Archive for ‘Charlemagne’


“I watched you try, try to make that girl cry…”

Yesterday, with a speed that can only be chalked up to witchcraft, an ambulance parked at our local high school turned into Facebook rumors about hearsay about sightings of—well, I’m hardly the first to sound the alarm about the latest existential menace to law and order and basic human decency:

The frenzy was born in South Carolina in late August after unsubstantiated reports surfaced that clowns were spotted trying to lure children into the woods. The craze has since ignited a national phenomenon, with scary clown sightings reported in more than two dozen states from Alabama to Wisconsin. While many were hoaxes, a handful of the incidents resulted in arrests: in Alabama, at least seven people face felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told the Times-Picayune.

The incidents continue to stack up. Just this week, hundreds of students in Pennsylvania State University swarmed surrounding campus streets to carry out a mass clown hunt. A Connecticut school district said it is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror.” And an armed clown hoax temporarily put a Massachusetts college on lockdown.

The issue even made it all the way to the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the phenomenon on Tuesday.

One of the reasons I like being a medievalist is that it helps me distinguish the quirks of specific eras from timeless human folly. The former almost always sharpen into the latter when glimpsed through the lenses of distance and time.

In De Grandine et Tonitruis (“On Hail and Thunder”), Agobard, the ninth-century archbishop of Lyons, describes his encounter with a mob of rustics who had captured some “weather magicians” and were ready to stone them to death. He relates, grudgingly, a popular belief that men from a land called Magonia were stealing crops that had been knocked down by hail, which the weather magicians could summon and control, and flying away with the grain in their cloud ships. He also documents his investigations into a rumor that Duke Grimoald of Benevento, Charlemagne’s enemy, was sending men to sprinkle cartloads full of poisonous dust to kill the local cattle.

Agobard refrains from outright ranting, but his frustration is clear:

This story was so widely believed that there were very few to whom it seemed absurd. They did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust. Such is the great foolishness that oppresses the wretched world.

The situation may be medieval, but Agobard’s inquiry into the ways of weather magicians is an evergreen example of what happens when you hack through hedgerows of rumor in a vain attempt to find the crooked byway to the weed-smothered outskirts of truth:

Often we have heard it said by many, that they knew that such things were certainly done in specific places, but we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things. Once it was reported to me that someone said that he himself had seen such things. With great interest I myself set out to see him, and I did. But when I was speaking to him and encouraging him, with many prayers and entreaties, to say whether he had seen such things, I nevertheless pressed him with divine threats not to say anything unless it were true. Then he declared that what he had said was indeed true and he named the person, the time, and place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at the time.
[translated by P.E. Dutton in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader]

I’d cite more of De Grandine et Tonitruis, but a leering figure just crept from the woods. I could be mistaken, but he’s hauling what seem to be a bag of kidneys and a Mexican rat. There’s a farm across the street; if the cattle keel over, we’ll know who to blame. Like peasants before me, I’ll scan the horizon—and chase floppy footprints through ages of dust.

“…but as for fame, it’s just a name…”

Blackfriars Playhouse interior. Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.

What was it like to see a play in the 1590s? The good folks at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, answer that question at least five nights a week, as unflagging actors stage the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a cozy recreation of Shakespeare’s first theater in London. The Blackfriars is now in the throes of its Actors’ Renaissance Season, the annual late-winter whirlwind where a dozen actors direct themselves and play all of the roles in five plays at once, with only a few days to prepare and rehearse. (There’s a prompter nearby, but it’s a sign of the actors’ immersion in their work that they rarely need to “prithee” him.)

This weekend, we drove down to Staunton for two shows: Aphra Behn’s “The Rover,” which taught me a useful new 17th-century exclamation—‘sheartlikins!—and John Webster’s “The White Devil,” a lurid, over-the-top revenge tragedy packed with vivid metaphors and similes about death and the cruel indifference of nature. “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, / For with his nails he’ll dig them up again”—T.S. Eliot parodied those lines, and I was startled to hear the originals spoken by a grieving mother; it’s rare to spot a footnote from “The Waste Land” running loose in the wild.

