Statue of Charlemagne

Statue of Charlemagne

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We know a fair amount about Charlemagne from a biography by Einhard, a scholar at court and an admiring friend. Although there are no contemporary portraits, Einhard's description of the Frankish leader gives us a picture of a large, robust, well-spoken, and charismatic individual. Einhard maintains that Charlemagne was exceedingly fond of all his family, friendly to "foreigners," lively, athletic (even playful at times), and strong-willed. Of course, this view must be tempered with established facts and the realization that Einhard held the king he had so loyally served in high esteem, but it still serves as an excellent starting point for understanding the man who became the legend.

Charlemagne was married five times and had numerous concubines and children. He kept his large family around him nearly always, occasionally bringing his sons at least along with him on campaigns. He respected the Catholic Church enough to heap wealth upon it (an act of political advantage as much as spiritual reverence), yet he never subjected himself wholly to religious law. He was undoubtedly a man who went his own way.

Charlemagne Picture Gallery

This is a collection of portraits, statues, and other images related to Charlemagne, many of which are in the public domain and are free for your use.

No contemporary illustrations of Charlemagne exist, but a description provided by his friend and biographer Einhard has inspired numerous portraits and statues. Included here are works by famous artists such as Raphael Sanzio and Albrecht Dürer, statues in cities whose histories are firmly tied to Charlemagne, depictions of important events in his reign, and a look at his signature.

Albrecht Dürer was a prolific artist of the Northern European Renaissance. He was heavily influenced by both Renaissance and Gothic art, and he turned his talents to depicting the historic emperor who had once reigned over his homeland.

CHARLEMAGNE: My History Review of France

Charlemagne statue, Notre Dame, Paris

Sitting high upon a massive plinth, guarding the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, is the bronze equestrian statue of King of the Franks, Charlemagne, and his guards. Who is this King from the Middle Ages and why is he so beloved in French history?

I recently listened to a history podcast whose author claimed that the life of Charlemagne was actually a myth, as King Arthur of the Round Table: Sacrilège! Quel Fromage!

How could one believe that the great, “King of the Franks” who united much of western and central Europe during the Middle Ages could be just another historical figure who captivated the imagination of generations based upon his ideals and values? The fact that the Anglo-Saxons have been in conflict with the Franks since the eighth century and that the source of this myth in question is an editor of the BBC could have something to do with that!

According to Dr Marco Nievergelt, a senior teaching fellow in the department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick:

“Multiple versions of the mythical Charlemagne were conjured up over the following centuries. He was reimagined as a proto-crusader, a charismatic military leader, a new King David, a saintly king and benefactor of the Church and even an apocalyptic king, prophesied to return after death to defeat the forces of Antichrist”.

I get the contemporary argument however, I am a hopeless romantic at heart and cognoscente of French history and therefore, for the purpose of this blog post, will present the history of Charlemagne from the point of view of Richard Winston and Harry Bober, Professor of Humanities, New York University in their book CHARLEMAGNE(albeit a 50-year-old PoV!!).

CHARLEMAGNE (French for “Charles the Great”) is beautifully illustrated with authentic prints and relics from the world archives of: Modena, Venice, Munich, BNF of Paris, Bremen, Berlin and Vienna among others. These auspicious privileges are afforded when you teach for NYU! This is more of a personal look at Charlemagne than a political argument of his campaigns which is in my wheelhouse!

King of the Franks, Charlemagne’s coronation

[photo credit: Charlemagne, Harper & Row]

A little background of this great King. Charlemagne became the sole King of the Franks after the death of his father and sudden death his brother, Carloman. During his reign from 800 to 814 A.D., he conquered and “Christianized” (at times upon penalty of death, yikes) much of western Europe including France (Aquitaine, Burgundy, Neustria, Lombardy, Bavaria), Belgium, Netherlands, W. Germany and a part of Switzerland. Charlemagne traveled to Rome in 774 and met with Pope Hadrian and gained his support through this campaign. He was eventually named the “Holy Emperor of Rome”. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne played an important role as he protected orthodox Christianity against prevailing medieval heresies.

There is insightful, detailed political history throughout this book of Charlemagne’s conquests. The history behind the epic poem of The Song of Roland, The Count Roland (Hruodland) is explained in great detail here. Of course, much of the historical truth of Roland is debated as it is mainly pieced together by art work (pp. 50-53). In one scene from the Grandes Chroniques de France, St. James appears to Charlemagne and asks him to liberate his tomb from the Moslems. The following print shows Roland in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass where his Chanson de geste (song of heroic deeds) was penned. This is the oldest surviving major work in French literature.

