The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

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

Book II

Concerning the Wars and Military Exploits of Charles
As I am going to found this narrative on the story told by a man of the world, who had little skill in letters, I think it will be well that I should first recount something of earlier history on the credit of written books. When Julian, (20) whom God hated, was slain in the Persian war by a blow from heaven, not only did the transmarine provinces fall away from the Roman Empire, but also the neighbouring provinces of Pannonia, Noricum, Rhætia, or in other words the Germans and the Franks or Gauls. Then too the kings of the Franks (or Gauls) began to decay in power because they had slain Saint Didier, Bishop of Vienna, and had expelled those most holy visitors, Columban and Gall. Whereupon the race of the Huns, (21) who had already often ravaged Francia [106] and Aquitania (that is to say the Gauls and the Spains), now poured out with all their forces, devastated the whole land like a wide-sweeping conflagration, and then carried off all their spoils to a very safe hiding-place. Now Adalbert, whom I have already mentioned, used to explain the nature of this hiding-place as follows: -- "The land of the Huns," he would say, "was surrounded by nine rings." (22) I could not think of any rings except our ordinary wicker rings for sheepfolds; and so I asked: "What, in the name of wonder, do you mean, sire?" "Well," he said, "it was fortified by nine hedges." I could not think of any hedges except those that protect our cornfields, so again I asked and he answered: "One ring was as wide, that is, it contained as much within it, as all the country between Tours and Constance. It was fashioned with logs of oak and ash and yew and was twenty feet wide and the same in height. All the space within was filled with hard stones and binding clay; and the surface of these great ramparts was covered with sods and grass. Within the limits of the ring shrubs were planted of such a kind that, when lopped and bent down, they still threw out twigs and leaves. Then between these ramparts hamlets and houses were so arranged that a man's [107] voice could be made to reach from one to the other. And opposite to the houses, at intervals in those unconquerable walls, were constructed doors of no great size; and through these doors the inhabitants from far and near would pour out on marauding expeditions. The second ring was like the first and was distant twenty Teutonic miles (or forty Italian) from the third ring; and so on to the ninth: though of course the successive rings were each much narrower than the preceding one. But in all the circles the estates and houses were everywhere so arranged that the peal of the trumpet would carry the news of any event from one to the other."

For two hundred years and more the Huns had swept the wealth of the western states within these fortifications, and as the Goths and Vandals were disturbing the repose of the world at the same time the western world was almost turned into a desert. But the most unconquerable Charles so subdued them in eight years that he allowed scarcely any traces of them to remain. He withdrew his hand from the Bulgarians, because after the destruction of the Huns they did not seem likely to do any harm to the kingdom of the Franks. All the booty of the Huns, which he found in Pannonia, [108] he divided most liberally among the bishoprics and the monasteries.

2. In the Saxon war in which he was engaged in person for some considerable time, tow private men (whose names I know, but modesty forbids me to give them) organised a storming party, and destroyed with great courage the walls of a very strong city and fortification. When the most just Charles saw this he made one of them, with the consent of his master Kerold, commander of the country between the Rhine and the Italian Alps and the other he enriched with gifts of land.

3. At the same time there were the sons of two nobles whose duty it was to watch at the door of the king's tent. But one night they lay as dead, soaked in liquor; while Charles, wakeful as usual, went the round of the camp, and came back to his tent without anyone having noticed him. When morning came he called to him the chiefs of his kingdom, and asked them what punishment seemed due to those who betrayed the King of the Franks into the hands of the enemy. Then these nobles, quite ignorant of what had occurred, declared that such a man was worthy of death. But Charles merely upbraided them bitterly and let them go unharmed.

4. There were also with him two bastards, the [109] children of a concubine. As they had fought in battle most bravely, the emperor asked them whose children they were, and where they were born. When he was informed of the facts, he called them to his tent at midday and said: "My good fellows, I want you to serve me, and me only." They exclaimed that they were there for no other purpose than to take even the lowest place in his service. "Well then," said Charles, "you must serve in my chamber." They concealed their indignation and said they would be glad to do so; but soon they seized the moment when the emperor had begun to sleep soundly, and then rushed out to the camp of the enemy and, in the fray that followed, wiped out the taint of servitude in their own blood and that of the enemy.

