Sep 242013


On this date in 768 Charlemagne, along with his brother Carloman I, became co-ruler of the Franks on the death of their father Pepin the Short.  Carloman’s sudden death in 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.  Charlemagne went on to conquer a large portion of Western Europe establishing the Carolingian Empire (which eventually developed into the Holy Roman Empire and which lasted until 1806).  Charlemagne spent almost all of his life in military campaigns.  I’ll let all that pass.  Instead I will focus on a brilliant age in cultural development he ushered in, usually called the Carolingian Renaissance – a great flowering of scholarship, literature, art, and architecture. The main impetus for this transformation was the opportunity for broad contact between scholars across cultures due to Charlemagne’s unification of the empire along with his personal devotion to the cause.


Charlemagne took a serious interest in scholarship, promoting the liberal arts at the court, ordering that his children and grandchildren be well educated, and even studying himself (in a time when leaders who promoted education did not take time to learn themselves) under the tutelage of Peter of Pisa, from whom he learned grammar; Alcuin an Anglo-Saxon from York, with whom he studied rhetoric, dialectic (logic), and astronomy; and Einhard, a Frank, who assisted him in studying  arithmetic.

Charlemagne systematically collected books from all across Europe and set monks to the task of copying and disseminating them. To Charlemagne is owed the enormous legacy of preserving so many ancient texts. Most of the presently surviving works of classical Latin were copied and preserved by Carolingian scribes and scholars. In fact, the earliest manuscripts available for many ancient texts are Carolingian. It is almost certain that a text which survived to the Carolingian age survives to this day.


In order to facilitate the dissemination of books Charlemagne oversaw the creation of a script now known as Carolingian minuscule that was clearer and easier to read than previous scripts, which were dense and crabbed.  Alcuin played a major part in this development. Charlemagne himself was probably functionally illiterate.  It is known that he could not write.  Einhard notes, “He . . . tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success. Einhard does not say whether he could read or not. It is recorded, however, that Charlemagne had classics read to him over dinner in place of the usual Medieval entertainments.

Charlemagne took an intense interest in church music, and its propagation and adequate performance throughout his empire. He not only helped liturgical music to flourish in his own time throughout his empire in Western Europe, but he also laid the foundations for the subsequent musical culture of the region.  Aided by a technical knowledge of the subject, he appreciated the reasons why the Church attaches importance to music in worship, and the manner of its performance. To this end, he took members of his own chapel to Rome with him, in order that they might learn at the fountainhead, and asked Pope Adrian I, in 774, to let him have two of his papal singers. One of these, Theodore, was sent to Metz, and the other, Benedict, to the schola cantorum at Soissons. According to Ekkehart IV, a chronicler of the tenth century, Adrian sent two more singers to the Court of Charlemagne. One of these, Peter, reached Metz, but Romanus, at first being detained at St. Gall by sickness, afterwards obtained permission from the emperor to remain there. Manuscripts found there were used in the recovery of the original form of the Gregorian chant.


The sons of nobles of his empire and of his vassals were expected, by imperial commands to be instructed in grammar, music, and arithmetic, while the boys in the public schools were taught music and how to sing, especially the Psalms.

Carolingian architecture was a conscious attempt to emulate Roman architecture and to that end it borrowed heavily from Early Christian and Byzantine architecture, though there are nonetheless innovations of its own, resulting in a unique character.


The gatehouse of the monastery at Lorsch, built around 800, exemplifies classical inspiration for Carolingian architecture, built as a triple-arched hall dominating the gateway, with the arched facade interspersed with attached classical columns and pilasters above.

The Palatine Chapel in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) constructed between 792 – 805 was inspired by the octagonal Justinian church of San Vitale in Ravenna, built in the 6th century, but at Aachen there is a tall monumental western entrance complex, as a whole called a westwork – a Carolingian innovation.

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Carolingian churches generally are basilican, like the Early Christian churches of Rome, and commonly incorporated westworks, which is arguably the precedent for the western facades of later medieval cathedrals. An original westwork survives today at the Abbey of Corvey, built in 885.

