BULFINCH'S LEGENDS OF CHARLEMAGNE OR ROMANCE OF THE MIDDLE AGES
CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTION.
Those who have investigated the origin of the romantic
fables relating to Charlemagne and his peers are of opinion that the deeds of Charles Martel,
and perhaps of other Charleses, have been blended in popular tradition with those properly
belonging to Charlemagne. It was indeed a most momentous era; and if our readers will have
patience, before entering on the perusal of the fabulous annals which we are about to lay before
them, to take a rapid survey of the real history of the times, they will find it hardly less
romantic than the tales of the poets.
In the century beginning from the year 600, the countries bordering upon the native
land of our Saviour, to the east and south, had not yet received his religion. Arabia was the seat
of an idolatrous religion resembling that of the ancient Persians, who worshipped the sun, moon,
and stars. In Mecca, in the year 571, Mahomet was born, and here, at the age of forty, he
proclaimed himself the prophet of God, in dignity as superior to Christ as Christ had been to
Moses. Having obtained by slow degrees a considerable number of disciples, he resorted to arms
to diffuse his religion. The energy and zeal of his followers, aided by the weakness of the
neighboring nations, enabled him and his successors to spread the sway of Arabia and the religion
of Mahomet over the countries to the east as far as the Indus, northward over Persia and Asia
Minor, westward over Egypt and the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and thence over the
principal portion of Spain. All this was done within one hundred years from the Hegira, or
flight of Mahomet from Mecca to Medina, which happened in the year 622, and is the era from
which Mahometans reckon time, as we do from the birth of Christ.
From Spain the way was open for the Saracens (so the followers of Mahomet were
called) into France, the conquest of which, if achieved, would have been followed very probably
by that of all the rest of Europe, and would have resulted in the banishment of Christianity
from the earth. For Christianity was not at that day universally professed, even by those nations
which we now regard as foremost in civilization. Great part of Germany, Britain, Denmark, and
Russia were still pagan or barbarous.
At that time there ruled in France, though without the title of king, the first of
those illustrious Charleses of whom we have spoken, Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne.
The Saracens of Spain had made incursions into France in 712 and 718, and had retired, carrying
with them a vast booty. In 725, Anbessa, who was then the Saracen governor of Spain, crossed
the Pyrenees with a numerous army, and took by storm the strong town of Carcassone. So great
was the terror, excited by this invasion, that the country for a wide extent submitted to the
conqueror, and a Mahometan governor for the province was appointed and installed at Narbonne.
Anbessa, however, received a fatal wound in one of his engagements, and the Saracens, being thus
checked from further advance, retired to Narbonne.
In 732 the Saracens again invaded France under Abdalrahman, advanced rapidly to the
banks of the Garonne, and laid siege to Bordeaux. The city was taken by assault and delivered up
to the soldiery. The invaders still pressed forward, and spread over the territories of Orleans,
Auxerre, and Sens. Their advanced parties were suddenly called in by their chief, who had received
information of the rich abbey of St. Martin of Tours, and resolved to plunder and destroy it.
Charles during all this time had done nothing to oppose the Saracens, for the reason
that the portion of France over which their incursions had been made was not at that time under
his dominion, but constituted an independent kingdom, under the name of Aquitaine, of which Eude
was king. But now Charles became convinced of the danger, and prepared to encounter it. Abdalrahman
was advancing toward Tours, when intelligence of the approach of Charles, at the head of an army
of Franks, compelled him to fall back upon Poitiers, in order to seize an advantageous field of battle.
