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Analysis of Charlemagne's Reign: Historical Essay

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The Franks and their kings directed their gaze primarily toward the Near East and those parts of southern Europe closest to their empire, but seldom toward the west, the area inhabited by the Irish and the Anglo- Saxons, and never’at least not before Charlemagne’s reign’to the north.

Charlemagne, his father, Pepin, and his grandfather before him had greatly expanded the frontiers of their empire. Endless wars had led his father and Charlemagne himself across the Alps and into Italy as far south as Benevento, north of Naples, as well as westward over the Pyreneesto the banks of the river Ebro, eastward down the Danube to Pannonia, and north as far as the rivers Eider and Elbe.

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Certainly, some aspects of geo graphical knowledge did accrue to the Carolingian age from antiquity. Walahfrid Strabo, for example, who laid the foundations of his wide-ranging knowledge only after Charlemagne’s death and who may have studied under Hrabanus Maurus in Fulda, referred to the Histories of Orosius (1.2.60) in pinpointing the position of Alemannia or Swabia in his geographical view of the world. He also knew and cited Solinus’s Polyhistor (21.2) in this context. He had an absolutely clear conception of the location of the Alps, Lake Constance, the Rhine, Aare, Danube, Drava, and Sava Rivers, the provinces of Noricum, Rhaetia, and Pannonia, and the city of Bregenz’in other words, the close environs of his monastery at Reichenau. By contrast, he was able to place Ireland, Britain, and Spain only very approximately. Yet this monk with his book learning did manage to correct the incorrect views of ‘many,’ suggesting that he was well aware of the lack of geographical knowledge among his contemporaries. It seems reasonable to expect that Charlemagne’s court was acquainted with the work of Orosius at the very least.

However, his contemporaries wrote hardly any ethnographic or geographical treatises of their own. Probably around the middle of the eighth century, a remarkable cosmological treatise was produced, the Cosmographia, a difficult text to interpret and very possibly written with satirical intent by a fictitious author named Aethicus. The anonymous actual author must ‘have been a person with an uncommon gift for fantasy.’ This work had allegedly been translated from the Greek and edited by the Church Father St. Jerome; it was a kaleidoscopic compendium of book learning, with information that may have come originally from Byzantium, and it combined myths (e.g., Romulus warring against Francus), imaginative passages, and fiction: ‘a sophisticatedly structured description of the world, whose subject matter alone afforded a great deal of latitude for invention.’

Along with control of the empire, Pepin’s son Charlemagne also inherited his father’s high reputation in both the West and the East. But by the time, from the early 780s onward, he resumed relations with Constantinople’ and toward the end of the century with Baghdad’ circumstances had changed completely. The Frankish king had elevated himself to the position of king of the Lombards and had extended the frontiers of his empire far beyond Rome to southern Italy, to the borders with Calabria and Apulia, and in the east to Pannonia. Charlemagne had also led a military expedition to the banks of the Ebro in Spain and had made great efforts to raise his own intellectual culture to be on a par with that of the Greeks and the ‘Saracens’; ultimately, he was striving for the imperial crown.

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