1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Charlemagne
CHARLEMAGNE [Charles the Great] (c. 742–814), Roman emperor, and king of the Franks, was the elder son of Pippin the Short, king of the Franks, and Bertha, or Bertrada, daughter of Charibert, count of Laon. The place of his birth is unknown and its date uncertain, although some authorities give it as the 2nd of April 742; doubts have been cast upon his legitimacy, and it is just possible that the marriage of Pippin and Bertha took place subsequent to the birth of their elder son. When Pippin was crowned king of the Franks at St Denis on the 28th of July 754 by Pope Stephen II., Charles, and his brother Carloman were anointed by the pope as a sign of their kingly rank. The rough surroundings of the Frankish court were unfavourable to the acquisition of learning, and Charles grew up almost ignorant of letters, but hardy in body and skilled in the use of weapons.
In 761 he accompanied his father on a campaign in Aquitaine, and in 763 undertook the government of several counties. In 768 Pippin divided his dominions between his two sons, and on his death soon afterwards Charles became the ruler of the northern portion of the Frankish kingdom, and was crowned at Noyon on the 9th of October 768. Bad feeling had existed for some time between Charles and Carloman, and when Charles early in 769 was called upon to suppress a rising in Aquitaine, his brother refused to afford him any assistance. This rebellion, however, was easily crushed, its leader, the Aquitainian duke Hunold, was made prisoner, and his territory more closely attached to the Frankish kingdom. About this time Bertha, having effected a temporary reconciliation between her sons, overcame the repugnance with which Pope Stephen III. regarded an alliance between Frank and Lombard, and brought about a marriage between Charles and a daughter of Desiderius, king of the Lombards. Charles had previously contracted a union, probably of an irregular nature, with a Frankish lady named Himiltrude, who had borne him a son Pippin, the “Hunchback.” The peace with the Lombards, in which the Bavarians as allies of Desiderius joined, was, however, soon broken. Charles thereupon repudiated his Lombard wife (Bertha or Desiderata) and married in 771 a princess of the Alamanni named Hildegarde. Carloman died in December 771, and Charles was at once recognized at Corbeny as sole king of the Franks. Carloman’s widow Gerberga had fled to the protection of the Lombard king, who espoused her cause and requested the new pope, Adrian I., to recognize her two sons as the lawful Frankish kings. Adrian, between whom and the Lombards other causes of quarrel existed, refused to assent to this demand, and when Desiderius invaded the papal territories he appealed to the Frankish king for help. Charles, who was at the moment engaged in his first Saxon campaign, expostulated with Desiderius; but when such mild measures proved useless he led his forces across the Alps in 773. Gerberga and her children were delivered up and disappear from history; the siege of Pavia was undertaken; and at Easter 774 the king left the seat of war and visited Rome, where he was received with great respect.
During his stay in the city Charles renewed the donation which his father Pippin had made to the papacy in 754 or 756. This transaction has given rise to much discussion as to its trustworthiness and the extent of its operation. Our only authority, a passage in the Liber Pontificalis, describes the gift as including the whole of Italy and Corsica, except the lands north of the Po, Calabria and the city of Naples. The vast extent of this donation, which, moreover, included territories not owning Charles’s authority, and the fact that the king did not execute, or apparently attempt to execute, its provisions, has caused many scholars to look upon the passage as a forgery; but the better opinion would appear to be that it is genuine, or at least has a genuine basis. Various explanations have been suggested. The area of the grant may have been enlarged by later interpolations; or it may have dealt with property rather than with sovereignty, and have only referred to estates claimed by the pope in the territories named; or it is possible that Charles may have actually intended to establish an extensive papal kingdom in Italy, but was released from his promise by Adrian when the pope saw no chance of its fulfilment. Another supposition is that the author of the Liber Pontificalis gives the papal interpretation of a grant that had been expressed by Pippin in ambiguous terms; and this view is supported by the history of the subsequent controversy between king and pope.
Returning to the scene of hostilities, Charles witnessed the capitulation of Pavia in June 774, and the capture of Desiderius, who was sent into a monastery. He now took the title "king of the Lombards," to which he added the dignity of "Patrician of the Romans," which had been granted to his father. Adalgis, the son of Desiderius, who was residing at Constantinople, hoped the emperor Leo IV. would assist him in recovering his father's kingdom; but a coalition formed for this purpose was ineffectual, and a rising led by his ally Rothgaud, duke of Friuli, was easily crushed by Charles in 776. In 777 the king was visited at Paderborn by three Saracen chiefs who implored his aid against Abd-ar-Rahman, the caliph of Cordova, and promised some Spanish cities in return for help. Seizing this opportunity to extend his influence Charles marched into Spain in 778 and took Pampeluna, but meeting with some checks decided to return. As the Frankish forces were defiling through the passes of the Pyrenees they were attacked by the Wascones (probably Basques), and the rearguard of the army was almost annihilated. It was useless to attempt to avenge this disaster, which occurred on the 15th of August 778, for the enemy disappeared as quickly as he came; the incident has passed from the domain of history into that of legend and romance, being associated by tradition with the pass of Roncesvalles. Among the slain was one Hruodland, or Roland, margrave of the Breton march, whose death gave rise to the Chanson de Roland (see Roland, Legend of).
Charles now sought to increase his authority in Italy, where Frankish counts were set over various districts, and where Hildebrand, duke of Spoleto, appears to have recognized his overlordship. In 780 he was again in the peninsula, and at Mantua issued an important capitulary which increased the authority of the Lombard bishops, relieved freemen who under stress of famine had sold themselves into servitude, and condemned abuses of the system of vassalage. At the same time commerce was encouraged by the abolition of unauthorized tolls and by an improvement of the coinage; while the sale of arms to hostile peoples, and the trade in Christian slaves were forbidden. Proceeding to Rome, the king appears to have come to some arrangement with Adrian about the donation of 774. At Easter 781, Carloman, his second son by Hildegarde, was renamed Pippin and crowned king of Italy by Pope Adrian, and his youngest son Louis was crowned king of Aquitaine; but no mention was made at the time of his eldest son Charles, who was doubtless intended to be king of the Franks. In 783 the king, having lost his wife Hildegarde, married Fastrada, the daughter of a Frankish count named Radolf; and in the same year his mother Bertha died. The emperor Constantine VI. was at this time exhibiting some interest in Italian affairs, and Adalgis the Lombard was still residing at his court; so Charles sought to avert danger from this quarter by consenting in 781 to a marriage between Constantine and his own daughter Rothrude. In 786 the entreaties of the pope and the hostile attitude of Arichis II., duke of Benevento, a son-in-law of Desiderius, called the king again into Italy. Arichis submitted without a struggle, though the basis of Frankish authority in his duchy was far from secure; but in conjunction with Adalgis he sought aid from Constantinople. His plans were ended by his death in 787, and although the empress Irene, the real ruler of the eastern empire, broke off the projected marriage between her son and Rothrude, she appears to have given very little assistance to Adalgis, whose attack on Italy was easily repulsed. During this visit Charles had presented certain towns to Adrian, but an estrangement soon arose between king and pope over the claim of Charles to confirm the election to the archbishopric of Ravenna, and it was accentuated by Adrian's objection to the establishment by Charles of Grimoald III. as duke of Benevento, in succession to his father Arichis.
These journeys and campaigns, however, were but interludes in the long and stubborn struggle between Charles and the Saxons, which began in 772 and ended in 804 with the incorporation of Saxony in the Carolingian empire (see Saxony). This contest, in which the king himself took a very active part, brought the Franks into collision with the Wiltzi, a tribe dwelling east of the Elbe, who in 789 was reduced to dependence. A similar sequence of events took place in southern Germany. Tassilo III., duke of the Bavarians, who had on several occasions adopted a line of conduct inconsistent with his allegiance to Charles, was deposed in 788 and his duchy placed under the rule of Gerold, a brother-in-law of Charles, to be governed on the Frankish system (see Bavaria). Having thus taken upon himself the control of Bavaria, Charles felt himself responsible for protecting its eastern frontier, which had long been menaced by the Avars, a people inhabiting the region now known as Hungary. He accordingly ravaged their country in 791 at the head of an army containing Saxon, Frisian, Bavarian and Alamannian warriors, which penetrated as far as the Raab; and he spent the following year in Bavaria preparing for a second campaign against them, the conduct of which, however, he was compelled by further trouble in Saxony to entrust to his son king Pippin, and to Eric, margrave of Friuli. These deputies succeeded in 795 and 796 in taking possession of the vast treasures of the Avars, which were distributed by the king with lavish generosity to churches, courtiers and friends. A conspiracy against Charles, which his friend and biographer Einhard alleges was provoked by the cruelties of Queen Fastrada, was suppressed without difficulty in 792, and its leader, the king's illegitimate son Pippin, was confined in a monastery till his death in 811. Fastrada died in August 794, when Charles took for his fourth wife an Alamannian lady named Liutgarde.
The continuous interest taken by the king in ecclesiastical affairs was shown at the synod of Frankfort, over which he presided in 794. It was on his initiative that this synod condemned the heresy of adoptianism and the worship of images, which had been restored in 787 by the second council of Nicaea; and at the same time that council was declared to have been superfluous. This policy caused a further breach with Pope Adrian; but when Adrian died in December 795, his successor, Leo III., in notifying his elevation to the king, sent him the keys of St Peter's grave and the banner of the city, and asked Charles to send an envoy to receive his oath of fidelity. There is no doubt that Leo recognized Charles as sovereign of Rome. He was the first pope to date his acts according to the years of the Frankish monarchy, and a mosaic of the time in the Lateran palace represents St Peter bestowing the banners upon Charles as a token of temporal supremacy, while the coinage issued by the pope bears witness to the same idea. Leo soon had occasion to invoke the aid of his protector. In 799, after he had been attacked and maltreated in the streets of Rome during a procession, he escaped to the king at Paderborn, and Charles sent him back to Italy escorted by some of his most trusted servants. Taking the same journey himself shortly afterwards, the king reached Rome in 800 for the purpose (as he declared) of restoring discipline in the church. His authority was undisputed; and after Leo had cleared himself by an oath of certain charges made against him, Charles restored the pope and banished his leading opponents.
The great event of this visit took place on the succeeding Christmas Day, when Charles on rising from prayer in St Peter's was crowned by Leo and proclaimed emperor and augustus amid the acclamations of the crowd. This act can hardly have been unpremeditated, and some doubt has been cast upon the statement which Einhard attributes to Charles, that he would not have entered the building had he known of the intention of Leo. He accepted the dignity at any rate without demur, and there seems little doubt that the question of assuming, or obtaining, this title had previously been discussed. His policy had been steadily leading up to this position, which was rather the emblem of the power he already held than an extension of the area of his authority. It is probable therefore that Charles either considered the coronation premature, as he was hoping to obtain the assent of the eastern empire to this step, or that, from fear of evils which he foresaw from the claim of the pope to crown the emperor, he wished to crown himself. All the evidence tends to show that it was the time or manner of the act rather than the act itself which aroused his temporary displeasure. Contemporary accounts lay stress upon the fact that as there was then no emperor, Constantinople being under the rule of Irene, it seemed good to Leo and his counsellors and the "rest of the Christian people" to choose Charles, already ruler of Rome, to fill the vacant office. However doubtful such conjectures concerning his intentions may be, it is certain that immediately after his coronation Charles sought to establish friendly relations with Constantinople, and even suggested a marriage between himself and Irene, as he had again become a widower in 800. The deposition and death of the empress foiled this plan; and after a desultory warfare in Italy between the two empires, negotiations were recommenced which in 810 led to an arrangement between Charles and the eastern emperor, Nicephorus I. The death of Nicephorus and the accession of Michael I. did not interfere with the relations, and in 812 an embassy from Constantinople arrived at Aix-la-Chapelle, when Charles was acknowledged as emperor, and in return agreed to cede Venice and Dalmatia to Michael.
Increasing years and accumulating responsibilities now caused the emperor to alter somewhat his manner of life. No longer leading his armies in person he entrusted the direction of campaigns in various parts of his empire to his sons and other lieutenants, and from his favourite residence at Aix watched their progress with a keen and sustained interest. In 802 he ordered that a new oath of fidelity to him as emperor should be taken by all his subjects over twelve years of age. In 804 he was visited by Pope Leo, who returned to Rome laden with gifts. Before his coronation as emperor, Charles had entered into communications with the caliph of Bagdad, Harun-al-Rashid, probably in order to protect the eastern Christians, and in 801 he had received an embassy and presents from Harun. In the same year the patriarch of Jerusalem sent him the keys of the Holy Sepulchre; and in 807 Harun not only sent further gifts, but appears to have confirmed the emperor's rights in Jerusalem, which, however, probably amounted to no more than an undefined protectorate over the Christians in that part of the world. While thus extending his influence even into Asia, there was scarcely any part of Europe where the power of Charles did not make itself felt. He had not visited Spain since the disaster of Roncesvalles, but he continued to take a lively interest in the affairs of that country. In 798 he had concluded an alliance with Alphonso II., king of the Asturias, and a series of campaigns mainly under the leadership of King Louis resulted in the establishment of the "Spanish march," a district between the Pyrenees and the Ebro stretching from Pampeluna to Barcelona, as a defence against the Saracens. In 799 the Balearic Islands had been handed over to Charles, and a long warfare was carried on both by sea and land between Frank and Saracen until 810, when peace was made between the emperor and El-Hakem, the emir of Cordova. Italy was equally the scene of continuous fighting. Grimoald of Benevento rebelled against his overlord; the possession of Venice and Dalmatia was disputed by the two empires; and Istria was brought into subjection.
With England the emperor had already entered into relations, and at one time a marriage was proposed between his son Charles and a daughter of Offa, king of the Mercians. English exiles were welcomed at his court; he was mainly instrumental in restoring Eardwulf to the throne of Northumbria in 809; and Einhard includes the Scots within the sphere of his influence. In eastern Europe the Avars had owned themselves completely under his power in 805; campaigns against the Czechs in 805 and 806 had met with some success, and about the same time the land of the Sorbs was ravaged; while at the western extremity of the continent the Breton nobles had done homage to Charles at Tours in 800. Thus the emperor's dominions now stretched from the Eider to the Ebro, and from the Atlantic to the Elbe, the Saale and the Raab, and they also included the greater part of Italy; while even beyond these bounds he exercised an acknowledged but shadowy authority. In 806 Charles arranged a division of his territories among his three legitimate sons, but this arrangement came to nothing owing to the death of Pippin in 810, and of the younger Charles in the following year. Charles then named his remaining son Louis as his successor; and at his father's command Louis took the crown from the altar and placed it upon his own head. This ceremony took place at Aix on the 11th of September 813. In 808 the Frankish authority over the Obotrites was interfered with by Gudrod (Godfrey), king of the Danes, who ravaged the Frisian coasts and spoke boastfully of leading his troops to Aix. To ward off these attacks Charles took a warm interest in the building of a fleet, which he reviewed in 811; but by this time Gudrod had been killed, and his successor Hemming made peace with the emperor.
In 811 Charles made his will, which shows that he contemplated the possibility of abdication. The bulk of his possessions were left to the twenty-one metropolitan churches of his dominions, and the remainder to his children, his servants and the poor. In his last years he passed most of his days at Aix, though he had sufficient energy to take the field for a short time during the Danish War. Early in 814 he was attacked by a fever which he sought to subdue by fasting; but pleurisy supervened, and after partaking of the communion, he died on the 28th of January 814, and on the same day his body was buried in the church of St Mary at Aix. In the year 1000 his tomb was opened by the emperor Otto III., but the account that Otto found the body upright upon a throne with a golden crown on the head and holding a golden sceptre in the hands, is generally regarded as legendary. The tomb was again opened by the emperor Frederick I. in 1165, when the remains were removed from a marble sarcophagus and placed in a wooden coffin. Fifty years later they were transferred by order of the emperor Frederick II. to a splendid shrine, in which the relics are still exhibited once in every six years. The sarcophagus in which the body originally lay may still be seen at Aix, and other relics of the great emperor are in the imperial treasury at Vienna. In 1165 Charles was canonized by the antipope Paschal III. at the instance of the emperor Frederick I., and Louis XI. of France gave strict orders that the feast of the saint should be observed.
The personal appearance of Charles is thus described by Einhard: — "Big and robust in frame, he was tall, but not excessively so, measuring about seven of his own feet in height. His eyes were large and lustrous, his nose rather long and his countenance bright and cheerful." He had a commanding presence, a clear but somewhat feeble voice, and in later life became rather corpulent. His health was uniformly good, owing perhaps to his moderation in eating and drinking, and to his love for hunting and swimming. He was an affectionate father, and loved to pass his time in the company of his children, to whose education he paid the closest attention. His sons were trained for war and the chase, and his daughters instructed in the spinning of wool and other feminine arts. His ideas of sexual morality were primitive. Many concubines are spoken of, he had several illegitimate children, and the morals of his daughters were very loose. He was a regular observer of religious rites, took great pains to secure decorum in the services of the church, and was generous in almsgiving both within his empire and without. He reformed the Frankish liturgy, and brought singers from Rome to improve the services of the church. He had considerable knowledge of theology, took a prominent part in the theological controversies of the time, and was responsible for the addition of the clause filioque to the Nicene Creed. The most attractive feature of his character, however, was his love of learning. In addition to his native tongue he could read Latin and understood Greek, but he was unable to write, and Einhard gives an account of his futile efforts to learn this art in later life. He loved the reading of histories and astronomy, and by questioning travellers gained some knowledge of distant parts of the earth. He attended lectures on grammar, and his favourite work was St Augustine's De civitate Dei. He caused Frankish sagas to be collected, began a grammar of his native tongue, and spent some of his last hours in correcting a text of the Vulgate. He delighted in the society of scholars — Alcuin, Angilbert, Paul the Lombard, Peter of Pisa and others, and in this company the trappings of rank were laid aside and the emperor was known simply as David. Under his patronage Alcuin organized the school of the palace, where the royal children were taught in the company of others, and founded a school at Tours which became the model for many other establishments. Charles was unwearying in his efforts to improve the education of clergy and laity, and in 789 ordered that schools should be established in every diocese. The atmosphere of these schools was strictly ecclesiastical and the questions discussed by the scholars were often puerile, but the greatness of the educational work of Charles will not be doubted when one considers the rude condition of Frankish society half a century before. The main work of the Carolingian renaissance was to restore Latin to its position as a literary language, and to reintroduce a correct system of spelling and an improved handwriting. The manuscripts of the time are accurate and artistic, copies of valuable books were made and by careful collation the texts were purified.
Charles was not a great warrior. His victories were won rather by the power of organization, which he possessed in a marked degree, and he was eager to seize ideas and prompt in their execution. He erected a stone bridge with wooden piers across the Rhine at Mainz, and began a canal between the Altmühl and the Rednitz to connect the Rhine and the Danube, but this work was not finished. He built palaces at Aix (his favourite residence), Nijmwegen and Ingelheim, and erected the church of St Mary at Aix, modelled on that of St Vitalis at Ravenna and adorned with columns and mosaics brought from the same city. He loved the simple dress and manners of the Franks, and on two occasions only did he assume the more stately attire of a Roman noble. The administrative system of Charles in church and state was largely personal, and he brought to the work an untiring industry, and a marvellous grasp of detail. He admonished the pope, appointed the bishops, watched over the morals and work of the clergy, and took an active part in the deliberations of church synods; he founded bishoprics and monasteries, was lavish in his gifts to ecclesiastical foundations, and chose bishops and abbots for administrative work. As the real founder of the ecclesiastical state, he must be held mainly responsible for the evils which resulted from the policy of the church in exalting the ecclesiastical over the secular authority.
In secular affairs Charles abolished the office of duke, placed counts over districts smaller than the former duchies, and supervised their government by means of missi dominici, officials responsible to himself alone. Marches were formed on all the borders of the empire, and the exigencies of military service led to the growth of a system of land-tenure which contained the germ of feudalism. The assemblies of the people gradually changed their character under his rule. No longer did the nation come together to direct and govern, but the emperor summoned his people to assent to his acts. Taking a lively interest in commerce and agriculture, Charles issued various regulations for the organization of the one and the improvement of the other. He introduced a new system of weights and measures, which he ordered should be used throughout his kingdom, and took steps to reform the coinage. He was a voluminous lawgiver. Without abolishing the customary law of the German tribes, which is said to have been committed to writing by his orders, he added to it by means of capitularies, and thus introduced certain Christian principles and customs, and some degree of uniformity.
The extent and glamour of his empire exercised a potent spell on western Europe. The aim of the greatest of his successors was to restore it to its pristine position and influence, while many of the French rulers made its re-establishment the goal of their policy. Otto the Great to a considerable extent succeeded; Louis XIV. referred frequently to the empire of Charlemagne; and Napoleon regarded him as his prototype and predecessor. The empire of Charles, however, was not lasting. In spite of his own wonderful genius the seeds of weakness were sown in his lifetime. The church was too powerful, an incipient feudalism was present, and there was no real bond of union between the different races that acknowledged his authority. All the vigilance of the emperor could not restrain the dishonesty and the cupidity of his servants, and no sooner was the strong hand of their ruler removed than they began to acquire territorial power for themselves.
The Charlemagne Legends
Innumerable legends soon gathered round the memory of the great emperor. He was represented as a warrior performing superhuman feats, as a ruler dispensing perfect justice, and even as a martyr suffering for the faith. It was confidently believed towards the close of the 10th century that he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and, like many other great rulers, it was reported that he was only sleeping to awake in the hour of his country's need. We know from Einhard (Vita Karoli, cap. xxix.) that the Frankish heroic ballads were drawn up in writing by Charlemagne's order, and it may be accepted as certain that he was himself the subject of many such during his lifetime. The legendary element crept even into the Latin panegyrics produced by the court poets. Before the end of the 9th century a monk of St Gall drew up a chronicle De gestis Karoli Magni, which was based partly on oral tradition, received from an old soldier named Adalbert, who had served in Charlemagne's army. This recital contains various fabulous incidents. The author relates a conversation between Otkar the Frank (Ogier the Dane) and the Lombard king Desiderius (Didier) on the walls of Pavia in view of Charlemagne's advancing army. To Didier's repeated question "Is this the emperor?" Otkar continues to answer "Not yet," adding at last "When thou shalt see the fields bristling with an iron harvest, and the Po and the Ticino swollen with sea-floods, inundating the walls of the city with iron billows, then shall Karl be nigh at hand." This episode, which bears the marks of popular heroic poetry, may well be the substance of a lost Carolingian cantilena.
The legendary Charlemagne and his warriors were endowed with the great deeds of earlier kings and heroes of the Frankish kingdom, for the romancers were not troubled by considerations of chronology. National traditions extending over centuries were grouped round Charlemagne, his father Pippin, and his son Louis. The history of Charles Martel especially was absorbed in the Charlemagne legend. But if Charles's name was associated with the heroism of his predecessors he was credited with equal readiness with the weaknesses of his successors. In the earlier chansons de geste he is invariably a majestic figure and represents within limitations the grandeur of the historic Charles. But in the histories of the wars with his vassals he is often little more than a tyrannical dotard, who is made to submit to gross insult. This picture of affairs is drawn from later times, and the sympathies of the poet are generally with the rebels against the monarchy. Historical tradition was already dim when the hypothetical and much discussed cantilenae, which may be taken to have formed the repository of the national legends from the 8th to the 10th century, were succeeded in the 11th and the early 12th centuries by the chansons de geste. The early poems of the cycle sometimes contain curious information on the Frankish methods in war, in council and in judicial procedure, which had no parallels in contemporary institutions. The account in the Chanson de Roland of the trial of Ganelon after the battle of Roncesvalles must have been adopted almost intact from earlier poets, and provides a striking example of the value of the chansons de geste to the historian of manners and customs. In general, however, the trouvère depicted the feeling and manners of his own time.
