“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.)

“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,

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:
Book + shipping within U.S. $12.50 Book + shipping to Canada or Mexico $14.50 Book + shipping outside North America $16.50

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.