Carmina Carolingiana
Epic Songs at the Time of Charlemagne


Carmina Carolingiana

The IXth century deserves to be reexamined in its own light, not in that of our fantasies. The « Carolingian renaissance » is not one of these empty tag phrases in which too many self-appointed experts revel. It eases the constraints of ancient inheritance and helps us think up a new legacy. As early as the 780s, teams of transcribers set up by Charlemagne and his successors undertook to correct, copy and circulate, better than ever, the sacred writings and secular works from Latin antiquity, without paying particular heed to their pagan or Christian origins. The scholars of the time would read and copy not only Virgil, an easy prey, as he had long been accommodated into Christianity, but also Ovid, Horace, Terence and others, more immune to Christian phagocytosis. They also perused saint Jerome and the stern warning he had received in a dream and bequeathed to all admirers of classical literature: « you are a Ciceronian, not a Christian » (Jerome, letter 22, §30). Such is the power of second usage: provided that the authors, highly respected authorities, teach the paragons of good speech and the value of beauty, anything is better than nothing, everything can be laundered in the hands of the innocent.

The IXth century stands out in the history of creative arts. It shines out. How come? Possibly because the masters of the Empire restored by Charlemagne managed to create the impulse, to breed emulation, to trigger the freedom of creation, more probably because they attempted, out of political instinct, to further the development of a Western culture. They had to break free from Byzantine Orientalism, guilty of standing in the way between the old and the new Latinity. Charlemagne († 814), his heir Louis the Pious († 840) and the latter's sons, Lothair († 855), Louis the Germanic († 875) and Charles the Bald († 877), thus shoulder the responsibility for the awe-inspiring gap that kept widening for half a century between the West and Constantinople, eventually providing the Franks with the ability to create without constraints. They charged their servants with the task of developing the tools of which we still remain the beneficiaries, over a thousand years on. They started with the overhaul of writing characters, fashioning the Carolingian minuscule that we still use to this day. They built a great number of schools around cathedrals and major monasteries, which contributed to the rapid and compulsory extension of Christianity, and, in return, did their utmost to meet the expectations of political powers eager for competent administrators. They reorganized and relaxed the strict usages of written expression, still paralyzed under the weight of the traditions of the ancients. Favouring the clarity and rhythm of articulation over the ancient strictures of scansion, they allowed for an easier blending of oral and written language. Recommending that sermons should be preached in the common people's languages, they first opened the gates to the earliest appearance of vernacular forms of literature. They introduced a system of musical notation with signs that mimicked the rising and falling inflections of the singing voice in the space above the lines: the neumes, which mark less the notation of a melody than the articulation of a correct, easily understandable delivery of the text.

From then on, the masters managed to give unprecedented scope to the rites of a public and official liturgy whose function was sacramental as well as secular, as corroborated by all IXth century chronicles. Into their great prose writings they insert exuberant pieces of poetry, prosimetra that were probably meant to be read aloud and sung. They are used as material for all the rites of public life and death, in the churches and palaces where services are held. These public ceremonies must first and foremost be beautiful, luxurious, magnificent. Thus they have to be enriched with musical creations, sequences, tropes and other pieces more plainly supported by monodic chant or polyphonic singing. From then on, music ceased to be a mere embellishment: it turned into language, communication. Contemporaries expected it to be awe-inspiring and to help memorization.

Singing was not the exclusive preserve of monks and clerics. Writings were kept and have been handed down to us, admittedly, through the long-standing institutions that cathedrals and major monasteries were then, which means they were in ecclesiastical hands. But the libraries of the great IXth century aristocrats testify that they readily accommodated secular works next to the hymn-books they needed for the chapel in their palaces. They were particularly interested in three genres: love songs, elegies and funereal lamentations (planctus). The great majority of love songs did not survive their dedicatees. They only resurface in the early XIIth century, when a keen connoisseur of the matter reinstated the genre: Pierre Abélard. Elegies, whether political, hagiographic or dedicated to friends, have made a name for Ermold le Noir, who composes around 820-830, Florus of Lyons († around 860), Paschase Radbert (ca. 786-865), or Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 807-867/869). Lastly, the lamentation, mourning the disappearance of a beloved, revered or most powerful character, a genre for which, in the IXth century, were particularly renowned the monks of Bobbio, and Corvey (Agius of Corvey in Germania, in the second third of the century), as well as professional warriors, like the author of the poem on the death of his companions at the battle of Fontenoy en Puisaye, which led to the treaty of Verdun (843). It is a literary exercise, but it fulfils a duty of consolation and recollection, vital to the community in traditional societies that cannot allow any discontinuity between the world of the living and that of the dead. Other genres, poems about visions and « revelations », such as the Visio Wettini and the Revelationes, by Audrade of Sens (ca. 840), were less readily subservient to the interests of the powerful than to those of the Churches. The three genres above-mentioned exerted a greater fascination. They fuelled the vigour of another genre, the classical carmen heroicum, which was to rise to unprecedented fame, thanks to its shift from Latin to the vernacular languages. Long before the Chanson de Roland, epic songs had actually won the favour of the secular elite in Anglo-Saxon England, in the lands of the Ottonian and Salian Empires, in the France of the time, and they became all the rage, thanks to the Reconquista of Spain, with the Cantar del mio Cid (last quarter of XIth century). The legend of the Carolingians lived on because it had been concocted by their servants in the IXth century and had been kept alive in all the families of trusty servants of the emperor and peddled on all battlefields.

