The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

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

19. Shortly after a young man, a relation of the emperor's, sang, on the occasion of some festival, the Allelulia admirably: and the Emperor turned to this same bishop and said: "My clerk is singing very well." But the stupid man, thought that he was jesting and did not know that the clerk was the [88] emperor's relation; and so he answered: "Any clown in our countryside drones as well as that to his oxen at their ploughing." At this vulgar answer the emperor turned on him the lightning of his flashing eyes and dashed him terror-stricken to the very ground. (12)
[Six chapters omitted by the translator; see note 12]

26. But though the rest of mankind may be deceived by the wiles of the devil and his angels, it is pleasant to consider the word of our Lord, who in recognition of the bold confession of Saint Peter said: -- "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Wherefore even in these times of great peril and wickedness he has allowed the Church to remain unshaken and unmoved.

Now since envy always rages among the envious so it is customary and regular with the Romans to oppose or rather to fight against all strong Popes, who are from time to time raised to the apostolic see. Whence it came to pass that certain of the Romans, themselves blinded with envy, charged the above-mentioned Pope Leo (13) of holy memory with a deadly crime and tried to blind him. But they were frightened and held back by some divine impulse, and after trying in vain to gouge out his eyes, they slashed them across [89] the middle with knives. The Pope had news of this carried secretly by his servants to Michael, Emperor of Constantinople; but he refused all assistance saying: "The Pope has an independent kingdom and one higher than mine; so he must act his own revenge upon his enemies." Thereupon the holy Leo invited the unconquered Charles to come to Rome; following in this the ordinance of God, that, as Charles was already in very deed ruler and emperor over many nations, so also by the authority of the apostolic see he might have now the name of Emperor, Cæsar and Augustus. Now Charles, being always ready to march and in warlike array, though he knew nothing at all of the cause of the summons, came at once with his attendants and his vassals; himself the head of the world he came to the city that had once been the head of the world. And when the abandoned people heard of his sudden coming, at once, as sparrows hide themselves when they hear the voice of their master, so they fled and hid in various hiding-places, cellars, and dens. Nowhere howsoever under heaven could they escape from his energy and penetration; and soon they were captured and brought in chains to the Cathedral of St. Peter. Then the undaunted Father Leo took the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and held it over his [89] head, and then in the presence of Charles and his knights, in presence also of his persecutors, he swore in the following words: -- "So on the day of the great judgment may I partake in the promises, as I am innocent of the charge that is falsely laid against me." Then many of the prisoners asked to be allowed to swear upon the tomb of St. Peter that they also were innocent of the charge laid against them. But the Pope knew their falseness and said to Charles: "Do not, I pray you, unconquered servant of God, give assent to their cunning; for well they know that Saint Peter is always ready to forgive. But seek among the tombs of the martyrs the stone upon which is written the name of St. Pancras, (14) that boy of thirteen years; and if they will swear to you in his name you may know that you have them fast." it was done as the Pope ordered. And when many people drew near to take the oath upon this tomb, straightway some fell back dead and some were seized by the devil and went mad. Then the terrible Charles said to his servants: "Take care that none of them escapes." Then he condemned all who had been taken prisoner either to some kind of death or to perpetual imprisonment.

As Charles stayed in Rome for a few days, the bishop of the apostolic see called together all who [90] would come from the neighbouring districts and then, in their presence and in the presence of all the knights of the unconquered Charles, he declared him to be Emperor and Defender of the Roman Church. (15) Now Charles had no guess of what was coming; and, though he could not refuse what seemed to have been divinely preordained for him, nevertheless he received his new title with no show of thankfulness. For first he thought that the Greeks would be fired by greater envy than ever and would plan some harm against the kingdom of the Franks; or at least would take greater precautions against a possible sudden attack of Charles to subdue their kingdom, and add it to his own empire. And further the magnanimous Charles recalled how ambassadors from the King of Constantinople had come to him and had told him that their master wished to be his loyal friend; and that, if they became nearer neighbours, he had determined to treat him as his son and relieve the poverty of Charles from his resources: and how, upon hearing this, Charles was unable to contain any longer the fiery ardour of his heart and had exclaimed: "Oh, would that pool were not between us; for then we would either divide between us the wealth of the east, or we would hold it in common."

