History and legend of Charlemagne: the bad omens that predicted his death and an irregular canonization

Charlemagne, holding the imperial scepter
Charlemagne, holding the imperial scepter

That Charlemagne of legend and hagiography, that colossus of the epic songs and the palatine chronicle does not physically coincide with the man of flesh and blood. For starters, he doubtfully had a beard. And his height would not exceed the average height, in exchange for that gigantic height that some poet attributed to him. He was stocky and strong, to be sure, but perhaps more stocky than athletic, since the medieval biographer Einhard (Einhard) speaks of his “somewhat protruding” belly (Emulating the phrase of Suetonius, about Nero). His chin was shaved and he wore a mustache. At least that is how we see it in the most reliable iconographic record, which is the equestrian statuette from Aachen (Aachem, today Germany) and dated to the 9th century.

The subject of the beard is curious and was emphasized by the French historian Joseph Calmette. Why has it been imposed with such determination? The 9th century Franks (unlike the Barbadian Lombards) used only mustache (mustache) Perhaps the author of the “Chanson de Roland” thought it more poetic gallantry to assign a “flowery beard”, which, already for that time, is an anachronism, since the western gentlemen had adopted the fashion of the full beard.

But, gleaning from the texts of Einhard, some authentic features of the Emperor can be rescued, such as his physical solidity, his good proportions, his manly appearance, his firm step, his strong voice and his clear diction. “All of his exterior gave the impression of authority and dignity”, concludes the biographer. In any case, they are qualities that suit the majesty of the character and the construction of a mythical story.

Equestrian statuette of Charlemagne dating from the Carolingian era
Equestrian statuette of Charlemagne dating from the Carolingian era

As for his health, if it was good in youth, it seems to have suffered at the end of his hectic and shifting lifeespecially during the last four years.

Einhard reveals that Carlos was resistant to doctors (the same as Tiberius and other kings) to the point, almost, of hatred. The reason sounds somewhat childish: because they forbade him to eat roast meats, which he loved, and instead prescribed boiled vegetables, which he abhorred. That is to say, perhaps he was not so suspicious of his science, but rather deplored therapeutic vegetarian menus.

That good youthful health could also be related to his sporting spirit: he was a good horseman, an excellent swimmer, and loved hydrotherapy.

His carnivorous preference and his good appetite do not seem to have reached the excesses that Henry VIII of England exhibited centuries later, since the cited biographer emphasizes his sobriety, especially in terms of beverages. But his table was always lavishly laden, with at least four courses besides the main meat.

An engraving showing the head of Charlemagne as portrayed in the famous equestrian statuette
An engraving showing the head of Charlemagne as portrayed in the famous equestrian statuette


In line with the hagiographical narrative, which discovers prodigies of heavenly favor in each action of the character, Eginardo drew attention to certain natural phenomena that should have been interpreted as harbingers of the end of the monarch’s life. For example, three years before, the frequent eclipses of the sun and moon, and the persistence for seven days of a black spot on the solar surface.

But there is much more: a portico ordered to be built between the basilica and the palace that was the imperial residence fell suddenly on the feast of the Ascension. A fire destroyed a wooden bridge over the Rhine in three hours, whose engineering suggested that it would last forever. An accident suffered by the Emperor in the raid against King Godfried, when a burning torch crossed the sky from right to left and caused the fall of the horse and the stripping of his weapons. Also the ceilings of the royal apartments in Aachen were heard crackling. Lightning struck the basilica and plucked the golden apple from the auction, throwing it into the bishop’s house. And even more: the inscription on the arches of the same basilica that concluded with the epigraph …Karolus Princeps, began to blur until it became illegible.

Despite these ominous signs, the monarch showed no particular concern, although the whole court, which must have been superstitious, took note of them. In any case, the quick coronation of his son, the king of Aquitaine, as a colleague in the Empire, could have anticipated the foreseen outcome.

Charlemagne, with embellished features, wearing the crown of the Holy Roman Empire
Charlemagne, with embellished features, wearing the crown of the Holy Roman Empire

Both Einardo and the later chronicler Thegan pointed out that, for four years before his death, he was already subjected to a rigorous diet. We don’t really know what illness he was suffering from, but the mention of a marked limp would indicate the symptoms of gout, explainable by the menus overloaded with fatty meats.

Whatever his ailment, it was not that which directly caused his death, but a complication, the product of a general weakening and a decrease in defenses. From the beginning of November 813 AD the attacks of fever began and the strict poverty of the diet led to anemia. Although his room was permanently heated with huge braziers, he contracted a chill that on January 22, 814 AD, led to pleurisy. seven days later received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction from Archchaplain Hildebrando. On the 28th of the same month, very early, he wanted to make the sign of the cross and he could hardly. At nine in the morning he was already dead.

As Eginardo narrates, the body was washed and ritually prepared, and then it was taken to the church, in the midst of the people’s grief. There were doubts about the place of the burial, because nothing had been arranged by the deceased, but it was immediately agreed that the best place was the beautiful basilica that he had ordered to be built. He was buried that same day in an ancient sarcophagus.

The death of Charlemagne in a medieval miniature
The death of Charlemagne in a medieval miniature

then got up his statue under a kind of canopy or canopy, by order of his son and successor louis the pious (Ludovicus Pius), and his epitaph was written:


Before a century had passed the normans destroyed the tomb and his monument. Otón IIIº ordered a search that was successful. Later, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, in conflict with the Papacy, had Carlos canonized by Antipope Pascual II, on December 29, 1165. Then, the bones transformed into venerable relics were deposited in a gold chest. His deeds and his wars were enriched and haloed with miraculous stories: as I said before, the hagiographical interference thus introduced to the Aureus Karolus, the Charles haloed with resplendent gold, like a halo of holiness.

But that canonization was not ratified by the Church and the name of Charlemagne does not appear in the “Roman Martyrology”.

Charlemagne's canonization was the work of Antipope Paschal II.  Although the Church did not ratify it, it tolerated the cult of the Emperor
Charlemagne’s canonization was the work of Antipope Paschal II. Although the Church did not ratify it, it tolerated the cult of the Emperor

However, as Baronius (the Italian historian and Cardinal César Baronio) observed, the Apostolic See tolerated the cult of the Emperor in some particular churches, because, after all, “Saint Charlemagne” was still held as a patron saint for so many university students, who recognized in him the founder of the school institution, in the dark night of Western culture.

Because, as Harold Lamb wrote, unlike other medieval kings, only he earned the title of “Great” because he did not belong to one but to all the Christian nations of that Europe that he began to invent and whose civilization he rebuilt and unified, about the ruins of minds, the barbarity of customs and the terror of superstitions.


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