Charlemagne - George Upton


It was at Ingelheim on the Rhine that Charlemagne usually established his court during the middle period of his reign. An obelisk upon one of the adjacent heights, erected in 1807, bears the inscription, "Charlemagne's highway." The erection of his palace at this spot shows his keen appreciation of its natural beauty. The view from these heights toward the Rhine, Johannisberg, and the Rheingau, taking in a blooming, fruitful valley, is incomparably fine. In one of the descriptions of the vicinity, it is related that Charlemagne was the first Frankish ruler who built in the grand style. It says:

"A great admirer of the monuments of Greek and Roman architecture, Charlemagne was not satisfied with the simplicity of his ancestors, and sought to combine the useful and the beautiful, the comfortable and the artistic. He built not merely as the owner, but like a king. He selected one of the most beautiful spots on the heights of Rheingau for the palace of Ingelheim. The broad river, enclosing numerous islands in its strong arms, is visible throughout its entire course from the bend where it enters Rheingau, below Mainz, to the point where it plunges into the dark abyss of Bingerloch. The smiling meadows along its banks at the foot of vine-clad hillsides spread out like a charming panorama."

The palace itself is described by contemporaries as a wonder of art, transplanted as if by magic from the Italian Ravenna to the banks of the Rhine. Charlemagne secured the hundred marble and granite columns upon which the structure rests, as well as the mural decorations of the interior, through the favor of the Pope. Barbarian opulence in buildings was usually displayed in the lavish use of gold and silver, and artistic effect was sought for in brilliant metallic shimmer. But Charlemagne employed gold and silver only for the decoration of that beautiful work of art the reproduction of the old palace at Ravenna upon the Ingelheim heights a conspicuous evidence of that great change in times and customs by which not only the abode, but eventually the title and sceptre, of the Caesars came into the possession of a German sovereign.

Contemporaneous descriptions of the personality of Charlemagne have also been preserved. According to the chronicles of Eginhard, he was large and symmetrical of body and stood about seven feet high. He had full, bright eyes, a strong nose, beautiful hair, and a frank, open countenance. Whether sitting or standing, he inspired reverence by his dignity. He was often upon horseback in war or the chase. He loved bathing as passionately as the chase, and often buffeted the green waves of the Rhine with his strong arms, but he was fonder of the warm mineral baths of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) than of the river water.

According to the Eginhard chronicles also, Charlemagne usually wore the Frankish costume, which is thus described in a chronicle at Saint Galls:

"The Frankish costume consisted of shoes, set off with gold adornments fastened by scarlet bands about the legs, and flaxen hose of the same color, figured in a most skilful manner. Then came the inner coat of bright canvas material, shoulder belt, and sword. The remaining detail of the costume was a gray or blue four-cornered mantle, doubled and so disposed that when worn over the shoulder it fell to the feet before and behind, but barely covered the knees on the sides. A staff was carried in the right hand, made of a sapling with symmetrical knobs, and with a handle of gold or silver finely wrought. It was at once beautiful, strong, and cruel. The mantle was made of a thick woollen stuff called 'Frisian' in the northern Netherlands."

Such was the costume generally worn by the Emperor. In winter, however, the chronicle says that he protected his shoulders and breast with an outer garment of otter and marten skins. He disliked foreign dress, and wore it only once or twice in Rome at the request of the Pope. He carried a sword at his side continuously with a golden hilt and belt. Now and then he made use of one set with jewels, but only upon ceremonious occasions, or when receiving embassies. At the high festivals he wore a gold-embroidered dress, shoes set with gems, a mantle fastened with a golden clasp, and a golden, jewelled crown. From another narrative of events in the times of Charlemagne, we quote the following:

"Although the Franks were excellent riders and generally fought on horseback, they did not participate in tournaments, although the principal feats of the tournament were conspicuous for the exercises which the young warriors enjoyed practising. The really grand occasions of the Franks were their religious and state festivals, where they displayed their fondness for splendor and churchly pomp. The brilliancy of the state festivals, to which Charlemagne summoned representatives from far and near, was enhanced by the presence of the monarch seated upon his high and gorgeous throne. A blue mantle covered his shoulders, and upon his head he wore a refulgent diadem. His right hand held a golden sceptre. His spouse wore a crown above her veil, which, like her dress and those of the court ladies, glittered with pearls, rubies, diamonds, and other costly gems, procured in trade or taken as spoils of war. The dukes, counts, and other nobles surrounding the throne wore girdles adorned with gold, silver, and jewels from the Orient. Their fur-trimmed mantles suggested the habits of their fathers and the experiences of the forests. Palace functionaries stood back of the Emperor; heralds threw gold pieces to the crowd; and musicians sang and poets recited hymns in honor of the Frankish heroes.

