Online Medieval Sources Bibliography

An Annotated Bibliography of Printed and Online Primary Sources for the Middle Ages

Source Details

Thorpe, Lewis (translator), 'Life of Charlemagne' in Two Lives of Charlemagne (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 51-90)

Text name(s): Life of Charlemagne; Vita Karoli Magni

Number of pages of primary source text: 40


Dates: 741 - 814

Archival Reference: 

Original Language(s): 

  • Latin


  • Translated into English.

Translation Comments: 

Geopolitical Region(s): 

  • Italy
  • Holy Roman Empire
  • Germany

County/Region: Aachen; Rome

Record Types: 

  • Biography
  • Chronicle Annals

Subject Headings: 

  • Political Thought
  • Papacy
  • Government
  • Early Germanic Peoples: Goths Franks, etc.
  • Classics / Humanism
  • Carolingians
  • Royalty / Monarchs


  • Index
  • Bibliography
  • Introduction


Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni is a biography of Charlemagne. Einhard was a member of Charlemagne’s court, and prospered under Charlemagne’s encouragement of literacy and learnedness. Under Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious, Einhard was made a royal steward and was granted control over several landed estates for his service. He is politically loyal to the Carolingians, but looks back nostalgically to the time of Charlemagne, whose reign he views as a golden age of learnedness in comparison to the reign of Louis.
The text follows the Suetonian model of biography, with a description of wars, reign, and personal life of Charlemagne and his family, followed by a description of Charlemagne’s character and death. Although the text gives a brief description of Merovingian history, which is naturally designed to demonstrate their inferiority to the Carolingians who usurped them, the focus of the text remains firmly on the life of Charlemagne. It describes his personal life, his rulership over the Franks, his various interactions with the the peoples surrounding his empire, and other elements of his reign.
Above all else, this text tries to present Charlemagne not only as the greatest of monarchs, but the archetypical monarch who all others must act similar to. For this reason, the text is not considered to be particularly useful for understanding the events of Charlemagne, and should instead be utilized as a political work by Einhard in which he describes the ideal monarch.

Introduction Summary: 

The 53-page introduction to this text, written by Lewis Thorpe, does an excellent job of providing the context that would be helpful to understanding the text. It gives insight into the overpowering figure of Charlemagne, and how his mythology has dominated the perception of him from the time of Einhard to our own time. It tries to evaluate the ability of historians to construct Charles as a real, historical person, and how Einhard can assist in this goal. It has sections which provide context on Charlemagne’s military campaigns, the prior history of the Franks, the diplomacy and administration of Charlemagne, and the life of Einhard himself. It also provides information about the goals of the text and its methods.

Cataloger: JK