Charlemagne's wars in Italy, Spain and Saxony formed part of the common epic material, and there are references to his wars against the Slavs; but especially he remained in the popular mind as the great champion of Christianity against the creed of Mahomet, and even his Norman and Saxon enemies became Saracens in current legend. He is the Christian emperor directly inspired by angels; his sword Joyeuse contained the point of the lance used in the Passion; his standard was Romaine, the banner of St Peter, which, as the oriflamme of Saint Denis, was later to be borne in battle before the kings of France; and in 1164 Charles was canonized at the desire of the emperor Frederick I. Barbarossa by the anti-pope Pascal III. This gave him no real claim to saintship, but his festival was observed in some places until comparatively recent times. Charlemagne was endowed with the good and bad qualities of the epic king, and as in the case of Agamemnon and Arthur, his exploits paled beside those of his chief warriors. These were not originally known as the twelve peers famous in later Carolingian romance. The twelve peers were in the first instance the companions in arms of Roland in the Teutonic sense. The idea of the paladins forming an association corresponding to the Arthurian Round Table first appears in the romance of Fierabras. The lists of them are very various, but all include the names of Roland and Oliver. The chief heroes who fought Charlemagne's battles were Roland; Ganelon, afterwards the traitor; Turpin, the fighting archbishop of Reims; Duke Naimes of Bavaria, the wise counsellor who is always on the side of justice; Ogier the Dane, the hero of a whole series of romances; and Guillaume of Toulouse, the defender of Narbonne. Gradually most of the chansons de geste were attached to the name of Charlemagne, whose poetical history falls into three cycles: — the geste du roi, relating his wars and the personal history of himself and his family; the southern cycle, of which Guillaume de Toulouse is the central figure; and the feudal epic, dealing with the revolts of the barons against the emperor, the rebels being invariably connected by the trouvères with the family of Doon de Mayence (q.v.).
The earliest poems of the cycle are naturally the closest to historical truth. The central point of the geste du roi is the 11th-century Chanson de Roland (see Roland, Legend of), one of the greatest of medieval poems. Strangely enough the defeat of Roncesvalles, which so deeply impressed the popular mind, has not a corresponding importance in real history. But it chanced to find as its exponent a poet whose genius established a model for his successors, and definitely fixed the type of later heroic poems. The other early chansons to which reference is made in Roland — Aspremont, Enfances Ogier, Guiteclin, Balan, relating to Charlemagne's wars in Italy and Saxony — are not preserved in their original form, and only the first in an early recension. Basin or Carl et Élégast (preserved in Dutch and Icelandic), the Voyage de Charlemagne à Jerusalem and Le Couronnement Looys also belong to the heroic period. The purely fictitious and romantic tales added to the personal history of Charlemagne and his warriors in the 13th century are inferior in manner, and belong to the decadence of romance. The old tales, very much distorted in the 15th-century prose versions, were to undergo still further degradation in 18th-century compilations.
According to Berte aus grans piés, in the 13th-century remaniement of the Brabantine trouvère Adenès li Rois, Charlemagne was the son of Pippin and of Berte, the daughter of Flore and Blanchefleur, king and queen of Hungary. The tale bears marks of high antiquity, and presents one of the few incidents in the French cycle which may be referred to a mythic origin. On the night of Berte's marriage a slave, Margiste, is substituted for her, and reigns in her place for nine years, at the expiration of which Blanchefleur exposes the deception; whereupon Berte is restored from her refuge in the forest to her rightful place as queen. Mainet (12th century) and the kindred poems in German and Italian are perhaps based on the adventures of Charles Martel, who after his father's death had to flee to the Ardennes. They relate that, after the death of his parents, Charles was driven by the machinations of the two sons of Margiste to take refuge in Spain, where he accomplished his enfances (youthful exploits) with the Mussulman king Galafre under the feigned name of Mainet. He delivered Rome from the besieging Saracens, and returned to France in triumph. But his wife Galienne, daughter of Galafre, whom he had converted to the Christian faith, died on her way to rejoin him. Charlemagne then made an expedition to Italy (Enfances Ogier in the Venetian Charlemagne, and the first part of the Chevalerie Ogier de Dannemarche by Raimbert of Paris, 12th century) to raise the siege of Rome, which was besieged by the Saracen emir Corsuble. He crossed the Alps under the guidance of a white hart, miraculously sent to assist the passage of the army. Aspremont (12th century) describes a fictitious campaign against the Saracen King Agolant in Calabria, and is chiefly devoted to the enfances of Roland. The wars of Charlemagne with his vassals are described in Girart de Roussillon, Renaus de Montauban, recounting the deeds of the four sons of Aymon, Huon de Bordeaux, and in the latter part of the Chevalerie Ogier, which belong properly to the cycle connected with Doon of Mayence.
