Charlemagne (748-814)
with Professor Rosamond McKitterick
(University of Cambridge)
at Sutton Hoo on Saturday, 5th March, 2016.


This Study Day will assess Charlemagne’s career from the emergence of the Carolingian family to the creation of the Carolingian empire; the ‘special relationship’ with the papacy and Rome; and new forms of cultural activity. There will be a particular opportunity to study the original sources – texts, images and buildings.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                  Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                  Charlemagne: the Carolingian family and the expansion of the Frankish kingdom. This class will chart the upbringing of Charlemagne, his father’s usurpation of the kingship of the Franks, Charlemagne’ inheritance of the kingship with his brother, his sole rule after 771, the steady expansion of the Frankish realm to embrace almost the whole of western Europe, his marriages and family, and the arrangements for the succession. Special attention will be given to the narrative construction of Charlemagne’s success by contemporaries.

Source texts to be considered will be selections from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, the Chronicle of ‘Fredegar’, the Royal and the ‘revised’ Frankish Annals (with special reference to the conquest of the Saxons in 782 and the revolt of Pippin ‘the Hunchback’), and the anecdotes of Notker Balbulus.

11.15 – 11.40:                  Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                  Succession and empire: the special relationship with Rome. Long before Charlemagne’s famous coronation by Pope Leo III in St Peter’s church on Christmas day 800, Charlemagne and his father Pippin before him , as well as many individual Frankish bishops, ambassadors, pilgrims and scholars, had developed strong ties with Rome. This class will examine both the practical, religious and ideological consequences of the many links with Rome and the popes as well as the longevity of the imperial idea in western Europe.

Source texts will include a selection from the remarkable series of letters exchanged between the popes and the Carolingian rulers between 741 and 791; the narratives about the coronation in 800; papal references to the Franks, some of the texts from Rome used in Frankish churches to promote Roman Christian ritual within the Frankish kingdoms, and Frankish responses to the papal insistence on orthodoxy in their own church councils.

12.40 – 13:45:                  Lunch break

13.45 – 14.35:                   Charlemagne’s government and the practice of law. Charlemagne was a particularly creative and able administrator, and his governmental practice was the foundation for subsequent governmental practice throughout the middle ages and beyond in Europe. His system of government is nevertheless a controversial topic, for its effectiveness has been doubted. This class therefore will set out the evidence so that we can form our own judgement. He and his officials made extensive and unprecedented use of writing in government. And a remarkable volume of these documents has survived.

Source texts to be considered will be Charlemagne’s own legislation in the form of capitularies; Charlemagne’s royal diplomas; the evidence (documentary and archaeological) for role of the palaces in the administration; documents relating to local courts and the administration of justice; the coin evidence.

14.35 – 14.55:                 Tea break

14.55 – 15.45:                  Reform and renaissance: royal patronage of culture and learning and the role of the royal court. The emphasis on written culture observed in the preceding class on government is developed still further in this class. We shall investigate the evidence for ‘reform’ (what was reformed and why?) and for a ‘renaissance of culture and learning’ (what forms did this culture take? How new was it?) . The Carolingian court was home to a diverse group of scholars; scribes and artists produced special books and texts for the king and his family as well as to provide gifts for centres of religion and learning favoured by the rulers. The king and his scholars participated in intellectual debates, such as that on images.

Primary sources for study will include some of the texts written at court, including the treatise on images, the poetry, letters and the many types of manuscript produced during Charlemagne’s reign, and some of the material relating to teaching, including dialogues between master and pupil. This will include case studies of the development of script, fundamental as you will discover of our own visualization of letter forms, and the books that have been associated with Charlemagne’s court.

c.15.45:                             Thanks and Close

About Professor Rosamond McKitterick

Rosamond McKitterick is Professor of Medieval History in the University of Cambridge, Fellow and Vice-Master of Sidney Sussex College, and has published on literacy, manuscript transmission, perceptions of the past, historical writing and political culture in the early middle ages. Her current interests are the migration of ideas and transmission of knowledge in the early middle ages, the implications and impact of the historical and legal texts produced during the sixth and seventh centuries in Rome and Rome’s transformation into a Christian city. She received her M.A., Ph.D., and Litt.D. from the University of Cambridge and studied Palaeography in Munich under Bernhard Bischoff in 1974-75. Since 1999 she has held the Chair in Medieval History at Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce, a Korrespondierendes Mitglied of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and Corresponding Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. In 2002 she was the Hugh Balsdon Fellow, British School at Rome and in 2005-2006 Fellow-in-Residence, Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study. In 2010 she was Scaliger Fellow in the Universiteits-bibliotheek in Leiden and in 2011 the Lester K. Little Resident Scholar in Medieval Studies at the American Academy in Rome. She was awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken International Prize for History by the Royal Dutch Academy in 2010.

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

A: Sources in translation – a useful internet resource is ‘A medieval Sourcebook’

Einhard, Life of Charlemagne and Notker, Deeds of Charlemagne(Penguin Classic) translated by Lewis Thorpe or, more recently, by David Ganz .

The fourth book of the Chronicle of Fredegar and its continuations, ed. and trans. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill (London, 1960).

H.. Loyn and J.Perceval, The Reign of Charlemagne (1972).

  1. Dutton, Carolingian Civilisation (selection of translated sources( Peterborough, Ont. 1993 and various new editions).
  2. David King, Charlemagne. Translated Sources (Kendal 1987).

Carolingian Chronicles, trans. B.W. Scholz (Ann Arbor, 1970).

  1. Godman, trans. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (London, 1989) – includes a few of Alcuin’s poems.

The Lives of the Eighth-century popes (Liverpool, 1992), trans. Raymond Davis.

B: Modern scholarly studies

Bullough, Donald, The Age of Charlemagne (1972).

Davis, Jennifer, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge, 2015).

Ghaede, J. and Mütherich, F. Carolingian painting (1970).

Krautheimer, Richard, Rome: profile of a city (Princeton, 2000)

McKitterick, Rosamond, Charlemagne: the formation of a European identity (Cambridge, 2008).

McKitterick , Rosamond (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History II 700-900 (Cambridge, 1995) – a collection of useful background essays.

McKitterick, Rosamond (ed), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge, 1994).

Story, J. (ed.), Charlemagne: empire and society (Manchester, 2005) – another useful collection of studies.