Charlemagne: The Education Emperor

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?




  1. Erika on 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 on 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.

    • katie on October 11, 2018 at 4:37 pm

      you are wrong

  2. You pays your money, you takes your choice…. on January 17, 2013 at 8:27 am

    […] In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time circling the boundaries of medieval Europe: the Carolingian Renaissance, Irish monks, Viking raiders, Pope Sylvester II, Muslim Spain, Muslim Sicily, the Islamic world in […]

  3. Urban on 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.

    • Dan on November 13, 2018 at 1:43 pm

      Jesus. And the 4th crusaders annihilated Constantinople in 1204 causing perhaps the greatest loss of culture, art and knowledge known to Europe. Please do a minimum level of study before forming opinions on foreign cultures…it’s not that hard. Also “Muslim book” does not permit killing of non-Muslims any more than “Christian book”. If it did either Islam would not exist today or non-Muslims would not exist today.

      • pamela on November 13, 2018 at 2:36 pm

        Dan. Thanks for weighing in on this. I cover a lot of these issues other places on the blog, and I’m in full agreement with you.

  4. mellisa on October 7, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    this great history it explains it to you and its intresting in my opinion history its all around you and some people might be like ew ew ew ew ew ew history is boring or its weird or why does this exsits Well because its information you might need to know for the future and your whole life and that is why i think history is so important for you future and life span. ;] ;] ;] ;]

  5. Alicia Marsland Geromel on January 23, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Regarding the forced conversion of Saxons being compared to conversion by the sword practiced by Muslims, there really is no comparison. The Saxons, both in France and in England, were in the habit of raiding across borders, killing, burning, stealing, raping, taking slaves, and being a general menace, especially to innocent villagers and monks. They were, in essence, land-based Vikings. Both Charlemagne and Alfred were forced to the insistance that conquered tribes accept baptism because that actually worked, i.e. it stopped the attacks. Treaties were blithely broken, so, just to stop the bloodshed, these Christian kings, (as an alternative to just slaughtering the S.O.B’s) demanded that they be baptized and accept into their community a few intrepid teachers of the faith (who would hopefully civilize them a mite.) The rule among Saxons was that what the chieftain says, goes. Thus, if the chieftain becomes Christian, we all become Christians. Anyone who refused to do this was essentially an outlaw two different ways. A murderer, thief and rapist who also rebeled against his rightful chieftain. Such a person thus deserved death by two separate laws, the Roman Law of the Christians and the tribal law of the Saxons.

  6. Mary KN on November 19, 2016 at 8:09 am

    Well said, Alicia G. M. It must also be noted that Charlemagne forgave the Saxon raiders he conquered several times, because they promised to stop raiding. They always broke their promises to stop raiding, thus forcing him to the next step.

  7. Valentina on April 8, 2017 at 8:34 pm

    Pamela can you help me answer this question…. How does the creation of manuscripts impact education and learning in the Middle Ages? It’s for my project and I having a hard time. I’m in 6th grade

    • pamela on April 10, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      Dear Valentina: The short answer is that making manuscripts was slow and expensive. That meant that access to manuscripts, and consequently education, was limited. The invention of the printing press changed all that. There is lots of information about this out there. Good luck.

  8. CaJyiuz Stovall on June 5, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    What type of education did Charlemagne have?

    • pamela on June 7, 2017 at 3:05 pm

      Charlemagne himself was illiterate for much of his life. Like many badly educated self-made men, he was a big believer in education for others.

  9. Owen on November 11, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    Hey I was wondering what Charlemagne did to help educate kids did he build schools or make a illegal not to go to school

    Pls respond

    • pamela on November 12, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      He created monastery schools where young men of ability could learn to read–a huge step forward at the time.

      What we think of as public education didn’t come about until the nineteenth century.

  10. Owen on November 11, 2017 at 10:19 pm

    If Charlemagne was soo into Christianity why did he kil 4500 Tribe leaders this is against the 10 commandments

    • pamela on November 12, 2017 at 7:33 pm

      He wasn’t the first or the last to kill people in the name of Christianity.

  11. Eiam on February 2, 2018 at 3:32 am

    hEy cAN YoU EXPlaIn WhAt HE Did tO ImPRovE LeArNiNG iN EUROpe

    • Eiam on February 2, 2018 at 3:32 am

      iN a SUmmaRY

    • pamela on February 6, 2018 at 4:23 am

      I already did this in a previous comment

  12. Brian on April 8, 2018 at 8:03 am

    I think he made it illegal to use improper case while typing on the internet upon pain of death. This law may still be on the books today.

  13. Jemuel on September 23, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    Nice! he is indeed remarkable, but I’m just wondering, how do you think he influenced writers during middle ages?

    • pamela on September 25, 2018 at 10:50 pm

      I’m not sure he did. Supporting literacy and shaping what gets written are two different things.

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