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Among the many Carolingian coin types, there is a large denar minted at Aix-laChapelle. The legend reads; “XC:VINCIT:XC:REGNAT – KAROLUS MAGNUS IMPERAT (Christ triumphs, Christ reigns, Charles the Great rules)”1 In the postCarolingian world this may have represented the ideal society. A religious structure associated with the Christian savior and a political structure that featured the greatest of all Christian kings – Charlemagne. It is also an indication that Charlemagne has taken

the place of ‘Christ the Emperor.’2 The previous tradition had been XC: VINCIT : XC:

REGNAT : XC: IMPERAT (Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat). It represented an ordered and hierarchical society that was ruled and defended by warrior kings. This society and particularly its kings represented important examples for twelfthand thirteenth-century society. Using history and memory for inspiration, many writers of this later period saw Charlemagne as more than an important predecessor to the Capetian Kings and German Emperors. Twelfth-century culture created, in the representation of Charlemagne, an image of ideal Christian kingship. Charlemagne not only represented an ideal ruler; he also represented a legitimizing factor for later kings and emperors. The Capetians viewed Charlemagne as the progenitor of Francia itself.

Sergio Bertelli. The King’s Body. Trans. R. Burr Litchfield. (The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvanian, 2001). p. 16.

Ernst Kantorowicz, Laudes Regiae: A Study in Liturgical Acclamations and Medieval Ruler Worship, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1958), p. 3.

Any perceived or actual familial connection to Charlemagne helped to legitimize kingship throughout the high and late Middle Ages.

The construction of an ideal image of Charlemagne went beyond that of a heroic and chivalric warrior who leads his armies to victory over the forces of paganism. Within the corpus of twelfth- and thirteenth-century literary genres and political treatises, there are profound statements of kingship. There is an indication from historical and literary sources that certain attributes of kings were expected by society in general. Charlemagne filled this role as clearly as he did the role as an ideal crusader. This image is not separate from the crusader image, but simply another element of the broader image and representation. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century kings and important nobles definitely played a major role in the crusades.

Ideals about kingship involving Charlemagne are not entirely inventions of the twelfth-century. As early as the ninth- and tenth-centuries, various writers used Charlemagne as an example of proper and ideal kingship. This was certainly a prevalent theme throughout and after the Carolingian period. In the words of Jean Dunbabin, the soul of the Carolingian political structure was the king. As defender of his people, he led the Franks into battle against their external enemies; as judge, he laid down the norms of justice, created peace between disputants, punished the wicked and avenged the weak; as Christian leader, he cared for the widows and orphans, he gave alms to the poor; as a shield of the church, he purged it from error, upheld its authority, protected its means and subsistence. At least according to the portraits presented by his courtiers, Charlemagne fulfilled all these expectations…3 This image of Charlemagne as the model of kingship was adopted and enhanced by later twelfth- and thirteenth-century authors.

Jean Dunbabin, France in the Making 843-11180, 2nd ed., (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 5.

The post-Carolingian world of medieval society continually looked to the Carolingian past as an example and precedent for kingship. In particular, the image of Charlemagne is most often evoked in sources that concern ideal and legitimate kings.

The more like Charlemagne, the better. If kings could connect their family line to Charlemagne, they tended to exploit it. A prime example of this concept is the nobles who helped lead the First Crusade – Robert of Flanders and Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin already discussed in chapter two as well as later Capetian rulers like Philip Augustus and Charles I of Anjou. In particular, “Charles was to make much of the name he shared with Charlemagne; it seemed a matter of good omen to one so devoted to the acquisition of great titles.”4 Even the powerful King Philip II went to great lengths to connect his family line to that of Charlemagne. His mother Adela as well as his first wife Hainault was able to claim descent from Charlemagne.5

–  –  –

Medieval kings of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century exercised considerable power.

