely a time of decentralized authority and subsistence villages in western and central Europe, when the Church held sway alongside lawless robber barons. Modern American conservatives would dig it.

Into this morass of fractured kingdoms and stunted progress strode the grandson of Charles the Hammer, scion of the Frankish Carolingian empire. Charles the Great (Charlemagne - get it?) was a man of singular administrative ability, political vision, and battlefield prowess. He centralized Frankish authority in Gaul and systematically extended that dominion into modern Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and beyond. The Carolingian Empire was the first real dominant political force in Europe since the Caesars, and in 800 Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. King for 46 years and Emperor for 14, Charlemagne laid much of foundations of the next thousand years of European history and is rightfully referred to by historians as "The Father of Europe".

I've always had a scholarly interest in Charlemagne, not only because of his unique role as an agent of order during the chaotic Middle Ages, but because of his relative enlightenment. The peace and prosperity of his reign ignited an explosion of learning and culture (called the Carolingian Renaissance). Literature, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, all experienced new energy. Much of this was ecclesiastical in nature, but the focus on preserving sacred texts and standardizing Latin set the stage for intellectual efforts that followed.

It's fun to read about conquerors. It's even more fun to study those who used their power to advance human endeavor and intellectual growth.

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