5. But occupations such as these did not prevent the high-souled emperor from sending frequent messengers, carrying letters and presents, to the kings of the most distant regions; and they sent him in turn whatever honours their lands could bestow. From the theatre of the Saxon war he sent messengers to the King of Constantinople; who asked them whether the kingdom of "his son Charles" was at peace or was being invaded by neighbouring peoples. Then the leader of the embassy made answer that [110] peace reigned everywhere, except only that a certain race called the Saxons were disturbing the territories of the Franks by frequent raids. Whereupon the sluggish and unwarlike Greek king answered: "Pooh! why should my son take so much trouble about a petty enemy that possesses neither fame nor valour? I will give you the Saxon race and all that belong to it." When the envoy on his return gave this message to the most warlike Charles, he smiled and said: "The king would have shown greater kindness to you if he had given you a leg-wrap for your long journey."

6. I must not conceal the wise answer which the same envoy gave during his embassy to Greece. He came with his companions to one of the royal towns in the autumn; the party was divided for entertainment, and the envoy of whom I speak was quartered on a certain bishop. This bishop was given up to fasting and prayer, and left the envoy to perish of almost continuous hunger: but, with the first smile of spring, he presented the envoy to the king. The king asked him his opinion of the bishop. Then the envoy sighed from the very bottom of his heart and said: "That bishop of yours reaches the highest point of holiness that can be attained to without God." The king was amazed [111] and said: "What! can a man be holy without God?" Then said the envoy: "It is written, 'God is love,' and in that grace he is entirely lacking."

Thereupon the King of Constantinople invited him to his banquet and placed him among his nobles. Now these had a law that no guest at the king's table, whether a native or a foreigner, should turn over any animal or part of an animal: he must eat only the upper part of whatever was placed before him. Now, a river fish, covered with spice, was brought and placed on the dish before him. He knew nothing of the custom and turned the fish over whereupon all the nobles rose up and cried: "Master, you are dishonoured, as no king ever was before you." Then the king groaned and said to our envoy: "I cannot resist them: you must be put to death at once: but ask me any other favour you like and I will grant it." He thought awhile and then in the hearing of all pronounced these words: "I pray you, lord emperor, that in accordance with your promise you will grant me one small petition." And the king said: "Ask what you will, and you shall have it: except only that I may not give you your life, for that is against the laws of the Greeks." Then said the envoy: "With my dying breath I ask one favour; let everyone who saw me turn that fish over [112] be deprived of his eyes." The king was amazed at the stipulation, and swore, by Christ, that he had seen nothing, but had only trusted the word of others. Then the queen began to excuse herself: "By the beneficent Mother of God, the Holy Mary, I noticed nothing." Then the other nobles, in their desire to escape from the danger, swore, one by the keeper of the keys of heaven, and another by the apostle of the Gentiles, and all the rest by the virtue of the angels and the companies of the saints, that they were beyond the reach of the stipulation. And so the clever Frank bet the empty-headed Greeks in their own land and came home safe and sound.

A few years later the unwearied Charles sent to Greece a certain bishop remarkable both for his physical and mental gifts, and with him the most noble duke Hugo. After a long delay they were at last brought into the presence of the king and then sent about to all manner of places. But at last they got their dismissal and returned, after paying heavily for their journey by sea and land.

Soon afterwards the Greek king sent his envoy to the most glorious Charles. It so happened that the bishop and the duke whom I have mentioned were just then with the emperor. When it was announced that the envoys were coming they advised the most [113] wise Charles to have them led round through mountains and deserts, so that they should only come into the emperor's presence when their clothes had been worn and wasted, and their money was entirely spent.

