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Charlemagne

Charlemagne Essay - Critical Essays

Charlemagne

Introduction

Charlemagne 742-814

(Also known as Charles the Great, Charles I, Karl der Grosse, and Carolus Magnus.) King of the Franks (768-814) and Emperor of the Western World (800-14).

Beloved ruler of western Europe, Charlemagne brought forth a rebirth in learning at a time when few of his subjects could even write their own names. A patron of literature and the arts and the founder of many schools, Charlemagne through his leadership encouraged and inspired others to read, write, and learn, bringing forth what has been called the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne, already a legend in his own time, became a prominent character in the body of literature known as the Carolingian cycle or the Matter of France, and through these chansons de geste, he continued to influence millions of people in numerous countries for centuries.

Biographical Information

Charlemagne was born to Pepin the Short and Bertrade in northern Europe; his exact birthplace is unknown. He inherited half the kingdom of the Franks upon the death of his father in 768. Three years later, upon the death of his brother Carloman II, who had shared the Frankish empire, he became King of all the Franks. Skilled in strategy and tactics (his work on these subjects was later to be studied by Napoleon Bonaparte), Charlemagne set forth to Christianize the land. He battled the pagan Saxons for more than three decades, finally conquering them in 804. In 773-74 he conquered Lombardy, restoring the land to the Pope. He waged dozens of campaigns, including expeditions against the Saracens in northeastern Spain in 778. It was in a surprise attack against Charlemagne’s rear forces that the Basques killed one of his nobles, Roland—the hero of the Chanson de Roland. By the end of the century Charlemagne ruled most of western Europe, uniting much of the land once under the Roman empire. Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Western World in 800. Charlemagne improved conditions for the common people to an extent never before accomplished through reforms in government, the military, commerce, farming, and education. The latter was available for peasants as well as nobles; he went so far as to consider universal free schooling. Charlemagne died in 814, leaving his only surviving son, Louis, as ruler. Louis lacked the command or organizational skills of his father and the empire was quickly invaded.

Major Works

Charlemagne himself did not write any literary works; indeed he could not write at all until his old age, and then only barely. He could, however, read Latin and some Greek. Thus, it is not as author but as a character that Charlemagne is known in literature. Of mythical, legendary proportions, he is featured in a great body of work which includes the epic Chanson de Roland. For centuries after Charlemagne’s death, many common folk refused to believe that he was dead, even envisioning him as leading the Crusades. Others believed him always ready to protect the land, resting in a cave until such a time as he was needed. By the middle of the century of his death, this devotion was expressed through making him the subject of many songs and tales, the practice continuing through the next two centuries. The Chanson de Roland was written by an anonymous French poet (some believe him to have been the Norman poet Turold) sometime between the Norman Conquest and the first Crusade in 1096. The epic of four thousand lines is an embellished conflation of many lesser tales about Charlemagne. Fighting for the King (considered French by the poet), Roland is vanquished by overwhelming numbers but does not lose his honor. Charlemagne finds the slain Roland, prays over his body, and the newly-inspired French chase the Saracens into a river where they drown. For more than five centuries, until the Renaissance, the Chanson de Roland remained popular and is still France’s most famous poem. In Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, another classic poem of nearly 900 lines, Charlemagne seeks out Hugo the Strong of Constantinople. In Jerusalem, on their way, Charlemagne and his fellow travelers are given relics. When they eventually meet up with Hugo they make extravagant claims which Hugo calls on them to perform. Charlemagne and his men accomplish their tasks with the help of God. In what is assumed to be a joke at the end of the poem, the assertion is made that Charlemagne is a greater man than Hugo because Charlemagne is the taller of the two. No doubt the popularity of works which feature Charlemagne can be credited in no little part to the public’s adoration of the King, who was adopted as one of their own by France, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, and Spain.

Representative Works


Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (poetry) (edited by Peter Goodman) 1985
The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne (poetry) (translated by Glyn S. Burgess) 1988
The Song of Roland (epic) (translated by D. D. R. Owen) 1990

Criticism

Edward L. Cutts (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: “The Revival of Learning” and “The Ecclesiastical Work of Charles” in Charlemagne, E. & J. B. Young and Co., 1882, pp. 306-36.