[91] But the Lord, who is both the giver and the restorer of health, so showed his favour to the innocency of the blessed Leo that he restored his eyes to be brighter than they were before that wicked and cruel cutting; except only that, in token of his virtue, a bright scar (like a very fine thread) marked his eyelids.

27. The foolish may accuse me of folly because just now I made Charles say that the sea, which that mighty emperor called playfully a little pool, lay between us and the Greeks; but I must tell my critics that at that date the Bulgarians and the Huns and many other powerful races barred the way to Greece with forces yet unattacked and unbroken. Soon afterwards, it is true, the most warlike Charles either hurled them to the ground, as he did the Slavs and the Bulgars; or else utterly destroyed them, as was the case with the Huns, that race of iron and adamant. And I will go on to speak of these exploits as soon as I have given a very slight account of the wonderful buildings which Charles (Emperor, Augustus, and Cæsar), following the example of the all-wise Solomon, built at Aix, either for God, or for himself, or for the bishops, abbots, counts and all guests that came to him from all quarters of the world.

[93] 28. When the most energetic Emperor Charles could rest awhile he sought not sluggish ease, but laboured in the service of God. He desired therefore to build upon his native soil a cathedral finer even than the works of the Romans, and soon his purpose was realised. For the building thereof he summoned architects and skilled workmen from all lands beyond the seas; and above all he placed a certain knavish abbot whose competence for the execution of such tasks he knew, though he knew not his character. When the August emperor had gone on a certain journey, this abbot allowed anyone to depart home who would pay sufficient money: and those who could not purchase their discharge, or were not allowed to return by their masters, he burdened with unending labours, as the Egyptians once afflicted the people of God. By such knavish tricks he gathered together a great mass of gold and silver and silken robes; and exhibiting in his chamber only the least precious articles, he concealed in boxes and chests all the richest treasures. Well, one day there was brought to him on a sudden the news that his house was on fire. He ran, in great excitement, and pushed his way through the bursting flames into the strong room where his boxes, stuffed with gold, were kept: he was not satisfied to take [94] one away, but would only leave after he had loaded his servants with a box apiece. And as he was going out a huge beam, dislodged by the fire, fell on the top of him; and then his body was burnt by temporal and his soul by eternal flames. Thus did the judgment of God keep watch for the most religious Emperor Charles, when his attention was withdrawn by the business of his kingdom.

29. There was another workman, the most skilled of all int he working of brass and glass. Now this man (his name was Tancho and he was at one time a monk of St. Gall) made a fine bell and the emperor was delighted with its tone. Then said that most distinguished, but most unfortunate worker in brass: "Lord emperor, give orders that a great weight of copper be brought to me that I may refine it; and instead of tin give me as much silver as I shall need -- a hundred pounds at least; and I will cast such a bell for you that this will seem dumb in comparison to it." Then Charles, the most liberal of monarchs, who "if riches abounded set not his heart upon them" readily gave the necessary orders, to the great delight of the knavish monk. He smelted and refined the brass; but he used, not silver, but the purest sort of tin, and soon he made a bell, much better than the one that the emperor had formerly admired, [95] and, when he had tested it, he took it to the emperor, who admired its exquisite shape and ordered the clapper to be inserted and the bell to be hung in the bell-tower. That was soon done; and then the warden of the church, the attendants and even the boys of the place tried, one after the other, to make the bell sound. But all was in vain; and so at last the knavish maker of the bell came up, seized the rope, and pulled at the bell. When, lo and behold! down from on high came the brazen mass; fell on the very head of the cheating brass founder; killed him on the spot; and passed straight through his carcass and crashed to the ground carrying his bowels with it. When the aforementioned weight of silver was found, the most righteous Charles ordered it to be distributed among the poorest servants of the palace.

