Charlemagne was the King of the Franks. Nowadays, the French insist that he was French and the Germans claim the same. If you asked him, he would probably say that he was Frank and screw the French and the Germans! This shows that Charlemagne was not very polite.
Charlemagne’s name was not really Charlemagne, I mean it did not have the magne part and it was just Charles (if you are French) or Karl (if you are German). His mom probably called him Karl dear, which shows that his mom was polite and goes further to prove that kids never learn from their parents.
Charles’ dad was called Pepin, and his friends called him Pepin the Short since he was only about a yard tall and all that. But he wanted to prove himself and so he wrote a letter to the Pope (who was his friend) and asked him if he could remove the king (who was a half-wit since his parents were cousins or something) and the Pope obviously would not have said no. You don’t know Pepin, he was very convincing.
So, Pepin became the king of the Franks, which is not much. So, he married the daughter of an English kinglet, and you know when the English get involved, things get hairy. Now, they say that what I am going to tell you is a myth, but I think it explains a lot and so who cares if it was a myth. The story is that the English girl had to cause some trouble and so she gave birth to twins. Well, you couldn’t have two boys succeeding Pepin now, could you? So, at first they waited and thought that one of them is going to die, this being the Middle Ages an all that. But you see, the boys were made of good material and paid no attention to the statistics that out of every two new-born, one should die, and they just kept on living. The thing was becoming a bit rummy, so they had to come up with a solution and decided to keep the right one and give up the left one to a shepherd to raise, which shows you the disadvantages of being on the left…
Well, it happened that the right one was called Karlmann and the left one was, you guessed it, Charles (or Karl, if you are Germanically inclined). Charles grew up in the meadows and forests and ate like a pig and grew up to be a giant old bird. This has caused some historians to doubt that he was coming from Pepin’s loins, but if you are thinking the same, you probably don’t know much about the English broads; they are not French, you know!
So, a few years passed and Pepin got close to the end of his life, and when the grim reaper came to take his life, Pepin asked him to wait a bit as Karlmann seemed not cut for ruling and was prone to sickness and falling dead any minute and Pepin was going to recover the current Charles. The black hooded one, who was a personal friend of the Pope as well, agreed and went to take the lives of the poor and the less fortunate who did not have any personal connection to the Holy Sea.
Meanwhile, Pepin sent for the shepherd and asked him to return the kid, and he did this happily since Charles had eaten to the end of his grain storage. So, when Charles showed up at his dad’s court, Pepin looked at him and shot a glance at the English girl as if saying: “what’s the story” and the mom made a gesture as saying that it is not my fault and this is the genuine item. So, the issue of paternity was solved. Then, Pepin got Karlmann and put Charles’ hand in his hand and made them swear to support each other and rule jointly and all sort of niceties. The brothers swore and kissed their dying fathers’ hand and then went to their own chambers and started sharpening their knives.
You see, this was the Dark Ages and the concepts of betrayal and murder and treachery that are completely estrange to us now were quite common and it was expected of brothers to try to out-smart each other and all that. Anyway, you have to consider that this is what the historians say, and you know those blokes, they seem to have a bone to pick with historical characters. Otherwise, there is no logical reason to assume that when a brother is passing under the window of another brother’s room and a 100 kgs. anvil stone falls down on his head and mildly kills him, one should immediately assume foul play. One should always be ready to accept the most peaceful explanation, as in the fact that the wind had carried the stone. They have strong winds in Frankia you know (which is both France and Germany, so don’t quarrel).
So, a few years pass and Karlmann gets bored of living and dies, and Charles regrettably announces the death to have been caused by the plague, which shows that we don’t know much about the plague yet, since in Karlmann’s case it apparently had caused some deep wounds on his back and chest. Science still has not determined what sort of plague this might have been.
Now, after Charles got to be alone on the throne, he decided to play real king and took some of his soldiers and went to visit some neighbouring kings. But since those kings were too hospitable, the moment they saw Charles approaching with his army of giant Germans (or French, if you like), they would give up their whole territories to him and just jump off the tower of their fortresses. This shows that Charles had amazing powers of persuasion. It also shows how important Risk has been in keeping the world in peace, since in the Middle Ages when people could not play Risk on the game board, they had to make an effort and go and pay a visit to their neighbouring kings and then there was a whole lot of mess and blood which is inconvenient and all and a nuisance.
