Even though biographies of secular figures, such as state leaders, had been a common genre of texts in the classical period, the practice had fallen out of favor during the early Middle Ages. By the time the Frankish scholar, Einhard, was born around the year 770, the Christian church had all but reserved the biographical format for the purpose of documenting the lives of saints. Comments on un-sainted kings could still be found in historical annals, recording events year-by-year, or in other forms, such as poetry inspired by heroic deeds. A few decades before the birth of Einhard, Bede gave admirable attention to secular affairs in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731), but it was too broad in scope, and too shallow in intimate detail, for the secular sections to fit the bill of a biographical account.
Einhard joined the court of Charlemagne sometime during the early 790s, and by 796, he had become a highly respected member of Charlemagne’s scholarly circle. Sometime during his time with Charlemagne and the royal heirs, Einhard was inspired to write down a detailed account of the great king’s life and death. While today this idea seems natural, in his own time, Einhard’s determination to write solely about a secular king would have seemed almost revolutionary. There were very few, if any, contemporary biographies about state rulers that Einhard could use as a model for his own work. Instead, he had to reach back to ancient 1st-and 2nd-century Rome in order to study the formulas used by the famous biographers, Plutarch and Suetonius. Einhard latched onto Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, in particular, using the ancient series of biographies as a rubric for his own account of Charlemagne.
When Einhard composed his Life of Charlemagne sometime between 817-827, he jolted life back into the genre of secular biographies. Despite criticism from contemporary saint biographers, Einhard’s small text quickly became one of the most popular written works of the Middle Ages. Before the end of the 9th century, Einhard’s work prompted new biographical works to emerge. Notker the Stammerer produced his own biography of Charlemagne (written between 883-887) in response to Einhard and, across the English Channel, a Welshman named Asser wrote a biography (c. 893) about the famous Anglo-Saxon ruler, King Alfred the Great.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Portait of Jean Mielot, by Jean Le Tavernier (–1462), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.