[In the following excerpt, Cutts explores Charlemagne’s encouragement of learning and examines his religious policy, edicts, and controversial theological decisions.]

THE REVIVAL OF LEARNING

The feature of Charles’s character and work to which the historian naturally turns with the greatest sympathy is his love of learning and the wise and strenuous encouragement of it from which dates the revival of letters in Europe.

The elegant culture of which the letters of Sidonius have given us so charming a glimpse, had long since died out of the countries between the Alps and the English Channel. The Imperial schools, which we have seen still existed in the towns of Gaul in the time of the grandsons of Clovis, had fallen into neglect and decay. If the Frank conquerors had gradually progressed from their original barbarism, the civilization of the conquered race had gradually deteriorated in the midst of perpetual war, until at last, about the time of Charles Martel, the whole people had reached the lowest point of civilization to which Gaul had sunk since it learnt the language and the manners of Rome.

Letters had taken refuge in the monasteries; but the monastic schools did not fulfil the place of the old Imperial schools. Pagan literature was very naturally disliked and discouraged by the Church, and the schools of the monasteries took a narrower range.

The advantages of learning were indeed recognized by the Frank princes from the first, and Clovis, and his sons and grandsons, encouraged some of their young nobility to qualify themselves for high places in the State and in the Church. No doubt Pepin and Carloman, with the assistance of Boniface, in regulating and reforming the Frankish Church, did something to encourage learning. Pepin, we have seen, had the Italian scholar, Peter of Pisa, at his court as tutor to the young princes and the young nobles of the court. But the adoption of general measures to revive learning throughout the kingdom was the work of Charlemagne, and is one of his best claims to the gratitude of posterity.

It was about the year 780 that he induced an eminent Lombard scholar, Paul the Deacon, to take up his residence at his court, and to undertake the instruction of all who chose to attend his lectures. In the following year he met with the scholar whose name is more especially associated with that of Charles in the revival of learning.

It was at Parma, during Charles’s expedition to Italy, that a group of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics were introduced to him, who had been to Rome to fetch the pallium for Eanbold, the newly elected Archbishop of York. Chief of them was Alcuin, who held the honourable office of master of the schools of York, in which he had succeeded the new archbishop.

The schools of Britain and Ireland had at this time a considerable reputation. The school of York was one of the most famous of them. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Abbot Adrian, the companion of his labours, were both men of considerable learning, and they had taken pains to establish schools in England. Bede (673-735) had gained for himself and for the Northumbrian schools a European reputation; Egbert, his scholar and friend, had maintained the high character for learning of the school of York; Egbert had been the master of Elbert, and Eanbold the new archbishop, and Alcuin, had been school-fellows under Elbert. When Elbert succeeded Egbert as archbishop, Eanbold succeeded Elbert in the schools; when Eanbold was in turn raised to the see, Alcuin succeeded him as scholasticus; so that Alcuin was a scholar of great reputation, and in a position in which he might naturally expect to succeed in his turn to the see of York. The school of York had maintained the Roman traditions derived from its founders; it taught the theology of Augustine and of Gregory the Great, and it regarded Rome as the mother of Western Christendom.

In the scholasticus of York, King Charles recognized the kind of man he needed to take the lead in that revival of learning on which he was intent. Alcuin listened to his proposals, and agreed to accept his offers, provided that when he reached England, in discharging his embassy, the archbishop and the Northumbrian king should give their consent; and in 782 Alcuin took up his residence at the court of the King of the Franks, as master of the Palatine school. The king gave him two abbeys to afford him an income—one near Troyes, and another, Ferrieres, in the diocese of Sens—and no doubt he cared for the well-being of the houses from which he derived his emoluments; but his duties were the teaching of the Palatine school, and the promotion of education throughout the Frank dominions. The king at this time was forty years of age, the scholar was forty-seven.

It was a strangely wandering life which was led by the court of the great Charles. Wherever the military or political affairs of his wide dominions made it necessary for him to fix his residence for a few months, thither his wife and children, his counsellors and secretaries, in short, his whole court, accompanied him,—now in Saxony, now in Aquitaine, now in Lombardy, now on the banks of the Rhine.

