Bulfinch's Mythology: The Legends of Cha... by Thomas Bulfinch
"How Agrican with all his northern powers
Besieged Albracca, as romances tell;
The city of Galaphron, from thence to win
The fairest of her sex, Angelica,
His daughter, loved of many prowest knights,
Both paynim, and the peers of Charlemain."
Paradise Regained.


THOSE who have investigated the origin of the romantic fables
relating to Charlemagne and his peers are of opinion that the deeds of
Charles Martel, and perhaps of other Charleses, have been blended in
popular tradition with those properly belonging to Charlemagne. It was
indeed a most momentous era; and if our readers will have patience,
before entering on the perusal of the fabulous annals which we are
about to lay before them, to take a rapid survey of the real history
of the times, they will find it hardly less romantic than the tales of
the poets.
In the century beginning from the year 600, the countries
bordering upon the native land of our Saviour, to the east and
south, had not yet received his religion. Arabia was the seat of an
idolatrous religion resembling that of the ancient Persians, who
worshipped the sun, moon, and stars. In Mecca, in the year 571,
Mahomet was born, and here, at the age of forty, he proclaimed himself
the prophet of God, in dignity as superior to Christ as Christ had
been to Moses. Having obtained by slow degrees a considerable number
of disciples, he resorted to arms to diffuse his religion. The
energy and zeal of his followers, aided by the weakness of the
neighboring nations, enabled him and his successors to spread the sway
of Arabia and the religion of Mahomet over the countries to the east
as far as the Indus, northward over Persia and Asia Minor, westward
over Egypt and the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and thence
over the principal portion of Spain. All this was done within one
hundred years from the Hegira, or flight of Mahomet from Mecca to
Medina, which happened in the year 622, and is the era from which
Mahometans reckon time, as we do from the birth of Christ.
From Spain the way was open for the Saracens (so the followers of
Mahomet were called) into France, the conquest of which, if
achieved, would have been followed very probably by that of all the
rest of Europe, and would have resulted in the banishment of
Christianity from the earth. For Christianity was not at that day
universally professed, even by those nations which we now regard as
foremost in civilization. Great part of Germany, Britain, Denmark, and
Russia were still pagan or barbarous.
At that time there ruled in France, though without the title of
king, the first of those illustrious Charleses of whom we have spoken,
Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. The Saracens of
Spain had made incursions into France in 712 and 718, and had retired,
carrying with them a vast booty. In 725, Anbessa, who was then the
Saracen governor of Spain, crossed the Pyrenees with a numerous
army, and took by storm the strong town of Carcassone. So great was
the terror, excited by this invasion, that the country for a wide
extent submitted to the conqueror, and a Mahometan governor for the
province was appointed and installed at Narbonne. Anbessa, however,
received a fatal wound in one of his engagements, and the Saracens,
being thus checked from further advance, retired to Narbonne.
In 732 the Saracens again invaded France under Abdalrahman, advanced
rapidly to the banks of the Garonne, and laid siege to Bordeaux. The
city was taken by assault and delivered up to the soldiery. The
invaders still pressed forward, and spread over the territories of
Orleans, Auxerre, and Sens. Their advanced parties were suddenly
called in by their chief, who had received information of the rich
abbey of St. Martin of Tours, and resolved to plunder and destroy it.
Charles during all this time had done nothing to oppose the
Saracens, for the reason that the portion of France over which their
incursions had been made was not at that time under his dominion,
but constituted an independent kingdom, under the name of Aquitaine,
of which Eude was king. But now Charles became convinced of the
danger, and prepared to encounter it. Abdalrahman was advancing toward
Tours, when intelligence of the approach of Charles, at the head of an
army of Franks, compelled him to fall back upon Poitiers, in order
to seize an advantageous field of battle.
