Becoming Charlemagne by Jeff Sypeck

becoming-charlemagne-coverThe farther you go into history, the more interesting things become.

I’ve been teaching Medieval world history to seventh graders for nearly two decades now.  So I know a bit about it, but I’m very far from an expert.  Which is one reason why I like to read a book of history now and then. That, and I generally enjoy them anyway.

The story of Charlemagne we get in our classroom materials is pretty basic.  It’s a world history class so no one in particular gets more than a couple of pages.  Charlemagne gets more than most.  Unites the Frankish kingdoms, promotes education, crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800.  But I had no idea just how intense his story really was.

This is Game of Thrones territory here.

Mr. Sypeck presents his story of Charlemagne’s rise as a conflict between three cultures, the Franks in Western Europe led by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III; the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople led by the Empress Irene; and the Muslim empire of Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad.  All three were in competition for dominance around the year 800 when Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome.

So, Game of Thrones….

Pope Leo III assumed the papacy after rival Roman family had held it for fifty years.  Not wanting to give up control of the estates the papacy then controlled they conspired to get rid of Leo III.  While he was riding through Rome as part of a holy procession, they had him kidnapped, forcibly removing him from his horse and dragging him into a nearby church.  They twice tried to gouge out his eyes and cut out his tongue, failing both times, leaving him before the altar in a bloody heap.

Leo III survived to later escape Rome in a basket lowered over the wall.  He then headed north to Aachen where he would seek shelter and support in the court of Charlemagne then king of the Frankish empire.  Many came to see his escape and recover as a miracle.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople….

The Empress Irene, along with a growing number of others, became impatient with her son Constantine VI who was far from a good emperor.  She conspired to have him removed by sending several of her men to gouge out his eyes.  They were successful. Since Byzantine custom does not allow for maimed emperors, Irene’s son was out of a job, sent into exile where he soon died.  That should probably read “died” since I suspect foul play was involved.

Under Charlemagne’s reign, the Jews of Europe enjoyed a long period of security and acceptance.  Charlemagne himself sent a Jewish man, know to history as Isaac the Jew, as ambassador to the court of Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad hoping to establish ties that would aid him against Irene in Constantinople.

Travel took a long time, so it was not until nearly five years later that Isaac returned to Aachen, Germany with gifts from Haroun al-Rashid including an elephant named Abul Abaz the first one seen in Europe or North Africa in several hundred years.

How cool is that?

So, next year’s lesson on Charlemagne is going to be much more interesting than ever before.  Eye gouging, elephants, kidnapped popes.

Totally Game of Thrones.