Einhard and the Writing of Vita Karoli Magni

How did early medieval scholars interpret and adapt the histories of Imperial Rome? In her new article (now live on the Cerae website), Minjie Su explores the composition of, and intertextuality within, Vita Karoli Magni (The Life of Charlemagne) – she introduces it for us here…

I find that, in order to write about the article that I am fortunate and honoured to publish with Cerae, it is hard not to start with two “confessions”.

First, I must confess that the subject matter of this article – titled ‘Profile of an Emperor: Reading Vita Karoli Magni in Light of Its Sources and Composition’ – has practically nothing to do with my area of research, which is Old Norse-Icelandic literature in general and werewolves in that literary corpus in particular. The article grows out of a class paper that I wrote about three years ago for a course on Late Antiquity and early medieval Latin literature. The paper turned out fine as far as class essays go, and the idea of trying to get it revised and published was brought to me for the first time, which I made mental notes of, but did not act upon – not until two years later, when I chanced upon a call for papers (CFP).

Of course, that CFP was for Cerae’s fifth anniversary volume. The theme, ‘Representations and Recollections of Empire’, happens to match the content of my paper. Therefore – and this is the second confession that I have to make – even though it was already the day before the deadline, I decided to give it a go and rushed out a revision. This apparently is not something to be proud of. Do not rush out anything, and certainly do not submit a paper without first going through it carefully and thoroughly. But on the other hand, I am glad that I did it, despite the circumstance; that I was finally  working on an article that I hadn’t believed I would have ever have much chance to get to.

As can be imagined, the article published here is very different from the paper submitted back then. This I owe to the anonymous reviewer(s) and the Cerae editor, who saw the draft not as what it was but what it could be. Together, they provided me with valuable suggestions and supervision, and pointed me to directions that could expand and strengthen my arguments. Granted, the brief revision period during which I worked closely with the editor had its fair share of stress and intensity, but it was also a period of excitement and enlightenment. To start with, I have learned an awful lot more about Einhard and the Carolingian era, as well as about the continuity between the Classical world and the medieval. More importantly, I have gained a better understanding of literary creation in general, which also contribute to my own research on werewolves and their struggle for self-discovery: a work – any work – of human creativity belongs first to the author and then to their era, society, and culture; when analysing a literary text, we must take into consider the author’s own emotions and personal experience – that they are historical figures who lived and died centuries ago does not mean they did not feel the way we would; after all, we are but all humans. Both Einhard and Suetonius (from whom Einhard borrowed heavily but selectively from in composing Vita Karoli) saw the rise and fall of some of the great powers of their world, and the emotion and thought provoked by their experience found a way into their words; Einhard must have recognised in Suetonius his own reflection.

Last but not least, I wish to use this space to express my gratitude formally and properly: first of all, I thank the reviewer(s) and Dr Stephanie Hathaway, editor-in-chief of Cerae vol. 5, for their advice and patience; this article will never come to be without their pushing me through the revision. I also thank Professor Monika Asztalos Murdoch, who first suggested me to publish this paper; and Professor Carolyne Larrington, my supervisor, who kindly agreed to proofread this article and whose support I know I always have.

Minjie Su

Linacre College, Oxford

Feature image: Einhard, BnF Paris, fr. 2813, fol. 85v – Les Grandes Chroniques de France (public domain)

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