Festivals of this kind lasted several days. The guests at a signal from the horn mounted their horses to hunt boars and buffaloes, which were abundant in those days a pastime which called for impetuous courage, as it was attended by great danger. As gentler sport they fished and hunted with falcons and other birds of prey. Still other sources of pleasure were ball games and chess contests. In Charlemagne's time the Franks were passionately devoted to both, but the Emperor cared little for such sports and rarely played chess, which seemed to him merely a pleasant way of passing time, which to him was of the highest importance and too valuable to be wasted.

The meals in the homes of the wealthy consisted of three courses: the first, a salad of mallows or hops, which were considered as appetizers and aids to digestion; the second, plain bread and pork or venison; and the third, pastries and fruit. Wine was rarely used, and consequently there were few displays of bad passions. The common beverages were beer and mead. Poor families and even those fairly well off ate turnips, lentils, beans, and other vegetables, and upon festive occasions a goose and some kind of pastry.

However great the wealth or high the rank, the utmost importance was attached to the hair and beard, which were considered indications of strength and courage qualities which commanded respect at that time. The grandees exchanged a hair as a sign of mutual agreement. A promise was often sealed by touching the beard. A debtor who could not pay was considered the slave of his creditor and tendered him the shears with which to cut his beard. If a young warrior was taken prisoner by one of the barbarians and doomed to death, he would beseech his captor not to soil his hair with blood or allow a slave to touch it. Agreements were annulled by breaking a straw.

Hospitality was regarded as a sacred rite, and guests were treated with almost religious reverence. The household furniture was simple. The walls of the rooms were covered with painted and gilded leather, and the floors were covered with straw mats, woven by the women of the house. Except upon festival days, when sumptuous display was expected, there was the utmost simplicity both in the homes of private persons and at the Court of Charlemagne."

Charlemagne's wife and daughters took an active part in the household duties. The daughters learned to spin and weave when they were quite young, and Charlemagne much preferred the garments which they made. Angilbert, a scholarly friend of the Emperor, has left a description of the palace at Ingelheim as well as of a hunting party in which the Emperor's spouse, Lindgard, and the sons, Carl and Pepin, figure. He says:

"The Emperor's charming wife, Lindgard, enters the courtyard followed by a numerous train. Her cheeks vie in tint and glitter with the roses, and her hair with the shimmer of a purple robe. Her brow is bound with a purple fillet, jewels sparkle on her neck, and a golden crown glitters on her head. As she enters with her ladies, courtiers make way to her, right and left. She mounts her horse, which is brought to her, and beams with royal dignity upon the crowd of nobles surrounding her two sons, Carl and Pepin. The one who bears his father's name resembles him in figure, countenance, and spirit. He is in full armor a valiant warrior, tried and true.

Following the queen and princes, the hunters crowd through the gates accompanied by a tumult of sound from hound bells and horns. Next appear the princesses with their retinue. Rotrud rides at their head, calm of face and proud in bearing. Her blonde hair is fastened by a purple band, and a little gold crown gleams upon her brow. Next, Bertha, the image of her father in face, voice, and disposition. Her blonde hair is intertwined with gold cords and wreathed with a diadem. A marten-skin covers her snowy neck, and the seams of her tightly fitting cloak are set with glittering jewels. Next rides Gisela, dazzlingly white and beautiful. Purple threads are interwoven in the delicate texture of her veil. Silvern gleam her hands, golden her brows, her eyes shine like the sun, and she manages her fiery steed with perfect ease. Ruodhaid on her gracefully ambling palfrey follows. Hair, neck, and feet glow with jewelled ornaments, and a silken mantle, fastened at the breast with gold clasps, covers her shoulders. Then follows Theodora, she of the rosy face and gold-red hair, wearing a necklace of emeralds and a gorgeous mantle. Hiltrud, last of the sisters, appears and, after glancing around majestically, turns her steed in the direction of the forest whose dark recesses invite this imposing expedition."

Where was Charlemagne, master of the house and the Empire, as the hunting party set out?—gazing at the animated spectacle from the palace balcony, or in the stillness of his apartment studying serious problems upon which depended the weal or woe of his empire?

The solution of these problems was a weighty matter. He had inherited not honors alone, but burdens which needed a giant's strength to carry. His life was a continuous struggle with forces which hurled themselves against his empire. To understand his situation we must consider the circumstances which confronted him when the crown of the Franks became his heritage. We must revert to the past and review the history of the Empire down to his accession, that we may clearly understand what this hero and sovereign contended against and accomplished.