Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 840, one of the biographers of Charlemagne, a man named Einhard, died at the age of roughly 65. (His name is also spelled “Einhardt” and “Eginhard.”) He was born into a noble family in East Franconia, the German-speaking lands of the Carolingian Empire, and sent to be educated as a scribe at the abbey of Fulda, one of the most important centers for the evangelization of early medieval Germany. In his later teens, the abbot sent him to work at Charlemagne’s court, then flourishing as a literary and cultural center under the influence of the great Alcuin of York. He became an important adviser to the emperor, whom he also served as a master builder, working on several important projects. After Charlemagne’s death, he became the private secretary of his son and successor, Louis the Pious, and it was in this period that he wrote the Vita Karoli Magni. Like many noblemen of his age, he founded a monastery, and after the death of his wife in 836, retired to it and served as its abbot, although he was never ordained a cleric.

Here is an interesting excerpt from the Life which describes Charlemagne’s relationship with foreign states. One of the kings mentioned, Aldefonsus, was the ruler of two of the small Spanish states in the northern part of the Iberian peninsula, the area not under Islamic domination. “Aaron, king of the Persians” is the contemporary Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid.

“Auxit etiam gloriam regni sui quibusdam regibus ac gentibus per amicitiam sibi conciliatis. Adeo namque Hadefonsum Galleciae atque Asturicae regem sibi societate devinxit, ut is, cum ad eum vel litteras vel legatos mitteret, non aliter se apud illum quam proprium suum appellari iuberet. Scottorum quoque reges sic habuit ad suam voluntatem per munificentiam inclinatos, ut eum numquam aliter nisi dominum seque subditos et servos eius pronuntiarent. Extant epistolae ab eis ad illum missae, quibus huiusmodi affectus eorum erga illum indicatur. Cum Aaron rege Persarum, qui excepta India totum paene tenebat orientem, talem habuit in amicitia concordiam, ut is gratiam eius omnium, qui in toto orbe terrarum erant, regum ac principum amicitiae praeponeret, solumque illum honore ac munificentia sibi colendum iudicaret. Ac proinde, cum legati eius, quos cum donariis ad sacratissimum Domini ac salvatoris nostri sepulchrum locumque resurrectionis miserat, ad eum venissent et ei domini sui voluntatem indicassent, non solum quae petebantur fieri permisit, sed etiam sacrum illum et salutarem locum, ut illius potestati adscriberetur, concessit; et revertentibus legatis suos adiungens inter vestes et aromata et ceteras orientalium terrarum opes ingentia illi dona direxit, cum ei ante paucos annos eum, quem tunc solum habebat, roganti mitteret elefantum. Imperatores etiam Constantinopolitani, Niciforus, Michahel et Leo, ultro amicitiam et societatem eius expetentes conplures ad eum misere legatos. Cum quibus tamen propter susceptum a se imperatoris nomen et ob hoc eis, quasi qui imperium eis eripere vellet, valde suspectum, foedus firmissimum statuit, ut nulla inter partes cuiuslibet scandali remaneret occasio. Erat enim semper Romanis et Grecis Francorum suspecta potentia. Unde et illud Grecum extat proverbium: ‘τὸν Φράγκον φίλον ἔχεις, γείτονα οὐκ ἔχεις.’

(The Emperors Charlemagne and Charles V, on the frontispiece of the editio princeps of Einhard’s Life, printed at Cologne in 1521, during the reign of the latter. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

He also increased the glory of his kingdom by the friendship which he established with certain kings and peoples. For he joined Aldefonsus, the king of Galicia and Asturias, to himself in so close an alliance that he, whenever he sent letters or ambassadors to Charles, he ordered that he should be called by no title other than his liegeman. Further, by his rich gifts, he so inclined the kings of the Scots to his will that they always called him their lord and themselves his subjects and servants. There are letters are still in existence sent by them to him in which this affection towards him is shown. With Aaron, the king of the Persians, who except for India, ruled over nearly all the East, he had so harmonious a friendship that the former valued his favor before the friendship of all the kings and princes in the whole world, and held that he alone deserved to be cultivated with titles and presents. And therefore, when Charles’ ambassadors, whom he had sent with offerings to the most holy sepulcher of our Lord and Savior and to the place of His resurrection, came to (Aaron) and proclaimed the good will of their master, he not only granted them what they asked, but also granted that that sacred place of our salvation should be reckoned as a his possessions. He further sent ambassadors of his own back along with those of Charles, and forwarded to him immense presents – robes and spices, and other riches of the East – and a few years earlier he had sent him at his request an elephant, which was then the only one he had. The (Byzantine) emperors Nicephorus, Michael, and Leo, also sent many ambassadors to him, of their own accord asking for his friendship and alliance. And Charles was held in great suspicion by them, because he had taken the imperial title, and thus seemed to want to take their empire from them; but in the end a very solid treaty was made with them, so that there might remain no occasion of quarrel between the two parties. For the Romans and the Greeks always suspected the Frankish power; hence there is a well-known Greek proverb: ‘keep the Frank as a friend, but not as a neighbor.’ ”

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