When historical figures are able to captivate the imagination of later generations, resonating with contemporary ideals, values, concerns, or anxieties, they can acquire a mythical status. But what is it exactly that makes particular figures suitable material for later mythmaking? In the case of heavily mythologised figures, the relevance of historical ‘facts’ is often limited. Indeed, too much historical detail actually inhibits mythmaking: somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely the undefined, uncertain and unknown nature of individual figures that accounts for their powerful hold on the collective imagination. The very vagueness of the ideas attached to a particular historical figure allows them to be celebrated, reinvented and re-imagined. It can also see them appropriated for a wide variety of political, ideological, or propagandist purposes.
Fascination with the figure of Charlemagne (c747–814) provides a striking example of this process of mythmaking. Rather than seeking to recover the historical ‘truth’ from beneath the legend later created around him, it is revealing to examine some little known but intriguing aspects of the mythology itself. Particularly intriguing is the surge of English interest in Charlemagne during the later Middle Ages, specifically at a time of intense Anglo-French conflict: the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453).
Charlemagne is crowned emperor by the pope, as depicted in a 14th-century manuscript. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Mythmaking around Charlemagne began during his own lifetime. His concerted effort to shape a new, Christian empire modelled on a Roman precedent was an abstract but extremely potent political vision. As ruler over a vast territory of what later came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne surrounded himself with numerous clerics, learned men, poets and courtiers from across his ethnically and culturally diverse empire. This ensured the steady production of widespread work celebrating Charlemagne’s vision of empire. This in turn fostered the emergence of a sense of cultural and political identity among Charlemagne’s vassals and subjects.
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
The figure of Charlemagne continued to inspire later generations of writers, poets, and historians throughout Europe. In England, 10 different Charlemagne romances were written in Middle English between around 1320 and 1500.
Considering that Charlemagne was presented as a conspicuously French national hero in the many chansons de geste written in French since the 11th century, it is striking to find that English writers and readers showing such pronounced interest in him. This is all the more surprising given that nearly all of the English Charlemagne romances were produced and copied during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), a conflict often seen as playing a fundamental role in fostering two competing national identities: English versus French.
There was no dearth of English heroes whose legendary feats were also celebrated in chivalric romances during the period: Guy of Warwick, Beves (or Bevis) of Hampton, and of course King Arthur (who, like Charlemagne, was prophesised to return as a ‘once and future king’— rex quondam rexque futurus). Nevertheless, there appears to have been considerable appetite for English romances about Charlemagne, peaking during the period in which England was at war with France.
One reason for this otherwise puzzling surge of interest in Charlemagne could be the important differences of the English Charlemagne romances from their French or Anglo-Norman sources. Romances in Middle English tended to be simplified and abbreviated when compared with their French models, and the adaptations of Charlemagne stories are no exception. The emphasis was placed on narrative action, while descriptive passages were much reduced; these English poems addressed a less sophisticated, more popular audience and would often have been recited or performed in public. Precisely because they addressed a more inclusive audience, such poems afford us some insight into popular attitudes and mindsets, outside of elite circles usually associated with the production of ‘high’ literature.
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.
Charlemagne depicted on an illuminated page from the 12th-century Chronicles of Turpino. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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.
Charlemagne’s army depicted in a miniature from a medieval manuscript. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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.
An illustration of Charlemagne from around 1450. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
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.
From the perspective of an English nation whose ruler presented himself as the sole legitimate heir to the French throne, Charlemagne was in many ways a perfectly natural ancestor to reclaim. The Anglicisation of Charlemagne seems intended to mark the end of French political and cultural supremacy in the west, and the transition of power to the British Isles. For a brief moment, with Henry V’s victories in France, it must have seemed as though the myth was actually becoming reality.
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 on History Extra in March 2017