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The Crowning of Louis The Couronnement de Louis is an anonymous work that dates from about 1130and is the earliest epic from the William of Orange cycle. The story focuses on William’s defense of Louis, the son of Charlemagne, and on William’s heroic battles against the Saracens. Charlemagne is only a minor character in this story. He is quite old and can no longer live as he has in the past. However, he still serves as the model of authority and kingship.
On the surface, the Crowning appears to be a retelling of the coronation of Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious (778-840). However, a closer look at the contemporary events surrounding the Capetian monarchy in the mid-twelfth-century indicates a possible ulterior parallel. In the Crowning, Louis is crowned by Charlemagne when he is only 15. The historical Louis the Pious was crowned by his father when he For a more in-depth discussion of this see; Claude Thiry, “Charlemagne dans l’oeuvre des Grands Rhétoriquers,” In Charlemagne et l’épopée romane. pp. 261-270.
was 36. However, in 1131, Louis VI crowned his son (the future King Louis VII) who was only 11 at the time. The character of Louis in the Crowning is really a composite of Louis VII and Louis the Pious. He conjures images of both at various times throughout the story.29 Tradition and history in the twelfth-century remembered Louis the Pious as a weak king, which is preserved in the poem's character, but the coronation scene is more closely related to that of Louis VII. There are even parallels between Charlemagne and Louis VI (or Louis the Fat). Louis the Fat had a reputation for great prowess in battle and for bringing law and order to an unstable kingdom just as Charlemagne had once done.
He destroyed the robber barons of the day and with the help of Abbot Suger, secured the crown for his son. In addition, “at the age of forty-six he (Louis VI) grew too fat to mount a horse.”30 In the story, Charlemagne is described as “old and frail [and]…unable to ride.”31 In the Crowning, Charlemagne dies five years after the crowning of Louis.
King Louis VI reigned for six years after having his son crowned. There are clearly intentional historical parallels in the story. These parallels are important evidence concerning twelfth-century views on kingship, the current Capetian monarchs (Louis VII), and Charlemagne. From the beginning, through to the end, the story serves as a lesson in kingship.
There are traditional themes throughout the story, such as knightly heroism, Christian-Saracen conflict, and the defense of the Church. However, this story is Nirmal Dass, ed. and trans., The Crowning of Louis, (North Carolina and London, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2003), p.7.
Dass, The Crowning of Louis, 7.
The Crowning of Louis. trans. Nirmal Dass, p. 25, line 365.
considerably more political than most of the chansons.32 The concept of legitimate kingship is prevalent throughout the source. William fights Saracens abroad and defends King Louis at home against rebellious vassals. “The glow of crusading remains, in other words, as William shifts enemies to fight against the misguided men who have failed to see the need for legitimate kingship.”33 There are a number of themes associated with kingship with the poem. Themes such as divine right, hereditary succession, transition of power, legitimacy, and broadly, various models of kingship are contained in the poem.
Within the story, the reader is given three models of kingship. Charlemagne represents the ideal monarch. He is legitimate, a skilled knight, defender of the Church, and just to all his people. William also represents the ideal, but lacks a major component – legitimacy. Louis, the rightful successor to Charlemagne, is a contrast to Charlemagne (and William) in virtually every aspect. He is weak, ineffective, and lacks the personality and judgment necessary for a king. There is an exploration of themes such as feudal order, primogeniture, and legitimacy as well. William has all the right skills and attributes to be a king, but would never think of usurping Louis’s power. William is much better suited than Louis to lead and be king, but he does not expect to be king, he understands, and accepts his role.
At the very beginning of the story, the author emphasizes the reputation and stature
of Charlemagne and leaves little question as to his past exploits and ability as king:
Li mieldre reis ot a nom Charlemagne;
Cil aleva volentiers dolce France;
Deus ne fist terre qui envers lui n’apende;
For more on this see Jean Frappier, Les Chansons de geste du cycle de Guillaume d’Orange, 2 vols., (Paris, 1965).
Kaeuper, Violence and Chivalry, 241.
