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Quid plura? | Charlemagne

Archive for ‘Charlemagne’


“And we’re strangers here, on our way to some other place…”

After Becoming Charlemagne came out in late 2006, I spent nearly two years talking about the early Middle Ages wherever anyone asked me to do so—at libraries, bookstores, museums, senior-citizen programs, even a tea salon in a suburb of New Orleans. I had several templates for speeches, all of them customizable for different venues and occasions, including one really fun presentation about the founding and early decades of Baghdad. But when the branch of the University of Maryland where I was teaching asked me to give the plenary address at a conference for writing instructors, I got a little more nervous than usual.

I’ve never been a writing instructor—I don’t have the necessary patience—so I wondered: What did a part-time medievalist have to say to teachers who do some of the English department’s hardest and least glamorous work?

As is so often the case, once I reframed the question to be less about myself, I found there was plenty to say after all.

Here’s a transcript of the speech, edited to remove introductory banter, a couple of brief tangents, and legions of unflattering “ums” and “ahs.” I wish it hadn’t taken so long to post this somewhere, but hey, if something is worth saying, maybe it’s still worth saying eleven years later.

* * *

“The old wine of ancient learning”:
The medieval classroom and its lessons for modern writing instructors

Plenary address, Fourth Annual UMUC July Writing Conference, Adelphi, Maryland
Friday, July 27, 2007, 9:30 a.m.

Thank you for the invitation to come speak to you all this morning. It’s always an honor to be asked to give a talk, but it’s even more of an honor to be asked to speak with colleagues about writing, and putting some of what we do here at UMUC in its historical context. I’m really humbled by, and grateful for, the invitation.

Now, because I teach medieval literature and write about medieval history and culture, I wanted to do a little digging to find something appropriate and relevant to talk about. As Matt pointed out, I recently wrote a book, two little books, about Charlemagne, the king and emperor who was a patron of education and who, like many of our UMUC students, came to scholarship fairly late in life, but with tremendous passion. Charlemagne and the great teachers of the early Middle Ages revived and perpetuated ancient and time-tested educational methods, which helped keep learning alive for the past 1,200 years, so I thought I’d spent a little time this morning discussing the pedagogical traditions we inherited from them—what Charlemagne’s chief advisor, a man named Alcuin, referred to as “the old wine of ancient learning.” It’s a tradition that all of us in this room are working in to some extent or another, even if we’re not necessarily aware that we’re doing so.

So why look to the early Middle Ages? It’s an era commonly dismissed as the “Dark Ages,” and perhaps understandably so. Europe was a collection of competing kingdoms and tribes, very few people were literate, monasteries were the sole repositories of surviving knowledge, and the first universities were more than 300 years away. In fact, the brightest, most perspicacious people in Europe during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries couldn’t have imagined a day when there would be a sufficient number of literate, well educated people to populate such an institution.

But when you look at the manuscripts, the classroom texts, and the teaching methods of the early Middle Ages, you find habits and practices that I think would warm the hearts of pretty much everybody in this room. You find, for example, an obsessive attention to what today we would refer to as “literacy” and “critical thinking skills.” We find a true love of learning—even more admirably, a love of language, the nuts and bolts of language: how language works, how you put words together, how you put sentences together, how you communicate with other educated people. And you find that underlying all of this is an incredible sense of purpose, a real sense of mission. Thanks to the efforts of the monks of this era, within a generation or two, literacy was spreading, old books were being copied and preserved at unprecedented rates, and new books were being written for educational use.

So there are really a few things to discuss here this morning: What was this educational curriculum and where did it come from? And also, what made it so successful in such an uncertain and illiterate era?

The answers to those questions contain real lessons for those of us who teach writing, composition, and literature, and in the end I think they leave us with further interesting questions to ponder as well.

* * *

Now as to that first question: Where did this educational curriculum come from? Medieval people didn’t concoct it out of nothing. Medieval learning was derived from ancient Roman educational methods, so let me talk for a moment about what came before.