30. Now it was a rule at that time that if the imperial mandate had gone out that any task was to be accomplished, whether it was the making of bridges, or ships or causeways, or the cleansing or paving or filling up of muddy roads, the counts might execute the less important work by the agency of their deputies or servants; but for the greater enterprises, and especially such as were of an original kind, no duke or count, no bishop or abbot could possibly [96] get himself excused. The arches of the great bridge at Mainz bear witness to this; for all Europe, so to speak, laboured at this work in orderly co-operation, and then the knavery of a few rascals, who wanted to steal merchandise from the ships that passed underneath, destroyed it.

If any churches, with the royal domain, wanted decorating with carved ceilings or wall paintings, the neighbouring bishops and abbots had to take charge of the task; but if new churches had to be built then all bishops, dukes and counts, all abbots and heads of royal churches and all who were in occupation of any public office had to work at it with never-ceasing labour from its foundations to its roof. You may see the proof of the emperor's skill in the cathedral at Aix, which seems a work half human and half divine; you may see it in the mansions of the various dignitaries which, by Charles's device, were built round his own palace in such a way that from the windows of his chamber he could see all who went out or came in, and what they were doing, while they believed themselves free from observation; you may see it in all the houses of his nobles, which were lifted on high from the ground in such a fashion that beneath them the retainers of his nobles and the servants of those retainers and every class of man [97] could be protected from rain or snow, from cold or heat, while at the same time they were not concealed from the eyes of the most vigilant Charles. But I am a prisoner within my monastery walls and your ministers are free; and I will therefore leave to them the task of describing the cathedral, while I return to speak of how the judgment of God was made manifest in the building of it.

31. The most careful Charles ordered certain nobles of the neighbourhood to support with all their power the workmen whom he had set to their task, and to supply everything that they required for it. Those workmen who came from a distance he gave in charge to a certain Liutfrid, the steward of his palace, telling him to feed and clothe them and also most carefully to provide anything that was wanting for the building. The steward obeyed these commands for the short time that Charles remained in that place; but after his departure neglected them altogether, and by cruel tortures collected such a mass of money from the poor workmen that Dis and Pluto would require a camel to carry his ill-gotten gains to hell. Now this was found out in the following way.

The most glorious Charles used to go to lauds at night in a long and flowing cloak, which is now neither used nor known: then when the morning [98] was over he would go back to his chamber and dress himself in his imperial robes. All the clerks used to come ready dressed to the nightly office, and then they would wait for the emperor's arrival, and for the celebration of mass either in the church or in the porch which then was called the outer court. Sometimes they would remain awake, or if anyone had need of sleep he would lean his head on his companion's breast. Now one poor clerk, who used often to go to Liutfrid's house to get his clothes (rags I ought to call them) washed and mended, was sleeping with his head on a friend's knees, when he saw in a vision a giant, taller than the adversary of Saint Anthony, (16) come from the king's court and hurry over the bridge, that spanned a little stream, to the house of the steward; and he led with him an enormous camel, burdened with baggage of inestimable value. He was, in his dream, struck with amazement and he asked the giant who he was and whither he wished to go. And the giant made answer: "I come from the house of the king and I go to the house of Liutfrid; and I shall place Liutfrid on these packages and I shall take him and them down with me to hell."

Thereupon the clerk woke up, in a fright lest Charles should find him sleeping. He lifted up [99] his head and urged the others to wakefulness and cried: "Hear, I pray you, my dream. I seemed to see another Polyphemus, who walked on the earth and yet touched the stars, and passed through the Ionian Sea without wetting his sides. I saw him hasten from the royal court to the house of Liutfrid with a laden camel. And when I asked the cause of his journey, he said: 'I am going to put Liutfrid on the top of the load, and then take him to hell.'"

