Christmas at Aachen 792


       This seems a great time to share a Christmas scene that didn’t make it into print.  The following would have been inserted between pages 168 and 169 of Agnes.

After the Christmas feast Head Cook appeared exhausted and preparation for New Year’s still lay ahead. Agnes and Emmett talked her into going to the cottage as the evening meal was being cleared.  “We can handle hot cider and breakfast,” Agnes insisted. 

            That evening Karolus invited his Saxon guests to swim in the warm pool that drew him northward each winter.  The Queen and the other women gathered in the Great Hall, chatting about the entertainment, the food and vespers, and waited to share cider with the men when they returned.   Finally, her strength waning, the Queen sent a runner to ask Karolus his plans and to beg permission to return to her room.

            The runner returned with apologies to the Her Highness and a request that hot cider be sent to the pool.  Fastrada nodded tiredly and, taking her two young daughters, left the hall.  Imma oversaw the kitchen workers ladling cider from the huge iron vat to pitchers, and Agnes and Linza were to find servers; women were not allowed near the pool, even when it was not filled with naked Saxons.

            Fortunately, men who had not been invited to swim were now waiting in the Great Hall and eager to carry jugs of the hot cider.  Agnes still sent a man to the stables to get Deter.  He was a good observer and would tell Head Cook or Imma what he saw.  Although Karolus often soaked in the warm waters, he seldom called for servers to attend him there. 

            A fine snow was falling by the time six men returned for more cider.  Laughing and jostling, they looped a stout limb through the iron rings of the simmering tub and carried the whole thing away.  Imma and Agnes looked at one another, shrugged, and retired.  A messenger would wake them if Karolus needed anything more. 

            Next morning Deter could not spill his account fast enough to satisfy those in the kitchen.   The Saxon guests had made a contest of warming in the pool, then standing on the path until ice crystallized in their hair and eye brows before jumping back into the waters.  Karolus, even though past fifty years, had endured the cold as well as any chief.  Most of the time, however, he had been in the pool conversing with one or another of the Saxon chiefs.


Charlemagne’s magnificent legacy


                Last December my daughter Toni and I made a long-dreamed-of visit to Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen.  It’s a magnificent structure that has been in continuous use for 1200 years—a gift from the Carolingians of the early Middle Ages to their descendents and the people of the world.

               Sources seem to agree that Aachen

Palatine Chapel at Aachen (borrowed from
Palatine Chapel at Aachen (borrowed from

 was not more than a hunting lodge when Charlemagne first held court there. Yet, the sulphurous hot springs—with waters of 160 degrees F—had attracted settlement as early as the Bronze Age.  About 100 AD the Romans had built two-large pool areas—each capable of holding 100 people comfortably—and between them a forum surrounded by colonades.  The ample ruins loom quietly in the middle of a bustling city. 

                Those hot springs attracted Charlemagne more and more as he aged.  Summers he traveled—always on the move—but when drifting snow obscured what passed for roads at the time, Charlemagne chose to sit in the warm waters of his spa with several dozen of his closest friends and plan the world they would build.

               So Charlemagne built his capitol and magnificent chapel next to those Roman baths.

               Reports say that Charlemagne planned to build the chapel for God first.  Yet the palace was in use before the chapel was completed.  When I saw Aachen, I understood.  The chapel was built entirely of stone, with footings extending 15 feet below ground level.  It stands today; the other buildings do not.    

               It takes some imagination to see the chapel as it looked in Charlemagne’s day.  Much of the red sandstone walls are now covered with panels of white marble which were added over the centuries, perhaps each a gift from a special patron.  Structures have been added—including a room with soaring stained-glass walls.  Still, much is the same.

               The bronze doors—five of seven known to exist in the world—are still there.  And the slender upper columns—which bear no weight—are the ones that Charlemagne had taken from ruins in Italy and brought over the Alps in ox carts. 

               The soaring dome—for centuries the highest north of the Alps—is again covered with colorful mosaic, created 100 years ago in an effort to replicate the original. 

               And on the second floor balcony sits Charlemagne’s throne–a square, uncomfortable structure with a facade of yellowish stone.  It’s believed that these slabs once floored a holy site in Jerusalem where Jesus himself may have trod.

                Twelve hundred years ago Charlemagne built a shrine bathed in history and holiness that continues to awe and bless multitudes today.  It is the physical representative of the legacy he left Europe.

Charlemagne–the original Santa Claus?

           Oddly enough, we know little about Christmas in the days of Charlemagne.  References tend to jump over the eight centuries between Roman pagan customs and the 12th century.  Even Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne tells little.

The liturgical year was divided into the Christmas and Easter cycles.  From the first Sunday of Advent, the faithful began their preparations for Christmas by sleeping apart, fasting, and making confession if possible.  Christmas (with its three Masses) and Epiphany (Jan. 6) were celebrated ostentatiously. 

               We are left to imagine what “ostentatiously” meant.  We can be sure, however, that it was primarily religious ceremonies and feasts. 

               Easter was the bigger celebration with fairs and plays.  Is it surprising that medieval Christians felt more awe—and more cause for celebration—at Christ rising from the dead than at his birth?  Few paid attention to their own birthdays.      