Charles Martel had called together his warriors from every part of his dominion, and,
at the head of such an army as had hardly ever been seen in France, crossed the Loire, probably at
Orleans, and, being joined by the remains of the army of Aquitaine, came in sight of the Arabs in
the month of October, 732. The Saracens seem to have been aware of the terrible enemy they were
now to encounter, and for the first time these formidable conquerors hesitated. The two armies
remained in presence during seven days before either ventured to begin the attack; but at length
the signal for battle was given by Abdalrahman, and the immense mass of the Saracen army rushed
with fury on the Franks. But the heavy line of the Northern warriors remained like a rock, and
the Saracens, during nearly the whole day, expended their strength in vain attempts to make an
impression upon them. At length, about four o'clock in the afternoon, when Abdalrahman was preparing
for a new and desperate attempt to break the line of the Franks, a terrible clamor was heard in the
rear of the Saracens. It was King Eude, who, with his Aquitanians, had attacked their camp, and a
great part of the Saracen army rushed tumultuously from the field to protect their plunder. In
this moment of confusion the line of the Franks advanced, and, sweeping the field before it,
carried fearful slaughter amongst the enemy. Abdalrahman made desperate efforts to rally his
troops, but when he himself, with the bravest of his officers, fell beneath the swords of the
Christians, all order disappeared, and the remains of his army sought refuge in their immense
camp, from which Eude and his Aquitanians had been repulsed. It was now late, and Charles, unwilling
to risk an attack on the camp in the dark, withdrew his army, and passed the night in the plain,
expecting to renew the battle in the morning.
Accordingly, when daylight came, the Franks drew up in order of battle, but no enemy
appeared; and when at last they ventured to approach the Saracen camp, they found it empty. The
invaders had taken advantage of the night to begin their retreat, and were already on their way
back to Spain, leaving their immense plunder behind to fall into the hands of the Franks.
This was the celebrated battle of Tours, in which vast numbers of the Saracens
were slain, and only fifteen hundred of the Franks. Charles received the surname of Martel
(the Hammer) in consequence of this victory.
The Saracens, notwithstanding this severe blow, continued to hold their ground
in the South of France; but Pepin, the son of Charles Martel, who succeeded to his father's power,
and assumed the title of king, successively took from them the strong places they held; and in
759, by the capture of Narbonne, their capital, extinguished the remains of their power in France.
Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, succeeded his father, Pepin, on the throne in
the year 768. This prince, though the hero of numerous romantic legends, appears greater in
history than in fiction. Whether we regard him as a warrior or as a legislator, as a patron of
learning or as the civilizer of a barbarous nation, he is entitled to our warmest admiration.
Such he is in history; but the romancers represent him as often weak and passionate, the victim
of treacherous counsellors, and at the mercy of turbulent barons, on whose prowess he depends
for the maintenance of his throne. The historical representation is doubtless the true one,
for it is handed down in trustworthy records, and is confirmed by the events of the age. At
the height of his power, the French empire extended over what we now call France, Germany,
Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and a great part of Italy.
In the year 800, Charlemagne, being in Rome, whither he had gone with a numerous
army to protect the Pope, was crowned by the Pontiff Emperor of the West. On Christmas day
Charles entered the Church of St. Peter, as if merely to take his part in the celebration of
the mass with the rest of the congregation. When he approached the altar and stooped in the
act of prayer, the Pope stepped forward and placed a crown of gold upon his head; and immediately
the Roman people shouted, "Life and victory to Charles the August, crowned by God the great and
pacific Emperor of the Romans." The Pope then prostrated himself before him, and paid him
reverence, according to the custom established in the times of the ancient Emperors, and
concluded the ceremony by anointing him with consecrated oil.
Charlemagne's wars were chiefly against the pagan and barbarous people, who,
under the name of Saxons, inhabited the countries now called Hanover and Holland. He also
led expeditions against the Saracens of Spain; but his wars with the Saracens were not carried
on, as the romances assert, in France, but on the soil of Spain. He entered Spain by the Eastern
Pyrenees, and made an easy conquest of Barcelona and Pampeluna. But Saragossa refused to open
her gates to him, and Charles ended by negotiating, and accepting a vast sum of gold as the price
of his return over the Pyrenees.
