How does a book with the subtitle “Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800” sound to you? Dry and textbookish? You would certainly think that but you couldn’t be more wrong. Becoming Charlemagne by Jeff Sypeck is anything but a dry, old textbook. I have read this book three times now and will probably read it multiple more times in the future. It’s that interesting and that good of a book.
Beginning with the coronation of Karl as the Holy Roman Emperor before going back in time to tell the story of how this Frankish king became Charlemagne the book gives us a riveting account of history in the late 7th century. Jeff Sypeck does a wonderful job using numerous source materials as well as his own insight to establish the characters and places that come alive in his book. High school history classes have really done Charlemagne a disservice, or perhaps history has, as his figure has been used as inspiration for myriad terrible and wonderful deeds or else relegated him as merely a footnote as the “Father of Europe”. Jeff fills the historical Karl out, makes him a full human, with doubts, pains, dreams and plans. The people surrounding Charlemagne are equally interesting and again their personalities and ambitions are fleshed out with letters and official documents. Don’t let the mention of letters and documents from over 1200 years ago scare you off- they are as intriguing as any modern political thriller. There was a lot going on: empires growing, empires crumbling and empires hanging on for dear life.
Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 is simply an excellent book. I imagine it does everything it’s author Jeff Sypeck set out to do: it is an enjoyable read, it educates, it makes full an important historical figure who is often only one dimensional, and maybe most importantly the book shows us the importance of history. The actions of leaders long ago that are still impacting us today. The thread that led to the creation of Europe led to World War I which led to World War II which led to now. My only criticism is that Jeff hasn’t followed it up with a series of books which flesh out that thread in such an entertaining fashion.
Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 by Jeff Sypeck published by Ecco/Harper Collins