09.10.14, Gabriele and Stuckey, eds., The Legend of Charlemagne

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Karen Pratt

The Medieval Review 09.10.14

Gabriele, Matthew and Jace Stuckey (eds.) . The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith, and Crusade. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. 178. ISBN: 978-0-230-60826-9.

Reviewed by:
Karen Pratt
King's College London

Charlemagne studies are flourishing at present. Marianne Ailes and Philippa Hardman from the Universities of Bristol and Reading, UK, have just embarked on a "Charlemagne in England project," which they intend to expand into studies of the legendary hero in different European cultures, and Jinty Nelson is preparing a biography of Charlemagne. In this context, it is pleasing to see the publication of a collection of eight fairly short essays edited by young scholars whose aim is to discuss representations of Charlemagne found in medieval art and in the historical and literary documents produced during the centuries immediately following his death. The authors analyse the cultural, ideological, and political work done by the emperor as he evolved from military leader with feet of clay to Charles the Great, exemplary warrior and political leader, defender of Western Christendom, figure of the last Emperor, and authenticator of holy relics. Since the various stories which circulated about Charlemagne, whilst fictional, were nevertheless presented as "truthful" and were generally received as such by medieval audiences, the legend of Charlemagne analysed in these studies affords us rich insights into the mentalités of the Middle Ages.

The intention of the contributors to this volume is to analyse what Eugene Vance has called "Charlemagne as discourse." Themes treated include the nature of memory and kingship, contemporary apocalyptic expectations and the crusading ethos. In chapter 1, "Greatness Contested and Confirmed: the Raw Materials of the Charlemagne Legend," Thomas Noble examines early responses to the death and memory of Charlemagne. Initially lamented, Charlemagne acquired a rather shady reputation during the reign of his son Louis the Pious, although with Einhard's hugely influential Vita Karoli, which has survived in 134 manuscripts, the rehabilitation and eventual glorification of the emperor began. Studying fruitfully a whole range of ninth-century texts, Noble demonstrates how unstable Charles's early reputation was. At first there were accusations of political oppression and immorality levelled against a father who refused to marry his daughters, who was rumoured to have committed incest with his sister, and who divorced his wife. Consequently the dream vision literature of the time showed Charles being punished for various sins of the flesh. However, after Louis's lack of military success there was a need for a warrior role-model, and this need was filled by Einhard, who, drawing freely on the biographical model supplied by Suetonius, presented Charles as a pious, yet human Frankish ruler. Noble traces Charles's progress towards greatness, noting that the epithet magnus was not originally used by Einhard, but was introduced in later manuscript copies of his Vita. He further demonstrates how an increasingly positive image of their famous forebear benefited the Carolingians, with Charles's grandsons vying over his legacy. Whilst Noble's claim that positive propaganda turned Charles from an illiterate into a literate ruler is debatable, he effectively shows how ninth-century myth-making transformed the flawed, human being of Einhard's account into Notker's man of the Church, a priest king who obeyed the will of God in all his actions. Then, having inserted the Carolingians into salvation history, the anonymous Saxon Poet even has Charlemagne lead the Saxons rather than the Franks into heaven! Thus by the last decade of the ninth century the positive image of Charlemagne had prevailed.

Although there is some overlap between Noble's essay and Paul Edward Dutton's, "Karolus Magnus or Karolus Felix: The Making of Charlemagne's Reputation and Legend," the latter focuses in detail on the process of constructing a reputation, in which material circumstances and good luck play a huge role. Dutton demonstrates that Charlemagne was the architect of his own legend, bringing poets to court in the later years of his reign, thereby controlling what was written about him. Myth-making was also aided by there being no recorded words by him or reliable physical portraits of him (p. 26), although Dutton does not mention the contemporary portrait of Charles in the Lateran Palace in Rome. Einhard's approach to his life was decidedly selective, and because Louis's reign was not an unmitigated success, it became useful for his successors to construct a glorious Carolingian forefather. In this way Dutton convincingly argues that "lucky" Charles became Charles the Great.

Both Daniel Callahan in "Al-Hākim, Charlemagne, and the Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the Writings of Ademar of Chabannes" and Jay Rubenstein in "Godfrey of Bouillon versus Raymond de Saint-Gilles: How Carolingian Kingship Trumped Millenarianism at the End of the First Crusade" study the ways in which Charlemagne's identification with the last Emperor influenced eleventh-century apocalyptic thinking and gave impetus to Crusades to the Holy Land. Callahan shows that the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 by Al-Hākim was seen as the beginning of the last days. In Ademar's eyes the involvement of Saracens and Jews in this event merely confirmed their equivalence with other "heretics," hence antichrists. On the other hand, the identification of Charlemagne with the last Emperor was established by Charles's association with relics of true Cross and with the Tau cross. Drawing on Adso, Ademar presents the hope of a Carolus redivivus who would fight the pagan antichrists. Yet whilst the destruction of the Church provoked a proto-Crusade in 1010, a full scale crusade to the holy places was not accomplished until the end of the eleventh century.

