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The history of Charlemagne has been analyzed from a number of different perspectives. He has been the subject of a number of biographies and histories, but most have tended to focus on his military exploits and his coronation. As a result, there is only minimal discussion of his legend. To some extent, the legend of Charlemagne is an

Gabrielle Spiegel, The Past as Text; The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore:

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

entirely different subject than that of his real life. Historians have long been interested in the development and impact of the legend of Charlemagne in medieval Europe. As early as the 1890’s historians were analyzing the myths and legends associated with Charlemagne. Among the most prominent was Gerhard Rauschen who, in his Die Legende Karls des Grossen im 11. und 12. Jahrhundert,4 analyzed the Descriptio, Vita Karoli Magni and various other texts associated with the Charlemagne canonization.

Rauschen was one of the first to put the development of the legend into an historical context.

In the area of Charlemagne legend, some of the most important work came in the mid-twentieth century with the work of Robert Folz. One of the seminal books on the subject is his Le Souvenir et la légende de Charlemagne dans l’empire germanique médiéval.5 This is an exhaustive study of the memory of Charlemagne in the German Empire, drawing on literary and religious manifestations in sources from the ninth to the early sixteenth-century. The memory of Charlemagne is a combination of both history and legend and has connections to imperial as well as religious ideas. The study is somewhat limited in that it does not consider the whole of Europe but rather just the German case. Folz does not focus on the literary tradition, but annals, biographies, and various other sources and argues for a continuity. In his Etudes sur le Culte liturgique de Charlemagne dans les églises de l’Empire,6 Folz expands his work to other parts of Gerhard Rauschen, ed. Die Legende Karls des Grossen im 11. Und 12. Jahrhundert, (Gesellschaft für rheinische Geschichtskunde, 7. Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1890).

Robert Folz, Le souvenir et la légende de Charlemagne dans l’empire germanique médiévale, (l’Univ. de Dijon, 7. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1950; rpt. Geneva: Droz, 1973).

Robert Folz, Etudes sur le Culte liturgique de Charlemagne dans les églises de l’Empire, (Fac. Lett. Univ. of Stasbourg, Série bleu, 115. Stassburg: Impr. Des Dernières Nouvelles de Straasbourg, 1951; rpt. Geneva: Droz, 1973).

Europe and argues that by the end of the twelfth century, an extensive “cult” of Charlemagne existed in France, Germany and the Low Countries. After his canonization in 1165 by the Anti-Pope Pascal III, a number of prayers, masses, and feasts developed in honor of Charlemagne. I agree with Folz’s idea that the memory and legend of Charlemagne represented an illustration of Christian virtue. However, Folz sees the legends in Germany as more localized than the French tradition, whereas I would argue that they are a part of the broader context of Western culture.

The work of Folz was followed by others such as Karl-Ernst Geith’s Carolus Magnus: Studien zur Darstellung des Grossen in der deutschen Literatur des 12. und 13 Jahrhunderts.7 Geith analyzes a number of sources in which Charlemagne appears, such as the Rolandslied and the Kaiserchronik and such themes as Karl und David and Kanonisation. He discusses previous work done on the subject. This study is a fairly comprehensive analysis of the medieval German literature in which Charlemagne is an essential figure. According to Geith, the German sources almost always depict Charlemagne in a positive light. This is not always the case in the French and later Italian traditions. But again, this study is limited in scope as it only considers the German case.

The image or representation of Charlemagne is certainly dynamic and varies from region to region. The overly positive portrayal of the former Emperor in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries described by Geith did not always translate to other regions.

According to Karl Bender, many of the authors of the Franco-Italian texts chose to adopt Karl-Ernst Geith, Carolus Magnus: Studien zur Darstellung Karls des Großen in der deutschen Literatur des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts, (Munich and Bern: Francke,Bibliotheca Germanica, 19. 1977).

a more negative model of Charlemagne.8 A more recent study, Julianne Vitullo’s The Chivalric Epic in Medieval Italy, confirms Bender’s argument.9 Vitullo demonstrates that later (thirteenth to fifteenth century) epic works adopted in Italy often had a less than ideal image of Charlemagne. Henning Krause argued that the social ideology of the rising bourgeoisie and the unique political situation in Italy characterized by such elements as the ability to vote the Emperor out of power dictated the manner in which the representation of Charlemagne was imported. 10 For the most part, although not exclusively, the negative imagery was a later, post-twelfth century, phenomenon.