Because I’ve written so much about Charlemagne, I was also surprised to hear a character name-check the Carolingians during one of Webster’s most frantic scenes: Two women think they’re tricking a scoundrel named Flamineo into a complex, three-way suicide pact, but he’s actually tricking them into revealing their falseness by giving them pistols loaded with blanks. As he feigns preparation for death, he muses on his afterlife—so the Blackfriars actor said something like this:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart.

A reference to one of the Pippins, but not Charlemagne? That surprised me, so I looked up the full text of the play, and sure enough, the Big C is right where I thought he would be:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging points, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, Hannibal selling blacking, and Augustus crying garlic, Charlemagne selling lists by the dozen, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart drawn with one horse.
Whether I resolve to fire, earth, water, air,
Or all the elements by scruples, I know not
Nor greatly care—Shoot, shoot,
Of all deaths the violent death is best,
Far from ourselves it steals ourselves so fast
The pain once apprehended is quite past.

What intrigued me here is that either the actor, overwhelmed by having to learn five plays at once, skipped over several of the mighty men who are reduced to menial labor in purgatory—or, more likely, he and his castmates cut the play for time, paring down this overwrought passage to the three names an early 21st-century audience might know: Alexander, Julius Caesar, and…Pippin?

Although they all had the same name, Charlemagne’s disfavored hunchback son who inspired the 1972 jazz-hands musical wasn’t the same guy as Charlemagne’s other son Pippin, who ruled Italy, or Charlemagne’s father Pippin, the first Carolingian king. The fact that a Pippin made the cut but Charlemagne didn’t hints at the priorities of theater people, who know the musical but not necessarily the history behind it—but that’s not a complaint. The Blackfriars’ productions are engrossing and smart, historical figures are doomed to whirl ’round Fortune’s wheel, and Webster knew that drawing sustenance from the mouldering past is part of the natural and necessary gloom of life:

Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?

“I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…”

Twelve hundred years ago tomorrow—January 28, 814—the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. His biographers cataloged the omens that presaged his death, and poets insisted that all the world wept for him. But they mourned too late; the old man they interred in the cathedral had long been lost to legend and myth.

The Charlemagne most of us know is a literary creation: a chivalric ancestor, an Arthur-like figure encircled by heroes, an enigma whose name legitimizes fundamentalist prophecies, spurious movie quotes, heavy-metal concept albums, and (mirabile dictu) overpriced shower gel. Across centuries, Karl’s propagandists can rightly claim victory—but as someone suspicious of power, I’m interested in a different judgment of the man, one that shows how some people felt about him when he wasn’t yet cold in his tomb.

In 824, on the island of Reichenau, a book-obsessed monk named Wettin fell ill. He crawled into bed and suffered terrifying visions: First, he saw an evil, robed spirit looming over his bed with torture devices; then he went on a vivid tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven led by his own guardian angel.

From his deathbed, Wettin recounted his revelations to a monk named Haito. Two years later, one of Wettin’s former students, Walafrid Strabo, rewrote the account as a long poem, “The Vision of Wettin.” Walafrid later tutored Charlemagne’s grandson and served as abbot of Reichenau. His flair for poetry and his love of gardening have earned him a tag on this blog and a poem in the gargoyle book, but when you’re assessing Charlemagne, one scene from his “Vision of Wettin” really stands out.

Here it is, hastily translated (by me) from Latin into metrical, alliterative lines:

 Casting his eyes over the landscape,
 He beheld the late king of the high-born Romans
 And all of Italy unable to move,
 Rent by a beast that ravaged his genitals;
 Left free of ruin was the rest of his body.
“Explain this!” cried Wettin, witless with horror.
“Many things fell to this man in his life:
 Attempting to nourish a new age of laws,
 Goading the teachings of God to prosper,
 Nobly protecting his pious subjects,
 Eventually reaching that rare summit
Where upholding virtue invites sweet praise,
But here he is held under horrid conditions,
Enduring great pain and punishment. Why?”