Charlemagne’s grief when he returns to the pass at Roncesvalles is conveyed in these lines from Song of Roland:

“In Roncesvalles Charles now has set his feet/ And for the dead he finds begins to weep…
“My friend Roland, God lay your soul on flowers. / In Paradise with all the glorious host.
You came to Spain with a cruel overlord. / No day shall pass henceforth that I’ll not mourn”.


[photo credit: Charlemagne, Harper & Row]

However, the parts of greatest interest for me have more to do with the role of language, grammar, manuscript, humanities and arts that Charlemagne introduced to the world.

After his attempts of conquest in Spain, Charlemagne began to concentrate more on improvements in his homeland. He was seized by a passion for learning and studying grammar, astronomy and music. He began to study the Bible and gathered around himself scholars of theology. In addition, his group of poets, grammarians, mathematicians, architects and philosophers influenced him greatly. He even included women in his study groups. Scholars from all over Europe began to attend his court.

Through this court, Charlemagne was introduced to his tutor and mentor, Alcuin, who was schooled in the classics and theology. Alcuin also amassed a library for Charlemagne, so cool, and edited and wrote many textbooks, so so cool. Charlemagne learned through Alcuin the Carolingian minuscule in which Latin was copied. He had the regular practice of someone reading aloud St. Augustine’s’ City of God at the dinner table. One of the most important legacies that Charlemagne left was the translation and copying of classical literature that we are able to enjoy today.

Carolingian Latin minuscule

[photo credit: Charlemagne, Harper & Row]

In his remaining days, he crowned his son, Louis, as co-emperor in 813, and shortly fell ill. He proposed that his son be elected emperor at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He commanded his son to:

”love God and fear Him, protect the Church, be kind to his kin, honor the priests, love the common people, help widows and orphans and the poor, and be just to all men”(135).

Unfortunately, by the time Louis the Pious died, his father’s empire had totally fragmented.Charlemagne died shortly after and gave most of his fortune to the Church. He was buried in his imperial city of Aachen, Germany.

Charlemagne, mythical or not, has been an inspiration for many world leaders including Hitler and Bonaparte who desired to unify all of Europe. Unfortunately, these leaders did not emulate Charlemagne’s zealous defense of Christianity in these pursuits.


It is only rather recently that items of historical jewelry have been analyzed on-site using spectroscopic methods that are portable and compact (Häberli, 2010 Barone et al., 2014 Jer&scaronek and Kramar, 2014 Reiche et al., 2014 Farges et al., 2015). Often these are the only analytical methods possible when cultural treasures cannot be moved from their location, such as a museum or historical site. The drawback is that the results are not as complete as those that could be obtained in the laboratory or on unset stones.

For the Talisman of Charlemagne, we used conventional gemological tools: electronic balance, microscope, polariscope, and ultraviolet lamp. Due to the stones&rsquo size and position in the setting, their refractive indices could not be determined. To gain additional data, we further analyzed the talisman using portable spectroscopic techniques, namely Raman scattering and visible/near-infrared (Vis-NIR) optical absorption spectroscopy at room temperature. We used two compact Raman spectrometers (Ocean Optics QE 65000) with 532 and 785 nm laser excitation. The absorption spectrum in the visible to near-infrared range (400&ndash1000 nm) was recorded with an Ocean Optics USB2000 spectrometer. A Niton XL3T GOLDD+ portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer was used to estimate the chemical composition (elements heavier than Na) of the various gemstones using a 3 mm collimator. The predefined &ldquomining&rdquo setup mode and the NIST610 and 612 glass standards were used as references to control the calibration. It must be mentioned that quantification of Mg by XRF can be challenging, as its detection limit is quite high. The average detection limits of the analyzed elements were: 6500 ppmw Mg, 2500 ppmw Al, 1500 ppmw Si, 110 ppmw Ca, 100 ppmw Co, 85 ppmw Mn, 60 ppmw Ti, 45 ppmw Ba, 35 ppmw Cr, 35 ppmw Fe, 35 ppmw V, 20 ppmw Au, 10 ppmw Pb, 5 ppmw Y, 5 ppmw Ga, and 3 ppmw Rb.

Statue of Charlemagne - History

The Personality of Charlemagne

Commentary by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

The magnificent statue of Charlemagne, Roland, and Olivier is placed in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris near the Seine River
Einhard provides us with a close-up of Charlemagne:

"He was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (seven-feet tall). His head was round and well-formed, his eyes very large and vivacious, his nose a little long, his hair white, and his face jovial. His appearance was always stately and very dignified, whether he was standing or sitting. . His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear." (1)

This heroic figure was possessed of a joyful spirit. The Monk of St. Gall recounts that whoever came before Charlemagne sad and disturbed would leave him serene, just by the effect of his presence and some few words. The freshness and honesty of his nature strengthened all those who were associated with him. His majesty did not have a rigid arrogance, nor a suspicious reserve rather the tranquil grandeur of his personality dominated everything around him, and, notwithstanding, was unpretentious and self-contained.

