Towering over the World War I battlefield at Verdun, a giant statue of Charlemagne—the Frankish king crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD—rests its arms on a mighty broadsword. Inaugurated in 1929, the monument boldly announced France’s triumph over its German enemy a decade earlier by claiming the two countries’ shared progenitor as its own.
More recently, Charlemagne—or “Charles the Great,” as he is known in both French and German—and his 9th-century empire, which united France and Germany, have been evoked in support of a united Europe that is now faltering. Since 1950, prior to any political agreements, deserving promoters of European integration (including even a few Americans) have been awarded an annual “Charlemagne Prize” to celebrate contributions to what used to be called an “ever closer union.” That union now looks more and more like yesterday’s familiar patchwork of distinct nationalisms.
Janet L. Nelson’s meticulous biography of Charlemagne is as magisterial as the man himself. Writing a book about such a man is certainly a daunting feat. Neither Charlemagne nor any of his family members left any written records. Some (not Nelson) have doubted that he was even literate. We do not even know with certainty what language he spoke. The consensus favors a Charlemagne who was trilingual in an early Germanic dialect, a vulgate Latin ancestor of French, and scholarly Latin, but we will likely never know with certainty.