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?