The terrifying impression he caused in the hearts of his enemies as a warrior leading his army is described by the Monk of St. Gall:

"Then, one could see the Charlemagne of iron, with his head covered by a iron helmet, his arms bearing iron protectors in his left hand he carried an iron lance, and in the right his always victorious steel sword. His muscles were covered with iron plates, and his shield made of pure iron.

"When he appeared, the inhabitants of Pavia cried out with fear: O, the Iron Man! O, the Iron Man!"

This Iron Man had a profoundly sensitive heart. Charlemagne wept like a boy at the death of a friend. The victor of 100 battles showed a paternal care for the poor. The man whose steps caused all of Europe to tremble and by whose grand campaigns a million men were conquered was the most tender of fathers, who never could dine without the presence of one of his children.

It was his Religion that gave the noblest impulse to his strong and fecund spirit and that conferred glory to his power. And under its protection he placed the peoples that his sword had conquered (2).

Comments of Prof. Plinio:

This magnificent portrait of Charlemagne motivates two different comments from me.

The first regards Charlemagne while he was living the second, his role after he died.

Charlemagne, a figure of great splendor, who became the model for Kings and Emperors
Considering Charlemagne during his life, one realizes that he was a masterpiece of Divine Providence in which God was pleased to manifest His glory by the beauty of harmony. With this, God was pleased to shine co-naturally in him.

Often God wants to celebrate the supremacy of great and powerful souls over small bodies by contrast: the soul seems to be almost independent of the body.

At other times, it is the opposite. God makes men with colossal bodies and with lesser intelligences who became known for their virtues, proving that the grandeur of the body is nothing without moral grandeur. It is said, for example, that St. Christopher was of enormous stature and very strong, but very simple of mind, very naïve, even a little backward. Notwithstanding, from this man with super-abundant physical strength and under-sufficient intellectual capacity, God made a work of art whose upright spirit and great bodily strength charmingly served the Child Jesus.

In Charlemagne God put perfection in everything. In him, we see not the beauty of contrast, but the beauty of harmony, of coherence in all things: a great intelligence animating a great body a great body that reflected the immense grandeur of a soul that would carry out a colossal work, achieve a high virtue and leave a great memory. Grandeur in everything was the characteristic of Charlemagne.

Let me consider here only one aspect: Charlemagne as a warrior. In the warfare of that time, where gunpowder and modern technical equipment were not present, the physical strength of a warrior was very important. So, Charlemagne - well armed and covered with iron - appeared then in a battle against his enemies like a tank would in our days. He was a kind of human tank, running over and devastating his enemies with his stupendous sword that never broke and never failed. When he advanced, he cut through and destroyed the enemies, leaving after him a wake through which his men could follow.

From the descriptions that were read (above), you can imagine Charlemagne in battle. A tall man, advanced in years but still vigorous, white hair, eyes of steel, strong muscles, all covered with iron, mounted on a horse that is also raring to attack the enemy. He is the father of his people who takes upon himself great risks for the entire people, and advances to lead his people to victory. This was the man whom the inhabitants of Pavia saw pressing forward against them and cried out in fear: "O, the Iron Man! O, the Iron Man!"

Yes, he was an Iron Man, but more important than that, he was a man who inspired an iron nerve in the warriors who fought for him and with him. When he was present, they all became iron warriors, and the army of the Iron Emperor was an iron army. He was more than a mere combatant, he was the source of the combativeness of the whole army. This was the man who fought against the unjust aggressors of the Frankish Kingdom and of the Holy Catholic Church, of which he was the defender.

The battle over, the Emperor returns to the campground covered with glory, but also covered with dust, sweat, and blood.

A Carolingian gold cup and plate
inlaid with pearls and precious stones
He goes to his tent and takes off his helmet some assistants come to help him remove his armor. He washes and goes to eat. You can picture the Carolingian table: a wood trunk covered with a precious cloth, on it is a golden goblet in a strong primitive shape inlaid with roughly hewn stones to make it sparkle. Charlemagne asks for wine and drinks one or two full chalices, because a man so powerful of nature would naturally drink heartily. He eats, drinks, makes an unpretentious review of the battle, thanks Our Lady for the victory, and retires to sleep.

