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Book IX
Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Book IX
Note B

Book IX (continued)

Chapter IX

Carolus mortuus

Sources: —

Besides Annales Einhardi and Vita Caroli, we get several details as to the coronation of Louis from the life of that Emperor by Thegan, a Frank and an ecclesiastic of the diocese of Trier, who wrote about 835. He writes as a thorough partisan of Louis.

Scheme for partition of the Empire, 806. The last years of the great Emperor were in the main years of peace. Rivals and enemies, Eastern Caesars, Saracen Caliphs, Italian dukes, were all courting the friendship of the triumphant Frank: but as has been already said, they were years of heavy family affliction and years also of increasing sickness and infirmity. In 806 he summoned a general assembly at the Villa of Theodo, and there declared to the chief nobles and ecclesiastics of his realm his scheme for the partition of his Empire after his death. Only the three sons of Hildegarde were to inherit his power, the unhappy rebel, Pippin the Hunchback, though still alive,1 being of course excluded from the succession. The details of this intended division are preserved for us in a Capitulary issued from Nimwegen on the 6th of February, 806.2

 p260  According to its provisions, Louis was to have Aquitaine, nearly the whole of Burgundy, Septimania, Provence, and the Frankish conquests in Spain. Pippin was to have Italy, the greater part of Bavaria, Alamannia south of the Danube, and the lands conquered from the Avars and Croatians. All the rest of Charles's dominions, that is the kernel of the old Frankish monarchy, Neustria and Austrasia, parts of Burgundy, Alamannia and Bavaria, Frisia and the newly conquered Saxonia with Thuringia, in fact the whole of Northern Gaul and Northern Germany, was to fall to the lot of Charles, who, as the eldest son, was certainly thus to receive the lion's share of the inheritance. It was provided that each of the two other brothers was to have access to the dominions of Pippin, Charles by way of Aosta and Louis by way of Susa, in order that they might go to his help in case of his being attacked, probably by the Byzantines. Elaborate arrangements were made for the division of any lapsed share between the two surviving brothers in case the brother who died first left no children of his own. As none of these provisions ever took effect it is not necessary here to describe them in detail, except to observe that in the event of Pippin's dominions having to be divided between Charles and Louis it was arranged that Charles should receive certain regions 'up to the limits of Saint Peter.' This provision seems to show that in 806 the Pope was recognised as temporal ruler at least of the Exarchate and Pentapolis. In this important document Charles earnestly exhorted his sons to dwell in peace and harmony with one another, and he did his utmost to prevent the up‑springing of any such  p261 roots of bitterness as the attempt to seduce a brother's vassals from their allegiance, the refusal to keep in safe custody a brother's hostages, and other similar evidences of ill‑will. He doubtless was aware of the feud which had for some time existed between Charles and Pippin, and which, allayed for the time by the inspiring influence of the tomb of St. Goar, might possibly break out afresh when his own controlling presence would have vanished from their midst.3

Rapid succession of deaths in Charles's family. But all these schemes and all these fears dissolved into nothingness at the breath of the universal Conqueror. In July, 810, as we have already seen, Pippin, king of Italy, breathed his last. On the 4th of December, 811, the younger Charles himself, the son who most faithfully reproduced the lineaments of his father's character — brave, strong, devout — died in the flower of his age.4 He died unmarried, the project once entertained of marrying him to the daughter of the English king, Offa of Mercia, having failed of fulfilment. It was in the same year (811) that Pippin the Hunchback ended his life of melancholy failure; and the year before (810) the princess Hrotrud, who was to have sat upon the throne of Byzantium, died also, she too only on the threshold of middle life. Of the friends who stood round Charles's throne, and who had once lightened the cares of state by their wise counsels or made bright the hours of leisure by their jokes and their  p262 repartees, how many had now left him for the silent land! The faithful Fulrad had died long ago;5 Angilram of Metz, who succeeded him as virtual prime minister, was dead also. His successor, Hildibald of Cologne, still lived: but Alcuin had died amid the smoke-begrimed dwellings of Tours6 six years before the death of Pippin; and Paulus Diaconus, who had never returned from his retreat on Monte Cassino, he too had died at the close of the old century. So many of the lesser trees of the forest had fallen, but of the one goodliest tree of all it might still be said —

'With singèd top its stately growth, though bare,

Stands on the blasted hearth.'