On his way back, he marched with his whole army through the gorges of the mountains
by way of the valleys of Engui, Eno, and Roncesvalles. The chief of this region had waited upon
Charlemagne, on his advance, as a faithful vassal of the monarchy; but now, on the return of the
Franks, he had called together all the wild mountaineers who acknowledged him as their chief,
and they occupied the heights of the mountains under which the army had to pass. The main body
of the troops met with no obstruction, and received no intimation of danger; but the rear-guard,
which was considerably behind, and encumbered with its plunder, was overwhelmed by the mountaineers
in the pass of Roncesvalles, and slain to a man. Some of the bravest of the Frankish chiefs perished
on this occasion, among whom is mentioned Roland or Orlando, governor of the marches or frontier of
His name became famous in after times, and the disaster of Roncesvalles and death
of Roland became eventually the most celebrated episode in the vast cycle of romance.
Though after this there were hostile encounters between the armies of Charlemagne
and the Saracens, they were of small account, and generally on the soil of Spain. Thus the
historical foundation for the stories of the romancers is but scanty, unless we suppose the
events of an earlier and of a later age to be incorporated with those of Charlemagne's own time.
There is, however, a pretended history, which for a long time was admitted as
authentic, and attributed to Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims, a real personage of the time of
Charlemagne. Its title is "History of Charles the Great and Orlando." It is now unhesitatingly
considered as a collection of popular traditions, produced by some credulous and unscrupulous
monk, who thought to give dignity to his romance by ascribing its authorship to a well-known and
eminent individual. It introduces its pretended author, Bishop Turpin, in this manner:- "Turpin,
Archbishop of Rheims, the friend and secretary of Charles the Great, excellently skilled in sacred
and profane literature, of a genius equally adapted to prose and verse, the advocate of the poor,
beloved of God in his life and conversation, who often fought the Saracens, hand to hand, by the
Emperor's side, he relates the acts of Charles the Great in one book, and flourished under Charles
and his son Louis, to the year of our Lord eight hundred and thirty." The titles of some of
Archbishop Turpin's chapters will show the nature of his history. They are these: "Of the Walls
of Pampeluna, that fell of themselves." "Of the War of the holy Facundus, where the Spears grew."
(Certain of the Christians fixed their spears, in the evening, erect in the ground, before the
castle; and found them, in the morning, covered with bark and branches.) "How the Sun stood
still for Three Days, and the Slaughter of Four Thousand Saracens."
Turpin's history has perhaps been the source of the marvellous adventures which
succeeding poets and romancers have accumulated around the names of Charlemagne and his Paladins,
or Peers. But Ariosto and the other Italian poets have drawn from different sources, and doubtless
often from their own invention, numberless other stories which they attribute to the same heroes,
not hesitating to quote as their authority "the good Turpin," though his history contains no
trace of them;- and the more outrageous the improbability, or rather the impossibility, of their
narrations, the more attentive are they to cite "the Archbishop," generally adding their testimonial
to his unquestionable veracity.
The principal Italian poets who have sung the adventures of the peers of Charlemagne
are Pulci, Boiardo, and Ariosto. The characters of Orlando, Rinaldo, Astolpho, Gano, and others,
are the same in all, though the adventures attributed to them are different, Boiardo tells us of
the loves of Orlando, Ariosto of his disappointment and consequent madness, Pulci of his death.
Ogier, the Dane, is a real personage. History agrees with romance in representing
him as a powerful lord who, originally from Denmark and a Pagan, embraced Christianity, and took
service under Charlemagne. He revolted from the Emperor, and was driven into exile. He afterwards
led one of those bands of piratical Norsemen which ravaged France under the reigns of Charlemagne's
degenerate successors. The description which an ancient chronicler gives of Charlemagne, as described
by Ogier, is so picturesque, that we are tempted to transcribe it. Charlemagne was advancing to the
siege of Pavia. Didier, King of the Lombards, was in the city with Ogier, to whom he had given refuge.