This was done; and when at last they arrived, the bishop and his comrade bade the count of the stables to take his seat on a high throne in the midst of his underlings, so that it was impossible to believe him anyone lower than the emperor. When the envoys saw him they fell upon the ground and wanted to worship him. But they were prevented by the ministers and forced to go farther. Then they saw the count of the palace presiding over a gathering of the nobles and again they thought it was the emperor and flung themselves to earth. But those who were present drove them forward with blows and said: "That is not the emperor." Next they saw the master of the royal table surrounded by his noble band of servants; and again they fell to the ground thinking that it was the emperor. Driven thence they found the chamberlains of the emperor and their chief in council together; and then they did not doubt but that they were in the presence of the first of living men. But this man too denied that he was what they took him for; and yet he promised [114] that he would use his influence with the nobles of the palace, so that if possible the envoys might come into the presence of the most August emperor. Then there came servants from the imperial presence to introduce them with full honours. Now Charles, the most gracious of kings, was standing by an open window leaning upon Bishop Heitto, for that was the name of the bishop who had been sent to Constantinople. The emperor was clad in gems and gold an glittered like the sun at its rising: and round about him stood, as it were the chivalry of heaven, three young men, his sons, (23) who have since been made partners in the kingdom; his daughters and their mother decorated with wisdom and beauty as well as with pearls; leaders of the Church, unsurpassed in dignity and virtue; abbots distinguished for their high birth and their sanctity; nobles, like Joshua when he appeared in the camp of Gilgal; and an army like that which drove back the Syrians and Assyrians out of Samaria. So that if David had been there he might well have sung: "Kings of the earth and all people; princes and all judges of the earth; both young men and maidens; old men and children let them praise the name of the Lord." Then the envoys of the Greeks were astonished; their spirit left them and their courage failed; [115] speechless and lifeless they fell upon the ground. But the most kindly emperor raised them, and tried to cheer them with encouraging words. At last life returned to them; but when they saw Heitto, whom they had once despised and rejected, now in so great honour, again they grovelled on the ground in terror; until the king swore to them by the King of Heaven that he would do them no harm. They took heart at this promise and began to act with a little more confidence; and so home they went and never came back again.

7. And here I must repeat that the most illustrious Charles had men of the greatest cleverness in all offices. When the morning lauds had been celebrated before the emperor on the octave of the Epiphany, the Greeks proceeded privately to sing to God in their own language psalms with the same melody and same subject matter as "veterem hominem" and the following words in our missal. Thereupon the emperor ordered one of his chaplains, who understood the Greek tongue, to adopt that psalm in Latin to the same melody, and to take special care that a separate syllable corresponded to every separate note, so that the Latin and Greek should resemble one another as far as the nature of the two languages allowed. So it came to pass [116] that all of them have been written in the same rhythm, and in one of them conteruit has been substituted for "contrivit."

These same Greek envoys brought with them every kind of organ, as well as other instruments of various kinds. All of these were covertly inspected by the workmen of the most wise Charles, and then exactly reproduced. The chief of these was that musicians' organ, wherein the great chests were made of brass: and bellows of ox-hide blew through pipes of brass, and the bass was like the roaring of the thunder, and in sweetness it equalled the tinkling of lyre or cymbal. But I must not, here and now, speak of where it was set up, and how long it lasted, and how it perished at the same time as other losses fell upon the state.

8. About the same time also envoys of the Persians were sent to him. They knew not where Frankland lay; but because of the fame of Rome, over which they knew that Charles had rule, they thought it a great thing when they were able to reach the coast of Italy. They explained the reason of their journey to the bishops of Campania and Tuscany, of Emilia and Liguria, of Burgundy and Gaul and to the abbots and counts of those regions; but by all they were either deceitfully handled or else [117] actually driven off; so that a whole year had gone round before, weary and footsore with their long journey, they reached Aix at last and saw Charles, the most renowned of kings by reason of his virtues. They arrived in the last week of Lent, and, on their arrival being made known to the Emperor, he postponed their presentation until Easter Eve. Then when that incomparable monarch was dressed with incomparable magnificence for the chief of festivals, he ordered the introduction of the envoys of that race that had once held the whole world in awe. (24) But they were so terrified at the sight of the most magnificent Charles that one might think they had never seen king or emperor before. He received them however most kingly, and granted them this privilege -- that they might go wherever they had a mind to, even as one of his own children, and examine everything and ask what questions and make what inquiries they chose. They jumped with joy at this favour, and valued the privilege of clinging close to Charles, of gazing upon him, of admiring him, more than all the wealth of the east.

They went up into the ambulatory that runs round the nave of the cathedral and looked down upon the clergy and the nobles; then they [118] returned to the emperor, and, by reason of the greatness of their joy, they could not refrain from laughing aloud; and they clapped their hands and said: -- "We have seen only men of clay before: here are men of gold." Then they went to the nobles, one by one, and gazed with wonder upon arms and clothes that were strange to them; and then came back to the emperor, whom they regarded with wonder still greater. They passed that night and the next Sunday continuously in church; and, upon the most holy day itself, they were invited by the most munificent Charles to a splendid banquet, along with the nobles of Frankland and Europe. There they were so struck with amazement at the strangeness of everything that they had hardly eaten anything at the end of the banquet.

