Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


10.12.06
  A Most Unusual Pilgrimage - Retelling

A few days ago, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen asked for examples of humour in Mediaeval texts. That reminded me of a most unusal epic, the Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient, which I'm going to retell below. Some explanations can be found at here.
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One day noble King Charlemagne was sitting among his twelve pairs, dressed up in all the royal stuff, crown, sceptre, big pointy sword. He was so splendid to behold that he got an even higher idea of himself than the bystanders and asked his equally dressed-up wife whether she thought there would be any other man in the world looking as great as he.

Well, the lady obviously had a really bad case of PMS because she answered, yes, she did.

Oh dear. The emperor nearly exploded with anger. He would stand up for comparison with everyone and if there was no one more splendid, his wife's head would come off.

Oieieie, the lady was sooo sorry about what she had said. She never meant it (do they ever?). She would submit to divine jugement by jumping from the highest tower in Paris. Charlemagne obviously didnd't trust neither his wife nor any divine judgement. No, but she was going to tell who might look greater than Charles the Great.

Well, she said timidly, there is the emperor Hugo in Constantinople.

So, off to Constantinople - via Jerusalem, to call it a pilgrimage. The twelve pairs and 80.000 knights to accompany him. Proably also a loong train of squires, cooks and whores, but the text doesn't mention these.

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Charlemagne and his peers had nothing better to do than to seat themselves on the chairs on which Jesus celebrated the Lord's Supper with his disciples, Charles in the high seat, of course. A Jew saw this and ran right off to the Patriarch to ask for baptizm, since he had seen Jesus. The Patriarch, less gullible, went to check who was really sitting on that chair. Hi, it's me, Charles of France, Charlemagne said. The Patriarch welcomed Charlemagne, said he was to be called Charles the Great now, and gave him several holy relics (pieces of the holy cross, martyr bones and drops of Virgin milk) the genuineness of which was immediately proven by some miraculous healings.

They continued their way to Constantinople. Outside the city they came upon a scenery right out of a miniature from the Manesse manuscript. Dressed up knights and ladies enjoying a time of leisure in the vast gardens, playing chess and other games. Nary a sword or helmet in sight. King Hugo was ploughing with a golden plough, just for fun. He received the guests and guided them to his palace. Charlemagne was amazed that he left the golden plough behind in the field. Oh there's no danger not to find it again, Hugo said. Well, in France you can be sure not to find it again, Guillaume, one of the pairs, replied.

The palace left them speechless. Such a splendour of gold and marble, jewels and brocade tapestries. While the pairs - and the other 80.000 knights the author keeps forgetting about - stood and gaped, a storm came up. Moved by hidden mechanical devices, the palace span. Round and round. Trumpets blared. All our brave Frankish heroes fell flat on their faces, trembling with fear. Hugo, it's unfair; send them a few hundred thousand Saracens to fight, but don't play with physics.

When they had recovered, a splendid meal was served together with a lot of wine. During the dinner Olivier fell in love - or at least in lust - with the emperor's pretty daughter.

The party continued in the private guest rooms. Aiii, that wine from Greece! It makes the heads turn round like the palace before, and all common sense falls flat on its face. The most impressive tavern brawling started; gaber it was called in Old French.

I, Charlemagne said, will take my sword and cut a mounted knight in half, be he armoured with two helmets, full chain mail and plate mail and the horse bearing armour, too, and the sword will stick at least one metre deep in the earth (well, that is more or less epic standard). Roland said he would blow his horn Olifant so terribly that the walls of Constantinople would tumble down like those of Jericho. Oliver was drunken not only because of the wine but because of love, the latter he wanted to prove to the emperor's daughter one hundred times in one night. Archbishop Turpin discovered his circus blood and proposed a good jugglery number. Guillaume of Orange would take an iron ball that thirty people could not lift an throw it around. Bernard would fload the town. Ogier of Danemark would dislocate the main pillar of the palace so that it tumbled into pieces. I spare you the rest of the pairs, their ideas weren't any more sensible. Finally, our heroes fell asleep.

But Hugo had a spy hidden in the guest quarters (what sort of hospitality is this, I wonder). So the next morning our heroes were not only confronted with big nasty headaches, but with a somewhat sullen emperor, too. No, he was not happy about that sort of jokes, and they better showed him they could really do what they said.

What to do? The best idea, Charlemangne thought, was to look somewhat embarrassed and pray in front of those relics he brought from Jerusalem. Fortunatley, he had a good contact to the archangel Gabriel who duly descened from his cloud and told him God would help him out of the predicament. For this time, but don't do it again.

The first to be put to trial was Olivier. Hmmm, it made only thirty. But since the emperor's daughter was in love with Olivier, she told her father that he met her expectations (obviously there was no hidden spy this time). Guillaume of Orange succeeded in throwing a heavy ball around destroying part of the castle fortifications and Bernart guided the river into Constantinople and floaded the town.

Hugo, having fled upon the highest tower before the deluge, got enough of these heroes and said he didn't need any more proofs (the knight who was to stand up for Charlemagne's test surely was glad about it.)

So both kings made their peace and Hugo became the vasall of Charlemagne. Another big party. Both kings dressed up in their ceremonial attire and, how fortunate, Charlemagne proved to be taller in size. The king and his pairs (and the other 80.000 knights, squires, cooks and whores) traveled home again; Olivier had to disentagle himself from the embraces of Hugo's daughter who wanted to come with him to France (which makes one wonder what was going on between him and Roland that he didn't want her along). The relics were deposed in St.Denis, and Charlemagne forgave his wife. The book does not say if she took St.John's Wort against her PMS from that time on.


Picture above: Osnabrück Cathedral, cloister

This one was founded by Charlemagne so I thought it fits. It is not the original building but older than the Trier Cathedral. If you compare the two, you'll notice that the vaults of the Trier Cathedral are Gothic, higher and slighly pointed, the cloister filled with light, while the Osnabrück vaults are Romanic, rounded, lower, heavier, the cloister darker. The arcades are smaller and supported by heavy columns instead of pillars (though there are pillars in between, it's called Niedersächsischer Stützenwechsel - a mix of pillars and columns particular for Lower Saxony).
 
Comments:
This is great fun, Gabriele! (And you say you can't do humour?)
 
I understand that Eleanor of Aquitaine's grandfather, Count William IX of Aquitaine, composed some funny and bawdy stuff, though I don't have the proper title of it.
 
Carla,
the humour is in the French original already, I only did a humorous summary of it. :)

Bernita,
I'm better acquainted with epics than the troubadour lyrics, but some of those were not at all about chaste and platonic love. ;) Don't know anything specifical about the Count William's work, though.
 
Well, you did a good job at summarising the humour, because that was very funny :).

And I apologise if this ends up being posted several times, because blogger doesn't seem to want me to post it at all.
 
The above was me. Which you might have guessed, but just making sure. I'm not very good at blogger beta yet...
 
Hi Ali, got a twin there? It's weird, for some the Beta switch caused a lot of trouble while for me it went just fine. *knocks on wood*

Thank you for your compliments.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK and Scandinavia.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.

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