Vita Karoli Magni

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Thirteenth-century manuscript illustration of Vita Karoli Magni
Charlemagne 15th century depiction at the Cathedral of Moulins, France

Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charles the Great) is a biography of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, written by Einhard.[1]

Literary context[edit]

Historians have traditionally described the work as the first example of a biography of a European king. The author endeavored to imitate the style of that of the ancient Roman biographer Suetonius, most famous for his work the Twelve Caesars. Einhard's biography is especially modeled after the biography of Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire.[2]


The date of the work is uncertain and a number of theories have been put forward. The inclusion of Charlemagne's will at the end of the work makes it fairly clear that it was written after his death in 814. The first reference to the work, however, comes in a letter to Einhard from Lupus of Ferrieres which is dated to the mid-ninth century. Dates have been suggested ranging from about 817 to 833, usually based on interpretations of the text in the political context of the first years of the reign of Louis the Pious and Louis' attitude to his father.[3] No theory has yet emerged as an obvious front runner, and it is likely that debate will continue.


Charlemagne and Charles V from Vita et gesta Karoli Magni, Cologne 1521
Main article: Einhard

Einhard's book is about intimate glimpses of Charlemagne's personal habits and tastes. He occupied a favoured position at Charlemagne's court so he had inside information. Einhard received advanced schooling at the monastery of Fulda sometime after 779. Here he was an exceptional student and was quite knowledgeable. The word was sent to Charlemagne of Einhard's expertise. He was then sent to Charlemagne’s Palace School at Aachen in 791. Einhard then received employment at Charlemagne's Frankish court about 796. He remained at this position for twenty some years. Einhard's book was expressly intended to convey his appreciation for advanced education. He wrote his biography after he had left Aachen and was living in Seligenstadt.[1]

Einhard and Charlemagne[edit]

Einhard's position while with Charlemagne was that of a modern day minister of public works, so he had intimate knowledge of his court. Einhard was also given the responsibility of many of Charlemagne's abbeys. It used to be suggested that Einhard's wife Emma was a daughter of Charlemagne; this can generally be disregarded as a twelfth-century fabrication, however, since there is no proof.[1]


Most biographies of the Middle Ages related only good deeds of their subject with many embellishments to improve their subject. Einhard's biography, however, is considered on the most part to be a trustworthy account of Charlemagne's life. It is considered an excellent account of earlier Medieval life.[1] Despite Einhard's limitations, since this was his first attempt at a major writing, the British historian Thomas Hodgkin said, "almost all our real, vivifying knowledge of Charles the Great is derived from Einhard, and that the Vita Karoli Magni is one of the most precious literary bequests of the early Middle Ages."[4]


  1. ^ a b c d Ogg, p. 109
  2. ^ Southern, p. 1
  3. ^ McKitterick, R. (2004). History and Memory in the Carolingian World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-521-53436-9. 
  4. ^ Hodgkin, p. 222




  • Ganz, D. (1997). "The Preface to Einhard's Vita Karoli". In H. Schefers. Einhard: Studien zu leben und Werk. Hessische Historische Kommission. pp. 299–310. ISBN 978-3-88443-033-0. 
  • Hodgkin, T. (1897). Charles the Great. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4067-3026-5. 
  • Holdsworth, C.J.; T.P. Wiseman (1986). The Inheritance of historiography, 350–900. Exeter: University of Exeter. ISBN 0-85989-272-7. 
  • Innes, M. (1996–1997). "The Classical Tradition and Carolingian Historiography: Encounters with Suetonius". International Journal of the Classical Tradition 3 (3): 265–282. doi:10.1007/BF02686391. 
  • Kempshall, M. (1995). "Some Ciceronian Models for Einhard' s Life of Charlemagne". Viator 26: 11–38. doi:10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301133. 
  • Ogg, F.A. (1907). A Source Book of Medieval History. New York: American Book Company. 
  • Nelson, J. (2005). "Charlemagne the Man". In J. Story. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-7089-1. 
  • Southern, Pat (1998). Augustus. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-16631-4. 
  • Tischler, M. (2001). Einharts Vita Karoli : Studien zur Entstehung, Überlieferung und Rezeption (in German). Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung. ISBN 3-7752-5448-X. 

External links[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.