“This torment engulfs him,” his guide replied,
“Because he disfigured with filthy pleasures
His noble deeds, and doubted not
That his sins would be subsumed by his goodness,
Ending his life in the usual sordidness.
Even so, he will toil to attain splendor
And delight in the honor his Lord has prepared.”
               (MGH Poetae II 318–319, ll. 446–465)

Make what you will of the prospects for Charlemagne’s soul; after his death, people grew comfortable recording in writing what they’d likely been saying for years. Heirs and hangers-on had reasons for praising or damning the actual man—but before long, medieval people were more interested in letting the real Karl rot while recasting “Charlemagne” to suit their own needs. In the year ahead, we’ll rediscover how true that still is.

Tomorrow’s anniversary kicks off the “Karlsjahr,” a flurry of Karolocentric commemorations, exhibitions, symposia, and other events coinciding with the septennial Catholic pilgrimage to Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen. The city will host three major exhibitions of artifacts and art; an artist will install 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square; and a new Aachen Bank card will show off the famous reliquary bust. The town of Ingelheim will host an exhibition, and the abbey church in the Swiss village of Müstair will serve up a display about Carolingian architecture, a “collage-opera” about Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, and a comedy performance, “Karl and the White Elephant”—and these are only the events I’ve discovered so far.

For 1,200 years, Europeans have crafted a Karl for all seasons. Later medieval kings grafted him to their family trees, Crusaders invoked him, the French made him an icon of education, and Napoleon and Hitler believed they were continuing his work. His latest incarnation is also explicitly political: When the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Community, the six signatory nations covered almost the exact same territory as his empire. The EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the dull Charlemagne Building, enshrines him as the patron saint of European unity—and someday, perhaps, of murky bureaucracy. Statues rise, stained glass dazzles, and the source of the legend is lost.

In Becoming Charlemagne, I likened Karl’s tiny capital to the king himself: “almost civilized and unexpectedly alive: ambitious, forceful, clearly Christian, slightly cruel.” He once slaughtered helpless Saxon captives, an atrocity that shocked his contemporaries, and it wasn’t always propitious to be his relative. His failings, both personal and political, were as great as his ambitions.

But take a second look: There’s a remarkable, complex person beneath centuries of rhetoric and legend. It’s the rare leader indeed who can smile at endless flattery, enjoying obsequious poems praising him as a second David, yet still demonstrate, through his actions, that he knows he isn’t the apotheosis of his civilization—that the future needs books, buildings, and institutions that endure.

At this, Karl failed—but 1,200 years later, individuals, nations, and vast institutions still clamor for a piece of him. This summer, through music, theater, religion, and art, his heirs will convene in the shadows he cast. The Christian emperor, the lustful king, the cold-hearted brother, the egomaniac, the mourning father, the blood-spattered warlord, the pragmatic diplomat, the debatable saint, the barely literate patron of learning—there are myriad Charlemagnes to remember, and nearly as many we choose to forget. The story goes on, and the “Karlsjahr” in Europe is about more than the past, so look closely: Amid all the tourists, new Charlemagnes rise.

“Sitting in the valley, as I watch the sun go down…”

As Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious was the ninth century’s Julian Lennon. He may have done interesting work, but who remembers? Historians do, of course, but the emperor who supposedly never cracked a smile doesn’t rule the layman’s imagination the way his father always has.

Even so, the reign of Louis was a great one for poetry. Walafrid Strabo—the abbot, scholar, and gardener who often pops up on this blog—wrote a short poem that strikes me as appropriate for the end of a week that began with Election Day hubbub:


DE OSSE DAMMULAE,

PER QUOD ARBUSCULA CREVIT AD
IMPERATOREM HLUDOWICUM

Arboris et altrix quondam vagina medullae,
Tibia germen habet—nempe bonum omen erit.
Quod cortex humore caret, quod durior ipso est
Robore miramur: talis in osse vigor.
Nil, Caesar, tibi, magne, vacat: venabere dammas,
Ossibus ex quarum silva orietur, ave.