The duties of the master of the Palatine school were very much the same as those of the master of any of the great schools of the period. He was a professor, who delivered public lectures. But seeing he was here the sole professor, he had to lecture on all subjects which he desired that his pupils should learn.

Charles himself had a great thirst for knowledge, and a great desire to encourage learning. He frequently set the example of attending the master’s lectures, and such an example was sure to be followed by all who desired to stand well with the king. Still more frequently in conversation he availed himself of the great scholar’s supposed capability of solving all questions on all subjects. We take leave to quote a few paragraphs, which place the scene vividly before us:1

We find Charles and his courtiers plying the Vates from across the Channel with innumerable questions, often blundering strangely and misapprehending wildly, but forming a circle which even at this lapse of time it is impossible to contemplate without interest. The monarch himself, in the ardour of a long unsatisfied curiosity, propounding queries on all imaginable topics; suggesting, distinguishing, objecting, disputing;—a colossal figure, gazing fixedly with bright blue eyes on his admired guest, and altogether a presence that might well have disconcerted a less assured intellect. Alcuin, however, holding fast by his Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Isidorus, is calm and self-possessed; feeling assured that so long as he only teaches what ‘Gregorius summus’ and ‘Bæda venerabilis’ believed and taught, he cannot go very far wrong. Around him, as the years went by, he saw successively appear the three royal sons, born in rightful wedlock: Charles, the future ruler of Neustria and Austrasia; Pepin, the acknowledged lord of Italy; and Lewis, who almost from his cradle had worn the crown of Aquitaine,—the graceful young athlete and mighty hunter, his mind already opening to that love of learning which, through all the good and evil of his chequered life, he cherished so fondly in his later years. There, again, was Charles’s much-loved sister Gisela, Abbess of Chelles, who from her girlhood had renounced the world, but whom the fame of the great teacher drew from her conventual retirement. Thither also came the last and best-loved of Charles’s wives, Liutgarda, of the proud Alemannic race, hereafter to prove among the firmest of Alcuin’s friends; and the royal daughter, Gisela, whose parental affection held her too dear for the proudest alliance. There, too, was Charles’s son-in-law, Angilbert, chiefly distinguished as yet for his fondness for the histrionic art, but afterwards the saintly Abbot of St. Riquier. There, too, were the royal cousins, the half-brothers Adelhard and Wala, whose after action shook the whole fabric of the Carolingian Empire. There, too, was Riculfus, destined ere long to fill the chair of St. Boniface and rule the great see of Mayence; Eginhard, the royal biographer, the classic of the ninth century; and Fredegis, Alcuin’s youthful countryman, poet, and philosopher, not always faithful to his master’s teaching.

It appears to have been a frequent affectation in mediæval times for distinguished men to assume a literary or historic alias; and to this custom we must attribute the fact that Alcuin usually in his correspondence addresses the members of this circle under another name. Charles’s second name would seem to have really been David, and this fact may account for the assumption of scriptural names by some of his courtiers. Pepin was Julius; Gisela (the sister), Lucia; Gisela (the daughter), Delia; Queen Liutgarda was Ava; Adelhard was Antony; Wala, Arsenius; Eginhard, with reference perhaps to his destined state avocation, was Besaleel; Riculfus, Flavius Damoetus; Rigbod, Machairas; Angilbert, Homer; Fredigis, Nathanael.

There appears, however, little to support the popular idea of a regular Athenæum, or academy of adult members of Charles’s court.

For the first five years after Alcuin’s arrival (782-787) the mind of the king was occupied with the wars in which he was incessantly engaged; but when, in 785, Witikind laid down his arms and embraced Christianity, Charles had more leisure to turn to the designs of peace. During his residence at Rome, in the winter of 786-7, Charles had secured in the capital of Western learning several teachers of repute, whom, on his return, he distributed among the principal Frank monasteries to aid in the work of educational revival. Shortly after he issued the famous capitulary of a.d. 787. The copy which has been preserved is that addressed to the Abbot of Fulda:—

Charles, by the grace of God King of the Franks and of the Lombards, and Patrician of the Romans, to Bangulfus Abbot, and to his whole congregation, and to the faithful committed to his charge:

