Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire

By Simon Maclean | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
HISTORY, POLITICS AND THE END
OF THE EMPIRE IN NOTKER’s DEEDS
OF CHARLEMAGNE

The events of the mid to late 880s were, as we have seen, crucial for understanding the nature of the crisis of Charles the Fat’s reign in particular and of Carolingian political hegemony more generally. In order to find some further reflection of how contemporaries, and in particular members of the imperial court, understood these events, we have at our disposal a text which stands among the major historical works of the whole period, namely the Deeds of Charlemagne (Gesta Karoli – the title is not contemporary) by Notker the Stammerer, a monk of StGall. Earlier generations of historians looked unfavourably upon Notker’s anecdotal, humorous, moralising and, by positivist standards, historically inaccurate approach, dismissing it as a laughably gauche imitation of the more stately Carolingian biographies penned by Einhard, Thegan and the Astronomer. Louis Halphen summed up this evaluation when he colourfully pronounced that Notker’s Deeds was as useful a source for the reign of Charlemagne as was Dumas’s The Three Musketeers for that of Louis XIII.1 Recent commentators have been more sympathetic, coming at the Deeds from different angles. In particular, David Ganz has shown that the very mangling of historical sources which Halphen saw as the most reprehensible aspect of the Deeds is in fact its central structural element. Far from being the naively recorded collection of bizarre anecdotes that it seems to be, Notker’s work was actually a carefully constructed exposition of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, designed to invert that work’s secular values and place God back at the centre of the reader’s understanding of history.2 The evident distance between Einhard and Notker was, therefore, consciously established. Ganz’s favourable assessment of the value of the Deeds complements the researches of other scholars, most notably Theodor Siegrist, who traced the influence of Notker’s monastic training and outlook on his writings, Hans-Werner Goetz, who read the text as a mirror reflecting manifold aspects of late ninth-century society and

1 L. Halphen, études critiques sur l’histoire de Charlemagne (Paris, 1921), p. 142.

2 Ganz, ‘Humour as History’, pp. 171–83.

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