Jeff Sypeck (November 2006)


Jeff Sypeck is the author of Becoming Charlemagne, which has been hailed by Publishers Weekly as a "splendid portrait" that "magnificently chronicles four significant years in the emperor's life." Mr. Sypeck, a New Jersey native and longtime Washingtonian, majored in English at the University of Delaware. He received his Master's Degree in Literature from the University of New Hampshire, and his Master's Degree in Medieval and Byzantine Studies from the Catholic University of America. Mr. Sypeck consults on historical topics and teaches medieval literature at the University of Maryland's University College. His articles about books, travel and medievalism have appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and other venues. The Legal History Project interviewed Mr. Sypeck in October and November 2006.

Your book covers an enormous geographical range – Western Europe to Baghdad – but only a brief period of time around the year 800. What inspired you to write in a popular style about this particular period, and what lessons does your subject have for people today?

Charlemagne's imperial coronation in the year 800 is one of the most important events in European history, not necessarily because of what it accomplished but because of what people thought it accomplished. I'm reluctant to offer specific lessons we can derive from it, but we need to know who Charlemagne was if we hope to understand why Europe developed as it did. This is a king who inspired, among others, the crusaders, Napoleon, Hitler and the founders of the European Union.

Their selective use – some might say misuse – of Charlemagne's legacy points out what may be the only true and consistent lesson of history: the law of unintended consequences.

In recounting the life of Charlemagne, you chose not to call him by his French moniker, but rather by his given Germanic name, Karl. What was your reason for doing so?

"Charlemagne" is a name that the man himself never heard; it's the French contraction of the Latin Carolus Magnus, "Charles the Great." Charlemagne is a character in medieval poems and modern storybooks. Karl, king of the Franks, was the living, breathing historical figure.

Today, books in English usually refer to him as Charles, but I found "Charles" too modern-sounding and too French for a Frankish warrior who spoke a Germanic language. Latin sources give variant spellings of his name, Carolus or Karolus, "Carl" or "Karl." I could have chosen either, but I went with the K because it's phonetic, it looks more Germanic to English speakers, and it's the spelling on documents from his later, imperial years.

After that long-winded explanation, I should add that the cover of my book doesn't show Karl but Charlemagne, in all his ahistorical glory.

What were the legal ramifications of ethnic identity in the Frankish Empire that Karl came to lead?

If you lived in Karl's kingdom, you were judged according to the law of your nation, tribe, ethnicity or race, regardless of geography. Counts presided over local courts, and their subordinates carried out sentences according to their understanding of the applicable ethnic law.

Given a kingdom that covered around 400,000 square miles, plus corrupt local officials, contradictory and incomplete law codes, and no real bureaucracy to speak of, you can imagine that the administration of justice was a haphazard and frequently unsatisfying affair. Feuds between kin groups were illegal, but they were a common and perhaps more satisfying way to settle some disputes out of court.

What distinguished Karl from other European tribal leaders of the period, and what special contribution did his Carolingian dynasty, and the Franks more generally, make to the European legal heritage?

Karl possessed an admirable civilizing impulse. Unlike his contemporaries in Constantinople and Baghdad, he didn't inherit a highly developed empire or a functional bureaucracy, but he aspired to create both. At the same time, Karl's eighth-century understanding of good leadership meant that his concerns went beyond matters of earthly prosperity. As a Christian king, he believed that the souls of his subjects were in his care. Today we associate literacy and education with good citizenship, upward mobility and other secular notions, but Karl saw book production and increased literacy as ways to help administer his Christian kingdom. Literacy also offered individual Christians an opportunity to cultivate a stronger understanding of their own religion.

Karl's most interesting contribution to legal history was the issuance of his famous capitularies, legal proclamations so called for their divisions into capita, or chapters. Some of the capitularies imposed a layer of royal or imperial regulations over the various ethnic laws. They make for good reading not only for legal historians but also for anyone who craves a glimpse of the agrarian culture of early medieval Europe. What did they eat? Which plants were grown on royal estates? What were the reporting requirements for wolf-hunters? These legal proclamations give historians a sense of how the Carolingian world may have worked by showing how early medieval Europeans felt their world was supposed to work.

