How the West was Invented

Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire by Hywel Williams

Books History Literature The West
Emperor and myth: The coronation of Charlemagne, from a ninth-century illumination

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. In the summer of 802, an elephant called Abul-Azaz appeared at Aachen, at the court of Charles, king of the Franks and recently crowned Roman Emperor. The creature had been sent from Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and it was received with delight by the court that saw here a sign of their ruler’s now world-wide status. In fact, Abul-Azaz was a snub: as the Franks were most likely unaware, the Caliph was in the habit of giving elephants to those whom he regarded as client kings. Western ignorance of Baghdad convention ensured that a potential diplomatic face-off became a “win-win” situation for all concerned: the Caliph’s sense of the right order of the world was confirmed, while in the West, the Emperor’s publicists went to work on the gift with excitement. Charles’s elephant duly entered Latin political folklore as an icon of his greatness. 

The making of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (from Carolus magnus in Latin), is the central theme of Hywel Williams’s fine study, Emperor of the West (although the irony of the misunderstood elephant is a rare missed trick). Readers after a romping good tale of conquest and plunder will, after the first 100 pages or so, lose interest. What we get instead is a more interesting medieval “Just So Story”: how the Germanic king became a Roman emperor, how a war leader became a myth. In a series of well-read and elegantly-turned chapters, Williams considers how Charlemagne’s family, the Carolingians, took over as kings of the Franks, how Charlemagne received imperial coronation from the Pope in Rome, and above all, how imperial rule was sustained in such a way as to reframe the political culture of the Latin West. 

The key here is to look away from the figure of Charlemagne himself, to those around him who were complicit in his creation. Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler comes to mind. In approaching his task, Kershaw found that if he included Hitler’s audience, who saw themselves as “working towards the Führer along the lines he would have wished”, then the possibility of Hitler’s own story started to make sense. Mutatis mutandis, Williams here explains how and why the Frankish aristocracy subscribed to the Carolingian project and in particular to the monumentalisation of Charles. For over a century, Frankish elites bought into an over-elaborate apparatus of government and a “twitchy, claustrophobic” programme of what was known at court as cultural “renewal” or “correction”. 

What was in it for them? Apart from the material rewards — the cascades of plunder, the burgeoning profits of agriculture — there was the promise of participation in a Grand Narrative. The making of Charlemagne was also the making of his people, the Franks. Thanks to their “psychological bounciness”, the Franks had already proven themselves the most successful of the Germanic peoples to set up shop after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Charlemagne’s capacity to evoke the Roman Empire — through the reach of his conquests and the scale of his renown — meant that the Franks effectively replaced the Romans in the Latin political imaginary. Indeed, thanks to papal consecration and the support of their own churchmen, the Carolingians could present their assumption of power as an event in sacred history. Rome was now joined with Jerusalem: the Franks were not only the new Romans, but also the new Israelites. Although the Empire itself lasted barely a century, it was enough to establish a new template for political identity in the West. As Williams emphasises in his final pages, European nationhood, and the shape of the wider polity that was Europe took shape within the Carolingian matrix. As an example of how to rule one’s own destiny, this family is hard to beat. 

Myth-making requires violence to history and from this task the Carolingians did not flinch. They butchered the past with the same lack of mercy shown by Charlemagne to 4,500 Saxons at Verdun. This is a theme to which Williams alludes but perhaps underplays. It is a great strength of the book that he is not afraid to digress at length, taking us repeatedly back to the late Roman period and across the early medieval centuries so as to give the appropriate wide-angle view. Carolingian scribes and scholars were less benevolent in their ransacking of the archive. Thousands of texts were recopied and often reworked in a new script (minuscule — our joined-up handwriting, as opposed to the capital letters used in the ancient world). The older versions were discarded or have since been lost. Where the Latin West is concerned, for all texts prior to 800, it is over three times more likely that we have a ninth-century copy than one from earlier centuries. On those all too rare occasions when we can compare an earlier with a Carolingian copy, the results, in terms of manipulation or suppression of the earlier version, can be frightening. We need to consider the possibility that the Carolingian Renaissance, not the burning of the library at Alexandria, may be the decisive moment for the destruction of the cultural patrimony of the ancient world. 

For all that, it is as well not to over-estimate the Carolingians. As Charlemagne’s elephant serves to remind us, the Latin West was “developing” in this period. Global superpower lay elsewhere: Baghdad, whence Abul-Azaz had come, had a population of two million, the same as 19th-century Paris. While politically fragmented, the economic and cultural reach of the Muslim world stretched from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. The rise of Islam in the seventh century has long been seen as a condition for the formation of the Carolingian Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries. With the Mediterranean now a “Muslim lake”, as the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne put it (quoted here by Williams with approval), north-west Europe was forced to develop in a different direction. One might go even further. The reach of the dinar extended not only to the Mediterranean, but also to the North Sea and the Baltic. Franks and Vikings alike were slave-dealers, selling their wares down to Baghdad, Cairo or Cordoba. 

The Muslim silver that washed back was to prime the European economy as it began to take off in the tenth century. Dare one say it in these pages — if we seek the father of Europe, we should look not to the Emperor of the West, but East, to the successors to the Prophet.