In his huge bed he rests. His rest is communicative. When Charlemagne sleeps in his tent, that tranquility flows to everyone around him, and from there it spreads in concentric circles to reach all the warriors who are also resting. Even in his sleep he is the Guardian Angel of the army that slumbers. How calming it is for an army to know that it is commanded by an Emperor who is a giant called The Iron Man.

Charlemagne prays in his tent
on his many campaigns
He awakes, and his day begins at the campsite. He receives persons who want to talk to him. He is amiable, calm, accessible, transmitting his joy and goodness to everyone. He is the source of the contentment of the whole camp. He is at the same time the fortified tower that protects everyone and the fountain of fresh water from which all can drink. Everyone wants to sip a little of his presence. So, Charlemagne is the joy of the whole camp ground, the delight of the Kingdom of the Franks.

Let us imagine that three or four Catholic Bishops, knowing that Charlemagne was in the area, come to present themselves, to speak with the Emperor, to request a few favors. Because they know the fame of Charlemagne as protector of the Church, they do not feel any sense of competition with him in his role as head of the temporal sphere. They feel esteem, respect, and affection. They know that they are Princes of the Church of God, and for this reason, Charlemagne is just one of the simple faithful before them. But they also know that God had chosen that one man as a Prophet to guide and protect the interests of the Church and Christendom and give to Him the victory.

They approach with all assurance knowing that the Emperor will not dispute their prerogatives, but will treat them with due honor and respect. They also know that they have the liberty to ask anything they want - from a crusade to the building of a hospital - and that the Emperor will give them what he can.

You can picture these men as they present themselves, grave, dignified, and serene. When they arrive, the sentinel makes a deep bow, all the talk ceases, and everyone looks at them. Someone announces: "The Bishops of the Holy Church of God have arrived. They desire to speak with the Emperor." Another person goes to announce their arrival to Charlemagne.

The crown of the Holy Roman Emperor
He raises up his immense frame and receives the Bishops standing. Greetings are exchanged. Charlemagne invites them to sit down: "My Lords and Fathers, what is it you desire?" We would like this and that. Charlemagne attends to the requests, and gives a little more than what was asked. Satisfied, they take their leave. The army raises camp and moves on to either another battle or returns to Aix-la-Chapelle for a period of rest and tranquility.

Here is the great Charlemagne: a kind of light that intensifies the color of everything around him. Before him the Bishops feel themselves more as Bishops, his sons feel themselves more as sons, the joyful souls are more joyful, the warriors more warriors. There is in him a propelling strength that it is not just physical power, but also the mental strength of a great soul, and more than that, an irradiation of graces that exudes from him. This makes him the source of the life and joy of the entire Empire.

Let me just say a quick word about the role of Charlemagne after he died. After his death, many Bishops would come to better understand their own mission because they would be formed by Bishops who had known Charlemagne. Many warriors would be more perfect warriors because they would converse with and be formed by knights who had seen Charlemagne fighting in a battle. In many courts the splendor would be greater because they would talk about the Carolingian magnificence and the work of the great Emperor. Many Emperors would be more majestic and many Kings would better understand their lordship because the irradiating warmth of the presence of Charlemagne could still be felt there.(3)

A new Roman Emperor

Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne was the pivotal moment in that idea’s arrival. This short-lived revival of the Roman imperial title in the west struck a chord that resonated in the political imagination of western Europeans for over a millennium.

Called “Emperor and Augustus,” Charlemagne restored to the city of Rome the glory of having an emperor after nearly 300 years without one. Although Charlemagne’s biographers noted his “surprise” at the “impromptu” coronation, it was quite likely the result of careful political calculations by both the Roman church and Charlemagne himself, and it increased his status as legitimate and divinely ordained ruler of western Europe. As a “Roman emperor,” Charlemagne could not only claim to be an equal with the empress then ruling over Byzantium, but he could even aspire to be on par with Christian Roman emperors of old, such as Constantine the Great.

For the next 1,000 years, the monarchs of Europe cited Charlemagne’s title as the key link that connected them, and the many kingdoms of medieval Europe, to the Roman Empire. The memory of Charlemagne’s claim to the Roman imperial title emboldened the dream: if Charlemagne, no matter how briefly, could reunite the Roman Empire (or at least western Europe and the city of Rome) under a single Christian ruler, then perhaps it could be done again by someone else.

This vision of a united church and state became a long-running political and religious goal of western European Christians. It was a frequent theme in western European art and literature one poet gave Charlemagne the title “the Father of Europe.”

The dream shaped how European kings thought of themselves. It affected how Christians perceived their encounters with Muslims in southern Europe and on the Crusades. It shaped how the Catholic Church viewed its political authority and relationship to the kings of Europe. Even after the Reformation ended most hopes of uniting Europe under one Christian king, Charlemagne’s memory still held power over faith and politics. And even at the end of the twentieth century, Charlemagne’s Christendom was whispered as the forerunner to the modern European Union.

