The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

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

10. Here I must report something which the men of our time will find it difficult to believe; for I myself who write it could hardly believe it, so great is the difference between our method of chanting and the Roman, were it not that we must trust rather the accuracy of our fathers than the false suggestions of modern sloth. Well then, Charles, that never-wearied lover of the service of God, when he could congratulate himself that all possible progress had been made in the knowledge of letters, was grieved to observe how widely the different provinces -- nay, not the provinces only but districts and cities -- differed in the praise of God, that is to say in their method of chanting. He therefore asked of Pope Stephen of blessed memory -- the same who, after Hilderich King of the Franks had been deposed and tonsured, had anointed Charles to be ruler of the kingdom after the ancestral custom of the people (6) -- he asked [73] of Pope Stephen, I say, that he should provide him with twelve clerks deeply learned in divine song. The Pope yielded assent to his virtuous wish and his divinely inspired design and sent to him in Frankland from the apostolic see clerks skilled in divine song, and twelve in number, according to the number of the twelve apostles.

Now, when I said Frankland just above, I meant all the provinces north of the Alps; for as it is written: "In those days ten men shall take hold out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew," so at that time, by reason of the glory of Charles, Gauls, Aquitanians, Æduans, Spaniards, Germans, and Bavarians thought that no small honour was paid to them, if they were thought worthy to be called the servants of the Franks.

Now when the aforementioned clerks were departing from Rome, being, like all Greeks and Romans, torn with envy of the glory of the Franks, they took counsel among themselves, and determined so to vary their method of singing that his kingdom and dominion should never have cause to rejoice in unity and agreement. So when they came to Charles they were received most honourably and despatched to the chief places. And thereupon each in his [74] allotted place began to chant as differently as possible, and to teach others to sing in like fashion, and in as false a manner as they could invent. But as the most cunning Charles celebrated one year the feast of the Birth and Coming of Christ at Trèves or Metz, and most carefully and cleverly grasped and understood the style of the singing; and then the next year passed the same solemn season at Paris or Tours, but found that the singing was wholly different from what he had heard in the preceding year; as moreover he found that those whom he had sent into different places were also a variance with one another; he reported the whole matter to Pope Leo, of holy memory, who had succeeded Stephen.(7) The Pope summoned the clerks back to Rome and condemned them to exile or perpetual imprisonment, and then said to Charles: "If I send you others they will be blinded with the same malice as their predecessors and will not fail to cheat you. But I think I can satisfy your wishes in this way. Send me two of the cleverest clerks that you have by you, in such a way that those who are with me may not know that they belong to you, and, with God's help, they shall attain to as perfect a knowledge of those things as you desire." So said, so done. Soon the Pope sent them back excellently trained to Charles. [75] One of them he kept at his own court: the other upon the petition of his son Drogo, Bishop of Metz, (8) he sent to that cathedral. And not only did his energy show itself powerful in that city, but it soon spread so widely throughout all Frankland, that now all in these regions who use the Latin tongue called the ecclesiastical chant Metensian; or, if they use the Teutonic or Teuthiscan tongue, they call it Mette; or if the Greek form is used it is called Mettisc.(9) The most pious emperor also ordered Peter, the singer who had come to reside with him, to reside for a while in the monastery of St. Gall. There too Charles established the chanting as it is to-day, with an authentic song-book, and gave most careful instructions, being always a warm champion of Saint Gall, that the Roman method of singing should be both taught and learnt. He gave to the monastery also much money and many lands: he gave too relics, contained in a reliquary made of solid gold and gems, which is called the Shrine of Charles.

11. It was the habit of the most religious and temperate Charles to take food during Lent (10) at the seventh hour of the day after having been present at the celebration of mass and evening lauds: and in so doing he was not violating the fast for he was following the Lord's command in taking food at an [76] earlier hour than usual. Now a certain bishop, who offended against the precept of Solomon in being just but foolish, took him unwisely to task for this. Whereupon the most wise Charles concealed his wrath, and received the bishop's admonition in all humility, saying, "Good sir bishop, your admonition is good; and now my advice to you is that you should take no food until the very humblest of my servants, who stand in my court, have been fed." Now while Charles was eating he was waited upon by dukes and rulers and kings of various peoples; and when his banquet was ended then those who served him fed and they were served by counts and præfects and nobles of different ranks. And when these last had made an end of eating then came the military officers and the scholars of the palace: then the chiefs of the various departments of the palace; then their subordinates, then the servants of those servants. So that the last comers did not get a mouthful of food before the middle of the night. When therefore Lent was nearly ended, and the bishop in question had endured this punishment all the time, the most merciful Charles said to him: "Now, sir bishop, I think you have found out that it is not lack of self-restraint but care for others which makes me dine in Lent before the hour of evening."

[77] 12. Once he asked a bishop for his blessing and he thereupon, after blessing the bread, partook of it first himself and then wanted to give it to the most honourable Charles: who, however, said to him: "You may keep all the bread for yourself"; and much to the bishop's confusion he refused to receive his blessing.

13. The most careful Charles would never give more than one county to any of his counts unless they happened to live on the borders or marches of the barbarians; now would he ever give a bishop any abbacy or church that was in the royal gift unless there were very special reasons for doing it. When his councilors of friends asked him the reason for this he would answer: "With that revenue or that estate, with that little abbey or that church I can secure the fidelity of some vassal, as good a man as any bishop or count, and perhaps better." But when there were special reasons he would give several benefices to one man; as he did for instance to Udalric, brother of the great Hildigard, the mother of kings and emperors. Now Udalric, after Hildigard's death, was deprived of his honours for a certain offence; and a buffoon thereupon said in the hearing of the most merciful Charles: "Now has Udalric, by the death of his sister, lost all his honours both [78] in east and west." Charles was touched by these words and restored to him at once all his former honours. He opened his hands, most widely and liberally, when justice bade him, to certain holy places, as will appear in the sequel.

14. There was a certain bishopric which lay full in Charles's path when he journeyed, and which indeed he could hardly avoid: and the bishop of this place, always anxious to give satisfaction, put everything that he had at Charles's disposal. But once the emperor came quite unexpectedly and the bishop in great anxiety had to fly hither and thither like a swallow, and had not only the palaces and houses but also the courts and squares swept and cleaned: and then, tired and irritated, came to meet him. The most pious Charles noticed this, and after examining all the various details, he said to the bishop: "My kind host, you always have everything splendidly cleaned for my arrival." Then the bishop, as if divinely inspired, bowed his head and grasped the king's never-conquered right hand, and hiding his irritation, kissed it and said: "It is but right, my lord, that, wherever you come, all things should be thoroughly cleansed." Then Charles, of all kings the wisest, understanding the state of affairs said to him: "If I empty I can also fill." And [79] he added: "You may have that estate which lies close to your bishopric, and all your successors may have it until the end of time."

15. In the same journey too he came to a bishop who lived in a place through which he must needs pass. Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird; and the bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish upon the sudden, ordered some excellent cheese, rich and creamy, to be placed before him. And the most self-restrained Charles, with the readiness which he showed everywhere and on all occasions, spared the blushes of the bishop and required no better fare: but taking up his knife cut off the skin, which he thought unsavoury, and fell to on the white of the cheese. Thereupon the bishop, who was standing near like a servant, drew closer and said, "Why do you do that, lord emperor? You are throwing away the very best part." Then Charles, who deceived no one, and did not believe that anyone would deceive him, on the persuasion of the bishop put a piece of the skin in his mouth, and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then approving of the advice of the bishop, he said: "Very true, my good host," and he added: "Be sure to send me [80] every year to Aix two cart-loads of just such cheeses." The bishop was alarmed at the impossibility of the task and, fearful of losing both his rank and his office, he rejoined: -- "My lord, I can procure the cheeses, but I cannot tell which are of this quality and which of another. Much I fear lest I fall under your censure." Then Charles from whose penetration and skill nothing could escape, however new or strange it might be, spoke thus to the bishop, who from childhood had known such cheeses and yet could not test them. "Cut them in two," he said, "then fasten together with a skewer those that you find to be of the right quality and keep them in your cellar for a time and then send them to me. The rest you may keep for yourself and your clergy and your family." This was done for two years and the king ordered the present of cheeses to be taken in without remark: then in the third year the bishop brought in person his labouriously collected cheeses. But the most just Charles pitied his labour and anxiety and added to the bishopric an excellent estate whence he and his successors might provide themselves with corn and wine.

