Friday, August 2, 2013


Fig.1: Yes, Charlemagne was so awesome, 
it was believed he was made out of gold.
There are a few people in history that I wholeheartedly admire. Of course there is my ancestor/incarnate Sima Qian, whom I would love to surpass and shame by becoming a better historian than he ever was. There is Hannibal, who showed those cocky Romans a thing or two. There is Lucille Fannybottom, who sewed the first American flag (no matter what people will tell you about some other lady). There's Sean Connery, because, well, he's Sean Connery. Can't get much more awesome than that. But perhaps my all-time hero is the one and only Charlemagne (fig.1), or Charles the Great in non-fancy talk. He took a semi-successful kingdom in present-day France and expanded it to include most of Western Europe; he was crowned the first ever Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope; he encouraged culture, literacy, and art at a time when those things were quickly falling by the wayside; and most importantly, he invented my favorite sport of water polo, and was a master at making wet passes right to the hole set. He made the "Dark Ages" just a little more bright, and that is enough to bring a grateful tear to my eye.

Charlemagne was born around 742 AD (Anno Doughnutty), son of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Pepin established the Carolingian dynasty, named after his father, Charles Martel, who was pretty awesome in his own right. Charles Martel was too humble to be king himself and decided to rule behind the scenes, but after his death Pepin the Short would allow himself to be crowned, while his brother, Pepin the Tall, would become a forward and win six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Upon Pepin the Short's death in 768, the crown passed to his two sons: Charles (not yet "the Great," though he had promise), and his younger brother Carloman. Of course Charles was too cool to share, and Carloman died three years later of "mysterious circumstances." They did a special of it on 48 Hours and everything, but Charles was never implicated, and that coverup alone makes him a "Charlemagne" in my mind.

Fig.2: Hello, nurse!!!
Charlemagne's first order of business was to quell a rebellion in Aquitaine (southern France), who were never very happy about Frankish rule, and weren't too shy about voicing their displeasure. He quickly showed them what's what, and then set his sights on Italy. Charlemagne had been married to a daughter of King Desiderius of the Lombards (who ruled most of Italy at the time), but decided to annul it in favor of a hot German number named Hildegard (fig.2). This made Desiderius angry, and you would not like him when he's angry. And so he went on a rampage and Hulk-smashed his way throughout Italy. Pope ADRIAN!!! was rightly worried about his own possessions, and called for Charlemagne to take care of Desiderius. This would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Charlemagne and the Popes, with Charlemagne loving Catholicism, and the Pope loving Charlemagne's willingness to destroy the Pope's enemies in the name of Catholicism. He did just that with Desiderius, who surrendered in 774, allowing Charlemagne to take Italy and become King of the Lombards for good measure. Just six years into his reign, and France and Italy were in his back pocket. That's five World Cups right there, which is the only true measure of a country.

Next, Charlemagne wanted to consolidate his rule in present-day Germany (three more World Cups), especially in Saxony. Saxony was just a stone's catapult from Charlemagne's capital of Aachen (which he named so it would be one of the first entries in every encyclopedia), and he saw it as a crucial inland to the rest of Central Europe. But those Saxons wouldn't go down easy. Their leader was a man named Widukind, which sounds like some kind of creepy German teddy bear sold on QVC, but was actually a rather skilled military tactician. Too bad he was going up against the likes of Charlemagne, who could probably eat most generals such as Grant and Lee up for breakfast. Widukind held out until 785, despite massacres like the one in Verden that had 4,500 Saxon prisoners murdered, or the one in the Hofbräuhaus in Lippspringe where they failed to include the mushroom sauce on his jägerschnitzel. Finally, he agreed to be baptized into the Christian faith, with Charlemagne and his own Aunt Trudy as his godparents. But the Saxons kept rebelling all the way until 804, when Charlemagne was all like, "C'mon, guys!" and the Saxons finally got with the program. This allowed him to extend his influence all the way through Germany into present day Czech Republic, Hungary, and even a little of the Balkans (though he knew not to venture to deep into the mess that is those countries).

