- Charlemagne: Father of a Continent
An updated, English-language biography of Charles the Great would be a welcome addition to the modern canon on the mighty Carolingian king and emperor, as the best recent efforts to tackle the subject have been in French (Jean Favier, Charlemagne, 1999) and German (Dieter Hägermann, Karl der Grosse, 3rd ed., 2001). Alessandro Barbero is therefore poised to fill a gap with this English-language edition of his 2000 biography, Carlo Magno, Un Padre dell'Europa. While the book is a page turner and one of the most readable works on Charlemagne to appear in years, in this endeavor he only partially succeeds. [End Page 490]
Readers accustomed to Allan Cameron's past translations will find his effort here to be equally satisfying and even enjoyable, and Barbero is clearly a master of his subject and period. Charles is studied as an energetic king actively involved not only in warfare but also Frankish economy, culture, and the early medieval Church. On the latter, the author repeatedly (and convincingly) argues that it was Charles, not Popes Adrian I and Leo III, who was the practical leader of the Church in the eighth and ninth centuries. He dances gracefully through the complicated issues of Carolingian justice and economy, and his examination of Charlemagne's relations with Byzantium addresses an important and oft-neglected aspect of Western foreign relations (pp. 77–85). One rather touchy aspect of Charlemagne's legacy has been its nationalistic appropriation in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Charles has been alternatively claimed and attacked for being either French or German, while in fact he was neither. Barbero succinctly corrects such mistakes, extending the work of Patrick Geary and others who seek to detach these inept claims to the heritage of early medieval empires (pp. 102–9).
Barbero's historiographical approach, however, may generate consternation for some readers. While frequently examining the nuances of the medieval evidence in the text, he refrains from offering detailed discussions of modern scholarly debates. Those he does examine tend to be of the older variety, such as his lengthy discussion of the Pirenne thesis (pp. 109–13). The rest are relegated to an annotated bibliography, and, as a result, several fascinating subjects such as the dispute over Charles's own role in the coronation of 800 (pp. 89–94) receive less coverage than deserved. The bibliography itself is separated by chapter and is quite thorough; one notable omission is Richard E. Sullivan, "The Carolingian Age: Reflections on Its Place in the History of the Middle Ages," Speculum 64 (1989): 267–306.
Readers of this journal will no doubt be interested in Barbero's discussion of the Carolingian military. Chapters Two and Three are narratives of Charlemagne's wars against the Lombards and the Pagans (Saxons, Muslims, and Avars), and are quite informative and well-suited for a historical biography. Chapter Eleven, "The Frankish Military Machine," fares rather worse. The author seems less at ease with the practice of warfare than the social aspects of armies. He energetically jumps into the debate over the size of Carolingian armies but cites none of the numerous studies on the subject; his assessment of infantry and cavalry armament seems fair but, again, is unsubstantiated. Much of Barbero's evidence here is from extant documents, but as medieval historians have consistently demonstrated, literal readings of monkish military descriptions can be problematic. The bibliography for Chapter Eleven is wide-ranging but somewhat dated. In addition, aside from some remarks on patronage, Barbero is silent on the question of the supposed Carolingian feudal order. Given Charlemagne's frequent association with the outdated concept of feudalism, a little attention here would have been appreciated, especially in relation to questions of military organization and logistics. And unlike his treatment of other thorny scholarly issues, Barbero does not examine the feudal question within the bibliography, save for [End Page 491] a short dismissal of Susan Reynolds's landmark study Fiefs...