Archive for ‘Charlemagne’


“Thrashing all deceivers, mashing non-believers…”

One of my favorite objects at the American Art Museum, and maybe the strangest, is The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a sprawling altar built in a Maryland garage out of tin foil, light bulbs, and cardboard tubes. I’ve never known whether the Smithsonian curators were drawn to this piece for its demonstration of the grandiose precision of madness or because it reflects the indefatigability of religious vision. Either way, museum-goers respect James Hampton’s weird masterpiece. They approach his altar with a snicker, but then they linger, often for far longer than they expect, beguiled by a sense of coherence only its creator could fully understand.

Judged by its opening tracks, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross promises a singularly mad plan of its own. Billed as an “epic canvas of symphonic metal,” this concept album (now available on CD or as an iTunes download) features Christopher Lee as a the King of the Franks, backed by singers and musicians from across Europe. I wish I could say this album is more “heavy metal” than “weighty brass,” and I’d love to report that Sir Christopher and his compatriots weave trancelike melodies that slip over the transom of social consciousness and insinuate themselves into your dreams. Unfortunately, in symphonic metal as in the ninth century, the reach of Charlemagne’s mailed fist far exceeds his grasp. This album is exceedingly strange.

Oh, the concept is sound: Languishing on his deathbed, Charlemagne speaks fondly of his family, recalls his conquest of the Lombards, and regrets his wars against the Saxons. In scenes set by the crisp voice of a female English narrator, Sir Christopher Lee recasts the rex Francorum into Rex Harrison, gamely talk-singing his role over catchy orchestrations that cross Rent with those Vivaldi-inspired diamond commercials from a few years back. Occasionally, flecks of metal do glitter when guitars rev up for a memorable hook; verily, I won’t soon forget hearing Saruman growl, “I shed the blood of the Saxon maaaaan!” As someone who’s long hailed the mating of medievalism and metal, I unironically love this sort of thing; I want to grimace musically and run with it.

But as the hardscrabble heirs of Wagnerian drama, concept albums need more than a plot; they need perspective, often a nutty one, to buttress some overarching theme. Pet Sounds is an ode to fleeting adolescence. The Wall is obsessed with (among other things) the intersection of the individual and history. Time, ELO’s 1981 time-travel disco concept album, is about homesickness. Operation Mindcrime by Queensryche revels in paranoia. By contrast, the opening tracks of By the Sword and the Cross are a blur. The dying Charlemagne praises himself for baptizing pagans and prays that God will forgive him for relieving 4,000 Saxons of their heads. Then he cries, “I am the chosen one to lead the faithless to the Cross,” as we flash back to his war with the Lombards, and a choir and a roaring guitar herald: “SPRINGTIME!”

So all of this looks, at first, like an ode to Charlemagne’s worst deeds—until the cloying narrator informs us that Charlemagne worshiped “a ruthless, vindictive God” and that “the blood-steeped king consoled himself with the idea that he was genuinely out to save souls.” So is this album a critique of medieval Christian violence? Well, let’s look at what Charlemagne, Queen Hildegard, and their backup singers proclaim as the final act, “Starlight,” builds to a climax:

Come, let’s drink to the time
When peace and the sun will shine
And the world will be as one,
Forever.

Charlemagne! Your peoples are there for all to see.
The power and the glory are your destiny!
The dawning of a new age will shine just like a star…

What can I say? At a time when Brussels has molded Charlemagne into history’s blancmange, it’s downright bracing to stumble upon an artistic project in which a pan-European cast of musicians and performers dramatizes incidents of horrific medieval violence and then belts out apotheotic hymns while a blood-stained emperor midwifes a Heaven on earth.

Forget that Charlemagne’s imperial coronation is absent from this album. Never mind that Procrustes’ entire comitatus couldn’t make lines like “You have incurred the wrath of Lombard King Desiderius!” metrically snug. And don’t judge the bonus track, a sound-effects-heavy dramatization of Charlemagne rallying the Franks to undertake a Spanish crusade, even though it ends at the climactic moment when the producers, presumably, ran out of weed. I’ve listened to By the Sword and the Cross twice, and I still have no sense of its ideal listener. I do know that it’s not an album for hawkish Christians, nor for secular EU supporters, nor for disinterested humanists, nor for committed aficionados of stage musicals or heavy-metal concept albums.