Latin poets, whether ancient or medieval, used long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables, so their work is tricky to translate into English—but I like to acknowledge the nature of the original by rendering it into some sort of recognizable form. Walahfrid was a Germanic kid from Alemannia who jokingly called himself a “barbarian,” so let’s assume that Anglo-Saxon metrical, alliterative half-lines, like the verses of Beowulf but with more liberal use of anacrusis, resemble something the poet himself might have heard:
 

ON THE BONES OF A LITTLE DEER,
THROUGH WHICH GREW A SMALL TREE
FOR THE EMPEROR LOUIS

Now a marrow-sheath nurses a tree:
From shin-bone to sapling—surely well omened.
That its bark is dry and bound tougher
Than hard wood, we marvel: such might in the bone.
Great emperor, nothing is ever beyond you:
You merely have to go hunting for deer
And from their relics, forests grow. Hail!

Does my translation capture the sense of the original? One major scholar of Carolingian poetry isn’t even certain what Walafrid’s tone was:

Does the black humour of the hyperbole applied to this faintly ludicrous subject reflect back on Walahfrid himself, in an elegant mockery of the excesses of his own panegyrical style? Or does genuine virtuosity combine here with ambiguous flattery in a measure intended to create a residual doubt as to the sincerity of the compliment? Walahfrid, deliberately, never reveals whether the humour of his epigram is merely self-reflexive or really risqué. Irony, in the hands of an imperial panegyrist, is a two-edged weapon.

Charlemagne’s poets praised him to a ludicrous extent, and I’ve often wondered how seriously he and his heirs took the verses that served as politically useful flattery. It’s all too likely that they loved what they heard.

The subjects of Frankish kings weren’t free to write what they felt, but by studying them, we can ensure the promise of the liber in the liberal arts they bequeathed us. Behold the benefits of the thousand-year perspective: being unsurprised when leaders, by nature, believe their own hype, and being less inclined, sometimes, to fall for it yourself.

“With a torch in your pocket, and the wind at your heels…”

Disentangling sickly cucumber vines, dispatching peppers that chose not to thrive—the maudlin side of late summer gardening got me thinking this week about Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and gardener who tutored Charlemagne’s grandson. Walahfrid was famously unafraid of hard work, so perhaps I cheapened his memory when I sat down to translate his poem “To a Friend.”

Because the poem is only 10 lines long and grammatically compact, I made the same careless assumption as the day I broke ground in my garden: “How hard can this be?”

AD AMICUM

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

I haven’t been in a Latin classroom for 15 years, so when I try to translate verse, I get that Flowers for Algernon feeling—but it’s not hard to render this poem into clunky English prose:

“TO A FRIEND: When the splendor of the moon glitters from the pure heavens, stand under the sky and behold with wonder as you see the pure light shine from the moon, see its brilliance embrace dear ones divided bodily but connected by love in their minds. If face may not gaze on beloved face, then at least let this light be proof of our love. Your faithful friend has sent these little verses. If, for your part, your bond of loyalty stands firm, then I pray you be happy and well forever.”

Translating Latin poetry into English is a nasty job; you’re duty-bound to smother some gasping aspect of meaning or form and bury it deep in your notes. Lines of Latin verse don’t rhyme at the ends; they’re ruled by vowel quantity, using long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables. Walahfrid composes hexameter lines: the first four feet have to be dactyls or spondees, the fifth foot is usually a dactyl, and the sixth foot is always spondaic—but there are also three places where a good Latin hexameter line ought to have a caesura, and at least two places where it’s verboten to break up a word across different feet.

Ever versatile, “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow adapted the form for English metrical verse in the 1,400-line Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (I’ve tried it too by adapting elegiac couplets, which alternate hexameter and pentameter.)

So I sat down to translate Walahfrid’s poem, expecting to be done in a day.  I stumbled first on the diction: A poet who varies his language is a translator’s dream, so I frowned to realize that Walahfrid twice uses both pura (“clear, pure, simple, plain”) and splendor (“brilliance, brightness, luster”).