The legacy of Charlemagne: how the king of the Franks continues to cast a shadow over Europe

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, ruled over an empire which spanned over more than a dozen of Europe’s modern states. He is often invoked as a unifying symbol of Europe – but how appropriate is this? Nicholas Jubber, author of Epic Continent, investigates the legacy of the king of Franks

This competition is now closed

Published: April 2, 2020 at 2:43 pm

Every year since 1950, a prize has been presented in the German city of Aachen. Known as ‘the Charlemagne Prize’, it is given to an individual deemed to have made an outstanding contribution to European unity. Winston Churchill was an early recipient more recently, the prize has been won by Tony Blair, Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron. According to the late German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Charlemagne Prize is “the most important honour Europe can bestow”. But aside from massaging the egos of political high-fliers, the prize plays a subtler role: reminding us of the legacy of Charlemagne, the eighth/ninth-century Frankish ruler who is cited by the City of Aachen, the prize’s sponsor, as the ‘Founder of Western Culture’.

Charlemagne (c747–814) was the ruler of a vast territory that later came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Becoming king of the Franks in 771, Charlemagne had a significant impact on theshape and character of medieval Europe. He embarked on several military campaigns across the continent, from Saxony in modern-day Germany to northern Italy and northern Spain, extending the Frankish kingdom and converting conquered territories to Christianity. These swathes of territory became known as the Carolingian empire, and Charlemagne is often remembered as a great military leader, empire-builder and politician.

The Charlemagne Prize’s inaugural winner – politician and philosopher Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi – used his acceptance speech in 1950 to call for what has been termed a ‘Union Charlemagne’: that is, “the renewal of the Empire of Charlemagne as a confederacy of free nations… to transform Europe from a battlefield of recurring world wars to a peaceful and blooming worldly empire of free people!” This is the concept of European unification – which Coudenhove-Kalergi himself championed as founder of the Pan-Europa Movement, and which was formalised in 1951 (the year after his speech) with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, paving the way for the development of the European Union.

‘Union Charlemagne’

Charlemagne ruled over an empire spanning the territories of more than a dozen of Europe’s modern states, from the Netherlands to northern Italy, from Spain to the Czech Republic. But I would argue the ‘Union Charlemagne’ is based on a shaky premise.

Suppressing the tribes of Saxony, Charlemagne put thousands to the sword (including the beheading of 4,500 rebels at Verden), and uprisings by the Basques and Thuringians were ruthlessly crushed. He was also a relentless opportunist: when Pope Leo III was set upon by hoodlums working for a rival in Rome in 799 (a particularly vicious attack – they tried to pull out his tongue by the roots and stab him in the eyes), Pope Leo made his way to Paderborn, where Charlemagne was residing,and appealed for his protection. Charlemagne’s help came at a cost: he sent Leo back under the protection of his own officials and followed him to Rome a year later, where the Pope’s opponents were exiled, but in return Charlemagnewas crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’. It was a controversial accolade, especially from the point of view of the rival imperial leadership in Constantinople. But it represented a significant consolidation of Charlemagne’s power and prestige.

An enduring pan-European symbol

Charlemagne has been credited as the founder of a unified European culture, combining a militant Christian ethos with the recovery of classical knowledge. Scholars flourished at his court, producing liturgical manuscripts, reviving the art of illuminated texts and contemplating Aristotle’s philosophy, paving the way for European rationality. This has been called the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, an important stepping-stone for the intellectual flourishing of later periods, such as the 12th century and the Renaissance. It was also a period of intense diplomatic activity, with a proposed marriage (and ensuing diplomatic wranglings) between Charlemagne’s son and a daughter of Offa, King of the Mercians and a glamorous exchange of gifts between Charlemagne’s court and the Caliph of Baghdad (including an automatic clock with falling balls of brass and, according to the Carolingian chronicler Einhard, an elephant).

The extent of Charlemagne’s reach can be measured by his enduring status, which I discovered on a recent journey to Sicily. There, I interviewed puppeteers who perform tales about Charlemagne and his paladins (his leading knights) in the opera dei pupi (puppet operas). Fashioned out of wood and jute, with a thick beard and the fleur-de-lis shimmering on his crown, Charlemagne stalks the stage, issuing orders to his knights, resolving their disputes and sending them out to battle against the Saracens. But why, I asked the puppeteers, were these tales of Frankish knights and their ruler popular in Sicily? “Because Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor,” said the puppeteer Giuseppe Grasso, who runs a theatre in the eastern Sicilian city of Acireale. “He was a king not only of the French but all of Europe.”