So who’s this album for? Maybe it’s for people who simply want to hear Sir Christopher Lee sing-talk lines like this:

When all the deeds of my life are played before my eyes,
Will what I see come as a great surprise?
Life is short, the hour of death uncertain;
I must confess my sins before they draw the final curtain!

Lee gives this album a dash of B-movie panache, but he can’t give it coherence. That would require the symphonic-metal equivalent of a Roger Waters or a Brian Wilson, or even a Tommy Saxondale, a lunatic who might have pumped By the Sword and the Cross into a vivid personal vision.

For 1,200 years, artists, scholars, and politicians have created Charlemagnes for all seasons. Here, two Karls stand side by side: the bland icon of European unity who’s fond of neither sword nor cross, and the Christian warlord who’s rarely groomed for modern pop-culture respectability. Although leery of legend, the folks behind this album can’t commit to the implications of history and let the two Karls clash. Ambivalence is not metal, so they need to close the Ernst Kantorowicz and pick a king worth dramatizing: a Charlemagne who’s stark raving mad, or wildly pious, or turned on by bloodshed, or haunted by regret. A journey through such a mind might have been a guilty pleasure to get heads banging—the musical equivalent of an altar of trinkets and tin.

[For a historian’s take on this album, see the review by Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.]

“It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear…”

Mirabile visu: Modern technology comes to “Quid Plura”!

You can now use a spiffy pulldown menu to buy a paperback copy of The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (here or on the original post) with either your credit card or your Paypal account.

It’s so easy, a Lombard could do it.

Just specify your location, hit “Buy Now,” and order a copy of what Charlemagne surely would have called “an engaging translation of the only chivalric romance where I totally get slapped in the face,” had the Frankish king spoken colloquial modern English and not been above providing marginally humiliating book endorsements.

Select a shipping option:


This translation, which mingles folklore, chivalry, and burlesque humor in a riot of alliteration and rhyme, should appeal to fans of medieval literature, readers who get a kick out of formal narrative poetry, and those of you who come here for the gargoyles. By buying a copy of this literary oddity, you’ll be helping keep “Quid Plura?” afloat while also letting me know there’s a readership for future translations of lesser-known medieval tales.

For more information about The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (including a PDF preview), check out the original post from January. To order a Kindle copy, proceed post-haste to Amazon. And thanks, as always, for your eyeballs, which make this whole medievalist undertaking entirely worthwhile.

“…and the music there, it was hauntingly familiar.”

It’s a commonplace among historians that in the murky recording studio of medieval imperialism, Alcuin played a wizened Stevie Nicks to Charlemagne’s picky but regal Lindsey Buckingham. I can’t tell you how often some sharp young scholar has commandeered the conference lectern to rail against this tired way of imagining Europe at the turn of the ninth century, yet the metaphor persists, as metaphors do, because they’re the overwrought but ever-tempting self-guided audio tours that help us see beyond the bored security guards in the hushed, carpeted galleries of the past.

Similes, on the other hand, are like Canadian character actors in Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies: they jar you out of pseudo-historical reveries and lodge you unmistakably in the present. Case in point: the Los Angeles Times sent a writer to the Vancouver Olympics, and like Ignatius Reilly pursuing a Big Chief Tablet delivery truck, the King of the Franks followed him:

Besides, I don’t travel particularly well. Me flagging a media bus in a new city is like Charlemagne chasing the Saxons. But OK, whatever. I like the snow.

This curious simile is the brainchild of a reporter who assumes that the reader has some knowledge of medieval history, or at least possesses the basic curiosity required to look up stuff on Wikipedia. Bravo! That puts him ahead of other newspaper writers.

But what on earth does it mean? Is a portly king waddling with comical incompetence after a band of tireless warriors? Does the writer’s pursuit of public transportation take decades to accomplish while leaving headless corpses scattered among once-sacred groves?

I don’t know, but this simile slips from the reporter’s fingers (to quote Charlemagne himself) “just like a white-winged dove sings a song.” Perhaps, like the finest Carolingian poetry, this cryptic reference to Charlemagne is best read allusively, not logically. Otherwise, like a homesick reporter stranded on a Vancouver curb, we’re left to chase mysteries we weren’t really meant to understand.

“The circuit boards are linking up in rhyme…”

The people have spoken!

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available for the Amazon Kindle.

The crack staff of editorial kobolds here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters made every effort to tailor the Kindle version to the quirks of the device rather than simply upload it and let the formatting fall where it may. Since the poem survives only in an early printed edition, a version for the first generation of serious e-readers does seem entirely appropriate. (At least to the kobolds, who end up trying to think way too deeply when they don’t have any proofreading to do.)

