Father of a Continent

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Alessandro Barbero
Allan Cameron
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     426 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Charlemagne: Father of a Continent is an immensely readable English version of Alessandro Barbero’s Carlo Magno: Un Padre dell’Europa (2000). The audience for whom it is intended is more general than academic, yet the book is more scholarly than popular in its intention, organization, and conclusions. Barbero takes issue with earlier portraits of Charlemagne as an inspired Christian warrior who was immortalized as a charismatic, history-making colossus. It is interesting that in 2000 the European Union was in a far stronger position than it is now in 2018, so the focus on Charlemagne’s creation of Europe (an anonymous poet called him the “father of Europe” in 799, before he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor) is more problematic than when Barbero’s book was first published.

The introduction shares an anecdote in which Charlemagne sheltered Leo III—the pope who would later crown him—at Paderborn, the city that he constructed in Saxony, a land he conquered and where he introduced forced Christianization. Chapter 1, “The Frankish Tradition,” sets up the historical context of Charlemagne, discussing the Frankish kingdoms, the way in which Charlemagne’s family (the Pepinids or Arnulfings) had gone from being civil servants (maiores domus, or “mayors of the palace”) to kings of the Franks when Charlemagne’s father Pepin was anointed by Pope Stephen II in 754, and Charlemagne’s own path to power. The next two chapters, “The War Against the Lombards” and “Wars Against the Pagans,” are histories of military conflicts and Charlemagne’s success. Barbero’s account of the war against the pagan Saxons (and to a lesser extent the Avars) in particular  reveals the use of mass executions, forced relocations from traditional lands, scorched earth tactics to starve and frustrate enemy armies, and resettlement by ethnic Franks loyal to Charlemagne as bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the wars displacing refugees in unprecedented numbers in the contemporary world.

Chapters 4 and 5 cover Charlemagne’s coronation and the extension of his territory, followed by chapter 6, “The Man and His Family,” which is a portrait of the king; a discussion of his marriages and concubines and his various children (five wives, six mistresses, ten sons, and ten daughters); his daily habits, diet, and clothing; and the circle of close scholars and courtiers that Charlemagne gathered around himself. This is a vivid account that would be attractive to non-specialist readers. Chapters 7 to 9 are about the systems by which the Carolingian Empire was governed; the resources the lands generated; the justice system; and the administrative institutions, secular and ecclesiastical. This material is of greater interest to the specialist in medieval law, economics, and ecclesiastical structures. Chapter 10, “An Intellectual Project,” covers the “Carolingian Renaissance” and the scholars Charlemagne gathered to further his own education and the intellectual quality of his kingdom, then his empire. These included the grammarian Peter of Pisa, the historian Paul the Lombard, and the bitter rivals Alcuin of York and Theodulf of Orleans (who produced rival translations of the Bible and generally feuded for years), all of whom flattered Charlemagne as a new King David and a new King Solomon.

The eleventh chapter discusses the military tactics of the Franks, both infantry and cavalry, clergy and laymen, native Franks and conquered foreigners. The logistics of battle, the construction of fortresses, siege warfare, and developments in military strategy are covered. Chapter 12, “A New Economy,” dismantles the traditional understanding of the Carolingian Empire as essentially a feudal economy with a detailed and sophisticated examination of agriculture (animals and crops); land holding; trade routes and methods (sale and barter); weights, measures and coinage; and the workforce and the types of tasks they engaged in. The next chapter, “Patronage and Servitude,” revisits the social structure of 8th- and 9th-century Western Europe, covering the rights and responsibilities of the nobility, their vassals, free peasants, slaves, and freed slaves. The book concludes with a chapter entitled “Old Age and Death,” in which Charlemagne’s vigor diminishes and two of his sons, Charles and Pepin, predecease him, leaving one son, Louis the Pious, to inherit the entire empire in 814 when his father died.

Barbero notes that the perceived failure of Charlemagne’s last years stems from chroniclers like Ermoldus Nigellus, who worked for Louis the Pious. These years were dominated by the invading Vikings, the “Moorish pirates” who “sacked the Balearic Islands in 798” (339), and the 862 attack of the Magyars, ushering in a century of expansion and warfare. The last Carolingian, Louis the Child, died in 911, and the Ottonian dynasty came to power. This book has been vividly and compellingly translated by Allan Cameron, and is an enjoyable and informative read. It is not cutting-edge—being almost two decades old—but it is valuable for Anglophone scholars to become aware of notable productions by academics writing in languages other than English. Barbero’s study of Charlemagne deserves a wide readership, and may yet achieve it via translation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carole Cusack is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alessandro Barbero is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Piemonte Orientale, Italy. In addition to writing about medieval society and culture, he is the author of the historical novel Bella vita e guerre altrui di Mr. Pyle, gentiluomo, which won the Strega Prize in 1996.

Allan Cameron has translated some twenty books on history, philosophy, and other academic disciplines, including works by leading Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio and President of the European Commission Romano Prodi.


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