The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne, 883/4


In addition to Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, written circa 829-836 in imitation of Suetonius, there is this other Life of Charlemagne (De Carolo Magno) written by the Monk of St. Gall (usually identified with Notker Balbulus, or "the Stammerer", d. 912). This highly anecdotal "life" was composed for Charles the Fat in 883-4, and covers many subjects other than Charlemagne.
For a more recent translation see
Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. Lewis Thorpe, (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969)
-Thorpe's introduction and notes are really useful short discussions of: Carolingian sources; Charlemagne; Einhard, and the Monk of St. Gall.

Book I

Concerning the Piety of Charles and His Care of the Church

After the omnipotent ruler of the world, who orders alike the fate of kingdoms and the course of time, had broken the feet of iron and clay (1) in one noble statue, to wit the Romans, he raised by the hands of the illustrious Charles the golden head of another, not less admirable, among the Franks. Now it happened, when he had begun to reign alone in the western parts of the world, and the pursuit of learning had been almost forgotten throughout all his realm, and the worship of the true Godhead was faint and weak, that two Scots came from Ireland to the coast of Gaul along with certain traders of Britain. These Scotchmen were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning: and day by day, when the crowd gathered round them for traffic, they exhibited no wares for sale, but cried out and said, [60]"Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale."

Now they declared that they had wisdom for sale because they said that the people cared not for what was given freely but only for what was sold, hoping that thus they might be incited to purchase wisdom along with other wares; and also perhaps hoping that by this announcement they themselves might become a wonder and a marvel to men: which indeed turned out to be the case. For so long did they make their proclamation that in the end those who wondered at these men, or perhaps thought them insane, brought the matter to the ears of King Charles, who always loved and sought after wisdom. Wherefore he ordered them to come with all speed into his presence and asked them whether it were true, as fame reported of them , that they had brought wisdom with them. They answered, "We both possess it and are ready to give it, in the name of God, to those who seek it worthily." Again he asked them what price they asked for it; and they answered, "We ask no price, O king; but we ask only for a fit place for teaching and quick minds to teach; and besides food to eat and raiment to put on, for without these we cannot accomplish our pilgrimage." (2)

[61] This answer filled the king with a great joy, and first he kept both of them with him for a short time. But soon, when he must needs go to war, he made one of them named Clement reside in Gaul, and to him he sent many boys both of noble, middle and humble birth, and he ordered as much food to be given them as they required, and he set aside for them buildings suitable for study. But he sent the second scholar into Italy and gave him the monastery of Saint Augustine near Pavia, that all who wished might gather there to learn from him.

2. But when Albinus (Alcuin), an Englishman, (3) heard that the most religious Emperor Charles gladly entertained wise men, he entered into a ship and came to him. Now Albinus was skilled in all learning beyond all others of our times, for he was the disciple of that most learned priest Bede, who next to Saint Gregory was the most skillful interpreter of the scriptures. And Charles received Albinus kindly and kept him at his side to the end of his life, except when he marched with his armies to his vast wars: nay, Charles would even call himself Albinus's disciple; and Albinus he would call his master. He appointed him to rule over the abbey of Saint Martin, near to the city of Tours: so that, when he himself was absent, Albinus might rest there and [62] teach those who had recourse to him. And his teaching bore such fruit among his pupils that the modern Gauls or Franks came to equal the ancient Romans or Athenians.

3. Then when Charles came back, after a long absence, crowned with victory, into Gaul, he ordered the boys whom he had entrusted to Clement to come before him and present to him letters and verses of their own composition. Now the boys of middle or low birth presented him with writings garnished with the sweet savours of wisdom beyond all that he could have hoped, while those of the children of noble parents were silly and tasteless. Then the most wise Charles, imitating the judgment of the eternal Judge, gathered together those who had done well upon his right hand and addressed them in these words: "My children, you have found much favour with me because you have tried with all your strength to carry out my orders and win advantage for yourselves. Wherefore now study to attain to perfection; and I will give you bishoprics and splendid monasteries, and you shall be always honourable in my eyes." Then he turned severely to those who were gathered on his left, and, smiting their consciences with the fire of his eyes, he flung at them in scorn these terrible words, which seemed thunder rather [63] than human speech: "You nobles, you sons of my chiefs, you superfine dandies, you have trusted to your birth and your possessions and have set at naught my orders to your own advancement: you have neglected the pursuit of learning and you have given yourselves over to luxury and sport, to idleness and profitless pastimes." Then solemnly he raised his august head and his unconquered right hand to the heavens and thus thundered against them, "By the King of Heaven, I take no account of your noble birth and your fine looks, though others may admire you for them. Know this for certain, that unless you make up for your former sloth by vigourous study, you will never get any favour from Charles."

