An account of the Germanic king Karl, whose legend has obscured the facts and embellished his accomplishments.
Like Robin Hood and King Arthur, Charlemagne is a historical figure who has become something more than human with the passage of time. After being crowned emperor of Rome by Pope Leo III on Christmas day in a.d. 800, he stood as one of the most powerful men in the world, a monarch who defended the church, consolidated and codified laws and sought to break down linguistic barriers dividing the people of Europe. His legacy casts a long shadow even today, particularly in Brussels, where the European Union’s headquarters is named in his honor. Unlike the 200-year-old sage in the epic Song of Roland, however, the real Charlemagne, known as Karl, was more likely to be found swimming or enjoying the ruckus created by his grandchildren than issuing grand proclamations that would alter the course of world history. Sypeck, who previously covered this subject for middle-schoolers (The Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne in World History, not reviewed), works here to deconstruct and dispel myths about both Charlemagne and his era. He also explores the Frankish kingdom’s relative religious harmony, highlighted by Karl’s peaceful overtures toward Muslim caliph Harun al-Rashid and his comparatively benevolent treatment of Jews (who would endure far worse, the author notes, in the centuries to come). Al-Rashid’s gift of Abul Abaz, an elephant delivered to Karl by his Jewish ambassador, epitomizes this intermingling of cultures. Debunking the myths that surround legendary figures is a tricky business, but Sypeck acknowledges the allure of the ways in which Charlemagne and his era have been romanticized, mitigating the sting and turning it into an educational opportunity.
Illuminates the shadowy corners of an era shrouded in the mists of legend.