We do not know the precise location of Charlemagne’s birthplace. He donned the crown at the ripe age of twenty-nine in 771 A.D. upon the death of Carloman II. From that moment he became embroiled in an almost ceaseless series of military campaigns designed both to expand his frontiers and safeguard them; in this turbulent age, kings needed to fight as well as administrate. Historians tell us that he undertook around fifty-three campaigns, and personally commanded most of them.
At various times he faced off against the encroaching Bavarians, Saxons, Slavs, Avars, Basques, Northmen, and Saracens. He devoted himself with no less vigor to the even greater challenges of administration. The governance of so vast a realm demanded a competent corps of devoted men, and Charles trained himself to be an expert judge of character. Some of his reforms make good sense, even today. He instituted compulsory military service as a precondition for the ownership of land; he established regular conferences of officials and notables, and held them personally accountable; and he astutely sought to co-mingle the temporal power of the monarchy with the spiritual power of the Church. We may safely assume, then, that he knew something about power, leadership, and human relations. The following anecdotes are taken from Notker’s Deeds of Charlemagne. They demonstrate both the great king’s moral wisdom, and his willingness to communicate this wisdom to his subordinates.
Charlemagne was once in the countryside of France, where he was absorbed in the task of appointing a new bishop. As the formalities took place over a number of days, the king was concerned with maintaining the physical fitness of his men and himself. He said to his retinue,
We must not let leisure lead us into slothful habits. Let us go hunting and kill something. And let us go in the very clothing that we are wearing at this moment.
It was a wet and rainy day, and his retinue balked; but they could not refuse their king. Charles himself was wearing a very inexpensive sheepskin. But his officials and assistants were bedecked in finery, expecting to be involved in strictly ceremonial tasks. They were wearing fancy clothes and various other expensive garnishes. Notker tells us that they had just come from Pavia, in Italy, where the Venetians had made available to them the expensive fabrics and luxuries of the East. They had clothing made from pheasant-skins and silks, and sported the plumages of rare birds, or ribbons colored with Tyrian purple.
Charles led the way, and forced them to plunge into the brush in pursuit of game. He and his party were torn by thickets, brambles, and small trees; soon many of his retinue were wet, exhausted, bleeding, distressed and humiliated. When he saw that his men were sufficiently uncomfortable, he said to them,
Not one of you is permitted to remove his clothing. You will sleep in the very clothes you are wearing now. If you are wet, you must deal with this.
Some of his men tried to warm themselves with small fires. Then they attended to their other duties until late into the night. The next morning, the courtiers tried to take off their expensive clothing, which was now mostly ruined. Their fancy garb was torn and tattered, shrunken down, and basically useless as protection for their bodies. Many of them were angry at having spent so much money on fancy but fragile garments. Charles, however, ordered his men to put on their clothing and appear before him without delay early that morning. All of the court officials looked ragged, dirty, and demoralized. When they had all assembled before him, the great king said to an attendant, “Go and get my sheepskin, and bring it here.” When the attendant brought it, the courtiers could see that it was unaffected by the hard romp through the forest that they had taken the previous day. It looked perfectly resilient and sound. He then said to his men:
Listen to me! Which of these garments appears to you to be more valuable? Well? This humble sheepskin garment, which was purchased for a piece of silver, or those expensive outfits of yours, which cost you so much? And look at your clothing now. Of what use was it to you in a real test, or in a real crisis?
The king’s retinue fell silent. They could not answer this question, for they knew they had been humbled by Charles’s lesson. His purpose in so instructing them was to remind them that a leader must always be prepared to deal with exigencies and crises. A good leader, he knew, cannot hide behind the trappings of power, as represented by fancy clothing; instead, a good leader must understand that true fortitude comes from within.
Here is another of Charles’s moral lessons. Once a delegation of Vikings sent Charlemagne a gift of gold and silver to signify their loyalty to him. They also sent him their swords, as a token of their fealty to his power. When the great Charles received these impressive gifts at Aachen, he ordered that the gold and silver coins should be thrown on the floor, and trod upon by all who were present in the room, as if the precious metals were nothing but dirt or straw. The Viking ambassadors were shocked by this strange behavior, but held their tongues. Charlemagne then ordered all of the swords to be brought before him, so that he might test their strength and flexibility.
Charles took one of the swords in his hands, and bent the blade forcefully with the power of his strong arms. The blade snapped under this pressure. One of the Viking ambassadors then offered Charles another sword, telling the king that his sword was a better and more flexible one. Charles took it in his hands, and bent the blade, says Notker, “like a vine-twig from the tip back to the hilt.” He then slowly released the pressure of his arms, and returned the blade to its original appearance. The Viking ambassadors looked at Charles in awe; they had never seen a king treat money with such contempt, and place such a high value on strength and resilience. They spoke these words to Charlemagne:
We truly wish, sire, that our own kings held gold and silver so cheap, and iron so precious.
This was what they said to the great and noble Charles. Then they withdrew in silence.
Take a look at the new, original translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, just released last week and available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover: