Einhard c. 770-840
German biographer and nonfiction prose writer.
Einhard wrote the classic Vita Karoli Magni (c. mid 820s; The Life of Charlemagne), the first and finest medieval biography of a lay figure. The work is notable for being an intimate portrayal of the subject's character as well as a record of major events, and for its honesty—unusual during a time when distortion and gross exaggeration were more the norm. Einhard had a long and distinguished career in politics, serving as courtier to two kings, Charlemagne and Louis “the Pious,” and in religious service, as an abbot. The Life of Charlemagne influenced biographers for centuries and remains of immense importance in studies of the Carolingian Empire.
Einhard was born in about 770 to wealthy landowners Einhard and Engilfrit in eastern Francia by the lower portion of the River Main. He received his early education, which included study of Latin and the Bible, in the monastery of Fulda, in Hesse. He composed six charters while at Fulda, which impressed Abbot Baugulf sufficiently that he recommended him to Charlemagne, who was actively seeking scholars and court officials who were adept at writing. Einhard joined the court in about 791 and continued his education at the Palace School under the famous Northumbrian master Alcuin. At court Einhard gained a fine reputation as epic poet, grammarian, mathematician, and architect. He is believed to have played a major role, as architect or project manager, in the construction of the Aachen chapel, the Aachen palace, and the Ingelheim palace, and to have designed and commissioned many works of art. Charlemagne regarded Einhard as a friend, trusted his advice and loyalty, and used him repeatedly as envoy and negotiator. Upon Charlemagne's death in 814 his son, Louis I, “the Pious,” became Emperor of the Western Empire; Einhard became his personal secretary and married a woman named Emma. Einhard's list of responsibilities grew under Louis's reign and included advising his son Lothair. In 830 Einhard, perhaps out of disappointment in not being able to help settle courtly feuds, withdrew to an estate in Mulinheim, by the River Main, possibly granted to him by Charlemagne years earlier. There he founded a Benedictine abbey and acquired from Rome the bones and other relics of Saint Peter and Saint Marcellinus, the subjects of his Translatio et Miracula SS. Marcellini et Petri (circa 830-31; The Translation and Miracles of the Blessed Martyrs, Marcellinus and Peter). He also wrote many letters, their subject matter varying from the mundane to the religious. Einhard died in 840.
The Life of Charlemagne is Einhard's masterwork. Written in Latin, as were all of Einhard's works, its chief model was Suetonius's “Vita Augusti” in De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars); critics point out that some of the descriptions he employed for Charlemagne were directly borrowed from the Roman biographer. In the preface Einhard explains that he decided to write the book to relate the many important events at which he was present and to pay tribute to his friend. He relied on colleagues, court chronicles, and documents to which he had access to help him write of Charlemagne's career, and he used his personal observations, gathered over more than two decades, to describe his patron's daily and personal habits. It is difficult to overestimate the influence The Life of Charlemagne on medieval historians, for they considered it model in its approach, scope, and literary excellence. The Translation and Miracles of the Blessed Martyrs, Marcellinus and Peter, which reflects Einhard's fascination with relics, explains his theological views and reveals much to historians about medieval culture. Several dozen letters written by Einhard in common Latin are extant; some deal with trivial political matters, some are useful in better understanding Louis, and some express inconsolable pain at the death of his wife. Libellus de adoranda cruce (circa 830; On the Adoration of the Cross), a theological treatise lost for centuries until its rediscovery in 1885, is often published with his letters. Although his first works, the charters, were important politically and to his future career, they are of interest today only to highly specialized historians. Two works once attributed to Einhard are no longer accepted as originating from his pen: the Passion of the Martyrs of Christ, Marcellinus and Peter, which is a work of poetry, and the Royal Annals, which chronicles Charlemagne's expedition across the Pyrenees. The authorship of the epic Charlemagne and Pope Leo, sometimes associated with Einhard, is still debated by critics.