16. As we have shown how the most wise Charles exalted the humble, let us now show how he brought low the proud. There was a bishop who sought [81] above measure vanities and the fame of men. The most cunning Charles heard of this and told a certain Jewish merchant, whose custom it was to go to the land of promise and bring from thence rare and wonderful things to the countries beyond the sea, to deceive or cheat this bishop in whatever way he could. So the Jew caught an ordinary household mouse and stuffed it with various spices, and then offered it for sale to the bishop, saying that he had brought this most precious never-before-seen animal from Judea. The bishop was delighted with what he thought a stroke of luck, and offered the Jew three pounds of silver for the precious ware. Then said the Jew, "A fine price indeed for so precious an article! I had rather throw it into the sea than let any man have it at so cheap and shameful a price." So the bishop, who had much wealth and never gave anything to the poor, offered him ten pounds of silver for the incomparable treasure. But the cunning rascal, with pretended indignation, replied: "The God of Abraham forbid that I should thus lose the fruit of my labour and journeyings." Then our avaricious bishop, all eager for the prize, offered twenty pounds. But the Jew in high dudgeon wrapped up the mouse in the most costly silk and made as if he would depart. Then the bishop, as thoroughly taken in as he deserved [82] to be, offered a full measure of silver for the priceless object. And so at last our trader yielded to his entreaties with much show of reluctance: and, taking the money, went to the emperor and told him everything. A few days later the king called together all the bishops and chief men of the province to hold discourse with him; and, after many other matters had been considered, he ordered all that measure of silver to be brought and placed in the middle of the palace. Then thus he spoke and said: -- "Fathers and guardians, bishops of our Church, you ought to minister to the poor, or rather to Christ in them, and not to seek after vanities. But now you act quite contrary to this; and are vainglorious and avaricious beyond all other men." Then he added: "One of you has given a Jew all this silver for a painted mouse." Then the bishop, who had been so wickedly deceived, threw himself at Charles's feet and begged pardon for his sin. Charles upbraided him in suitable words and then allowed him to depart in confusion.

17. This same bishop was left to take care of Hildigard, when the most warlike Charles was engaged in campaigns against the Huns.(11) He was so puffed up by his intimacy with her that he had the audacity to ask her to allow him to use the golden sceptre of the incomparable Charles on festal days instead of his [83] episcopal staff. She deceived him cleverly, and said that she dare not give it to anyone, but that she would carryhis request faithfully to the king. So, when Charles came back, she jestingly told him of the mad request of the bishop. He kindly promised to do what she wished and even more. So, when all Europe, so to speak, had come together to greet Charles after his victory over so mighty a people, he pronounced these words in the hearing of small and great: "Bishops should despise this world and inspire others by their example to seek after heavenly things. But now they are misled by ambition beyond all the rest of mankind; and one of them not content withholding the first episcopal see in Germany has dared without my approval to claim my golden sceptre, which I carry to signify my royal will, in order that he might use it as his pastoral staff." The guilty man acknowledged his sin, received pardon and retired.

18. Now, my Lord Emperor Charles, I much fear that through my desire to obey your orders I may incur the enmity of all who have taken vows and especially of the highest clergy of all. But for all this I do not greatly care, if only I be not deprived of your protection.

Once that most religious Emperor Charles gave orders that all bishops throughout his wide domains [84] should preach in the nave of their cathedral before a certain day, which he appointed, under penalty of being deprived of the episcopal dignity, if they failed to comply with the order. -- But why do I say "dignity" when the apostle protests: "He that desires a bishopric desires good work"? But in truth, most serene of kings, I must confess to you that there is great "dignity" in the office, but not the slightest "good work" is required. Well, the aforementioned bishop was at first alarmed at this command, because gluttony and pride were all his learning, and he feared that if he lost his bishopric he would lose at the same time his soft living. So he invited two of the chiefs of the palace on the festal day, and after the reading of the lesson mounted the pulpit as though he were going to address the people. All the people ran together in wonder at so unexpected an occurrence, except one poor red-headed fellow, who had his head covered with clouts, because he had no hat, and was foolishly ashamed of his red hair. Then the bishop -- bishop in name but not in deed -- called to his doorkeeper or rather his scario (whose dignity and duties went by the name of the ædileship among the ancient Romans) and said: "Bring me that man in the hat who is standing there near the door of the church." The doorkeeper made haste to obey, [85] seized the poor man and began to drag him towards the bishop. But he feared some heavy penalty for daring to stand in the house of God with covered head, and struggled with all his might to avoid being brought before the tribunal of the terrible judge. But the bishop, looking from his perch, now addressing his vassals and now chiding the poor knave, bawled out and preached as follows: -"Here with him! don't let him slip! Willy-nilly you've got to come." When at last force or fear brought him near, the bishop cried: "Come forward; nay you must come quite close." Then he snatched the head-covering from his captive and cried to the people: -- "Lo and behold all ye people; the boor is red-headed." Then he returned to the altar and performed the ceremony, or pretended to perform it.

