Study Guide

The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne

The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Some twentieth century scholars have claimed that medieval writers were deficient in imagination and thus unable to create plots, depending instead on historical events to provide their stories. Charlemagne’s journey to Jerusalem, a complete fabrication, is a literary work that clearly demonstrates that heroic legends when embodied in medieval romances did not, and did not need to, rely on historical events. Charlemagne never went to Jerusalem. In fact, the closest he came to Jerusalem was when the patriarch of Jerusalem sent him the keys to the city and to the Holy Sepulchre as a reward for his generous support of Christian churches in the Holy Land. In Charlemagne’s fictional pilgrimage to Jerusalem, medieval writers combined real persons with fantasized events to create original literature of a kind that will later be compared to a historical novel.

The source of this tale is alleged to have been the Abbey of St. Denis, which claimed to possess a number of holy relics brought back by Charlemagne from the Holy Land. The best known of these putative relics was the crown of thorns. However, skeptical twentieth century scholarship also credits missionary zeal, possibly venality, with the creation of this tale of Charlemagne’s pilgrimage.

As for the vanity, arrogance, and braggadocio of Charlemagne’s spurious exploits, such actions undoubtedly create a reasonable counterbalance for the more respectful histories and legends that depict Charlemagne as a pious, noble, and high-minded leader. When Charlemagne is described as feeling threatened by the possibility that Emperor Hugo might be more handsome than he is, Charlemagne becomes less imperial and more human. Although such impertinent questions were certainly never raised in Charlemagne’s authoritarian times, the freer atmosphere of the High Middle Ages—sometimes characterized as the Renaissance of the twelfth century, during which time this poem appears to have been written—must have tolerated such irreverence. Thus the earthy tale of Charlemagne’s imagined trip to Jerusalem suggests but another facet of Charlemagne’s undoubtedly multifaceted personality, however fanciful the depiction may be.