Tuesday, March 31
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Good time Charlie History today


Relic bust of Charlemagne, 1349 © Bridgeman Images

This is a great book – but this statement needs context. Charlemagne does not lack biographers. Jinty Nelson lists ten in an early footnote, only in the past 20 years. Why and why add another? On the first of these questions: as Nelson said on his first page, Charlemagne was "exceptional by all standards". Lived from 742 to 814, King of 768, Emperor of the West from 800, ruler of the greatest empire that existed in Europe after the end of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century (except for the short-lived areas of Napoleon and Hitler)) and conquered almost half of which: If he was not exceptional, he was at least extremely lucky.

Charlemagne simply means "Charlemagne" in French, Karolus Magnus in Latin; The "Magnus" was not an adjective that was widely used in life, and Nelson simply called it "Charles". He wasn't just a conqueror; He was also an innovator. The pan-western European government structures that developed during his reign lasted for centuries in many cases and in many places. He set up a court full of intellectuals who had made a lot of money from it, who wrote praising each other's praise, but also helped him write laws that were surprisingly ambitious and sometimes even effective. He held a number of greedy, delicate, and confident aristocrats around him, striving to get to his regular gatherings without (ever) rebelling against him. They have all benefited from the conquests, but the ambitious always want more. Even so, Charles remained in control of her. And in addition to this political, military, and pragmatic ability, Charles seems to have had a good time joking, having a lot of sex, swimming, and hunting (though not, his contemporary biographer Einhard said, a bit implausible, drinking). What i don't like Well, his ruthlessness sure. Many people died because they were in the way. But people could forgive it for its success; Historians, and not just them, bow more to power than they should.

That is why Charles gets biographers and indeed has had too many of them; Many of them are quite dutiful and keep telling the same story over and over again. This is different. Jinty Nelson has worked for years with the precise aim of producing a report on Charles year after year without looking back. She looks at the decisions he made without knowing what would come next. Charles actually took risks. he couldn't have known if they would work. For example: One of Nelson's brave chapters 773-74 deals with Charles's conquest of the Lombard kingdom of northern and central Italy. This was one of his most direct on the surface; he did it almost without a fight in a year. Nelson argues that it shouldn't be a conquest at all, but a (fairly risky) military attack aimed at conquering Charles' nephews, who had a good claim to half the Charles kingdom and refuge with the Lombards King Desiderius had been looking for. Only halfway when Karl made a side trip to Rome while his army besieged Desiderius & # 39; capital, did he really take up the possibilities of an actual conquest. Nelson makes these points convincing simply by recording each decision he made individually: why did he act exactly? This, then? What must he have thought? It only makes sense if he does the math The … But when it worked, he built on the success and pushed it in a different direction. Charles stops being the main strategist on several other accounts here; but in his successful improvisation he is certainly the focus as a master tactician. In this case, he conquered the kingdom and "disappeared" his nephews – whom Nelson calls the princes in the tower several times despite the absence of a tower. She is not afraid to point out the worse side of her subject's actions as well as his successes.

This is a long book, but it's nice to read, partly because it's so easy to write. Nelson focuses on vignettes; and you can paint a portrait very successfully if there are enough vignettes. Each chapter is divided into separate sections: "How Charles lost his first milk tooth"; ’Charles’ letter to (his wife) Fastrada ’; "Hostage taking Mainz 805"; each individually, with source criticism and analysis as well as scene painting. Some are under one page ("The September 16, 787 Solar Eclipse"). They reflect Nelson's firm intention to stay in the present and avoid looking back. It sometimes leads to repetitions, but this is very useful in a book of this size. The book is not a structural study and does not want to be. What long-term goals did Charles pursue? How did he develop it? How and how far has his government worked? What was the social structure and cultural norms of his court and how have they changed in almost 50 years of rule? You cannot understand this in an annual study. But the more I read Nelson's short sections, the better I realized that this method worked. It has the narrative drive of many novels and is completely accessible to laypersons, whom I hope to be most of its readers, since it explains everything it needs. It restores the feeling of contingency, improvisation, and fun that apparently characterized the daily choices and social world of the creator of an entire political system, like Charles was – though, as always, the building blocks for it long preceded do.

If you want an analysis of Charles' government practices – as I certainly do – then Jenny Davis is The Imperial Practice of Charlemagne (2015) fits wonderfully. But even though we know that nobody can reconstruct a personality from texts – let alone from texts that are as discontinuous as in the early Middle Ages – you leave Jinty Nelson's book with the feeling that you have, yes, you get a feeling for it, what Charlemagne actually was to like, What are biographies for and why should you read them?

King and Emperor: A new life for Charlemagne
Janet L. Nelson
Allen Lane
704 pp £ 30

Chris Wickham is Emeritus Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University.

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