Charlemagne and France

A Thousand Years of Mythology

Robert Morrissey
Translated by Catherine Tihanyi

“Charlemagne, claimed by the Church as a saint, by the French as their greatest king, by the Germans as their compatriot, by the Italians as their emperor, heads all modern histories in one way or another; he is the creator of a new order of things,” wrote the historian Sismondi in 1821. In this fascinating book, available for the first time in an English translation, Robert Morrissey explores a millennium’s worth of history and myth surrounding Charlemagne (768–814).

Charlemagne’s persona—derived from a blending of myth, history, and poetry—assumes a constitutional value in France, where for more than ten centuries it was deemed useful to trace national privileges and undertakings back to Charlemagne. His plasticity, Morrissey argues, endows Charlemagne with both legitimizing power and subversive potential. Part 1 of the book explores a fundamental cycle in the history of Charlemagne’s representation, beginning shortly after the great emperor’s death and continuing to the end of the sixteenth century. Part 2 discusses the remythologizing of Charlemagne in Renaissance and Reformation France through the late nineteenth century.

At a time when a new Europe is being created and when France continues to redefine and reinvent itself, Morrissey’s detailed study of how history has been reappropriated is particularly valuable.

ROBERT MORRISSEY is professor of French literature and director of American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language at the University of Chicago. He is the author of La Reverie jusqu’à Rousseau: Recherches sur un topos littéraire.


“Here, in a book originally published (in French) in 1997, Robert Morrissey writes the history, not of Charlemagne himself, but rather of how the emperor was conceived and reimagined from the ninth century to the nineteenth, especially in France. This is a rich and wide-ranging book, with much to ponder. The translation is clear and readable.” — Speculum

“Morrissey’s book is more than rich and imaginative literary history, which represents its main genre. It is an interdisciplinary, meta-mythistorical effort that more than does justice to an extraordinary theme central to European culture, in peace, war, nationalist enthusiasm, and imperial expansion, over twelve centuries.” — Journal of Modern History

“. . . a stunning new edition. . . . This is a book that can enlighten all scholars about the origins and course of French nationalism.” — European History Quarterly

“. . . erudite and enthralling. . . . The book is a powerful reminder of the importance of Charlemagne in French conceptions of themselves and their history until 1870. . . .” — Choice

“_Charlemagne and France_ is a solid book that can be of use to anyone interested in European, particularly French, history. . . . Robert Morrissey has written a remarkably accessible work. . . .” — History: Reviews of New Books

“. . . This book will be an indispensable reference for scholars attempting to understand any literary or historical reference to Charlemagne. . . .” — H-France

“This full and rewarding study deserves widespread attention from students of French and European history of all periods.” — International History Review

“In a rich and provocative study that shows his mastery of medieval and modern historiography and literature, Robert Morrissey traces the complex and contradictory place of the eighth-century Frankish king and emperor in French ideology and imagination from the ninth century to the nineteenth. . . .” — American Historical Review