“The most famous and greatest of men.” –Einhard, “The Life of Charlemagne”
In the fifth century, Western civilization went dark. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, infrastructure crumbled, trade slowed, schools closed, literacy dwindled, aqueducts collapsed, and voracious barbarians feasted on Rome’s cold corpse. What some historians call the “Dark Ages,” comprising about the first half of the Middle Ages, would last hundreds of years.
But there was a bright spot. A few centuries into this dreary era, one leader reconstructed much of what was lost. He didn’t just try to reassemble much of Rome’s land—he tried to reassemble its culture. His name was Charlemagne, King of the Franks, Emperor of the Romans, the Grandfather of Europe, and the 21st most influential figure in Western history.
 The “Dark Ages” as a term for the Middle Ages is problematic. It first came into use in the fourteenth century with Petrarch (he of the “Next 30” for his work with Cicero’s texts and contributions to the Italian Renaissance), and it kind of stuck. Only in more recent history has further study revealed that the Middle Ages weren’t without merit, particularly in the latter half. For the first half, historians now often use the term “Low” or “Early” Middle Ages. Although this earlier period, too, had its contributions, one can be excused for referring to it as a relatively dark period, as I did in the first sentence of this chapter.