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?



Road Trip Through History: Driving the Ypres Salient

Normally I’d hesitate to describe something as a road trip that begins with a transatlantic flight.  The driving tour of the Ypres Salient* is an exception.

The Belgian town of Ieper (Ypres in French, “Wipers” in British Tommy) was the center of a series of bloody battles in World War I.  The kind of battles where 500,000 men die to gain eight kilometers of ground and a lush green landscape is reduced to black mud.  By the end of the war, Ieper and the surrounding towns were no more than rubble.  (Winston Churchill suggested that Ieper should be left in ruins as a war memorial.  A local minister responded, “Belgium does not need to keep its ruins to remember its misfortunes.”  I wonder if Winnie remembered the exchange after German bombers destroyed large portions of London in WWII?)

Today thousands of visitors, most of them from the UK and the Commonwealth, drive through along a well-organized tour of Ypres Salient.  For many it is an act of pilgrimage.

My Own True Love and I set off in the morning, planning to drive the north loop of the tour in one day and the south loop the next.  We had a self-guided tour brochure, a battlefield map, two Belgian road maps, and a great deal of enthusiasm.  We immediately overshot the first stop on the tour by 30 kilometers, thanks to a badly written tour brochure (honest!) and our own confusion about the scale of things in Belgium.  (It’s a really small country.)

Driving the Ypres Salient is very different from touring a Civil War battlefield in the United States.   Instead of battlefields you see cemeteries, memorials, cemeteries, the occasional reconstructed trench, and more cemeteries.  The British Commonwealth War Graves Commission does an amazing job.  More than 160 small cemeteries are beautifully maintained.  The largest of them include interpretive displays that use modern museum technologies to bring the war, the destruction, and the young men who were lost to life.

Highlights (if you can describe war memorials with such a jolly word) include:

  •  The Essex Farm Cemetery, located at the site of the medical dressing station where Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Field”, which inspired the use of the poppy as the symbol for remembering those lost in foreign wars.
  • TheTyne Cot cemetery, where a solemn female voice intoned the names of the dead as their pictures were displayed, life-sized, on a wall
  • The Deutcher Soldatenfriedhof at Langemark, where 45,000 German soldiers are buried in a mass grave and we saw poppies growing wild against the memorial wall.  (I was close to tears for much of the day.  Those dang poppies did me in.)
  • The Yorkshire Dugout Site, an archaeological site that made the misery of trench warfare more vivid than any trench reconstruction or war memoir ever could.  The water was up to the edge of the dugout.  Even with constant pumping, the trenches and dugouts were wet all the time.  We knew this in our heads before;  now we know if for real.

By day’s end, we were heart-sore, overwhelmed, and very glad we’d made the trip.  We abandoned the southern loop of the driving tour.

If you make it to Ieper, be sure to visit

  • In Flanders Field Museum.  Probably the best World War I museum I’ve ever visited. (And given our interests My Own True Love and I have been to a few.)
  • The Last Post:  Every night the volunteer fire brigade of Ieper plays the traditional bugle salute to the fallen soldier at the Menin Gate.  The gate itself is an imposing memorial to soldiers whose gravesites are unknown.  The nightly ceremony is moving.  Bring a hanky.


*  In military terms, a “salient” is a battlefield feature that  is surrounded by the enemy on three sides, making the troops occupying the salient vulnerable.

History on Display: Tipu’s Tiger

“Tipu’s Tiger” is one of the most popular exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  For generations, British school children and American tourists have lined up to watch the large mechanical tiger maul a fallen British gentleman.   Today the toy is too fragile to operate, but once upon a time the tiger roared and its victim screamed when the mechanical device was activated.

Tipu’s Tiger is a fascinating example of eighteenth century clockwork, designed to appeal to the ghoulish eight year old that lurks inside each of us.  But that’s not the main reason it occupies prime space at the V & A. The gruesome mechanical toy belonged to Tipu Sultan, the self-proclaimed “Tiger of Mysore and once a serious threat to British power in India.

Seen through the perspective of the British Raj at its height, it’s easy to forget how precarious the British position in India was in the eighteenth century.  The East India Company was only one of several regional powers competing to fill the power vacuum left by the disintegrating Moghul Empire.  One of the most powerful of the Company’s rivals was the state of Mysore in southern India.

Mysore and the East India Company went to war four times between 1761 and 1799.   At the end of the first three Anglo-Mysore Wars, plays, political cartoons, and sensational pamphlets confirmed the public image of Tipu as political bogeyman, one step down from the rascal Bonaparte.

Tipu Sultan’s final defeat at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799 led to public rejoicing.* “Tipu’s Tiger” was brought back to London and paraded through the streets in triumph.  The imagery was simple, brutal, and effective:  the Tiger of Mysore was dead.


*As well as plays, political cartoons, pamphlets, a giant panorama with accompanying musical pantomime, and commemorative prints.  By comparison, we are very restrained about the death of despots and terrorists.  (Or maybe not. )