Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Fried, Johannes. Charlemagne

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Fried, Johannes. Charlemagne

Article excerpt

FRIED, Johannes. Charlemagne. Translated by Peter Lewis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. xi + 673 pp. Cloth, $39.95--Charlemagne was born in 748 on an estate somewhere between Paris and Compiegne. The son of Pepin the Short, he ruled from 768 until his death in 814.

Johannes Fried is a distinguished historian and medievalist, who until his recent retirement was professor of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt am Main. The present work follows on his authoritative volume, The Middle Ages. Charlemagne is not a biography in the usual sense. Fried calls it a work of fiction, because he has amplified and interpreted what is known of Charlemagne's life. Although his profile is always warranted by data and draws upon Fried's own in-depth knowledge of the period, his narrative is not always supported by textual evidence.

Although this is a book about the Frankish king, there is much in Fried's narrative of interest to philosophers.

As a boy Charles enjoyed the benefit of a full religious and scholarly education. As king he desired, in his own words, "to constantly improve the state of our Church, to zealously renew the discipline of learning which through the neglect of our forefathers is now almost forgotten, and insofar as we are able, to encourage a mastery of the liberal arts." Fried adds, "To mend what was defective, to renew and to urge people to study, sums up the key task that Charles would set for himself as king."

With Pepin, his father, Charles traveled extensively throughout the Europe which at the time constituted his father's empire. Years later he encountered, probably in Vienna, Alcuin of York, an eminent Anglo Saxon scholar and theologian, whom he managed to attract to his court at Aix. At Charlemagne's court, Alcuin bore the title "Master of the Palace School." The king took Alcuin as his personal tutor and continued to study under his direction.

Charles, given his early education, was acquainted with the biblical sources of his faith and to some extent with the Fathers of the Church. He knew and held in esteem Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana as well as his De Civitate Dei, As his studies progressed, it became clear that Charlemagne's mother tongue, an earthy form of Frankish, was not suited for scholarly philosophical and theological study. It could not cope with dialectics, for example. Charles recognized early on in his reign that the recovery of ancient learning had to begin with Latin. Schools had to be established, and he established many. Charles himself became fluent in Latin. He could understand Greek but could not speak it. An early biographer claimed that his oratorical skills approached those of Cicero. Writing, at the time, was considered a servile art, one which the nobility did not have to acquire, and that may explain the sparsity of first-person accounts of Charles's motivation and activity.

The king had an abiding interest in mathematics, astronomy, calendrical calculations, and the natural science of his day. He plagued Alciun with questions. Charlemagne wanted to know the age of the earth. He was particularly interested in the movement of the planet Mars, which had just appeared in the heavens. He wanted to know whether Mars had its own orbit, or whether its course was influenced by the sun. …

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