To download a copy for the Kindle, go here. To read more about this translation, or to order a shiny new paperback copy, go here.

Everyone else, stay tuned! More medieval madness, Charlemagniana, and gargoyle goodness is on the way.

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

[UPDATE: As of December 2012, information on purchasing The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier as either a paperback or an e-book can be found here.]

In 2007, I posted my translation of 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, 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.

Because enough people found the earlier version both readable and entertaining, I’m pleased to make The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier available as a snazzy 56-page paperback. The translation—which imitates the form of the original in 75 thirteen-line rhyming, alliterative stanzas—is freshly polished and lightly annotated, and the bibliography is current. I’m offering this little book as a literary curiosity, an experiment in self-publishing, and a way to help defray the costs of maintaining this blog.

To preview this book, you can see a low-res PDF of sample pages or view larger images of the front and back cover.

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, 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.

“Leona! Something to slip into the hymns next Sunday!”

Magna Carta, the Peace of Westphalia, the Declaration of Independence—all of these once-mighty works of human ingenuity crumble like ketchup-stained ATM receipts when placed alongside the mere promise of the one thing that everyone has been emailing me about this week: a symphonic metal concept album about Charlemagne performed and sung by veteran character actor Christopher Lee.

As someone who grew up in New Jersey during the 1980s, I feel qualified to note that the preview clips posted on YouTube suggest less “heavy metal” and more “weighty brass.” However, any bearded dude who’s portrayed the likes of Saruman surely knows how to grimace musically, so I have no doubt that Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross will weave trancelike melodies that slip over the transom of social consciousness and insinuate themselves into your dreams. But will it kick butt? We’ll have to wait and see.

“I sent a dream to you last night from the end of the world…”

I’m not a regular (or even occasional) reader of The Philadelphia Trumpet, the magazine that “seeks to show how current events are fulfilling the biblically prophesied description of the prevailing state of affairs just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ,” but this cover (brought to my attention by the Great One) impressed me. Good ol’ Karl has a pretty keen eye: His tie matches his suit and the gilded details on his otherwise silver face.

I’ve never tried to picture Charlemagne in a business suit—I’ve never gotten beyond imagining that he looked like a taller, brawnier, less bald version of Dennis Franz—but if modern Christian eschatology intrigues you, then go see what The Philadelphia Trumpet has to say about the forthcoming German elections, because “Germany is about to start World War III—according to your Bible.” The apocalyptic Charlemagne is hardly a new incarnation, but it’s remarkable that such a burly medieval king can still slip so deftly into sharp modern clothes.

UPDATE: Matt Gabriele, who knows tons about Charlemagne and eschatology, has a go at the details of this latter-day prophecy.

“Ran down, and the lady said it…”

When the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp tomorrow to honor Anna Julia Cooper, she’ll be remembered, rightly, as a remarkable woman. Born into slavery around 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper earned a degree in mathematics but also taught Latin and Greek. As principal of the nation’s best public high school for black children, she fought for high educational standards and prepared her students for top universities. In essays and lectures, she addressed racism, the concerns of black women, and other issues of the day. When women’s rights groups turned out to be white women’s rights groups, she started her own.

But Anna Julia Cooper was also a Charlemagne buff—and an inspiration to exhausted grad students everywhere.

From 1911 to 1913, Cooper spent summers studying French literature and history in Paris. In 1914—at the tender age of 56—she enrolled in the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University with plans to earn her doctorate. Scholars of medieval French literature were clamoring for an accessible version of the epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne to replace a hard-to-find German edition, and Cooper gave them one, but Columbia didn’t grant her a degree. As a widow raising her dead brother’s five children while holding down a full-time job as a teacher and principal in Washington, D.C., she couldn’t fulfill the one-year residency requirement.

In response, Cooper sought out a university with no such requirement. The Sorbonne accepted her credits but her work on the Pèlerinage didn’t meet their dissertation requirements, so Cooper wrote a second dissertation. In 1925, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and found a Parisian publisher for her edition and facing-page translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. She was 66 years old.

Cooper’s Pèlerinage was never published in America. When she offered the book and all its proceeds to her alma mater, Oberlin, the school hemmed and hawed—and then nervously declined. Even so, the book was the standard edition and translation for decades, American libraries and language departments sought it out, and several pages were included in an anthology of medieval French literature reprinted as recently as the 1960s.