At the height of the Roman empire, when Rome was prosperous and powerful and stretched from Scotland to the Middle East, young boys began their education with somebody called a litterator, a tutor or a teacher who taught them the basics—who, as the name implies, “lettered” them, and gave them fundamental reading and writing skills. At the age of 12, they attended classes with the grammaticus, a grammarian, where, since they were ancient Romans, they studied Greek and Latin. They read literature, especially poetry, and emphasized grammar and syntax. On the side, they also studied history, mythology, and basic arithmetic. Around the age of 14 or 15, they moved on to the full study of rhetoric. They read prose writers, they practiced composition, and they attempted elaborate written and spoken exercises. They also studied law, philosophy, and science, but usually philosophy and science got short shrift in favor of law. The children of the wealthy were going to need that legal training if they were going to get a good job with the civil service. Some things really don’t change.

The Romans didn’t have a single name for this curriculum. Cicero had referred to it as the “liberal arts” and “liberal disciplines”—artes liberales and liberales disciplina—but he never really spelled out exactly what he meant by them or exactly how many liberal arts were in this curriculum, at least at first. The Latin adjective liberales here indicated an education worthy of a man who was liber, or “free,” but it also connoted courteousness, generosity, honor—in short, the behavior of a cultivated man, anachronistically someone we might think of as a “proper gentleman.”

This term “liberal arts” continues to pop up even after the heyday of Rome and well into Late Antiquity, even as there were fewer of these “proper Roman gentlemen” roaming the Forum. For a while there’s some disagreement in Late Antiquity about how many liberal arts there even are. Some say nine, but most agreed that there were seven, in two groupings: a primary grouping of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; and a secondary grouping of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. (A few ancient writers tried to squeeze medicine and architecture in there to form nine, but those never really stuck.)

Fast-forward a few centuries, and this was the basic educational philosophy, this curriculum of seven liberal arts, inherited by early medieval people.

They knew from reading the centuries-old works of Saint Augustine—Charlemagne’s favorite writer—that this curriculum was essential. Saint Augustine had said in his youth that the liberal arts “are learnt partly for the conduct of life, [and] partly for the understanding and contemplation of the Universe.” And by the year 800—the high point of the reign of the king and emperor Charlemagne—this curriculum was thriving.

Of course, the world was a very different place by this point. The Roman Empire was a memory; the social institutions of Europe had devolved and were rather unsophisticated, by the standards of a few centuries earlier; and Christianity, not Roman paganism, was the predominant belief system.

Yet this same basic liberal arts curriculum endured, and even gained new life, in the hands of these early medieval monks. The grouping of four secondary subjects—arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—had already been known for centuries as the quadrivium. But the grouping of the three primary subjects got its name around this time. Sometime around the year 800, the curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic became known as the trivium. This is literally, in Latin, the place where three roads come together; it’s also where we get our modern word “trivia.” Most people think that “trivium” is an old Roman term, but in the context of education, it’s not—it’s a medieval term.

So that’s where the curriculum came from, and how medieval monks found themselves in possession of it.

But what did these early medieval monks do with the trivium once they devoted themselves to it? And why and how where they so successful?

* * *

Well, they put their own early medieval twist on the old Roman subjects of the trivium.

At the core of it, of course, was grammar, with “grammar” very broadly defined. We think of it as a narrowly defined subject today, but to them it wasn’t. It was the study of literature, both secular and religious, but it was also “grammar” as we define it now: letters, words, parts of speech, even handwriting—orthography—and vocabulary. They began their study of grammar by memorizing the psalms. The psalter, the Book of Psalms, was their primer. They combined a tremendous amount of memorization with an emphasis on the underlying technical aspects of language. They used all these Late Antique writers and early medieval authors—Donatus, Priscian, and St. Isidore—and they had many newly compiled dictionaries and glossaries to help them understand exactly what it was they were reading.

When they were ready, when they had sufficiently studied grammar, they, like their ancient Roman counterparts, moved on to rhetoric and studied, among other books, the works of Cicero, or new books closely based on Cicero’s writings. (We would consider these books heavily plagiarized from Cicero, but they didn’t have those sorts of intellectual-property issues; they were able to get away with imitation in ways we wouldn’t allow today.) They learned practical skills when they studied rhetoric, and I find the list of these things rather interesting. They learned how to write a letter of condolence; how to describe a king (in a flattering way, of course); how to compose—and I love this one, we should all assign this at some point—a debate between winter and spring, the old classical debate genre, which they took up in the Middle Ages as well. They also wrote letters announcing the election of a bishop or the death of a member of their local community. And they learned how to do this with metaphors, rhymed prose, parallelism, and a host of other rhetorical skills drawn from ancient writing and ancient examples.

