Perhaps a word of warning about this story by Anatole France from the year 1909. The ending in particular might offend, so be prepared to make an allowance for attitudes in it being 112 years old—the original French chanson de geste eight centuries earlier than that. The story, a satire, is mainly about boasting. The scene takes us to a fictional visit by Emperor Charlemagne to Constantinople.
In Germany, Charlemagne is referred to as Karl der Grosse, which sounds very German, his empire preceding the Heiliges Roemisches Reich Deutscher Nation (Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation), which, I believe, is hardly referred to as such in English. He is still revered in Germany, almost believed to be German, even though he was a Frank. The last emperor of the empire he had laid the foundations for, Joseph II, was an Austrian. But then again, so was Hitler. Buried in Aachen, which is known as Aix-la-Chapelle in French, one could wonder why German history treats him (Charlemagne, not Hitler) as a Germanic hero. After all, he led campaigns against and slaughtered the Saxons for decades. Who were, of course, Germans.
There is a small town called Verden an der Aller, where he was responsible for a particularly nasty massacre of the villagers. Four thousand five hundred, it is said. Not to mention destroying the Irminsul, a huge old tree trunk, sacred to the pagans, who had held rituals around it. Anything for good old “religion”. Understandably, for a long time, his reputation was rather tarnished due to this in Germany. In the 1930s, the Saxon Grove was built to commemorate the atrocity. 4500 stones were used to create a forest monument one for each victim The SS held gatherings there. Then along came Goebbels and Hitler and decided to make him a Germanic hero again, strangely assimilating him and the Franks into the Germanic nations. Another good old “Arian”?
To the boasty bits of the story, which is practically all of it, as weird as they are, and as satirically intended: I wonder if they manage to convey any sense of the apparent all pervading stupidity of the time (well, perhaps not all that much has changed since then?). One could almost imagine a Monty Python version of the story. These days even silly Tiktok dances? Perhaps some new “massacring the villagers” moves? I wondered which tune anyone would add to it, and guess what, there really is one, by a band called called Blossoms. Not too far fetched even for a guy who massacred thousands of villagers to take down a sacred tree trunk?
The real Charlemagne, as history tells us, was succeeded by his only surviving legitimate son, Louis the Pious, not quite a “chip off the ol’ block” apparently. Dear old Saxon-slaughtering daddy was sorely missed, despite “Pious” Louis attacking and taking Barcelona and the lands of the Basques. He was criticised for having had his nephew, Bernard, the king of the Lombards in Italy, killed. Bernard, who had apparently plotted against Louis, was to be blinded, but the procedure went wrong and he died. A red-hot poker through the eyes maybe? An all round nice guy, I’m sure, dear Pious Louis.
Charlemagne did have at least eighteen children that we know of, born by eight of ten concubines, so, apart from the four legitimate sons we know of, the names of many of the fourteen illegitimate ones have been forgotten. Perhaps the son named “Olivier” could have been one of these? A King Hugo of Constantinople also never actually existed however, so perhaps the terrible boasting of Olivier and the knights is pure fiction as entertainment? But what really is historical reality anyway, if Hitler and Goebbels could conspire to make Charlemagne look like a German hero?
HE Emperor Charlemagne and his twelve peers, having taken the palmer’s staff at Saint-Denis, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They prostrated themselves before the tomb of Our Lord, and sat in the thirteen chairs of the great hall wherein Jesus Christ and his Apostles met together to celebrate the blessed sacrifice of the Mass. Then they fared to Constantinople, being fain to see King Hugo, who was renowned for his magnificence.
The King welcomed them in his Palace, where, beneath a golden dome, birds of ruby, wrought with a wondrous art, sat and sang in bushes of emerald.
He seated the Emperor of France and the twelve Counts about a table loaded with stags, boars, cranes, wild geese, and peacocks, served in pepper. And he offered his guests, in ox-horns, the wines of Greece and Asia to drink. Charlemagne and his companions quaffed all these wines in honour of the King and his daughter, the Princess Helen. After supper Hugo led them to the chamber where they were to sleep. Now this chamber was circular, and a column, springing in the midst thereof, carried the vaulted roof. Nothing could be finer to look upon. Against the walls, which were hung with gold and purple, twelve beds were ranged, while another greater than the rest stood beside the pillar.