Beyond its manageable size, it’s not clear what drew Cooper to the Charlemagne project she cheekily called her “homework,” but few American teachers have so aptly encouraged students, then or now, through indefatigable example. Cooper, who lived to be 105, understood the pedigree of that tradition:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, 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 about 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.

Alcuin wrote that. It’s a Carolingian sentiment, but one that Cooper, a proper medievalist, could easily endorse.

“Businessmen, they drink my wine…”

The following is an open letter to the Sci Fi Channel people.

Dear Sci Fi Channel People:

I write to you with the dogged affection of a spurned but hopeful suitor. Your Sci Fi Channel Original Movies have long provided me with superb background noise for otherwise dreary weekends of writing. I admired Sharks in Venice, I thought Dragon Dynasty was a hoot, and SS Doomtrooper more than satisfied my nostalgia for the entirely unrelated video-game franchise I’m sure you didn’t intend it to resemble at all. You even made an awful sequel to the awful Dungeons and Dragons movie! I should be grateful.

Instead, like the Mansquito tending the juice bar at a Dracula family reunion, I sense a distinct lack of opportunity, and the only sound I hear is forlorn and fruitless sucking.

Let facts be submitted to a candid world: Battlestar Galactica has ended, your parent company is unsteady, and your new name sounds like a social disease. I get that your monster-and-disaster B-movies turn a profit, but when even I can no longer distinguish Croc from Supergator or Frankenfish from Snakehead Terror, then your future is bleak.

With fingers bloody from clinging to the bottom of the midlist, I’m writing to offer two magic words that will rescue your faltering network:

Becoming Charlemagne.

We’ll start, as Battlestar Galactica did, with a miniseries—but unlike effects-driven productions that require custom sets and scores of Canadian character actors, Becoming Charlemagne: The Miniseries will be a model of parsimony. Given Sci Fi’s substantial catalog of wholly owned intellectual property, we can easily edit and re-dub scenes from Minotaur, Ogre, Gryphon, Grendel, Wyvern, Dragon Sword, Dragon Storm, and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy to craft a Charlemagne narrative that is as entertaining as it is astonishingly thrifty.

After the miniseries proves viable, we’ll frugally film the resulting Becoming Charlemagne: The Series on location in the Balkans. My contacts in the Belgrade suburbs can ply our army of extras with homemade moonshine, perhaps in lieu of pay. To ensure a smooth transition, the miniseries should establish the existence of Brutalist architecture in ninth-century Aachen, an anachronism that only inflexible purists will decry.

I understand that television executives don’t leap gaily into edgy, cerebral projects—so if it helps, think of Becoming Charlemagne: The Series as “Battlestar Galactica in the woods.” The parallel with Charlemagne’s legendary Twelve Peers speaks for itself (“there are many copies, and they have a plan”), but if medieval jargon leaves you cold, feel free to substitute more familiar language. A Saxon, for example, might profitably be thought of as a tree Cylon. An angel in a hot red dress is hardly out of the question.

While you ponder my proposal, I’ll continue my vigil outside the bedroom windows of Sci Fi executives, raising my boom box aloft in an attempt to sell you on my other marketable idea: a starkly “reimagined” version of the failed 1992 series Covington Cross. Graphic medieval violence is, I believe, the resolution of all your fruitless searches, and while there are certainly worse shows we could remake, market research proves that the smart money flocks to projects in which the Skye is always the color of Ione.

Yours in sacré Charlemania,

Jeff

cc: Steven Spielberg; Peter Jackson; Christopher Tolkien; Rosamund McKitterick; Pierre Riché; John Rhys-Davies; Mirek Topolánek, President, European Union; Steve Voigt, President, King Arthur Flour Company; Coolio

“Er war ein Punker, und er lebte in der großen Stadt…”

Charlemagne is everywhere—he’s in real-estate stories, cigarette advertisements , and quite possibly in your shower—and this week he popped up again in the news.

The “Charlemagne” columnist at The Economist now has a blog, “Charlemagne’s Notebook”:

At a European Union summit not long ago, a visiting reporter from Poland saw “The Economist” on my press accreditation, and asked: “Oh, are you Charlemagne?” When I nodded, and said that I did write that column, her face fell.

“You should be taller,” she said, with feeling.

Meanwhile, the science blogger at the New York Times offers up a mathematical puzzle attributed to Alcuin. You really never know when you’ll need to get across a river with a wolf, a goat, and a head of cabbage…