The rhetoric manuals from this time are really remarkable. I dug into one in preparation for coming to give this talk today. Medieval authors read Cicero and imitated him very closely, and in these early rhetoric manuals, rhetoric has a grammar all its own, with five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; and three types of questions: demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial; and four types of disputes and debates—and so on and so forth, with all sorts of classifications and sub-classifications, with clearly defined rhetorical strategies outlined and described and meticulously classified along the way. I can tell you that the precision and thoroughness of medieval thinkers is dazzling when you first encounter it. It doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of medieval people as backwards.

Once a student sufficiently mastered rhetoric, he moved on to dialectic, which as far as medieval people were concerned was essentially logic: how to use language accurately by focusing on precise definitions and logical arguments. Here they did syllogistic exercises, often in question-and-response format. In the classroom and in the textbooks of the time, there are these great medieval dialogues between a thinker and whoever the king or prince happened to be, so conversational yet so precise, clear examples of the Socratic method in action.

Keep in mind that medieval students had the added difficulty of having to do all of this in Latin, which they were studying on top of speaking their own vernacular languages. At every step, they were encouraged to read the best and most difficult Latin texts available; they were encouraged to confront and engage with writings produced by the finest minds, such as Cicero and Virgil and Saint Augustine—and, of course, King David. Ultimately they did so that they could understand and interpret the most important text in their world, which of course was the Bible—but a great deal of rigorous work involving pagan and secular authors was required to get them to that point.

One dialogue in a rhetoric textbook quotes Charlemagne himself as saying this:

I confess…that to me these requirements appear at first glance to be very pleasant and just and moderate. But as I look at them and come to understand them, I see that they postulate constant exercise and daily practice, and that they cannot be perfectly fulfilled except by unremitting thought and close study.

I’d love to give that to every one of our students as they get ready to study writing and literature.

Charlemagne was right: the trivium was not to be breezed through. In fact, developing the ability to read, write, analyze, argue, and understand was a lifetime project. It began, in youth, with memorizing the psalms; it required years of composition practice and a tremendous amount of memorization and imitation; and it ended—if it ever ended—with being able to write original poetry in Latin, which many educated people were never able to do, and which even the best-educated people often got wrong.

But this was “lifelong learning” in the truest sense of the term. No matter what an educated person went on to study, whether he dabbled in music, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, you name it, he never stopped studying grammar; he never stopped being obsessed with language; and he never stopped improving his own rhetorical skills.

The poets of the ninth century were very certain about this. A witty Goth named Theodulf who was bishop of the city of Orleans wrote a poem in which Grammar is an allegorical figure. She stands at the root of a tree that represents all knowledge.

Theodulf writes:

The entire tree seems to proceed from her, because no art can be brought forth without her. Her left hand holds a whip, and her right hand a sword: the first is to drive the lazy, the second is to weed out vices. And since wisdom is in the first place everywhere, a diadem [a crown] adorns her head.

So Grammar was the queen and the root of all knowledge. (Of course, Theodulf can’t get away without a dig at some of his lazier students. He’s a bit of a wiseguy by ninth-century standards.)

The standards he discusses in this little excerpt from his poem about the seven liberal arts are supported in many of the other classroom texts, poems, and other accounts we have from the early Middle Ages.

Amazingly, we have one manuscript, in the library at St. Gall in what’s now Switzerland, that’s the personal notebook of a well-educated abbot from around the year 850, and it demonstrates how medieval people truly made a lifelong commitment to studying language. The abbot’s name was Walahfrid Strabo—Walahfrid the Squinter. If any of you are gardeners, you may have seen references to Walahfrid. He wrote a famous book about gardening, and he tended a famous garden at Reichenau, and if you visit the National Cathedral and go into to the Bishop’s Garden here in D.C., there’s a little “garden room,” as they call it, devoted to the era of Charlemagne, with little signs with snippets from Walahfrid Strabo. (I like seeing these little snippets of the Middle Ages popping up unexpectedly.)

