Charlemagne’s tail gets twisted… off

For when what could be done in Spain had been carried out and they were returning after a successful campaign a misfortune was met with and certain of the rear-guard of the royal column were killed in those same mountains. Since their names are widely known, I have neglected to give them.1.Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.

He had more than thirty years of wars ahead of him, but the ambush at Roncesvalle was the greatest defeat Charlemagne ever knew. It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an ill-fated enterprise.

The army that Charlemagne led north over the pass of Roncesvalles in August was hot, tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t be fooled by the Astonomer’s characterization; Charles had been enticed out of Francia with the promise to reign in Spain2.Did you see what I did just there? north of the Ebro. The summer turned out to be an exercise in nothing more than physical endurance and political patience, while Charles’ erstwhile allies ended up killing one another.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.
2. Did you see what I did just there?

Charlemagne gets played

In the spring of 777 a group of Arab emissaries from northern Spain arrived at Paderborn, Germany to meet with the Frankish King Charles. They had traveled more than a thousand miles, but it was worth it, for they had a proposal of continental scope to put forth. If Charles would raise his armies and march to Spain, he would be granted dominion over all of the lands from the Pyrenees to the Ebro river, if he could defend them against the depredations of the last of the Umayyad emirs, the merciless ‘Abd al-Rahman of Cordova. For a variety of reasons, thoughts of an easy conquest uppermost, Charles agreed. The word went forth throughout the realm to prepare for war.1.All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

No details reach us concerning the specific preparations that were undertaken for this particular expedition. The groundwork must have been immense, for the Spanish expedition was one of the larger armies Charles organized. “How big was it?” is, of course, the obvious question, and one to which much thought has been given. To no satisfactory result, it must be said. The sources give ridiculous numbers, in the hundreds of thousands, and must be taken as the rhetorical equivalent of “larger than you can imagine.”

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

Tonight’s entertainment, Roland

The Song of Roland is a chanson de geste, a “song of deeds.” The chanson de gestes were a form of popular entertainment that have come down to us as long written poems. These poems started as oral story telling, in a tradition that is as old as language itself. At some point music was probably added, in the Greek tradition.

As the stories evolved, grew, and spread, the audiences probably began to ask for specific incidents in the story. “Tell us about when Roland blew his horn!”1.Tolkien copied┬áthe scene from Roland for the death of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. “During dinner the duke wants you to sing of Ganelon’s trial for treason, to see who sweats.” The reason I mention this is because the stories that have come down to us are too long for a single evening or meal, and can be somewhat repetitive. When they were written down the scribe probably included every version he could find, which results in a story that is, while very much a coherent whole, could use some editing.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Tolkien copied the scene from Roland for the death of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings.