The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

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

Book II

9. There came to him also envoys form the King of the Africans, bringing a Marmorian lion and a Numidian bear, with Spanish iron and Tyrian [122] purple, and other noteworthy products of those regions. The most munificent Charles knew that the king and all the inhabitants of Africa were oppressed by constant poverty; and so, not only on this occasion but all through his life, he made them presents of the wealth of Europe, corn and wine and oil, and gave them liberal support; and thus he kept them constantly loyal and obedient to himself, and received from them a considerable tribute.

Soon after the unwearied emperor sent to the emperor of the Persians horse and mules from Spain; Frisian robes, white, grey, red and blue; which in Persia, eh was told, were rarely seen and highly prized. Dogs too he sent him of remarkable swiftness and fierceness, such as the King of Persia had desired, for the hunting and catching of lions and tigers. The King of Persia cast a careless eye over the other presents, but asked the envoys what wild beasts or animals these dogs were accustomed to fight with. He was told that they would pull down quickly anything they were set on to. "Well," he said, "experience will test that." Next day the shepherds were heard crying loudly as they fled from a lion. When the noise came to the palace of the king, he said to the envoys: "Now my [123] friends of Frankland, mount your horses and follow me." Then they eagerly followed after the king as though they had never known toil of weariness. When they came in sight of the lion, though he was yet at a distance, the satrap of the satraps said to them: "Now set your dogs on to the lion." They obeyed and eagerly galloped forward; the German dogs caught the Persian lion, and the envoys slew him with swords of northern metal, which had already been tempered in the blood of the Saxons.

At this sight Haroun, the bravest inheritor of that name, understood the superior might of Charles from very small indications, and thus broke out in his praise: -- "Now I know that what I heard of my brother Charles is true: how that by the frequent practice of hunting, and by the unwearied training of his body and mind, he has acquired the habit of subduing all that is beneath the heavens. How can I make worthy recompense for the honours which he has bestowed upon me? If I give him the land which was promised to Abraham and shown to Joshua, it is so far away that he could not defend it from the barbarians: or if, like the high-souled king that he is, he tried to defend it I fear that the provinces which lie upon the frontiers of the Frankish [123] kingdom would revolt from his empire. But in this way I will try to show my gratitude for his generosity. I will give that land into his power; and I will rule over it as his representative. Whenever he likes or whenever there is a good opportunity he shall send me envoys; and he will find me a faithful manager of the revenue of that province."

Thus was brought to pass what the poet spoke of as an impossibility: --

"The Parthian's eyes the Arar's stream shall greet

And Tigris' waves shall lave the German's feet":

for through the energy of the most vigourous Charles it was found not merely possible but quite easy for his envoys to go and return; and the messengers of haroun, whether young or old, passed easily from Parthia into Germany and returned from Germany to parthia. (And the poet's words are true, whatever interpretation the grammarians put on "the river Arar," whether they think it an affluent of the Rhone or the Rhine; for they have fallen into confusion on this point through their ignorance of the locality (27)). I could call on Germany to bear witness to my words; for in the time of your glorious father Lewis the land was compelled to pay a penny for every acre of land held under the [125] law towards the redemption of Christian captives in the Holy Land; and they made their wretched appeal in the name of the dominion anciently held over that land by your great-grandfather Charles and your grandfather Lewis.

