The Northern Way

The Life of Charlemagne

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

Book II

13. Now about the same time the emperor was putting the finishing touch to the war with the Huns, and had received the surrender of the races that I have just mentioned, the Northmen left their homes and disquieted greatly the Gauls and the Franks. Then the unconquered Charles returned and tried to attack them by land in their own homes, but a march through difficult and unknown country. But, whether it was that the providence of God prevented it in order that, as the Scripture says, He might make trial of Israel, or whether it was that our sins stood in the way, all his efforts came to nothing. One night, to the serious discomfort of the whole army, it was calculated that fifty yoke of oxen belonging to one abbey had died of a sudden disease. Afterwards when Charles was making a prolonged journey through his vast empire, Gotefrid, king of the Northmen, encouraged by his absence, invaded the territory of the Frankish kingdom and chose the district of the Moselle for his home. (37) But Gotefrid's [138] own son (whose mother he had just put away and taken to himself a new wife) caught him, while he was pulling off his hawk from a heron, and cut him through the middle with his sword. Then, as happened of old when Holofernes was slain, none of the Northmen dare trust any longer in his courage or his arms; but all sought safety in flight. And thus the Franks were freed without their own effort, that they might not after the fashion of Israel boast themselves against God. Then Charles, the unconquered and the invincible, glorified God for His judgment; but complained bitterly that any of the Northmen had escaped because of his absence. "Ah, woe is me!" he said, "that I was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends."

14. It happened too that on his wanderings Charles once came unexpectedly to a certain maritime city of Narbonensian Gaul. When he was dining quietly in the harbour of this town, it happened that some Norman scouts made a piratical raid. When the ships came in sight some thought them Jews, some African or British merchants, but the most wise Charles, by the build of the ships and their speed, knew them to be not merchants but enemies, and said to his companions: "These ships [139] are not filled with merchandise, but crowded with our fiercest enemies." When they heard this, in eager rivalry, they hurried in haste to the ships. But all was in vain, for when the Northmen heard that Charles, the Hammer, as they used to call him, was there, fearing lest their fleet should be beaten back or even smashed in pieces, they withdrew themselves, by a marvellously rapid flight, not only from the swords but even from the eyes of those who followed them. The most religious, just and devout Charles had risen from the table and was standing at an eastern window. For a long time he poured down tears beyond price, and none dared speak a word to him; but at last he explained his actions and his tears to his nobles in these words: -- "Do you know why I weep so bitterly, my true servants? I have no fear of those worthless rascals doing any harm to me; but I am sad at heart to think that even during my lifetime they have dared to touch this shore; and I am torn by a great sorrow because I foresee what evil things they will do to my descendants and their subjects."

May the protection of our Master Christ prevent the accomplishment of this prophecy; may your sword, tempered already in the blood of the Nordostrani, resist it! The sword of your brother Carloman will help, which now lies idle and rusted, not for [140] want of spirit, but for want of funds, and because of the narrowness of the lands of your most faithful servant Arnulf. (38) If your might wills it, if your might orders it, it will easily be made bright and sharp again. These and the little shoot of Bernard form the only branch that is left of the once prolific root of Lewis, to flourish under the wonderful growth of your protection. Let me insert here therefore in the history of your namesake Charles an incident in the life of your great-great-grandfather Pippin: which perhaps some future little Charles or Lewis may read and imitate.

15. When the Lombards and other enemies of the Romans were attacking them, they sent ambassadors to this same Pippin, and asked him for the love of Saint Peter to condescend to come with all speed to their help. As soon as he had conquered his enemies he came victoriously to Rome, (39) and this was the song of praise with which the citizens received him. "The fellow-citizens of the apostles and the servants of God have come to-day bringing peace, and making their native land glorious, to give peace to the heathen and to set free the people of the Lord." (Many people, ignorant of the meaning and origin of this song, have been accustomed to sing it on the birthdays of the apostles.) Pippin feared [141] the envy of the people of Rome (or, more truly, of Constantinople) and soon returned to Frankland.