Character of Charles's surviving son, Louis. The terrible bereavements which Charles had endured left him but one son to inherit his vast dominions, and that son not only the least efficient of all the three, but the least efficient whom the strong Arnulfing stem had yet produced: a man who might have passed through life creditably as abbot of an Aquitanian convent, but who was doomed to disastrous failure when the time should come for him to try to bend the bow of Ulysses. Louis the Pious, Louis the Debonnair, Louis the Monk or Louis the Gentle,7 by whatever name he might be called, though 'most zealous of all the Emperors on behalf of the Christian religion,'8 was, by the confession of one of his admires,  p263 'apt to give undue heed to the advice of his counsellors, while he gave himself up to psalmody and diligent reading.'9 Not such was the man to keep in their appointed orbits all those mighty planets that now revolved round the re‑erected throne of the Emperor of Rome.

Coronation of Louis, September 10, 813. In the late summer of 813 Louis, who had just conducted a successful campaign against his father's old enemies the Basques, was summoned to Aachen, where, in accordance apparently with the decision of a select council held at the same city in the spring10 he was to be associated with his father in the Imperial dignity. It is a noteworthy fact that in Charles's scheme for the division of his dominions, previously described, no mention was made of this, the most splendid jewel in the whole treasury of his titles. Doubtless in his secret heart Carolus Augustus in the year 806 hoped that his eldest son, the heir of his name, would also be the heir of his proud surname, but partly perhaps from fear of arousing the jealousy of Pippin (sovereign of the land in which Rome lay) and partly from some remembrance of the old tradition that the dignity of Roman Imperator was elective, not hereditary, Charles, while partitioning all his other sovereignties, left this his Imperial title undisposed of. But though an Emperor could not directly bequeath the diadem, he could share with one of his sons in his own lifetime the right to wear it; and this was what  p264 Charles, 'by divine inspiration' (as was said by his biographer),11 now resolved to accomplish. After the arrival of Louis a great assembly of the nobles of the realm, 'bishops, abbots, dukes, counts and lieutenant-governors,'12 was held in the palace on Saturday the 10th of September (813). Here the aged Emperor asked each man, from the highest to the lowest, if it was his pleasure that the title of Emperor should be handed on by him to his son Louis. All with exultation answered, 'Yes: it is God's counsel in this thing.' On the next day, therefore (Sunday, 11 September), the old Emperor, dressed in splendid regal attire, with the crown on his head and accompanied by his son, proceeded to the great church which he had built and decorated after the manner of S. Vitale at Ravenna. On a high altar dedicated to the Saviour lay a golden crown. Father and son prayed long before it, and then Charles, addressing Louis, admonished him first of all to love and fear Almighty God, to keep His precepts, to govern His Church, and guard it from evil men. Then he bade him show unfailing kindness to his sisters, to his younger brothers, his nephews and his other kinsmen. Then, to reverence the bishops as his fathers, to love the people as his sons, to repress the proud, to be a comforter of the monks, and a father to the poor; to choose for his ministers faithful and God‑fearing men who would abhor unjust gains; to eject no man from his office except for good and sufficient cause, and to show himself devoid of blame  p265 before God and all the people. In the presence of the multitude Charles said, 'Wilt thou obey all these my precepts?' Louis answered, 'Most willingly, with the help of God.' Charles then lifted the crown from the altar and placed it on the head of his son. Mass having been sung, they all returned together to the palace, the father, both in going and returning, leaning on the arm of his son. After many days Louis, having received magnificent gifts, was dismissed, to return to his own kingdom of Aquitaine. Father and son embraced and kissed each other at parting, till they began to weep, but for joy, not for sorrow.13

The coronation performed without Pope or Bishop. In the narrative of this great ceremony we observe one notable omission. The rite was solemnized in a church and was connected with the worship of the Most High, but the central act, the placing of the crown on the young Emperor's head, was not performed by the Pope of Rome or by any other ecclesiastic. There was surely a meaning in this exclusion of the priestly element. Pippin had been crowned by Boniface and anointed by Stephen II; Charles as Emperor by Leo III, and even Louis himself as king of Aquitaine had been crowned by Hadrian. But Charles by his own solemn coronation of his son in sight of all the spiritual and temporal lords of Francia, seemed emphatically to indicate to future generations that no intervention either of the Roman Pontiff or of any archbishop or  p266 bishop in his dominions was necessary in order to create a Roman Imperator. Much trouble and many bewildering debates would have been spared to his successors had this principle been clearly comprehended by them and their subjects.