The Life of Charlemagne was very popular in the Middle Ages, as attested to by its survival today in more than one hundred manuscripts. Charlemagne was adored by many people in many nations, and Einhard's positive portrait was well received by both the learned and uneducated. Modern critics consider it the finest biography of its time—concise, balanced, and generally accurate. What errors it does contain are in themselves intriguing to experts: were they deliberate distortions or plain lapses? Perhaps its most commonly cited fault is that it is too brief. Critics have sometimes complained of its easy borrowings from Suetonius, but defenders praise Einhard for using such an excellent model and for placing lifted phrases and sentences in just the right spots. Paul Edward Dutton notes that certain scholars find more sophistication in Einhard's writing than is generally recognized, suggesting that Cicero may have been more of an influence on the work than Suetonius. An area of much scholarly disagreement is the dating of The Life of Charlemagne. Dates proposed range from 818 to 836, with a substantial number of critics opting for the 830s. Scholars argue that the work's date of composition is particularly important to interpreting Einhard's attitude toward Louis. Lewis Thorpe provides historical perspective on The Life of Charlemagne when he explains that, “when viewed as a work of art, especially by those accustomed to considering the great masterpieces of European literature, in their correct sequence, over the last two thousand years, there is a strange perfection about it which becomes all the more unexpected when we remember that it was written in Seligenstadt in the 830s.” Dutton has argued that the overwhelming popularity of The Life of Charlemagne has diverted attention from The Translation and Miracles of the Blessed Martyrs, Marcellinus and Peter, which he finds more revealing of Einhard's true nature. Although he praises The Life of Charlemagne, “which in its classical simplicity and careful symmetry is a work of enduring and unforgettable genius,” Dutton believes that this sometimes fantastic and bizarre theological piece no less reflects Einhard's genius “to meet, match, and shape the tastes of the times through which he passed.”
Chartae [Charters] (political documents) c. 788-91
Vita Karoli Magni [The Life of Charlemagne] (biography) c. mid 820s
The Letters of Einhard (letters) c. 825-40
Translatio et Miracula SS. Marcellini et Petri [The Translation and Miracles of the Blessed Martyrs, Marcellinus and Peter] (treatise) c. 830-31
Libellus de adoranda cruce [On the Adoration of the Cross] (treatise) c. 836-40
Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne (translated by Samuel Epes Turner) 1880
“The Letters of Einhard.” In Papers of the American Society of Church History, Vol. 1 (translated by Henry Preble) 1913
Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard and the Monk of St Gall (translated by A. J. Grant) 1926
The History of the Translation of the Blessed Martyrs of Christ, Marcellinus and Peter (translated by Barrett Wendell) 1926
The Letters of Lupus of Ferrières (translated by Graydon W. Regenos) 1966
Two Lives of Charlemagne (translated by Lewis Thorpe) 1969
Vita Karoli Magni: The Life of Charlemagne (translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel) 1972
The Complete Einhard (translated by Paul Edward Dutton) 1998
(The entire section is 165 words.)
SOURCE: Strabo, Walahfrid. “Walahfrid Strabo, His ‘Prologue’ to the Life of Charlemagne.” In Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard, edited and translated by Paul Edward Dutton, np. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, originally written some time after the deaths of Louis the Pious and Einhard in 840, Strabo briefly sketches Einhard's biography and his purpose in writing his account of Charlemagne.]
Einhard is known to have sketched the account of the life and deeds of the most glorious Emperor Charles that is found below. Among all the courtiers of the palace at that time, this man received surpassing praise not only for his knowledge, but also for the complete integrity of his character. It is also known, since he was present at most of these events, that he made his account even stronger by [his personal] attestation to the simple truth [of things].
He was born in eastern Francia in a district called Maingau. He received the first rudiments of his boyhood education at the monastery of Fulda in the school of St-Boniface, the martyr. From there Baugulf, the abbot of that monastery, sent him to the palace of Charles, not, however, because of the nobility which was so obvious in him, but rather because of the specialness of his capacity [for learning] and his intelligence. For even then in that monastery he [had] shown great signs...
(The entire section is 560 words.)
SOURCE: Grant, A. J. Introduction to Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard & The Monk of St Gall, translated and edited by A. J. Grant, pp. v-xxi. London: Chatto & Windus, 1926.
[In the following excerpt, Grant remarks on the veracity and balance of Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, particularly as compared with the Life written by the Monk of St. Gall.]
THE TWO “LIVES” CONTRASTED.
This volume contains two lives of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (for both forms of the name will be used indifferently in this introduction); both written within a century after his death; both full of admiration for the hero of whom they treat; both written by ecclesiastics; but resembling one another in hardly any other particular. It is not merely the value which each in its different way possesses, but also the great contrast between them, that makes it seem useful to present them together in a single volume. Professor Bury remarked in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge: “It would be a most fruitful investigation to trace from the earliest ages the history of public opinion in regard to the meaning of falsehood and the obligation of veracity”; and these two lives would form an interesting text for the illustration of such a treatise. The restrained, positive, well-arranged narrative of Eginhard seems to belong to a different age from the garrulous, credulous, and...
(The entire section is 3616 words.)
SOURCE: Ganshof, F. L. “Einhard, Biographer of Charlemagne.” In The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History, translated by Janet Sondheimer, pp. 1-16. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in French in 1951, Ganshof argues that the Life of Charlemagne is not only historically valuable but also interesting reading in its own right.]
