We think of the dark ages as a epoch of great violence. And while this is true, the same could be said of any era of history, including the contemporary. Violence, though it can be fought with the willpower of peace, is always going to be a facet of life on terra firma. And yet, the dark ages seem to be especially straddled with this understanding, formed in the collective, unconscious memory of Western civilization. The truth is far more complicated, however, and through the darkness and fog of distant terror, a light can be seen.
It is the light of the Carolingian renaissance.
What it Is
Becoming Charlemagne is the 2006 non-fiction book by Jeff Sypeck, a professor of medieval literature at the University of Maryland. The title is apt but, in a way, pleasantly misleading. By using his knowledge of the era, Mr. Sypeck presents the decades leading up to the coronation of Karl, king of the Franks, as the first Roman emperor in a thousand years, becoming what some consider to be the first European as well as the father of modern Western civilization, as a straightforward story. Thus, it is also the story of how the rex francorum became Charlemagne, the fierce medieval king of legend, whose influence still affects us.
How it Relates to the Hearth
For me, one who is deeply attracted to the imagery and idea of the pax francorum, this book is foundational. By identifying and presenting the history of what happened on Christmas day in the year 800 in such a straight-forward manner, the author also peels away a number of unnecessary embellishments that have accrued over the centuries and have poured themselves over this monumental figure. At the same time, we are provided with a fresh pair of glasses to view the Carolingian renaissance in it’s original context. And at the end of the book, I would say it does show the glory of this oft neglected moment in Western history, while still maintaining a neutral enough tone for one to draw their own conclusions. Therefore, it should be nabbed by anyone who considers themselves a medievalist and one who seeks the warmth of the hearth.
I believe, in an interview, this book was originally conceived as one written for children, about the journey of an elephant named Abul Abbaz, who made his way to the court of Charlemagne. In fact, a good portion of the final stretch of this book goes into the actual history of this event, confirming it’s authenticity.