It is in France and Germany, however, that Charlemagne’s impact has been most deeply felt. In Paris, his bronze statue towers over the square in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral: a horse-riding, fork-bearded giant flanked by his leading paladins. The statue was designed in the late 1860s by Louis Rochet, during a period of heightened tension between France and the emerging nation of united Germany. According to Charles Rochet, brother of the sculptor, “The idea of the statue was conceived by my brother to take back from the Germans this historical figure they had tried to steal from us”.

The battle for ‘ownership’ of Charlemagne has swung between France and Germany. Napoleon had himself painted with Charlemagne’s name on a rock beneath him and he declared “I am Charlemagne” to papal envoys. Many German leaders have also sought to associate themselves with Charlemagne: Adolf Hitler had the imperial crown taken to Nuremberg and a regiment of French Wehrmacht volunteers was named the ‘Charlemagne Division’. But, for all the attempts of nationalists to claim him, it is Charlemagne’s ambiguous identity that has made him a fitting figure for the pan-Europeans. He may have come from a Germanic tribe, but they were the progenitors of the French, and his royal symbol, the oriflamme, which was later attributed to Charlemagne, became the symbol of French kingship. He can’t be fully ‘owned’ by either nation, because he was a ruler from a period of tribal networking and feudal allegiances, rather than demarcated borders and the nation-state.

Epic tales

In an epic poem written in the early ninth century, Charlemagne and Pope Leo, the emperor is described as the “beacon of Europe”, a hero for the continent. This hagiographic poem records the events leading up to his installation as the ‘Emperor of the Romans’, celebrating Charlemagne as keeper of the peace and wielder of justice. This is the Charlemagne celebrated over the centuries: the chivalric ruler and symbol of European unification.

Another version of Charlemagne appears in the 11th-century French epic, the Song of Roland. Here, Charlemagne is the great warrior king and “Moor-slayer”, whose nephew Roland is killed in a battle against the Saracens. After Roland’s death, Charlemagne returns to the battle-site and takes revenge against the Saracens, crushing their army and personally dispatching their king. In the course of the poem he is visited by the Angel Gabriel attends Mass in Aachen and presides over festivities – a paragon of the church militant.

The Song of Roland became an iconic medieval epic, translated into numerous languages, including Castilian, Dutch, Norse and German, and it was supposedly recited by crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. It represents a medieval version of ‘fake news’, re-imagining a historical incident to aggrandise the participants. Historically, Roland was killed by an ambush of the Vascones (the mountain tribespeople identified with the Basques) and Charlemagne was nowhere near the expedition. However, the epic reflects a broader idea embedded in the chronicles: the triumph of the west against Islam, and Charlemagne’s position as the all-powerful European sovereign, marshalling a polyglot pan-European army comprising Franks, Normans, Bretons, Flemings, Frisians, Danes, West Germans and Bavarians.

After Roland’s death, the poem dramatises the domination of the state apparatus. Charlemagne, no longer dependent on charismatic-but-querulous warriors, launches victory through the machinery of his well-oiled army: “An hundred thousand and more put on their mail. / For their equipment they’ve all that heart could crave, / Swift running steeds and weapons well arrayed.” The Saracen army is shattered, their emir personally dispatched by Charlemagne, and northern Spain added to his empire. For medieval Europeans, these tales continued to resonate all through the centuries of crusade and wars with the Ottoman Turks, re-told by the Renaissance poet Ariosto and re-imagined in the opera dei pupi while statues of the hero Roland were installed by the Hanseatic League in Northern Germany and in 15th-century Dubrovnik.

European identity has its roots in epic tales: the Homeric epics about Troy were told around the continent, reimagined by bards as far as Scandinavia and Iceland, and medieval kings in France and England claimed Trojan ancestry to bolster their prestige. The interconnectedness of European culture is revealed in many British epic tales, such as Beowulf, written down in Anglo-Saxon England but set in Denmark and Sweden, with digressions into Germany: these tales, predating concepts of nation states, expose the tangled roots on which our modern nationhood rests.

The Song of Roland fits this pattern: a tale written down in France, set mostly in Spain, ending in what is now Germany, involving knights from many other nations. Travelling around Europe over the past couple of years, I learned about its enduring power. Not only is its narrative recalled in the Sicilian puppet operas, it also inspires an annual Basque demonstration at Roncesvalles, where songs are chanted and speeches delivered. “We defeated Charlemagne,” one demonstrator told me, raising a banner with the battle date 778 emblazoned on the cloth. One of the speech-givers, Dr Aitor Pescador, described Charlemagne as “a foreign, imperialist, centralising power”, articulating the long-sustained resistance towards Charlemagne’s unifying impulse.