Be it known to your Devotion, pleasing to God, that in conjunction with our faithful we have judged it to be of utility that in the bishoprics and monasteries committed by Christ’s favour to our charge, care should be taken that there shall be not only a regular manner of life and one conformable to holy religion, but also the study of letters, each to teach and learn them according to his ability and the Divine assistance. For even as due observance of the rule of the house tends to good morals, so zeal on the part of the teacher and the taught imparts order and grace to sentences; and those who seek to please God by living aright, should also not neglect to please Him by right speaking. It is written, ‘By thine own words shalt thou be justified or condemned;’ and although right doing may be preferable to right speaking, yet must the knowledge of what is right precede right action. Every one, therefore, should strive to understand what it is that he would fain accomplish; and this right understanding will be the sooner gained, according as the utterances of the tongue are free from error. And if false speaking is to be shunned by all men, especially should it be shunned by those who have elected to be the servants of the truth. During past years we have often received letters from different monasteries, informing us that at their sacred services the brethren offered up prayers on our behalf; and we have observed that the thoughts contained in these letters, though in themselves most just, were expressed in uncouth language, and while pious devotion dictated the sentiments, the unlettered tongue was unable to express them aright! Hence there has arisen in our minds the fear lest, if the skill to write rightly were thus lacking, so too would the power of rightly comprehending the Holy Scriptures be far less than was fitting; and we all know that though verbal errors be dangerous, errors of the understanding are yet more so. We exhort you, therefore, not only not to neglect the study of letters, but to apply yourselves thereto with perseverance, and with that humility which is well pleasing to God, so that you may be able to penetrate with greater ease and certainty the mysteries of the Holy Scriptures. For as these contain images, tropes, and similar figures, it is impossible to doubt that the reader will arrive far more readily at the spiritual sense according as he is the better instructed in learning. Let there, therefore, be chosen for this work men who are both able and willing to learn, and also desirous of instructing others; and let them apply themselves to the work with a zeal equalling the earnestness with which we recommend it to them.

It is our wish that you may be what it behoves the soldiers of the Church to be,—religious in heart, learned in discourse, pure in act, eloquent in speech; so that all who approach your house in order to invoke the Divine Master, or to behold the excellence of the religious life, may be edified in beholding you, and instructed in hearing you discourse or chant, and may return home rendering thanks to God most High.

Fail not, as thou regardest our favour, to send a copy of this letter to all thy suffragans, and to all the monasteries; and let no monk go beyond his monastery to administer justice, or to enter the assemblies and the voting-places. Adieu.

This capitulary appears to have been issued from Augsburg, where he had just received the submission of the rebellious Tassilo.

It was probably some time after this that Charles sent round to the Churches a homilary or collection of sermons, corrected by the hand of Paulus Diaconus (at that time probably engaged in teaching at Metz), accompanied by the following instructions:—

Desirous as we are of improving the condition of the Churches, we impose upon ourselves the task of reviving with the utmost zeal the study of letters, well-nigh extinguished through the neglect of our ancestors. We charge all our subjects, as far as they may be able, to cultivate the liberal arts, and we set them the example. We have already, God helping, carefully corrected the books of the Old and New Testaments, corrupted through the ignorance of transcribers. And inasmuch as the collection of homilies for the service at Nocturns was full of errors … we have w illed that these same should be revised and corrected by Paul the Deacon, our well-beloved client; and he has presented us with readings adapted to every feast-day, carefully purged from error, and sufficing for a whole year.

Two years after the appearance of the famous capitulary of 787, Theodulphus, Bishop of Orleans, one of the Missi Dominici, and who appears to have succeeded Alcuin, on his retirement to Tours, as a kind of “minister of education,” addressed a document to the clergy of his diocese, which appears to have been widely adopted in other dioceses, in which he describes study as “a means whereby the life of the righteous is ennobled, and the man himself fortified against temptation.” In this, he requires his clergy to open schools in every town and village of his diocese, and to receive “the children of the faithful” for instruction, demanding in return no payment, though permitted to accept a gift spontaneously offered. Theodulphus himself was one of the cluster of learned men about the Frankish court. The library of his cathedral was famous for the number and beauty of the manuscripts he had gathered together. He has left us one monument at least which has in our days, in a translation, obtained a new popularity—the hymn “Gloria Laus et Tibi Honor”—

“All glory, laud, and honour
To Thee, Redeemer, King,” etc.

