Confronted with kings called Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple, Charles the Fat and Louis the Blind, and chroniclers like Notker the Stammerer, Benzo of Alba and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, we might be tempted to think that the history of France and Germany a millennium ago can offer us nothing more than the dreary spectacle of one barbarian succeeding another on the banks of the Seine or the Rhine. Even the fame of the great figures of the period makes them less than real to us, turning them into figures of myth, so that the Charlemagne of The Song of Roland is quite a different figure from his historical prototype. While modern French scholarship busies itself with probing the dreams of the poem's king in order to uncover a 'feudal libido', can we recapture the dreams that troubled the original Charlemagne (a light sleeper, as it happens)? Already in the Early Medieval period people were in the business of making images for themselves and investing belief in them. Thus the learning of the Saxon historian Widukind inclined him to think that the Saxons were descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Similarly, some Franks fondly imagined that their people had a Trojan origin.
LRB 17 November 1983 | PDF Download