The account of the pilgrimage of Charlemagne and his twelve paladins to the Holy Sepulchre must in its first form have been earlier than the Crusades, as the patriarch asks the emperor to free Spain, not the Holy Land, from the Saracens. The legend probably originated in a desire to authenticate the relics in the abbey of Saint Denis, supposed to have been brought to Aix by Charlemagne, and is preserved in a 12th-century romance, Le Voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople. This journey forms the subject of a window in the cathedral of Chartres, and there was originally a similar one at Saint-Denis. On the way home Charles and his paladins visited the emperor Hugon at Constantinople, where they indulged in a series of gabs which they were made to carry out. Galien, a favourite 15th-century romance, was attached to this episode, for Galien was the son of the amours of Oliver with Jacqueline, Hugon's daughter. The traditions of Charlemagne's fights with the Norsemen (Norois, Noreins) are preserved in Aiquin (12th century), which describes the emperor's reconquest of Armorica from the "Saracen" king Aiquin, and a disaster at Cézembre as terrible in its way as those of Roncesvalles and Aliscans. La destruction de Rome is a 13th-century version of the older chanson of the emir Balan, who collected an army in Spain and sailed to Rome. The defenders were overpowered and the city destroyed before the advent of Charlemagne, who, however, avenged the disaster by a great battle in Spain. The romance of Fierabras (13th century) was one of the most popular in the 15th century, and by later additions came to have pretensions to be a complete history of Charlemagne. The first part represents an episode in Spain three years before Roncesvalles, in which Oliver defeats the Saracen giant Fierabras in single combat, and converts him. The hero of the second part is Gui de Bourgogne, who recovers the relics of the Passion, lost in the siege of Rome. Otinel (13th century) is also pure fiction. L'Entrée en Espagne, preserved in a 14th-century Italian compilation, relates the beginning of the Spanish War, the siege of Pampeluna, and the legendary combat of Roland with Ferragus. Charlemagne's march on Saragossa, and the capture of Huesca, Barcelona and Girone, gave rise to La Prise de Pampelune (14th century, based on a lost chanson); and Gui de Bourgogne (12th century) tells how the children of the barons, after appointing Guy as king of France, set out to find and rescue their fathers, who are represented as having been fighting in Spain for twenty-seven years. The Chanson de Roland relates the historic defeat of Roncesvalles on the 15th of August 778, and forms the very crown of the whole Carolingian legend. The two 13th-century romances, Gaidon, by Herbert Leduc de Dammartin, and Anséis de Carthage, contain a purely fictitious account of the end of the war in Spain, and of the establishment of a Frankish kingdom under the rule of Anséis. Charlemagne was recalled from Spain by the news of the outbreak of the Saxons. The contest between Charlemagne and Widukind (Guiteclin) offered abundant epic material. Unfortunately the original Guiteclin is lost, but the legend is preserved in Les Saisnes (c. 1300) of Jehan Bodel, which is largely occupied by the loves of Baudouin and Sibille, the wife of Guiteclin. The adventures of Blanchefleur, wife of Charlemagne, form a variation of the common tale of the innocent wife falsely accused, and are told in Macaire and in the extant fragments of La Reine Sibille (14th century). After the conquest of the Saracens and the Saxons, the defeat of the Northmen, and the suppression of the feudal revolts, the emperor abdicated in favour of his son Louis (Le Couronnement Looys, 12th century). Charles's harangue to his son is in the best tradition of epic romance. The memory of Roncesvalles haunts him on his death-bed, and at the moment of death he has a vision of Roland.
