Charlemagne, King Arthur and Contested National Identity in English Romances

in Cross-Cultural Charlemagne: Envisioning Empire in Medieval Europe, ed. Jace Stuckey (Leiden: Brill, in process).

By Larissa Tracy

Charlemagne has long been vaunted as a “national” symbol of France.[1] Robert Morrissey writes that, as a historical figure, Charlemagne is often considered the founder of a “certain” France, “a figure situated at the origins of the ‘nation’ at the point where history began.”[2] This Frankish Emperor who established many of the legal and political boundaries of what came to be France was celebrated in literature as a conquering king and arbiter of Christian justice. But he was not only lauded as a hero in French (and German) medieval texts; he features in romances produced in England as well. From the twelfth-century Chanson de Roland [hereafter the Roland] to the selection of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Middle English romances, Charlemagne is an iconic symbol of chivalry, valor, and national identity, but he is rarely the central figure in these texts. Like King Arthur, Charlemagne is a backdrop for the tableaus of knightly deeds, and like King Arthur, he is a contested figure. As England and France vied for power and land in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the “Matter of France” romances that revolve around the exploits of Charlemagne and his Twelve Peers, like the The Romance of the Sowdone of Babylone And of Ferumbras His Sone Who Conquered Rome [hereafter The Sowdone] (c. 1400), provide a striking contrast to the “Matter of England” romances like the contemporary Alliterative Morte Arthure [hereafter AMA] (c. 1400) that focus on a reshaped and rehabilitated English King Arthur. As such, for English audiences of the late Middle Ages, Charlemagne is a figure of competing national identities: the aristocracy of Norman-descent (and the Plantagenet kings) claimed affinity, but the English sought to elevate their own legendary, imperial King Arthur. Modelling his narrative on earlier Middle English texts, the English AMA-poet, appropriates aspects of the historical reality of Charlemagne and refashions them to fit Arthur, creating a hero that the English can claim as their own.

[1] “Charlemagne, claimed by the Church as a saint, by the French as their greatest king, by the Germans as their compatriot, by the Italians as their emperor, heads all modern histories in one way or another.” J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi, Histoire des Français (Paris: Treuttel and Wurtz, 1821), 2:217 cited in Robert Morrissey, Charlemagne and France: A Thousand Years of Mythology, trans. Catherine Tihanyi (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 1.

[2] Morrissey, Charlemagne and France, 8. Morrissey further points out that Charlemagne’s historical persona has “in some ways been left to the Germans while France continues to claim its literary legacy, that is Charlemagne’s poetic history” (45).