When the mass was thus scrambled through his guests passed into his hall, which was decorated with many-coloured carpets, and cloths of all kinds; and there a magnificent banquet, served in gold and silver and jewelled cups, was provided, calculated to tickle the appetite of the fastidious or the well-fed. The bishop himself sat on the softest of cushions, clad in precious silks and wearing the imperial purple, so that he seemed a king except for the sceptre and the title. He was surround by troops of rich knights, in [86] comparison with whom the officers of the palace (nobles though they were) of the unconquered Charles seemed to themselves most mean. When they asked leave to depart after this wonderful and more than royal banquet he, desiring to show still more plainly his magnificence and his glory, ordered skilled musicians to come forward, the sound of whose voices could soften the hardest hearts or turn to ice the swiftly flowing waters of the Rhine. And at the same time every kind of choice drink, subtly and variously compounded, was offered them in bowls of gold and gems, whose sheen was mixed with that of the flowers and leaves with which they were crowned: but their stomachs could contain no more so that the glasses lay idle in their hands. Meanwhile pastry cooks and sausage makers, servers and dressers offered preparations of exquisite art to stimulate their appetite, though their stomachs could contain no more: it was a banquet such as was never offered even to the great Charles himself.

When morning came and the bishop returned some way towards soberness, he thought with fear of the luxury that he had paraded before the servants of the emperor. So he called them into his presence, loaded them with presents worthy of a king, and implored them to speak to the terrible Charles of the goodness [87] and simplicity of his life; and above all to tell him how he had preached publicly before them in his cathedral.

Upon their return Charles asked them why the bishop had invited them. Thereupon they fell at his feet and said: "Master, it was that he might honour us as your representatives, far beyond our humble deserts." "He is," they went on, "in every way the best and the most faithful of bishops and most worthy of the highest rank in the Church. For, if you will trust our poor judgement, we profess to your sublime majesty that we heard him preach in his church in the most stirring fashion." Then the emperor who knew the bishop's lack of skill pressed them further as to the manner of his preaching; and they, perforce, revealed all. Then the emperor saw that he had made an effort to say something rather than disobey the imperial order; and he allowed him, in spite of his unworthiness, to retain the bishopric.


6. The whole of this statement is a tissue of absurdities, which are, however, worth a moment's attention , as giving some indication of the value that is to be attached to the Monk of St. Gall's testimony. The Pope Stephen here alluded to must be Stephen II, who occupied the Papal throne from 752 to 757. He it was who crowned Pippin King of the Franks in 754. He can have had nothing to do with Charlemagne, who did not reign until 768; but the words of the text (se ad gubernacula regni perunxit) can only refer to Charles. It must have been Pope Stephen III (768-772) to whom Charlemagne appealed it there is any truth in the story at all; and Pope Stephen III, can, of course, have had nothing to do with Hilderich. [Back]
7. Pope Leo III did not succeed Pope Stephen until after an interval of 23 years. Pope Leo III's date is 795-816. [Back]
8. For Drogo see Eginhard's Life, Ch XV. But again the unhistorical character of the narrative is shown by the fact that Drogo was made Bishop of Metz, after the death of Charles, and against his own will. [Back]
9. A curious display of trivial learning! But it is interesting to note the mention of Greek as a language not wholly unknown to a monk of the ninth century. [Back]
10. See Eginhard's Life, Ch. XXIV, for the difficulties found by Charles in observing the fasts of Lent. [Back]
11. Here is another notorious error. Hildigard died in 783. Fastrada was queen when, in 791, Charles advanced to the war against the Avars. [Back]

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