A. D. 742-814.
The most illustrious monarch of the Middle Ages was doubtless Charlemagne. Certainly he was the first great statesman, hero, and organizer that looms up to view after the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Therefore I present him as one with whom is associated an epoch in civilization. To him we date the first memorable step which Europe took out of the anarchies of the Merovingian age. His dream was to revive the Empire that had fallen, he was the first to labor, with giant strength, to restore what vice and violence had destroyed. He did not succeed in realizing the great ends to which he aspired, but his aspirations were lofty. It was not in the power of any man to civilize semi-barbarians in a single reign; but if he attempted impossibilities he did not live in vain, since he bequeathed some permanent conquests and some great traditions. He left a great legacy to civilization. His life has not dramatic interest like that of Hildebrand, nor poetic interest like the lives of the leaders of the Crusades; but it is very instructive. He was the pride of his own generation, and the boast of succeeding ages, “claimed,” says Sismondi, “by the Church as a saint, by the French as the greatest of their kings, by the Germans as their countryman, and by the Italians as their emperor.”
His remote ancestors, it is said, were ecclesiastical magnates. His grandfather was Charles Martel, who gained such signal victories over the Mohammedan Saracens; his father was Pepin, who was a renowned conqueror, and who subdued the southern part of France, or Gaul. He did not rise, like Clovis, from the condition of a chieftain of a tribe of barbarians; nor, like the founder of his family, from a mayor of the palace, or minister of the Merovingian kings. His early life was spent amid the turmoils and dangers of camps, and as a young man he was distinguished for precocity of talent, manly beauty, and gigantic physical strength. He was a type of chivalry, before chivalry arose. He was born to greatness, and early succeeded to a great inheritance. At the age of twenty-six, in the year 768, he became the monarch of the greater part of modern France, and of those provinces which border on the Rhine. By unwearied activities this inheritance, greater than that of any of the Merovingian kings, was not only kept together and preserved, but was increased by successive conquests, until no so great an empire has ever been ruled by any one man in Europe, since the fall of the Roman Empire, from his day to ours. Yet greater than the conquests of Charlemagne was the greatness of his character. He preserved simplicity and gentleness amid all the distractions attending his government.