In the year 795, the abbacy of Tours became vacant. It was, perhaps, the wealthiest of all the preferments in the wide dominions of Charles. The Archbishop of Toledo, in a controversy with Alcuin, made it a subject of reproach, that as Abbot of Tours he was the master of 20,000 slaves—the serfs upon his wide domains.

Here Alcuin continued his labours as teacher. He sent some of his monks to England to bring back books for the abbey library. Scholars flocked to him from all parts of the Frankish dominions, and many from his native England. He continued to correspond with the king,2 and continued to exercise a great influence on the literary progress of the kingdom.

He was immediately succeeded in the mastership of the Palatine school by Witzo, who had accompanied him from York; and he, after a short time by Fredegis, another scholar of York. But within about two years there arrived from Ireland two men, in secular learning and in the Sacred Scriptures incomparably learned,3 named Clement and Albinus, and they seem to have eclipsed Alcuin and his disciples in the regard of Charles.

The scholars of the Celtic school seem indeed to have had some advantages over the scholars of the school of York. We have seen that Alcuin and his school walked along the narrow path of Augustinian...

(The entire section is 7256 words.)

J. I. Mombert (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: “Famous Men.—Literature.—Libraries.—Architecture.—Public Works” in A History of Charles the Great (Charlemagne), D. Appleton & Co, 1888, pp. 253-79.

[In the following excerpt, Mombert profiles noteworthy men in Charlemagne’s circle and discusses Charlemagne’s interest in astronomy and architecture, particularly the Rhine bridge at Mayence.]

Besides Alcuin other men of note, already mentioned by name, stood in near personal relations to Charles.

Perhaps the oldest and most intimate of his friends was Adalhard, a son of count Bernhard, a grandson of Charles Martel, and cousin-german of Charles. Early in life he chose the...

(The entire section is 9174 words.)

Thomas Hodgkin (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: “Results” in Charles the Great, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1914, pp. 232-51.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1897, Hodgkin summarizes Charlemagne’s accomplishments in the fields of the Church, literature, science, law, and the state-system of Europe.]

No ruler for many centuries so powerfully impressed the imagination of western Europe as the first Frankish Emperor of Rome. The vast cycle of romantic epic poetry which gathered round the name of Charlemagne, the stories of his wars with the Infidels, his expeditions to Constantinople and Jerusalem, his Twelve Peers of France, the friendship of Roland and Oliver and the treachery of...

(The entire section is 5130 words.)

Henry W. C. Davis (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: “Legislation—Religious Policy—The Renaissance; 774-800 a.d.” and “Fate of the Franks—The Legend of Charlemagne” in Charlemagne (Charles the Great): The Hero of Two Nations, 1899, pp. 155-86; 312-31.

[In the following excerpt, Davis describes the missi, Charlemagne’s agents in many matters of law; Alcuin and his Palatine school; and Charlemagne’s own scholarly interests and achievements. He also explains the demise of the Frankish empire and the development of the Charlemagne legends and song cycle.]

LEGISLATION—RELIGIOUS POLICY—THE RENAISSANCE 774-800 A.D.

The influence of the Church moulded the career of...

(The entire section is 13372 words.)

Jessie L. Weston (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: “The Charlemagne Romances” in The Romance Cycle of Charlemagne and His Peers, David Nutt, 1905, pp. 5-45.

[In the following essay Weston describes how the Arthur and Charlemagne cycles differ in their characteristics and asserts that the Charlemagne stories, while superior in content, are stylistically inferior to those about Arthur.]

“Ne sont que trois matières à
nul home entendant
De France, de Bretagne, et de Rome le grant.”

The Middle Ages were, as we know, the ages of Romance; Romance embodied in Prose—pseudo-historic chronicles, pseudo-biographical accounts of noted heroes; in Poetry—short lais, longer poems (metrical...

(The entire section is 9436 words.)

K. G. T. Webster (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: “Arthur and Charlemagne,” Englische Studien, No. 36, 1906, pp. 337-69.

[In the following essay Webster compares and contrasts certain aspects of the ballad of King Arthur and King Cornwall with the Pilgrimage of Charlemagne.]