When he found that the nobles of his army were accustomed in secret to speak contemptuously of him, he ordered one day a huge and ferocious bull to be brought out; and then a savage lion to be let loose upon him. The lion rushed with tremendous fury on the bull, seized him by the neck and cast him on the ground. Then the king said to those who stood round him: "Now, drag off the lion from the bull, or kill the one on the top of the other." They looked on one another, with a chill at their hearts, and could hardly utter these words amidst their sobs: -- "Lord, what man is there under heaven, who dare attempt it?" Then Pippin rose confidently from his throne, drew his sword, and at one blow cut through the neck of the lion and severed the head of the bull from his shoulders. Then he put back his sword into its sheath and sat again upon his throne and said: "Well, do you think I am fit to be your lord? Have you not heard what the little David did to the giant Goliath, or what the child Alexander did to his nobles?" They fell to the ground, as though a thunderbolt had struck them, and cried: "Who but a madman would deny your right to rule over all mankind?"
[142] Not only was his courage shown against beasts and men; but he also fought an incredible contest against evil spirits. The hot baths at Aix had not yet been built; but hot and healing waters bubbled from the ground. He ordered his chamberlain to see that the water was clean and that no unknown person was allowed to enter into them. This was done; and the king took his sword and, dressed only in linen gown and slippers, hurried off to the bath; when lo! the Old Enemy met him, and attacked him as though he would slay him. But the king, strengthened with the sign of the cross, made bare his sword; and, noticing a shape in human form, struck his unconquerable sword through it into the ground so far, that he could only drag it out again after a long struggle. But the shape was so far material that it defiled all those waters with blood and gore and horrid slime. But even this did not upset the unconquerable Pippin. He said to his chamberlain: "Do not mind this little affair. Let the defiled water run for a while; and then, when it flows clear again, I will take my bath without delay."

16. I had intended, most noble emperor, to weave my little narrative only round your great-grandfather Charles, all of whose deeds you know [143] well. But since the occasion arose which made it necessary to mention your most glorious father Lewis, called the illustrious, and your most religious grandfather Lewis, called the pious, and your most warlike great-great-grandfather Pippin the younger, I thought it would be wrong to pass over their deeds in silence, for the sloth of modern writers has left them almost untold. There is no need to speak of the elder Pippin, for the most learned Bede in his ecclesiastical history has devoted nearly a whole volume to him. But now that I have recounted all these things by way of digression I must swim swan-like back to your illustrious namesake Charles. But, if I do not curtail somewhat his feats in war, I shall never come to consider his daily habits of life. Now I will give with all possible brevity the incidents that occur to me.

17. When after the death of the ever-victorious Pippin the Lombards were again attacking Rome, the unconquered Charles, though he was fully occupied with business to the north of the Alps, marched swiftly into Italy. He received the Lombards into his service after they had been humbled in a war that was almost bloodless, or (one might say), after they had surrendered of their own free will; and to prevent them from ever again revolting [144] from the Frankish kingdom or doing any injury to the territories of Saint Peter, he married the daughter of Desiderius, chief of the Lombards. But no long time afterwards, because she was an invalid and little likely to give issue to Charles, she was, by the counsel of the holiest of the clergy, put aside, even as though she were dead: whereupon her father in wrath bound his subjects to him by oath, and shutting himself up within the walls of Pavia, he prepared to give battle to the invincible Charles, who, when he had received certain news of the revolt, hurried to Italy with all speed.

Now it happened that some years before one of the first nobles, called Otker, had incurred the wrath of the most terrible emperor, and had fled for refuge to Desiderius. When the near approach of the dreaded Charles was known, these two went up into a very high tower, from which they could see anyone approaching at a very great distance. When therefore the baggage-waggons appeared, which moved more swiftly than those used by Darius or Julius, Desiderius said to Otker: "Is Charles in that vast army?" And Otker answered: "Not yet." Then when he saw the vast force of the nations gathered together from all parts of his empire, he said with confidence to Otker: "Surely Charles moves in pride among those forces." But Otker answered: "Not yet, not yet." Then Desiderius fell into great alarm and said, "What shall we do if a yet great force comes with him?" And Otker said, "You will see what he is like when he comes. What will happen to us I cannot say." And, behold, while they were thus talking, there came in sight Charles's personal attendants, who never rested from their labours; and Desiderius saw them and cried in amazement, "There is Charles." And Otker answered: "Not yet, not yet." Then they saw the bishops and the abbots and the clerks of his chapel with their attendants. When he saw them he hated the light and longed for death, and sobbed and stammered, "Let us of down to hide ourselves in the earth from the face of an enemy so terrible." And Otker answered trembling, of once, in happier days, he had had through and constant knowledge of the policy and preparations of the unconquerable Charles: "When you see an iron harvest bristling in the fields; and the Po and the Ticino pouring against the walls of the city like the waves of the sea, gleaming black with glint of iron, then know that Charles is at hand." Hardly were these words finished when there came from the west a black cloud, which turned the bright day to horrid gloom. But as the emperor drew nearer the gleam [146] of the arms turned the darkness into day, a day darker than any night to that beleaguered garrison. Then could be seen the iron Charles, helmeted with an iron helmet, his hands clad in iron gauntlets, his iron breast and broad shoulders protected with an iron breastplate: an iron spear was raised on high in his left hand; his right always rested on his unconquered iron falchion. The thighs, which with most men are uncovered that they may the more easily ride on horseback, were in his case clad with plates of iron: I need make no special mention of his greaves, for the greaves of all the army were of iron. His shield was all of iron: his charger was iron coloured and iron-hearted. All who went before him, all who marched by his side, all who followed after him and the whole equipment o the army imitated him as closely as possible. The fields and open places were filled with iron; the rays of the sun were thrown back by the gleam of iron; a people harder than iron paid universal honour to the hardness of iron. The horror of the dungeon seemed less than the bright gleam of iron. "Oh the iron! Woe for the iron!" was the confused cry that rose from the citizens. The strong walls shook at the sight of the iron; the resolution of young and old fell before the iron. Now when the truthful Otker saw in one swift glance all this which [147] I, with stammering tongue and the voice of a child, have been clumsily explaining with rambling words, he said to Desiderius: "There is the Charles that you so much desired to see": and when he had said this he fell to the ground half dead.

