Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
895
CHARLEMAGNE


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.[1]

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[2] famous in later Carolingian romance. The twelve peers were in the first instance the companions in arms of Roland in the Teutonic sense.[3] 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 RolandAspremont, 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

  1. 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).
  2. 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.").
  3. See J. Flach, Le Compagnonnage dans les chansons de geste (Paris, 1891).