It is in the context of this First Crusade that Jay Rubenstein considers why Godfrey of Bouillon rather than Raymond of Saint-Gilles became the first ruler of the Latin Kingdom in the East, concluding that the latter's eschatological thinking was less acceptable than Godfrey's potential role as Frankish last Emperor in the mould or even of the lineage of Charlemagne. More important than the perception of Godfrey's humility was the fact that his vision of the last Emperor uniting Western and Eastern Christendom and fighting the forces of the antichrist was more attractive to Crusaders than the Provençal Raymond's eschatology, influenced by Peter Bartholomew, which promoted a thousand-year rule during which the poor would be liberated from their suffering.

In "Charlemagne's Legacy and Anglo-Norman Imperium in Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum," Wendy Hoofnagle shows that twelfth-century Anglo-Norman rulers invoked not only King Arthur, but also Charlemagne to legitimise their dominion over the disparate ethnic groups constituting their kingdom. Indeed, Henry II worked with the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to have Charlemagne canonised and the Frankish ideal of the imperial ruler as lawgiver and peacemaker, building roads to civilise and unite an empire, was promoted in Henry of Huntingdon's writing. This is an interesting article, but a little disorganised as the repeated quotation of Psalm 76 on pages 81 and 86 indicates.

Despite some confusion (not picked up by the editors) over the numbering of figures and panels in this essay, Elizabeth Pastan's "Charlemagne as Saint? Relics and the Choice of Window Subjects at Chartres Cathedral" provides a very useful summary of earlier interpretations of the Charlemagne window and a plausible, if selective explanation for its content, based on its location in the northern choir ambulatory, its context, and the impact it would have had on contemporary viewers. She argues that it does not present a sequential narrative. Instead, it draws on disparate sources and traditions, but is unified by the idea of Charlemagne as procurer and authenticator of relics. The window thus provides a sort of genealogy for the main relic of Chartres, the Sancta Camisia, and would have contributed to its veneration. Occasionally though Pastan's argument requires some leaps of imagination: nowhere in the window is the Virgin's tunic depicted, the material offered by the furriers is clearly fur and few medieval viewers would have known (as we do from the Chanson de Roland) that Roland's sword contained a piece of the Virgin's clothing in its hilt.

Jace Stuckey's "Charlemagne as Crusader? Memory, Propaganda, and the Many Uses of Charlemagne's Legendary Expedition to Spain" shows how late eleventh- and twelfth-century writers created a shared memory of Charles as Crusader and Defender of the Faith. Although the texts treated by Anne Latowsy in the following essay depict Charlemagne's adventures in the Holy Land and Constantinople, Stuckey's texts depict the emperor's exploits in Spain, underpinning the contemporary feeling that battles against the Moslem foe during the Reconquista increasingly qualified as Crusading activity. Stuckey attempts to show that the Chanson de Roland expresses a proto-crusading ethos, which becomes successively stronger in the Pseudo-Turpin and Pfaffe Konrad's Rolandslied. However, during this comparison, he sometimes underplays the crusading ethos in the French epic, seeming to overlook the role of Archbishop Turpin as an "ideal combination of monk and warrior" (p. 144). Indeed, one could argue that instead of the Roland story being considerably transformed by later texts, its potential as crusading material (confirmed by the Baligant episode not mentioned by Stuckey) is more explicitly realised by later authors. It is also a pity that there is no reference to Mark Chinca's study of the Rolandslied in Roland and Charlemagne in Europe: Essays on the Reception and Transformation of a Legend, edited by Karen Pratt (London, 1996), 127-47.

Finally, Anne Latowsky, "Charlemagne as Pilgrim? Requests for Relics in the Descriptio qualiter and the Voyage of Charlemagne," compares and contrasts two very different texts presenting Charlemagne acquiring relics of the passion in the East, an area he never visited in reality. The Descriptio is a pious translatio narrative, authenticating relics supposedly brought from Constantinople by Charlemagne and given to St Denis by Charles the Bald. However, the Voyage, Latowsky argues, is primarily humorous, a parody of the Descriptio, dismantling its discourse of Christian imperial relic exchange and its depiction of God's preference for Charles over the Emperor of Constantinople.

This volume is on the whole very carefully presented with extensive bibliographical endnotes and a useful index, although there is sadly no general bibliography. It would have benefited from slightly more rigorous editing, as noted above (see also 'la [instead of le] péché, p.16; camisa [instead of camisia], p. xv. For a literary specialist, perhaps the least successful aspect is the tendency to use the Song of Roland without reference to recent secondary literature on the political context of the French epic, especially Sharon Kinoshita's Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (Philadelphia, 2006) and Peter Haidu's, The Subject of Violence: The Song of Roland and the Birth of the Modern State (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1993). Thus the parallel Callahan draws between Ademar's depiction of Saracens, and those in the Oxford Roland oversimplifies their more nuanced representation in the literary text, as Kinoshita shows. However, the literary scholar will gain much from the interesting analyses of the historical documentary evidence, which are the strength of this collection.

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Karen Pratt

King's College London