Emperor of the World: Charlemagne and the Construction of Imperial Authority, 800–1229 by Anne A. Latowsky
The Frankish king Charlemagne (768–814) virtually doubled the size of the lands he ruled, uniting much of Western Europe into one polity, and then so radically reworked Frankish political practice that he changed the rules of the game of political life in the West. Unsurprisingly given this résumé, Charlemagne became a legendary figure shortly after his death, and remains a compelling symbol even for today’s European Union. Anne A. Latowsky’s book sheds new light on the Charlemagne legend that preoccupied medieval Europeans in the tenth through twelfth centuries.
The Charlemagne legend has been long known and often studied. Latowsky’s original contribution to the field is to reposition some of the earliest versions of the legend. Latowsky is interested in Latin literary texts that recount stories of Charlemagne’s (entirely fictional) visit to the East. It is usually claimed that these texts were produced in a French milieu and that they placed an emphasis on Charlemagne as a proto-Crusader. While Latowsky agrees that the Crusades are the essential interpretative context for stories of Charlemagne in Spain, she contends that the early Latin works that imagine Charlemagne’s travels to the East have little to do with crusading and that they were produced primarily in the German empire, rather than in the kingdom of France. For Latowsky, the early works on Charlemagne in the East have far more to say about peaceful contact, foreign embassies, the meaning of empire, and occasionally eschatological concepts of a mythic Last Emperor than they do about crusading. Latowsky’s achievement in this book is to bring the empire firmly back into a story from which it is often omitted and to explore more fully the rich vein of meaning embedded in the legend of Charlemagne visiting the East. In so doing, she not only expands our vision of the Charlemagne legend itself, but also contributes to our understanding of political discourse and literary relationships in the medieval German empire.
The volume proceeds largely chronologically after the introduction, which lays out the scope of the book, justifies its focus on Latin rather than vernacular renderings of the Charlemagne legend, and explains its primary method of historically contextualized close readings of literary texts. The first chapter tries to explain how Charlemagne’s two ninth-century biographers, particularly his friend and courtier Einhard, provided the foundation for later imaginings of voyages to the East by recounting details of the historical Charlemagne’s interactions with Eastern powers. According to Latowsky, Einhard’s account of foreign relations created a motif of [End Page 637] peaceful contact with the East linked to visions of imperial power. Latowsky is certainly correct to emphasize Einhard’s interest in embassies, as well as the nexus of imperial power and the East, associations later writers would take up. But her reading also privileges possible illusions to works we do not know that Einhard read, and it partially disassociates one chapter from a biography that is on the whole not very interested in empire but deeply interested in war. One would also have liked to see in this chapter some attention to the documentary sources about contact with the East, which provide a different prism for understanding what Einhard was trying to say. But once she begins addressing the first post-Carolingian permutations of the legend in the late tenth century, Latowsky hits her stride. The main chapters of the book analyze different groups of texts produced at particular moments when there was a special interest in the legend, such as during the fraught years of the Investiture Conflict pitting the empire against the papacy, or during the time of Frederick Barbarossa, who pushed through the canonization of Charlemagne by an antipope. The final chapter examines some French texts, arguing that these sources had little to say about Charlemagne as a crusading figure and that the more active discourse about Charlemagne in the East was taking place in the empire.
Latowsky’s efforts to enrich our understanding of what the motif of Charlemagne in the East meant to medieval writers, and to insist on the relevance of the empire to this story, are successful and constitute an important addition to the field. One of the particular virtues of her work is her ability to combine close readings of literary texts with sensitive appreciation of the historical contexts that produced them, without reducing the literary texts to a simple reflection of political policies. Instead, Latowsky recreates for us a discourse among medieval writers in the empire who used the idea of Charlemagne in the East to think through their contemporary concerns about empire and Roman universalism. However, in her enthusiasm to restore the empire to its rightful place in the story and uncover new resonances in the texts, Latowsky sometimes unnecessarily dismisses previous scholarship. She is entirely convincing in demonstrating that the empire was profoundly interested in the Charlemagne legend and that the imperial texts reflected a sophisticated discourse about empire. Her arguments that the French were not interested in the legend, that at least one famous text thought to be French was not, and that the literary works in both a French and German context did not engage with ideas of crusade are less persuasive. Both the kingdom of France and the empire could embrace the legend, which could encompass different understandings of what a visit to the East meant. Latowsky’s book is thus best read not as a replacement for scholarship on French versions of the legend and the importance of crusading, but as a complement to it. She has nonetheless provided a nuanced new perspective on a very old legend, one that encourages her readers to appreciate the multivalent responses that the figure of Charlemagne evoked in the medieval German empire. [End Page 638]