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The political setbacks experienced by his descendants and successors only reinforced the retrospective idealisation of Charlemagne himself as a figurehead of unity, pan-European Christian peace, stability, and victory over the infidel. Multiple versions of the mythical Charlemagne were conjured up over the following centuries. He was reimagined as a proto-crusader, a charismatic military leader, a new King David, a saintly king and benefactor of the Church and even an apocalyptic king, prophesied to return after death to defeat the forces of Antichrist.
Reimagining Charlemagne during the Hundred Years’ War
All of this may help to explain why the English Charlemagne romances emphasise questions of collective identity above anything else. Charlemagne’s forces are represented as a tightly unified, militant Christian force threatened by Saracen invaders. This is a striking change when compared with the earlier French versions of the legend, which include a much wider set of interests and narrative developments.
The Ottoman threat
By contrast, the English poems are dominated by an interest in crusading. This obsession with religious warfare has been interpreted as a response to contemporary anxieties about the Ottoman invasion of Europe. Indeed, the disastrous defeat of Christian forces at the botched ‘crusade’ of Nicopolis in 1396 appears to have increased pan-European anxiety about the political rise of the Ottoman empire. In this climate of insecurity, stories of an idealised Christian empire from the past could of course be used for multiple purposes, from mere wishful thinking or bolstering morale, to political propaganda in favour of a concerted, large-scale military effort against the Ottoman Turks.
What is most striking about the English Charlemagne romances is their powerfully uniting rhetoric, and their binary depiction of identity. The romances are reliant on ideas of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, with a constant, highly emotional insistence on the identity of “oure cristene men”. Just as the fictional heroes are brought together by their military struggle against the Saracen forces, the readers too are invited to identify themselves with a single, tightly unified group.
A divided Europe
This almost obsessive emphasis on militant Christianity has also been read as a response to internal troubles within European society itself. At the time, Europe was divided by the papal schism between Rome and Avignon (c1378–1417). Known as the Great Western Schism, this dispute over papal candidates had produced a politically fractured Europe, threatening to undermine the very notion of a unified Christendom that medieval society took for granted. A divided Church raised troubling new questions about the relationship between political authority, ecclesiastical authority, personal belief, individual salvation, and the legitimacy of warfare within Christendom.
In this context, stories of the triumphant military achievements of the exemplary Christian leader Charlemagne provided a fictional counter-narrative to a bleak reality of civil unrest, and wider social and spiritual anxiety. Indeed, numerous commentators evoked Charlemagne’s noble example specifically to condemn contemporary rulers for their inability to preserve Europe’s religious unity and political integrity.
Charlemagne and English national identity
Yet the English Charlemagne romances also appear to have resonated with more narrow, specifically English agendas and aspirations, determined by the country’s protracted involvement in the Hundred Years’ War. Remarkably, the English poems systematically remove nearly all traces of the specifically French identity of Charlemagne’s army: his peers and knights are no longer referred to as “franceis”, but simply “oure cristene men”. This is more than simple unifying rhetoric driven by a universalising religious fervour, and indeed points to a rather more sinister and divisive agenda. In the context of the prolonged conflict between the emerging nations of France and England, this deliberate removal of ‘Frenchness’ must be seen as part of a much wider effort to build English proto-national identity. Yet rather than pitching native English traditions against French ones, nation building often involved the appropriation of French culture, including the chansons de geste tradition and the figure of Charlemagne himself.
Contemporaries would have recognised this move as an attack on French leadership within Christendom, and as a direct challenge to the kings of France and the way in which they portrayed themselves as mythical descendants of Charlemagne. Indeed Charles V, king of France from 1364 to 1380, styled himself as a new Charlemagne, and went as far as supplementing his personal royal sceptre with the figure of an enthroned Charlemagne. The appropriation of a French cultural icon like Charlemagne was a particularly striking statement given the nature of the dispute that had sparked the Hundred Years’ War in the first place: Edward III’s claim to the French crown.
Yet myths are ultimately fictions, and history did not conform to this particular narrative. Charlemagne’s fluctuating, slippery status as a cultural icon in English texts provides a good indication of the profound and unsettling transformations experienced by English and European society during the period of the Hundred Years’ War. For late medieval English readers, Charlemagne was simultaneously an idealised, just, pious, and victorious military leader; a proto-crusader inspiring his descendants to overcome their internal differences and turn against the heathen; and a disputed national hero.
Marco Nievergelt is a senior teaching fellow in the department of english and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick. He specialises in medieval and early modern literature, and his research interests include chivalric literature and culture, and allegorical poetry.
This article was first published by History Extra in March 2017