The most numerous surviving works of the Carolingian renaissance in art are illuminated manuscripts. A number of luxury manuscripts, mostly Gospel books, have survived, decorated with a relatively small number of full-page miniatures, often including evangelist portraits, and lavish canon tables, following the precedent of the Insular art of Britain and Ireland. Narrative images and especially cycles are rarer, but many exist, mostly of the Old Testament, especially Genesis. New Testament scenes are more often found on the ivory reliefs on the covers. The over-sized and heavily decorated initials of Insular art were adopted, and the so called “historiated initial” (an initial letter illustrated with a story) was developed.

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By Charlemagne’s time the French vernacular had already diverged significantly from Latin. This is evidenced by one of the regulations of the Council of Tours, which required that the parish priests preach either in the “rusticam Romanam linguam” (Romance) or “Theotiscam” (the Germanic vernacular) rather than in Latin. The goal of this rule was to make the sermons comprehensible to the common people, who must therefore have been either Romance speakers or Germanic speakers. Charlemagne himself probably spoke a Rhenish Franconian dialect of Old High German. Apart from his native language he also spoke Latin and understood a bit of Greek. According to Einhard “he could understand Greek better than he could speak it.”

Charlemagne’s personal appearance is known from a good description by Einhard:

“He was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature, although not exceptionally so, since his height was seven times the length of his own foot. He had a round head, large and lively eyes, a slightly larger nose than usual, white but still attractive hair, a bright and cheerful expression, a short and fat neck, and he enjoyed good health, except for the fevers that affected him in the last few years of his life. Toward the end, he dragged one leg. Even then, he stubbornly did what he wanted and refused to listen to doctors, indeed he detested them, because they wanted to persuade him to stop eating roast meat, as was his wont, and to be content with boiled meat.”


The physical portrait provided by Einhard is confirmed by contemporary depictions of the emperor, such as coins and his 8-inch bronze statue kept in the Louvre. In 1861, Charlemagne’s tomb was opened by scientists who reconstructed his skeleton and estimated it to be measured 74.9 in. An estimate of his height from an X-ray and CT Scan of his tibia performed in 2010 is 72 in. This puts him in the 99th percentile of height for men of his period, given that average male height of his time was 67 in.


Rather than give a specific recipe in celebration of Charlemagne I am going to talk in general about the vegetable kohlrabi which was known before Charlemagne’s time, but he was responsible for its widespread planting in his empire, especially in Germanic regions.  Even today Germany has the highest production and consumption of kohlrabi, and has to import large quantities to meet demand.

Kohlrabi is a descendant of wild European cabbage with a bulbous base and leafy top.  Both parts are edible although the bulb’s skin is tough.  The bulb may be eaten raw or cooked, and country people in Germany are known to simply cut a bulb in the fields and eat it much like an apple.  It comes in two varieties: red and white (green skin).  The white variety is hothouse grown and is mellower and softer than the red variety which grows in fields. Until recently it was not easy to find kohlrabi in supermarkets, but it is now more readily available, particularly in upmarket groceries.  The bulb is less perishable than the leaves, which probably explains why more often than not it is sold with the leaves cut off.  If you do find the leaves, prepare them as you would collards or kale (see post 23 Sept.).  Select small kohlrabi bulbs for cooking. The larger they are, the more fibrous they are. Smaller ones have a soft easily cooked flesh, and can be eaten raw.  In the main you can cook kohlrabi as an excellent replacement for potatoes (one of their principle uses along with turnips before potatoes arrived from the New World).



One of the simplest ways to prepare kohlrabi is to create thin strips with a peeler and mix them with your other salad ingredients.

You can also make a salad like a potato salad by dicing the peeled bulbs and poaching them to al dente (15 to 20 minutes) and mixing the cooled dice with mayonnaise and herbs.  Some crumbled bacon bits are a nice addition.


Side dishes

There’s nothing wrong with a dish of plain kohlrabi dice served with a knob of butter and a fresh parsley garnish. The commonest way of serving them in Germany, however, is to toss them in a white sauce which you prepare by make a white roux of equal parts flour and butter, and then adding whole milk or half and half plus a little grated nutmeg.

A favorite of mine is kohlrabi casserole.  For this you sauté diced kohlrabi in a little olive oil with some cubed ham until they are lightly browned. Place in a baking dish and pour over a mix of egg yolk, whipping cream, and flour, seasoned with salt, pepper, and grated nutmeg (for 3lb of kohlrabi, you need 3 yolks, 1 cup of cream, and 2 tbsp of flour).  Bake in a medium oven until golden (30 to 40 mins).

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