Roger Collins's 1998 biography of Charlemagne is both highly informative in terms of helping to understand the historical and political context in which Charlemagne came to power as well as - although this is true to a lesser extent simply because Collins spends less time on it - a treatise on the historiographical problems of medieval history. This examination of the way History in general and histories in particular are written is at least as interesting and as important of the particulars of Charlemagne's life that we come to learn about.
Collins asks us to think about history is a far more analytical and critical way than we are likely ever to have done before. Unless we have thought about it a great deal, we have probably always thought about history as being either more-or-less truthful or more-or-less mendacious. Under the former category we would put most of the kind of history that we learn in school. This is the kind of history that we believe to be accurate, written from the best intentions of shedding light on the past. What errors enter into historical records like this, we tend to believe, exist because of human error or simple wholes in the historical record. Historians find out what there is to be found out, interpret the facts that they find according to the best of their abilities, and create hypothetical scenarios to bridge those gaps that exist in the historical record and to create coherent narratives out of conflicting accounts.
The mendacious historical narratives we generally do not call history at all but believe to be propaganda. These are documents like those that claim that the Holocaust did not exist. While purporting to be history, these are in fact not attempts to create factually accurate descriptions of the past. These are persuasive documents intended to make people believe in one version of events for some specific purpose - to believe, perhaps, that Jews just like to pretend to be victims, or that slaves really enjoyed their lot, or that the United States was founded by extraterrestrial beings. Such documents we may look at as analogous to the creation stories of religions, having a basis not in fact but in theology or philosophy. All nice and tidy: History on the one hand, propaganda on the other.
But Collins reminds us that this simply is not true, especially when writing about an era that is relatively far removed from us in time, as is Charlemagne's. He is fact argues that it is not possible to write a biography (at least in the traditional sense) of Charlemagne at all, and his objectives in writing this book are both to describe to us a particular conjunction of political forces that tended to favor one person over others (i.e. A political rather than a personal biography) as well as to help us to understand the difficulties inherent in writing all history.
Collins argues that there are a number of different ways in which to write the history of a time and when two different versions of history differ this in general has far less to do with ideas about authenticity than with the fact that history is no less subject to interpretation and renegotiation than the present. Most of the past, after all, is sufficiently far away from us in time and sufficiently ill documented that we can of course never be exactly sure what life was like during a past century.
Moreover, it is perhaps necessarily true that all history is teleological; after all, one is always writing it from what is at that moment the end-point of history. Thus historians, no matter how hard they may try not to be, are always in fact writing the same story, a story that begins at different points in the past certainly but that still and necessarily ends up with themselves, with us, with the here and now. Collins stresses that the internecine fighting among the Carolingians, even as they were on the ascendancy, meant that their final rise to power was anything but assured, and that if it seems inevitable that they were become the ruling dynasty of the Franks this is something that is apparent only from our own vantage point.
Before the rise of the Carolingians, the Frankish Empire…