King and Emperor
Janet L. Nelson
A DAILY TELEGRAPH AND BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE BOOK OF THE YEAR 2019
‘A remarkable book: the dramatic story of a truly extraordinary man … brilliant’ Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves
A major new biography of one of the most extraordinary of all rulers, and the father of present-day Europe
Charles, King of the Franks, is one of the most remarkable figures ever to rule a European super-state. That is why he is so often called ‘Charles the Great’: by the French ‘Charlemagne’, and by the Germans ‘Karl der Grosse’. His strength of character was felt to be remarkable from early in his long reign. Warfare and accident, vermin and weather have destroyed much of the evidence for his rule in the twelve centuries since his death, but a remarkable amount still survives.
Janet L. Nelson’s wonderful new book brings together everything we know about Charlemagne and sifts through the evidence to come as close as we can to understanding the man and his motives. Nelson has an extraordinary knowledge of the sources and much of the book is a sort of detective story, prying into and interpreting fascinating material and often obdurate scraps, from prayerbooks to skeletons, gossip to artwork.
Above all, Charles’ legacy lies in his deeds and their continuing resonance, as he shaped duchies and counties, rebuilt and founded towns and monasteries, and consciously set himself up not just as King of the Franks, but as the new ‘Emperor governing the Roman Empire’. His successors – in some ways to the present day – have struggled to interpret, misinterpret, copy or subvert Charlemagne’s legacy. Nelson gets us as close as we can ever hope to come to the real figure, as understood in his own time.
[The author is] a giant in the field, who knows that myths concerning Charlemagne, which began before his corpse grew cold, are difficult to lay to rest. * H-France Review * Christianity entered a new era in 800 when Charles, King of the Franks, became the first Holy Roman Emperor, and entrenched the faith in European civilisation. His story is told in Janet L Nelson's outstanding King and Emperor. * The Telegraph * This is a remarkable book: at once the dramatic story of a truly extraordinary man, and a masterclass in the practice of history from a superlative historian. Janet Nelson's brilliant insight illuminates a world that is both familiar and strange, and full of resonances between past and present. Here - seen through challenging sources, sifted and weighed with wisdom and wit - is everything we can know, twelve centuries on, about the king and emperor called Charlemagne. -- Helen Castor, author of SHE-WOLVES and JOAN OF ARC An imaginative, deeply thoughtful, often provocative, always important book. -- Geoffrey Koziol, Professor of History at UC Berkeley An immense achievement - brilliantly learned and profoundly wise, it is as revelatory about the practise of history as it is about the great man himself. -- Helen Castor * BBC History Magazine * This is a terrific book ... It is lovely to read, in part because it is so lightly written ... One leaves Jinty Nelson's book with the sense that one does, yes, get from it a sense of what Charlemagne was actually like. Which is what biographies are for, and why this is one to read. -- Chris Wickham * History Today * Nelson assembles an astonishingly rich picture from the most unrewarding of texts. The way she puzzles out probable facts and motivations is a joy to witness ... The narrative voice emerges as that of a patient, inquisitive, incisive and helpful master detective, with funny asides, a beautiful style and sensible politics. -- Bettina Bildhauer * Times Literary Supplement *
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