When he wasn’t writing, Walahfrid was the personal tutor of the Emperor Charles the Bald. And he apparently kept this notebook, this little vademecum, that he took with him wherever he went. It’s amazing we even have this.

It’s 394 pages long. It includes mathematical tables, medical texts, excerpts from chronicles and calendars, even a very clever little drawing of a labyrinth. Walahfrid was clearly, from his notebook, a man with a keen mind and a very broad range of interests.

But 169 of these 394 pages, around 40 percent of the book, are devoted to grammatical texts: examples of usage, excerpts from great writers, and guides to poetic meter, all things he could use later while refining his own writing. Many of them are excerpts from writers from Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, writers on grammar and rhetoric.

Can you imagine if 40 percent our students’ personal reference libraries years after they graduated still consisted of grammar and composition manuals and notes from your classes that they still used to improve and refine and perfect their writing? That may sound horrifying at first—you may thing, “gee, I didn’t send them out into the world sufficiently prepared”—but this wasn’t a sign of the weakness of their system; it was a sign of its strength. Prestige and reputation were bound up in your writing abilities. You didn’t want to look silly or ignorant when writing for other educated people.

So if you were a medieval person, no matter what you studied, you were always returning to the roots of your education in grammar. You were always, essentially, to use a phrase that’s been bandied about in the past few years, “writing across the curriculum.” You saw yourself as never really having completed English 101—and that was a good thing.

* * *

Fortunately—for them and for us—this emphasis on the Liberal Arts in general, and the trivium in particular, was a remarkable success. After the year 800, books were produced and copied at an unprecedented rate. Around 1,800 manuscripts or fragments survive from Western Europe before the year 800—but from the ninth century alone, we have more than 7,000 manuscripts or fragments. Quite a few of them were ancient books that we wouldn’t have today if medieval monks hadn’t copied them. For example, we wouldn’t have Cicero’s Philippics, in which the great orator rants about Mark Antony, if monks hadn’t seen fit to copy it in the early Middle Ages. No ancient copy of the book survives—the oldest is a ninth or tenth-century copy.

These were people who cared so deeply about the treasures of the past that in their zeal to preserve books and make them more legible, they developed a new form of handwriting. Today, scholars call it “Carolingian minuscule,” but you know it as the so-called “Roman” font on your word processors. It’s not “Roman” at all—that’s a mistake by typesetters of early modern books. It’s a medieval Northern European handwriting—and 1,200 years later, those lowercase letters are still used in nearly all printed books today.

So, not only did they keep the liberal arts curriculum alive, they kept alive a culture of literacy, a culture of the book—a culture that bore additional fruit 300 years later, during the twelfth century, when those traditional seven liberal arts were enhanced by Aristotelian logic and combined with law, medicine, and theology, as monastery and cathedral schools evolved into the first universities. The university was the medieval institution that set European history, and Western intellectual history, on its way. All of us here today are a part of this centuries-old tradition, and in fact we’re continuing it, 800 years after some teachers came together to form guilds in places like Paris and Bologna.

* * *

At the same time, you may be interested to know that there’s a modern movement to bring back the trivium in secondary schools. I recently discovered this after assuming that I’d be speaking this morning only about the hypothetical lessons and uses of the trivium. As it turns out, the Trivium Based Educational Movement is extremely popular among Christian educators and especially Christian homeschoolers.

But even though Christian monks and teachers used this curriculum successfully for centuries, there’s nothing necessarily or inherently Christian about the trivium, with its emphasis on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. In fact, if you search around the Web, you can find dozens of charter schools around the country—public schools with no religious agenda—that are basing their curriculum around the methodology of the trivium.

This is even true locally. If you go to the Web site of the Washington Latin Academy, a new public charter school down the road here in D.C., you’ll see them say this:

Every subject has its grammar, and its developmentally appropriate pedagogy begins with it. In the Lower School…direct instruction, drill, memorization of facts and recitation are essential strategies for teaching and learning. In the Upper School…students are led beyond the grammar to the logic and rhetoric of each subject.

Then the website adds that in these later stages, they employ the Socratic method—just like the teachers and the classroom texts of the early Middle Ages, just like many of you, in your classrooms, in 2007.