Charlemagne lay in this, and the Counts stretched themselves round about him on the others. The wine they had drunk ran hot in their veins, and their brains were afire. They could not sleep, and fell to making brags instead, and laying of wagers, as is the way of the knights of France, each striving to outdo the other in warranting himself to do some doughty deed for to manifest his prowess. The Emperor opened the game. He said:
“Let them fetch me, a-horseback and fully armed, the best knight King Hugo hath. I will lift my sword and bring it down upon him in such wise it shall cleave helm and hauberk, saddle and steed, and the blade shall delve a foot deep underground.”
Guillaume d’Orange spake up after the Emperor and made the second brag.
“I will take,” said he, “a ball of iron sixty men can scarce lift, and hurl it so mightily against the Palace wall that it shall beat down sixty fathoms’ length thereof.”
Ogier, the Dane, spake next.
“Ye see yon proud pillar which bears up the vault. To-morrow will I tear it down and break it like a straw.”
After which Renaud de Montauban cried with an oath:
“’Od’s life! Count Ogier, whiles you overset the pillar, I will clap the dome on my shoulders and hale it down to the seashore.”
Gérard de Rousillon it was made the fifth brag.
He boasted he would uproot single-handed, in one hour, all the trees in the Royal pleasaunce.
Aimer took up his parable when Gérard was done.
“I have a magic hat,” said he, “made of a sea-calf’s skin, which renders me invisible. I will set it on my head, and to-morrow, whenas King Hugo is seated at meat, I will eat up his fish and drink down his wine, I will tweak his nose and buffet his ears. Not knowing whom or what to blame, he will clap all his serving-men in gaol and scourge them sore,—and we shall laugh.”
“For me,” declared Huon de Bordeaux, whose turn it was, “for me, I am so nimble I will trip up to the King and cut off his beard and eyebrows without his knowing aught about the matter. ’T is a piece of sport I will show you to-morrow. And I shall have no need of a sea-calf hat either!”
Doolin de Mayence made his brag too. He promised to eat up in one hour all the figs and all the oranges and all the lemons in the King’s orchards.
Next the Due Naisme said in this wise:
“By my faith! I will go into the banquet hall, I will catch up flagons and cups of gold and fling them so high they will never light down again save to tumble into the moon.”
Bernard de Brabant then lifted his great voice:
“I will do better yet,” he roared. “Ye know the river that flows by Constantinople is broad and deep, for it is come nigh its mouth by then, after traversing Egypt, Babylon, and the Earthly Paradise. Well, I will turn it from its bed and make it flood the Great Square of the City.”
Gérard de Viane said:
“Put a dozen knights in line of array. And I will tumble all the twelve on their noses, only by the wind of my sword.”
It was the Count Roland laid the twelfth wager, in the fashion following:
“I will take my horn, I will go forth of the city and I will blow such a blast all the gates of the town will drop from their hinges.”
Olivier alone had said no word yet. He was young and courteous, and the Emperor loved him dearly.
“Olivier, my son,” he asked, “will you not make your brag like the rest of us?”
“Right willingly, sire,” Olivier replied.
“Do you know the name of Hercules of Greece?”
“Yea, I have heard some discourse of him,” said Charlemagne. “He was an idol of the misbelievers, like the false god Mahound.”
“Not so, sire,” said Olivier. “Hercules of Greece was a knight among the Pagans and King of a Pagan kingdom. He was a gallant champion and stoutly framed in all his limbs. Visiting the Court of a certain Emperor who had fifty daughters, virgins, he wedded them all on one and the same night, and that so well and throughly that next morning they all avowed themselves well-contented women and with naught left to learn. He had not slighted ever a one of them. Well, sire, an you will, I will lay my wager to do after the fashion of Hercules of Greece.”
“Nay, beware, Olivier, my son,” cried the Emperor, “beware what you do; the thing would be a sin. I felt sure this King Hercules was a Saracen!”
“Sire,” returned Olivier, “know this—I warrant me to show in the same space of time the selfsame prowess with one virgin that Herailes of Greece did with fifty. And the maid shall be none other but the Princess Helen, King Hugo’s daughter.”
“Good and well,” agreed Charlemagne; “that will be to deal honestly and as a good Christian should. But you were in the wrong, my son, to drag the fifty virgins of King Hercules into your business, wherein, the Devil fly away with me else, I can see but one to be concerned.”
“Sire,” answered Olivier mildly, “there is but one of a truth. But she shall win such satisfaction of me that, an I number the tokens of my love, you will to-morrow see fifty crosses scored on the wall, and that is my brag.”
