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

  • Introduction
  • Source Studies
  • The Context of Charlemagne’s Reign
  • Charlemagne, Legend, and Reality
  • The Reign of Charlemagne
  • General Studies and Works of Reference on Military History
  • Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne
  • The Recruitment of Armies
  • Organization and Logistics
  • The Size of Armies
  • Soldiers and Tactics: Cavalry and Infantry
  • Siege Warfare
  • Holy War
  • Maritime Warfare

Military History Charlemagne
John France
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0087


Historians have always been fascinated by the life of Charlemagne and, in particular, deeply concerned to explain the enormous expansion of his dominions. In 768 he became joint ruler of the Frankish lands, but the death of his brother Carloman in 771 left him as sole ruler of the whole realm of his father Pepin III (b. 741–d. 768). By 774 he had made inroads into Saxony, conquered the old kingdom of the Lombards, and dominated the Italian Peninsula. Campaigns in Spain later led to the establishment of a frontier zone against the Islamic power there, while a long and bitter conflict enabled him to annex the lands of the hostile Saxons and to enforce their conversion to Christianity. He even launched campaigns deep into Central Europe, destroying the Avar power in what we now call Hungary though without being able to conquer the area. However, the sources for his reign, and most especially for its military aspects, are very limited and often difficult to use (see Source Studies). These difficulties are enormously increased by the general tenor of writing on Charlemagne and certain specific controversies that bear upon his reign. Almost all studies of Charlemagne are admiring: the only real exception is that of The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne (Fichtenau 1957, cited under the Reign of Charlemagne). Indeed, the legend of Charlemagne, born from such admiration, enormously complicates our perception, and it remains powerful to this day. In addition, a whole new way of looking at the transition from the ancient to the medieval world has been inspired by The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (Brown 1971, cited under the Context of Charlemagne’s Reign), which posited a gradual and perhaps essentially peaceful transition from Roman to medieval. This matters for military history because an optimistic view of the survival of Roman institutions affects what one may think of the ability of Charlemagne to raise and sustain armies, and it also suggests a continuity of discipline of the standing armies of Rome. In short, how the history of early medieval Europe is understood profoundly influences the understanding of Charlemagne’s inheritance from the past and, most particularly, his military institutions and resources.

Source Studies

At first sight, the historian of Charlemagne seems well provided with sources. The Royal Frankish Annals originated in court circles and were, therefore, a kind of official record covering 741–829. However, they are often very cryptic, and they appear to gloss over events embarrassing to the regime. Some valuable detail was added by a reviser, who some think was working as late as 817, though the earlier date of 801 is strongly argued in McKitterick 2008 (pp. 1–56). The Annales Mettenses Priores present a history of the Frankish realms from c. 675 to c. 805, but, as Fouracre 2005 shows, they too originated in court circles under Charlemagne and are, therefore, suspect. There are two biographies of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker, but the latter is highly anecdotal and was composed only in 883–884, while the former, though the work of one who knew Charlemagne and certainly served his son Louis the Pious (reg. 814–840) until c. 830, is shown in Collins 1998 to be closely connected with the Royal Frankish Annals. A certain amount of record evidence has survived, much of which is available in the volumes of the great collection of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica with its series of Scriptores, Diplomata, Epistolae, Leges. Overall, however, the volume of material contemporary with and directly bearing upon Charlemagne’s reign is not great. The Capitularies are especially important because historians have tended to treat them as law codes, even as legislation. In fact, the biography of Charlemagne McKitterick 2008 casts considerable doubt upon this approach. As a result, the historian is driven to look at all possible material, some earlier and some much later than Charlemagne’s reign. There has, for example, been much interest in the wars of Charles the Bald, whose life is summarized in Nelson 1992 (cited under Charlemagne, Legend, and Reality). There has been much exploration of the military institutions of Anglo-Saxon England to illuminate those of Charlemagne. While all of this can be useful, most of this material is later than Charlemagne, and, in the case of Anglo-Saxon England, bears upon a different country. The only specific military work that we have is a late-4th-century Roman tract, De Re Militari, by Vegetius. It was epitomized by Rabanus Maurus (b. c. 780–d. 856) for King Lothar II of Lorraine (reg. 855–869) as De Procinctu Romaniae Militiae. This epitome was made long after Charlemagne, and while it may have been written with military purposes in mind, as argued in Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), pp. 131–133, the intention could equally have been to flatter Lothar by the association with the glory of Rome. Furthermore, we have no real evidence that it was popular under Charlemagne himself. The sources for the history of Charlemagne are a minefield for the incautious. This is nicely illustrated by the argument between Abels and Morillo 2005, on the one hand, and Bachrach 2007, on the other. More widely, Latowsky 2013 shows how Carolingian sources were distorted by later generations for their own purposes.

  • Abels, Richard, and Stephen Morillo. “A Lying Legacy? A Preliminary Discussion of Images of History and Altered Reality in Medieval Military History.” Journal of Medieval Military History 3 (2005): 1–13.

    This article explores the tendency of medieval writers who had learned their Latin from the classics of the Roman past to use ancient language to describe quite different things in order to parade their erudition. Thus, any group of soldiers might be called legio, a word redolent of order, cohesion, and discipline that often seems to have been at odds with reality.

  • Bachrach, Bernard S. “‘A Lying Legacy’ Revisited: The Abels-Morillo Defense of Discontinuity.” Journal of Medieval Military History 5 (2007): 153–193.

    Rehearses many of his fundamental ideas and argues against the idea of a “Lying Legacy.”

  • Collins, Roger. “The ‘Reviser’ Revisited: Another Look at the Alternative Version of the Annales Regni Francorum.” In After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History: Essays Presented to Walter Goffart. Edited by Alexander C. Murray, 191–213. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

    This is a scholarly exploration of the relationship between the versions of the Royal Frankish Annals and Einhard’s life of Charlemagne.

  • Fouracre, Paul. “The Long Shadow of the Merovingians.” In Charlemagne: Empire and Society. Edited by Joanna Story, 5–19. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520354975-003

    A careful examination of the Annales Mettenses Priores (Earlier Annals of Metz), showing them to be largely Carolingian propaganda written about 806 aimed at disparaging the dynasty of the Merovingians, whom they had overthrown.

  • Latowsky, Anne A. Emperor of the World: Charlemagne and the Construction of Imperial Authority, 800–1229. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.7591/9780801467790

    Although this book goes beyond the subject of this article it provides very subtle analysis of the literature of the Carolingians and so illuminates the traps therein.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803314

    A broad scholarly and highly respected look at the reign of Charlemagne, which also covers valuable insights into the writing of history and records in the Carolingian world.

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