Scholars have also used the image of Charlemagne or the example of Charlemagne in studies involving various topics such as kingship, religion, and the rise of court culture.

Stephen Jaeger in his work the Origins of Courtliness11 argues to a certain extent that courtly ideals were invented by medieval bishops for entertainment. In the work, Jaeger uses the precedents of Carolingian and Ottonian culture extensively. The image of Charlemagne and his court culture was idealized in the later period just as his supposed crusading exploits were.

Of course, it is not a novel idea to suggest that the sources are a more accurate reflection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century culture than that of their Carolingian subject matter. In fact, Richard Kaeuper has recently pointed out that, “Scholars have long Karl Bender, “Les métamorphoses de la royauté de Charlemagne dans les premières épopées francoitaliennes,” Cultura Neolatina 21 (1961), 164-74.

Julianne Vitullo, The Chivalric Epic in Medieval Italy (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000).

Henninng Kraus, “Aspects de l’histoire poetique de Charlemagne en Italie,” In Charlemagne et l’épopée romane, pp. 103-23.

Stephen Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals 939Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985).

recognized that these twelfth-century poems reflect society and issues of their time of composition, not those of the eighth- or ninth-century setting in which the action takes place.”12 It should not be surprising that Charlemagne plays an important role in the literary development of a period so far removed from his own time, since he represented such an iconic position in French culture and history.

Many scholars looking at the image of Charlemagne have concentrated on the French literary corpus of the high and late Middle Ages. One area of the literary corpus that received particular attention is the chanson de geste (songs of heroic deeds). With nearly 100 surviving poems such as the chanson de Roland, chanson de Jerusalem, chanson d’ Aspremont in which there is a crusading theme, this genre represents one of the most popular aspects of French medieval literature. In many of these works, Charlemagne is a principal character and comes to embody the ideal chivalric values of twelfth century knighthood.

In particular, the origins of the genre have fascinated and puzzled scholars for more than a century. As early as 1939, Grace Frank succinctly summarized the interests in the

chansons de geste:

Who shall say what inspired the first author of a chanson de geste with the idea of writing a historical romance in decasyllabic laisses? His ultimate inspiration may have been a pilgrimage or a crusade, a Latin poem or a saint’s life in the vernacular, or merely an intense desire to tell a stirring tale. His proximate source may have been a song or a story, a monk, an inscription, a church chronicle, or some combination of these. All we know is that, whether his hero was Charlemagne or Roland or William, there can be no doubt that his poem soon became widely popular and much imitated. And if this poem were the ‘original’ of our Chanson de Roland – as it may well have been – one can readily understand why!13 Richard Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

p. 231.

Grace Frank, “Historical Elements in the Chanson de Geste” in Speculum 14 (1936) p. 212.

Frank’s analysis of the interest in chanson de geste in general and the song of Roland in particular reflects the questions historians and literary scholars were interested in pursuing. Although the field has expanded greatly, modern-day scholars are still debating many of the same issues. In particular, the debate concerning origins and meaning is still prevalent today.

The study of the legend of Charlemagne in the chanson de geste may be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century with the work of Gaston Paris. The question of origins tended to be the first question asked by many nineteenth century historians. After all, understanding the birth of the chanson went a long way in completing one’s understanding of one’s own origins and that of the French State. Discovering the birth of the national consciousness was the goal of scholars all over Europe. They worked in the midst of an environment that embraced romanticism and nationalism in a way not entirely understood by today’s scholars.14 Trapped in a world obsessed with nationalism and the origins of the modern state, scholars such as Gaston Paris utilized methodologies that would answer the most pressing concerns of the day such as national history, national origin and most importantly identity. In fact, Robert Morrissey contends that “Paris fashions a specifically French solution: he argues the Romance-language culture derives from both Germanic and Provencal cultures but rises above them and contains the seed of a French identity.”15 Paris and other scholars working in the midst of intense nationalist movements saw in the figure of Charlemagne as the creation of the nation. In Michael Zink, Medieval French Literature: An Introduction, trans. Jeff Rider, (New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995), p. 25.

