Is Charlemagne French or German?

The story of Charlemagne, the first sovereign of both France and Germany, is a rich one. In this article, Deputy Editor Sarah Jones looks at Europe’s development and progression with regards to Charlemagne’s rule. 

Charlemagne (c.747-851 AD), (Charles le Grand or Karl der Große) has an ambiguous place in European history. Undoubtedly the greatest European ruler since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries before, Charlemagne is claimed as the first sovereign of both France and Germany. As such his inheritance points us towards a time of history where the map of Europe was unrecognisable according to modern territorial boundaries, yet his sudden death in 851 AD paved the way for France and Germany, as well as their respective cultural-linguistic realms, to begin taking on the shapes that we see in them today.

The Carolingian Conquest of Europe

Link many early medieval rulers, the exact date of Charlemagne’s birth is unknown. Einhard, a courtier and scholar, calculates Charlemagne’s birth year as 742 AD. The Annales Petaviani instead state the year 747; despite contradictions with other contemporary sources. The calendar at Lorsch Abbey, Germany suggests the date of 2 April. Most sources claim that Charlemagne was a septuagenarian at the time of his death in 851, and so 2 April 747 is the most commonly-accepted date. Nonetheless, the confusion surrounding the birth of Charlemagne prefigures the same haziness that engulfs the national inheritance of the Carolinginian Empire. The unsure birth date points towards an unsure cultural heritage.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, well and truly over by 476 AD, Europe had been overrun by Germanic ‘barbarian’ tribes including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals. After these groups faded into obscurity, the Franks began to rise to power and eventually consolidated their power into the Merovingian Empire. Charles Martel was replaced in 741 by his sons Carloman and Pepin the Short, the father of Charlemagne. After some quintessential medieval argy-bargy the pope decreed that Pepin should be made king and, after his election, the end of the Merovingian dynasty was sealed after nearly three hundred years of undisturbed reign.

After his father’s death in 768, Charlemagne was crowned King of the Franks. Following campaigns in Italy he was crowned King of the Lombards in 774, which was followed by extensive campaigns to the south and east of Francia. His military efforts reached into Navarre, Corsica, Sardinia, Saxony, Bavaria, modern-day Hungary and even into the Balkans. By 800, Europe was dominated by a vast Frankish Empire.


Europe in 800 AD

Following more papal argy-bargy of a similar genre that gave Pepin a knee-up into the Frankish throne, Charlemagne was eventually crowned as Emperor by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800. The papal coronation sealed the deal for Charlemagne: bestowing a new tinge of legitimacy and authority to his reign (and also paving the way for the ascendency of the Pope in the coming centuries). What followed was the largest-scale, and most sophisticated, Empire that Western Europe had seen since Rome. Charlemagne’s rule included reform in nearly all major domains: military, economic, monetary, education, political and ecclesiastical. Charlemagne may have united Western Europe, and the lands that now constitute modern France and Germany, but is the events after his death that truly shaped Europe for the next thousand years.

The Division of Europe

In 813 Charlemagne had crowned his sole surviving legitimate son, Louis the Pious, the king of Aquitaine, as co-King of the Franks. After succeeding Charlemagne’s throne after his death, Louis’s empire only lasted for one more generation until it dissolved into what is known as the tenth-century successor states.

Louis the Pious planned to divide his empire between his three sons by his first wife; Lothair, Pepin and Louis. Years of civil war between the brothers fostered animosity and destroyed the chance at a coherent Frankish inheritance, particularly due to Louis’s attempts to include Charles, his son by his second wife, in his inheritance plans. On his death in 840, and in the years following, the major titles of the Frankish Empire had passed through almost all of the brothers’ hands. The Treaty of Verdun in 843 eventually divided Louis the Pious’s empire into three sections: Lothair I became Emperor, although only tangibly ruled the Middle Frankish Kingdom; Louis the German became king of the East Frankish Kingdom; Charles the Bald became the King of the West Frankish Kingdom. Middle Francia only lasted for another three decades: Lothair’s three sons divided the kingdom into Lotharingia (similar to the borders of Lorraine, France), Burgundy, and Lombardy (Northern Italy). Not only were the modern borders of France and Germany seen for the first time, but the sons of Louis also founded the next ruling dynasties of Europe that began to take on particular regional identities. Charles the Bald in West Francia founded the Capetian Dynasty that ruled the Kingdom of France until 1328. Louis the German’s lands in the East formed the original kernel from which sprung the Holy Roman Empire which covered much of Central and Eastern Europe until 1806, and of which the Kingdom of Germany was its largest province.