Charlemagne as in most chansons de geste is favored by God. All past and future kings are measured against him. The most immediate comparison in the story, is that of Charlemagne’s son Louis, when the author makes it clear that he is no Charlemagne.
Charlemagne is offended by the meek nature of his son especially near the beginning of the poem when Charlemagne offers him the crown. He says;
Charlemagne goes on to tell him that only if he is worthy, should he take the crown and make it his own. Louis’s timid nature takes over and he does not immediately reach for the crown. Charlemagne is enraged and says;
“Ha! las, dist il, com or sui engeigniez!
Delez ma fame se colcha paltoniers, Qui engendra cest coart eritier.
Ja en sa vie n’iert de mei avanciez.
Quin fereit rei, ce sereit granz pechiez..
Le Couronnement de Louis, ed. E. Langlois, (Paris, Société des Anciens Textes Francais, Librairie de Firmin Didot, 1888), p. 2, lines 14-19.
The Crowning of Louis, trans. Nirmal Dass, p. 15, lines 14-19.
Le Couronnement de Louis, ed. E. Langlois, p. 5, lines 72-73.
The Crowning of Louis, trans. Nirmal Dass, p. 17, lines 72-73.
The issue of ‘inherited character’ is critical to this passage. Louis is initially depicted as an outsider because he is ‘not like Charlemagne.’ If he is not like Charlemagne, he must be someone else’s son and good for the monastery, where all bastards should go.
However, a quick sequence of events follows that eventually places Louis on the throne.
Arneis of Orleans (really a traitor) agrees to become king until Louis is ready. William, the hero of the story, who has just returned from a hunt enters the church and immediately sees through the treachery. He kills Arneis and places the crown on Louis – the heir of Charlemagne – the rightful king. William, as essentially the ‘king-maker' of the story, preserves and ensures the rightful succession of the monarchy. The idea that his son does not have the right attributes is insulting to Charlemagne and perhaps to a certain extent the author. However, his weakness does not seem to disqualify him as the rightful and legitimate king. And as Kaeuper argues, “… whatever the problems, whatever the personal qualities of the current king, the working principle of legitimate Le Couronnement de Louis, ed. E. Langlois, p. 7, lines 90-98.
kingship is the essential key to an ordered society.”39 Charlemagne, Louis, and William all seem to understand this important concept.
Once the issues of Louis’s coronation are dealt with, Charlemagne seeks to educate and train Louis in the art of ruling. He instructs Louis in a number of different areas such as the how to treat widows and orphans as well as to have reverence for the Church.
Charlemagne’s character says;
There are specific duties that a king must carry out, in order to be a proper and successful monarch. The poetic and rhetorical device here is an important element. By having Charlemagne, the most respected Frankish Monarch, instruct Louis in the art of kingship, he is also instructing the reader or audience as well. As with the case of Roland, the Kaeuper, Violence and Chivalry, p. 241.
Le Couronnement de Louis, ed. E. Langlois, p. 9-10, lines 150-159.
The Crowning of Louis, trans. Nirmal Dass, p. 19, lines 150-159.
intended audience is an important issue. It may have in fact been a non-royal audience.
However, it also may have included the ruling class of twelfth-century Capetian France.
The character of Louis in the poem is comparable to most Capetian kings of the twelfthcentury, since he was to be crowned while his father was still alive.
There are two important aspects of Charlemagne’s statement. First, serving the church is obviously an important part of a king’s duty. Second, honoring his knights is also a critical element. These two are recurring themes throughout all the sources and clear indicators of the twelfth-century expectations of their monarchs There are a number of other themes that are prevalent in Charlemagne’s instruction to Louis. Others that seem to be of particular importance are concern for the treatment of the poor, and issues of justice (and law). Charlemagne says to Louis,
The author has Charlemagne indicate the presence of a divine influence over the man who rules. However, he is quick to emphasize that this position comes with a great deal of responsibility. The author makes it quite clear from the beginning that having the proper and rightful king is about honoring and protecting France. It was the twelfthcentury Capetians who essentially had to ‘invent France,’ but it was also left to them to defend it as well.44 This was the king’s job. The poet writes,
Honor and legitimacy are prevalent themes in the Crowning of Louis and particularly in this passage. The rightful king has certain attributes and he is expected to behave in a certain manner. France as both the state and institution of the monarchy is at stake. For the poet, Charlemagne exemplifies ideal kingship; he is both legitimate and capable. The The Crowning of Louis. trans. Nirmal Dass, p. 20, lines 175-185.