But as the inhabitants of the city, either through madness or because they entertained some hope of resistance, refused to let Charles enter on that day, the most inventive emperor said to his men: "Let us build to-day some memorial, so that we may not be charged with passing the day in idleness. Let us make hast to build for ourselves a little house of prayer, where we may give due attention to the service of God, if they do not soon throw open the city to us." No sooner had he said it than his men flew off in every direction, collected lime and stones, wood and paint, and brought them to the skilled workmen who always accompanied him. And between the fourth hour of the day and the twelfth they built, with the help of the young nobles and the soldiers,such a cathedral, so provided with walls and roofs, with fretted ceilings and frescoes, that none who saw it could believe that it had taken less than a year to build. But, how on the next day some of the citizens wanted to throw open the gate; and some wanted to fight against him, even without hope of [148] victory, or rather to fortify themselves against him; and how easily he conquered, took and occupied the city, without the shedding of blood, and merely by the exercise of skill; -- all this I must leave others to tell, who follow your highness not for love, but in the hope of gain.

Then the most religious Charles marched on and came to the city of Friuli, which the pedants call Forum Julii. Now it happened just at this time that the bishop of that city (or, to use a modern word, the patriarch) was drawing near to the end of his life. Charles made haste to visit him, in order that he might designate his successor by name. But the bishop, with remarkable piety, sighed from the bottom of his heart and said: "Sire, I have held this bishopric for a long time without any use of profit; and now I leave it to the judgement of god and your disposal. For I do not wish, at the point of death, to add anything to the mountain of sin that I have heaped together during my life, for which I shall have to make answer to the inevitable and incorruptible Judge." The most wise Charles was so pleased with these words, that he rightly thought him the equal in virtue of the ancient fathers.

After Charles, of all the energetic Franks the most energetic, had stayed in that country for a short time, [149] while he was appointing a worthy successor to the deceased bishop, one festal day after the celebration of mass he said to his retinue: "We must not let leisure lead us into slothful habits: let us go hunting and kill something; and let us all go in the very clothes that we are wearing at this moment." Now the day was cold and rainy and Charles was wearing a sheepskin, not much more costly than the cloak which Saint Martin wore when with bare arms he offered to God a sacrifice that received divine approval. But the others -- for it was a holiday and they had just come from Pavia, whither the Venetians had carried all the wealth of the east from their territories beyond the sea -- the other, I say, strutted in robes made of pheasant-skins and silk; or of the necks, backs and tails of peacocks in their first plumage. Some were decorated with purple and lemon-coloured ribbons; some were wrapped round with blankets and some in ermine robes. They scoured the thickets; they were torn by branches of trees, thorns, and briars; they were drenched with rain; they were defiled with the blood of wild beasts and the filth of the skins; and in this plight they returned home. Then the most crafty Charles said: "No one of us must take off his dress of skins before he goes to bed; they will dry better upon our bodies." Then everyone, more anxious [150] about his body than his dress, made search for fire and tried to warm himself. Then they returned and remained in attendance upon Charles far into the night before they were dismissed to their apartments. Then when they began to draw off their dresses of skins and their slender belts, the creased and shrunken garments could be heard even from a distance cracking like sticks broken when they are dry: and the courtiers sighed and groaned and lamented that they had lost so much money on a single day. They had received however a command from the emperor to appear before him next day in the same skin-garments. When they came it was no longer the splendid show of yesterday; for they looked dirty and squalid in their discoloured and rent clothes. Then Charles, full of guile, said to his chamberlain: "Give my sheepskin a rub and bring it to me." It came quite white and perfectly sound and Charles took it and showed it to all those who were there and spoke as follows: -- "Most foolish of mortal men! which of these dresses is the most valuable and the most useful, this one of mine which was bought for a piece of silver, or those of yours which you bought for pounds, nay for many talents?" Their eyes sank to the ground for they could not bear his most terrible censure.