Charles Martel had called together his warriors from every part of
his dominion, and, at the head of such an army as had hardly ever been
seen in France, crossed the Loire, probably at Orleans, and, being
joined by the remains of the army of Aquitaine, came in sight of the
Arabs in the month of October, 732. The Saracens seem to have been
aware of the terrible enemy they were now to encounter, and for the
first time these formidable conquerors hesitated. The two armies
remained in presence during seven days before either ventured to begin
the attack; but at length the signal for battle was given by
Abdalrahman, and the immense mass of the Saracen army rushed with fury
on the Franks. But the heavy line of the Northern warriors remained
like a rock, and the Saracens, during nearly the whole day, expended
their strength in vain attempts to make an impression upon them. At
length, about four o'clock in the afternoon, when Abdalrahman was
preparing for a new and desperate attempt to break the line of the
Franks, a terrible clamor was heard in the rear of the Saracens. It
was King Eude, who, with his Aquitanians, had attacked their camp, and
a great part of the Saracen army rushed tumultuously from the field to
protect their plunder. In this moment of confusion the line of the
Franks advanced, and, sweeping the field before it, carried fearful
slaughter amongst the enemy. Abdalrahman made desperate efforts to
rally his troops, but when he himself, with the bravest of his
officers, fell beneath the swords of the Christians, all order
disappeared, and the remains of his army sought refuge in their
immense camp, from which Eude and his Aquitanians had been repulsed.
It was now late, and Charles, unwilling to risk an attack on the
camp in the dark, withdrew his army, and passed the night in the
plain, expecting to renew the battle in the morning.
Accordingly, when daylight came, the Franks drew up in order of
battle, but no enemy appeared; and when at last they ventured to
approach the Saracen camp, they found it empty. The invaders had taken
advantage of the night to begin their retreat, and were already on
their way back to Spain, leaving their immense plunder behind to
fall into the hands of the Franks.
This was the celebrated battle of Tours, in which vast numbers of
the Saracens were slain, and only fifteen hundred of the Franks.
Charles received the surname of Martel (the Hammer) in consequence
of this victory.
The Saracens, notwithstanding this severe blow, continued to hold
their ground in the South of France; but Pepin, the son of Charles
Martel, who succeeded to his father's power, and assumed the title
of king, successively took from them the strong places they held;
and in 759, by the capture of Narbonne, their capital, extinguished
the remains of their power in France.
Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, succeeded his father, Pepin, on
the throne in the year 768. This prince, though the hero of numerous
romantic legends, appears greater in history than in fiction.
Whether we regard him as a warrior or as a legislator, as a patron
of learning or as the civilizer of a barbarous nation, he is
entitled to our warmest admiration. Such he is in history; but the
romancers represent him as often weak and passionate, the victim of
treacherous counsellors, and at the mercy of turbulent barons, on
whose prowess he depends for the maintenance of his throne. The
historical representation is doubtless the true one, for it is
handed down in trustworthy records, and is confirmed by the events
of the age. At the height of his power, the French empire extended
over what we now call France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland,
Belgium, and a great part of Italy.
In the year 800, Charlemagne, being in Rome, whither he had gone
with a numerous army to protect the Pope, was crowned by the Pontiff
Emperor of the West. On Christmas day Charles entered the Church of
St. Peter, as if merely to take his part in the celebration of the
mass with the rest of the congregation. When he approached the altar
and stooped in the act of prayer, the Pope stepped forward and
placed a crown of gold upon his head; and immediately the Roman people
shouted, "Life and victory to Charles the August, crowned by God the
great and pacific Emperor of the Romans." The Pope then prostrated
himself before him, and paid him reverence, according to the custom
established in the times of the ancient Emperors, and concluded the
ceremony by anointing him with consecrated oil.
Charlemagne's wars were chiefly against the pagan and barbarous
people, who, under the name of Saxons, inhabited the countries now
called Hanover and Holland. He also led expeditions against the
Saracens of Spain; but his wars with the Saracens were not carried on,
as the romances assert, in France, but on the soil of Spain. He
entered Spain by the Eastern Pyrenees, and made an easy conquest of
Barcelona and Pampeluna. But Saragossa refused to open her gates to
him, and Charles ended by negotiating, and accepting a vast sum of
gold as the price of his return over the Pyrenees.
