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

  The Egidius-Legend

Egidius (also Aegidius, Gilles), a man of noble descent is a saint who is said to have lived as hermit in a forest near Nimes in France, where he spent many years in solitude, his sole companion being a hind. His refuge was discovered when the king hunted the hind and Egidius was wounded by an arrow. The king - who according to the legend was Wamba King of the Visigoths, but who must have been a Frank, since the Franks had expelled the Visigoths from the neighbourhood of Nimes almost a century and a half earlier - held Egidius in high esteem and would have heaped every honour upon him; but Egidius only consented to receive some disciples; and built a monastery in his valley, which he placed under the rule of St. Benedict. There he died in the early part of the eighth century, reputed for sanctity and miracles.

But legendary saints tend to develop an amazingly long life, and in the Vita sancti Aegidii, he meets Charlemangne (who was crowned Emperor in 800). This is what the legend tells:

The king of the Franks, Charles, had heard so much about the holy hermit that he wanted to meet him. Egidius agreed and went on his way where he accomplished one of his miracles near Orléans and arrived at the royal court one day. Charlemagne became very close with Egidius, and he asked the hermit to pray a special prayer for him on account of a dishonest sin he had committed and which he could never confess, not even to Egidius. Next Sunday, when the hermit celebrated the Holy Mass and prayed for the king, an angel descended and delivered a parchment on the altar in wich the sin the king had committed was specified in detial, and which said that according to the prayers of St.Egidius the sin was forgiven if Charlemagne would regret it sincerely and never do it again. After the mass Egidius showed the parchment to Charlemagne who, after having read it, fell upon his knees and asked Egidius to be his advocate in front of divine justice. The holy man prayed again and was promised that Charlemagne's sin was forgiven if he did not continue it. (my retelling after the Latin source)

In this text, dating from the 10th century, the sin committed by Charlemagne is never specified. There is a version in the Old Norse Karlamagnús saga telling the story somewhat differently:

"King Charlemagne went to Eiss (=Aachen, or Aix-en-Chapelle), and there he found Gilem, his sister. He led her into his sleeping hall, and slept next to her, so that he felt love for her, and they lay together. Afterwards he went to church, and confessed Egidius all his sins except this one; Egidius blessed him and went to Mass. And as he sang low Mass, Gabriel, God's angel, came, and laid a letter on the paten. On it was written that king Charlemagne had not confessed all his sins: 'He has lain with his sister and she shall give birth to a son who shall be named Roland. And he shall give her in marriage to Milon d'Anglers; she shall be delivered seven months after they shared a bed; and he shall know that he is both his son and his nephew, and he should see that the boy is well looked after, for he has need of him.' Egidius took the letter from the paten and at once went, in his vestments, to king Charlemagne and read it before him. He confessed, and fell before his feet begging forgiveness, promising that he would never again commit that sin. He was shriven and did all that the letter had ordered: he gave his sister to Milon, and made him duke of Brittany. The boy was born seven months later." (1)

In Mediaeval ways of thinking, great sins were a way to Heaven if properly regretted and punished. Incestual birth did not keep St.Gregor from becoming pope, and the legend can therefore be considered rather as a sign of the special status of Roland.

Historically, the incest did never happen (Roland's very existence is doubtful, as shown) but the court of Charlemagne was not exactly a pillar of moral. He himself was married eight times and had a number of inofficial and morganate wives. He never allowed his daughters to marry but he did allow them lovers. His only sister became a nun, though.

Two different versions of the Egidius Legend are distributed in the Middle Ages, one without mention of the sin and one stating that Roland is Charlemagne's carnal son:

In the so-called Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle (an extremely popular Latin prose chronicle from ca 1175 including the retelling of a number of chansons de geste, that was translated into French as early as 1206) Milon d'Anglers is named as Roland's father (dux Milo, Rotolandi genitor) without any mention about a doubtful birth record. He was the comrade-at-arms of Charlemagne and fell in the battle against Aigolant long before the desaster at Roncesvals (according to epic tradition). No mention of the Egidius Legend.

In the Song of Roland, St.Gilles is mentioned several times as patron saint and author of a - probably inexistant - book about the history of the Franks (this sort of quoting phony written sources to give a text a greater authenticity was common in the Middle Ages). Nothing of the legend is mentioned, and nothing about a too close relation between Charlemagne and his beloved nephew except maybe between the lines. The only point at something fishy is the ommittance of Milon, the first husband of Roland's mother (see also this post).

The later chronicles, Aubri de Trois-Fontaines (Latin, ca 1250), Vita Sancti Karoli composed by order of Frederic Barbarossa (Latin, 1165), Chronique rimée de Philippe Mousket, (French, ca 1250) tell the legend but don't specify the sin. The same goes for the German version of the Ruolantslied (ca 1170).

The Old Norse text mentions the sin. So does a text from the 14th century (Myreur des Histors de Jean d'Outremeuse). In the Franco-Provençalian chansons de geste Roncasvals and Roland a Saragosse it is said that Roland is the nephew and son of Charlemagne, but St.Gilles is not mentioned. The same goes for the rhymed Italian versions of the 13th century (Fatti di Spagna).

Obviously, the authors did model their account according to the taste of the public.

(1) That is the point where the connection between the legendary hero and the county of Brittany comes in. Later in the text it is mentioned that Roland has learned how to fight in Brittany ("Rollant hafdi numit j Brettania at skylmaz").
Translation by Constance B. Hieatt: Karlamagnús saga - The saga of Charlemagne and his Heroes, translated by C. B. Hieatt. The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, vol. 1, Toronto 1975 (quoted here under Fair Use).

Trier Cathedral, detail from the choir wall outside
(since I don't have a good pic of Aachen)
Thanks for taking the time to share this information, much appreciated.
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, 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. :-)