We should keep in mind though that despite this authorial declaration, there are obvious biases and inaccuracies. Einhard’s summing up of his work as one “which perpetuates the memory of the greatest and most distinguished of men” does give away the lack of objectivity and balance in what is to follow. In the case of Notker, there is not even a pretense of bringing veracity to the work, as the author himself claims to have never visited the King or his Kingdom. Hence, most of the content is conjured from hearsay accounts and the author’s own imagination. But despite these constraints, the fertility of Notker’s imagination comes through in passages like this: “I saw the King of the Franks, in full regalia, in the monastery of Saint Gall, Two gold-petalled flowers stuck out from his thighs. The first of these rose up so high that it was as tall as the King himself; the second, growing gradually upwards, adorned the top of his trunk with great glory and protected him as he walked.”
The anecdotal approach to biography that was adopted by Notker gives the reader a comprehensive view of the lifestyles and social customs of medieval Europe. From Notker’s work we understand several things about 8th century life. These include the centrality of the Church to everyday affairs, the congregation and singing that took place in its premises, the flaws in the bureaucratic structure of the court, the stigma associated with red-haired people, the fact that people lived on houses built on stilts, etc. Notker’s anecdotes endeavor to show the king in good light. Here we see how the wise king manages to catch conspiring bishops, how he rounds up unbelievers such as pagans, etc. But since Notker is seldom critical of the king’s actions throughout the work, it is difficult to place such anecdotes in historical and political context.
We also understand from these biographies, that Charlemagne, despite being illiterate, was a patron of the written arts. Indeed, prior to his reign, there is virtually no body of Germanic Literature to speak of. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Charlemagne kick-started the tradition of written literature as we understand it today. Prior to that the mode of dissemination of information was primarily oral and dependent on human memory. He also encouraged the development of Western culture by promoting music, dance and theater (however rudimentary this art form might have been during medieval times).
The two biographies cover different facets of the King’s life and hence compliment each other. It would be futile to debate which of the two books is superior, for they are of different kinds and not given to easy comparison. But they both remain vital texts in understanding one of the most influential Kings during the early medieval Europe. Even discounting for the authors’ hyperbole, it is a fact that Charlemagne played an important role in shaping historical currents of the time; and these two biographies give us a glimpse of the social, religious and political atmosphere under which Charlemagne’s ruled his domain.
Two Lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, translated by Lewis Thorpe, published in 1969 by Penguin Classics.