The mythic element is practically lacking in the French legends, but in Germany some part of the Odin myth was associated with Charles's name. The constellation of the Great Bear, generally associated with Odin, is Karlswagen in German, and Charles's Wain in English. According to tradition in Hesse, he awaits resurrection, probably symbolic of the triumph of the sun over winter, within the Gudensberg (Hill of Odin). Bavarian tradition asserts that he is seated in the Untersberg in a chair, as in his tomb at Aix-la-Chapelle. His white beard goes on growing, and when it has thrice encircled the stone table before him the end of the world will come; or, according to another version, Charles will arise and after fighting a great battle on the plain of Wals will reign over a new Germany. There were medieval chroniclers who did not fear to assert that Charles rose from the dead to take part in the Crusades. In the MS. Annales S. Stephani Frisingenses (15th century), which formerly belonged to the abbey of Weihenstephan, and is now at Munich, the childhood of Charlemagne is practically the same as that of many mythic heroes. This work, generally known as the chronicle of Weihenstephan, gives among other legends a curious history of the emperor's passion for a dead woman, caused by a charm given to Charles by a serpent to whom he had rendered justice. The charm was finally dropped into a well at Aix, which thenceforward became Charles's favourite residence. The story of Roland's birth from the union of Charles with his sister Gilles, also found in German and Scandinavian versions, has abundant parallels in mythology, and was probably transferred from mythology to Charlemagne.
The Latin chronicle, wrongly ascribed to Turpin (Tilpinus), bishop of Reims from 753 to 800, was in reality later than the earlier poems of the French cycle, and the first properly authenticated mention of it is in 1165. Its primary object was to authenticate the relics of St James at Compostella. Alberic Trium Fontium, a monk of the Cistercian monastery of Trois Fontanes in the diocese of Châlons, embodied much poetical fiction in his chronicle (c. 1249). A large section of the Chronique rimée (c. 1243) of Philippe Mousket is devoted to Charlemagne's exploits. At the beginning of the 14th century Girard of Amiens made a dull compilation known as Charlemagne from the chansons de gests, authentic history and the pseudo-Turpin. La Conqueste que fit le grand roi Charlemaigne es Espaignes (pr. 1486) is the same work as the prose compilation of Fierabras (pr. 1478), and Caxton's Lyf of Charles the Grete (1485).
The Charlemagne legend was fully developed in Italy, where it was to have later a great poetic development at the hands of Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso. There are two important Italian compilations, MS. XIII. of the library of St Mark, Venice (c. 1200), and the Reali di Francia (c. 1400) of a Florentine writer, Andrea da Barberino (b. 1370), edited by G. Vandelli (Bologna, 1892). The six books of this work are rivalled in importance by the ten branches of the Norse Karlamagnus saga, written under the reign of Haakon V. This forms a consecutive legendary history of Charles, and is apparently based on earlier versions of the French Charlemagne poems than those which we possess. It thus furnishes a guide to the older forms of stories, and moreover preserves the substance of others which have not survived in their French form. A popular abridgment, the Keiser Karl Magnus Krönike (pr. Malmö, 1534), drawn up in Danish, serves in some cases to complete the earlier work. The 2000 lines of the German Kaiserchronik on the history of Charlemagne belong to the first half of the 12th century, and were perhaps the work of Conrad, the poet of the Ruolantes Liet. The German poet known as the Stricker used the same sources as the author of the chronicle of Weihenstephan for his Karl (c. 1230). The earliest important Spanish version was the Chronica Hispaniae (c. 1284) of Rodrigo de Toledo.The French and Norman-French chansons circulated as freely in England as in France, and it was therefore not until the period of decadence that English versions were made. The English metrical romances of Charlemagne are: — Rowlandes Song (15th century); The Taill of Rauf Coilyear (c. 1475, pr. by R. Lekpreuik, St Andrews, 1472), apparently original; Sir Ferumbras (c. 1380) and the Sowdone of Babylone (c. 1400) from an early version of Fierabras; a fragmentary Roland and Vernagu (Ferragus); two versions of Otuel (Otinel); and a Sege of Melayne (c. 1390), forming a prologue to Otinel unknown in French.
- A remnant of the popular poetry contemporary with Charlemagne and written in the vernacular has been thought to be discernible under its Latin translation in the description of a siege during Charlemagne's war against the Saracens, known as the "Fragment from the Hague" (Pertz, Script. iii. pp. 708-710).
- The words douze pairs were anglicized in a variety of forms ranging from douzepers to dosepers. The word even occurred as a singular in the metrical romance of Octavian: — "Ferst they sent out a doseper." At the beginning of the 13th century there existed a cour des pairs which exercised judicial functions and dated possibly from the 11th century, but their prerogatives at the beginning of the 14th century appear to have been mainly ceremonial and decorative. In 1257 the twelve peers were the chiefs of the great feudal provinces, the dukes of Normandy, Burgundy and Aquitaine, the counts of Toulouse, Champagne and Flanders, and six spiritual peers, the archbishop of Reims, the bishops of Laon, Châlons-sur-Marne, Beauvais, Langres and Noyon. (See Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v. "Par.").
- See J. Flach, Le Compagnonnage dans les chansons de geste (Paris, 1891).
- For clerical accounts of Charles's voyage to the Holy Land see the Chronicon (c. 968) of Benedict, a monk of St André, and Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus clavum et coronam Domini … detulerit, by an 11th-century writer.