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

  Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient - A Most Unusual Pilgrimage

The Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient (also known as Le Pélérinage de Charlemagne) is a most unusual epic (chanson de geste). Featuring Charlemagne and the twelve pairs, it tells the story of a pilgrimage they did to Jerusalem and Constantinople (summary here). But everything, from the reason for this pilgrimage to the drunken brawls of the king and his men looks like a parody of texts like the Song of Roland. The only serious aspect ot the text is the translatio of some relics from Jerusalem to St.Denis near Paris in France, but even that is not historical.

Charlemagne never traveled to Jerusalem, but in the early 11th century a legend spread that connected relics in St.Denis to such a journey. For a long time, research has tried to find a serious subtext for the parody of the Voyage. One explanation is that it's based on a legend that shows how the strength of Charlemagne's faith aids him even in a situation into which he has brought himself by those drunken gabs. That doesn't work for me. Even if Mediaeval people did believe a prayer could have such an immediate result, they must have understood the comical elements as such, after all, there were other genres like the fabliaux heavy with humour all the way from funny boasts like in the Voyage to scorned lovers being thrown into a cesspit.

One theory has it that the author was an Anglonorman poking fun at the relic cults on the continent, though I'm sure the English churches practised it as well (just read the first Cadfael book), and Aebischer sees it as an anti-clerical manifesto a few hundred years before the Reformation.

But a comparison of the Voyage to other epics shows that all the heroic motives are decon-structed to the point where the heroes of the Song of Roland who brave several hundreds of thousand Saracens fall on their faces because the palace moves. Even the interference to God who has to perform a miracle to get our heroes out of their self-caused predicament parodies the epic miracles of other chansons de geste (like the stopping of the sun so Charlemagne can reach the Saracen host and avenge Roland's death). And in Hugo and his court, the French heros meet the refined world of the Artus epics (romans cortois) of a Chretien de Troyes. Stumbling into it, literally.

Another suggestion is that a possible date and background for the Voyage could be Friedrich Barbarossa's attempt to canonise Charles the Great (it was never acknowledged because there were two popes at the time and Friedrich supported the wrong one) in 1166. It would then be a parody written by the French contesting the claim of Barbarossa as heir of Charlemagne, and Aachen (Aix en Chapelle) as Charles' main seat - albeit the historical correct one - contrary to the epic St.Denis of the French. After all, the House Capet also claimed Charlemagne as ancestor. But here lies the weakness of that argument - would the French parody their own, French epic tradition only to poke fun at Barbarossa and his Charlemagne cult?

I'll leave the question open. What is clear is that the Voyage is a parody, and that the most probably time it was written is between 1150-70, and not as early as the legends about the relics.

Cloister of the Osnabrück Cathedral.
Osnabrück, seat of a bishop, was founded by Charlemagne.
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)