In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charlemagne

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiographic Surveys
  • Opposition to Charlemagne
  • Government and Administration
  • Relations with the Papacy and the Coronation
  • The Donation of Constantine
  • Foreign Relations
  • Books and Learning
  • Alcuin
  • Aachen
  • Charlemagne’s Final Days
  • Louis the Pious

Medieval Studies Charlemagne
Richard Ring
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0196


Charles or Karl (Karolus, and later known as Charlemagne) was born 742/748 and died in his palace at Aachen in 814. The oldest son of Pepin and Bertrada, he became King of the Franks with his younger brother, Carloman in 768, and sole king in 771. He was a successful, and sometimes ruthless, warrior who extended Frankish rule over large parts of Germany and central Europe, northern and central Italy, and northern Spain. He also proved to be an astute politician and administrator of his diverse kingdom. He was an intensely religious man with close ties to the papacy. In 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome. He fostered learning and education by inviting leading scholars to his court. Collectively they produced what has been called the “Carolingian Renaissance.” Charlemagne’s influence lasted long after his death. Legends about him appeared early and continued to be recited and written well into the 16th century. In the 20th century some adopted Charlemagne as the “Father of Europe” in order to promote European unity. On the lighter side his name has been used on at least two cigars—Charles the Great “Barcelona”and La Gloria Cubana Charlemagne—and in an advertisement for Plexo Suspenders, which asked: “How did Charlemagne keep his trousers up?” (Everybody’s Magazine, January 1914, p. 103).

General Overviews

A number of books and articles provide broad coverage of Charlemagne and his age. Collins 1998 and Becher 2003 are the best short accounts in English. Bullough 1973 is a splendidly illustrated scholarly analysis in the guise of a coffee-table book. McKitterick 2008 is a scholarly analysis of most of the major questions about Charlemagne’s reign. Nelson 2002 and Nelson 2006 provide an analysis of Charlemagne’s family and personality. McKitterick and Nelson are the leading scholars of Charlemagne and the Carolingian period in English. Hägermann 2000 and Fried 2013 are full treatments in German. Barbero 2004 deals with Charlemagne from an Italian point of view, while Favier 1999 presents a French perspective. Sypeck 2007 is an interesting popular account.

  • Barbero, Alessandro. Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. Translated by Allan Cameron. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

    An Italian scholar’s account of Charlemagne and his times; well-informed, especially on Charlemagne’s conquest of and subsequent rule over Italy. Has an excellent annotated bibliography.

  • Becher, Matthias. Charlemagne. Translated by David S. Bachrach. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

    A short, authoritative biography based on the most recent Anglo-American and continental scholarship.

  • Bullough, Donald. The Age of Charlemagne. 2d ed. London: Paul Elek, 1973.

    A scholarly, but very readable, account of Charlemagne and his times with a large number of color plates and illustrations.

  • Collins, Roger. Charlemagne. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-26924-2

    A very good, short narrative, best on political and military affairs.

  • Favier, Jean. Charlemagne. Paris: Fayard, 1999.

    A rather diffuse, topically organized account.

  • Fried, Johannes. Karl der Grosse: Gewalt und Glaube. Munich: Beck, 2013.

    A full account of the life and times of Charlemagne by a leading German medieval historian, published to coincide with the 1200th anniversary of the emperor’s death.

  • Hägermann, Dieter. Karl der Grosse: Herrscher des Abendlandes. Berlin: Propyläen, 2000.

    A large, detailed biography in strict chronological form well-informed by recent scholarship; the book, however, has minimal bibliography.

  • McKitterick, Rosamund. Charlemagne: the Formation of a European Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803314

    An excellent account that astutely assesses the primary sources and manuscripts as well the principal events of Charlemagne’s reign. Very good on all aspects of Charlemagne’s reign but especially on cultural and administrative issues and recent scholarly debates.

  • Nelson, Janet L. “Charlemagne: Pater Optimus?” In Am Vorabend der Kaiserkrönung: Das Epos “Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa” und der Papstbesuch in Paderborn 799. Edited by Peter Godman, Jörg Jarnut, and Peter Johanek, 269–280. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2002.

    Nelson discusses the coronation and subsequent decisions from the standpoint of Carolingian family politics.

  • Nelson, Janet L. “Did Charlemagne Have a Private Life?” In Writing Medieval Biography, 750–1250: Essays in Honour of Professor Frank Barlow. Edited by David Bates, Julia Crick, and Sarah Hamilton, 15–28. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2006.

    Nelson is the leading scholar of Charlemagne and the Carolingians. Here she discusses the evidence for Charlemagne the person as well as the problems of writing the biography of medieval persons.

  • Sypeck, Jeff. Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

    A very readable popular account emphasizing the relations between Charlemagne and Aachen with Rome, Jerusalem, and Baghdad.

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