4. Charles used to pick out all the best writers and readers from among the poor boys that I have spoken of and transferred them to his chapel; for that was the name that the kings of the Franks gave to their private oratory, taking the word from the cope of St. Martin, which they always took with them in war for a defence against their enemies. Now one day it was announced to this most wary King Charles that a certain bishop was dead; and, when the king asked whether the dead bishop had made any bequests for the good of his soul, the messenger replied, "Sire, he has bequeathed no more than two pounds of silver." [64] thereupon one of his chaplains, sighing, and no longer able to keep the thoughts of his mind within his breast, spake in the hearing of the king these words: "That is small provision for a long, a never-ending journey."

Then Charles, the mildest of men, deliberated a space, and said to the young man, "Do you think then, if you were to get the bishopric, you would care to make more provision for that same long journey?" These cautious words fell upon the chaplain as ripe grapes into the mouth of one who stands agape for them, and he threw himself at the feet of Charles and said, "Sire, the matter rests upon the will of God and your own power." Said the king, "Stand behind the curtain, that hangs behind me, and mark what kind of help you would receive if you were raised to that honour."

Now, when the officers of the palace, who were always on the watch for deaths or accidents, heard that the bishop was dead, one and all of them, impatient of delay and jealous of each other, began to make suit for the bishopric through the friends of the emperor. But Charles still persisted unmoved in his design; he refused everyone, and said that he would not disappoint his young friend. At last Queen Hildigard sent some of the nobles of the realm, and [65] at last came in person, to beg the bishopric for a certain clerk of her own. The emperor received her petition very graciously and said that he would notand could not deny her anything; but that he thought it shame to deceive his little chaplain. But still the queen, woman-like, thought that a woman's opinion and wish ought to outweigh the decrees of men; and so she concealed the passion that was rising in her heart; she sank her strong voice almost to a whisper; and with caressing gestures tried to soften the emperor's unspoken mind. "My sire and king," she said, "what does it matter if that boy does lose the bishopric? Nay, I beseech you, sweet sire, my glory and my refuge, give it to your faithful servant, my clerk." Then that young man, who had heard the petitions from behind the curtain close to the king's chair where he had been placed, embraced the king through the curtain and cried, "Sir king, stand fast and do not let anyone take from you the power that has been given you by God."

Then that strict lover of truth bade him come out, and said, "I intend you to have the bishopric; but you must be very careful to spend more and make fuller provision for that same long and unreturning journey both for yourself and for me."

5. Now there was at the king's court a certain [66] mean and humble clerk, very deficient also in a knowledge of letters. The most pious Charles pitied his poverty, and, though everyone hated him and tried to drive him from the court, he could never be persuaded to turn him away or dismiss him therefrom. Now it happened that, on the eve of Saint Martin, the death of a certain bishop was announced to the emperor. He summoned one of his clerks, a man of high birth and great learning, and gave him the bishopric. The new bishop, thereupon, bursting with joy, invited to his house many of the palace attendants, and also received with great pomp many who came from the diocese to greet him: and to all he gave a superb banquet.

It happened then that, loaded with food, drenched with liquor and buried in wine, he failed to go to the evening service on that most solemn eve. Now it was the custom for the chief of the choir to assign the day before to everyone the responsory or responsories which they were to chant at night. The response: Lord, if still I am useful to Thy people, (4) had fallen to the lot of this man, who had the bishopric, as it were, in his grasp. Well, he was absent; and after the lesson a long pause followed, and each man urged his neighbor to take up the responsory, and each man answered that he was bound to chant only what had [67] been assigned to him. At last the emperor said: "Come, one of you must chant it." Then this mean clerk, strengthened by some divine inspiration, and encouraged by the command, took upon himself the responsory. The kindly king thinking that he would not be able to chant the whole of it ordered the others to help him and all began at once to chant. But from none of them could the poor creature learn the words, and, when the response was finished, he began to chant the Lord's Prayer with the proper intonation. Then everyone wished to stop him; but the most wise Charles wanted to see where he would get to, and forbade anyone to interfere with him. He finished with Thy Kingdom come and the rest, willy-nilly, had to take it up and say Thy will be done.

When the early lauds were finished, the king went back to his palace, or rather to his bedroom, to warm himself and dress for the coming festal ceremony. He ordered that miserable servant and unpractised chanter to come into his presence. "Who told you to chant that ?" he asked. "Sire, you ordered someone to sing," said the other. "Well," said the king (the emperor was called king at first), "who told you to begin in that particular responsory?" Then the poor creature, inspired as it is thought by [68] God, spoke as follows, in the fashion which inferiors then used to superiors, whether for honour, appeal, or flattery: -- "Blessed lord, and blessing-bestowing king, as I could not find out the right verse from anyone, I said to myself that I should incur the anger of your majesty if I introduced anything strange. So I determined to intone something the latter part of which usually came at the end of the responsories."

