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Charlemagne and birthdays

Charlemagne (shahr-lah-mane) is one of the great figures in Western history. He lived 1,200 years ago. Charlemagne, who headquartered himself in Aachen in western Germany, was a man of boundless work ethic and energy. By waging military campaigns every year until his dotage, Charlamagne expanded his Christian domain to include all of what is now France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Slovenia, most of the Czech Republic, most of Austria, and most of Italy.

But Charlamagne was far more than a conqueror. He dedicated his life and treasury to inculcating Christianity. (In those pre-Reformation days, this meant Catholicism). Usually, Charlamagne financed missionaries to spread the faith. But Charlamagne was known to be a tad more direct, too. Charlamagne’s first act, after defeating a group of Saxons at war, was to march its leaders to a local river and, by compulsion, baptize them.

And Charlamagne was more than an evangelistic. He expended vast sums to bring scholars from all over the world to Aachen for the purposes of preserving and building on ancient knowledge. Many, many ancient and classical writings, especially Christian works, would be long lost to history if not for the efforts at Aachen. And the work of Charlamagne’s think tank had practical effects too. For example, Charlamagne’s scholastic experts invented punctuation. Before Charlamagne, there were no spaces between words or sentences or paragraphs. And all letters were capitalized. This meant that writing consisted of capital letters strung together endlessly. Every page you have ever read has been easier to read because of Charlamagne’s dedication to academia.

You would think that, considering Charlamagne’s intense interest in things scholastic, he would have been an intellectual himself. Indeed, one biographer, a man named Einhard, said he was. But Einhard was not telling the truth. Einhard was one of Charlamagne’s confidants and someone on whom Charlamagne had bestowed many honors and preferred jobs. Einhard owed Charlamagne much gratitude.

Instead, it is undisputed (as even Einhard admits) that Charlamagne could not write his own name, despite years of practicing. Charlamagne was illiterate. An illiterate man who spends immense amounts of money for others to engage in high intellectual pursuits (instead of spending the money on himself) is surely a great man.

What is odd is that we do not know Charlamagne’s date of birth. He was probably born in 747, perhaps in April. The reason we do not know Charlemagne’s date of birth is because Charlamagne’s birthday was not a big deal to him. Indeed, his birthday would come and go each year, and it would not be celebrated by him or anyone else in his realm. Charlamagne would not even mention his birthday’s passing to his biographers or courtiers.

Charlamagne never mentioned his birthday because, for someone of Charlamagne’s manifold and multitudinous achievements, the passing of another year was an accomplishment of no consequence. Charlamagne undoubtedly took great satisfaction in bringing the Slavs, the Saxons, or the Avars into his imperial fold. But another birthday? Everyone does that. A birthday makes no one special.

Charlemagne’s take on birthdays would be an anomaly today. For many people, their birthday is a huge event. For example, if you mention the month of October to someone whose birthday is in October, you’re likely to hear something like, “October? My birthday is in October!” One’s birthday, in our society, is the day one feels special.

When you think about it, it’s sad really.

The Settlement Observer is a resident of Farmington.

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