Bernard formally proclaimed king of Italy. At the same generalis conventus at Aachen, the young Bernard, who possibly had previously held but a delegated authority over Italy, was formally proclaimed king of that land.

Other testamentary arrangements of Charles. The coronation of Louis was the last of a series of acts by which the great Emperor showed that he knew he was near the end of his career. The abortive partition of 806 of course pointed in that direction. Since then his health had more visibly failed, and for four years, from 810 onwards, he had suffered grievously from gout. In 811 he drew up an instrument, solemnly attested in the presence of certain of his friends, by which he directed the manner in which the money, jewels, fine raiment, and other chattels in his treasury were to be disposed of after his death. The whole treasure was to be divided into three parts, and two of these thirds were to be distributed among the churches of the twenty‑one metropolitan cities of his Empire. The remaining third14 was to be divided between (1) his children and grandchildren, (2) the poor, and (3) his household servants.

Omens of doom. To the anxious hearts of his counsellors and his people many signs seemed to indicate the impending calamity. Eclipses were frequent in the last three  p267 years of his life, and men remembered that in 80715 the planet Mercury had appeared like a little black spot on the surface of the sun, and had remained there for eight days. Then in 810, when he went off to his last campaign against his stubborn foe Göttrik of Denmark, rising one day before dawn, and riding forth from his camp, he beheld a brilliant meteor fall from right to left across the cloudless sky. The bright light startled his horse, which threw the Emperor to the ground. His sword-belt and the clasp of his mantle were both broken; the spear which he always carried in his right hand flew forth and fell twenty feet beyond him. When the attendants came to raise him therefore, they found him unarmed and without his regal mantle — an evident sign that he would soon be unclothed of his dignity by death. In addition to these portents, there were earthquakes at Aachen which shook down the stately portico erected between his palace and the church. In the inscription which ran round the interior of the church separating the upper from the lower arcades, the word princeps disappeared from its proper place after the name Karolus. To the excited and alarmed minds of men even the catastrophe that befell the great bridge over the Rhine at Mainz which had been built by Charles's command, a catastrophe in which the labour of ten years was destroyed by three hours' conflagration, was reckoned as another omen of impending doom.

Illness of Charles. In January, 814, all these gloomy portents found their  p268 fulfilment. Charles was attacked by fever, which he hoped, as on previous occasions, to vanquish by abstinence from solid food. But to the fever was added pleurisy, with which his weakened body was unable to cope. On the seventh day of his sickness he received the sacrament from the hands of his friend and counsellor Hildibald, Archbishop of Cologne. He lay in great weakness all that day and the following night. His death, January 28, 814. On the morrow at dawn, still fully conscious, he raised his right hand and marked the sign of the Cross on his head and breast. Then gathering up his feet into the bed, crossing his arms over his chest, and closing his eyes, he gently chanted the words, 'Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,' and soon after expired.16

Burial of Charles. The great Emperor had left no orders as to his place of burial, and to wait for the funeral ceremony till his son should arrive from Aquitaine seemed undesirable. Long ago, in 779, he had expressed a wish to be buried by the side of his father in the abbey of S. Denis,17 but that charge seems to have been forgotten by the new generation of courtiers that had since grown up, perhaps even by Charles himself. Since then had arisen the lordly pleasure-house which he had reared at Aquae Grani, and in the holy fane beside it, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, men deemed that it was most fitting that his body should await the general resurrection. Having been washed and reverently tended, the corpse was carried amidst the lamentations of the people to the great basilica, and there interred on the very day of his death.18 p269 gilded arch was raised over the tomb bearing his image and this inscription: —

'Sub hoc conditorio situm est corpus Karoli magni atque orthodoxi imperatoris, qui regnum Francorum nobiliter ampliavit et per annos xlvii feliciter rexit. Decessit septuagenarius anno Domini dcccxiii indictione vii, v Kal. Febr.'19

Lamentations of his people. The lamentations of the people of Aachen over the dead hero were assuredly no mere conventional tribute to his kingly state. His great personality had filled the minds of all his subjects in Central Europe, and already, even during his lifetime, Poetry, which was to be so busy with his name in after-ages, had begun to throw her glamour over his career.20 But as the Trojan women round the grave of Hector, so the subjects of Charles mourned their own coming misfortunes in mourning him. The horizon was growing dark around them; the war‑ships of the Northmen and the Saracens were beginning those piratical raids which were to make the ninth and tenth centuries one long agony, and men's hearts failed them for fear when they thought of monastic Louis standing in the breach instead of his heroic father. The grief and forebodings of the people probably found utterance in many mournful  p270 effusions similar to one which has been preserved to us, written by a monk of Bobbio, and which is called

Planctus de Obitu Karoli.