Karl also revised the Frankish law code known as the Salic Law – the law of the Salian, or western, Franks – which had been written down in the sixth century by Clovis, the first Frankish king to embrace Christianity. The Salic Law excluded women from inheritance and emphasized patrilineal succession, and it was the source of the Frankish custom of dividing an inheritance between brothers. The division of Europe by Karl's grandsons at Verdun in 843 is probably the most clear example of its long-term political impact.

The French rediscovered the Salic Law during the 14th century, but it took them nearly a century to grasp its political benefits. Even then, their knowledge of its history was murky: one writer claimed that it was a form of Roman law that had been confirmed by Charlemagne. French kings and their allies used the Salic Law to justify excluding women from inheriting the royal throne. By the reign of Louis XI, it was a sort of royal constitution, and Philip V later introduced it into Spain.

The Salic Law also plays a role in the Shakespearean scene that's most likely to put a 21st-century audience to sleep. At the beginning of Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury explains at great length that the French can't use the Salic Law to deny Henry's claim to France because, he says, it's "as clear as is the summer's sun" that the Salic Law doesn't apply to French lands and that the French have routinely flouted the law anyway by allowing for royal succession through women. Salic Law seems to have been on the minds of English polemicists during the reign of Queen Elizabeth not only as they justified her rule but also as they prepared for a male successor.

The centerpiece of your book is Karl's coronation as Roman Emperor by Pope Leo in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day in 800. What significance did the coronation have for the secular and religious law of that time?

As you can see in the final chapters of Becoming Charlemagne, Karl and his counselors didn't have a clear sense of what an emperor was supposed to be doing that a mere king could not. In the immediate aftermath of the coronation, Karl apparently felt a renewed sense of urgency about recording laws and enacting certain ambitious legal reforms, but it was all a bit makeshift. Twelve centuries later, I don't mind giving such an inconclusive answer, because I'm not sure they understood the legal significance of the coronation even at the time.

Interestingly, the same legal issue that helped Karl and Leo, the belief that a pope could be judged by no one but himself, became a point of reference in the Middle Ages as later generations hashed out the relationship between the emperor and the church. Europe changed drastically, but Frankish involvement with the papacy resonated, legally and politically, for centuries.

Just prior to the coronation, Karl presided over the trial of Pope Leo, who was cleared of various charges of moral turpitude brought by his enemies in Rome. Can you describe the legal and other circumstances that led up to this very unusual event?

Really lurid business: an attack on the pope in broad daylight, questions about the Roman legacy, a controversial female ruler in Constantinople, a cleverly orchestrated quasi-trial in Rome, alliances of convenience between Christians and Muslims – to say much more would spoil the book, but I think readers will enjoy seeing how it all played out.

As with the subsequent coronation, you write that the trial proceedings were a hodgepodge of Roman and other traditions, with further elements added in that can diplomatically be described as innovative. Given such a legal blending, could it be said that Karl and the period's European elites tried to mimic Rome in legal matters as much as their limited knowledge allowed, or was Roman law instead just an occasionally convenient tool for indifferent rulers?

They didn't have the luxury of indifference. I wouldn't call what they did "mimicry," but nostalgia for Rome wasn't merely a randomly selected tool, either. Because sincerity transmits poorly across 1,200 years, I'll defer and let readers of Becoming Charlemagne judge for themselves Karl's motives and the depth of his interest in Roman laurels.

In contrast to Pope Leo, the pope's accusers were tried by contemporary Roman law. To what extent did the early ninth-century city of Rome, and by extension the lands extending up into southern France, retain formal Roman law as opposed to degraded folk customs distantly based on Roman law?

The Lombards who conquered northern Italy had their own law, but they recognized Roman law among non-Lombards. Even after Karl conquered the area, Lombard law continued to be the law of most Italians, although Romans could register to be judged by either one. Pope Leo III, the scandalous pontiff who crowned Karl, tried to restore Roman law in Lombard areas, probably for his own purposes.

As for Roman law elsewhere, the Visigoths had allowed the various ethnic groups in their kingdom to live according to their own laws. In the early sixth century, their king Alaric compiled Roman law – mostly the Theodosian Code of a century earlier – for folks who lived in the south of what's now France. Later, under Karl, people in Aquitaine still lived according to that law as recorded in the Breviary of Alaric.

