- (c. 770-840)Frankish writer and biographer who was a member of Charlemagne's court school. One of the great success stories of Charlemagne's efforts to revive learning in his empire, Einhard is best know for his Vita Karoli (Life of Charlemagne), a biography of the great Carolingian emperor. The Life is the first biography of a major political figure since antiquity and reveals the debt of Carolingian writers to classical models. Despite its debt to ancient Roman biography, Einhard's work is one of the most important sources for the life of Charlemagne and one of the great works of medieval writing. It is not Einhard's only achievement, however, because he also wrote numerous letters, a theological tract, and an important work of hagiography. Highly interested in architecture, he most likely was the supervisor for the construction of Charlemagne's palace and church at Aachen, the grandeur of which Einhard mentions in his biography.Born around 770 in the Main Valley to noble parents, Einhard was sent to receive his education at the monastery of Fulda, one of the great centers of learning in the Carolingian realm. In the early 790s, he joined Charlemagne's palace school at Aachen, where he was taught by the greatest of the Carolingian scholars, the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin.Triumphal arch designed by Einhard from a seventeenth-century engraving (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale)He remained at court for a while and earned the friendship of his great hero, Charlemagne. In 806, the emperor sent Einhard to Rome as an ambassador and may have entrusted him with other missions. In 813, Einhard was the first to recommend that Charlemagne make his son, Louis the Pious, co-emperor and heir. In the years after Charlemagne's death in 814, Einhard remained at the court of Louis the Pious and was appointed advisor to Lothar, the oldest son of Louis. A lay abbot, Einhard retired from the court in 830 with his wife Imma to the monastery he founded on lands granted by Louis at Seligenstadt. He built a church there as well, where he deposited the relics of the saints Marcellinus and Peter, and he died there on March 1, 840.Although Einhard had numerous accomplishments in his life, his greatest contribution to medieval Europe was the Life of Charlemagne. Despite his assertion that he lacked the skills necessary to write the biography, Einhard's work is one of the most important of the Carolingian Renaissance. His writing reveals the extent of his learning and bears clear echoes of many Roman and Christian Latin writers, including Cicero, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Orosius, and Sulpicius Severus. His greatest debt, however, was to the great Roman biographer, Suetonius, whose De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars), particularly his life of Augustus, provided the format and vocabulary for Einhard's work. But Einhard's work was no slavish copy of Suetonius; it was based also on Einhard's intimate knowledge of his subject. The work addresses the major wars of Charlemagne, his diplomatic activities, and building projects. Einhard provides information on the great ruler's family life, including the king's too strong love of his daughters (whom he would not allow to marry), personal appearance, and personality. Einhard also includes discussion of the imperial coronation of Charlemagne and makes the still controversial statement that had Charlemagne known what was going to happen that Christmas day he would have not gone to church. The life concludes with an extended discussion of Charlemagne's death and includes a copy of his will.The purpose of the biography and its date of composition remain uncertain, and the former is surely conditioned by the latter. Einhard's life is clearly biased in favor of its subject. He notes in his preface that he must write so as not to allow "the most glorious life of this most excellent king, the greatest of all princes of this day, and his wonderful deeds, difficult for people of later times to imitate, to slip into the darkness of oblivion"(52). He offers only passing criticism of the king, and blames rebellions on the nobles or one of Charlemagne's wives rather than on any action of the king. The work is clearly intended to prove the greatness and virtue of its subject. Beyond Einhard's regard for Charlemagne and sense of obligation, it is likely that the work was intended as a commentary on political affairs in the Carolingian Empire after the death of Charlemagne. A letter of 830 establishes that date as the latest it could have been written. And if the biography were written in the late 820s, it was surely a commentary on the difficulties that Louis the Pious faced by that time, as his sons and the nobility began to stir against him. It has also been suggested that the biography was written early in the reign of Louis and within only a few years of Charlemagne's death. Certain internal evidence supports an early composition, and if the work were completed in the late 810s it was intended to support the claim of Louis as Charlemagne's divinely ordained heir to imperial power. The biography also helped define the nature of imperial power for the Carolingians, an issue Louis himself pursued. Whether the life was composed circa 817 or circa 830, it is one of the most important biographies of the Middle Ages, and one that provides an image of the ideal Christian ruler.See alsoBibliography♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.♦ Einhard. The Translation and Miracles of the Saints Marcellinus and Peter. In Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, trans. Paul Edward Dutton. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1993, pp. 198-246.♦ Geary, Patrick. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Rev. ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.♦ Innes, Matthew, and Rosamond McKitterick. "The Writing of History." In Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, edited by Rosamond McKitterick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 193-220.♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987. London: Longman, 1983.♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.