Einhard does not stand in the forefront of the great figures of the Carolingian Renaissance which bequeathed to us such a major part of classical Latin literature. The influence of the English Alcuin, as teacher and writer, and above all as Charlemagne's adviser on ecclesiastical and intellectual matters, was vastly more profound. And the subsequent flowering of the Carolingian renaissance in the ninth century—which coincided with the political breakup of the Carolingian world—witnessed the development of minds more forceful and original than his, men such as the Saxon Gottschalk, theologian and man of letters, or the Irish John Scot, a theologian but principally a philosopher, to name but two. At the same time it must be said that Einhard, a Franconian from the Maingau, has enjoyed a resounding success. His biography of Charlemagne attracted praise from contemporaries such as Walahfrid Strabo, the celebrated abbot of Reichenau, and Lupus of Ferrières, the most considerable...
(The entire section is 7640 words.)
SOURCE: Painter, Sidney. Foreword to The Life of Charlemagne, by Einhard, pp. 5-12. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960.
[In the following excerpt, Painter explains some limitations of the Life of Charlemagne and discusses why Einhard used the work of the Roman historian Suetonius as his chief model.]
Charlemagne or Charles the Great who is counted as Charles I in the conventional lists of kings of France was one of the truly imposing figures of history. At the height of his power he ruled all the Christian lands of Western Europe except the British Isles and southern Italy and Sicily under the titles of king of the Franks and the Lombards and Roman emperor. He held this vast realm in a grip of iron and cowed its foes on every frontier. He also initiated and encouraged a revival of learning which is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance. While this was a brief flash of light in a dark age, it left sparks which made the succeeding period less gloomy and supplied the beginnings of a permanent revival in the twelfth century.
In order to understand the magnitude of Charlemagne's achievement it is necessary to know something of the world into which he was born. In the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ, Germanic invaders overran the western provinces of the Roman Empire. In the year 700 most of England was ruled by a number of Anglo-Saxon kings, Spain by...
(The entire section is 1463 words.)
SOURCE: Thorpe, Lewis. Introduction to Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe, pp. 1-45. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1969.
[In the following excerpt, Thorpe examines the biographies of Charlemagne and Einhard and comments on the latter's reticence to write anything negative about his subject.]
1. CHARLEMAGNE, KING AND EMPEROR
THE SOURCES OF OUR KNOWLEDGE
Charles the Great, King of the Franks and later ruler of the Carolingian Empire, may at first sight seem comparable with that other famous medieval figure, Arthur of Britain, for in both cases the fictional hero into which each later developed tends to obscure the original historical personage. Of the real Arthur we know very little, although most historians and students of literature accept that he was a Romano-British guerrilla leader who lived in the district called Strathclyde in the first half of the sixth century. The fact that the literary Charlemagne is the central figure of a vast series of epic poems written in France in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and of a corpus of derived literature in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, must not encourage us to think that of him, too, considered as a real person, we know as little as we do of the historical Arthur. In effect, our knowledge of Charles the Great is both...
(The entire section is 8015 words.)
SOURCE: Dutton, Paul Edward. “An Introduction to Einhard.” In Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard, pp. xi-xli. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Dutton explores the characteristics of Einhard the man, not limited only to his writing of the Life of Charlemagne, and considers him as courtier, poet, theologian, and the author of Translation and Miracles.]
Einhard and Charlemagne have traveled through history together, at least as we have always imagined them, the little biographer and his towering subject. Their relationship has always struck observers, including Einhard himself, as that of a nurturing father and his adopted son. But it would do no harm for us to scratch a little at the varnish that lies thick and yellowing over this familiar portrait. Beneath it the searcher may come upon another image, the one that too often lies hidden behind the figure of Charlemagne himself, even in the title of this collection of readings. The adventurous reader may wish, in fact, to reverse the process, to consider whether s/he ever sees Charlemagne at all or only Einhard's particular act of remembering him.
But, just as it is imperative for students to assess Charlemagne independently of Einhard's account, it is also important to try to take the measure of Einhard apart from Charlemagne. That is not to say that one can ever be fully...
(The entire section is 14698 words.)
Sullivan, R. E. “Einhard.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5, p. 232. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1967.
A capsule entry that covers Einhard's life and chief works.
Firchow, Evelyn Scherabon and Edwin H. Zeydel. Introduction to Vita Karoli Magni: The Life of Charlemagne, by Einhard, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel, pp. 13-28. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1972.
Discusses Einhard's writing models, some of his factual mistakes, his importance to German literature, and the popularity of the Life of Charlemagne.
Innes, Matthew and Rosamond McKitterick. “The Writing of History.” In Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, edited by Rosamond McKitterick, pp. 193-220. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Argues that the Vita Karoli was likely written earlier than frequently supposed and, if viewed in that light, should be interpreted as contemporary history.
(The entire section is 137 words.)