Fig.3: The size of the Frankish Empire by the time of  Charlemagne's death in 814 is just further 
proof of his kickbuttery. If that's wasn't a word before, it is now...all thanks to Charlemagne!
Finally, Charlemagne wished to create a buffer between his kingdom and the unfriendly folks who ruled Spain at the time. The Umayyad Caliphate, centered in Damascus, spanned from the Middle East through North Africa and all the way into Spain, spreading the wonderful, all-knowing religion of Islam with it! (*cowers in fear*) Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, already stopped a Muslim invasion of France at the Battle of Tours in 732, and as the good Boy Scout he was, Charlemagne wanted to be prepared in case it ever happened again. He marched south and took control over much of the Pyrenees, including Barcelona in 799 where he did a semester abroad. He turned this chunk of land into the "Spanish March," made to take the brunt of any Muslim invasion so that it would be weakened by the time it crosses into Charlemagne's kingdom-proper, much like latex gloves prevent a garbage man from having to actually touch that tepid mixture of cottage cheese and coffee grinds leaking out from your over-packed trash bag. Not that I'm comparing the mighty Umayyads, history's ultimate purveyor of Islam, to such a vile thing. Oh gee, I'm dead now, aren't I?

Not everything Charlemagne accomplished had to do with warfare and conquest, as cool as that stuff is. Charlemagne's reign initiated what came to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance, where he attempted to bring back the high culture of the Roman Empire, sans the feeding Christians to lions thing. He sponsored the use of hymns in church, which became the basis for all subsequent music from Mozart to Beethoven to "Weird Al" Yankovic. He employed many scholars to create illuminated manuscripts, which are copies of scripture or historical works where the scribes sometimes got bored and drew pretty, colorful pictures in the margins. These copies were vital in preserving several ancient works, and countless pieces would not exist today and help torture Catholic school children in Latin class without Charlemagne's efforts. Education was also high on Charlemagne concerns: he brought in scholars from all over his domain to educate his children and grandchildren. The fact that Charlemagne was himself unable to read or write was always a source of embarrassment for him. In his sixties, he even called 1-800-ABCDEFG and bought himself some Hooked on Phonics, but as his personal historian Einhard wrote, "his effort came too late in life and achieved little success." It was his only fault during his time on this Earth, but we still love him anyways.

Fig.4: The crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman 
Emperor by Pope Leo III, one of the biggest water-
shed moments in hist...wait, is that guy on the right 
wearing a sombrero? Weird...
But what historians consider his crowning achievement (literally) came in the year at 800, when Charlemagne was spending his Christmas vacation in Rome. His newest papal buddy was Pope Leo III, who certainly appreciated Charlemagne's company; the previous year, some Roman citizens attempted to put out his eyes and tear out his tongue, which would make me feel like I was back in seventh grade again. Charlemagne promised to protect Leo, and as a show of gratitude, when Charlemagne knelt at the altar during Christmas mass to pray, Leo placed a crown on his head an proclaimed him Roman Emperor (fig.4). It is unknown whether Charlemagne knew this was coming, or if this was a little surprise Secret Santa gift from Leo (it's a good thing Leo didn't pick Barry the Court Jester's name out of the hat, because history would have been very different with that crazy guy as Emperor). Nonetheless, Charlemagne took his new position to heart and became the first Holy Roman Emperor, a title that would last until 1806 when Napoleon threw a hissy-fit and forced the final one to abdicate. This act would create some animosity between the West and the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople, who believed they were the true successors to the Romans. But they would get their butts kicked in the end anyway, so they can just kiss off.

Charlemagne would rule over his empire in a firm, yet gentle manner until his death in 814, and was greatly mourned by his citizens (I know I continue to wear black for him to this day). His only living son through Hildegard, Louis the Pious, would do his best to keep the empire together, despite the constant rebellions from the different nationalities, his own selfish sons, and his poker buddies who never liked his suggestion to keep the Jokers in the desk as wild cards. And so upon his own death in 840, the empire would be divided among his sons: Lothair took Italy, Louis took East Francia (Germany), Charles took West Francia (France), and his immature, imaginative son Kevin took Gondor, and used his Aragorn and Legolas action figures to repel any orc attacks on his realm. So while Charlemagne's Frankish Empire no longer exists, his influence on Western Europe continued throughout history to today, and serves as a founder of three major countries most people have actually heard of. Dare I say that Charlemagne is the greatest European monarch of all time? Or will the zombified corpses of Elizabeth I, Louis XIV (fig.5), and Charles V come back and haunt me? I think I'll take my chances!

Fig.5: Zombies never had such beautiful legs.

If you're interested in reading more about Charlemagne and the era in which he reigned, check out this Canned Historian approved book that was used to conduct more research on this topic:

Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800, by Jeff Sypeck
Published: 2006; Hardcover: 284 pages
Canned Rating: 4 out of 5 Golden Charlemagnes

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