Book Review: Charlemagne (Derek Wilson, 2006)

Categories: Book Reviews, History
Comments: 3 Comments
Published on: 2013.09.26

Title: Charlemagne
Author: Derek Wilson
Year: 2006
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN 0-385-51670-3
View it on Amazon
View it on Google Books
Wikipedia article on Charlemagne

Indirectly, it was because of the board game Trivial Pursuit that I checked out this book from the local library. Remember my post about the incorrect answer? That got me to thinking: I don’t really know a bunch about European history, except for the parts that directly affect U.S. history. Basically, what I knew was: the Roman Empire was there until barbarians appeared (from where?) and overran them. Then it was just chaos until suddenly there were kingdoms in the 1400s and they started sending ships to America.

So I’ve been browsing the library for European history books and found this one. I selected it because it was short (203 pages), relative to other history books. I don’t make a lot of time for reading, so it takes me a while.

Charlemagne was an enjoyable read, despite how obvious it was that Derek Wilson tried to make me enjoy it: “But let us not get too solemn about our subject” (page 5). Wilson also used a few words that I had to look up, like fissiparation, which I enjoy. Because if I only read books that didn’t teach me anything, what would be the point?

Like most history books, this one assumes that the reader is already familiar with the setting, the surroundings, the history leading up to this point, etc. While frustrating, it’s necessary. Otherwise, every history book would have to include all of history. But Wilson is better than many authors about including parenthetical explanations.

His basic theme is that Charlemagne is responsible for the Europe of today.

“If there has to be a profound motive for writing this book, it is that I want to try to shed some light on this remarkably strong and enduring sense of a European identity. And I will argue that to a very large extent, that identity began with Charlemagne.” (page 1)

Though Charlemagne inherited much of his empire (see map), he did expand it to some extent, but that’s not why he’s called the “King and Father of Europe”. He moved the focus of European civilization from the Mediterranean basin to the Rhine, ruled over a “heterogeneous conglomeration of peoples north of the Alps … giving them a sense of cohesion they were never to lose.” He created the core concept of “Europe”, and became the model that so many later rulers of various European nations sought to emulate.

After he died, the empire almost immediately broke into warring factions that split Europe into pieces, planting the seeds for the world’s bloodiest battles that simmered and erupted for the next thousand years. But he left in place what Wilson calls a “common memory” that there had once been a united Europe. What he had achieved “acted as a vision of what might once again become possible. It became a standard to be taken up by both autocrats and democrats of later ages who believed that they, too, had a mission to improve the lot of humankind.”

As I said, I chose this book partly because it was short, but mostly because I recognized my own lack of knowledge about European history — which in a very real sense is responsible for American history and — therefore — who we are today. I think it started to fill that gap and whetted my appetite for more.

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