Einhard and Notker Present Two Views on the Reign of Charlemagne

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Einhard and Notker present two views on the reign of Charlemagne

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The Middle Ages was a time where Europe, specifically Western Europe was recreating itself. By taking aspects of Roman, Christian, and “barbarian” culture the middle age period in Western Europe was able to foster intellectual and cultural developments like the Northumbrian and Carolingian Renaissance. Within the latter came the reign of one of if not the most infamous European King, Charlemagne. Upon reading Einhard and Notker’s works on Charlemagne, it is clear that the two men’s intentions were to write on the successes of Charlemagne’s regime, however the two certainly do it in different ways. Einhard’s piece is more of a biography on the chronology, and customs spanning Charlemagne’s life, while Notker emphasizes Charlemagne’s importance to Roman Catholicism, his divine yet humble virtues, and the overall importance of God. The main argument of this paper is to decipher how the specific circumstances for Einhard and Notker, such as audience and time in history influenced what they emphasized in their writings on Charlemagne, and to interpret who Charlemagne was. Some certain facts that can be determined are that Charlemagne went on many war campaigns to increase the size of his kingdom, the start of the Carolingian dynasty began with the removal of Childeric, and the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor Augustus by Pope Leo occurred making Charlemagne the first Holy Roman Emperor. These facts transcend in both the Einhard and Notker, but their style of writing and what they emphasize are quite different. The fact that both authors mention specific things make it easier for historians to separate fact from fiction.

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Even though Einhard and Notker write about the same person, Charlemagne, they write from their own perspective, which is apparent when reading. For Einhard, Charlemagne is a king that has given him an illustrious position within the Royal Court of the Carolingians. Einhard was from the area around Fulda in the Carolingian Kingdom, and rose up the scholarly ranks until eventually he was sent to be a courtier in Charlemagne’s court. Einhard feels so much in debt to Charlemagne that he did something very radical for a medieval scribe, he wrote a secular biography, or in other words a book on the life of a non-saint (Ganz, Introduction, 6). What can be inferred is that even though Einhard must have felt obliged to Charlemagne, Einhard must have in some way believed that Charlemagne deserved to have his name and life remembered, as he adopted the method used by the Romans to describe the accolades of their emperors (Ganz, Introduction, 7).

Notker was a monk from Switzerland who was born about 25 years after the death of Charlemagne. The religious emphasis is by far more present in Notker’s portrayal of Charlemagne. Notker, being a monk, would have had access to Einhard’s texts and perhaps thought it was too secular (Ganz, 52). With the death of Charlemagne, came a relatively quick collapse of Carolingian rule, and within the Holy Roman Empire with a lack of central power, corruption must have abounded. So it is likely that Notker used his piece on Charlemagne to stress lessons that were important to him, and be used as a guideline for those living in the outside an abbey or monastery (Ganz, 52). Notker writes about how Charlemagne deals with his bishops, fasts, and displays wisdoms and courage, all things that suggest Notker wanted the religious deeds of Charlemagne to be remembered first and fore most. Notker paints a Charlemagne that is patient, wise, and loving. All divine yet simple qualities that good Frankish leaders should emulate.

Although each man emphasizes different aspects of Charlemagne, there are some things that overlap in the two stories that the reader can interpret as being solid fact. Each author notes that the end of the Merovingian came with the deposition of Childeric which began the mighty era of the Carolingians (Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 18. Notker, Deeds of Charlemagne, 62). Einhard and Notker both discuss the wars waged during Charlemagne’s reign. This is very important, even though they emphasized different things both men wrote to a Frankish audience. Frankish culture is one that revolves around war and military strength so both men would have wanted to let readers know that Charlemagne was accomplished in that arena. It is very likely that Notker, along with other monks/ clergy who read Einhard wanted to infuse church doctrine (bible verses) and morality lessons into his Life of Charlemagne (Danz, 52).

Both Einhard and Notker share common characteristics and background, however there was two things that marked a clear line of distinction. Those two things are age, and occupation. First of all Notker was born in the year that Einhard died (840), so there is no way they could have ever even held a conversation. Notker probably learned about the aforementioned overlapping facts from Einhard, so what this means is that Einhard was the primary source and Notker the secondary (Ganz, 51). Notker took excerpts of Einhard and added religious moral lessons. Einhard was born into a distinguished family, and had him sent to Fulda to learn and from there he rose through the ranks before ultimately Einhard was a courtier to the King, whom was his head master (Ganz, 4), whereas Notker answered to the abbot of St. Gall after also being born into a high-class family (Ganz, 47). Given these circumstances, it makes sense that Einhard is very quick to praise the personal attributes of Charlemagne, while Notker would steer away from the secular view and try to add more religion to his version. In Einhard’s lifespan, Charlemagne expanded the sphere of influence of the Carolingian empire and was crowned Emperor Augustus, so Einhard’s perspective is from the highest of the highs. During Notker’s time and onward into the middle ages, the Holy Roman Empire is lacking central power, full of corruption, and fighting amongst themselves.