[151] Your most religious father imitated this example of the Great Charles all through his life, for he never allowed anyone, who seemed to him worthy of his notice or his teaching, to wear anything when on campaign against the enemy except the military accoutrements, and garments of wool and linen. If any of his servants, ignorant of this rule, happened to meet him with silk or silver or gold upon his person, he would receive a reprimand of the following king and would depart a better and a wiser man. "Here's a blase of gold and silver and scarlet! Why, you wretched fellow, can't you be satisfied with perishing yourself in battle if Fate so decides? Must you also give your wealth into the hands of the enemy; which might have gone to ransom your soul, but now will decorate the temples of the heathen?" But now, though you know it better than I do, I will tell again how, from early youth up to his seventieth year, the unconquered Lewis delighted in iron; and what an exhibition of his fondness for iron he made in the presence of the legates of the Northmen!

18. When the kings of the Northmen sent gold and silver as witness of their loyalty and their swords as a mark of their perpetual subjection and surrender, the king gave orders that the precious metals should be [152] thrown upon the floor, and should be looked upon by all with contempt, and be trampled upon by all as though they were dirt. But, as he sat upon his lofty throne, he ordered the swords to be brought to him that he might make trial of them. Then the ambassadors, anxious to avoid the possibility of any suspicion of an evil design, took the swords by the very point (as servants hand knives to their masters) and thus gave them to the emperor at their own risk. He took one by the hilt and tried to bend the tip of the blade right back to the base; but the blade snapped between his hands which were stronger than the iron itself. Then one of the envoys drew his own sword from its sheath and offered it, like a servant, to the emperor's service, saying: "I think you will find this sword as flexible and as strong as your all-conquering right hand could desire." Then the emperor (a true emperor he! As the Prophet Isaiah says in his prophecy, "Consider the rock whence ye were hewn"; for he out of all the vast population of Germany, by the singular favour of God, rose to the level of the strength and courage of an earlier generation) -- the emperor, I say, bent it like a vine-twig from the extreme point back to the hilt, and then let it gradually straighten itself again. Then the envoys gazed upon one another and said in amazement: [153] "Would that our kings held gold and silver so cheap and iron so precious."

19. As I have mentioned the Northmen I will show by an incident drawn from the reign of your grandfather in what slight estimation they hold faith and baptism. Just as after the death of the warrior King David, the neighbouring peoples, whom his strong hand had subdued, for a long time paid their tribute to his peaceful son Solomon: even so the terrible race of the Northmen still loyally paid to Lewis the tribute which through terror they had paid to his father, the most august Emperor Charles. Once the most religious Emperor Lewis took pity on their envoys, and asked them if they would be willing to receive the Christian religion; and, when they answered that always and everywhere and in everything they were ready to obey him, he ordered them to be baptised in the name of Him, of whom the most learned Augustine says: "If there were no Trinity, the Truth would never have said: 'Go and teach all peoples, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.'" The nobles of the palace adopted them almost as children, and each received from the emperor's chamber a white robe and from their sponsors a full Frankish attire, of costly robes and arms and other decorations.

[154] This was often done and from year to year they came in increasing numbers, not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantage. They made haste to come, not as envoys any longer but as loyal vassals, on Easter Eve to put themselves at the disposal of the emperor; and it happened that on a certain occasion they came to the number of fifty. The emperor asked them whether they wished to be baptised, and when they had confessed he bade them forthwith be sprinkled with holy water. As linen garments were not ready in sufficient numbers he ordered shirts to be cut up and sewn together into the fashion of wraps. One of these was forthwith clapped upon the shoulders of one of the elder men; and when he had looked all over it for a minute, he conceived fierce anger in his mind, and said to the emperor: "I have gone through this washing business here twenty times already, and I have been dressed in excellent clothes of perfect whiteness; but a sack like this is more fit for clodhoppers than for soldiers. If I were not afraid of my nakedness, for you have taken away my own clothes and have given me no new ones, I would soon leave your wrap and your Christ as well."