Planctus de Obitu Karoli. From the sun‑rising to the sea‑girt West

Is nought but tears and beatings of the breast.

Woe's me! my misery!21

Romans and Franks, and all of Christ's belief,

Pale with dismay, declare their mighty grief.

Infants and old men, chiefs of glorious state,

Maidens and matrons, mourn our Caesar's fate.

Father he was of all the fatherless:

Widows and aliens his name did bless.

O Christ! who rulest from on high the blest!

Give, in Thy realm, to Carolus thy rest.

This prayer do all the faithful urge to‑day:

For this the widows and the virgins pray.

Now the calm Emperor, ended all his toil,

Lies underneath the cross-surmounted soil.

Woe to thee, Rome! and to thy people woe!

Thy greatest and most glorious one lies low.

Woe to thee, Italy! fair land and wide,

And woe to all the cities of thy pride!

Land of the Franks! in all thy bygone days

Such grief did never thy free soul amaze,

As when King Charles, august and eloquent,

'Neath Aachen's sods his stately stature bent.

O Columbanus,22 let thy tears be poured,

And with thy prayers for him entreat the Lord.

 p271  Father of all! omnipotent in grace,

Grant him on high a radiant resting-place.

Yes, in Thine inmost holiest oracle,

Let him, O Christ, with Thine Apostles dwell.

Woe's me! my misery!

As might be expected from a monk, the author of this complaint dwells more on the religious than on the political or military side of Charles's great life-work. This view obtained general assent as the centuries rolled on. While medieval dukes and barons delighted to trace up their lineage even to illegitimate descendants of the great Emperor, while minstrels and troubadours found their best inspiration in the luxuriant growth of romance which sprang up around his tomb, the Church remembered with gratitude the great victories which he had won for her against the Lombard, the Saxon, and the Saracen, Canonisation of Charles, 1165. and at last in solemn council placed the stalwart and free-living hero on high amid her list of saints.23 It is true that the  p272 canonisation, having been decreed by the anti-pope Paschal III, did not meet with universal acceptance, and in Italy especially seems never to have found willing worshippers,24 but in Germany and in France the office composed in honour of St. Charles was widely popular, and to this day the exhibition of his relics, which is made every seven years in the great cathedral at Aachen, attracts a multitude of votaries, and is not a mere antiquarian spectacle, but a religious function reverently witnessed by thousands of the devout peasants of Westphalia.

The Author's Notes:

1 He died in 811.

2 In Migne's Patrologia, vol. XCVII p298. The date is given in a note to the Annales Sangallenses (Pertz, MonumentaI.70).

3 'Ibi, quod inter eos graves aliquamdiu simultates et inimicitiae fuerunt, inspirante supernâ clementiâ et opitulante confessoris sanctissimi [S. Goaris] merito in fraternam concordiam et foedus amicitiae coierunt' (Miracula S. Goaris, 15, quoted by Simson, II.475, n. 3).

4 If he was born, as seems probable, in 772, he would be nearly thirty-nine.

5 In 784.

6 'Fumo sordentia Turonorum tecta' (Alcuini Ep. 119).

7 'Lodoguicus cognomento Almus' (Erchempert in M. G. H., p239).

8 'Erga Christianam religionem omnium imperatorum studiosissimus' (Miracula S. Goaris, quoted by Simson, Jahrbücher, Ludwig der Fromme, I.37, n. 7).

9 'Nihil indiscrete faciens, praeter quod consiliariis suis magis credidit quam opus esset, quod ei fecit occupatio psalmodiae et lectionum assiduitas' (Thegan, c. 20; quoted by Simson, ibid., p45).

10 See authorities for this statement in Simson's 'Jahrbücher &c., Ludwig der Fromme,' p3.

11 'Susceptum est hoc ejus consilium ab omnibus qui aderant magno cum favore: nam divinitus ei propter regni utilitatem videbatur inspiratum' (Einh. Vit. Kar. c. 30).