10. Now as the occasion has arisen to make honourable mention of your never-sufficiently-praised father, (28) I should like to recall some prophetic words which the most wise Charles is known to have uttered about him. When he was six years old and had been most carefully reared in the house of his father, he was thought (and justly) to be wiser than men sixty years of age. His father then, hardly thinking it possible that he could bring him to see his grandfather, nevertheless took him from his mother, who had reared him with the most tender care, and began to instruct him how to conduct himself with propriety and modesty in the presence of the emperor; and how if he were asked a question he was to make answer and show in all things deference to his father. Thereafter he took him to the palace; and, on the first or second day, the emperor noted him with interest standing among the rest of the courtiers. "Who is that little fellow?" he said to his son; and he had for answer: "He is mine, sire; and yours if you deign to have him." So he said: "Give him to [126] me"; and, when that was done, he took the little fellow and kissed him and sent him back to the place where he had formerly stood. But now he knew his own rank; and thought it shame to stand lower than any one who was lower in rank than the emperor; so with perfect composure of mind and body he took his place on terms of equality with his father. The most prophetic Charles noticed this; and, calling his son Lewis, told him to find out the name of the boy; and why he acted in this way; and what it was that made him bold enough to claim equality with his father. The answer that Lewis got was founded on good reason: "When I was your vassal," he said, "I stood behind you and among soldiers of my own rank, as I was bound to do: but now I am your ally and comrade in arms, and so I rightly claim equality with you." When Lewis reported this to the emperor, the latter gave utterance to words something like these: -- "If that little fellow lives he will be something great." (I have borrowed these words from the Life of Saint Ambrose, (29) because the actual words that Charles used cannot be translated directly into Latin. And it seems fair to apply the prophecy which was made of Saint Ambrose to Lewis; for Lewis closely resembled the saint, except in such points as are necessary to an earthly [127] commonwealth, as for instance marriage and the use of arms; and in the power of his kingdom and his zeal for religion, Lewis was, if I may say so, superior to Saint Ambrose. He was a Catholic in faith, devoted to the worship of God, and the unwearied ally, protector, and defender of the servants of Christ.

Here is an instance of this. When our faithful Abbot Hartmuth -- who is now your hermit -- reported to him that the little endowment of Saint Gall, which was due not to royal munificence but to the petty offerings of private people, was not defended by any special charter such as other monasteries have, nor even by the laws that are common to all people, and so was unable to procure any defender or advocate, King Lewis himself resisted all our opponents, and was not ashamed to proclaim himself the champion of our weakness in the presence of all his nobles. At the same time too he wrote a letter to your genius directing that we should have license to make petition, after taking a special vote, for whatever we would through your authority. But alas, what a stupid creature I am! I have been probably drawn aside by my personal gratitude for the special kindness he showed us, away from his general and indescribable goodness and greatness and nobleness.)

[128] 11. Now lewis, King and Emperor of all Germany, of the provinces of Rhætia and of ancient Francia, of Saxony too and of Thuringia, of the provinces of Pannonia and of all northern nations, was of large build and handsome; his eyes sparkled like the stars, his voice was clear and manly. His wisdom was quite out of the common, and he added to it by constantly applying his singularly acute intellect to the study of the scriptures. He showed wonderful quickness too in anticipating or overcoming the plots of his enemies, in bringing to an end the quarrels of his subjects , and in procuring every kind of advantage for those who were loyal to him. More even than his ancestors he came to be a terror to all the heathen that stood round about his kingdom. And he deserved his good fortune; for he never defiled his tongue by condemning, nor his hands by shedding Christian blood; except once only, and then upon the most absolute necessity. But I dare not tell that story until I see a little Lewis or a Charles standing by your side. (30) After that one slaughter, nothing could induce him to condemn anyone to death. But the measure of compulsion which he used against those who were accused of disloyalty or plots was merely this: he deprived them of office, and no new circumstance [129] and no length of time could then soften his heart so as to restore them to the former rank. He surpassed all men in his zealous devotion to prayer, religious fasting and the care of the service of God; and like Saint Martin, whatever he was doing, he prayed to God as though he were face to face with Him. On certain days he abstained from flesh and all pleasant food. At the time of litanies he used to follow the cross with unshod feet from his palace as far as the cathedral; or if he were at Regensburg as far as the church of Saint Hemmeramm. (31) In other places he followed the customs of those whom he was with. He built new oratories of wonderful workmanship at Frankfurt and Regensburg. In the latter place, as stones were wanting to complete the immense fabric, he ordered the walls of the city to be pulled down; and in certain holes in the wall they found bones of men long dead, wrapped in so much gold, that not only did it serve to decorate the cathedral, but also he was able to furnish certain books that were written on the subject with cases of the same material nearly a finger thick. No clerk could stay with him, or even come into his presence, unless he were able to read and chant. He despised monks who broke their vows, and loved those who kept them. He was so full of [130] sweet tempered mirth, that, if anyone came to him in a morose mood, merely to see him and exchange a few words with him sent the visitor away with raised spirits. If anything evil of foolish was done in his presence, or if it happened that he were told of it, then a single glance of his eyes was enough to check everything, so that what is written of the eternal Judge who sees the hears of men (viz. "A King that sitteth on the throne of judgment, scattereth away all evil with His eyes:) might be fairly said to have begun in him, beyond what is usually granted to mortals.

