The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne Analysis


The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Emperor Charlemagne, accompanied by his queen, the twelve peers, and many others, goes to the Abbey of St. Denis. Charlemagne is elegantly garbed and wears his fine sword as well as his splendid crown. Proud of his prepossessing mien, he boasts of his power and majestic appearance, confidently asking the queen if she had ever seen another as impressive as he. Impatient with this vanity, the queen chides Charlemagne for his inordinately high opinion of himself and suggests that there is a king handsomer than he.

The emperor, angry over this public humiliation, commands the queen to name the rival king so that their respective courts could meet and decide which of the two is handsomer, threatening the queen with decapitation if it is determined that she has spoken falsely about the other king’s superior appearance. Frightened, the queen tearfully pleads for mercy, pretends forgetfulness, and then amends her claim to say that, although richer, the other king is not nearly so brave as Charlemagne. Still unsatisfied, Charlemagne demands to know the identity of the other king, again threatening to cut off the queen’s head immediately if she does not acquiesce. The queen then admits that it is Hugo, the emperor of Greece and Constantinople and ruler of vast lands in Persia.

When Charlemagne and his entourage return to the palace in Paris, the emperor declares to the assembled peers and knights of France that, attended by his imperial retinue, he will go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray in Jerusalem at the Holy Sepulchre, to make the Stations of the Cross, and then to continue on to Constantinople to visit Emperor Hugo. For the journey, with the blessings of Archbishop Turpin, all twelve peers—Roland, Oliver, William of Orange, Naimes, Ogier of Denmark, Gerin, Berenger, Ernaut, Aymer, Bernard of Brusban, Bertram the Strong, as well as Turpin—the rest of the imperial retainers, and Charlemagne himself, are outfitted as pilgrims. Equipped with pilgrims’ scrip, they carry no weapons, only sharp oaken staves, but they are accompanied by many beasts of burden, laden with riches. With blessings from the Abbey of St. Denis, the imperial troupe, including Turpin, sets off. Along the way, Charlemagne draws Bertram aside to call his attention to the eighty-thousand-man pilgrimage and to boast once more of the power and the might of the leader of such a group.

Arriving in Jerusalem, the emperor and his fellows visit the shrine of the Last Supper, where the bearded Charlemagne and his twelve peers audaciously sit in the chairs allegedly once occupied by Christ and his twelve disciples. A passing Jew observes this charade and forthwith informs the patriarch of Jerusalem, who instantly collects a procession of priests and acolytes to investigate the phenomenon.

The patriarch of Jerusalem respectfully greets Charlemagne, who identifies himself as Charles of France, mighty conqueror of twelve kings in search of a thirteenth conquest, and as a devout Christian pilgrim. The patriarch declares that he who occupies Christ’s seat must be Charles the Great—Charles Magnus or Charlemagne—above all other crowned heads. The patriarch generously accedes to Charlemagne’s request for sacred relics, giving him St. Simon’s armlet; Lazarus’s shroud; a vial of St. Stephen’s blood; a piece of the Holy Shroud; one of the nails from the Cross; the crown of thorns; the chalice, the silver bowl, and Christ’s own dinner knife from the Last Supper; clippings from the whiskers and the hair of St. Peter; a vial of the Virgin’s milk; and a piece of the Virgin’s robe. As Charlemagne accepts these relics, a disabled person is cured of his afflictions, attesting the divine power of the relics. A magnificent gold and silver chest is made for transporting these holy treasures, and the collection is consigned to the keeping of Archbishop Turpin.

Charlemagne and his men stay four months in Jerusalem. Then, with pledges of Christian fealty and defense of the faith, they leave for Constantinople, where Charlemagne’s thoughts have lately turned again to Emperor Hugo. Arriving a few miracles later, the travelers are stunned by the...

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The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cobby, Anne Elizabeth. Ambivalent Conventions: Formula and Parody in Old French. New York: Rodopi, 1995. Cobby’s study of parody in the fabliaux devotes almost eighty pages to an analysis of The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne. She demonstrates how the work subverts the conventions of medieval French epics and romances to create a complex and nuanced parody.

Cobby, Anne Elizabeth, and Glyn S. Burgess, eds. Introduction to The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne and Aucassin and Nicollette, translated by Glyn S. Burgess. New York: Garland, 1988. In this introduction, Cobby discusses the aesthetic qualities of The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne, provides information on textual matters, and comments on possible sources of inspiration for its writing.

Grigsby, John L. The Gab as a Latent Genre in Medieval French Literature: Drinking and Boasting in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 2000. The medieval gab was a literary genre featuring characters who were idle braggarts. Grigsby examines this genre, focusing his discussion on The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne.

Muir, Lynette. Literature and Society in Medieval France: The Mirror and the Image, 1100-1500. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Muir traces the composition history of the poem, noting how the work differs from other chansons de geste in its extensive use of humor and fantastic detail.

Polak, Lucie. “Charlemagne and the Marvels of Constantinople.” In The Medieval Alexander Legend and Romance Epic, edited by Peter Noble et al. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus International, 1982. Polak examines the technological marvels described as part of the hero’s visit to Constantinople, suggesting possible historical inspirations for those imagined marvels.