The kindly emperor smiled gently upon him and thus spoke before all his nobles. "That proud man, who neither feared nor honoured God or his king who had befriended him, enough to refrain one night from dissipation and be in his place to chant the response which I am told fell to his share, is by God's decree and mine deprived of his bishopric. You shall take it, for God gives it you, and I allow it; and be sure to administer it according to canonical and apostolic rules."

6. When another prince of the Church died, the emperor appointed a young man in his place. When the bishop designate came out of the palace to take his departure, his servants, with all the decorum that was due to a bishop, brought forward a horse and steps to mount it: but he took it amiss that they should treat him as though he were decrepit; and leaped from the ground on to the horse's back with such violence that [69] he nearly fell off on the other side. The king looked on from the steps of the palace and had him summoned and thus addressed him: "My good sir, you are nimble and quick, agile and headstrong. You know yourself that the calm of our empire is disturbed on all sides by the tempests of many wars. Wherefore I want a priest like you at my court. Remain therefore as an associate in my labours as long as you can mount your horse with such agility."

7. While I was speaking about the arrangement of the responses I forgot to speak about the rules for reading and I must devote a few words to that subject here. In the palace of the most learned Charles there was no one to apportion to each reader the passages that were to be read; no one put a seal at the end of the passage or made ever such a little mark with his finger-nail. But all had to make themselves so well acquainted with the passage, which was set down for reading, that if they were suddenly called on to read they could perform their duty without incurring his censure. He indicated whom he wished to read by pointing his finger or his staff, or by sending some one of those who where sitting close by him to those at a distance. He marked the end of the reading by a guttural sound. And all watched so intently for this mark that whether it came at the end of a sentence [70] or in the middle of a clause of a sub-clause, none dared go on for an instant, however strange the beginning or the end might seem. And thus it came to pass that all in the palace were excellent readers, even if they did not understand what they read. No foreigner and no celebrity dared enter his choir unless he could read and chant.

8. When Charles one day came in his journeyings to a certain palace, a certain clerk from among the wandering monks entered the choir and being completely ignorant of these rules was soon forced to remain stupid and silent among the singers. Thereupon the choirmaster raised his wand and threatened to strike him unless he went on singing. Then the poor clerk, now knowing what to do or where to turn, and not daring to go out, twisted his neck into the shape of a bow and with open mouth and distended cheeks did his utmost to imitate the appearance of a singer. All the rest could not restrain their laughter, but the most valiant emperor, whose mind was never shaken from its firm base even by great events, seemed not to notice his mockery of singing and waited in due order until the end of the mass. But then he called the poor wretch before him and pitying his struggles and his anxiety soothed his fears with these words: -- "Many thanks, good clerk, for your singing and your [71] efforts." Then he ordered a pound of silver to be given him to relieve his poverty.

9. But I must not seem to forget or to neglect Alcuin; and will therefore make this true statement about his energy and his deserts: all his pupils without exception distinguished themselves by becoming either holy abbots or bishops. My master Grimald (5) studied the literal arts under him, first in Gaul and then in Italy. But those who are learned in these matters may charge me with falsehood for saying "all his pupils without exception"; when the fact is that there were in his schools two young men, sons of a miller in the service of the monastery of Saint Columban, who did not seem fit and proper persons for promotion to the command of bishoprics or monasteries; but even these men were, by the influence probably of their teacher, advanced one after the other to the office of minister in the monastery of Bobbio, in which they displayed the greatest energy.
So the most glorious Charles saw the study of letters flourishing throughout this whole realm, but still he was grieved to find that it did not reach the ripeness of the earlier fathers; and so, after super-human labours, he broke out one day with this expression of his sorrow: quot;Would that I had twelve clerks so learned in all wisdom and so perfectly trained [72] as were Jerome and Augustine." Then the learned Alcuin, feeling himself ignorant indeed in comparison with these great names, rose to a height of daring, that no man else attained to in the presence of the terrible Charles, and said, with deep indignation in his mind but none in his countenance, "The Maker of heaven and earth has not many like to those men and do you expect to have twelve?"


1. The reference is to the Book of Daniel II, 33. [Back]
2. The pilgrimage is, of course, life.[Back]
3. The visit of Albinus (or Alcuin) of York to the court of King Charles is alluded to in Eginhard's Life of Charles, Ch. XXV. His arrival in Frankland occurred in 781, and was of the utmost importance in stimulating and guiding the intellectual renascence of Charles's reign.[Back]
4. "Lord, if I am still useful to thy people I will willingly take on myself this labour on their behalf. Thy will be done" is the full versicle, which comes on the 11th November (St. Martin's Day). The story in the text is made intelligible when we find that more than one of the responses that follow end with the words "Thy will be done." The poor clerk knew that, and started off, therefore, on the Lord's Prayer, which he knew would bring him to the right ending.[Back]
5. Grimald was Abbot of St. Gall from 841 to 872. It will be noticed all through the piece that the narrative becomes more full and definite, though not necessarily more truthful, when it touches on the writer's own monastery.[Back]

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