               Still, I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that “the prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800.”

               People doubt my ravings about Charlemagne being responsible for wine grapes ever making it into Champagne country or Frankish roads—not Roman—uniting central Europe.  I can imagine their faces if I added “the prominence of Christmas” to his credits. 

               Still, knowing thatfor 500 years emperors of the Holy Roman Empire traveled to Charlemagne’s little chapel in Aachen to be crowned—and that at least two chose to be crowned on Christmas day—I can believe it is possible.             

               Charlemagne went wild with gifts after his coronation.   To churches in Rome he gave a silver table, golden vases, a golden chandelier covered with precious stones, a cross with sapphires…the complete list, according to Richard Winston, filled three pages.  And then he distributed 300 pounds of silver among the poor of Rome.

               Saint Nicholas had lived 400 years before Charlemagne but early gift giving in his memory was trinkets for children on his feast day, Dec. 6, and not part of Christmas. 

               During the centuries after Charlemagne, Christmas gifts were primarily exchanged between vassals and liege lords.  Vassals brought food and their lord gave a feast with neither being much richer nor poorer for it.  As time progressed, however, lords were expected to give costlier and costlier gifts, often of clothing or jewels or weapons.

               When a king failed to take part, it was noted.   This from Life in the Medieval Castle:

            In 1251 Matthew Paris complained that Henry III not only economized on his Christmas expenditures but exacted gifts from his subjects:…”the king…did not distribute any festive dresses to his knights and his household, although all his ancestors had a a practice from times of old of giving away royal garments and costly jewels.”

               So bless or curse Charlemagne this year as you elbow your way through crowded stores and struggle to wrap those Christmas gifts.  If Pope Leo III had not needed the protection of an Emperor, Christians might still celebrate the season with “ostentatious” worship services.

But What REALLY Happened?



Charlemagne presents Louis at court (from

               John Winston’s biography of Charlemagne says the King sent his son Louis away early in the campaign against the Avars.   That’s the kind of statement that gets a writers’ imagination going.

               Why was Louis sent to Regensburg?  Winston cites it as evidence the 14-year-old was little suited to warfare.  Still, it’s doubtful Charles just said to the King of Acquitaine, “Son, you’re useless here.  Wait for us at Regensburg.” 

               And we can be pretty certain Prince Louis didn’t disgrace his father by crying.  Charlemagne was said to have “the gift of tears.”   He cried on many occasions—after a battle or at a death in the family, even after a stillborn birth, and was regarded favorably for it.     

               Maybe Louis was hurt or ill?  Could he have been well enough to travel west weeks by horseback but too ill to precede eastward?  Maybe Louis vomited at the sight of blood and Charles wanted him gone before everyone learned he wasn’t really ill?  His efforts in later battles would be all the more laudable. 

               Maybe Louis argued tactics with his father?   Maybe a defiant Louis threw a tankard of ale at his father, and Charles knocked him down and choked him until five men pulled him off and one of his brothers said, “Run, now.  We can’t hold him long.”

               Now, that would be a scene fit for a movie.  Yet, chronicles don’t mention it.  They do tell us that four years later Charles called Louis cheap and Louis told him of his financial situation in Acquitaine.   You’d think accounts would give some hint if there’d been an earlier—and more vehement—argument. 

               So maybe it was a quiet contest of wills?  When Charles would say go left, Louis would go right?  And Charles finally made up an excuse to send him away?  And Louis was never sure if he or his father had won?    

               I would like to write of Louis one day.  As the only son who outlived his father, he inherited the entire kingdom. Much too soon, he divided it among his three squabbling sons and retired to a monastery.  What was the man thinking?

               If I ever understand enough to undertake that book, when I write of the trip to the Avars, I will have Charles receive word that his wife Fastrada is ill and he fears she will miscarry their child.  The distraught King will yearn to go to her but know that he has waged the wealth of his entire realm on this invasion.  While the others insist that Fastrada will understand and that Princess Hrotrud can look after matters, Louis will say, “Send me, Father.  Let me assure Fastrada of the depth of your concern and see she has the best care possible.” 

               And maybe Pepin will throw a flagon of ale at Louis and laughingly accuse his brother of cowardice and avoiding battle?  That would give us some action—and explain some of the later hostility between Louis’s camps and Pepin’s.

               Historical non-fiction focuses on what is known.  Historical fiction must add details and reasons.  Both, however, can point out differing views and interpretations.             

               (And, yes, in Agnes Louis is there after the battle at the ring.  I try, but sometimes I can only  apologize.)

Knowing We Will Never Know

Chora Church in Constantinople (from

               Richard Winston’s Charlemagne is educated and politically savvy.  Charles Russell’s is more open and emotional.  William Manchester’s is an illiterate warlord. 

               Considering the range of interpretations of Obama and Reagan, it is not surprising that historians would have different views of a man who ruled forty-seven years.   

               Did Charles connive to seize the lands of his cousin Tassilo or did the Duke’s behavior leave him no choice? 

               Was Charles’ second wife angry about leaving a marble castle to live with a pigsty out her window or was she really half-witted and boring? 

