« PreviousContinue »
Another unexceptionable maxim is thus tersely expressed :• By a bad king is many a free man brought to shame.
• Par maulvais rois est maint franc hom honni.' A most characteristic feature of this Carlovingian cycle of chansons is that the ancient figure of Charlemagne is not represented in any of them—with the exception of the Chanson de Roland'— with a majesty at all corresponding to the gigantic part which he played in history. Indeed, even in the Chanson de Roland 'the poet, with great art, leaves his greatness to be surmised by indirect descriptive touches, and does not attempt to grapple directly with the grandeur of so mighty a leader of men.
The contenant fier,' the stern regard of Karl, is one of the attributes which occur most constantly, and this feature of his appears most to have struck his contemporaries and to have lived long in the memory of the people. Thus the Monk of St. Gall says, in speaking of an unfortunate reply of a bishop to the Emperor, At this insolent word the Emperor regarded him with such flaming eyes that he fell to the ground, as though struck with lightning. Au vis fier is the constant epithet of Karl in the Chansons.' In the Reali di Francia, the immense Italian compilation made from these Carlovingian chansons in the fourteenth century, the same quality occurs frequently. • He was so stern in countenance and look that no one could see him without lowering the eyes. In a chanson, called "Charlemagne à Constantinople,' describing a fictitious pilgrimage of Charleinagne to the East, this feature is dramatically brought into play. A Jew enters a church, and sees Karl with his twelve peers.
As soon as he saw Karlemaine he began to tremble, so haughty was his countenance.
He nearly fell as he turned and fled. He mounted the marble stairs of the dwelling of the Patriarch, and said to him, Go, sir, to the church, and make ready the font; straightway will I be baptised. I saw twelve Counts enter the church, with them a thirteenth. Never saw I such a form! By my troth, it is God in person. He and the twelve apostles are come to visit you!'
In the . Chanson de Roland,' however, his moral grandeur is equal to his visible aspect. He is severe and gentle, valiant and prudent; the sagest in council and the boldest in combat; grave and majestic as king, yet affectionate and tenderhearted to his friends. But the great Emperor, with the lion look and wise in council—the worthy chief of a crowd of mighty baronsbecomes entirely supplanted in the later chansons by a ridiculous mannequin impotent before the audacity, prowess, and politic skill of his barons.
It is impossible not to recognise that the Karl of the second cycle is no longer the Karl of the Chanson de Roland,' but that the last contemptible representatives of the Carlovingian dynasty have defaced in the minds of the jongleurs the majestic portrait of the great Emperor.
Indeed, not even in his own day was it possible that the stupendous genius of Charlemagne could be at all comprehended by his contemporaries; and perhaps he is the only great man about whom posterity can really complain that history has not preserved sufficient details to enable it to render him justice.
Among the four great kings of men who have existed-Alexander, Cæsar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon—both in natural genius and in services rendered to civilization Charlemagne far surpasses his three rivals. These had the advantage of appearing in ripened periods of civilization, when the accumulated treasures and wisdom of a glorious past were open to them, and the materials for empire and dominion were ready to their hands. But Charlemagne stands alone in history as a creator and founder of a new order of civilization, besides being engaged, during a long reign of forty-seven years, in incessant, terrible, and successful warfare against the immense forces of heathenism and barbarism which threatened on all sides the nascent and struggling interests of humanity. The glory of Charlemagne is that, by the prophetic inspiration of genius, he saw what work posterity required of him, and that he spent his life and the resources of his empire without rest in its service. He was no vulgar conqueror, fighting for the mere sake of conquest; but his life of warfare was forced upon him by necessity, and he represented the Spirit of Order reducing the elements of chaos and destruction to obedience and clearing the theatre of modern society from the savage antagonists of the civilizing agents of humanity. He felt that with him
Magnus ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo.' He was, in the first place, the unwearied champion of Christianized Germany-of that half of the stubborn and mighty race which had so long scorned to submit to the yoke of civilization, but which had at length accepted it-against their still more stubborn and equally indomitable kindred who still fanatically clung to the worship of Odin (a religion of war and barbarism) *
* It is a curious and yet natural reflection that in the fancy of the people Karl himself supplanted Odin, whose worship he overthrew; thus, in Hesse, he has taken possession of the Mountain of Odin' (Gudensberg, Wodensberg). It is in that mountain that he sleeps with his head on a table, and his white beard growing
round round it; when the beard has grown three times round it, the end of the world will have arrived. This myth is ingrafted on an old belief of Odin worship, when a similar legend of Ouin was emblematic of the retreat of the sun during the winter months. So also the constellation of the Great Bear became Charles' wain: --the Kaurlvagen having before been the wain of Odin.