The division of Francia after the death of Charlemagne

The death of Charlemagne thus heralded a new era in European history: the beginning of territories that were to become the sources of modern French and German identity. But was Charlemagne himself French or German? To suggest a response, the question must first be declared void. Notions of Frenchness of Germanness did not yet exist in the ninth century, and according to Eric Hobsbawm were only cemented in one thousand years later, and so ‘French’ and ‘German’ are both anachronistic terms. The details of Charlemagne’s birth and life are also unhelpfully hazily. He was probably born in Aachen, Germany and most likely spoke Rhenish Franconian, a dialect of Old High German. Ecclesiastical reforms reflected the multilingual landscape of his kingdom: the Council of Tours in 813 ruled that priests must preach in either rusticam Romanam linguam (Romance) or Theotiscam (the Germanic vernacular) as Latin was not widely understood. According to Einhard, Charlemagne dressed in traditional Frankish garb. Charlemagne’s life therefore reflected the multifaceted nature of Frankish identity; empirically speaking, he was neither French nor German, but Frankish.

Charlemagne: A historical and cultural icon

But history is more than what our sources tell us. Despite probably being a Frank in his own lifetime, Charlemagne’s identity has far outlived him. Claimed as the founding father of both France and Germany, here are the claims that each side make.

France’s claim to genealogy partly stems from etymology (that favoured French pursuit). Frank closely resembles French, particularly in French (franc and français). This means that slippage in the understanding of Charlemagne is easily made. The first piece of prose written in French, La Chanson de Roland, addresses ‘all Franks’; the appellation, combined with its privileged status in the modern French canon, renders it easy for Frankish to become elided with French. Its central position in the French curriculum further solidified its importance, even being read to French troops in twentieth century trenches. In addition, the idea of a Frankish king harks back to Clovis I, the alleged first King of the Franks. Clovis, a Merovingian, was one of the barbarian leaders that provoked the fall of Rome, and his territory coincided with a large portion of modern France. Clovis was supposedly crowned where Reims cathedral now stands. Usefully, then, Clovis encapsulated the quintessential rebellious spirit of the by-then disappeared Gauls, as well as coinciding with something resembling modern French borders.

For germanophones, there is less of a visual link between modern German and the Franks (Franken). Nevertheless, there is more linguistic evidence for a link: Charlemagne spoke a dialect of German, and the Franks themselves were a Germanic tribe that pushed into the territories of modern France. Thus, to some extent, French identity could seem to be built on a substratum of Germanic history. The German claim to Charlemagne rests primarily on the historical inheritance of the Holy Roman Empire, which evolved out of Louis the German’s East Frankish Kingdom. Otto I is credited as the first Holy Roman Emperor, yet Charlemagne’s empire was an important forerunner in terms of territorial resemblance, military might and administrative reform. Pride in the Holy Roman Empire, in part, continues due to its abrupt end in 1806: when Francis II dissolved it after its defeat by Napoleon in 1806. This event gestures how French and German identities are, and were, always predicated on the idea of the ‘other’ that lay just across the Rhine.

However, the territories of France and Germany have long been contested, as the recent histories of Alsace and Lorraine testify. The very fact of conflict over the cultural belonging of Charlemagne is evidence in favour of the statement that there is no direct history from the medieval past to the modern, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle or to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. The narrative of Charlemagne also fails to mention important moments in France and Germany’s history: the thirteenth-century war over England’s territories in France, or the eighteenth century German duchies. The medieval past is therefore useful in the creation of modern national identities. Charlemagne unites otherwise disparate groups, providing the national community with a shared past and thus beckons towards a unified future. It is tempting to see Charlemagne as heralding the modern face of Europe, but history has its own way of always perverting the path towards the end goal.

Further Reading:

Robert Bartlett, The Making of Modern Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change 950-1350 (Penguin, 1994)

David MacCulloch, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Penguin, 2010)

Christ Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Penguin, 2009)


Would you like to write on a historical matter for The Glossa? Let Steph know at


Photo credit:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s