               Did Charles invite 4500 Saxons to dinner and have them slain suddenly or did he conduct a court, gathering evidence of sedition, and then order executions?

               Learning to live with uncertainty, knowing one will never know, is an important lesson of history.  I never had any interest in textbook history—all those names, dates and places, the provable stuff.  It was only when I read two accounts of the fall of Byzantium did I become hooked.  One said that Constantinople fell because the overly-naïve residents trusted to God for their defense and gathered in churches to pray.  The other said that the people held out bravely for months of seige and, finally—hungry, weak and diseased—they gave their warriors permission to stand down and gathered in the churches to await the invaders.  The first said that we are smarter and will never have to worry about such a fate; the second,that these people acted with grace and civility in the face of defeat.    

               Later, I was researching Chile when my professor advised me to read one book first and then an article. The book by the wife of a U.S. ambassador during World War II told of great parties and the embarrassments of living among a number of German sympathizers.  The article analyzed the the extent of malnutrition among the Chilean work force.  It hit with tremendous force.  Both accounts were factual—the great parties and the malnutrition existed side by side—but the generalizations readers might take away about Chilean society would be vastly different.      

               I know the point Professor Johnson was making; historians perform a valuable service in giving substance to those who never had the leisure to write.  I think he would have liked to see me doing serious research on woman’s history—perhaps even women in Latin America.  I had no concept, however, of where one found the money to do such a thing—and I was meant to teach.

               My writing about the age of Charlemagne allows me to continue my teaching, to encourage understanding of an age largely forgotten to America—a time in the early Middle Ages when neighboring nobles did not fight one another and education, art and music flourished. Yet, for all its parallels with today, still an age of conflict and uncertainty.

Charlemagne and War

 Why do people go to war?   Will we ever see the end of it? 

From Carolingian Cavalryman AD 768-987 by David Nicolle (ISBN:1-84176-645-3

History offers patterns, but never answers.  Charlemagne fought continual wars with one of the greatest army’s the world had seen–and many lived in peace as a result.  With so many men fighting on the eastern border of his kingdom, there was less chance for internal fighting–and little doubt that an army would show up if a noble did start an armed dispute.  

Charlemagne’s wars of Christian against pagan unified the home countries.  Christian against Christian threatened division.

Besides, the pagans had the best plunder.  Much of the real advances of Charlemagne’s age were financed by stealing Saxon and Avar offerings to their nature gods.  (Would there have been war if they had offered primarily burnt offerings as the Hebrews did?) 

And Charlemagne had no power to tax–his income came from his manors and his plunder–but he did have the right to require labor on roads, bridges, and canals and warriors to protect the borders. 

From Desiderata–


At dinner one Sunday evening, Desiderata asked Pepin-Peter if he expected war with the Avars.

“Both Avars and Carinthians wish to fight more than they oppose it. They foresee only victory and plunder.” He looked to both Desiderata and Trudy, then continued.

“I told an Avar leader that Karolus had defeated the Saxons three times. After the first time, he’d baptized them and left teachers. After the second, he’d massacred their noble class. After the third, he’d taken their lands and dispersed the people.

“The Avar replied, ‘First he must defeat us.’

“Sometimes,” Pepin-Peter added, “I believe defeating the Saxons gained us nothing but trouble. We won territory that was wild and distant and hard to manage and lost more Christians in the fighting than we gained among the Saxons. But we built an army with a taste for victory that continues to grow.”

Desiderata told him of seeing the Saxons being sent into slavery and of the young woman she could not forget. “What harm would follow from letting her and her baby be free, even if they were pagan?”

“Don’t doubt for a minute that the Saxon women fought us—and, if free, the child would also. We have not cowed the Saxons as much as most believe.”

He had not seen the girl, Desiderata thought.  He would not feel that way if he had seen her.  Still, the proud set of the woman’s jaw and the defiance in her eyes took on new meaning for Desiderata.

Why Charlemagne?

     Many prospective readers ask  “Why Charlemagne?”   I find it puzzling myself.  I studied 20th Centurty American History in college–social, political, economic, international.  I wanted to understand the world I lived in. 

    I read a lot of other history–American, English, Roman, Egyptian–but somewhere along the way, I got interested in Charlemagne.  A friend loaned me a 1930 book by Charles Edward Russell and I knew I would someday write about this man.

     He is simply the greatest king that ever lived. He governed much of Europe for 47 years at a time when even cities were apt to have their own laws and languages.  He needed the laws in writing–but few could read and write.   So he recruited teachers in Italy and England and established schools.  He established scriptoria in Europe where even pagan books were copied.  He refused to appoint priests who didn’t know the mass.

     A champion of education.  But that wasn’t all.  When a teacher was available, Charlemagne insisted that everyone who could be spared from work attend classes.  Everyone included girls.  Legend says that even the cook’s daughter attended classes with his own children.  We’re talking the 8th century here–800 years before the Renaissance.  

      The scholar who acted as Charlemagne’s minister of education–Alcuin–is the second best-known name of the century.  He had real power in the administration for it was the men he trained that represented Charlemagne through much of his territory.