“Charlemagne” is a rare sort of work—a satisfying biography about a historical figure about whom very little is directly known. The usual result from biography in such cases, as opposed to histories where a mostly hidden person figures merely in the greater context of his times, is the writing of fiction. Authors seem unable to resist ascribing specific thoughts and actions to their hidden biographical subjects. But in “Charlemagne,” the German historian Johannes Fried has accomplished the near-impossible, writing a biography of Charlemagne that tells us a great deal about the man, as well as plausible suppositions about him, without engaging in fiction and while clearly identifying that which we do not know.
The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners. This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West. For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West. Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men. And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.