Charlemagne: The Pupil and the Penitent

Charles the Great, known today simply as Charlemagne, is regarded as one of the most influential kings to ever rule. King of the Franks since 768 AD, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 800, uniting most of western Europe under one banner for the first time since the Roman Empire. Under Charlemagne’s leadership, Europe was pulled from the “dark ages” into what is known as the “Carolingian Renaissance” – a series of educational, political, and cultural reforms that rekindled a spirit of scholarship and artistry across the west. Charlemagne’s influence went far beyond the liberal arts, however. A military juggernaut as well as a shrewd administrator, Charlemagne fit the mold of the ideal king, earning him the love of his people and respect across the medieval world. After his death in 814, Charlemagne’s legacy continued to live on as folklores emerged, blurring the line between history and fantasy. These myths were even recycled and attributed to other larger than life figures, notably King Arthur: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legends of King Arthur, written in the 12th century, were largely based off tales of Charlemagne.

So how did he do it? What qualities did Charlemagne embody that contributed to his success as a leader, ensuring he’d be remembered for centuries to come? I’ve compiled several of his attributes after reading two accounts of the king’s life, one contemporary, one shortly after his death: the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, a servant of Charlemagne, and De Carolo Magno by a figure referred to as The Monk of Saint Gall (thought to be a monk named Notker). Though the accuracy of some tales is questionable, especially in De Carolo Magno, these accounts illustrate a strong and charismatic, yet humble and charitable figure with a zeal for learning and piety.


The Vita Karoli Magni contains ample information regarding Charlemagne’s personal habits to form a basic sketch of the emperor’s interests. It is clear from Einhard’s writing that one of Charlemagne’s more apparent enthusiasms was education. He had a special desire for apprenticeship in numerous scholastic fields, and he submitted himself to the tutelage of multiple hand-selected teachers throughout his reign, notably the English scholar Alcuin. The son of royalty, Charlemagne would have had access to the finest schooling in the medieval world as a young boy. His learning did not stop when he took the throne, however. During his own rule, Charlemagne’s thirst for knowledge grew and he continued his education until the end of his life.

Charlemagne Receiving Manuscripts from His Tutor, Alcuin

Charlemagne was naturally an excellent orator and Einhard lauds his command of language: “He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.” Building on this, the king expanded his repertoire by learning Latin and Greek fluently, though Einhard notes that his knowledge of Latin was far superior. In addition to foreign languages, he studied grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and astronomy. The king attempted writing very late in his life; according to Einhard: he “used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters.” Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, he never fully cultivated this skill. At mealtimes, he often listened to readings of “histories and the great deeds of men of old”. Einhard claims that the king had a special affinity for St. Augustine’s writings and in particular The City of God. Clearly Charlemagne had excellent taste, considering that I’m reading a work of Augustine’s myself at the time of this writing!

Taking Ownership

Besides a natural curiosity and a desire to better himself, Charlemagne’s educational pursuits displayed a deep humility in the ruler. Considering he was at the apex of the medieval hierarchy, lowering himself to the status of pupil and acknowledging his limitations is praiseworthy. This genuine humility certainly contributed to his popularity in his own day and his legendary status afterward. Our other source, the De Carolo Magno, contains multiple tales exhibiting Charlemagne’s humble nature, including a story of the emperor performing public penance for an unfortunate blunder involving a deacon’s death by spider-bite. Notker writes:

“For while [the deacon] was reading, a spider came down from the ceiling by a thread, hooked itself on to the deacon’s head, and then ran up again. The most observant Charles saw this happen a second and a third time, but pretended not to notice it, and the clerk, because of the emperor’s presence, dare not keep of the spider with his hand, and moreover did not know that it was a spider attacking him, but thought that it was merely the tickling of a fly. So he finished the reading of the gospel, and also went through the rest of the office. But when he left the cathedral he soon began to swell up, and died within an hour. But the most scrupulous Charles, inasmuch as he had seen his danger and had not prevented it, thought himself guilty of manslaughter and did public penance.”

De Carolo Magno

This peculiar tale is almost certainly fiction; however, it does show that this sort of behavior, performing public penance, would not have been out of character for Charlemagne. This account was written a few decades after his death, the writer pulling from existing sources or hearsay, so Charlemagne’s reputation of taking ownership of his mistakes must have been firmly established at this point. At the very least, this story demonstrates that his subjects and the people in the decades following his rule desired this type of behavior in their king, and it was something for future kings to live up to.

Charlemagne’s curiosity for knowledge along with a humble attitude allowed him to learn from his tutors and improve himself even as he was a powerful king. His legacy shows that there is never a “peak” we could reach which permits us to stop learning or recognizing our faults. In reality it may be the opposite. As we progress socially, intellectually, and spiritually it becomes more prudent to identify our limitations and learn from those who have mastered areas of life that we have not.

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