The Medieval European Union

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Book Review of Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
by Hywel Williams. Quercus, London. 2010. ISBN: 978-0-85738-162-0. 460 pages. £10.99

In advance of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957, there was an earlier European Union under the Frankish empire of Charlemagne (742-814) and the Carolingian dynasty that lasted until the 10th century when it was replaced by the Ottonian dynasty. The saga of the Old European Union, which included most of western and central Europe, is the subject of this book published by Hywel Williams, a British historian, journalist and broadcaster. The story of Charlemagne served as an inspiration of the European Union for as pointed out by Williams all the signatories of the Original Treaty of Rome had claims of being heirs to Charlemagne as their countries were once part of the Carolingian empire.

This book covers the period between 400 and 1000 of the common era, when Europe’s national identities were formed. It is organised into nine chapters preceded by a well presented Introduction. The first two chapters describe Charlemagne and the backdrop of the ongoing process of Christianization of Europe. The larger than life personality of Charlemagne is revealed gradually in the chapters of this book and show how Charles became Magnus. Charles was the third son of Pippin the Short (714-768), was three years old when his father ascended to the throne in 752 after deposing Childeric III, the last king of the Merovingian dynasty. Pippin the Short groomed all of his sons for power, providing them with opportunities to meet the right people and to recognise authority and power. After Pippin’s death in 768, Charles and his brother Carloman were crowned kings but Carloman died shortly after and Charles inherited the Frankish kingdoms of Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, plus Alamannia. As Williams describes, from then on Charles grew in importance, becoming the most important ally of the Roman Catholic Church and creating his empire.

Charlemagne is shown in this book as a man who valued family, tradition and the counsel of wise men – such as Alcuin of York. He understood not only the powerful but also the common people. He also understood the threats that lie dormant under the veneer of civilization, as evidenced in his will Divisio Regnorum, where he ordered in writing that his sons should not harm by death, mutilation, blind or tonsure any of his grandsons and nephews without a fair trial and enquiry.
The third chapter deals with how Charles developed a military campaign that changed the map of Europe, incorporating Aquitaine, Lombardy, Saxony and Bavaria. The main motive behind the wars of territorial expansion was to Christianize the kingdoms thought to be pagans threatened by Muslim occupation. Chapter four describes how Charles went to become the Magnus Roman Emperor, occupying the void left by the western partition of the old Roman Empire.

Chapters five through seven describe the system that Charlemagne introduced to govern, such as the creation of the Frankish national assembly composed of two segments, minting and other institutions and his partnership with the Roman Catholic Church. Chapter eight describes the cultural and intellectual life in Europe which gave rise to the Carolingian Renaissance. The final chapter shows how the Carolingian empire influenced the rest of Europe, how it was divided after Charlemagne’s death, and how it gradually became weakened by Viking attacks. It also shows the emergence of the Ottonian empire of Saxony which eventually replaced the Carolingian empire, after Otto I conquered the Lombards and began a quest to Christianize Scandinavia. In 962 Otto I was summoned to Rome to become de defender of the Pope and the papal states, just like his predecessor Charlemagne.

Williams criticises the early medieval authors who failed to check the evidence they were given, giving rise to false generalizations such as: “… and so we learn that the Lombards had beards, that Avars wore their hair in braids, and that the Franks went into battle carrying the axe known as ‘francisca’. Details such as these are hardly enough to separate a national identity.”

The author is also critic of the broad-brush strokes used to create the histories of the various nations, which tended to conceal important facts. One of the things he points out that not even France can be considered a ‘natural nation’ for it too had a very long building process:

When Clovis established his Frankish kingdom in the Gaul of c. 500 his people spoke a variety of Germanic languages and dialects, and they were a very small minority compared with the Romanized population and the other groups of barbarian peoples who were already settled in the province. It took well over 300 years for this minority to assimilate itself into the language of the majority, and the process by which the natives learn to accept that they too were now Franks was very long drawn out.

The national identities of Europe were formed gradually between 400 and 1000, as shown by the appearance of words that did not exist previously which is an evidence that such words were created to help the process of nation building. This was the period when names such as Danes, Bulgarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and many others appeared and became labels of individuals. The names of the various regions of Europe like Burgundy, Lombardy, Bavaria and Saxony also appeared in the early Middle Ages. The emergence of labels for peoples and places helped the image of the Germanic peoples – which the Romans referred to as ‘barbarians’, a term which meant simply ‘foreigners’. It was then that the Angles and the Saxons became the English and when inhabitants of Roman Germania became Germans.

Williams also explains the differences between the history of Spain and the history of Italy. During the seventh century, Spain, then under the Visigoth rule, had a culture that was considered superior to that of the Franks, although it was ended by the Muslim conquest of the eighth century. The case of Italy is a bit more complicated because not only it became occupied by the Lombards and the Ostrogoths but also for being the homeland of the ancient Romans. The lack of a common identity between these invaders and the local Roman population explains why Southern Italy did not integrate into the Westernised culture of the rest of Europe until the eleven century, with the arrival of the Norman invaders.

Although the Carolingian era ended with the end of the first millennium, the legacy of Charlemagne continued under the Ottonian dynasty, and so did the dream of European hegemony. Williams completes his argument pointing out the similarities between the inhabitants of the Carolingian and the Ottonian empires: both were a mixture of original Roman populations and Romanized barbarian peoples.

The stories of Charlemagne and the individuals who constructed Europe in the Middle Ages contained in Emperor of the West are sown together with great skill, like a well thought patchwork quilt. This book’s 14 pages of primary source references and 47 pages of secondary ones suggest that the narratives were also well researched. With sixteen pages of beautiful and meaningful illustrations, Emperor of the West offers a relevant, informative, critical and a truly compelling read.
WILLIAMS, H. Emperor of the West: Carlos Magno and the Carolingian Empire. London, Quercus, 2010, ISBN 978-0-85738-162-0. Resenha de: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. (2012). The Medieval European Union. PortVitoria, UK, v. 6, Jan-Jun, 2013. ISSN 2044-8236,