So, after a few years, Charles found himself to be the master of a large part of Europe (which is all good) and thought that the simple title of the king was not enough and that he should be an emperor. So, he and his son Louis decided to go to Rome for the Christmas Holidays (which shows that they were well-off). I guess I didn’t tell you that Charles had found time to marry several ladies and had some mistresses and had made some sons and half-dozen daughters. He was prolific, I tell you, and anyway, he was provincial too, so you cannot really complain.
Anyway, he went to Rome and on the Christmas Day of AD 800, decided to go to the St. Peter’s Cathedral for the mass. But he and Louis were doing this without prior planning, and as this was the case, they were quite surprised that the whole court and a few regiments of the army and a whole lot of people were gathered in the plaza. So, they quietly entered the church and kneeled down to pray. Meanwhile, Pope Leo who was playing with the crown of the defunct Roman Emperors happened to walk unto the altar and he saw Charles and he turned red. You see, the Pope had forgotten to buy Charles a Christmas present and he was embarrassed. So, without any prior planning, he put the crown of the Roman Emperors on his head and without any prior planning, Charles walked out and everyone cheered and Charles became the Emperor of the Romans. This was all done without any prior planning, not even any pressure from Charles or his court members or generals on the Pope. So, you can see that some things are better left unplanned; they tend to work a lot better that way.
After this, Charles headed back home to Aachen (or Aix la Chapelle if you like French) since he had had enough of Rome and its warm weather. There, he managed to swim in the local hot bath which was good for his arthritis and had a lot of baths built all around Frankia, which is good for the modern tourism industry. He also had a cathedral built in Aachen (Aix la Chapelle is too long!) so if in the future his descendants needed to be crowned without prior planning, they would not have to go all the way down to Rome. He was a wise one, wasn’t he?
In the meantime, he busied himself with different things. He first decided to learn proper Latin, since his education in the forest was left incomplete. For this purpose, he hired a rather peculiar scholar called Einhard who was a bit of a stick and wanted everyone to speak perfect Latin and give long quotations from classical texts. He constantly picked on poor Charles for not conjugating his verbs right and bored the old bird to no end. So, Charles gave him some money and told him to go found some schools and teach kids Latin, and since Einhard loved doing that, he went and did it and this is called “The Carolongian Renaissance”. That goes to show you that being bored at your teacher, if you have enough money, can buy you much positive publicity and can be very good indeed. So, Charles was rewarded by being called “The Great” (der Grosse if you are German and magnus if you are Latinly inclined, which gives Charlemagne).
He then went for some administration, which he was good at. The problem was that every morning, when he would go to his office, his secretary had left him a note reporting on one of his daughters having some meetings with different members of the court at the end of the garden. Charles would call in the girl and shout at her and tell her that she has disgraced his name, and the girl would say that she loved the chap and wanted to marry him. But Charles was a bit of a snub and didn’t think anyone is good enough for his daughters and so he decided to pretend that the whole thing had not happened. As a result, his daughters kept constant meetings with various members of the court to discuss politics or since they were very devout, they would spend much time confessing to the local monks and priests. The result of all these discussions and confessions was a lot of pregnancy and offspring. Now, if you ask me how politics and confession can make you pregnant, I would have to refer you to the monks. Suffice to say that if you read in some history books that Charlemagne is “The Father of Europe”, they probably are not that off the mark.
Anyway, as time passed, Charles got older and older and it was time for him to die. So, he called in his son Louis and chose him as his successor, not that he had any other choices. You see, all of Louis’ other brothers had just died during their father’s life-time, without any actions or knowledge of Louis himself. It is because of this complete unawareness of Louis about the state of the affairs that history now calls him Louis the Pious!
As for Charles, well, he died, and since he was a rather large sort of thing, they could not really bury him, so they sat him on his throne in full regalia and put the whole thing in the basement of the cathedral in Aachen. Now, that is not such a bad ending, is it?
About Khodadad Rezakhani is a PhD student in History at UCLA. Visit his website, Vishistorica.com.