Monday, 6 June 2016

An Earlier European Union and a European foundation myth

I image of Charlemagne’s coronation froms British Library MS Royal 16 G VI, folio 141v,

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He ruled over a large part of Western Europe and he still stands as an icon for European unity. It is unlikely that  he expected his empire to last as the inheritance practice for the Franks was to divide land among male heirs, nor did he impose uniformity of customs over all his dominions, which extended from what is now the Low Countries to Northern Italy; in short the Carolingian Empire offers an early model for unity without uniformity. The Holy Roman Empire was , however, an expression of an understanding of a Western Europe that was united, with some elements of shared culture across its polities. A recent article in History Today  (April 2016) by Professor Peter Wilson of All Souls College, Oxford, examined the Holy Roman Empire as the ‘First European Union’.

It is not only in his authority over much of Europe that Charlemagne offers a model of European unity; the myth of Charlemagne became as important in the medieval imagination as his actual historical power.  By the twelfth century the myths and legends which surrounded the emperor had become a kind of foundation myth of Europe, extolling the idea of a Western Christendom united against threats from the East. In these fictional narratives countries which had never been part of the Frankish Empire, including sometimes England, and even Scotland, were often counted among the areas over which he had control.

As a previous contibutor to this blog has noted, the fact that stories of European unity were largely ahistorical and fictional did not make them less powerful. Today Charlemagne continues to command a pan-European position, as witnessed by the Tour Charlemagne in Brussels and the Karlespreis, given annually by the city of Aachen to honour contributions to European unity, awarded in 2016 to Pope Francis.

The Leverhulme-funded ‘Charlemagne A European Icon’ project looks at medieval developments of the myth by examining the appropriation of the same narrative material and its expression through different European languages: French, Italian, English, Spanish, Latin, German, Dutch, and Celtic and Scandinavian languages.  This spread of the Charlemagne myth reveals the long-standing nature of the desire for some level of harmony and unity across Europe. As in the twentieth century, with the birth of the European Community, so in the twelfth, harmony was seen as preferable to war within Europe. Each literary culture stresses the aspects of Charlemagne’s myth which was most relevant for the particular context of that nation, at a time, indeed, when a sense of nationhood was just developing. Even with this awakening sense of national identity, the ideal of unity transcended the particular.

Dr Marianne Ailes,
Senior Lecturer in French,

University of Bristol