The most obvious survival of Roman law was in the eastern empire. Just before the period covered in Becoming Charlemagne, the law of the Byzantine Empire had been the law of Justinian, but by the early eighth century the study of Roman law had degraded. In my book, I mention the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in the context of his rampant iconoclasm, but he's also notable for publishing the Ecloga, a legal manual that was based on Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis but influenced by canon law, Byzantine custom, and Christianity. Shortly thereafter, specialists also circulated supplementary codes, including the Farmer's Law and the ancient and amazingly durable Rhodian laws of the sea.

Your question highlights an interesting and important fact about the world in the year 800: Rome was still everywhere, in ruins that stretched from North Africa to Syria, in the Latin language and the painted books copied by monks, in Karl's heated bath chamber near the Rhine, in the popular imagination – and, also, in the law.

In discussing Isaac, Karl's emissary to Baghdad, you take the view that Frankish Jews passed through a brief golden age under the Carolingians, in part because they were considered to be holdovers from the ancient Roman population and had not yet been marked out for serious persecution. As a legal matter, how did secular and Church authorities at the time view and treat Jews?

Under the Carolingians, the Jews of Aquitaine held the same privileges they had enjoyed under Roman law as codified in the Breviary of Alaric. Under Karl, Jewish communities across Francia settled disputes according to their own law, like other ethnicities. As merchants with access to an extensive trading network, they enjoyed special privileges, but they were also subject to special restrictions. Jews couldn't run businesses from their homes, they couldn't own Christian slaves, and their involvement in large-scale agriculture was limited. Although persecution of Jews wasn't yet rampant, some bishops and other high-ranking churchmen were highly critical of their roles in Carolingian life. In Becoming Charlemagne, I've tried to give a sense of the scholarship in this area by devoting one chapter to a sketch of Jewish life in Karl's kingdom.

The Roman-ness of Jewish communities was just one of many reasons why the Carolingians were relatively tolerant of them, and it probably wasn't the most important reason. Still, it's worth pointing out that later generations were willfully ignorant of the fact that, based on the timing of their original settlement, Ashkenazi Jews have a greater claim to being European than many of the ethnic groups who later persecuted them. Karl, a king whose poets compared him to David, appreciated their history better than his supposedly more sophisticated descendants ever did.

As you observe in your book, Carolingian Jews had not yet acquired many of the distinctive cultural traits of later medieval Jewry. In a Europe where Talmudic learning and influence was slight, could the Carolingian Jews' relationship to their ancient forebears be compared to early medieval Europe's relationship to Rome?

It's a provocative question, but I'm not sure the comparison holds up, because it doesn't sufficiently credit early medieval Christians with knowledge of their Roman predecessors. We're talking about small and poorly documented communities, so it's difficult to know for sure, but until the establishment of Talmudic study in Italy around the year 1000, Jews in western Europe were probably further removed from their roots than their Christian rulers were from ancient Rome. Those Christians wrote poetry rooted in Roman models, they knew some Roman law, and they consulted late Roman military handbooks. Their understanding of Roman culture was incomplete, but the breadth of their knowledge is evident when we realize that we can read certain ancient books only because of the Carolingian renaissance. The oldest surviving manuscript of Cicero's Philippics, for example, is a Carolingian copy.

Turning now toward the East, you describe the reign of the Byzantine empress Irene as being shocking to a culture accustomed to male rulers, but also as one revered by many for her role in re-introducing icons to the Orthodox churches. To what extent was late eighth-century Byzantium the recognizable legal continuation of the Western Roman Empire, and to what degree would its laws and customs have seemed alien to Cicero, or even to Boethius in the fifth century?

As I mentioned earlier, the Byzantine Empire was the legal continuation of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, but Cicero would have been baffled by its thoroughly Christian culture. By contrast, Boethius might have found more familiar echoes of his own old Rome in the Constantinople of Irene, but I doubt he would have felt at home. The brutality of Byzantine politics wouldn't have shocked him, but he would have been troubled by the increasing schism between the eastern and western churches.

Going even further eastward, you describe the late eighth-century Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid as a boomtown, with Muslims, Christians and Jews all having active roles in the city's development. Particularly surprising to modern Western eyes are the contemporary accounts of drinking parties thrown at local Christian monasteries by members of the Caliphate's Muslim elite. What was the official stance taken by Harun and his Abbasid dynasty in matters of Islamic law and practice (shari`a), including with respect to non-Muslims, and to what degree were such rules actually enforced?

