James Bryce on Charlemagne

I am reading several books, as usual. One I am enjoying is The Holy Roman Empire (1877), by James Bryce. I am only up to the reign of Otto I, so there are many thrills still in store.

Bryce was one of those Victorian / Edwardian supermen, who wrote erudite books and had a life of extraordinary achievements beyond what seems possible these days. (I previously mentioned Bryce here and here (in the comments) and here. His most famous book is The American Commonwealth (1888).)

Bryce’s history of the Holy Roman Empire is written in a grand style. When he reaches certain key passages, he is almost symphonic in his language. If you like that sort of thing, below the fold are two excerpts, one about the coronation of Charlemagne, on Christmas Day, 800 A.D., the other about his impact on subsequent Medieval history.

At length the Frankish host entered Rome. The Pope’s cause was heard; his innocence, already vindicated by a miracle, was pronounced by the Patrician in full synod; his accusers condemned in his stead. Charles remained in the city for some weeks; and on Christmasday, A.D.800, he heard mass in the basilica of St. Peter. On the spot where now the gigantic dome of Bramante and Michael Angelo towers over the buildings of the modern city, the spot which tradition had hallowed as that of the Apostle’s martyrdom, Constantine the Great had erected the oldest and stateliest temple of Christian Rome. Nothing could be less like than was this basilica to those northern cathedrals, shadowy, fantastic, irregular, crowded with pillars, fringed all round by clustering shrines and chapels, which are to most of us the types of mediaeval architecture. In its plan and decorations, in the spacious sunny hall, the roof plain as that of a Greek temple, the long row of Corinthian columns, the vivid mosaics on its walls, in its brightness, its sternness, its simplicity, it had preserved every feature of Roman art, and had remained a perfect expression of Roman character. Out of the transept, a flight of steps led up to the high altar underneath and just beyond the great arch, the arch of triumph as it was called: behind in the semicircular apse sat the clergy, rising tier above tier around its walls; in the midst, high above the rest, and looking down past the altar over the multitude, was placed the bishop’s throne, itself the curule chair of some forgotten magistrate. From that chair the Pope now rose, as the reading of the Gospel ended, advanced to where Charles — who had exchanged his simple Frankish dress for the sandals and the chlamys of a Roman patrician — knelt in prayer by the high altar, and as in the sight of all he placed upon the brow of the barbarian chieftain the diadem of the Caesars, then bent in obeisance before him, the church rang to the shout of the multitude, again free, again the lords and centre of the world, ‘Karolo Augusto a Deo coronato magno et pacifico imperatori vita et victoria”.’ In that shout, echoed by the Franks without, was pronounced the union, so long in preparation, so mighty in its consequences, of the Roman and the Teuton, of the memories and the civilization of the South with the fresh energy of the North, and from that moment modern history begins.

Into a general view of the government and policy of Charles it is not possible here to enter. Yet his legislation, his assemblies, his administrative system, his magnificent works, recalling the projects of Alexander and Caesar, the zeal for education and literature which he shewed in the collection of manuscripts, the founding of schools, the gathering of eminent men from all quarters , around him, cannot be appreciated apart from his position as restorer of the Roman Empire. Like all the foremost men of our race, Charles was all great things in one, and was so great just because the workings of his genius were so harmonious. He was not a mere barbarian warrior any more than he was an astute diplomatist; there is none of all his qualities which would not be forced out of its place were we to characterize him chiefly by it. Comparisons between famous men of different ages are generally as worthless as they are easy: the circumstances among which Charles lived do not permit us to institute a minute parallel between his greatness and that of those two to whom it is the modern fashion to compare him, nor to say whether he was or could have become as profound a politician as Caesar, as skilful a commander as Napoleon. But neither to the Roman nor to the Corsican was he inferior in that one quality by which both he and they chiefly impress our imaginations—that intense, vivid, unresting energy which swept him over Europe in campaign after campaign, which sought a field for its workings in theology, science, literature, no less than in .politics and war. As it was this wondrous activity that made him the conqueror of Europe, so was it by the variety of his culture that he became her civilizer. From him, in whose wide deep mind the whole mediaeval theory of the world and human life mirrored itself, did mediaeval society take the form and impress which it retained for centuries, and the traces whereof are among us and upon us to this day.