and the savage customs of their ancestors. It took a thirtythree years' war, and, as a final resource, measures of appalling ruthlessness, such as wholesale execution and the transportation of whole nations to quell the almost invincible spirit of Odinism in those dauntless Saxon and Scandinavian barbarians. But in the end he accomplished it; and this and the establishment of the Papal power in independence by the subjection of the Lombards were the great achievements of the foreign policy of his reign. All his other tremendous conflicts with Saracens, Avars, Huns, Slaves, Serbs, Bavarians, and Batavians, were but episodes to the great unceasing battle between Karl and the Saxons. The eagle-like rapidity with which he flew from one campaign to another was not excelled by the swistest movements of Napoleon himself,* and in the sheer amount of work done as a commander it may be doubted if he was ever approached; and our admiration for this is increased by the consideration that it was all work done in the cause of civilization,
In home policy, both as a legislator and as a founder of learning, art, and science, he was equally remarkable, and in them he was assisted by a great man, who can be darkly studied through the memorials of barbarous documents—a man whom he felt to be alone capable of comprehending his policy and the true needs of civilization—the Anglo-Saxon Alcwyn or Alcuin. Alewyn was of the great school of Anglo-Saxon priests and apostles who had so large a part in the Christianizing of Europe and Germany, of the school of the Willibrods † Willehads, Leofwyns (St. Lieuvin), and Winfrids (St. Boniface). Charlemagne met Alcwyn at Parma soon after his accession, and at once recog; nised the largeness of his mind, the depth of his learning, and that he was a man capable of comprehending the magnitude of his designs and the true interests of posterity, and he spared no pains to enlist him in his service. He entitled him throughout life • Magistrum,' his master; and in the school of the palace, over which he had placed Alcwyn, he did not disdain himself to come and sit among his pupils. With the aid of Alcwyn he spared no pains to restore in France the cultivation of literature and the knowledge of religion. It is almost impossible, indeed, to form an idea of the ardour with which the vigorous, earnest, and entirely fresh mind of Charlemagne threw himself into the pursuit of learning and science. 'Alcwyn,' says Eginhard, ‘was able to appease in some measure the thirst for knowledge which consumed Karl, but never to wholly satisfy it.' Alcwyn became, in the expression of M. Guizot, for Karl .a sort of intellectual Prime Minister.' Nevertheless Alcwyn, older than Karl and more versed in the history of the human intellect, thought it prudent at times to endeavour to modify the intensity of hope with which Karl awaited the speedy elevation of the European mind to the ancient heights of intellectual superiority. “It does not depend on you or me,' he wrote to him, 'to make a Christian Athens of France.'
* Thus in the years 775-776, after a terrible campaign against the Saxons in the summer of 775, Karl hears that the Lombards are revolted, and that the Papal authority is in danger. At the urgent request of the Pope he departs from the Weser with his leudes and all his officers of state, descends upon Friuli, puts down the Lombard revolt, establishes Frank governors in all the towns of Upper Italy ; then departs as swiftly as he came, and is present at the Champ de Mai at Worms in the spring of 776 ; front to front again with Witikind and the Saxons.
† St. Willibrod is the patron saint of Utrecht; St. Lieuvin, that of Ghent.
But that which especially distinguishes Charlemagne, and shows his real inborn genius, is, that with all his love of Latin, of letters, and his recognition of the intellectual eminence of Greece and Rome, he aimed at no imitative phase of civilization, but at something essentially new, something truly Frank and German. Thus, he caused a German grammar to be compiled; and he gave to the months and to the winds names --not derived, however, from Rome, as later times have done, but names of pure Frank etymology; he caused a collection of Teutonic war-songs and Teutonic songs and ballads to be made, which celebrated the actions of former chiefs-a collection unhappily not now in existence, but which doubtless contained much of what is now confused together in the Niebelungen,' whose main action is undoubtedly taken from Merovingian history, and the terrible struggle between Fredegonda and Brunehilde. Equally characteristic in this respect was his aversion to foreign costumes, his adherence to the national dress, and the fact of his never having worn the chlamys, the robe in which he was crowned by the Pope, but twice in his life. No real conception of the politic and intellectual grandeur of such a chief is to be found in the Chansons de Geste. There are documents, however--the Chronicle of the Monk of St. Gall, and the biography of Eginhard—which help to place him more vividly before the eyes, both as he was represented in the popular imagination of his time, and in his real manner and habit as he lived.
We learn from Eginhard that Charlemagne was of a powerful frame, tall and well- proportioned, although his neck was somewhat short; that his hair was abundant, and his countenance frank and full of animation. His step was firm, his attitudes imposing, but his voice seemed somewhat weak for so powerful a body; his health never ceased to be vigorous except during the last four years of his life; and he had a great aversion to being doctored. He was passionately fond of riding and hunting --like all the Franks. He was temperate both in eating and drinking, especially in the latter, as he hated drunkenness
. During dinner he liked to hear music, or ballads recited by minstrels, or to listen to the reading of history, and especially of the works of St. Augustine. He was accessible to demands of justice night and day: he was fond of talking, and discoursed with abundance on everything. He adhered to the costume of the Franks, and disliked foreign costumes. He wore a linen shirt next his skin, over this a tunic with a fringe of silk. His chausses were bound by scarlet bands which crossed each other over his thighs and legs; and he wore buskins of gilt leather with long laces. In the winter he wore a large robe of otterskin. His sword was always by his side, and the hilt and belt were either gilt or silvered. On state occasions he wore a robe of stuff of gold, and his buskins were enriched with precious stones; his sash was fastened with a gold clasp; he wore a crown of gold, which was, with his sword, ornamented with precious stones. On ordinary occasions his costume differed little from that of the common people.
If the Chansons de Geste, however, add little to our knowledge of Charlemagne himself, it is to them that historian, archologist, and philologist must turn to have any accurate conception of the real state of France in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, and of the origin and growth of the French language. The dead recitals of the Chronicles tell us little of the state of society; but here we have feudalism clothed with real flesh and blood, animated with its fiercest passions, and illustrated with many a trait which throws light on the manners and customs of the time.
It is from the contemplation of the state of society among this ruder northern race of the langue d'oil that one turns with a grateful sense to that which engendered the sweet songs of the langue d'oc, in which the sentiment is often as tender, graceful, and delicate as if they were composed yesterday, and in which were contained in
germ all the sweeter graces and sensibilities of chivalry and of modern life.*
* In the songs of three only of the late Trouvères,-Quènes de Bethune, the Châtellain de Coucy, and Thibaut Count of Champagne and King of Navarre, are to be found strains equal in gentleness of thought to those of the Southern Troubadours. One of the Chansons, of the King of Navarre, that beginning