Christians and Jews were considered dhimmi, which meant that they enjoyed certain protections under Islamic law as long as they demonstrated their status as subject peoples, often through humiliating means: by wearing special clothing, haircuts, or badges; by paying special taxes; by not being allowed to bear arms; and so forth. It's hard to generalize about what these restrictions meant for the dhimmi on a day-to-day basis, because over time, conditions probably varied between indifference, toleration, inconvenience and outright oppression. But Christian and Jewish communities did thrive in Abbasid Baghdad, and I think readers of Becoming Charlemagne will be surprised by the prominent symbolic roles they played in the founding of the city itself.

As for the drinking parties: they're something, aren't they? Wine and drunkenness are both prohibited in the Koran – and, if I understand rightly, by the sunnah – but early Islamic jurists wondered if the prohibition applied only to wine made from grapes. Some of them ruled that wine from dates and raisins was permissible as long as a Muslim didn't drink to intoxication. Of course, wine predates Islam, and there were some formidable drinkers among the Abbasids' Persians predecessors. Not everyone was keen on the Islamic call to temperance.

In the West, we tend to associate Islam with austerity and asceticism, but until recently, the Western stereotype of Islamic culture was more one of sensuality. I'm thinking of the rousing tales in Burton's Arabian Nights, romanticized paintings of harems, mosques, and slave markets by Edwin Lord Weeks or Georges Clairin, Maxfield Parrish's famous "Garden of Allah" print, that sort of thing. When you dig into the literary sources, it's easy to see why the early Orientalists found this material so compelling. Naturally, the Abbasids commissioned plenty of proper religious poetry, but you'll also find unabashed celebrations of decadence, including love poems about the pageboys who were associated with wine merchants and courtly life. The flamboyant poet Abu Nuwas even suggested that the worst thing about Ramadan was that he couldn't find anyone who would sit and drink with him.

There's a street named after Abu Nuwas in modern Baghdad, and his statue is the centerpiece of the park that bears his name. The past may be another country, but it's inhabited by human beings, so it's often less austere than we'd like to imagine.

The final part of your book deals with the dissolution of the Frankish Empire into competing dynastic and national entities at the hands of Karl's progeny. The most striking features of this period were the now largely forgotten bloodbath at Fontenoy and the subsequent division of Europe along its modern lines by Karl's grandsons at Verdun. Could you describe this seminal moment in European history, both as it was seen in the 840s and also from the modern perspective?

At Fontenoy, Charlemagne's feuding grandchildren sent their armies against one another. The ensuing carnage was so terrible that it shocked the survivors into a truce. I've included part of a poem about the battle written by a fellow who fought on the front lines. Despite its conventional language, this humane and sobering lament counters the popular misperception that medieval people weren't offended by violence, or that they viewed war as a banal inevitability.

For the clergy, and for some laymen, the resulting Treaty of Verdun was also lamentable because it divided the empire into pieces. Ninth-century polemicists considered it the end of an era, which of course it was. But today, if you look at how the three half-brothers divided northwestern Europe, the general placement of the borders is remarkable. You can see the basic outlines of France, western Germany, and a strip of land that became the various Low Countries, including some territories that were contested for centuries. Historian Pierre Rich called the Treaty of Verdun "the 'birth certificate' of modern Europe." It's hard to disagree with his conclusion.

In closing, what lessons of legal history can be drawn from the gradual elevation of Karl to Charlemagne in the medieval European imagination?

The figures who leave their mark on legal history are often memorialized in legend and song, but not necessarily for being legal reformers or lawgivers. They're just as likely to be remembered for other accomplishments. Some of them, like Charlemagne, become famous for things they didn't actually do.

We don't get to choose how history remembers us, but I've tried to suggest the essential humanity of Karl and his contemporaries. Hopefully, most of them wouldn't disapprove of how I've portrayed them. In a way, they're fortunate. Twelve centuries on, how many of us will even be remembered at all?

Mr. Sypeck was interviewed by Peter C. Hansen.



© Peter C. Hansen, The Legal History Project. Photograph of Mr. Sypeck © Jenny Trucano/PhotoAssist.