Ah! how little do the enemies of Christ value the words of the Apostle of Christ where he says: -- "All ye that are baptised in Christ, put on christ:; and [155] again: "Ye that are baptised in Christ are baptised in His death"; or that passage which is aimed especially at those who despise the faith and violate the sacraments: "Crucifying the Son of God afresh and putting Him to an open shame!" Oh! would that this were the case only with the heathen; and not also among those who are called by the name of Christ!

20. Now I must tell a story about the goodness of the first Lewis, and then I shall come back to Charles. That most peaceable emperor Lewis, being free from the incursions of the enemy, gave all his care to works of religion, as, for instance, to prayer, to works of charity, to the hearing and just determinations of trials at law. His talents and his experience had made him very skilful in this latter business; and when one day there came to him one, who was considered a very Achitophel by all, and tried to deceive him he gave him this answer following, with courteous mein and kindly voice, though with some little agitation of mind. "Most wise Anselm," he said, "if I may be allowed to say so, I would venture to observe that you are deviating from the path of rectitude." From that day the reputation of that legal luminary sank to nothing in the eyes of all the world.

[156] 21. Moreover the most merciful Lewis was so intent on works of charity that he liked not merely to have them done in his sight, but even to do them with his own hand. Even when he was away he made special arrangements for the trial of cases in which the poor were concerned. He chose one of their own number, a man of small bodily strength, but apparently more courageous than the rest, and gave orders that he should decide offenses committed by them; and should see to the restoration of stolen property, the requital of injuries and wounds, and in cases of greater crimes to the infliction of mutilation, decapitation, and the exposure of the bodies on the gallows. This man established dukes, tribunes, centurions and their representatives, and performed his task with energy.

Moreover the most merciful emperor, worshipping Christ in the persons of all the poor, was never weary of giving them food and clothing: and he did so especially on the day when Christ, having put off His mortal body, was preparing to take to Himself an incorruptible one. On that day it was his practice to make presents to each and every one of those who served in the palace or did duty in the royal court. He would order belts, leg coverings and precious garments brought from all parts of his vast empire [157] to be given to some of his nobles; the lower orders would get Frisian cloaks of various colours; his grooms, cooks and kitchen-attendants got clothes of linen and wool and knives according to their needs. Then, when according to the Acts of the Apostles there was no one that was in need of anything, there was a universal feeling of gratitude. The ragged poor, now decently clad, raised their voices to heaven with the cry of "'Kyrie Eleison' to the blessed Lewis" through all the wide courts and the smaller openings of Aix (which the Latins usually call porches); and all the knights who could embraced the feet of the emperor; and those who could not get to him worshipped him afar off as he made his way to church. On one of these occasions one of the fools said in jest:"O happy Lewis, who on one day hast been able to clothes so many people. By Christ, I think that no one in Europe has clothed more than you this day except Atto." (40) When the emperor asked him how it was possible that Atto should have clothed more, the jester, pleased to have secured the attention of the emperor, said with a grin: "He has distributed to-day a vast number of new clothes." The emperor, with the sweetest possible expression on his face, took this for the silly joke it was, and entered the church in humble devotion, and there behaved [158] himself so reverently that he seemed to have our Lord Jesus Christ Himself before his bodily eyes.

It was his habit to go to the baths every Saturday, not for any need there was of it, but because it gave him an opportunity of making presents; for he used to give everything that he took off, except his sword and bet, to his attendants. His liberality reached even to the lowest grades: insomuch that he once ordered all his attire to be given to one Stracholf, a glazier, and a servant of Saint Gall. When the servants of the barons heard of this, they laid an ambuscade for him on the road and tried to rob him. Then he cried out: "What are you doing? You are using violence to the glazier of the emperor!" They answered: "You can keep your office but . . . "

[Here the MS. ends, and the further adventures of Stracholf are left to conjecture.]


37. No Northman made any permanent settlement on the Moselle either in the reign of Charles or at any other time. At most this can refer only to the boast, or design, of some such chief as Gotefrid. [Back]
38. The allusion to the Nordostrani fixes this reference to the year 882, when the Northmen were a terrible and increasing danger to all Frankland. The Arnulf here mentioned was the son of Charles the Fat, and, later, Emperor. [Back]
39. This story of King Pippin's visit to Rome is entirely legendary. It is repeated by later chroniclers, but is certainly without basis of any kind. [Back]
40. I confess myself unable to make anything out of the jester's references to Atto. [Back]

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page