The Count Olivier was yet speaking when lo! the column which bare the vault opened. The pillar was hollow and contrived in such sort that a man could lie hid therein at his ease to see and hear everything. Charlemagne and the twelve Counts had never a notion of this; so they were sore surprised to behold the King of Constantinople step forth. He was white with anger and his eyes flashed fire.
He said in a terrible voice: “So this is how ye show your gratitude for the hospitality I offer you. Ye are ill-mannered guests. For a whole hour have ye been insulting me with your bragging wagers. Well, know this,—you, Sir Emperor, and ye, his knights; if to-morrow ye do not all of you make good your boasts, I will have your heads cut off.”
Having said his say, he stepped back within the pillar, which shut to again closely behind him. For a while the twelve paladins were dumb with wonder and consternation. The Emperor was the first to break the silence.
“Comrades,” he said, “‘tis true we have bragged too freely. Mayhap we have spoken things better unsaid. We have drunk overmuch wine, and have shown unwisdom. The chiefest fault is mine; I am your Emperor, and I gave you the bad example. I will devise with you to-morrow of the means whereby we may save us from this perilous pass; meantime, it behoves us to get to sleep. I wish you a good night. God have you in his keeping!”
A moment later the Emperor and the twelve peers were snoring under their coverlets of silk and cloth of gold.
They awoke on the morrow, their minds still distraught and deeming the thing was but a nightmare. But anon soldiers came to lead them to the Palace, that they might make good their brags before the King’s face.
“Come,” cried the Emperor, “come; and let us pray God and His Holy Mother. By Our Lady’s help shall we easily make good our brags.”
He marched in front with a more than human majesty of port. Arriving anon at the King’s Palace, Charlemagne, Naisme, Aimer, Huon, Doolin, Guillaume, Ogier, Bernard, Renaud, the two Gérards, and Roland fell on their knees and, joining their hands in prayer, made this supplication to the Holy Virgin:
“Lady, which art in Paradise, look on us now in our extremity; for love of the Realm of the Lilies, which is thine own, protect the Emperor of France and his twelve peers, and give them the puissance to make good their brags.”
Thereafter they rose up comforted and fulfilled of bright courage and gallant confidence, for they knew that Our Lady would answer their prayer.
King Hugo, seated on a golden throne, accosted them, saying:
“The hour is come to make good your brags. But an if ye fail so to do, I will have your heads cut off. Begone therefore, straightway, escorted by my men-at-arms, each one of you to the place meet for the doing of the fine things ye have insolently boasted ye will accomplish.”
At this order they separated and went divers ways, each followed by a little troop of armed men. Whiles some returned to the hall where they had passed the night, others betook them to the gardens and orchards. Bernard de Brabant made for the river, Roland hied him to the ramparts, and all marched valiantly. Only Olivier and Charlemagne tarried in the Palace, waiting, the one for the knight that he had sworn to cleave in twain, the other for the maiden he was to wed.
But in very brief while a fearful sound arose, awful as the last trump that shall proclaim to mankind the end of the world. It reached the Great Hall of the Palace, set the birds of ruby trembling on their emerald perches and shook King Hugo on his throne of gold.
’Twas a noise of walls crumbling into ruin and floods roaring, and high above the din blared out an ear-splitting trumpet blast. Meanwhile messengers had come hurrying in from all quarters of the city, and thrown themselves trembling at the King’s feet, bearing strange and terrible tidings.
“Sire,” said one, “sixty fathoms’ length of the city walls is fallen in at one crash.”
“Sire,” cried another, “the pillar which bare up your vaulted hall is broken down, and the dome thereof we have seen walking like a tortoise toward the sea.”
“Sire,” faltered a third, “the river, with its ships and its fishes, is pouring through the streets, and will soon be beating against your Palace walls.”
King Hugo, white with terror, muttered:
“By my faith! these men are wizards.”
“Well, Sir King,” Charlemagne addressed him with a smile on his lips, “the Knight I wait for is long of coming.”
The King sent for him, and he came. He was a knight of stately stature and well armed. The good Emperor clave him in twain, as he had said.
Now while these things were a-doing, Olivier thought to himself:
“The intervention of Our Most Blessed Lady is plain to see in these marvels; and I am rejoiced to behold the manifest tokens she vouchsafes of her love for the Realm of France. Not in vain have the Emperor and his companions implored the succour of the Holy Virgin, Mother of God. Alas! I shall pay for all the rest, and have my head cut off. For I cannot well ask the Virgin Mary to help me make good my brag. ’Tis an enterprise of a sort wherein ’twould be indiscreet to crave the interference of Her who is the Lily of Purity, the Tower of Ivory, the Guarded Door and the Fenced Orchard-Close. And, lacking aid from on high, I am sore afraid I may not do so much as I have said.”
