The Carolingian dynasty was a Frankish noble family founded by Charles Martel with origins in the Arnulfing and Pippinid clans of the 7th century AD. The dynasty consolidated its power within the Frankish political class in Tours, the capital of the Kingdom, during the 700s. In 751 the older Frankish Merovingian dynasty which had ruled the Germanic Franks for several hundred years, was overthrown with the consent of the Papacy, and the Frankish aristocracy. And Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, was crowned King of the Franks. The Carolingian dynasty reached its peak in 800 with the crowning of Pepin's son, Charles the Big, Charlemagne, as the first "Emperor of Romans" in the West in over three centuries. He was crowned in Rome by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800. His death in 814 began an extended period of fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire and decline that would eventually lead to the evolution of a new kingdom in the West called the Kingdom of France, and another new institution in German lands called The Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire remarked: "was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." You might remember that wonderful witty line as you plunge into the complexity of the Holy Roman Empire, since Voltaire was both very funny and very correct. The HRE (a nice abbreviation) really was a German institution driven by German medieval politics for about 700 years.



Steven Ozment,

A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People,

Harper Perennial,

ISBN 0060934832

Gordon A. Craig,

The Germans,


ISBN 0452010853



The Life of Charlemagne,

Ann Arbor Paperbacks,

ISBN 047206035X


Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charles the Great) is a biography of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, written by Einhard. Historians have traditionally described the work as the first example of a biography of a European king. The author endeavored to imitate the style of that of the ancient Roman biographer Suetonius, most famous for his work the Twelve Caesars. Einhard's biography is especially modeled after the biography of Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. The date of the work is uncertain and a number of theories have been put forward. The inclusion of Charlemagne's will at the end of the work makes it fairly clear that it was written after his death in 814. The first reference to the work, however, comes in a letter to Einhard from Lupus of Ferrieres which is dated to the mid-ninth century. Dates have been suggested ranging from about 817 to 833, usually based on interpretations of the text in the political context of the first years of the reign of Louis the Pious and Louis' attitude to his father. Einhard's book is about intimate glimpses of Charlemagne's personal habits and tastes. He occupied favoured position at Charlemagne's court so he had inside information. Einhard received advanced schooling at the monastery of Fulda sometime after 779. Here he was an exceptional student and was quite knowledgeable. The word was sent to Charlemagne of Einhard's expertise. He was then sent to Charlemagne’s Palace School at Aachen in 791. Einhard then received employment at Charlemagne's Frankish court about 796. He remained at this position for twenty some years. Einhard's book was expressly intended to convey his appreciation for advanced education. He wrote his biography after he had left Aachen and was living in Seligenstadt. Einhard's position while with Charlemagne was that of a modern day minister of public works, so he had intimate knowledge of his court. Einhard was also given the responsibility of many of Charlemagne's abbeys.

This is the source of all our knowledge of Charlemagne written by someone who knew him. It is a small book, easy to read, and a small gem. Go get it.


If you would like the very best biography of Charlemagne, here it is, new and from our own University of California Press. It is in the Institute library. We are open all day all week if you was to borrow this or any other book.

Janet Nelson,

King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne,

University of California Press; First Edition (September 17, 2019),

ISBN 0520314204


Editorial Reviews
"A deeply learned and humane portrait . . . Nelson’s King and Emperor brings alive the age of Charlemagne, the ruler usually associated with the first effort after the fall of Rome to unite Europe under a single rule. This 'new life' is a bold book. . . . Each chapter is a masterclass in tracing specific bodies of evidence back to the persons or incidents from which they arose. . . . King and Emperor is a masterpiece of historical writing and a robust step toward filling the gap in our historical imagination left by the passing of Rome."
, New York Review of Books

"Janet Nelson assembles an astonishingly rich picture from the most unrewarding of texts. The way she puzzles out probable facts and motivations, based on a complete reading of the existing texts, is a joy to witness. She draws on and shows off the clever work of earlier historians, while giving short shrift to their more biased assumptions. The narrative voice emerges as that of a patient, inquisitive, incisive and helpful master detective, with funny asides, a beautiful style and sensible politics."
, Times Literary Supplement

""There have been countless studies of Charlemagne in many languages...but few have been as ambitiously biographical as Nelson’s. Historians of early medieval Europe are trained to interpret scattered clues and fragments, however, and Nelson is one of the very best."
, London Review of Books

"King and Emperor takes on the compelling suspense of good detective work as well as good history. . . . Janet L. Nelson comes as close as one can to approaching this extraordinary man."
, Wall Street Journal