Dreaming of Charlemagne


Tuesday January 28, 2014 marked the 12th centenary of the death of Charlemagne, who was buried on the same day he died, Jan. 28, 814, in the Kaiserdom — the imperial cathedral — of Aachen, just a short drive from Cologne, on the Belgian border.

Charlemagne's shrine

Borders were a rather different matter in the days of Charlemagne, for it was he — Charles the Great — who united much of western Europe under his rule, bringing a good measure of peace and unity after centuries of division and war following the fall of Rome.  Crowned emperor by the pope on Christmas Day in the year 800 at St. Peter's basilica in Rome, Charlemagne persists in the European imagination as a figure of pan-European peace, prosperity and cultural flourishing.

Few figures are commemorated 1,200 years after their death.  Mere historical achievement doesn't explain it;  a figure has to stand for something enduring.  Europe's curse, from the fall of Rome to the present day, has been war between its many different nations, languages and cultures.  Thus the European dream is harmony, and to the extent that dreams have names, it is Charlemagne.

To mark the anniversary this year there is an exhibition in Aachen, chosen by Charlemagne as his imperial capital, which will include the Lorsch Gospels, an illuminated manuscript framed with elaborate carved ivory covers.  They were a product of Charlemagne's court, and likely a gift from the emperor to one of his monasteries.  The Lorsch Gospels have been separated and are kept now in the Vatican Museums, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Batthyaneum Library in Romania.  They have been brought together in honour of Charlemagne as an example of European cooperation today, and a tribute to the literary, artistic and spiritual flourishing that marked the "Carolingian renaissance."

Europe as a cultural reality is the encounter of the biblical faith of Israel, the natural reason of Greek philosophy, and the tradition of Roman law.  Europe is the meeting of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome.  It was Christianity that brought the faith of Israel to Europe, expressed that faith in the philosophical categories of the Greeks, and inherited the structures and order of the Roman empire.  The fall of Rome did violence to all this, and it was reassembled in the Europe of Charlemagne, which in turn would come to be known as Christendom.  For that reason, the Lorsch Gospels, a Christian artistic project, are a suitable expression of Charlemagne's political and cultural achievement.

The long disintegration of Christendom led to various attempts to build a new Europe without Christianity.  The failed draft constitution of the European Union was explicit about the roots of Europe being in Rome and Athens, and equally explicit that Jerusalem no longer had a welcome contribution to make.  Europe now dreams of Charlemagne without Charlemagne's faith.

Charlemagne is claimed by both the Germans and the French as the father of their former monarchies, but the commemorations in Aachen are an entirely German affair.  Aachen is more commonly referred to in English by its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle, but the French have decided, organizers say, to focus this year on the centenary of the First World War.

The Lorsch Gospels

Which makes for a fascinating juxtaposition.  Is 814 or 1914 a better expression of Europe?  Is the unity called Christendom an authentic expression of the cultural project called Europe?  Or is its long unravelling into the various national divisions in religion and language, until the mass slaughter of the First World War, the real face of Europe?

The premise of the modern European Union is really the latter:  The civilizational suicide of 1914 — the war to end all wars, fought for no great cause — is the real history of cursed Europe.  In response to that, and the further totalitarian madnesses that produced the Second World War, the European task has been to create a structure that will restrain Europe from becoming a killing field once again.

The Carolingian dream of a Europe for some great ideal is a truly grand one.  In the various successors to Charlemagne's empire, it was remarkable that peoples of different languages and cultures could live together in an authentically multicultural and multinational unity.  But 1914 put paid to any such grand ideals.  Sufficient now is a mere absence of war.

This coming year will feature many commemorations of 1914, mostly and rightly focused on the heroism of those who fought and died.  We Canadians shall hear with more poignancy about Flanders' Fields and Vimy and other places of glorious sacrifice.  For Europeans, that glory is secondary to the great shame of the war itself.  Charlemagne died in 814.  The dream called Charlemagne died 1100 years later.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Dreaming of Charlemagne." National Post, (Canada) January 30, 2014.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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