Using the same word twice (and then doing it twice) emphasizes a bond between two friends, but that’s just a small part of what’s going on in this poem. You don’t need to know a word of Latin to see it:

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

Rhyme! Medieval Latin poets often played with internal rhyme, but one German scholar in 1965 spotted Walahfrid doing something special: Each line has two rhyming syllables, one on a rising, stressed syllable, the other on a falling, unstressed syllable. Like Walahfrid and his friend, they’re distant, and a little bit different, but share a bond. At the end, the tenth line brings them as close as can be in an idiom that means “forever.”

Are there artful ways to render this in English? I tried:

“When the pure moon sends forth its brightness in splendor from the heavens…”

Bleah. Even if I pretend that’s a proper rhyme, the hexameter is lifeless, and the diction is novice, pocket-dictionary stuff. Walahfrid may have bonded by moonlight with his long-distance friend, but I won’t be the one to craft an English translation that illuminates modern readers with a medieval truth: that the body and soul of a poem are one.

“When I’ve walked in the garden, when I’m walking offstage…”

Spring is a time to remember Walahfrid Strabo: abbot, scholar, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson, and the best known gardener of the Carolingian age. He’s memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and got a poem of his own in Looking Up), and his 444-line poem De Cultura Hortorum, “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” intermingles plant lore, political allegory, practical advice, and philosophical musings with an exhortation to get out there and work:

For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where sand
And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits grow heavy
In rich moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside,
Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping valleys—
Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce
Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.
(trans. Payne)

In the March and April dankness, I followed Walahfrid’s example—and today I reaped the year’s first harvest from my little realm of dirt.

 

I checked to see if Walahfrid had anything to say about radishes. Indeed he did:

RAFANUM

Hic rafanum radice potens latoque comarum
Tegmine sublatum extremus facit ordo videri
Cuius amara satis quatientem viscera tussim
Mansa premit radix, triti quoque seminis haustus
Eiusdem vitio pestis persaepe medetur.

Here’s a loose and hasty translation into pseudo-Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse:

THE RADISH

Powerfully rooted,   it raises the vaults
Of its broadening leaves    and lies waiting,
The radish you find   in the final row.
Its flesh-root shortens    that shattering cough,
Or grind up a draught    and drink the seeds:
That dose often    will do the trick too.

Walahfrid died in A.D. 849 while trying to cross the Loire. He was only in his early thirties, but he seems to have grown to prefer plants to politics—an insight rare in places of power, then and now.

(The garden in June 2012.)

“World tour, media whore, please the press in Belgium…”

Friends tell me I’m underzealous in promoting my own books. I see this blog as something other than a relentless sales pitch—but since April is the dubious “National Poetry Month,” it’s time to tout two titles. I’ll say only this: If you enjoy the way this blog chases down medievalism in everyday life, then the “Quid Plura?” team of kobolds would be grateful for your support.

In 2009, after promoting my Charlemagne book and working on projects for other people, I was word-weary and exhausted. To make writing fun again—without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs—I started composing poems inspired by the gargoyles and grotesques that adorn my friendly neighborhood neo-Gothic cathedral.

Light verse! Sonnets! Strange soliloquies and songs! Translations from Latin and German! Three years and more than fifty poems later, the folks at the cathedral graciously gave me permission to show their typically publication-shy beasties in print. The resulting book, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles, is now available at the cathedral gift shop, through Amazon, or (most profitably) directly from me. I’ll donate 75 percent of the net profits to the National Cathedral to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds. (Browse the first drafts of 51 of the 53 poems, and learn more about the book here.)

In 2007, I translated the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

The translation was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could imitate all 75 of the original poem’s tricky rhyming, alliterative, 13-line stanzas in a translation that was both readable and entertaining. (Check out “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original Middle Scots to see what I was up against.)

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available through Amazon as a $10 paperback. There’s also an e-book specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages.)

No one else has translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, a fan of old-fashioned poetic formalism, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillus claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.

“…and every one of them words rang true, and glowed like burning coal…”

In 2007, I translated the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

The translation was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could imitate all 75 of the original poem’s tricky rhyming, alliterative, 13-line stanzas in a translation that was both readable and entertaining. (Check out “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original Middle Scots to see what I was up against!) I made the translation available as a free, downloadable PDF in 2007, and then in 2008 I sold the occasional paperback directly through the blog.