This is a reminder that debates about separation and unification have a longstanding heritage in Europe. And this is where Charlemagne’s legacy remains at its strongest. He was important for the concept of Europe and the development of a unifying culture, hinging aggressive evangelising Christianity to the recovery of our classical heritage.

He was important as the earliest of the Holy Roman Emperors (although some quibble over the terminology). His own dynasty disintegrated, but the idea survived, emulated by succeeding Holy Roman Emperors as well as conquerors like Napoleon. But most importantly, Charlemagne established north-western Europe, the region around France and Germany, as the heart of European power. This was a seismic geopolitical shift: Aachen and Paderborn became the ‘new Rome’, and what had once been the barbarian hinterland became the new heart of European politics. This is Charlemagne’s most significant legacy, outliving the collapse of kingdoms and empires and enduring to this day.

Nicholas Jubber’s new book, Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe, is out now, published by John Murray

Statue of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, 1882-1884.Artist: E Bocourt

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Statues, Politics and The Past

Public monuments have become sites of historical conflict, revealing bitter divisions over interpretations of the past.

What purpose do statues serve? This question came to the fore when former prime minister Theresa May announced plans in June 2019 for a memorial in London’s Waterloo station commemorating the arrival to Britain in 1948 of the first of the Windrush generation. The Windrush Foundation criticised the plans, pointing out that the government had not consulted members of the Caribbean community in the UK before publicising them.

This was merely the latest in a succession of recent episodes that have fuelled global debates over the purpose of public monuments in society. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and then spread to Oxford University the following year, protested against statues of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes on both universities’ campuses. Moreover, the past few years have seen ongoing campaigns in the US to have Civil War statues commemorating Confederate figures removed from public spaces. Counter-campaigners have sought to maintain those statues as they are. What these episodes all have in common is that, within each, monuments have become lightning rods for wider conflicts between competing visions of history.

Controversial monuments

Nations and communities have various options for dealing with controversial monuments. One is to remove them entirely. In some contexts, authorities have done precisely this. With the fall of Hitler’s Germany, for example, Nazi monuments throughout the former Reich were hastily pulled down, part of a wider effort to exorcise the spectre of National Socialism.

Some who oppose particular monuments do not wish to take them down entirely, however, asserting that simply removing a statue is tantamount to pretending a traumatic event in the past never happened. Rather, they advocate removing controversial statues while retaining their pedestals as a reminder of the events that they invoke. Accordingly, empty plinths throughout the US show that some communities have confronted their difficult pasts in this way.

Proponents of retaining controversial monuments have suggested that to remove them would be to efface a part of history. They argue that statues should be preserved because they teach people about the past. But is viewing a statue actually an effective way of learning about history?


An insightful way of answering this question is to examine the attitudes of past societies to their public monuments. Developments in 19th-century Europe, in particular, have the potential to unlock a fresh vantage point onto this contemporary issue. In that era, many political communities pursued state-building programmes that involved appropriating history to serve interests in the present. Nations devoted substantial energy and resources to commemorating heroes from the past in monumental form. Helke Rausch’s important work on the political uses of statues in European capitals between 1848 and 1914 shows that major cities received dozens of new monuments: Paris gained 78 new statues, Berlin 59 and London 61. With good reason, historians often characterise the 19th century as an age of ‘statuomania’.

These monuments continue to shape the fabric of European cities. The gilded bronze statue of Joan of Arc installed in Paris’ Place des Pyramides in 1874, for example, remains a familiar sight in the French capital. Every summer, Joan greets the Tour de France as its riders circle the city’s historic heart during the final stage of the race. The statue of Richard I erected outside London’s Palace of Westminster in 1860 still stands proudly outside the home of Parliament. Richard’s unyielding bronze gaze has watched over defining events in the past 150 years. The fate of the grand statue of Frederick the Great erected on Berlin’s Unter den Linden in 1839 has been intertwined with the history of the city. During the Second World War, the monument was encased in protective cement. Beginning in 1950, the DDR authorities relocated it several times. It was only after the reunification of Germany in 1990 that Frederick was returned to his original 1839 location.

Belgian nationhood

The ways in which monuments were used in 19th-century Belgium aptly illustrate wider European trends and attitudes in that era. Belgium was founded through revolution in 1830-1 and its political elite spent the next few decades consolidating its newly won independence. As part of a multifaceted programme intended to forge a new national identity, political authorities drew extensively from the past with the aim of legitimating Belgian nationhood in the present. In contrast to more venerable nations such as England and France, Belgian state-builders could not point to continuity through long-standing institutions and structures that had existed for centuries. Instead, they had to harness the legitimating power of history in a different way. As a result, the ideas and aspirations which shaped their efforts came into focus more clearly than in other states.

