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Allow me to start with an admission. I find the French so despicable that I'm probably more uninformed about their history than an educated person ought to be. It's just too depressing to read about: them defeating the English in 1066; the blight on the West that was their Revolution; their repeated constitutional crises, losses to the Germans, need for us to bail them out of world wars and subsequent back-stabbing when we could use their help; etc., etc. etc... But, with their recent repudiation of two hundred years of their own history with the election of the Amer-Anglophiliac Nicholas Sarkozy, with two kids studying French in school, with The Wife insisting that we vacation there in a couple years, and with a French Medievalist moving in next door, it seemed almost kismet when Jeff Sypeck, whose piece on the great Icelandic band, Sigur Ros, we'd blogged about, wrote to offer a copy of his well-reviewed book, Becoming Charlemagne.

Here was one of those names, Charlemagne, that we're all familiar with but which I, at least, knew little about beyond the very basics (mostly just that he was the first Holy Roman Emperor and that Ben Vereen starred in a Broadway show about his son, Pippin, when we were kids). Mr. Sypeck's book reveals just how ignorant I was and does so in eminently readable fashion, as he focuses in on the years leading up to 800 AD, when the Frankish king, Karl, was crowned by Pope Leo III, and became the Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne, who is a nearly mythic historical figure. As befits a book written in the wake of 9-11, Mr. Sypeck makes a particular effort to show how Karl sought to reconcile the schism within Christianity (or one of them, at any rate) when he married Irene, who ruled Constantinople, and how he sent an envoy, Isaac the Jew, to Baghdad, to treat with the caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who, in turn, sent back an elephant to Karl as a gift. The author takes these rich historical figures and their stories -- supplemented by excerpts from the original writings of Karl's friend and court historian, Alcuin -- and tells them against a densely textured background of what everyday life in the various kingdoms and holy lands would have been like.

If you want to know why we should know about this man, here's Mr. Sypeck's description of him at the moment Isaac delivered the elephant:
The scene is a fine one to freeze in time: Karl, white-haired, widowed, inquisitive, vibrant, consulting ambassadors about foreign lands; his daughters and their children gathering, awestruck, to touch Abul Abaz; his sons returning from wars with prisoners and loot; his counts administering justice; his peasants farming and feeding the empire; his monks preserving the Christian faith through books and ceaseless prayer, This is Karl at his peak, the founder of a Holy Roman Empire, the "father of Europe," the man whom posterity will call Charles the Great. Deeds he never does will inspire the Crusaders, and medieval wise men will rank him alongside Arthur and Alexander as one of the worthiest rulers ever to live.

But for now, in 802, he is a father and a Frank, the emperor who gained an elephant, a devout warrior for a new Christian order, a defender of the faith, and the most important person in Europe. Looking for precedents, as poets are wont to do, his flatterers praised him, obeyed him, and hoped that he might be, in their own wonderful optimism and faith, their David. Instead, unbeknownst to them, he was becoming Charlemagne.
That the subsequent history of Europe and Christendom was so fractious and bloody and that the dream of unity today looks like it will never surmount nationalist tendencies, especially because of the decline of Christianity, does not detract much from the vision that Charlemagne tried to put into effect, nor at all from the awe it inspires that he was able to accrue such power and do such good with it during his lifetime that it seemed, at least briefly, like a dream that could be realized. This is a remarkably enjoyable book about one of the truly great men of history, even if it is French history.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Jeff Sypeck Links:

    -BLOG: Quid Plura? (Jeff Sypeck)
    -BOOK SITE: Becoming Charlemagne
    -BOOK SITE: Becoming Charlemagne (Harper Collins)
    -ESSAY: A Tree Grows in Newark (Jeff Sypeck, March 19, 2000, The Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Relics for Sale: Thomas Serafin wants to stop the online auction of sacred objects (Jeff Sypeck , Catholic Digest)
    -ESSAY: I Love Newark: Get ready. The city America loves to mock is starting to blossom. (Jeff Sypeck, 3/19/2000, The Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: When the saints go up for auction: A one-man crusade against online relic sales is met with unholy indifference. (Jeff Sypeck, Feb. 20, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Angels of the Un-Verse: The music of Sigur Ros is enigmatic and inscrutable. It's also uniquely Icelandic. (Jeff Sypeck, Pop Politics)
    -REVIEW: of Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud (Jeff Sypeck, Pop Politics)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Vikings on the Potomac: A new translation of Beowulf enjoys a moment of glory in the nation's capital. But do Washingtonians understand what they're reading? (Jeff Sypeck, 6/19/00, Pop Politics)
    -REVIEW: of Joe College by Tom Perrotta (Jeff Sypeck, Pop Politics)
    -REVIEW: of The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness (Jeff Sypeck, Pop Matters)
    -ARCHIVES: sypeck (Pop Politics)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Jeff Sypeck (Northern Alliance)
    -INTERVIEW: Jeff Sypeck (Legal History Project, November 2006)
    -REVIEW: of Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 by Jeff Sypeck (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Becoming Charlemagne (TONY LEWIS, Providence Journal)

Book-related and General Links:
    -WIKIPEDIA: Charlemagne
    -Charlemagne & His Empire (
    -BLOG: News for Medievalists