When they learned that the king was approaching, they mounted a high tower, whence they could see far
and wide over the country. "They first saw advancing the engines of war, fit for the armies of Darius
or Julius Caesar. 'There is Charlemagne,' said Didier. 'No,' said Ogier. The Lombard next saw a vast
body of soldiers, who filled all the plain. 'Certainly Charles advances with that host,' said the
king. 'Not yet,' replied Ogier. 'What hope for us,' resumed the king, 'if he brings with him a
greater host than that?' At last Charles appeared, his head covered with an iron helmet, his hands
with iron gloves, his breast and shoulders with a cuirass of iron, his left hand holding an iron
lance, while his right hand grasped his sword. Those who went before the monarch, those who marched
at his side, and those who followed him, all had similar arms. Iron covered the fields and the
roads; iron points reflected the rays of the sun. This iron, so hard, was borne by a people whose
hearts were harder still. The blaze of the weapons flashed terror into the streets of the city."
This picture of Charlemagne in his military aspect would be incomplete without a
corresponding one of his "mood of peace." One of the greatest of modern historians, M. Guizot, has
compared the glory of Charlemagne to a brilliant meteor, rising suddenly out of the darkness of
barbarism to disappear no less suddenly in the darkness of feudalism. But the light of this meteor
was not extinguished, and reviving civilization owed much that was permanently beneficial to the
great Emperor of the Franks. His ruling hand is seen in the legislation of his time, as well as in
the administration of the laws. He encouraged learning; he upheld the clergy, who were the only
peaceful and intellectual class, against the encroaching and turbulent barons; he was an affectionate
father, and watched carefully over the education of his children, both sons and daughters. Of his
encouragement of learning, we will give some particulars. He caused learned men to be brought from
Italy and from other foreign countries, to revive the public schools of France, which had been
prostrated by the disorders of preceding times. He recompensed these learned men liberally, and
kept some of them near himself, honoring them with his friendship. Of these the most celebrated
is Alcuin, an Englishman, whose writings still remain, and prove him to have been both a learned
and a wise man. With the assistance of Alcuin, and others like him, he founded an academy or royal
school, which should have the direction of the studies of all the schools of the kingdom.
Charlemagne himself was a member of this academy on equal terms with the rest. He attended its
meetings, and fulfilled all the duties of an academician. Each member took the name of some famous
man of antiquity. Alcuin called himself Horace, another took the name of Augustin, a third of Pindar.
Charlemagne, who knew the Psalms by heart, and who had an ambition to be, according to his
conception, a king after God's own heart, received from his brother academicians the name of David.
Of the respect entertained for him by foreign nations an interesting proof is afforded
in the embassy sent to him by the Caliph of the Arabians, the celebrated Haroun al Raschid, a prince
in character and conduct not unlike to Charlemagne. The ambassadors brought with them, besides
other rich presents, a clock, the first that was seen in Europe, which excited universal admiration.
It had the form of a twelve-sided edifice with twelve doors. These doors formed niches, in each of
which was a little statue representing one of the hours. At the striking of the hour the doors, one
for each stroke, were seen to open, and from the doors to issue as many of the little statues,
which, following one another, marched gravely round the tower. The motion of the clock was caused
by water, and the striking was effected by balls of brass equal to the number of the hours, which
fell upon a cymbal of the same metal, the number falling being determined by the discharge of the
water, which, as it sunk in the vessel, allowed their escape.
Charlemagne was succeeded by his son Louis, a well-intentioned but feeble prince, in
whose reign the fabric reared by Charles began rapidly to crumble. Louis was followed successively
by two Charleses, incapable princes, whose weak and often tyrannical conduct is no doubt the source
of incidents of that character ascribed in the romances to Charlemagne.
The lawless and disobedient deportment of Charles's paladins, instances of which are
so frequent in the romantic legends, was also a trait of the declining empire, but not of that of