In the following sketch1, after a few suggestions toward the reconstruction of the fascinating and puzzling ballad of King Arthur and King Cornwall, I shall attempt to explain the relation of Queen Guinevere, not only to King Cornwall, but also to several other still more important personages. These are certain of those remarkable characters in Old French and Middle High German romance who dispute Arthur’s right to...

(The entire section is 12910 words.)

F. L. Ganshof (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: “The Use of the Written Word in Charlemagne’s Administration” in The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History, translated by Janet Sondheimer, Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 125-42.

[In the following essay, first published in French in 1951, Ganshof describes some of the types of written documents that Charlemagne caused to be used—including agendas, minutes, instructions, authorizations, circulars, mobilization orders, reports, and descriptions—in order to foster clarity and efficiency in his realm.]

It is known that the use of the written word for administrative purposes survived, in at least some parts of the...

(The entire section is 9222 words.)

Richard Winston (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “The World of Culture” in Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1954, pp. 138-55.

[In the following excerpt, Winston examines the accomplishments of two of Charlemagne’s greatest scholars: Alcuin, who was charged with improving literacy and who initiated a teacher-training program, and Paul, a natural scientist and historian who wrote the History of the Lombards.]

A recent French historian has disdainfully dismissed the Carolingian revival of learning in a few words: “What possible point can there be in trying to rehabilitate this gloomy age, to glorify this abortive renaissance? Neither Charlemagne nor his...

(The entire section is 7137 words.)

Harold Lamb (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “Growth of a Legend” in Charlemagne: The Legend and the Man, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1954, pp. 282-311.

[In the following excerpt, Lamb narrates the final months of the aged and ailing Charlemagne through his death and its aftermath, and explains how and why his legend grew even while his kingdom was being invaded.]

It came first in quiet voices from the land. A boy picked herbs for medicine in a garden close. Bending low, he drew in the fragrance of hyssop and thyme, and he thought how when he carried the herb basket to the door where the old Benedictine waited, he would add his words, although he could not make much of a poem as yet. “Such a...

(The entire section is 10028 words.)

Norman Susskind (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “Humor in the Chansons de Geste,” Symposium Vol. XV, No. 3, Fall, 1961, pp. 185-97.

[In the following essay, Susskind explores the various types of comedy employed in the chansons de geste, considers the butts of the jokes and ridicule, and speculates that one of humor’s functions was to inject some realism into the depiction of events and characters.]

The mood of the chanson de geste was never unremittingly sombre. Curtius has remarked that from late antiquity the epic, considered on a level with pleasures of the table and the performance of mimes, contained a mixture of the comic and the serious: “When the medieval Latin, the earliest French,...

(The entire section is 6156 words.)

Donald Bullough (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Epilogue. The Heritage of Charlemagne: Legend and Reality” in The Age of Charlemagne, Elek Books Limited, 1965, pp. 201-07.

[In the following excerpt, Bullough discusses how Charlemagne’s legendary status has, at times, threatened to overshadow the reality of his accomplishments.]

Sometime during the reign of the Emperor Louis—known to posterity as ‘the Pious’—a monk of Bobbio, where Irish traditions died hard, wrote a Lament for the dead Charles. A solis ortu usque ad occidua Littora maris planctus pulsat pectora; Heu mihi misero ‘From the rising of the sun to the shores of the sea where the sun sets breasts are beaten in lamentation;...

(The entire section is 2610 words.)

Jacques Boussard (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “The Renaissance of Literature” in The Civilization of Charlemagne, translated by Frances Partridge, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968, pp. 118-56.

[In the following excerpt, Boussard describes the state of culture at the time Charlemagne began his reign and the educational program he ordered as a remedy. He discusses the results—evident in the Church, civil law, the writing of history and poetry, and the birth of philosophical argument.]

A GUIDED MOVEMENT

The end of the eighth century and the whole of the ninth saw a remarkable advance in all branches of culture, which has been described as the Carolingian Renaissance. The...

(The entire section is 11208 words.)

Bernhard Walter Scholz (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: An introduction to Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers, The University of Michigan Press, 1970, pp. 1-33.

[In the following essay Scholz describes and discusses the importance of two Carolingian works: the Royal Frankish Annals (740-829), which reflects the King’s interest in keeping a record for posterity, and Nithard’s Histories, a mostly contemporary (840-43) and more objective history which includes an account of Charlemagne’s death.]

