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Charlemagne

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Charlemagne
By Johannes Fried
(Translated by Peter Lewis)
Harvard University Press – £25.00

No act of remembering can bring back yesterday; rather, every remembered past is a half-conscious, half-unconscious memory constructed from a present state with all its attendant joys, worries, enmities, and fears, with its totality of experiences, with its knowledge and its evaluation of information that has flowed to it from the past, and with its wishes, goals, and hopes. Nor can remembering hope to reproduce anything that was once experienced without distorting it in the recollection.

Upon reading this bona fide, weighty, tomb of a book, one is regally reminded of just how much of an influential dude the King of the Franks (from 768), King of the Lombards (from 1774), and Emperor of the Romans (from 800) Charlemagne, truly was. Not only was he the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Western Empire (nigh three centuries earlier), he actually united much of Europe during the early Middle Ages.

All things considered, such was absolutely no mean feat.

Especially during his fourteen year reign (800-814) as the author of this most high-calibre of reads, Johannes Fried, makes perfectly clear almost immediately: ”[…] both the common people and the ruling elites were in the habit of demonizing all opponents, heretics, or anyone who thought differently. Nor was irony common or intellectual currency in this period. One notable feature of the time was the king’s claim to exclusive sovereignty over interpretation of the past. This ”authoritative memory” was evident throughout society and yielded to different perceptions and interpretations only in the rarest of cases.”

Oft referred to as Pater Europae (Father of Europe), Charlemagne’s life, is throughout these 554 pages (excluding Preface, Maps, Abbreviations, Notes, Selected Biography, Illustration Credits and Index) most interestingly and compellingly brought to bear.

Clearly investigated and written in an intuitive manner, ultimately amounts to the reader coming away from Charlemagne with an altogether alternative, if not slightly different view of a man, we have until now, known very little about: […] the image of Charlemagne continues to change. Admittedly, academic knowledge cannot be equated with the kind of historical knowledge current among the ”general public” of central and Western Europe or the United States. If Charlemagne continues to live on at all in popular consciousness, it is as some vague, shadowy figure often consigned to a timeless realm of legend […]. Or in the meeting or clash of a plethora of cultures with their own traditions and a high degree of self-awareness, to whom a distant hero figure means very little? Or in people’s incapacity to fathom the depths of the globalization process? (Epilogue)”

Humongous food for historical thought simply drips from the pages of this most inspired and readable of books. Not only does it pack an at times perplexing punch, it inspires as well as makes one think.

This is directly due to Johannes Fried – who, until his retirement, was Professor of Medieval History at the University of Frankfurt – not equating any pre-ordained notion with any form of trickle-down, (mis)conceived absolutism: ”History flows incessantly onward because it is rooted in human memory; it must constantly be rethought and recounted afresh since it is constantly called on to inform and educate younger generations of people. It does not convey some eternally unchanging message that ”this is the way things were;” indeed, the most it can hope to do is to preserve a dried-out skeleton of inconsequential facts, which the ”visionary” historian alone can then make sense of. History possesses a past that can be recalled only in a fragmentary way and is scarcely manageable, and a future as opaque as the future of humanity in general.”

Along with eight, full-colour plates, these eight chapters (along with a Prologue and an Epilogue) is a rather astonishing book for all the right reasons.

If you’re into medieval history and a roundabout conception of the Europe we (sort of) know it today, then Charlemagne’s definitely for you.

As Dan Jones has since written in The Sunday Times: ”Fried defends the whole culture of medieval Europe, which he characterizes, contra Kant, as ’eminently creative’: original, revolutionary, mature, artistic, inquisitive, and wise… Fried’s breadth of knowledge is formidable and his passion for the period admirable.”

Couldn’t agree more. An altogether terrific book.

David Marx

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