This year, I decided it was time to put this book into wider circulation. The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available through Amazon as a $10 paperback. There’s also a version specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages.)

No one else has ever translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, a fan of old-fashioned poetic formalism, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillius claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.

“Won’t you fly across that ocean, take a train on down…”

“The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion,” wrote Washington Irving in his satirical History of New York, the 1809 book that made the 26-year-old Manhattanite one of America’s first literary celebs. Two centuries later, Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” is by turns funny, baffling, and obscure, but what intrigued me was how full of Charlemagne it is:

The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion, and even the names and achievements of Wouter Van Twiller, Wilhelmus Kleft, and Peter Stuyvesant, be enveloped in doubt and fiction, like those of Romulus and Remus, of Charlemagne, King Arthur, Rinaldo, and Godfrey of Bologne.

As it turns out, Irving was a bit of a Charlemagne buff. Elsewhere in the History, his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker looks to the Carolingians to explain why New York City’s “ancient magistrates” were chosen, naturally, by weight:

As a board of magistrates, formed on this model, think but very little, they are the less likely to differ and wrangle about favourite opinions—and as they generally transact business upon a hearty dinner, they are naturally disposed to be lenient and indulgent in the administration of their duties. Charlemagne was conscious of this, and therefore (a pitiful measure, for which I can never forgive him) ordered in his cartularies, that no judge should hold a court of justice, except in the morning, on an empty stomach—a rule, which, I warrant, bore hard upon all the poor culprits in his kingdom. The more enlightened and humane generation of the present day have taken an opposite course…

Jolly old Diedrich Knickerbocker also trots out several mock-heroic references to Roland, the “Orlando” of romance. Two of them occur in battles between Dutchmen and Swedes, while the third anchors a preposterous yarn about the death of trumpeter Antony Von Corlear, whose race to aid his fellow Dutchmen is stymied when a devil drags him to the bottom of the Harlem River:

Luckless Antony! scarce had he buffeted half way over, when he was observed to struggle most violently as if battling with the spirit of the waters—instinctively he put his trumpet to his mouth and giving a vehement blast—sunk forever to the bottom!

The potent clangour of his trumpet, like the ivory horn of the renowed Paladin Orlando, when expiring in the glorious field of Roncesvalles, rung far and wide in through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who hurried in amazement to the spot…

Irving later visited relatives in England (where he wrote two of his most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and spent 17 years wandering Europe. He had mined German folklore for two of his biggest hits and expected further inspiration. “I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany,” he told a friend, “and get from her, her budget of wonderful stories.”

The romantic New Yorker, pushing 40, soon met the drab reality of history. Visiting Aachen in 1822, he noted in his journal that he had seen the “fountain with bronze statue of Charlemagne” and “Charlemagne’s Chair in Town Hall,” both of which are still tourist landmarks, but he saved his grousing for a darkly amusing letter to his sister:

I am disappointed in Aix-la-Chapelle. To me it is a very dull place, and I do not find that others seem more pleased with it.

[. . .]

This is the birthplace, and was once the seat of empire of Charlemagne, that monarch so renowned in history and song. His tomb is in the cathedral, and is only marked by a broad slab of black marble, on which is the inscription, Carolo Magno. The Cathedral is an extremely ancient, venerable-looking pile. Every night I hear the hours chimed on its bells; and the midnight hours announced by the watchman from its tower. The Germans are full of old customs and usages, which are obsolete in other parts of the world . . .

The people have an antiquated look, particularly the lower orders. The women dress in peculiar costumes. As to the company at the hotels and public saloons, it is composed of all nations, but particularly northern nations: Russians, Prussians, Germans, Dutch, &c. Everywhere you see military characters, in fierce moustaches and jingling spurs, with ribbons and various orders at their button-holes. Still, though there are many personages of rank here, the place is not considered the most fashionable, and there are many rough characters in the crowds that throng the saloons. Indeed it is somewhat difficult to distinguish a gentleman from a common man among these northern people; there is great slovenliness of dress and coarseness of appearance among them; they all smoke; and I have often been surprised to hear a coarse-looking man, whom I had set down for some common tradesman, addressed as Monsieur the Count or the Baron. The weather has been very bad for several days past.