All this I have written by way of digression, hoping that, if life lasts and Heaven is propitious, I may in time to come write much more concerning him.

12. But I must return to my subject. While Charles was detained for a little at Aix by the arrival of many visitors and the hostility of the unconquered Saxons and the robbery and piracy of the Northmen and Moors, and while the war against the Huns was being conducted by his son Pippin, the barbarous nations of the north attacked Noricum and eastern Frankland and ravaged a great part of it. When he heard of this he humiliated them in his own person; and he gave orders that all the boys and children of the invaders should be "measured with the sword"; and if anyone exceeded that measurement he should be shortened by a head.

This incident led to another much greater and more important. For, when your imperial majesty's most holy grandfather departed from life, certain giants (like to those who, Scripture tells us, were begotten by the sons of Seth from the daughters of Cain), blown up with the spirit of pride and doubtless like to those who said, "What part have we in David and what inheritance is the son of Esau?" -- these mighty men, I say, despised the most worthy children of Charles, and each tried to seize for himself the command in the kingdom and themselves to wear the crown. Then some of the middle class were moved by the inspiration of God to declare that, as the renowned Emperor Charles had once measured the enemies of Christianity with the sword, so, as long as any of his progeny could be found of the length of a sword, he must rule over the Franks and over all Germany too: thereupon that devilish group of conspirators was as it were struck with a thunderbolt, and scattered in all directions.

But, after conquering the external foe, Charles was attacked at the hands of his own people in a remarkable but unavailing plot. (32) For on his return from the Slavs into his own kingdom he was nearly captured [131] and put to death by his son, whom a concubine had borne to him and who had been called by his mother by the ill-omened name of the most glorious Pippin. The plot was found out in the following manner. This son of Charles had been plotting the death of the emperor with a gathering of nobles, in the church of Saint Peter; and when their debate was over, fearful of every shadow, he ordered search to be made, to see whether anyone was hidden in the corners or under the altar. And behold they found, as they feared, a clerk hidden under the altar. They seized him and made him swear that he would not reveal their conspiracy. To save his life, he dared not refuse to take the oath which they dictated: but, when they were gone, he held his wicked oath of small account and at once hurried to the palace. With the greatest difficulty he passed through the seven bolted gates, and coming at length to the emperor's chamber knocked upon the door. The most vigilant Charles fell into a great astonishment, as to who it was that dared to disturb him at that time of night. He however ordered the women (who followed in his train to wait upon the queen and the princesses) to go out and see who was at the door and what he wanted. When they went out and found the wretched creature, they bolted the door in his face and then, bursting [133] with laughter and stuffing their dresses into their mouths, they tried to hide themselves in the corners of the apartments. But that most wise emperor, whose notice nothing under heaven could escape, asked straitly of the women who it was and what he wanted. When he was told that it was a smooth-faced, silly, half-mad knave, dressed only in shirt and drawers, who demanded an audience without delay, Charles ordered him to be admitted. Then he fell at the emperor's feet and showed all that had happened. So all the conspirators, entirely unsuspicious of danger, were seized before the third hour of the day and most deservedly condemned to exile or some other form of punishment. Pippin himself, a dwarf and a hunchback, was cruelly scourged, tonsured, and sent for some time as a punishment to the monastery of Saint Gall; the poorest, it was judged, and the straitest in all the emperor's broad dominions.

A short time afterwards some of the Frankish nobles sought to do violence to their king. Charles was well aware of their intentions, and yet did not wish to destroy them; because, if only they were loyal, they might be a great protection to all Christian men. So he sent messengers to this Pippin and asked him his advice in the matter.

They found him in the monastery garden, in the [134] company of the elder brothers, for the younger ones were detained by their work. (33) He was digging up nettles and other weeds with a hoe, that the useful herbs might grow more vigorously. When they had explained to him the reason of their coming he sighed deeply, from the very bottom of his heart, and said in reply: -- "If Charles thought my advice worth having he would not have treated me so harshly. I give him no advice. Go, tell him what you found me doing." They were afraid to go back to the dreaded emperor without a definite answer, and again and again asked him what message they should convey to their lord. Then at last he said in anger: -- "I will send him no message except -- what I am doing! I am digging up the useless growths in order that the valuable herbs may be able to develop more freely."