Elite project

Seeking to use the past to stimulate feelings of communal solidarity, Belgian political elites commissioned – and provided substantial levels of funding for – scores of new monuments for Brussels, the capital, and other cities and towns throughout the nation. Many of these new monuments honoured figures who lived long before the Belgian Revolution. Some evoked the Middle Ages, while others – such as the statue of the Gallic chief Ambiorix unveiled in Tongeren in 1866 – channelled the even more distant past. In a decree issued on 7 January 1835, the Belgian government signalled its intention to carry out ‘a national task’ by sponsoring the creation of new statues ‘to honour the memory of the Belgians who had contributed to the glory of their country’. In the years that followed, a diverse array of figures including Charlemagne, Peter Paul Rubens and Andreas Vesalius were immortalised in bronze and stone in public spaces throughout the nation, presented as exemplary Belgians from earlier ages.

This wave of Belgian statuomania was not just about conveying an interpretation of the past. It was one element of a programme intended to mediate the relationship between the past and the present. In 1859, Brussels witnessed the inauguration of a monumental column honouring the members of the National Congress, the legislative assembly set up during the Belgian Revolution in 1830. An account written the following year in praise of Brussels’ Congress Column had this to say about Belgium’s statuary:

The history of every people is written in its monuments. They reveal, without diminishment or partiality, their mores, their beliefs, their institutions. This observation is true for all eras and applicable to all countries, and is particularly confirmed in Belgium.

This rather self-conscious effort to assert that Belgian monuments were impartial serves to confirm that precisely the opposite was the case. The statues created in 19th-century Belgium do not simply convey neutral, incontrovertible information about the past. Rather, they present a particular view of history, one which had it that while Belgian nationhood had only become a political reality in 1830-1, it had been an impulse that had shaped the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of the region for centuries. Those who visited the capital in the middle years of the 19th century were able to see a tangible version of this history, cast in bronze and carved in stone. Together, Brussels’ 19th-century monuments constitute a kind of open-air pantheon, aligning statues to heroes from the past, such as Vesalius, with memorials of the Belgian Revolution, including the Congress Column.

Negotiating the past

The statues created in Belgium advance the interpretation of history that prevailed in the mid-19th century. Later developments, including the rise of Flemish nationalism and a backlash against colonial activities in the Congo, prompted the emergence of new and sometimes conflicting concepts of the nation’s past. In turn, attitudes towards the nation’s statuary and the values they embody have evolved. Yet practically all the statues erected in the nation in the decades following 1830-1 still stand. They continue to embody the contingent political circumstances in which they were created: the defining years in which Belgium worked to secure its independence.

So, how can the statuomania of the 19th century inform debates today? Statues can teach us about history, but they do not convey some immutable truth from the past. Instead, they are symbolic of the fixed ideas of a specific community regarding its past, as captured at a particular point in time. As our case study of 19th-century Belgium demonstrates, history is complex and susceptible to refashioning in line with changing political aspirations. In a way, statues do tell us about the past, but that is not to say that we should accept what they tell us uncritically.

Conflicts over particular statues are the result of specific disagreements over an aspect of history. The sharp divides between those who would see Rhodes or a Confederate general as a villain and those who would see each as a hero are cases in point.

Disputes have also been caused by people interpreting monuments in different ways. On the one hand are those who regard them as embodying some essential and imperishable historical certainty. On the other are observers who are able – and willing – to look beyond a particular statue to a more complex and contestable past reality. The latter are better poised to recognise that outmoded and divisive political values embodied in any monument belong in one place and one place alone: the past.

Simon John is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Swansea University.


Modern diplomats make pilgrimages to Aachen as well. An interesting museum just a minute away from the Town Hall allows viewers to glean the long history of Aachen, from ancient times up to today. There are moments captured in images from Baroque-era pilgrims trying to catch a glimpse of the relics inside the cathedral from the rooftop two buildings over, using a mirror, to photos of soldiers goofing off and taking a break during World War II.

In 1949, the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen was established and awarded to stewards of peace every year. The Aachen Treaty signed between Germany and France this year brings the story up to the very present.

Aachen lies right between three countries, and is an hour’s train ride from Cologne, Germany, or closer to an hour and a half from Brussels. The major sites of historical value can be taken in over a single day if you really try, but it’s worth longer than a day trip to try the baths.

Watch the video: Charlemagne u0026 the Roman Revival (August 2022).

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