Charlemagne: The Education Emperor

by pamela on August 23, 2011

My Own True Love and I were standing outside the cathedral at Aachen when the memory stirred in both our brains.  Aachen=Charlemagne.*

It was the end of the day.  Thanks to my usual case of vacation/holiday bronchitis, I had no voice.  One of our Turkish/Belgian hosts was observing Ramadan and was tired from his fast.  We had not done our homework and had no idea what Charlemagne-related stuff the city might hold.  We kicked ourselves, wrote down the website posted on a nearby wall, bought some of Aachen’s famous gingerbread, and walked away. **


Whether you call him Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus,  Karl der Grosse, or Charlemagne , there are plenty of reason to be impressed with the man:

  • He conquered much of the former western Roman empire.
  • He was the founder of what later became the Holy Roman Empire–and the idea of a distinctly European identity.  His contemporaries called him the Father of Europe.
  • He was an important player in the spread of Christianity into Northern Europe, though his methods did not include turning the other cheek.  In 785 he ordered the death penalty for any newly conquered Saxon who refused to be baptized  (This is roughly the same period when Christendom began to accuse Islam of conversion by the sword.  Just saying.)

Me?  I’m fascinated by Charlemagne the Education Emperor.

Charlemagne was illiterate for much of his life. He hired learned men to read out loud to him at dinner, dispensing with the usual medieval floorshow of jester, bard, and musicians.  He studied three of the classic seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics.  He learned to speak Latin and some Greek in addition to his native Frankish.  By all accounts, Charlemagne’s efforts to learn to write were less successful.  (According to his secretary and biographer, he practiced writing while in bed and hid his wax tablets under his pillows.)

Though he never quite got the hang of reading and writing himself, Charlemagne was an enthusiastic promoter of literacy in others. Under his patronage, the court at Aachen took the first steps out of the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, a little flutter of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance.  He gathered a group of the Anglo-Saxon and Irish clergy who had kept the flame of literacy alive in Europe after the fall of Rome.  He reformed the palace school at Aachen and founded monastery schools throughout the empire with the intention of creating a literate clergy.  He sponsored the creation of a new uniform script for copying texts, the development of textbooks for teaching Latin to non-Latin speakers, and thee collection of Latin manuscripts.


*  ca. 742 – 814, in case you’re interested.

** A quick Internet search revealed that Aachen is developing a “Charlemagne route” of museums and sites in anticipation of the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death in 2014.   We’ve put Aachen on our schedule for 2014.  See you there?



{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Erika August 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Rosamond McKitterick has demonstrated, rather conclusively, I believe, that while some key members of his intellectual community were English, there were many more continental scholars than previously believed.

Great period in history to study: 1) his promotion of the preservation and sharing of books preserved most of what we still have from classical times (although the Muslims did a better job in preserving classical science, a lot of the Greek stuff that had not been translated into Latin and Aristotle in general); 2) the script developed under Charlemagne’s patronage was the script the stuck-up Italian “Renaissance scholars” thought was original Roman, and thus became the basis for the shape our alphabet takes today; 3) he finally conquered the Lombards in northern Italy!


pamela August 23, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Erika: Thanks for weighing in. I’ll need to check out the McKitterick–I’m still finding my way in the Middle Ages.

I absolutely agree that the Muslims did a better job of preserving classical science, etc. Do you know Jonathon Lyon’s House of Wisdom?

Heading over to check out your blog, now.


Urban September 7, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Yes he was a great man. Although they were just new christians, and still had their barbaric side, killing to convert is no where found in christian doctrine, in contrast to the muslim book which does state to kill non muslims.

Im not sure if i can agree with you Pamela about the muslims preserving knowledge and science since they are the ones that burned down the library of alexandria. I find that before islam the people were much more knowledgeable, now the muslim territories are pretty much a back water in all ways of life.


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