In particular, the process of centralization in England and France allowed the monarchy to increase its power. Although this process varied considerably in both regions, by the twelfth-century both had powerful monarchs. Henry II in England exercised considerable influence on the continent as well as in Britain. Philip II helped to make France one of the most powerful kingdoms in the High Middle Ages. However, it would be several centuries before a monarch could exercise actual control over an entire realm. There Jean Dunbabin, Charles I of Anjou: Power, Kingship and State-Making in Thirteenth-Century Europe, (London and New York, Longman Publishing, 1998), p. 10.

Jim Bradbury, Philip Augustus: King of France 1180-1223, (London and New York, Longman Publishing, 1998), p. 220.

were indeed limits to the power of medieval kings. This period witnessed the development of common law, when Emperors and kings were often elected. It was the time of Magna Carta and a time when nobles and vassals often held as much power as their kings. Of course, it was also the time of powerful kings such Philip II who attempted to extend the monarchy’s power and remove the nobility from the process of ‘making kings’ by institutionalizing the law of ‘primogeniture.’ It was also a time when kings were viewed as religious figures. One important example is the idea of the ‘royal touch.’ It was only in the twelfth-century, not the Early Middle Ages when monarchs became more closely identified as religious figures with the ability to heal or cure disease with a simple touch. Kings were often anointed in imitation of Old Testament figures and there was a significant development into what Kantorowicz called a political theology.6 Based on a number of literary and historical sources, the figure of Charlemagne plays a critical role in the process of defining medieval kingship.

The literary sources, especially epic, are ideal examples for exploring the image of kingship in the twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries. On a broad level, the sources are clear indicators as what an ideal king is, and what a ‘bad’ king is. However, there is a great deal more to be found in these sources as well. For example, the authors spend a great deal of time dealing with relationship between the nobility and the monarchy and between the monarchy and the church. The king’s relationship with his vassals is as critical aspect of virtually all epics. Another feature that is prevalent in most twelfthcentury epics is a concern for ‘law’ or more appropriately ‘custom.’ One last aspect is the personal qualities of the king or emperor, whether it is physical strength or religious Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 42-78.

piety. Taken together these characteristics help define the image of proper kingship in the twelfth-century.

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As is the case with examining issues and themes such as holy war, crusade, chivalry, and knighthood, one of the best literary sources of the early twelfth-century for kingship is the Song of Roland. The image of the ideal king, emperor, and feudal lord is not a late development in the epic cycle of the chanson de geste. The portrait of Charles as the ideal Christian king is prevalent from the beginning of the legend. In Roland, the poet begins with “Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes,”(Charles the king, our great emperor).7 The poet immediately makes clear the status of Charlemagne and emphasizes a role that the legend of Charlemagne would continue to occupy in the popular imagination of Western Christians for centuries to come.

The elements of kingship, feudal order, law and social relationships are quite complex in the Roland story. Charlemagne is presented as “the ideal king,” but the status of the monarch’s position is under constant threat from both internal and external forces.8 The internal problems stem from the feud between Ganelon and Roland and Ganelon’s eventual betrayal. The external problem is the threat of the Muslim army. The stability of the feudal order depends largely upon Charlemagne’s actions. In one sense, the poem is, as Morrissey argues, an exploration of “what threats and challenges can royal sovereignty as embodied by Charlemagne, here shown essentially having no defects, bear The Song of Roland, Burgess, p. 164.

Becher, Charlemagne, 139.

and overcome? In short, what are the limits of the social order?”9 This is accurate, but perhaps somewhat incomplete. The story is also the presentation of a chivalric ideal in the character of Charlemagne. This chivalric ideal is an attribute that becomes institutionalized by the twelfth-century and a significant aspect of the representation of medieval kingship.

Charlemagne’s strength as a warrior and crusader seems virtually limitless. The poet continually emphasizes this aspect before, during, and after the major battle scenes.

He says of Charlemagne;

–  –  –

Equally impressive is Charlemagne’s political command as a king. Since the poem is essentially a product of the twelfth-century, it is important to view Charlemagne’s Morrissey, Charlemagne and France, 46.

