Anecdotes From The Court Of Charlemagne

The chronicler known to posterity as Notker the Stammerer (“Notker Balbulus”) was born in what is now Switzerland around A.D. 840.  He seems to have come from a family that had the means to provide him with the best education his era could offer.  We find him in adulthood as a monk at the monastery at St. Gall, where he was able to exercise his considerable musical talents in composing verses and hymns. 

His chief importance to history lies in his composition of a chronicle of the court of Charlemagne called Gesta Caroli Magni (“The Deeds of Charlemagne”).  A historian of the abbey of St. Gall, Ekkehard IV, describes Notker long after his death in the following terms:

Notker was frail in body, though not in mind, a stammerer in voice but not in spirit; lofty in divine thoughts, patient in adversity, gentle in everything, strict in enforcing the discipline of our convent, yet somewhat timid in sudden and unexpected alarms, except in the assaults of demons, whom he always withstood manfully.

Although Notker’s abilities as a historian fall short of modern (or even ancient) expectations, his book nevertheless has a certain primitive charm and credulous warmth that we find lacking in other chronicles.  It was composed between 883 and 887; of its three books, time has preserved only two.  Notker’s motives appears to have been instructional.  His goal was to provide the Carolingian emperor Charles the Fat with a collection of anecdotes about his great-grandfather Charlemagne that would refine and hone his leadership skills.  What better leadership guide could a young emperor have than Charlemagne, that greatest of all medieval kings? 

Yet posterity has not been very kind to Notker’s legacy.  Professional historians have ridiculed the haphazard organization and gossipy nature of his history; but perhaps we should see this “medieval” approach as a refreshing change from the rigid intellectualism of some of the chroniclers of classical antiquity.  In this spirit, then, we will reproduce two of Notker’s anecdotes. 

Charlemagne’s habit during Lent was to eat in the “eighth hour of the day, after Mass and evening Lauds had been celebrated.”  Notker explains that the emperor was not breaking the fast, but was eating at an earlier time than usual.  This practice bothered a certain bishop, who had the temerity to criticize the king to his face.  The emperor was a man of subdued and measured emotion, however, and refused to lose his temper with this boorish man.  He nevertheless found a way to teach him a lesson.  Charlemagne told the bishop:

Good bishop, your reprimand is well-taken.  But my instruction to you now is this.  You yourself should not eat until the most humble servants of my court have eaten.     

This sounded simple enough, but the rules regarding meals at Charlemagne’s court were very ordered.  First, the king himself would eat; and he was waited on by leaders and notables of approximately equivalent rank.  When his banquet was finished, those who had served him ate, and they were waited on by various counts and nobles of similar rank.  After these had finished dining, the military officers and scholars would eat; then came the various court officials, and after them came different subordinates and attendants.  The humblest servants came last, of course.  And it would be very late in the evening before they finished eating. 

So the offending bishop was forced to endure eating in the dead of night or early morning for the entire period of Lent.  As he was active during the day, this regimen imposed a hardship on his body.  Charlemagne saw that the bishop had learned the lesson:  there was a logical routine to the palace schedule, one that existed for a reason.  The king, as the man who held ultimate responsibility, needed to eat at an early hour so that he could attend to his other duties.  And it was not the bishop’s place to question these procedures.  The king told him:

Now, bishop, I think you have learned that it is not a lack of discipline, but rather care for others, which compels me to dine before the evening hour during Lent.

A larger point here would be that the pressures and trials of command are often lost on those who are not intimately familiar with all the attendant circumstances.  We should not be too quick to judge other leaders or commanders. 

Another one of Notker’s tales makes a different point.  There was once a skilled artisan of metals and glass named Tanco.  This man, who was once a monk at St. Gall, cast a bell for Charlemagne that pleased the emperor very much.  Tanco was emboldened by this, and said to the king, “Sire, if you give me a large amount of copper, and at least a hundred pounds of silver, then I will make a bell for you that will make this one look like a child’s toy.”  Charlemagne accepted this offer from the artisan, and issued orders that he be provided with what he needed.  Tanco was very happy at this.  He set to work; but instead of using the silver as agreed, he substituted tin in its place. 

When the bell was finished, Tanco presented it to the emperor, who admired its shape and appearance.  Charlemagne ordered that a large iron clapper be set inside the bell, and that the whole affair be hung in one of his church bell-towers.  But when the church attendants tried to make the bell sound, they realized that its tone was audibly different from what they expected in a bell cast with silver.  Tanco was informed of this, and arrived on the scene.  He pulled on the rope to make the bell sound; as he did so, the iron clapper fell at a great velocity from the bell upon is body.  It nearly clove him in two, passing “straight through his carcass…carrying his bowels and genitals with it.”  So perished the liar who had tried to cheat Charlemagne.  When the great king discovered the silver that the thief had stashed away, he ordered it to be given to the humblest servants in his palace. 

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Read more anecdotes and stories about leadership in Digest:

3 thoughts on “Anecdotes From The Court Of Charlemagne

  1. At the time, Benedictine monasteries in those parts of Europe only admitted aristocrats as monks, so Notker was definitely from a well off family. Incidentally the abbey of St Gallen was founded by Gallus who, depending on the source was an Irish missionary who sailed up the Rhine, or a Frenchman converter by St.Columba’s, an Irish missionary who sailed up the Rhine and founded monasteries in France and Italy.

    Liked by 1 person

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