Morrissey, 289.

addition, it was through poetry such as the chanson de geste that the “collective” and “national” identity manifested itself.

In his Histoire poétique de Charlemagne, (1865), Paris proposed that a long oral tradition preceded the first written source of the chanson de geste. He believed that there existed oral epics called cantilènes that were more or less a contemporary of the military events they described. The cantilènes were numerous and fairly short and sewn together creating the chanson de geste. In addition, they were composed by bards who followed courts and followed the Scandinavian and Celtic customs that found their way into early medieval culture. Another scholar, Léon Gautier, agreed with many of the ideas put forth by Paris. However, in his Epopées Françaises, Gautier argued that the original cantilenae had been composed in German rather than Romance.16 In 1884, the Italian scholar Pio Rajna agreed that there may have been a German origin since ‘Germanic’ epics did exist during the Carolingian period and that since no cantilène is saved. He also maintained that the stories were not really ‘popular’ since they reflected the ideals of the warrior aristocracy.17 The first to challenge Gaston Paris’ thesis was Joseph Bédier. Bédier maintained that the chansons did not derive directly from the events narrated. Bédier believed that the epics had been invented by the trouvères of the High Middle Ages. He argues that they were first invented by monks to advertise pilgrimage sites. The stories were used to bolster the reputations of various sanctuaries and pilgrimage sites that housed famous relics. Bédier’s advocates have since maintained that there were no real epics before the Urban T. Holmes, Jr, A History o f Old French Literature from the Origins to 1300, (New York: F.S.

Crofts & CO., 1938), p. 67.

P. Rajna. Le origini dell’epopea francese (Florence, Sansoni, 1884).

year 1000. In addition, they deny any connection between the oral tradition and actual historical events.

The focus for these scholars is mainly the literary value of the poems, which they thought to be more important than the historical background revealed by Paris and his successors.

In the 1920’s, Ferdinand Lot18 defended the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation by attacking Bédier’s ‘individualism’ and by asserting “that the chansons de geste preceded and created the cult of epic heroes linked to sanctuaries on the pilgrimage routes rather than succeeding [them]”19 Ramon Menéndez Pidál20 also defended the ‘traditionalist’ position by concentrating on the oral component of the chanson. He argued that the chanson “was not born form the imagination or the pen of its author in a definitive, perfect, and unchangeable state” and that “there was no authentic or correct text.21 To Pidál, each version or manuscript represented a performance and showed how the genre transformed generation to generation.

Another group of scholars shifted the emphasis of the debate about origins to the potential impact of early medieval Latin literature. The ‘Latinists’ maintain that in order to discover the antecedents of the chanson de geste, an analysis of the pre-existing Latin corpus is necessary. This group of scholars credits the Latin Literature, “with keeping alive the memory of historical events and, together with its classical models, providing a Ferdinand Lot, “Etudes sur les Légendes épiques françaises IV: Le Cycle de Guillaume d’Orange,” Romania 53 (1927): 449-73.

Zink, 28.

Ramon Menéndez Pidál, La Chanson de Roland y el neotradicionalismo (origenes de la épica románica) (Madrid: Espansa-Calpe, 1959).

Zink, 29.

literary technique for their embodiment.”22 To such scholars, Latin sources such as, classical works, non-classical poetry, Biblical stories, and Saint’s lives had a considerable influence on the twelfth and-thirteenth century writers of the chanson. The authors were educated men familiar with the Latin tradition. Thus, the Latin tradition provided the background for content and technique for the birth of epic in the twelfth century.

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