La Chanson de Roland, Durfournet, p. 272, lines 2737-2740.

La Chanson de Roland, Durfournet, p. 264, lines 2609-2611.

character not so much as the successful eighth- and ninth-century king and emperor, but as a twelfth-century king.12 As such, he should be seen as both a political and religious figure.13 As a political figure, Charlemagne, the king, acts as arbiter and judge when the dispute between Ganelon and Roland surfaces in the beginning of the poem. Quite often in France during the period in which Roland was written, kings took up the role of resolving disputes among feuding vassals.14 As a religious figure, Charlemagne rules by divine right and is endowed with special powers by God himself. The poet indicates throughout the poem the inclination that Charlemagne, beyond any other character, has a

favored relationship with God. This is fairly explicit throughout the poem:

–  –  –

The ‘royal mystique’ that manifests itself in literary sources such as Roland and other epics is part of a long tradition that dates at least to the Carolingian period. Charlemagne enjoys more than just a ‘favored relationship’ with God, he has divine protection. He is The version of the Roland story being used here is the Oxford Chanson de Roland, which is interpreted by most scholars as a copy of an earlier twelfth-century manuscript.

Percy Ernst Schramm, Der Konig von Frankreich: Das Wesen der Monarchie vom 9. Sum 16.

Jahrhundert, 2nd ed., vol. 1, (Darmstadt, 1960), pp. 146-158.

Myers. Medieval Kingship, p.188.

La Chanson de Roland, Durfournet, p. 258, lines 2525-2530.

actually in contact with God through his dreams, much like many Old Testament prophets. Kings were often viewed on the same plane as Old Testament figures such as Kings David and Solomon. The culture of the twelfth-century continued and enhanced this tradition and sources such as Roland and other epics are obvious examples of this principle.

Another reflection in Roland is the extent to which the king depends on the nobility. Charlemagne, although king and emperor, relies heavily on his nobles for both political and military support. He draws significant strength and power from his vassals, in particular, the twelve peers. Charlemagne does not make all the important decisions by himself and he does not exercise absolute power.

–  –  –

From a royal perspective, this may be interpreted as a kind of weakness. He takes poor advice from his council. Roland, who fears another poor decision in a vain attempt to make peace, boldly addresses Charlemagne;

A voz Franceis un cunseill en presistes.

Loerent vos alques de legerie;

The Song of Roland, Burgess, Penguin Books, p. 150, lines 163-169.

–  –  –

In addition, on two separate occasions, he trusts Marsile, one of the enemy leaders, when the Saracen leader has such a propensity to betray Charlemagne’s trust, and he does not sense Ganelon’s treachery until it is too late. Consequently, the Christian army is not properly prepared when they are brutally attacked. Charlemagne is, in effect, blind to the fact that Marsile is untrustworthy. Treacherous infidels have obviously deceived Charlemagne and the poet’s sympathies lie with him and the Christian army. However, it seems unavoidable not to put some of the blame for the tragic outcome on the shoulders of great king himself. In this context, the poet exposes that Charlemagne has real weaknesses. Does this diminish his status as an ideal king? This veiled critique of the king may also be a clue as to the intended audience of the poem was noble rather than royal. Charlemagne, the king, discounts the advice of his nobles and the result is deadly for the Christian army.

The importance of the law and legal procedures or perhaps more accurately ‘custom’ is also a theme explored by the poet at the end of the story. Charlemagne does not have sufficient royal authority when it comes to Ganelon’s trial. Although his The Song of Roland, Burgess, Penguin Books, p. 170, lines 205-210.

judgment and position carries considerable weight, the ultimate decision is left to a council to which Charlemagne yields. Again, this may be a clue the intended audience of the poem. Customarily, the nobility would have been involved in the judgment of Ganelon. After defeating the pagan army, Charlemagne presents Ganelon for trial.

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