One of the perennial obsessions of medieval authors was the suspicion that the past was superior to the...

(The entire section is 13973 words.)

Robert A. Eisner (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “In Search of the Real Theme of the Song of Roland,” Romance Notes, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Autumn, 1972, pp. 179-83.

[In the following essay, Eisner contends that inconsistencies in the characterization of Charlemagne in the Song of Roland reflect the change of values which occurred between the century of Charlemagne’s rule and the century in which the poet who wrote the work lived.]

The central contention of this essay is that traditional preoccupation with the origin and unity of the Song of Roland has obscured the main theme of the poem.1 The key problem to be considered is the apparent inconsistency in the portrait of...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)

John D. Niles (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Ideal Depiction of Charlemagne in La Chanson de Roland,”Viator, Vol. 7, 1976, pp. 123-39.

[In the following essay, Niles argues that Charlemagne, not Roland, is the chief hero of La Chanson de Rolandand that Charlemagne’s seeming passivity actually “represents power in the pure majesty of its potentiality.”]

The Charlemagne of La Chanson de Roland has seemed to many an enigmatic figure. On the one hand he is consistently praised. On the other hand he does fairly little. He seeks out the advice of his lords and accepts it when it is given. He appears to be duped by Marsile and Ganelon. For the greater part of the poem he seems...

(The entire section is 6465 words.)

Janet H. Caulkins (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Narrative Interventions: The Key to the Jest of the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne” in Études de Philologie Romane et d’Histoire Littéraire, edited by Jean Marie D’Heur and Nicoletta Cherubini, Belgium, 1980, pp. 47-55.

[In the following essay, Caulkins contends that properly interpreting the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne requires understanding the interventions of the narrator and recognizing the juxtaposition of the serious and the ludicrous.]

Nothing makes the Middle Ages more lovable than its humor.

Ronald N. Walpole1

The...

(The entire section is 4727 words.)

Sarah Kay (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Character of Character in the Chansons de Geste” in The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics, edited by Leigh A. Arrathoon, Solaris Press, Inc., 1984, pp. 475-98.

[In the following essay Kay investigates the interaction of character and plot in various chansons de geste, particularly in Raoul de Cambrai, and argues that neither aspect holds a simple priority over the other.]

The relationship between character and plot confronts the literary critic with a chicken and egg problem of ostrich proportions. How far can we dissociate what a literary character is from what he does, and supposing such dissociation to be operable, which is the...

(The entire section is 11245 words.)

W. R. J. Barron (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Matter of France” in English Medieval Romance, Longman Group UK Limited, 1987, pp. 89-108.

[In the following excerpt, Barron considers the relationship between the French and the English romance through the exploration of key works including the Chanson de Roland,Otuel and Roland, The Sege of Melayne, The Sowdon of Babylon, and Fierabras.]

The dual effect of the Norman Conquest in severing the Germanic roots of English culture and importing a dialect of romanz which exposed England to the cultural influence of France in the age of its ascendancy was ultimately to have profound consequences. The Matter of England romances show how...

(The entire section is 8611 words.)

Anne Elizabeth Cobby (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne (Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne), edited and translated by Glyn S. Burgess, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988, pp. 1-27.

[In the following essay, Cobby discusses The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne, including arguments regarding the date of the text; difficulties in classifying the work; its artistic merit and use of humor; and its sources and influences.]

AUTHOR AND DATE

Few medieval works have given rise to as much disagreement as the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. The difficulties begin with the question of its origin and date. The text is known from a single manuscript (Royal 16 E VIII...

(The entire section is 8798 words.)

Mary Garrison (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Emergence of Carolingian Latin Literature and the Court of Charlemagne (780-814)” in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, edited by Rosamond McKitterick, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 111-40.

[In the following essay, Garrison considers factors that enabled the creation and survival of Carolingian verse. She also contrasts the perspectives of genteel coterie poetry, written by the court elite, with those of less-censured contemporary victory poems.]

Inter caenandum aut aliquod acroama aut lectorem audiebat. Legabantur ei historiae et antiquorum res gestae.1

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(The entire section is 15316 words.)