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J. Fried, Karl der Große (C. West)

Francia-Recensio 2014/2 Mittelalter – Moyen Âge (500–1500)

Johannes Fried, Karl der Große. Gewalt und Glaube. Eine Biographie, München (C. H. Beck) 2013, 735 S., 60 Abb. im Text, 8 Abb. im Tafelteil, 2 Karten, ISBN 978-3-406-65289-9, EUR 29,95.

rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par

Charles West, Sheffield

Published in good time for the 2014 »Karlsjahr«, marking 1200 years since the emperor’s death, Johannes Fried’s latest book is intended to make specialist scholarship on Charlemagne accessible to a broad audience. Judging by the impressive sales figures, it has admirably fulfilled that purpose. That is not however to say that it is an anodyne synthesis of current research. The picture of the Frankish ruler it provides is very much the author’s own, as he himself emphasises, so there is little danger that it might be lost to sight amongst the many other biographies currently available.

The book’s structure is relatively conventional, with chapters on Charlemagne as a boy, relations with neighbouring powers, warfare, the economic foundations of his rule, the royal palace, the coronation, and an epilogue on the historical uses to which Charlemagne has been put, particularly in the modern period. Along the way, however, Fried lays before his reader a host of intriguing claims and arguments which, given the book’s popularity, may work their way into what »everyone knows about Charlemagne«. Does the temple depicted on Charlemagne’s coinage allude to his alms-giving to Jerusalem (p. 512)? Can we read the sex imbalance in Frankish polyptychs as indicating widespread female infanticide (p. 215)? Was Charlemagne’s court an arena for semi-licit homosexual activity (p. 383)?

More broadly, however, Fried’s book is shaped by three striking arguments, all developing elements that will be familiar to those who know his earlier work. To begin with, Fried’s Charlemagne is essentially unknowable as an individual. The author’s position on this is made perfectly clear in the preface, where he states that a conventional biography is out of the question. This book therefore is not – cannot be – a conventional biography, but is rather an »Annäherung«towards its subject.

This is partly because Fried does not think we know much about Charlemagne himself. The little that we think we know of his childhood – for example, the famous account of how he lost a milk tooth preserved in a ninth-century hagiographical account – Fried considers unreliable, and discards. Yet he is also making a broader point about the period as a whole. He is consistently at pains to emphasise the limits of our historical knowledge about the early Middle Ages. These uncertainties are expressed by a persistent recourse to self-evidently unanswerable rhetorical questions. The book’s epilogue, for instance, begins with a sequence of twelve questions, posed one after another (p. 591). Was Charles happy? Would he have asked that question? What about love? And so on. Fried’s answer at the end is »Wir wissen es nicht«(»We do not know«) – and this is not this phrase’s only appearance.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of Charlemagne’s life that Fried thinks can be discerned. Fried is well known for his work into medieval ideas about the end of the world, and for arguing that such ideas were both widespread and powerful. Fried’s Charlemagne, he seems clear, did not escape their pull: as an inevitable consequence of his Christian faith, he was an anxious man. Fried advances once again the notion that the imperial coronation in 800 was connected to computistical calculations that the world would enter the seventh millennium (and so a new era) on Christmas Day that year, though this does not prevent him from also rehearsing his argument about the »Kölner Notiz«, a contemporary entry in a computistical manuscript suggesting a degree of pre-arrangement with Byzantium over the coronation. Fried suggests that eschatological disquiet hung heavily about Charlemagne in other contexts, too, not least contributing to his motivations for instigating a programme of reform, particularly in his later years.

Finally, Fried raises the question of where historians should place the Frankish emperor in a wider context. He thinks that the old approaches about Charlemagne, working him into national traditions or identifying him as the Father of Europe, are no longer convincing, and connects this with the ruler’s declining historical profile at large (whilst also pointing the finger at decline in the quality of German school education). The solution, for Fried, is to follow Pirenne’s footsteps by putting Charlemagne into a global context. This is partly a matter of expanding discussion of Charlemagne’s diplomatic and trade relations with people beyond Latin Christendom, such as Byzantium and the caliphate. But Fried also has a more ambitious argument in mind, that again links to some of his earlier work.

Fried consistently emphasises the otherness of Charlemagne’s world. He maintains his position, expressed in much of his work elsewhere, that this was a more personal world, one with far less institutionalisation. He asserts that people then did not think or feel like »we«do, because they simply did not have »our«conceptual apparatus: a huge gulf separates us from them. Nevertheless, Fried thinks we can discern the emergence at the court of Charlemagne of a way of thought that is more familiar to us now – the rise of rational thinking, a »Verwissenschaftlichung der europäischen intellektuellen Kultur«(p. 336), as a by-product of Charlemagne’s educational reforms. It is a point to which he returns again and again.

For Fried, this step in a cognitive process was »der wichtigste Modernisierungsschub« (»the most important push for modernisation«produced by the early medieval period. It was moreover a way of thinking that was destined to conquer the world. Fried’s Charlemagne is, therefore, not one short on legacy. In a passage quoted in the book, the usually sober nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt declared that had Charlemagne’s rule at its height lasted for a hundred years, there would have been no Middle Ages, because Europe would have jumped straight to the Renaissance. Fried steers clear of counterfactuals, and is avowedly wary of teleology, and emphasises the long-term nature of the process; but he identifies Charlemagne’s significance in cultural terms just as clearly and emphatically, and in a similar grand narrative, too. Going far beyond the use that poets and historians have made of him over the centuries, Fried’s Charlemagne is nothing less than a preliminary stage in the »rise of the west«.

Not all his readers will be convinced by this argument in either detail or outline; but over his long and distinguished career, Fried has never been worried about making controversial arguments. And anyway, Fried is explicit that experts are not his primary audience on this occasion (which perhaps justifies his nonchalant reliance on Wikipedia in several footnotes). Reaching a wide audience requires a bold argument that speaks to the educated European public today. This provocative, elegantly written and well-presented book offers just that.

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PSJ Metadata
Charles West
J. Fried, Karl der Große (C. West)
Frühes Mittelalter (600-1050), Hohes Mittelalter (1050-1350), Spätes Mittelalter (1350-1500)
Europa nördlich und westlich der Italienischen Halbinsel / Alte Welt
Familiengeschichte, Genealogie, Biographien, Politikgeschichte
6. - 12. Jh.
4071332-5 118560034 4006804-3 4020517-4
Fränkisches Reich (4071332-5), Karl I., Heiliges Römisches Reich, Kaiser (118560034), Biografie (4006804-3), Geschichte (4020517-4)
PDF document fried_west.doc.pdf — PDF document, 262 KB
J. Fried, Karl der Große (C. West)
In: Francia-Recensio 2014/2 | Mittelalter - Moyen Âge (500-1500) | ISSN: 2425-3510
URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/francia/francia-recensio/2014-2/MA/fried_west
Veröffentlicht am: 25.06.2014 12:40
Zugriff vom: 28.09.2020 10:30
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