On his way back, he marched with his whole army through the gorges
of the mountains by way of the valleys of Engui, Eno, and
Roncesvalles. The chief of this region had waited upon Charlemagne, on
his advance, as a faithful vassal of the monarchy; but now, on the
return of the Franks, he had called together all the wild mountaineers
who acknowledged him as their chief, and they occupied the heights
of the mountains under which the army had to pass. The main body of
the troops met with no obstruction, and received no intimation of
danger; but the rear-guard, which was considerably behind, and
encumbered with its plunder, was overwhelmed by the mountaineers in
the pass of Roncesvalles, and slain to a man. Some of the bravest of
the Frankish chiefs perished on this occasion, among whom is mentioned
Roland or Orlando, governor of the marches or frontier of Brittany.
His name became famous in after times, and the disaster of
Roncesvalles and death of Roland became eventually the most celebrated
episode in the vast cycle of romance.
Though after this there were hostile encounters between the armies
of Charlemagne and the Saracens, they were of small account, and
generally on the soil of Spain. Thus the historical foundation for the
stories of the romancers is but scanty, unless we suppose the events
of an earlier and of a later age to be incorporated with those of
Charlemagne's own time.
There is, however, a pretended history, which for a long time was
admitted as authentic, and attributed to Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims,
a real personage of the time of Charlemagne. Its title is "History
of Charles the Great and Orlando." It is now unhesitatingly considered
as a collection of popular traditions, produced by some credulous
and unscrupulous monk, who thought to give dignity to his romance by
ascribing its authorship to a well-known and eminent individual. It
introduces its pretended author, Bishop Turpin, in this manner:-
"Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims, the friend and secretary of Charles
the Great, excellently skilled in sacred and profane literature, of
a genius equally adapted to prose and verse, the advocate of the poor,
beloved of God in his life and conversation, who often fought the
Saracens, hand to hand, by the Emperor's side, he relates the acts
of Charles the Great in one book, and flourished under Charles and his
son Louis, to the year of our Lord eight hundred and thirty."
The titles of some of Archbishop Turpin's chapters will show the
nature of his history. They are these: "Of the Walls of Pampeluna,
that fell of themselves." "Of the War of the holy Facundus, where
the Spears grew." (Certain of the Christians fixed their spears, in
the evening, erect in the ground, before the castle; and found them,
in the morning, covered with bark and branches.) "How the Sun stood
still for Three Days, and the Slaughter of Four Thousand Saracens."
Turpin's history has perhaps been the source of the marvellous
adventures which succeeding poets and romancers have accumulated
around the names of Charlemagne and his Paladins, or Peers. But
Ariosto and the other Italian poets have drawn from different sources,
and doubtless often from their own invention, numberless other stories
which they attribute to the same heroes, not hesitating to quote as
their authority "the good Turpin," though his history contains no
trace of them;- and the more outrageous the improbability, or rather
the impossibility, of their narrations, the more attentive are they to
cite "the Archbishop," generally adding their testimonial to his
unquestionable veracity.
The principal Italian poets who have sung the adventures of the
peers of Charlemagne are Pulci, Boiardo, and Ariosto. The characters
of Orlando, Rinaldo, Astolpho, Gano, and others, are the same in
all, though the adventures attributed to them are different, Boiardo
tells us of the loves of Orlando, Ariosto of his disappointment and
consequent madness, Pulci of his death.
Ogier, the Dane, is a real personage. History agrees with romance in
representing him as a powerful lord who, originally from Denmark and a
Pagan, embraced Christianity, and took service under Charlemagne. He
revolted from the Emperor, and was driven into exile. He afterwards
led one of those bands of piratical Norsemen which ravaged France
under the reigns of Charlemagne's degenerate successors. The
description which an ancient chronicler gives of Charlemagne, as
described by Ogier, is so picturesque, that we are tempted to
transcribe it. Charlemagne was advancing to the siege of Pavia.
