(Also known as Charles the Great, Charles I, Karl der Grosse, and Carolus Magnus.) King of the Franks (768-814) and Emperor of the Western World (800-14).
Beloved ruler of western Europe, Charlemagne brought forth a rebirth in learning at a time when few of his subjects could even write their own names. A patron of literature and the arts and the founder of many schools, Charlemagne through his leadership encouraged and inspired others to read, write, and learn, bringing forth what has been called the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne, already a legend in his own time, became a prominent character in the body of literature known as the Carolingian cycle or the Matter of France, and through these chansons de geste, he continued to influence millions of people in numerous countries for centuries.
Charlemagne was born to Pepin the Short and Bertrade in northern Europe; his exact birthplace is unknown. He inherited half the kingdom of the Franks upon the death of his father in 768. Three years later, upon the death of his brother Carloman II, who had shared the Frankish empire, he became King of all the Franks. Skilled in strategy and tactics (his work on these subjects was later to be studied by Napoleon Bonaparte), Charlemagne set forth to Christianize the land. He battled the pagan Saxons for more than three decades, finally conquering them in 804. In 773-74 he conquered Lombardy, restoring the land to the Pope. He waged dozens of campaigns, including expeditions against the Saracens in northeastern Spain in 778. It was in a surprise attack against Charlemagne’s rear forces that the Basques killed one of his nobles, Roland—the hero of the Chanson de Roland. By the end of the century Charlemagne ruled most of western Europe, uniting much of the land once under the Roman empire. Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Western World in 800. Charlemagne improved conditions for the common people to an extent never before accomplished through reforms in government, the military, commerce, farming, and education. The latter was available for peasants as well as nobles; he went so far as to consider universal free schooling. Charlemagne died in 814, leaving his only surviving son, Louis, as ruler. Louis lacked the command or organizational skills of his father and the empire was quickly invaded.
Charlemagne himself did not write any literary works; indeed he could not write at all until his old age, and then only barely. He could, however, read Latin and some Greek. Thus, it is not as author but as a character that Charlemagne is known in literature. Of mythical, legendary proportions, he is featured in a great body of work which includes the epic Chanson de Roland. For centuries after Charlemagne’s death, many common folk refused to believe that he was dead, even envisioning him as leading the Crusades. Others believed him always ready to protect the land, resting in a cave until such a time as he was needed. By the middle of the century of his death, this devotion was expressed through making him the subject of many songs and tales, the practice continuing through the next two centuries. The Chanson de Roland was written by an anonymous French poet (some believe him to have been the Norman poet Turold) sometime between the Norman Conquest and the first Crusade in 1096. The epic of four thousand lines is an embellished conflation of many lesser tales about Charlemagne. Fighting for the King (considered French by the poet), Roland is vanquished by overwhelming numbers but does not lose his honor. Charlemagne finds the slain Roland, prays over his body, and the newly-inspired French chase the Saracens into a river where they drown. For more than five centuries, until the Renaissance, the Chanson de Roland remained popular and is still France’s most famous poem. In Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, another classic poem of nearly 900 lines, Charlemagne seeks out Hugo the Strong of Constantinople. In Jerusalem, on their way, Charlemagne and his fellow travelers are given relics. When they eventually meet up with Hugo they make extravagant claims which Hugo calls on them to perform. Charlemagne and his men accomplish their tasks with the help of God. In what is assumed to be a joke at the end of the poem, the assertion is made that Charlemagne is a greater man than Hugo because Charlemagne is the taller of the two. No doubt the popularity of works which feature Charlemagne can be credited in no little part to the public’s adoration of the King, who was adopted as one of their own by France, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, and Spain.