Charlemagne “Interest in Culture and Education”

Johannes Fried
Johannes Fried | Photo (detail): © picture-alliance/dpa

He held sway over a huge empire, led armies into battles and pursued reforms in education and the church that still apply today. The historian Johannes Fried speaks about the man behind the myth of Charlemagne.

Mr Fried, the 1,200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne was in January 2014 and all over Europe there is great interest in this figure among the general public. How do you explain such attention being paid to that particular emperor, who died in the year 814?

He was an outstanding ruler, and his domestic achievements, his important reforms, are still effective to this very day. His expansionist policies were also extremely successful.

This gained him the sobriquet Father of Europe.

I myself would not call him Father of Europe. His empire was incredibly large and had scarcely anything to do with what we speak of as Europe. I would prefer to say that he made an important contribution to globalization that is still perceptible today.

To what extent?

One of his great achievements was, without question, the comprehensive reform of the Latin Church, the organization and hierarchical structure of which he completely altered. Today the Catholic Church worldwide is still structured according to his concept, and one seventh of the world’s population still lives according to those criteria. Charlemagne also strengthened the papacy and ensured that the Holy See was not judged by anyone, that is to say, was not subject to any worldly jurisdiction – something which also still applies today.

“A whole new way of thinking emerged”

Charlemagne also espoused education reform. What precisely do we owe to him?

To begin with, he insisted on every monk being able to read and write. Then he strengthened the foundations of knowledge, learning and scientific methodology by putting ancient disciplines such as grammar, rhetoric and dialectics back on the curriculum.

Why was that so important to him?

Grammar enabled people to verbally express phenomena of all kinds. For example, if there was no word yet for a certain concept or thing, it could be invented with the aid of grammar and rhetoric. In the case of rhetoric, he was not simply interested in “fine” discourse, but in rational discourse, which was of importance in court, for example. And because Charlemagne himself estimated reason highly, he put Aristotelian dialectic back on the curriculum. This reform of education applied to the entire empire, so that a whole new way of thinking emerged, and still exists today. Even geographically remote peoples, like the Chinese, adopted it. Closely linked with this is the wide dissemination of the Carolingian minuscule, a script that originated in the monasteries of his empire and which greatly facilitated reading. For the first time, this script clearly separated the words from one another, so that texts became much easier to read. We are also indebted to Charlemagne for the calendar according to which the world influenced by Europe still lives today, and according to which global air traffic and commerce, for example, are organized.

The most recent research findings indicate that the Islamic world had a considerable influence on Charlemagne and the empire of the Franks. How did the Christian ruler see the Muslims?

Like his father Pippin, Charlemagne too fought against the Muslims. However, he also had diplomatic relations with them. Over the past ten years research has been pointing increasingly to trade relations between Charlemagne and the Arab caliphate. A symbol of these relations is the elephant Abul Abbas, a gift to Charlemagne from the caliph Harum al-Rashid in Baghdad. On the basis of that commerce, valuable knowledge also made its way into Charlemagne’s empire – new possibilities of measuring time with the help of the water clock, for example. Those fruitful connections came to an end with the death of Charlemagne.

“Access is facilitated by the literary prose style”

Charlemagne was a reformer and an emperor, pious and also violent, power-obsessed and a promoter of culture and education. Did he possibly have a split personality?

No, surely not. On the contrary, Charlemagne was a very balanced personality. I think that his keen interest in culture and education had to do with the fact that in his youth, as the son of a king, he was already confronted with the nascent scientific disciplines and recognized their importance. What is more, he was full of curiosity. I can understand that many people wonder how Charlemagne could have been a military hero on the one hand, and on the other, could gather scholars from all over the world at his court in Aachen. He got on well with both knights and intellectuals. That is an exciting fact and an amazing phenomenon for the period around 800. I know of no other example of this.

Your biography of Charlemagne very effectively outlines his life. Stylistically, you use elements of the novel for this. Why did you opt to portray him in this way?

As many readers as possible, and not just specialists, should be enabled to appreciate the past, medieval history and outstanding personalities like Charlemagne. A literary prose style facilitates access to these.

The German historian and emeritus professor Johannes Fried, born 1942, taught Medieval History at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main until he retired. Fried was chairman of the Association of German Historians from 1996 to 2000.