Didier, King of the Lombards, was in the city with Ogier, to whom he
had given refuge. When they learned that the king was approaching,
they mounted a high tower, whence they could see far and wide over the
country. "They first saw advancing the engines of war, fit for the
armies of Darius or Julius Caesar. 'There is Charlemagne,' said
Didier. 'No,' said Ogier. The Lombard next saw a vast body of
soldiers, who filled all the plain. 'Certainly Charles advances with
that host,' said the king. 'Not yet,' replied Ogier. 'What hope for
us,' resumed the king, 'if he brings with him a greater host than
that?' At last Charles appeared, his head covered with an iron helmet,
his hands with iron gloves, his breast and shoulders with a cuirass of
iron, his left hand holding an iron lance, while his right hand
grasped his sword. Those who went before the monarch, those who
marched at his side, and those who followed him, all had similar arms.
Iron covered the fields and the roads; iron points reflected the
rays of the sun. This iron, so hard, was borne by a people whose
hearts were harder still. The blaze of the weapons flashed terror into
the streets of the city."
This picture of Charlemagne in his military aspect would be
incomplete without a corresponding one of his "mood of peace." One
of the greatest of modern historians, M. Guizot, has compared the
glory of Charlemagne to a brilliant meteor, rising suddenly out of the
darkness of barbarism to disappear no less suddenly in the darkness of
feudalism. But the light of this meteor was not extinguished, and
reviving civilization owed much that was permanently beneficial to the
great Emperor of the Franks. His ruling hand is seen in the
legislation of his time, as well as in the administration of the laws.
He encouraged learning; he upheld the clergy, who were the only
peaceful and intellectual class, against the encroaching and turbulent
barons; he was an affectionate father, and watched carefully over
the education of his children, both sons and daughters. Of his
encouragement of learning, we will give some particulars.
He caused learned men to be brought from Italy and from other
foreign countries, to revive the public schools of France, which had
been prostrated by the disorders of preceding times. He recompensed
these learned men liberally, and kept some of them near himself,
honoring them with his friendship. Of these the most celebrated is
Alcuin, an Englishman, whose writings still remain, and prove him to
have been both a learned and a wise man. With the assistance of
Alcuin, and others like him, he founded an academy or royal school,
which should have the direction of the studies of all the schools of
the kingdom. Charlemagne himself was a member of this academy on equal
terms with the rest. He attended its meetings, and fulfilled all the
duties of an academician. Each member took the name of some famous man
of antiquity. Alcuin called himself Horace, another took the name of
Augustin, a third of Pindar. Charlemagne, who knew the Psalms by
heart, and who had an ambition to be, according to his conception, a
king after God's own heart, received from his brother academicians the
name of David.
Of the respect entertained for him by foreign nations an interesting
proof is afforded in the embassy sent to him by the Caliph of the
Arabians, the celebrated Haroun al Raschid, a prince in character
and conduct not unlike to Charlemagne. The ambassadors brought with
them, besides other rich presents, a clock, the first that was seen in
Europe, which excited universal admiration. It had the form of a
twelve-sided edifice with twelve doors. These doors formed niches,
in each of which was a little statue representing one of the hours. At
the striking of the hour the doors, one for each stroke, were seen
to open, and from the doors to issue as many of the little statues,
which, following one another, marched gravely round the tower. The
motion of the clock was caused by water, and the striking was effected
by balls of brass equal to the number of the hours, which fell upon
a cymbal of the same metal, the number falling being determined by the
discharge of the water, which, as it sunk in the vessel, allowed their
Charlemagne was succeeded by his son Louis, a well-intentioned but
feeble prince, in whose reign the fabric reared by Charles began
rapidly to crumble. Louis was followed successively by two
Charleses, incapable princes, whose weak and often tyrannical
conduct is no doubt the source of incidents of that character ascribed
in the romances to Charlemagne.
The lawless and disobedient deportment of Charles's paladins,
instances of which are so frequent in the romantic legends, was also a
trait of the declining empire, but not of that of Charlemagne.

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