The story was hardly finished when there came from that house, which they all knew so well, a girl who fell at their feet and asked them to remember her friend Liutfrid in their prayers. And, when they asked the reason for her words, she said: "My lord, he went out but now in good health, and, as he stayed a long time, we went in search of him, and found him dead." When the emperor heard of his sudden death, and was informed by the workmen and his servants of his grasping avarice, he ordered his treasures to be examined. They were found to be of priceless worth, and when the emperor, after God the greatest of judges, found by what wickedness they had been collected he gave this public judgment: "Nothing of that which was gained by fraud must go to the liberation of his soul from purgatory. Let his [100] wealth be divided among the workmen of this our building, and the poorer servants of our palace." (17)


12. The next six chapters are omitted, because in them the Monk of St. Gall is led away, by his desire to tell a good and edifying story, into matter that has no connection of any kind with Charlemagne, and is sometimes offensive to modern taste. The stories are for the most part to the discredit of the Episcopal order. A single phrase in Chapter XXV may be noted, as indicating the theocratic view of Charles which the writer takes throughout: "the most religious Charles" is called episcopus episcoporum, "the bishop of bishops." [Back]
13. Our author here again handles events of the most general notoriety in a spirit completely independent of historical accuracy. Leo III, was, it is true, the Pope to whose assistance Charlemagne came; but no Michael was ruling at that time in Constantinople. Michael II reigned from 820-829, and Michael III from 845-867. Thus the name was associated, in the mind of the Monk of St. Gall, with the imperial throne of the east -- and that was more than enough. The sentiment attributed to the Emperor is as impossible as his name is inaccurate. [Back]
14. St. Pancras is one of the saints given by the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian to the calendar of the Church. He is said to have been executed in his fourteenth year in the year 295. The following extract from the Golden Legend will explain the reference in the text: "Of him said Gregory of Tours, Doctor: That if there be a man that will make a false oath in the place of his sepulchre, tofore or he came to the chancel of the quire he shall be travailed with an evil spirit and out of mind, or he shall fall on the pavement all dead. It happed on a time that there was a great altercation between two men, and the judge wist not who had wrong. And, for the jealousy of justice that he had, he brought them both unto the altar of Saint Peter for to swear, praying the apostle that he would declare who had right. And when he that had wrong had sworn and had none harm, the judge who knew the malice of him said all on high: This old Peter here is either over-merciful, or he is propitious to this young man, but let us go to Pancrace and demand we of him the truth; and when they came to the sepulchre, he that was culpable swore and stretched forth his hand, but he might not withdraw his hand again to him, and anon after he died there, and therefore unto this day, of much people it is used that for great and notable causes make their oaths upon the relics of S. Pancrace." [Back]
15. This celebrated coronation took place on Christmas Day of the year 800, and marks the foundation of the Medieval Empire. Charles is known to have expressed regret either at the fact or the manner of the presentation of the imperial crown; and the Monk of St. Gall is not so wide of the point as usual in the account he gives of the causes of his hesitation. [Back]
16. Giants figure largely in the stories which are told of St. Antony's temptation. The Golden Legend says: "S. Anthony recordeth of himself that he had seen a man so great and so high that he vaunted himself to be the virtue and the providence of God and said to me: 'Demand of me what thou wilt, and I shall give it to thee.' And I spit in the midst of his visage, and anon I armed me with the sign of the cross, and ran upon him, and anon he vanished away. And after this the devil appeared to him in so great stature that he touched the heaven, etc." Gigantic appearances figure, too, elsewhere in the story of St. Antony's trials. [Back]
17. Two motives are to be detected in most of these stories beyond the general purpose of moral and religious edification. There is the jealousy of the bishops, so usually felt by the monks, and there is the scorn felt by the northern peoples for the refinements of the Italian population. [Back]

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