Emperor: A New Life of Charles V
By Geoffrey Parker
Yale University Press; hardcover; $35.00
Top historian Geoffrey Parker draws on new evidence to reinterpret the ruler of the world's first transatlantic empire in the deeply researched Emperor.
A source of intrigue for biographers for years, Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) was the ruler of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and much of Italy and Central and South America. In addition to examining the complexity of governing this empire, the elusive nature of the man, his relentless travel, and his control of his own image have made him a compelling subject.
Parker draws on sources written in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish to create a masterful and groundbreaking new portrait of an extraordinary leader. He explores the crucial decisions that created and preserved Charles's vast empire, analyzes his achievements within the context of both personal and structural factors, and scrutinizes the intimate details of the ruler's life for clues to his character and inclinations.
Parker writes of what he wants to achieve with Emperor and how it fits in with other works on Charles V:
"Does the world really need another book about Charles V, ruler of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, half of Italy, and much of central and south America? The emperor himself composed his memoirs; hundreds of biographies of him have appeared in dozens of languages; WorldCat lists over 500 books published so far this century with 'Charles V' in the title. Nevertheless, no work is ever perfect. The emperor composed his triumphalist autobiography in 1550, while at the height of his powers, and several of the 'lives' are partisan (even some nineteenth- and twentieth-century biographers used his achievements for ideological ends).
"Charles's modern biographers belong to one of two tribes: those who complain that their subject left too few records to allow the reconstruction of an accurate portrait, and those who protest that he left too many. In 2003, Scott Dixon, a member of the first tribe, declared that 'Charles left us little trace in the records of what he was really like...Of the many thousands of letters dispatched from his desk, very few make any mention of personal details.' The following year, Harald Kleinschmidt made a similar claim: 'There is an abundance of texts bearing Charles's name. But he never saw most of these and among the minority of letters that he did write with his own hand are some which do not reflect his own thoughts but those of his advisers.'
"Karl Brandi, author of a two-volume biography of Charles, belonged to the second tribe. 'Not for many centuries,' he wrote in 1937, 'could any prince compare with him in the number of revealing documents than any other ruler in History.' In 1966, Fernand Braudel argued that previous historians failed to reconstruct Charles's thoughts, his temperament and his character' mainly because the surviving sources are too abundant. 'Looking for the emperor's personality amid the mass of papers,' he concluded, 'is like looking for a needle in a haystack.' In 2002, Wim Blockmans concurred: 'The body of source material' concerning the emperor 'is so massive, it is impossible to survey the whole of it.'
"Impossible? Certainly, the surviving sources are 'massive.' Charles signed his first letter at age four (Pl. 2) and by the time he died he had signed more than 100,000 documents in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, adding a holograph postscript to several of them. His holograph letters (those written entirely with his own hand in French, Spanish and occasionally German) cover thousands of folios. Charles's epistolary output survives in archives and libraries all over Europe, in part because he spent so much of his reign on the move. He spent almost half his life (over 10,000 days) in the Low Countries and almost one-third (over 6,500 days) in Spain; he spent more than 3,000 days in Germany and almost 1,000 in Italy. He visited France four times (195 days) and north Africa and England twice each (99 and 44 days respectively). He created a documentary trail in almost every place he went. He eludes historians only on the 260 days he spent at sea, travelling between his dominions.
"Although he never crossed the Atlantic, Charles also left a documentary mark on his American dominions. The viceroy of Mexico issued almost 1,500 orders in the emperor's name in 1542 and 1543 alone, many of them in response to a direct imperial order. Some of his warrants (cedulas reales) gained iconic status because they legalized new Mexica settlements (altepetl) and became coveted foundational documents of which copies were still made in the 1990s. Moreover, since 'in pre-Hispanic Mexico, the founding of the various altepetl took place under the will and protection of the gods', Charles acquired an honoured place among the panoply of deities in several of the communities he founded.
"The emperor strove to achieve immortality in more conventional ways. He sat for portraits, sponsored histories, commissioned works of art, built palaces, and appeared in propaganda spectacles (notably urban 'entries'). Mass-produced images of him appeared on coins, medals, ceramics and even draughts counters, as well as in books and broadsheets. Musicians composed works to celebrate his successes (the battle of Pavia; the imperial coronation) and sometimes his setbacks (the death of his wife). An international corps of poets, painters, sculptors, glaziers, printers, weavers, jewellers, historians, armourers and scribes strove to project an approved image. The emperor followed the advice of Baldassare Castiglione's study of etiquette, The Courtier (one of Charles's favourite books, published while the author was ambassador at the imperial court and translated into Spanish at Charles's command): he did everything - walking, riding, fighting, dancing, speaking - with one eye on his audience. He would have been appalled that in the nineteenth century the Spanish government opened his tomb and exposed his naked mummified corpse as a tourist attraction, and that some visitors made drawings while others took photographs. One bribed a guard to detach the tip of one of his fingers as souvenir - although this vandalism belatedly proved a boon because forensic examination of the detached digit, now kept in a special receptacle, provided two pieces of important medical evidence: the emperor had suffered from chronic gout, just as he always complained, and he was killed relatively swiftly by a double dose of malaria.
"Arma virumque cano ('I sing of arms and a man'): in an important article about the perils associated with writing the life of the emperor, Heinrich Lutz used the opening words of Virgil's Aeneid (a text familiar to Charles) to underline the need for his biographers to focus on those matters that absorbed his time, energy and resources - above all on war and preparing for war, both because hostilities took up so much of Charles's reign and because contemporaries noted that he was 'happiest on campaign and with his army.' Lutz argued that other developments, even the Renaissance and the Reformation, should appear only as and when they mattered to Charles, and that they must always be viewed through his eyes.
"Bearing in mind Lutz's strictures, this biography delpoys the available sources, from documents to digits, to illuminate three key issues:
- How Charles took the crucial decisions that created, preserved and expanded the world's first and most enduring transatlantic empire.
- Whether Charles's policy failures arose from structural faults or from personal shortcomings: could a monarch with superior political skills have done better, or had circumstances created a polity too big for its own good and impossible to defend? In modern parlance, does agent or structure explain the failure to pass on his empire intact?
- What was it like to be Charles? While writing about one of Charles's role models, Alexander the Great, Plutarch (one of Charles's favourite authors) noted that 'The most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue and vice in men: sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations. This biography draws on many such unscripted but revealing episodes."