* * *

So what can we as writing and literature teachers, or even instructors in other disciplines, learn from the medieval monks who mastered the trivium? What can we learn from their incredible long-term success?

First of all, I think we can derive satisfaction from their very existence. We can take heart in their ability to keep grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic at the core of the curriculum. But their example also reminds us that just by being teachers of writing and composition and literature you—all of you—are working in a venerable and vital field, one that really does prepare students for everything else they will ever do.

And I think we ought to remember that what we teach, and how we teach, and what we discuss here at this conference in the next two days, could very possibly have an impact for centuries.

But I think we can also learn from acknowledging why they did what they did, and attempt to motivate ourselves accordingly.

If you would have asked one of Charlemagne’s monks to justify literacy education and to explain its purpose and importance—or even if you asked Charlemagne himself—he would have been bemused by the question. For these early medieval monks, there was only one answer to the question, and it was extremely obvious to them: the ultimate purpose of an education was to unlock and understand the layers of meaning in the Bible, and thus to save souls. Kings, abbots, and teachers believed that they would have to answer to God Himself if they didn’t educate their subjects and their students to the best of their ability.

This was why the most forward-looking medieval kings and emperors like Charlemagne supported more widespread literacy; why he issued edicts calling for more schools and better education; why he scolded his monks when they sent him incompetent letters; why he tried (unsuccessfully) to learn how to write himself; and why he summoned Europe’s most brilliant teachers to his court.

You see their motives spelled out most memorably, in my opinion, in a charming letter written by Alcuin, who was, as I’ve mentioned, Charlemagne’s chief advisor and one of the best educated men in Europe at the time.

Around 796, Alcuin sends a new graduate of his school back to England, and he sends with him a very tender and revealing letter of reference. It reads in part:

I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander around unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

We can all relate to this very human nervousness about sending a student out into the wider world, but in Alcuin’s case the motive behind it was quite different, and quite un-modern. For early medieval people, the final goal of literacy was a religious one.

* * *

By contrast, if all of us in this room were to explain why we think literacy is important, we’d hear quite a few different answers.

We’d hear that a literate citizenry is vital to a functioning republic; that literacy offers better job prospects; that literacy leads to personal enlightenment, which is its own reward; and perhaps other reasons as well.

Now, I happen to think that all of these very un-medieval answers would be good answers—but if we were to start this discussion, we’d be here for hours, because the responses would be highly personal; all of us would list these motives in different proportions. Some of us would have other motivations still; and hopefully no more than a few of you would have to dig deep to remember why you still do this at all. (We all have those days.)

And even if we all miraculously agreed on the “why” of things, I’m sure we would never agree on the “how”—our methods, our theories, and our classroom techniques.

So even if we don’t have the same reasons for teaching as our predecessors, even if our reasons are far more diverse, I believe we can still admire, maybe even emulate, their consistency and their confidence.

They knew exactly why they did what they did.

And they all worked together toward the advancement of this great continent-wide, communal educational project.

And they weren’t shy about holding their students and themselves to high standards.

And they didn’t let their students wander aimlessly—they made sure they were well versed in the traditions they were joining. They encouraged them to read brilliant and challenging books, and they encouraged a culture that instilled pride in being educated rather than in being ignorant—a culture that made kings and emperors want to be literate, too, and made them want to be great patrons of education.

And they weren’t afraid to acknowledge that their work as educators could not be compartmentalized—that reading and writing and rhetoric were not temporary diversions that were quickly or easily learned, but that they took a lifetime, and that this knowledge, these skills were vital to the survival and progress of their culture.

* * *

That’s why I think a conference like this one can be extremely productive. During the next two days, all of us can move a little bit closer to having, once again, that same shared consistency of purpose and confidence as a profession, while enjoying more of the same shared techniques and methods as well.

We’re sure to disagree about many things, but I hope this conference renews and invigorates us as we get ready to spend days and weeks and months and years convincing students to make rigorous, thoughtful, critical reading and writing as central to their lives as the trivium was to educated people twelve centuries ago.

We can do that by keeping in mind what those medieval monks did with “the old wine of ancient learning”—these distant monks, who, in the words of medieval historian Rosamond McKitterick, “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.”

“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.)