So they went away sorrowfully thinking that they were bringing back a foolish answer. When the emperor asked them upon their arrival what answer they were bringing, they answered sorrowfully that after all their labour and long journeying they could get no definite information at all. Then that most wise king asked them carefully where they had found Pippin, and what he was doing, and what answer he had given them; and they said: "We found him sitting on a rustic seat turning over the [135] vegetable garden with a hoe. When we told him the cause of our journey we could extract no other reply than is, even by the greatest entreaties: 'I give no message except -- what I am doing! I am digging up the useless growths in order that the valuable herbs may be able to develop more freely.'" When he heard this the emperor, not lacking in cunning and mighty in wisdom, rubbed his ears and blew out his nostrils and said: "My good vassals, you have brought back a very reasonable answer." So while the messengers were fearing that they might be in peril of their lives, Charles was able to divine the real meaning of the words. He took all those plotters away from the land of the living; and so gave to his loyal subjects room to grow and spread, which had previously been occupied by those unprofitable servants. One of his enemies, who had chosen as part of the spoil of the empirethe highest hill in France and all that could be seen from it, was, by Charles's orders, hanged upon a high gallows on that very hill. But he bade his bastard son Pippin choose the manner of life that most pleased him. Upon this permission being given him, he chose a post in a monastery then most noble but now destroyed. (34) (Who is there that does not know the manner of its destruction! But I will not tell the [136] story of its fall until I see your little Bernard with a sword girt upon his thigh.)

The magnanimous Charles was often angry because he was urged to go out and fight against foreign nations, when one of his nobles might have accomplished the task. I can prove this from the action of one of my own neighbors. There was a man of Thurgau, (35) of the name of Eishere, who as his name implies was "a great part of a terrible army" (36) and so tall that you might have thought him sprung from the race of Anak, if they had not lived so long ago and so far away. Whenever he came to the river Dura and found it swollen and foaming with the torrents from the mountains, and could not force his huge charger to enter the stream (though stream I must not call it, but hardly melted ice), then he could seize the reins and force his horse to swim through behind him, saying: "Nay, by Saint Gall, you must come, whether you like it or not!"

Well, this man followed the emperor and mowed down the bohemians and the Wiltzes and Avars as a man might mow down hay; and spitted them on his spear like birds. When he came home the sluggards asked him how he had got on in the country of the Winides; and he, contemptuous of some and angry with others, replied: "Why should I have been [137] bothered with those tadpoles? I used sometimes to spit seven or eight or nine of them on my spear and carry them about with me squealing in their gibberish. My lord king and I ought never to have been asked to weary ourselves in fighting against worms like those."


27. There is really no doubt about the identification of the Arar. It is the Saône, the most important of the tributaries of the Rhone. [Back]
28. This is Lewis of Bavaria, who was King of Germany from 843-876, the son of Lewis the Pious, and the father of Charles the Fat. [Back]
29. The Monks's method here is not difficult to understand. The words of St. Ambrose and the parallel between the Saint and Charles are clearly introduced to give evidence of the writer's wide learning. [Back]
30. Charles the Fat had no children; but he had a brother, Carloman, King of Bavaria, and another, Lewis, King of Saxony. [Back]
31. St. Hemmeramm (or Emmeran, as the name is now usually written) was first a bishop in some Frankish see (possibly Poitiers) who about 649 went as a missionary to the idolaters of Bavaria. He was assassinated in 652 near Munich, on his road to Rome. A church in Regensburg is still called by his name. [Back]
32. This conspiracy is given in Eginhard's Life, Chap. XX, but without the Monk's picturesque details, and with the substitution of Prumia (in the Moselle country) for the Monastery of St. Gall. Eginhard's authority must, of course, be preferred, and we have, therefore, a striking instance of the monkish chronicler's desire to turn everything to the honour of his own cloister. [Back]
33. This story has a long history. It is first told of Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus; it was then adapted by Livy (1-54) to Tarquin, King of Rome, with slight alterations. The same story, which is here told somewhat clumsily, and applied to Charlemagne, is given by Ekkehard as belonging to the reign of Charles III. [Back]
34. The reference is to the Monastery of Prumia, which was destroyed by the Northmen in 882. [Back]
35. Thurgau is in Switzerland. [Back]
36. "Eis," meaning terrible; and "here," an army. [Back]

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page