A recent biographer points out that Irving was suffering from an illness, perhaps the gout, which the famous waters of Aix-la-Chapelle failed to cure—but he wasn’t the last tourist to find Aachen underwhelming. A 2003 Rick Steves guidebook dismisses “unassuming Aachen” near the “unromantic Rhine,” and when I sat in Aachen Cathedral on a frigid February weekend in 2008, I heard tourists mumble that the place was too small to have been worth the trip.

Despite their gripes, I found that the “concentrated magnificence” of the octagonal chapel at Aachen repays real contemplation, and trying to see it backwards across a 1,200-year gulf is a worthy (if futile) ambition. Tourists to Aachen wish for eighth-century streets; if Washington Irving’s imagination failed him in Charlemagne’s town, what hope can their be for the Lonely Planet crowd?

Two years after sulking in Aachen, Irving wrote in Tales of a Traveller: “The land of literature is a fairy land to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes, the charm fades on a nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.” He later found his European dreamworld in Spain, especially Granada, where he briefly lived and wrote at the Alhambra. As the author of the most popular 19th-century book about Christopher Columbus, Irving convinced Americans, wrongly, that medieval people believed the world was flat. It’s tempting to wonder what myths he might have spun about Charlemagne if he’d just passed through Aachen in sunnier health. Generations of teachers perhaps can be glad he did not.

(Photo of Aachen taken in February 2008.)

“Wake up, wake up, king in a Cath-o-lic style…”

There’s nothing quite as weird as sitting at home, sweating off a muggy August noon like a forsaken tumbler of iced galangal ale, when a knock at the door heralds a package: copies of your book translated into Brazilian Portuguese.

Behold: Tornando-se Carlos Magno: Europa, Bagdá e os impérios do sécula IX, translated by Carlos and Anna Duarte and published this summer by Editora Record of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a sharp little book, with those interior paperback cover flaps I find exotic because they seem to be de rigeur everywhere but in North America.

Is Brazil full of Charlemaniacs? I’ve no idea—but the arrival of Tornando-se Carlos Magno gives me an excuse to share some Charlemagne-in-the-news links I’ve been hoarding. (The first three come courtesy of Scott, an American expat in Germany who recently posted some nice photos of Aachen.)

“Tongue of toad, newt so greeny…” Christopher Lee has announced Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, a sequel to his weighty-brass Charlemagne concept album from 2010. Grimacing musically, he promises “100 percent heavy metal.” (The first album is available on CD or as an iTunes download. I reviewed it here.)

Saxon: The Book of Dreams, a new novel by Tim Severin, features something I can’t recall seeing in fiction before: Saxon canoodling at Charlemagne’s court.

Back in July, historian Istvan Deak surveyed Europe in the New York Times and wondered, “Where’s Charlemagne when we need him?” His conclusion struck me as odd: “A new imperial construct embracing all nations, religions and non-totalitarian ideologies might well be the only alternative to the revival of tribalism with all its tragic consequences.”

One law firm draws a fiery line from Charlemagne to mesothelioma litigation.

The Daily Mail serves up “six things you must do in Aachen.” Go there, they suggest, for “a Holy Roman Emperor’s treasure, fine dining and a biscuit.”

Charlemagne and Alcuin popped up last week in coverage of the new Viking “invasion” of Lindisfarne.

National Museums Scotland has acquired a holy-water stoup that 19th-century royalty thought belonged to ol’ Karl der Große.

When a modern-day knight on a horse named Lionheart crosses Canada “to revive the values he says have been lost to the modern world,” you’re darn right Charlemagne gets a mention.

Finally, an old favorite: As everyone gears up to go back to school, let France Gall provide a video response to that immortal question, “Qui a eu cette idée folle / un jour d’inventer l’école?” (You know you want to.)