Monday, December 19, 2011

Matthew Gabriele's book reviewed in The Medieval Review

Gabriele, Matthew. An Empire of Memory: The Legend of Charlemagne,
the Franks, and Jerusalem before the First Crusade
. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2011. Pp. xii,  202. $90.00. ISBN: 9780199591442.

 Reviewed by Thomas F. X. Noble
     University of Notre Dame

"Charlemania" has been a growing industry in recent years and Matthew
Gabriele now takes a significant place on the shop floor.  His brief
and readable book demonstrates how, especially in the eleventh
century, a Frankish "Golden Age" was constructed, and with what
consequences.  There is a line in Flannery O'Connor about the danger
of parking your buggy on the track when the Dixie Special is coming
down the line.  Gabriele is the buggy and Anne Latowsky's forthcoming
book is the Dixie Special.  Nevertheless, I do not think the buggy was
flattened by the train.  I really like this book and learned a lot
from it.  Occasionally its prose is over the top and, in many
instances, it is more colloquial than some traditionalists find
congenial.  The argument and research are critical, thorough, and

Gabriele's method is basically aggregative.  He continually puts
layers of evidence on top of each other until they add up to a
cohesive, coherent picture.  In the first chapter "The Birth of a
Frankish Golden Age" gives away the story and the remaining chapters
flesh it out.  Gabriele shows, following other good scholars, that in
the ninth and tenth centuries, Charlemagne was not always visible and
was often contentious when he did emerge.  Yet a deep tradition was
implanted.  Then he, and with him his age, became a figure of prime
interest, a holy figure, and the ruler of an empire that stretched
from Iceland to Jerusalem.  Demonstrating these points alone would
have been original and important but what sets this book apart is its
careful explanation of how and why this happened and why it matters.
Specialists in vernacular literature know perfectly well that
Charlemagne exploded in the twelfth century.  Robert Folz famously
showed that the liturgical Charlemagne took flight in the same period,
only to soar ever higher in later times.  Anne Latowsky, who
ironically teaches in a French department, is going to reveal the
continuing power of the Latin tradition.  What we have lacked is the
essential background.

Interest in Charlemagne appears in various settings.  For example, 68
of 97 forgeries of Charlemagne's charters come from religious houses
that sought to claim him as their founder.  No other ruler even comes
close as a "source" of legitimacy.  But historical writers added to
the dossier, beginning with Benedict of St. Andrea who, around 970,
was the first to attribute to Charlemagne a journey to Jerusalem.
Materials dating from the late eleventh century and stemming from
Charroux also have this fictitious journey.  Around 1080 the
Descriptio Qualiter also has the story and adds a visit to
Constantinople where Charlemagne received relics and acknowledgment.
Crusade narratives sometimes said that armies followed Charlemagne's
path to the East.  These sources seem to have drawn on a common fund
of tradition;  they are not demonstrably dependent on one another.
Little by little Charlemagne was portrayed as the preeminent earthly
power.  Why?

Drawing on late antique and biblical resources, the Carolingians had
defined their realm as a Davidic kingdom based on Old Testament models
with Aachen as a new Jerusalem (it was a new Rome too, but that is not
Gabriele's theme).  In the post-Carolingian world, Jerusalem assumed
growing prominence.  More churches emulated Jerusalem's churches,
especially the Anastasis.  The liturgy increasingly drew on themes
pertaining to Jerusalem.  Relics of the passion proliferated.  This
constant and rising emphasis on an imaginary Jerusalem made the
tangible city more important, more desirable.  The eleventh century
witnessed a dramatic increase in pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  In 1026
Richard of St.-Vannes led perhaps 700 people to the East and then both
the number and size of pilgrimages expanded sharply.  As many as
12,000 people left Germany for the Holy Land in 1064-65.

The Carolingians uncoupled empire from Rome which opened up real and
imagined possibilities for assigning Charlemagne rule over all kinds
of lands and peoples.  The imaginary and expanded Carolingian Empire
came to be seen as a kind of imperial Christendom with roots in an
historic past but relevance in a fraught present.  Prophetic texts
said that at the end of time a Frankish king would lay down his
scepter on the Mount of Olives and thereby bring Roman and Christian
imperium to an end.  So an "empire of memory" lived on and one of its
key dimensions was that a Frankish ruler would defend Christendom from
its enemies right to the end.  In complex ways Antichrist, pilgrimage,
Charlemagne, and a Christomimetic emperor entered a coherent
narrative: "Charlemagne's militant, Frankish, Christian empire
prefigured the Last Emperor's;  and in the eleventh century, past and
future began to converge" (128).

Talking about Charlemagne was, thus, a way of unlocking a glorious
past that mattered in new ways in the present, particularly as that
past was seen as a militant one.  Gabriele has much to say about the
coalescence of a European identity built on a constantly shifting
Frankish one.  He demonstrates the importance for historians to be
attentive to many kinds of sources.  To be sure, he is alert to the
potential relevance of his findings for the First CrusaSde.  But he is
wise enough not to claim that he has explained that phenomenon.  Urban
II, Gabriele notes, never mentioned Charlemagne.  But Urban's words
were sounded, and resonated, in a world with a thick web of
associations which Gabriele disentangles beautifully.

In addition to his, let us say, empirical findings, Gabriele has
another agenda that will give the attentive reader a lot to think
about.  He quotes (66) Keith Michael Baker--a distinguished historian
of modern France--who said that "[h]istory is memory contested;
memory is history controlled and fixed."  I might have wished that
Gabriele's approach to this fascinating, original, and important
exposition of the theme was a little less allusive, or implicit, but I
think he is absolutely correct to place emphasis on how, with specific
reference to Charlemagne, history and memory were manipulated,
adjusted, intertwined, and differentiated.

Here is a suggestion: take Gabriele's book, Amy Remensnyder's
Remembering Kings Past (1995), Jay Rubenstein's Armies of
(2011), and Anne Latowsky's forthcoming (2012) book and teach
a terrific seminar.

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