Einhard Introduction

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,102 words.)