See Jean Dunbabin, France in the Making: 843-1180, 2nd ed., (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Le Couronnement de Louis, ed. E. Langlois, p. 2, lines 20-26.
The Crowning of Louis, trans. Nirmal Dass, p. 15-16.
case of Louis allows the author to contrast the ‘ideal’ (Charlemagne) with the legitimate, but ‘less than ideal’ (Louis). In the end, a clear picture of ideal kingship emerges in the memory of Charlemagne.
Willehalm Ideas and images of kingship also went well beyond the scope of French literary and chronicle works of the period. Charlemagne was claimed by most of the West as king or emperor and as an ideal monarch. Outside France, the most developed legend and pseudo—history of Charlemagne came from the Holy Roman Empire. The Germans adopted and adapted many of poems and sources of the French tradition. In the German interpretation, Charlemagne (or Karl) was as much German as he was French, if not more so. German Emperors and nobility were often as obsessed with the legend of Charlemagne as much as their French counterparts. It was Emperor Otto III (r. 980who at the close of the first Christian millenium had the tomb of Charlemagne opened, only to report that Charlemagne was sitting upright on his throne while his beard and finger nails continued to grow. It was Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who pushed for Charlemagne’s canonization in 1165. In addition, “it was customary [for much of the High and Late Middle Ages] for German rulers to be twice crowned, first as kings of Germany at Charlemagne’s city of Aachen and then as Holy Roman Emperors in Rome, where, each time, the Pope bestowed the crown ‘anew.’47 As a result, it is not surprising that many historical and literary sources that celebrate the legend of Charlemagne also view him as an ideal king and emperor. One important source that exemplifies this is the story of Willehalm.
Charles E. Passage, ed. & trans. The Middle High German Poem of Willihalm by Wolfram of Eschenbach, (New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977), p. 7.
Willehalm was written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the early thirteenth-century.
In the story, a Saracen woman converts to Christianity to be married to Willehalm – the story’s hero and main character, which causes a number of problems. The family of Giburc, the Saracen woman, seeks revenge for the insult, the main consequence of which is a devastating religious war where the Saracens are eventually defeated, but not before both sides suffer severe losses. The source and inspiration for Willehalm is a French poem of the William of Orange cycle. The original source, La Bataille d’Aliscans, dates to the mid- to late-twelfth-century. Most scholars date Willehalm between 1212 and 1220.48 The story of Willehalm may at first seem completely inappropriate for this analysis, since Charlemagne is not even a character in the story. However, even though Charlemagne is not a character, his name and legacy still appears many times in the poem. Jeffrey Ashcroft points out that, “Willehalm contains seventy explicit references to persons or named objects which occur in the epic tradition of Charlemagne, …and fourteen further references to the historical Charlemagne.”49 What then is the context of his appearance? His role is as a basis for comparison. He is the image and ‘model’ by which all leaders and knights are judged. He is, again, the very model of knight,
crusader, and king. When Wolfram describes Willehalm, he writes:
Some scholars have suggested a later date, but most maintain that the second decade of the thirteenthcentury is most likely.
Jeffrey Ashcroft. “’dicke Karel wart genant’: Konrad’s Rolandslied and the Transmission of Authority and Legitimacy in Wolfram’s Willehalm,” In Wolfram’s ‘Willehalm’ Fifteen Essays, ed. Martin H. Jones and Timothy McFarland. (New York: Camden House, 2002), p. 21.
Apart from the Emperor Charlemagne no such nobler Frenchman was ever born.”51 Willehalm is not the king, but he is the main figure of the story and the military leader of the Christians. Comparisons between Charlemagne and Willehalm (both depicted as Frenchman here), as well as between Charlemagne and King Louis occur throughout the poem.
Even the battles in which Willehalm fights are compared to Charlemagne’s