In This Review

By Johannes Fried. Translated by Peter Lewis
Harvard University Press, 2016, 688 pp

Fried, one of Germany’s most distinguished historians, launches this grand biography with a disarming caveat: “The following book is not a novel, but it is a work of fiction all the same.” Fried believes that we are impossibly distant from those who inhabited Europe 1,200 years ago: we can hardly imagine their language, emotions, and beliefs—or even the “alien landscape” of impenetrable forests and deserted wastelands they inhabited. At this distance, historical biography can be no better than a rough approximation, even when the subject is the greatest European monarch of the era. Charlemagne united Europe for the first time since the fall of Rome, and the resulting Holy Roman Empire endured for a thousand years. His reforms of military logistics, money, law, and many other things changed Europe forever. Yet we know little about him with certainty. Much of what contemporary sources and subsequent historians reveal is probably romantic legend. The record is contradictory and thus open to interpretation, as befits a merciless conqueror who was canonized shortly after his death. For those who wish to grapple with Charlemagne’s life in its entirety, without false certainties, Fried’s book is the best choice.