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Charlemagne: the making of an image, 1100-1300

Jace Stuckey

PhD Dissertation, University of Florida, 2006

Abstract: The image of Charlemagne represents one of the most highly developed historical and literary legends of the Middle Ages. His representation ranges from the majestic to the bland; from grandiose to weak and from a saint to a despot. He exemplified the greatest of military heroes and stood as the champion of Christianity, while at the same time his character and the sources in which it appears illustrated many of the problems of an unstable feudal world. By the twelfth century, the former Carolingian King and Emperor represented the greatest attraction of any historical character of the medieval period. The image of Charlemagne extends from early Latin panegyrics such as De gestis Karoli Magni by the Monk of St. Gall of the ninth century to the grand epics and romance works of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries such as the Chanson de Roland.

At the center of this dissertation is a study of the representation of Charlemagne in twelfth and thirteenth century literature. The focus of my analysis is on a representative collection of sources that were produced in France, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia. They date from 1100 to 1300. I focus on popular images of crusading, religion, and kingship as linked with the portrait of Charlemagne. The emphasis is on the impact the image of Charlemagne had on crusaders’ ideals, crusading activities, and views on Christian kingship.

The impact of the crusades forced three worlds into escalated conflict that would forever transform the political, cultural, and religious landscape of Europe and the Middle East. The impact on medieval literary genres was nearly as dramatic. From epic to romance, churchmen and poets of this period quickly incorporated the crusading themes into their work. The literature of this period represents a militant and religious culture that found its ethos and role models in the lives of former kings, emperors and conquerors and especially in that of Charlemagne. The crusading ethos dominated some of the most popular genres of that time and acted as propaganda for a culture that embraced chivalric values, and increasingly became a society that exported its militarism in the name of religion. My research has yielded a number of conclusions. I argue that the literary sources had a tremendous influence on Western views of crusade, kingship, and the creation of vernacular history. The deeds of Charlemagne served as a precedent for the crusades and an example for future kings.

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