Although both these men had the same target audience, Catholic scholars of Western Europe, the climate those audiences were living in were quite different. Einhard is writing to an audience that is living in the height of Frankish glory, and writes in a style that hearkens back to the illustrious days of Roman Emperors (Ganz, 7) and perhaps to give Charles the Bald a good overall description of his grandfather since he was “the only one of Louis the Pious’s children never to have met Charlemagne in person (Ganz, 10)”. Einhard is obviously writing to somebody who wants to know what Charlemagne looked like which can be attested by Ganz’ 34- 35 where he lists Charlemagne’s physical description. Notker was writing for readers that read Einhard (Ganz, 49), in a time of turbulence and corruption and wanted to “subvert the secular features of Einhard’s book by imposing his own categories so that piety precedes wars (Ganz, 49)”. Notker also again and again makes references to corrupted priests, bishops, and nobles which speaks to the climate of the time. Notker wants the reader to first be aware that Charlemagne was a good Christian, who had qualities of wisdom and courage, and would not stand for greed or corruption, followed by his warring conquests. Einhard on the other hand notes Charlemagne’s military feats first with pieces of Christian emphasis sprinkled in. It is important to note that both men make reference to the military conquests (of the Vikings and the wealthy Avar campaign) which would have been extremely important. Both men realized that they were living in a culture that stressed the importance of masculinity and valor on the battlefield, and writing on the King’s military conquests would be a sure way to get people to read it no matter how influenced by the church they were.

The purposes these men had for writing books about Charlemagne were vastly different. Einhard felt he owed Charlemagne to make sure his memory would never be erased. Readers today see similar texts from former speech writers and members of Presidents cabinets, they ultimately feel like their success was codependent upon their superior’s. Living in the King’s court in the Middle Ages would have been a lavish lifestyle, and even though Einhard came from a well-to-do family, the lifestyle he lived was probably unrivaled by many. As previously mentioned, Einhard’s work is a typical biography that seeks to describe Charlemagne’s personal habits, appearances, and accomplishments which speaks to the personal relationship the two had. Einhard’s main purpose was to keep the memory of Charlemagne alive either for his relatives or the Frankish population in need of inspiration. Also, a secular book about the life of a king was a radical idea for the 9th century, so one speculates as to if Einhard wanted publicity for himself as well. With Notker, his objective is to put God into the histories (Ganz, 52). He sees Charlemagne’s main title as “Emperor and Defender of Roman Church (Notker, Deeds of Charlemagne, 77)”. It should not be forgotten that all the while in the Middle Ages, the Pope was extremely powerful. Notker’s first allegiance would be to the Pope, himself being a Monk, so it makes sense that he would seek to add lessons that made sense to him and put forward the good words of the Catholic Church. The fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire almost began as soon as Charlemagne died, which contributed to the collapse and perhaps moral decay of the Empires clergy and nobles. Notker’s main goal was probably reach readers of Einhard but add a Christian zeal.

The bias both men had is evident by the fact that neither one speak of any ill deed or mistake that Charlemagne made. Readers should keep in mind that Charlemagne came from a Germanic culture, where killing was an everyday part of life. It is almost a certainty that Charlemagne killed, pillaged, and raped. Now given the allegiance Notker and Einhard had to the Carolingians it is obvious that adding the negative results of the beloved Charlemagne’s career would have certainly resulted in their being reprimanded. Also, there is an inherent distrust of the Greek Byzantines that is transcended between both authors. The Pope making a Frank the new ‘Emperor Augustus” created a further rift between eastern and western Christianity and both Einhard and Notker make note of the distrust both sides had for one another, so both men are inherently pro-Frankish.

Charlemagne was a man who was Roman Catholic, a good king (otherwise nobody would write about him), and became the first Holy Roman Emperor. He also is a great microcosm for the Middle Ages in Europe. He blends his Catholic faith (the building of the basilica at Aachen), with his Germanic traits (obtaining many wives and concubines, and masculine traits of militarism) while accepting (albeit perhaps unknowingly) the position of Emperor Augustus which is a clear blending of old Roman customs. The Middle Ages in Europe are a blend of all three of those and that is why Charlemagne represents his era well. Although the amount of wars he fights is evident to him embracing the warrior culture of the Franks, he must have exhibited great political skill as well. Einhard writes on how Charlemagne welcomed foreigners (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 34) and both men mention how Harun-al-Rashid was on peaceful terms with Charlemagne, and even sent him presents of exotic animals, spices, and drugs (Einhard, 29. Notker, Deeds of Charlemagne, 95). Although Einhard and Notker exhibit different styles they helped establish Charlemagne’s legacy as a great king. Like any other person, it is certain that Charlemagne made mistakes, but being the typical Middle Age scribes they were, they didn’t chronicle it. However, with the overarching facts that both books produce, it is possible to study and assess Charlemagne.

Both Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, and Notker’s Deeds of Charlemagne discuss Charlemagne, the former being a personal biography and the latter’s meant to be a template for model Frankish attributes. Einhard seeks to hearken back to the Roman era of great Emperors which was a totally innovative idea at the time while Notker takes some of the main excerpts and adds religious flair to it. Much of what historians know of Charlemagne comes from Einhard, and Notker copied a lot of Einhard so there is hard facts in these works. What can be determined is that Charlemagne was a king who expanded his territory, was a devout Catholic, and was the first Holy Roman Emperor. The secular and religious influences of the respected authors is noticeable but does not take away from the reader’s ability to grasp who Charlemagne was.

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