cover image Charlemagne


Johannes Fried, trans. from the German by Peter Lewis. Harvard Univ., $39.95 (662p) ISBN 978-0-674-73739-6

In this splendid biography, Fried (The Middle Ages), retired professor of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt, shows that Charlemagne remains a figured to be reckoned with even 12 centuries after his death. The book, excellently translated by Lewis, is arranged by topic, rather than chronology. This format helps to clearly present a broad picture. The importance of religion is stressed throughout the book, and Fried makes clear that from childhood Charlemagne understood that “the principal task of any ruler was to wage war.” The combination of his Christianity and his martial nature resulted in a 30-year war with the Saxons (772–804). Fried also elucidates the role the Franks played in Spain, both in the battle against the Basques at Roncevalles (778) and in later dealings with the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. Charlemagne’s coronation in Rome as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 is examined from political and military viewpoints; Fried believes that Charlemagne, rather than Pope Leo III, was in control of the situation and had initiated the coronation. Other chapters cover court life, the revival of classical education, and Charlemagne’s determination to establish law and order in his domains. Fried stresses eschatological beliefs a bit more than necessary, perhaps because he’s studied them so extensively. This is a magisterial study of the life and times of the Frankish king who became the first Holy Roman Emperor. (Oct.)