The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

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

32. Now I must speak of two things which happened in that same place. There was a deacon who followed the Italian custom and resisted the course of nature. For he went to the baths and had himself closely shaved, polished his skin, cleaned his nails, and had his hair cut as short as if it had been done by a lathe. Then he put on linen and a white robe, and then, because he must not miss his turn, or rather desiring to make a fine show, he proceeded to read the gospel before God and His holy angels, and in the presence of the most watchful king; his hear in the meantime being unclean, as events were to show. For while he was reading, a spider came down from the ceiling by a thread, hooked itself on to the deacon's head, and then ran up again. The most observant Charles saw this happen a second and a third time, but pretended not to notice it, and the clerk, because of the emperor's presence, dare not keep of the spider with his hand, and moreover did not know that it was a spider attacking him, but thought that it was merely the tickling of a fly. So he finished the reading of the gospel, and also went through the rest of the office. But when he left the cathedral he soon began to swell up, and [101] died within an hour. But the most scrupulous Charles, inasmuch as he had seen his danger and had not prevented it, thought himself guilty of manslaughter and did public penance.

33. Now the most glorious Charles had in his suite a certain clerk who was unsurpassed in every respect. And of him that was said which was never said of any other mortal man: for it was said that he excelled all mankind in knowledge of both sacred and profane literature; in song whether ecclesiastical or festive; in the composition and rendering of poems and in the sweet fulness of his voice and in the incredible pleasure which he gave [Other men have had drawbacks to compensate for their excellences (18)]: for Moses the lawgiver filled with wisdom by the teaching of God, complains nevertheless that "he is not eloquent" but slow of speech, and "of a slow tongue," and sent therefore Joshua to take counsel with Eleasar, the high priest, who by the authority of the God, who dwelt within him, commanded even the heavenly bodies: and our Master Christ did not allow John the Baptist to work any miracle while in the body, though he bare witness that "among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater" than he: and He bade Peter revere the wisdom of Paul, though Peter [102] by the revelation of the Father recognised Him and received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and He allowed John His best-loved disciple to fall into so great a terror that he did not dare to come to the place of His sepulchre, though weak women paid many visits to it.

But as the scriptures say: "To him that hath shall be give"; and those, who know from whom they have the little which they possess, succeed; while he who knows not the giver of his possessions, or, if he knows it, gives not due thanks to the Giver, loses all. For, while this wonderful clerk was standing in friendly fashion near the most glorious emperor, suddenly he disappeared. The unconquered Emperor Charles was dumfoundered at so unheard of and incredible an occurrence: but, after he had made the sign of the cross, he found in the place where the clerk had stood something that seemed to be a foul-smelling coal, which had just ceased to burn.

34. The mention of the trailing garment that the emperor wore at night has diverted us from his military array. Now the dress and equipment of the old Franks was as follows: -- Their boots were gilt on the outside and decorated with laces three cubits long. The thongs round the legs were red, and under them they wore upon their legs and thighs [103] linen of the same colour, artistically embroidered. The laces stretched above these linen garments and above the crossed thongs, sometimes under them and sometimes over them, now in front of the leg and now behind. Then came a rich linen shirt and then a buckled sword-belt. The great sword was surround first with a sheath, then with a covering of leather, and lastly with a linen wrap hardened with shining wax.

The last part of their dress was a white or blue cloak in the shape of a double square; so that when it was placed upon the shoulders it touched the feet in front and behind, but at the side hardly came down to the knees. In the right hand was carried a stick of apple-wood, with regular knots, strong and terrible; a handle of gold or silver decorated with figures was fastened to it. I myself am lazy and slower than a tortoise, and so never got into Frankland; but I saw the King of the Franks (19) in the monastery of Saint Gall, glittering in the dress that I have described.

But the habits of man change; and when the Franks, in their wars with the Gauls, saw the latter proudly wearing little striped cloaks, they dropped their national customs and began to imitate the Gauls. At first the strictest of emperors did not forbid the new habit, because it seemed more suitable for war: but, when he found that the Frisians were abusing [104] his permission, and were selling these little cloaks at the same price as the old large ones, he gave orders that no one should buy from the, at the usual price, anything but the old cloaks, broad, wide and long: and he added: "What is the good of those little napkins? I cannot cover myself with them in bed and when I am on horseback I cannot shield myself with them against wind and rain."

In the preface to this little work I said I would follow three authorities only. But as the chief of these, Werinbert, died seven days ago and to-day (the thirteenth of May) we, his bereaved sons and disciples, are going to pay solemn honour to his memory, here I will bring this book to an end, concerning the piety of Lord Charles and his care of the Church, which has been taken from the lips of this same clerk, Werinbert.

The next book which deals with the wars of the most fierce Charles is founded on the narrative of Werinbert's father, Adalbert. He followed his master Kerold in the Hunnish, Saxon and Slavic wars, and when I was quite a child, and he a very old man, I lived in his house and he used often to tell me the story of these events. I was most unwilling to listen and would often run away; but in the end by sheer force he made me hear.


18. I have inserted the passage in brackets, which seems necessary to give meaning to the following instances. [Back]
19. This King of the Franks is, of course, not Charlemagne, but Charles the Third, called the Fat, who in 883 spent three days in the Monastery of St. Gall. [Back]

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