Charlemagne’s Will: Piety, Politics and the Imperial Succession

Charlemagne’s Will: Piety, Politics and the Imperial Succession

By Matthew Innes

The English Historical Review, Vol. 112, No. 448. (1997)

Introduction: Einhard, writing Charlemagne’s Life, chose to end with the enactment of his erstwhile master’s last will and testament. Thanks to Einhard’s pioneering work, the first post-Roman Emperor in the west is also the first Frankish king for whom a will survives. The text of the document is accepted as unambiguously genuine.

Yet it has been almost wholly ignored in previous discussion, and used solely in Karl Brunner’s fine but methodologically idiosyncratic study of the high politics and prosopography of the court in Charlemagne’s last years. Indeed, any student of the secondary literature alone would be unaware of the element of literal truth in the conventional characterization of Louis the Pious, the second Carolingian Emperor, as ‘Charlemagne’s heir’.

Charlemagne’s will has a dual historiographical importance. Firstly, for the political historian, it offers unparalleled insights into Charlemagne’s relationships with his family, his followers and the Church, the three principal beneficiaries. It is a priceless – yet previously unused – source for Charlemagne’s own attempts to order his family and his Empire in the last years of his life. Placed in the context of contemporary political thought and the historical traditions associated with the Carolingian family, it becomes an unrivalled witness to Charlemagne’s own understanding of his political achievement.

Moreover, in Einhard’s eyes, the will also overshadowed the first years of Louis the Pious’s reign, a document of central importance in the complex politics of the succession crisis of 810 to 817. Rereading the will in the light of Einhard’s understanding of it allows a wholesale reinterpretation of this crucial episode in Carolingian history.

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