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Bill Thayer

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Book IX
Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

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

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Book IX
Chapter 10

Note B

On the Entombment of Charles the Great

The account given in the preceding pages of the burial of the great Emperor is taken from Einhard and Thegan (biographer of Louis the Pious), and I have no doubt that it is the true record of that which actually occurred. But another very different and much more picturesque version of the story has obtained such wide circulation that it is not possible to leave it wholly unnoticed.

In the year 1000 the young and romantic Emperor Otho III, accompanied by two bishops and by his captain of the guard​1 and count of the palace, Otho of Lomello, opened Charles's tomb. Of this fact there is no doubt, nor that the deed excited the disapproval of some of his subjects, who believed that the vengeance of God fell upon the Emperor for this desecration of his predecessor's sepulchre. But the question is what the explorers saw when they opened the vault. The chronicler of Novalese, a nearly contemporary writer, tells the following story on the alleged authority of Count Otho of Lomello himself.​2:

'We went in unto Charles, and found him, not lying, as is the manner of other dead bodies, but sitting on a chair as if still alive. He was crowned with a golden crown, and he held a sceptre in his hands. These were covered with gloves, through which the growing nails had forced their way. Above him was an alcove​3 wonderfully built of marbles and mortar; into which we made a hole before we came to the Emperor. As soon as we entered we perceived a very strong smell. We at once fell on our knees and did him reverence, and the Emperor Otho clothed him in white garments and cut his nails, and made good all that was lacking around him. But none of his limbs had fallen away through decay: only there was a little piece gone from the tip of his nose, which the Emperor caused to be replaced with gold. Then having taken one tooth out of his mouth and rebuilt the alcove, we departed.'

This very circumstantial account, professing to rest on the testimony of an eye‑witness, is somewhat expanded by Ademar,  p274 also a contemporary,​4 who lived at Chabannes in Angoulême. He describes the embalming of Charles, and says that

'his corpse was made to sit on a golden throne, girt with a golden sword, and holding a golden book of the gospels on his knees. His head was bound to the diadem with a golden chain, and in the diadem was set a piece of the wood of the Cross. The tomb was filled with odours of balsam and musk, and there were in it many treasures. The body was clothed in imperial robes, and there was a napkin over the face. The golden sceptre and shield which Pope Leo had consecrated were placed before him, and the sepulchre was secured with a seal.'

A certain monk, who wrote probably in Limoges more than a century later,​5 has added some grotesque details about a gigantic canon named Adalbert, whom he represents as present at the opening of the vault. He tried Charles's own crown on his own head and found it too large; he then measured his leg against Charles's and found his own the shorter, and was punished for his presumption by life-long lameness. But with these later additions to the story we need not concern ourselves. The question is, 'Can the narrative of Otho of Lomello be accepted as true?' Picturesque as is that narrative and resting apparently on such good contemporary evidence, it seems almost certain that we must reject it, since it cannot in any way be made to fit in with the undoubtedly authentic accounts of the sepulture given by Einhard and Thegan. Nothing is said by them about embalmment: nor, buried as Charles was on the very day of his death, was there any time for such an elaborate process as would be necessary to secure the wonderful result said to have been witnessed 186 years after by the two Othos. All the expressions of the contemporary writers point to an ordinary burial under the pavement of the church of the Virgin. They never hint at the construction of a tuguriolum leaving space sufficient for the erection of a throne underneath it, nor has any such edifice ever been found anywhere in the basilica, though often sought for. We are thus reluctantly forced to the conclusion that if Otho, count of Lomello, told the story which the chronicler of Novalese reports on his authority, he was playing upon the credulity of his hearers, unless indeed (which seems a possible  p275 solution of the difficulty) the excavators came upon some effigy of the great Emperor which they mistook for his embalmed corpse.

It should be mentioned — though the fact has not perhaps much bearing on the question now before us — that in 881 (sixty-seven years after Charles's death) the noble city of Aquae Grani was taken and ravaged by the Normans, the palace laid in ashes, and the church turned into a stable. It is not likely, however, that the savage invaders would have time or inclination to search out and despise the sepulchre of the Emperor.

There seems to be no doubt that on the 29th of December, 1165, the Translatio of Charles's remains was solemnly performed in the presence of Frederic Barbarossa as a part of the great ceremony of his canonisation. The chronicle of Cologne says that 'Amid the great rejoicing of the people and the clergy the bones of the great Emperor Charles were taken out of the sarcophagus in which they had lain for 351 years.' There is still to be seen in a chamber of the cathedral at Aachen a marble sarcophagus — the work, according to some, of the second, according to others, of the fourth century after Christ — on which is depicted in bas‑relief Pluto's abduction of Proserpine. It is generally supposed that this was the sarcophagus out of which Charles's remains were lifted at the time of the Translatio of the saint. If that be so, it would seem at once to dispose of the story told by Otho of Lomello, according to which the Emperor was left sitting in ghastly glory in his tuguriolum. But there is in any case a difficulty, owing to the narrow dimensions of the Proserpine sarcophagus, in understanding how it can ever have held the gigantic skeleton of Charlemagne, and after much discussion its connection with the Emperor's entombment is by no means clear.

The head, right shoulder, and thigh-bone of the Emperor enclosed in reliquaries of silver or gold are now preserved in the sacristy of the cathedral, and, as before said, exhibited every seven years to pilgrims to the shrine. The remainder of his body, after various vicissitudes, reposes, it is believed, under the high altar.

(In the preceding note I have followed the argument and accepted the chief results of Theodor Lindner, whose monograph 'Die Fabel von der Bestattung Karls des Grossen' (Aachen, 1893), is, I think, likely to be the end of controversy on this subject.)

The Author's Notes:

1 Proto­spatharius.

2 In Pertz, Monumenta, vol. VII (lib. III c. 32).

3 Tuguriolum.

4 He probably died in 1035, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

5 Not before 1159.

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