When you’re looking for him, Charlemagne is everywhere—but in April, he was noticeably absent from the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. EU member countries sponsored essay-writing and postcard-design contests for children, and museums in Brussels celebrated such curiously low-key phenomena as comic strips and photographs of offices in Luxembourg. The whole business was impressively stuffy—making Europe seem boring required an act of unprecedented bureaucratic genius—but I was still surprised when the party planners didn’t extend an invitation to Charlemagne, neither the very un-modern Christian warlord nor the burnished symbol of European unity whose name graces both a prestigious annual prize and the EU headquarters building in Brussels.
That’s why I was intrigued to see Jeffery Hodges, the Gypsy Scholar, pointing his readers to an essay, “Will ‘Europe’ Survive the 21st Century? A Meditation on the 50th anniversary of the European Community.” Its author, Walter A. McDougall, directs the International Relations program at UPenn. McDougall offers some thoughts on demography, demilitarization, and religion, subjects that merit ongoing debate—but he also remembers his Charlemagne:
What would Charlemagne make of Europe today? He would marvel, of course, at the wealth and technology. He would praise and bless the ubiquitous peace. He would recognize instantly the Islamic Challenge and tell Europeans it was ten times worse back in his day! Nor, having been a state builder himself, would he likely object to the intrusive EU bureaucracy. Indeed, it is fetching to think Charlemagne would discern in the EU the culmination of the great work he began over a millennium ago, and give glory to God. But three features of Europe today would doubtless grieve and trouble him greatly: military impotence; spiritual emptiness; and demographic decay. How long, the Emperor would surely ask, can a civilization expect to survive without arms, without faith, without children?
That is a question even the plodding Eurocrats will have to address before the twenty-first century gets very old.
What would Charlemagne make of Europe today? In the past year, several people have asked me that question. Not being built for punditry, I’ve mostly demurred, but after some informed guesswork, I came to the same mixed conclusion McDougall did: that Charlemagne would be astonished by Europe’s material prosperity but dismayed by European secularism.
That answer makes no one happy. Many want Charlemagne to be their like-minded hero, a flawless symbol of their own beliefs, while others bristle if you merely acknowledge that the question of religious faith is the largest philosophical chasm that separates Aachen in 797 from Brussels in 2007.
Fortunately, McDougall doesn’t make Charlemagne a simple repository for his own views, nor is his Charlemagne ideologically predictable. In fact, his claim that the emperor might have appreciated the EU’s sprawling bureaucracy, while plausible, is sure to rankle most of his Euroskeptic readers.
More debatable is McDougall’s assessment of the “Islamic Challenge,” his name for several intertwined issues: European identity, Muslim immigration, Islamic terrorism, and Turkish membership in the EU. Charlemagne “would recognize instantly the Islamic Challenge and tell Europeans it was ten times worse back in his day,” McDougall insists, but he offers no assurance that the situations are analogous across 1,200 years. History buffs remember that Charlemagne and his army were ambushed in the Pyrenees while leaving Spain in 778, but not everyone remembers why he was there in the first place: he had been invited to help the Muslim rulers of Saragossa and Barcelona against another Muslim, Abd al-Rahman of Cordoba. Later, Charlemagne also conducted cordial, long-distance diplomacy with the caliph in Baghdad, a consequence of their two empires having enemies in common.
The pragmatism of Franco-Islamic relations doesn’t mean that Charlemagne practiced “religious tolerance” in the modern sense—his foray into Spain was probably intended as a prelude to more ambitious military adventures—but it does suggest that if the old boy were to awaken from his 1,200-year slumber, he’d need a lengthy briefing to understand why immigration and assimilation had replaced military and diplomatic engagement as Europe’s real “Islamic Challenge.” It’s plausible, but not a given, that the events of the eighth and ninth centuries are akin to the situation in 2007, although the brave soul who argues the comparison is bound to disappoint everyone. Fans of cameras-and-handshakes diplomacy will cringe at Charlemagne’s aggressive militarism, while those who idolize him as an uncompromising proto-Crusader will find him insufficiently zealous in his opposition to the very existence of Islam.
But, as it turns out, sic semper Karolus. The most enjoyable part of my recent effort to introduce readers to Charlemagne as Karl, King of the Franks, has been witnessing the modern version of the centuries-old habit of creating a Charlemagne for all seasons. We play up favorite strengths, we prune those pesky weaknesses, and we see in him our highly personalized embodiment of an ideal Europe—whatever we think that may be.
Of course, some of us are completely, totally, utterly, infallibly immune to such anachronistic thinking. For that reason, I can admit that I know in my bones that Charlemagne, a famous patron of literature and art, would have grimaced at the sight of Europe’s monstrously tacky 50th anniversary logo. I mean, really, just look at it. The “Father of Europe” wouldn’t have needed knowledge of 21st-century typography or decades of bombardment by modern commercial branding techniques. Tasteful and discerning, he’d recognize a cheesy design when he saw one.
As for evidence of this humble assertion? Well, that’s the thing: You, dear readers, will just have to stretch your imaginations. Acknowledge the mindsets of medieval people; remember the premises of modern pundits; and take the matter, as they all so often do, on faith.