Thus ran Olivier’s thoughts, when King Hugo roughly accosted him with the words:
“’T is now your turn, Count, to fulfil your promise.”
“Sire,” replied Olivier, “I am waiting with great impatience for the Princess your daughter. For you must needs do me the priceless grace of giving me her hand.”
“That is but fair,” said King Hugo. “I will therefore bid her come to you and a chaplain with her for to celebrate the marriage.”
At church, during the ceremony, Olivier reflected:
“The maid is sweet and comely as ever a man could desire, and too fain am I to clip her in my arms to regret the brag I have made.”
That evening, after supper, the Princess Helen and the Count Olivier were escorted by twelve ladies and twelve knights to a chamber, wherein the twain were left alone together.
There they passed the night, and on the morrow guards came and led them both before King Hugo. He was on his throne, surrounded by his knights. Near by stood Charlemagne and the peers.
“Well, Count Olivier,” demanded the King, “is your brag made good?”
Olivier held his peace, and already was King Hugo rejoiced at heart to think his new son-in-law’s head must fall. For of all the brags and boasts, it was Olivier’s had angered him worst.
“Answer,” he stormed. “Do you dare to tell me your brag is accomplished?”
Thereupon the Princess Helen, blushing and smiling, spake with eyes downcast and in a faint voice, yet clear withal, and said,—“Yea!”
Right glad were Charlemagne and the peers to hear the Princess say this word.
“Well, well,” said Hugo, “these Frenchmen have God and the Devil o’ their side. It was fated I should cut off none of these knights’ heads…. Come hither, son-in-law,”—and he stretched forth his hand to Olivier, who kissed it.
The Emperor Charlemagne embraced the Princess and said to her:
“Helen, I hold you for my daughter and my son’s wife. You will go along with us to France, and you will live at our Court.”
Then, as his lips lay on the Princess’s cheek, he rounded softly in her ear:
“You spake as a loving-hearted woman should. But tell me this in closest confidence,—Did you speak the truth?”
“Sire, Olivier is a gallant man and a courteous. He was so full of pretty ways and dainty devices for to distract my mind, I never thought of counting. Nor yet did he keep score. Needs therefore must I hold him quit of his promise.” King Hugo made great rejoicings for his daughter’s nuptials. Thereafter Charlemagne and his twelve peers returned back to France, taking with them the Princess Helen.
Notes and references
Note on France’s text and the illustrations: Translation is by Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1909). Woodcuts by British artist Marcia Lane Foster (1897–1983) confirmed as Public Domain Mark 1.0 (free of known restrictions under copyright law). Acknowledgement to David Widger for his digital edition.
… made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople (aka Voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople or Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, etc., is a chanson de geste, These are epic tales in verse from Old French, dating from the eleventh century, originally sung by minstrels (jongleurs). The most famous is the Song of Roland, which is the earliest extant major work of French literature PDF. The manuscript of Le Pèlerinage… is lost:
The text is an Anglo-Norman poem composed during the third quarter of the twelfth century (de Riquer, 1984). Its peculiarity lies in its humorous aspect, which borders on parody of the genre. Charlemagne, after being told by his wife that the mightiest king was Hugo [aka Hugon], emperor of Constantinople, departs to the East accompanied by the Twelve Peers. Having arrived in Constantinople and after being welcomed by the emperor, they entertain each other during a feast by claiming “gabs“, extravagant and hyperbolic auto-challenges [hence “brags”] that, if fulfilled, would be insulting towards the emperor. Olivier’s gab clearly illustrates this point: he proclaims to be able to sleep with Hugo’s daughter and satisfy her a hundred times.Cordo
Cordo, L. The reception of medieval French narrative in medieval Wales: the case of Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn and Cân Rolant. Doctoral thesis, U Buenos Aries. 2015. (51-2.) PDF
[De Riquer, Isabel, ed. and trans. 1984. Le Pélérinage de Charlemagne, La peregrinación de Carlomagno. Barcelona: Quaderns Crema.]
Lambert, P. “The immediacy of a remote past: The afterlife of Widukind in the Third Reich”, British Academy (n.d.). PDF.
Introduction © 2020 Furin Chime, Oliver Raven