Charlemagne and His Bones

02 Feb

For the past few days reports have been circulating about analysis of bones found in Aachen Cathedral. I’m not going to offer much discussion of this or what it means here other than to repeat what others have found. Basically, analysis of the remains, on top of previous investigation, has provided pretty strong confirmatory evidence that the bones found in Charlemagne’s sarcophagus are indeed those of Charlemagne.

The remains interred at Aachen are those of a tall, thin man who likely walked with a limp as there is evidence of bone deposits related to injury in his heels and kneecaps. The full results of this investigation haven’t been published yet so it will be interesting to see what the results of an expected DNA analysis will provide.

The Karlsschrein, where Charlemagne’s remains (most of them) were interred.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

For me, I think this makes a nice transition to briefly talk about my current level of knowledge of the Carolingians, sort of a precursor to when I get out of Early Christianity and start reading up on Western Europe from the end of the 7th century to about 1000 AD (and very possibly later).

The Carolingians have always fascinated me. I’ve mentioned how when I first started reading on Medieval History, now approaching 20 years ago, within a few years I found that what interested me the most was the concept of a large, cohesive society (the Roman Empire) falling, breaking up into total chaos, then reforming itself. Keep in mind this is what I thought at the time. Once I started reading up on it it didn’t take long to find out that the reality was very different from the previous process and that I had a lot of misconceptions which I’d need to correct.

This leads me to a major misconception I likely have/had; my willingness to buy into the Carolingian myth. How well does what came to be believed about them match with what actually happened? This will be a main point of investigation for me. I don’t want to detract from the “pre-study level of knowledge” post I’ll likely put up, similar to what I wrote as I was beginning to look at Early Christianity. However the Carolingian Empire was highly romanticized after its dissolution. Subsequent rulers frequently used the Carolingians as justification for their own rule as they claimed to be direct inheritors of the divine right first acknowledged by Pope Zachary and later confirmed by Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne. Part of this justification likely meant portraying the Carolingian Empire as far more cohesive than it was. How much of this myth-making have I retained? How much of it reflects reality? How did this process take place and what were its impacts? Above all; where will this lead me (and how long will it take)? I guess another question is to wonder when I’ll finish up with Early Christianity and get to this but that is unanswerable.

I’m going to close this post here and offer a couple of links which discuss the recent evidence regarding Charlemagne’s bones:

From Medieval Histories, an online magazine about Medieval History: Bones of an Emperor

From The Local, an English-Language German news source: Charlemagne’s Bones are (probably) Real


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4 responses to “Charlemagne and His Bones

  1. Lucas

    February 2, 2014 at 10:58 am

    An interesting week for sciencey medieval things, between this and the more Y.Pestis found in the teeth of “Justinianic” plague victims!

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 2, 2014 at 12:30 pm

      Fortunately I haven’t yet seen anyone exhume the Baillie/Volcano/tree ring/weather argument as a reason for the end of the Roman Empire, either a century after the end of the West or a century before the “end” of the East (at least concerning Egypt, N. Africa, Syria). How folks manage to find causality in this is beyond me though I guess it sells some magazines.

      • Lucas

        February 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm

        I find the climate related stuff really interesting, but connecting it directly to the rise and fall of states strikes me as a bit premature at this stage. Ellenblum made some interesting connections between severe weather, famine, and unrest in the late Abbasid caliphate, but I’m sceptical as to his thesis that the same weather patterns in Central Asia caused the migration of the Seljuk Turks into Iran and Iraq. They could just as easily have been drawn in by the chaos of the collapsing Abbasid state, or defeated as many other nomadic incursions were. I’m not sure we yet have a good understanding of the role climate played in ancient or medieval history.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    February 2, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Exactly. Climate has constantly been changing and some of these changes almost certainly resulted in social upheaval. My problem’s been with how free people have been in proposing causal links where none seem to exist. My favorite example has always been the c.540 volcano-induced cold period. This cold period likely occurred (I have no reason to argue with Baillie’s dendochronology findings) but whenever I see it mentioned people want to talk about it having some role in the “fall” of the Roman Empire. Well, the West fell in the mid-fifth century and the events which led to this started in the early fifth (really earlier – Diocletian?). The East fell – or at least was profoundly altered – in the mid-7th century with the Arab Conquests. In fact, other than Justinian’s activities in North Africa and Italy, the mid-6th century was a period of relative stability, at least when compared with the events of the 5th and 7th..


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