"But when the Morn, leaving Tithonus' bed,
Illumined all the land with Ph¦bus' torch"

then Charles, who could never endure idleness and sloth, went out to the woods to hunt the bison and the urochs; and made preparations to take the Persian envoys with him. But when they saw the immense animals they were stricken with a mighty fear and turned and fled. But the undaunted hero [119] Charles, riding on a high-mettled charger, drew near to one of these animals and drawing his sword tried to cut through its neck. But he missed his aim, and the monstrous beast ripped the boot and leg-thongs of the emperor; and, slightly wounding his calf with the tip of its horn, made him limp slightly: after that, furious at the failure of its stroke, it fled to the shelter of a valley, which was thickly covered with stones and trees. Nearly all his servants wanted to take off their own hose to give to Charles, but he forbade it saying: "I mean to go in this fashion to Hildigard." Then Isambard, the son of Warin (the same Warin that persecuted your patron Saint Othmar (25)), ran after the beast and not daring to approach him more closely, threw his lance and pierced him to the heart between the shoulder and the wind-pipe, and brought the beast yet warm to the emperor. He seemed to pay no attention to the incident; but gave the carcass to his companions and went home. But then he called the queen and showed her how his leg-coverings were torn, and said: "What does the man deserve who freed me from the enemy that did this to me?" She made answer: "He deserves the highest boon." Then the emperor told the whole story and produced the enormous [120] horns of the beast in witness of his truth: so that the empress sighed and wept and beat her breast. But when she heard that it was Isambard, who had saved him from this terrible enemy, Isambard, who was in ill favour with the emperor and who had been deprived of all his offices -- she threw herself at his feet and induced him to restore all that had been taken from him; and a largess was given to him besides.

These same Persian envoys brought the emperor an elephant, monkeys, balsam, nard, unguents of various kinds, spices, scents and many kinds of drugs: in such profusion that it seemed as if the east had been left bare that the west might be filled. They came by-and-by to stand on very familiar terms with the emperor; and one day, when they were in a specially merry mood and a little heated with strong beer, they spoke in jest as follows: -- "Sir emperor, your power is indeed great; but much less than the report of it which is spread through all the kingdoms of the east." When he heard this he concealed his deep displeasure and asked jestingly of the,: "Why do you say that, my children? How did that idea get into your head?" Then they went back to the beginning and told him everything that had happened to them in the lands beyond [121] the sea; and they said: -- "We Persians and the Medes, Armenians, Indians, Parthians, Elamites, and all the inhabitants of the east fear you much more than our own ruler Haroun. (26) And the Macedonians and all the Greeks (how shall we express it?) they are beginning to fear your overwhelming greatness more than the waves of the Ionian Sea. And the inhabitants of all the islands through which we passed were as ready to obey you, and as much devoted to your service, as if they had been reared in your palace and loaded with your favours. But the nobles of your own kingdom, it seems to us, care very little about you except in your presence: for when we came as strangers to them, and begged them to show us some kindness for the love of you, to whom we desired to make our way, they gave no heed to us and sent us away empty-handed." Then the emperor deposed all counts and abbots, through whose territories those envoys had come, from all the offices that they held; and fined the bishops in a huge sum of money. Then he ordered the envoys to be taken back to their own country with all care and honour.


20. Julian's death took place in 367. It need scarcely be pointed out that the Monks' historical narrative is here of the very wildest description. [Back]
21. It is unnecessary to disentangle the Monk's strange perversion of history; but it may be noted that he identifies the Avars, whom Charlemagne subdued, with the Huns who followed Attila. But the Huns and the Avars, though allied in race, where two quite distinct nationalities. [Back]
22. It would be an interesting inquiry whether archaeological or historical research corroborates in any way this interesting account which Adalbert gives of the Hunnish fortifications. [Back]
23. These three sons are -- Charles, who died in 811; Pippin, who died in 810; and Lewis, who succeeded to the undivided dominions of Charlemagne, and is usually known as Lewis the Pious. [Back]
24. The Persians of the ninth century are by the Monk identified with the Persians of the period of Marathon and Salamis. [Back]
25. It must be remembered that the whole of the Monk's narrative is nominally addressed to Charles the Fat, great-grandson of Charlemagne. [Back]
26. This is the famous Haroun al Raschid already mentioned in Eginhard's Life of Charlemagne. [Back]

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