Charlemagne in Toronto

Marianne Ailes reports on the Société Rencesvals International Congress

The ‘Charlemagne: A European Icon’ project was much in evidence at the Société Rencesvals International Congress at Toronto in August. The figure of Charlemagne is key to many of the texts worked on by colleagues in the Société Rencesvals so this was an important congress for the dissemination of findings and to receive useful feedback from well-informed colleagues. Six members of the project team gave papers: Françoise Le Saux (outgoing President of the British Branch of the society), partners in the project; Marianne Ailes and Catherine Emerson from the Charlemagne in medieval Francophonia team; Jane Everson and Leslie Zarker Morgan, working on Charlemagne in Italy; and Albrecht Classen, author of the forthcoming Charlemagne in German and Dutch Literature volume. Overall there were excellent papers at the Congress, from colleagues at all stages of their careers, a convivial atmosphere with excellent opportunities for networking and developing relationships, high quality evening events, and fun on the congress outing to Niagara. Thanks and congratulations are due to Dr Dorothea Kullman, the organiser, and her team of helpers. The University of Toronto’s Victoria College  and St Michael’s College provided good facilities and a satisfyingly medievalist context.


The Conference Excursion to Niagara Falls

Bex Lyons reports on ‘Medieval Myths and Walsall’s Wands’

Saturday 1st September 2018 saw Marianne Ailes and Bex Lyons from the project team in Walsall for an afternoon of Charlemagne-themed family activities at the Leather Museum.

Walsall may seem a surprising place for an event celebrating Charlemagne, but the town boasts a rare, tangible reference to the medieval king. 17 wooden ceremonial clubs and staffs called ‘Bayard’s Colts’, now held at Walsall Leather Museum, include a ‘Charlemagne head’; a horse, thought to be Bayard, the mythical horse belonging to one of his barons (and from whom the clubs derive their name), and other figures. The clubs were probably carried during civic processions, dating back to the fifteenth century.

In a press statement for the event, Dr Ailes said: ‘Bayard first appeared in an early 13th-century epic French epic poem and was a wonder horse capable of carrying four men at a time and of understanding human speech.’

‘Belonging to the knight Renaud, one of Charlemagne’s rebellious barons, the horse is eventually captured by the emperor who ties a large stone to Bayard’s neck and has the horse pushed into the river. Bayard however smashes the stone with his hooves and escapes to live forever more in the woods.’

The afternoon featured Charlemagne-inspired art workshops, including clay modelling, felt and leather working, drawing, and other crafts. Storyteller Cath Edwards retold William Caxton’s version of The Four Sons of Aymon, but with the focus on Bayard the horse. Families also designed their own coat of arms, with the help of heraldry expert Adrian Ailes, visiting fellow at the University of Bristol.

Feedback from the event showed that everyone had a rewarding time. Of the children who filled in a feedback form all gave the event a smiling face for their overall experience, and the average rating was 4.9 stars out of 5.00. None of the adults who completed the form previously knew about the Charlemagne legend and Bayard the horse. 75.5% said they would definitely return to the leather Museum and 25% said it was likely that they would return. The interactive story-telling was rated especially highly by the children.

The Museum itself, housed in a former leather factory, provided a fascinating location and those who arrived early were able to explore Walsall’s tradition in leather-making.

The event was intended to stimulate local interest in these fascinating artefacts, which are now kept in storage. Two of the Colts were on display on the day, and provoked great interest from the adults who were there, most of whom were unaware of Walsall’s unique heritage. It aimed also to inspire other Charlemagne-related events and activities, and to provide meaningful outreach from the project.

Adults also enjoyed learning about Charlemagne at this family event.


It is hoped that the event will inspire other Charlemagne-related events and activities in Walsall and elsewhere.

Jane Everson – Charlemagne in Modena: Literature and Life

The conference held at the Accademia nazionale di Scienze, Lettere e Arti di Modena on January 18 and 19 brought together scholars of the Italian Carolingian narrative tradition and focussed especially on the figure of Luigi Pulci and Il Morgante maggiore. Pulci claims that the stories of Charlemagne have been ‘male intesa e scritta peggio’ (poorly understood and badly written) and it is his intention to rescue Charlemagne from this neglect and produce a worthy account. This claim, and indeed many aspects of Pulci’s poetic output, has often proved puzzling and controversial. It has also often meant that Pulci’s great poem has been neglected by critics who have tended to focus, especially in recent years, on the narratives of Boiardo and Ariosto. It is thus good to welcome a forthcoming set of essays from Brepols devoted to Luigi Pulci.

Pulci was a Florentine, and his poem is profoundly marked by Florentine linguistic usage, so the venue of the conference in Modena may seem strange. But the Accademia holds a unique copy of the first extant edition of the Morgante (1481), which has been digitised to be made widely available. Several of the papers paid attention to the somewhat mysterious history of the early editions of Il Morgante including a discussion by Lorenz Böninger, using historial and archive sources to posit that the first printing of Il Morgante took place as early as 1477, and the exciting discovery, by Neil Harris, of two hitherto unknown editions of the poem. Other studies devoted attention to the complexities of Pulci’s language, while the character of Malagigi was the subject of three complementary studies. The relationship of Pulci’s poem to preceding narratives about the battle of Rencesvals, discussed by Cristina Montagnani, remains, as her title explained, still an open question.