12 Locopositis.

13 In this description of the coronation I have followed closely the recital of Thegan, except in one particular. He says that Louis by his father's command lifted the crown from off the altar and put it on his own head. I agree with Waitz (Verf.‑Gesch. III.260) that here the united testimony of Einhard and five other good authorities, which join in describing Charles as himself the crowner, is to be preferred to that of Thegan.

14 All but one‑fourth (that is one‑twelfth of the whole treasure), which for some unexplained reason was to be dealt with in the same manner as the two other thirds. Thus all that Charles's own family would inherit was one‑twelfth of his accumulated treasure.

15 On the 17th of March. 'Nam et stella Mercurii xvi Kal. Aprilis visa est in sole quasi parva macula nigra, paulum superius media (sic) centro ejusdem sideris, quae a nobis octo dies conspicitur' (Ann. Ein. s. a. 807).

Thayer's Note: Whatever this was, it was not a transit of Mercury. The maximum duration of such a transit — for a central passage over the Sun in May when the planet is at its perihelion — is about eight hours, and because of the Sun's light the dot that is Mercury passing across it is not visible to the naked eye. We must therefore have something else altogether: the most likely is an unusually large sunspot; sunspots often persist several days or a week or more, and past a certain size they do become visible to the naked eye. Einhard came so close when he described the phenomenon as a 'macula nigra'!

There would be one possible "out", but absolutely requiring a concourse of two factors: (1) manuscript corruption, in which octo dies would in fact stand for some other duration; and (2) the use of some kind of optical device allowing the transit to be viewed, such as a camera obscura, possibly in conjunction with a rudimentary lens: both were known by that time. The question is moot, however: as it happens, there was no transit of Mercury in A.D. 807.

16 All these details are from Thegan's Vita Ludovici.

17 See deed of gift quoted by Simson, II.535.

18 'Corpus more solemni lotum et curatum et maximo totius populi luctu ecclesiae inlatum atque humatum est . . . In hac sepultus est eadem die qua defunctus est' (Einhardi Vita Caroli, c. 31).

19 'Under this tombstone is laid the body of Charles, the great and orthodox Emperor, who gloriously enlarged the kingdom of the Franks, and prosperously governed it for forty-seven years. He died a septuagenarian in the year of our Lord 814, the seventh Indiction, 28th of January.'

20 Ermoldus Nigellus, II.193‑4 (Poet. Lat. Aev. Carol. II.30): —

'Haec canit orbis evans late, vulgoque resultant

Plus populo resonant, quam canat arte melos.'

21 'Vae mihi misero.' This refrain is repeated after every two lines.

22 The appeal is made specially to St. Columbanus, as founder of the monastery of Bobbio, in which the author dwells (see vol. VI p133).

23 In order to reconcile the public mind to the idea of Charles's canonisation, a treatise 'de sanctitate meritorum et gloriâ miraculorum beati Karoli magni ad honorem et laudem nominis Dei' was prepared by order of Frederic Barbarossa, who, as is therein stated, 'being well informed of the holy life and character of the most blessed Charles the Great, rejoices to have been permitted by the divine favour to bring forth to fuller view of all the nations that sun which has been hidden for 351 years.' This life, of which a critical edition has been lately published by G. Rauschen ('Die Legende Karls des Grossen im 11. und 12. Jahrhundert:' Leipzig, 1890), is a most wonderful performance and well worth studying by all who are interested in the mythopoeic faculty of the Middle Ages. The author, who may very likely have been connected with the church of Aachen, was acquainted with Einhard's and Thegan's biographies of Charles and Louis, with the Annales Laurissenses and the Chronicle of Regino, but he also borrows largely from the utterly unhistorical work of the pseudo-Turpin, so‑called archbishop of Rheims. Most extraordinary in his circumstantial account of Charles's (utterly imaginary) pilgrimage to Constantinople and Jerusalem, his rout of the pagans at the Holy City, his friendly contest with the Emperor Constantine (sic) as to who should bear the expense of the campaign for the liberation of Jerusalem, and finally his return to his own city of Aachen, bringing with him in a casket the Saviour's crown of thorns, which, under the influence of heavenly dew, puts forth leaves and flowers, exhales a delicious smell, and works hundreds of miraculous cures. Over all these curious pages hovers the glamour of the Crusades, and we can see that after the preaching of Peter the Hermit it was essential to the idea of a Christian hero that he should have taken part in the deliverance of Christ's sepulchre from the infidels.

24 So says Paul Clemen (Die Porträt­darstellung Karls des Grossen, p101).

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