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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102

Einhard c. 770-840

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

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Principal Works