Papers were delivered by three of the contributors to the Charlemagne in Italy volume. The literary links of a Charlemagne narrative to Modena are nicely supported by a historical document from the time of Charlemagne, dated September 782, addressed to the Bishop of Modena and granting legal immunity and tax exemptions to the church of Modena. The document is held in the archives of the cathedral, which also displays, above one of the side entrances, very early evidence of the penetration of Arthurian narratives into Italy (early 12th century), thus making an early fusion of the two cycles that is so characteristic of the later major Italian Carolingian narratives.


Featured image © Archivio storico diocesano di Modena-Nonantola

Eric J. Goldberg – Charlemagne’s Ghost

Few scholars would disagree that the Frankish emperor Charlemagne (768–814) and his dynasty – the Carolingians – played a fundamental role in the formation of Europe. Yet the long-term consequences of the collapse of the Carolingian empire in 888 are still a matter of debate. On Saturday October 7 this year, medievalists from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and specializations will come together at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to consider the legacy of Charlemagne and the diverse ways in which the inheritance of the Carolingian empire shaped subsequent medieval civilization.

During the conference, entitled Charlemagne’s Ghost: Legacies, Leftovers, and Legends of the Carolingian Empire, papers will consider a wide array of Carolingian legacies in the realms of kingship and political culture, literature and art, manuscripts and material artifacts, the Church and monasticism, as well as Europe’s relations with the wider world. Participants will reflect on the ways in which later medieval rulers, writers, artists, and communities remembered, and forgot, Charlemagne and the Frankish empire and adapted Carolingian inheritances to fit new circumstances. In short, this conference will explore the ways in which Charlemagne’s ghost haunted the medieval world.

Marianne Ailes on Charlemagne in Berlin

It was a particular pleasure to be talking about Charlemagne in Germany at the recent Texts in Transit Conference held in the Sonderforshungsbereich ‘Episteme in Bewegung’ of the Freie Universität in Berlin.

My paper, looking at the way Charlemagne narratives were disseminated in the multilingual context of the medieval British Isles, was very much in line with the focus of the two days: I highlighted the creation of reading communities who might be accessing the same material in different languages, and the co-existence of different versions of narratives in the same geographical zone and/or social environment.

Patterns of the dissemination of different material were explored by scholars from established senior colleagues to young researchers, resulting in a stimulating mix of perspectives. The keynote paper by Lars Boje Mortensen (University of Southern Denmark), proposed a chronological structure of the changing dissemination patterns of western imperial literature (c. 1050–1320) which provided a helpful framework. The second keynote by Christine Putzo (University of Lausanne) demonstrated how important surviving fragments can be in building a picture of European-wide dissemination; this was particularly relevant for the Charlemagne project as both fragmentary evidence and evidence for lost manuscripts were important in researching the reception of chansons de geste for The Charlemagne Legend in Medieval England volume (now available for pre-order).

On the Friday evening we were treated to a performance of the narrative of Nasreddin Hodja by Serap Güven, a very effective reminder that narratives were not always disseminated in written form, even when texts were composed as written material. I had made this point in my own paper with reference to Barbour’s Bruce, where the king is described as reading the narrative of Fierabras to ‘yam yat war him by’ (ed. Matthew P. McDairmid and James A.C. Stevenson, l. 3456), and to the medieval wall paintings, probably depicting the Song of Roland narrative in Claverley Parish Church, Shropshire, UK.

By adding a few days on to the trip I managed to include a visit to the Deutsches Historisches Museum famous for its more modern galleries but boasting some quality medieval items, including a twelfth-century statue of Charlemagne himself, seen to the left with an admirer.

Karen Pratt on a new translation of the Oxford Roland by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt (Oxford World’s Classics).

In The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne our aim was to produce lively prose translations, which, especially in the case of the Oxford Roland, pay attention to epic rhythm and style, in an attempt to recreate some of the excitement of aural reception. We have also placed the famous epic about the heroic death of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland in the context of two lesser-known medieval French epics which present the emperor and his companions in a far from favourable light. The late twelfth- early thirteenth-century Occitan Daurel et Beton depicts Charles marrying off his recently widowed sister to her husband’s murderer for money, while the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople presents him as a relic-grabbing, arrogant, insensitive tourist abroad. His men, including Roland and Oliver, indulge in a series of post-prandial boasts which insult their host, King Hugo the Strong of Constantinople, and are only fulfilled with the dubious intervention of a highly indulgent Christian God. This work may well be a satirical riposte to the late eleventh-century Latin Descriptio qualiter, a text which outrageously claims Carolingian origins for the relics held at Saint-Denis. It also parodies the diction of heroic epic and pokes fun at the human frailty of characters who will play a more tragic and heroic role in the Battle of Rencesvals. While the epic grandeur and lyrical pathos of the Oxford Roland are not challenged by this re-contextualisation of the canonical work, we are reminded that as Charlemagne’s legend developed his reputation was not always unblemished, perhaps, in particular, when presented by French-speaking authors beyond the Capetian realm.