Charlemagne not only conquered much of Europe but also created the idea of “Europe,” one that has lasted far longer than the empire, which began to fracture soon after his death in 814.
Historian and novelist Wilson (The Uncrowned Kings of England, 2004, etc.) takes us on a ride back into a time that antedates the periods of his previous works by a thousand years. The author has two interests here: to tell the “truth” about the historical Charlemagne (difficult to do with primary texts written by folks not principally interested in fact) and to examine how his life has affected ensuing western history. The author does a solid job of the former, peeling away layers of mythology from the biography (there are some good passages about The Song of Roland) and revealing that more than a thousand spurious stories have been published about the emperor. Wilson shows a paradoxical Charlemagne, a Christian warrior—a man who wished to conquer in the name of the Prince of Peace; who revered both learning and the learned; who wished his vast demesne to be populated by those who embraced the teachings of Jesus; whose two favorite books were the Bible and Augustine’s City of God; yet a man whose coevals respected and feared him for his military prowess. Charlemagne dies on page 130 (simple pleurisy felled the emperor), and Wilson devotes the rest of his text to his examination of Charles’ enduring influence. We follow him through the Reformation and Renaissance; we see parallels in the lives of Louis XIV and Napoleon; we see his resurrection in the vile mind of Hitler. And—finally—we recognize his desire to unify in the formation of the European Economic Community. Many useful maps appear throughout to help readers visualize the story.
Lacks the technical and stylistic sparkle of great popular history, but is nonetheless informative and even provocative.