Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Legends of Charlemagne's city - Introduction

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Part of the series "Legends of Charlemagne's City." The introduction to these translations states that they are from stories collected by "a learned professor from Aix-la-Chapelle."

LEGENDS OF CHARLEMAGNE’S CITY.

NO. I.

Charlemagne’s memory is as fresh among the people of Aix-la-Chapelle, as poor old George the Third’s among the peasantry around Windsor. “Kaiser Karl” he is still, as though no other Emperor Charles had succeeded him. In rude old images and ruder lays, in the household traditions of the people, in the ancient monkish chronicles, his lofty and majestic presence still overawes us.

Even among the stalwart Franks his stature is gigantic, his strength unsurpassed. He is girt with a broad sword no other arm can wield, a wrought baldric supports the mighty horn which calls his followers in battle and in chace; he wears a crown no other head could fill, even could it bear the weight.

Fierce and terrible as he is in the fury of battle, in peace he is friendly and hospitable, reverent to learned and holy men, loving to his beautiful Fastrada and his children, a frank and cheery comrade with his Paladins, a father to his people.

Rather than fatten on the spoils of the husbandman, he sells the produce of the royal farms, while wealth torn from Italian cities and Germanic tribes goes to build churches, and found cities and colleges.

All this lives in the memory of the people, while they forget the wrongs of hapless Ermendgard, and the fire and sword with which he spread the Gospel of peace.

Romance and tradition have been busy with his name.

The magic ring, torn from the radiant tresses of the beloved dead, his favourite daughter’s love, punishment, and pardon, the stately apparition passing over the Rhenish vineyards in years of plenty, and blessing them with shadowy hand,—all these have got interwoven with the dry, hard facts of history. Nor have his faithful Paladins been forgotten, though strangely transformed. These rough old Frankish champions, tall and brawny, with unshorn beard and flowing tawny or flaxen locks, the cherished badge of the freeman, have passed from the domain of history, into the hands of the minstrels of the Middle Ages. These gentry have tried hard to make them out fantastical knights errant, but, despite all gauds of poetry, something of the old barbaric flavour lingers round them still.

Most beautiful of all the stories in which they figure is that of Roland’s ill-fated love, the lie,—discovered too late,—the fair young girl’s life given to God, in the dreary cloister,—the champion’s given for his king on the bloody field of battle.

Then, as a contrast, come the secret courtships and happy marriage of smooth-tongued Master Eginhard, the learned secretary. Scholars and soldiers are not the only heroes of these old tales. Holy bishops, miraculously conveyed on pious errands, and monks, too wily for the devil himself, duly make their appearance.

A learned professor from Aix-la-Chapelle has thought it worth his while to collect such of these legends as refer to his native city, and has added some historical facts to his sketches. Simple, racy, and vigorous in style, there is much of the charm of old ballad poetry about them. In the hope of retaining at least a part of this charm, some have been imitated rather than translated, and others pretty faithfully rendered.

THE FOUNDING OF AIX-LA-CHAPELLE.

Charlemagne delighted in hunting. It was his solace and recreation in the few hours he could snatch from the manifold and weary cares of state. “The chase,” he used to say, “keeps up a man’s mettle and spirit, and makes him active and stalwart in body. It is the school where the champion fits himself for war, for, in one as in the other, he must have his wits about him when danger threatens, and thus know how to extricate himself.”

A favourite hunting-ground of his was the tract of land where Aix-la-Chapelle now stands. In those days there stretched, far and wide, forests of lofty oaks and beeches, with here and there tangled thickets, mixed with groves of saplings and evergreen pine woods. In other parts, marsh and moorland, and patches of stunted underwood, lay between hills whose shelving sides were beautiful with silver-stemmed birch trees, and glades of the greenest sward. The hand of man had left no trace in those wilds; their only inmates were the wolf and the crested boar, the stag and the roebuck, the badger and the fox, and all these dwelt within them in multitudes. Hence it was no wonder that Charlemagne often hunted there with a great following.

In one of these gatherings the dogs started a deer and a doe. The terrified creatures bounded through the forest side by side, the hounds in full cry on their track, and the Emperor pressing close behind. Suddenly burst on his sight an old and mouldering castle, called the ruins of Ephen, stately even in decay, and mirrored in the clear waters of a lake. On nearing the ruin, Charlemagne reined in his horse, when suddenly the noble steed shied, the ground gave way, and he sank past the fetlocks. Wild with terror, he plunged and struggled till he found safe footing. Charlemagne could not make out what had come over his charger, nor what was amiss with the ground, till he saw, a few paces off, a cloud of steam rising from the earth in the very spot the horse had just trampled. Then almost instantly a boiling spring bubbled up and overflowed. He sprang from the saddle, fell on his knees, and thanked God for the benefit He had granted him by the means of a brute beast. For, then and there, it flashed on his mind how these waters would be a blessing to men from generation unto generation. He then resolved to build a hunting seat on the site of the ruined fortress, and to erect a palace and a city near at hand. He also vowed to raise hard by his palace a stately temple in honour of the ever blessed Mother of God.

Then he rose from his knees, and wound his horn, admiring Haroun Al Raschid’s precious gift. His followers knew the mighty blast, and came flocking at his call, and the Emperor and his Paladins, down to the meanest of his train, rejoiced together at the good gift God had sent them.

Prompt and decisive in all things, Charlemagne no time in carrying out his plans. The hunting seat rose from the ruins of Ephen, and the foundations of a kingly palace, and of our Blessed Lady’s church, were laid without delay. Builders came from far and near, and a city was begun. Houses rose up on all sides. The desolate moorland vanished, at least in the neighbourhood of the new city. A canal carried off the superfluous waters, and while draining the ground, brought the warm medicinal stream to the bath-house Charlemagne had built. His Frankish warriors resorted thither in numbers to enjoy the luxury of the bath, or to test its healing powers, when worn out with toil or sickness.

Tradition still points to the very spot where Charlemagne used to bathe with his Paladins.

Thus was Aix-la Chapelle founded.