Einhard admired Charlemagne

Professor Beverly Armstrong

HIS 121: Historical Perspectives on Culture, Belief, and Civilizations



Einhard admired Charlemagne, which we learn through Einhard’s writing, The Life of Charlemagne. This is significant because the admiration in most subject king relationships was motivated by fear instead of fondness. I will take as a presupposition the claim that most king-historian relationships prior to Einhard’s time were characterized by fear or duty, and I will not argue for that claim [JS1]   . The purpose of this essay is to show that Einhard regarded Charlemagne as worthy of respect. Einhard did not express admiration in order to gain the allegiance of Charlemagne’s loyalists. Here is how I will structure this essay: I will move through answers to a series of historical questions, primarily answering them by drawing from the primary source, The Life of Charlemagne (which I will refer to by the shorthand Charlemagne through the remainder of this essay). Finally, I will conclude the essay by summarizing my major points. I have also included a bibliography.


Einhard wrote Charlemagne in the 9th century, as evidenced by the fact that Charlemagne, the writing’s major subject, lived in the 9th century. Einhard lived in relationship with Charlemagne. In the beginning Charlemagne, Einhard calls king Charlemagne his lord and patron, "the greatest man of all those living in his own period". [1]

            Einhard wrote in Frankish territory, which had both a culture of shame and of honor, so we can learn that certain language Einhard used carries particular meaning by drawing out the word’s meaning in other contexts. Einhard wrote of Charlemagne that he was most "distinguished and deservedly most famous". [2] I will not take the time now to draw out the word translated to distinguished, and it’s meaning in other 9th century Frankish writings, so we will trust Lewis Thorpe, the translator, that his selecting the word "distinguished" is appropriate, and that whatever the original word was, meant something similar to our contemporary American meaning of the word distinguished. To distinguish means to regard someone as set apart, and worthy of respect because of one’s achievements. This definition I wrote by combining my own understanding of the word with the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s definition of the word. [3] This language that Einhard used shows the value which Einhard placed on Charlemagne as a king, and even hints at the personal admiration Einhard had of Charlemagne.

            Other nobles received contempt from the people, which shows that Einhard’s reverence towards Charlemagne was not received as an unbreakable norm. Einhard wrote that King Childeric III was deposed by the Pope of Rome. [4] If another king could be deposed of, or forcefully taken out of power by the Pope, there must have been general dislike for him. There may have been general dislike against Childeric III by the other people in power, but clearly someone else in power looked down upon Childeric, and as such, others could also have looked down on Charlemagne, but instead of being deposed, he was put out of power by a disease. The support of Einhard we ought not take for granted.

             Einhard’s admiration for Charlemagne began with the grant the king gave to the subject to become educated. Einhard wrote in Charlemagne that one of the reasons he set out to write the book in the first place is because of "the care which Charlemagne took in my upbringing, and the friendly relations which I enjoyed with him and his children from the moment when I first began to live at his court." [5] Einhard grew up in Charlemagne’s court because Charlemagne invited Einhard in to study there. Understandably a generous invitation like this would invite warm approval. 9th century Europe was not a time where everyone received focused education in their youth.

            In Einhard’s introduction he calls Charlemagne the greatest of men, and as a result it is his accomplishments which make the book excellent, not writing talent. Einhard wrote, "Here then you have a book which perpetuates the memory of the greatest and most distinguished of men." [6] Einhard then goes on to explain how his own writing ability is very small, and the skill of Cicero is needed in order to match the honor that Charlemagne deserves. Einhard then declares that the works of the king contained within the writing are the only things worth marveling over.

            Einhard thought that the future should hold people who want to know about Charlemagne’s life, evidencing the value that Einhard found in this man. The audience Einhard is writing to is broad. Einhard explains how some nobles have their history written simply because they want immortality, not because their life contained deeds worthy of remembering, but Einhard valued the things that Charlemagne did so highly he felt afraid that if he did not write them no one else would. "I cannot be absolutely sure that these happenings will in fact ever be described by anyone else. I have therefore decided that it would be better to record these events myself for the information of posterity … rather than allow the extraordinary life of this most remarkable king … to sink into the shades of oblivion." [7] Einhard seemed nearly anxious that these happenings would not be recorded because of the admiration which overwhelmed him.

            Einhard’s purpose in writing was to remember Charlemagne, which he succeeded in, as we see in the lauding descriptions Einhard wrote about Charlemagne’s interpersonal ways of relating. Einhard wrote about the way that Charlemagne responded to sharing kingship with Carloman, "Charlemagne bore with such patience this latter’s hatred and jealousy that everyone was surprised that he never lost his temper with his brother." [8] Because of this description, we can remember Charlemagne as a patient man in the face of hatred. We must first trust Einhard to believe this, but given the fact that Einhard wrote Charlemagne after Charlemagne’s death, we can believe his writings which praise the king’s qualities and deeds.

            Einhard believed it was good to honor those who have done good to you. This we see in the fact that he made such a point in the introduction to say that he was appreciative for the gift of education that the king had given him. We see Einhard’s understanding of justice as he writes about the consequences he should have endured if he forgot what Charlemagne had done, "I should indeed seem ungrateful, and could rightly be condemned as such, if I so far forgot the benefits he conferred upon me as to pass over in silence the outstanding and most remarkable dees of a man who was so kind to me". [9] If Einhard was found to not remember what Charlemagne had done in light of the blessings he had done, Einhard thought he himself should then be condemned or punished.

            Einhard left out the failures of Charlemagne, perhaps in order to honor the king. In Einhard’s description of Charlemagne’s reconciliatory last visit to Rome, he does not mention shortcomings that Charlemagne had there. He states that the people there at that time were upset with Pope Leo, and had just put out his eyes. However, soon after he received the title of "Emperor and Augustus". [10] Einhard writes that then "so-called Roman Emperors" became angry at the declaration, and in spite of this Charlemagne overcame that challenge "by the sheer strength of his personality". Had Einhard pointed out a lapse Charlemagne had had in this situation, he may have been understood as dishonoring to the king.


Over the course of this essay I have shown that part of what gives Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne significance is the fact that Einhard had deep admiration for this king. We learn this through the language that Einhard used to describe Charlemagne, calling him the "greatest king", "distinguished", and "honorable". We also learn this through realizing that not all nobles at that time were admired, and Einhard is willing to admit that. We also see that Einhard felt deep gratitude toward the king, and simply through the act of posthumously writing about the king for fear of Charlemagne’s history not being written we see the way he viewed Charlemagne as a hero who we can all learn from and be inspired by.


Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1987.

New Oxford American Dictionary. 3rd ed. Edited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[1] Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. Lewis Thorpe, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987), 52.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] New Oxford American Dictionary, ed. Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4] Einhard and Notker, Two Lives of Charlemagne, 55.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid., 52.

[7] Ibid., 51-52.

[8] Ibid., 73.

[9] Ibid., 52.

[10] Ibid., 81.

  [JS1] weak – why mention this so early if to only explain that not explaining? Perhaps better to leave out comment about common charact. of rel. if not substantiated or cited.

Below is the syllabus for the course I wrote this paper for, Historical Perspectives on Culture, Belief and Civilization.