...Janet Nelson has succeeded in delivering 'a new life' of Charles. Her long-awaited biography invites us to understand the man in ways that are original and penetrating. She claims that 'more of Charles’s personality can be known than meets the eye' and illustrates this by setting out in detail both the influences that shaped policy and practice, and anecdotes that illuminate intimate aspects of personality and character ... Rigorous assessments of difficult evidence are mixed with what feels like invitations to conversation. Their effect is to transport readers away from the eighth and ninth centuries to the 21st — and into quite a few others as well — demonstrating the effectiveness of biography as a means to understand a seemingly remote age, a subject on which Nelson reflects insightfully ... England and Britain were never part of Charles’ empire, and yet they were very much part of the Charlemagne and European stories. This magnificent book brings alive the man at their heart.
...if you like the name Cathwulf, then this is the book for you. My favourites include Ragamfred, Willibrord, Queen Liutperga, Ermenbert of Worms, Duke Toto of Nepi and the scribe Hitherius. All names that seem ready for rediscovery and reuse .... Nelson, emeritus professor of medieval history at King’s College London, would, I think, make a marvellous dinner party neighbour. She understands the era and is romanced by it ... Yet she also clearly sees her subjects as she writes about them, walking around in front of her ... She is happy to make judgments in the case of disputed accounts, to argue with other historians and to try to get the reader to appreciate what is similar and what is so different about that world.
... intriguing ... could serve an important modern role as an intellectual warehouse of ideas for [Charlemagne's] history — and leave existing historical interpretations open to debate ... While most of us aren’t medieval scholars, the challenge of trying to figure out which Charlemagne is the real Charlemagne is enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Whether Nelson has actually solved the centuries-old mystery isn’t, shall we say, elementary.
King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne is not simply a biography: Ms. Nelson simultaneously presents the evidence from which she reconstructs the man and his times, guiding the reader through the complexities of medieval source criticism, offering lessons on how to read Carolingian poetry and showing her hand at every crucial moment of judgment. Doing history is always more engaging than reading history, and by involving the reader in the process, King and Emperor takes on the compelling suspense of good detective work as well as good history ... Janet Nelson comes as close as one can to approaching this extraordinary man.
It is not often that a book’s blurb gives any idea of what’s inside, but Helen Castor’s endorsement — ‘a masterclass in the practice of history’ — is as good a description of this brilliant new biography of Charlemagne as we are likely to get. The broader contours of the life will be familiar to many readers, but what we have here — pace Janet Nelson — is less the ‘old-fashioned’ biography that she claims but a wonderfully generous sharing of knowledge that combines the conversational tones of the ideal classroom with the intensity of the trained anatomist, poised, knife in hand, to reveal the musculature beneath the skin.
Thanks to his dizzying achievements and, as if we need reminding, the importance of unification as a theme in European history, Charlemagne has never lacked for biographers ... It is, therefore, praise in itself to say that Nelson, Professor Emeritus of medieval history at King’s College, London and a world authority on all things Frankish, has produced a remarkable, learned text, unlike any other study of Charlemagne in recent years. But this is not a book to be taken lightly ... Biographers usually mask [the] spadework beneath literary form; Nelson stands form on its head. Her journey towards Charlemagne is all method and little polish. For readers who already know a lot about him, or appreciate the sight of a scholar with their sleeves rolled up, there is plenty to savour ... there are occasional flashes of colour amid the scholarly heavy lifting...But these are rare light moments in a book for the university library rather than the sun lounger.
...although I learnt a lot from this book, I have to say that for non-medievalists...it will be a bit of a bumpy ride. The little side debates with other historians can become distracting; Latin terms come thick and fast, sometimes untranslated ... The 'big picture' can become obscured, while some of the basic background – the social and economic systems that prevailed in Charlemagne’s domains, for example – is not really filled in ... There are photo-illustrations, family trees, and many maps (some of them puzzling, as they teem with details not mentioned in the text). Experts, I am very sure, will hail this as a major work, a summa (that habit of using untranslated Latin is catching) of historical scholarship. And general readers who stay the course will learn a huge amount, and come away with a strong sense of two things: the sheer dynamism of this exceptional man, and the sheer difficulty of working out, from such distant records, what he really felt and thought.