From 840 or thereabouts and the middle of the Xth century, in the Frankish Empire and what was left of it after 888, clerics, not only monks but also laymen, put down in writing a great number of major works in several important collections of poetry. Three of these collections stand out, by reason of their material and formal quality, those of Paris (Bnf Latin 1154, copied around year 900 for a Saint-Martin monastery and adapted in the XIth century for the abbey of Saint-Martial of Limoges), Brussels (BR 8860-8867, from early Xth century, most probably originating in Saint-Gall where it must have been copied), and Verona (Biblioteca Capitolare XC (85), written there in the middle of the Xth century for the cathedral or the abbey of San Zeno). These collections of poems or « songs » in Latin language are the forerunners of the great song-books of the trouvères and troubadours in Romance languages in the XIIth and XIIIth centuries. Between the three of them, virtually all of poetic creation in the IXth century is handed down to us. As always, literature, the arts of the spoken word and the arts of music and singing sail in convoy: precentors thus took down musical notations on the first stanzas of a great number of poems, as soon as they were copied or in the following years. We have no idea what these books were meant for. Were they monuments intended for commemorations, half-dead conservatories of sorts, were they used as collections of textbook examples for schools or were they entrusted to the care of official singers whose function was to keep a repertory alive and make sure that they were performed in public ? These books, nevertheless, deserve better than the mere consideration of a few scholars. The same applies to another first-rate piece: the short poem about the destruction of the Mont-Glonne monastery, the original site of the future abbey of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil (Maine-et-Loire), ruled, in the Xth century, by the abbot of Saint-Florent of Saumur. This too little known poem has often escaped the attention of musicologists because it failed to follow the triumphal pathway of the great Carolingian song-books: it appears in a chartulary compiled in the second half of the XIIth century and confirms the ceremonial function of such writings, too often considered as archival compendia. It had, however, been listed by philologists as a testimony to the art of poetry in the IXth century. Historians generally agree to shift the date of composition to the late Xth century and attribute the poem to Létald, a monk from Micy in the Orléans area who wrote several poems between 984 and 1010 or thereabouts. This is the only exception to the unity of time that has governed the composition of this musical collection.

Katia Caré deserves all the credit for allowing us to rediscover these poems from a remote IXth century abounding in masterpieces. The time has come to restore the intimacy that brought together, in the Early Middle Ages, oral and written speech, history and literature, great epic songs and music.

Versus de bella quae fuit acta Fontaneto

On June 25th 841, shortly after the death of emperor Louis the Pious, successor to Charlemagne, a devastating war set the heir to the imperial title, Lothair, against both of his brothers: Louis the Germanic and Charles the Bald. The crucial battle took place in the Puisaye, at Fontenoy: it resulted in the treaty of Verdun, which left a deep-seated mark on the history of the European West, as it led to the partition of « Francia » into an Eastern kingdom, which was to become Germany, and a Western part, which has become France. One of the survivors of this fratricidal war, Angilbert, wrote a lamentation in Latin, a poem in the form of an alphabet primer where the initials of each line, assembled in succession, make up the alphabet from A to P. Each of the fifteen stanzas of the poem is composed of « three fifteen-syllable lines with an ascending clausula (a « trochaic » cadence), one of the most highly valued rhythmic patterns » (Brunhölzl): « given that the trochee is a prosodic foot, made up of a long-lasting syllable followed by a short syllable, the trochaic septenarius should number fourteen syllables; but with an extra syllable at the end, it numbers fifteen » (Bastiaensen). Angelbert belongs to Lothair's party, although he bemoans «blood against blood cowardly conspiring»; in this respect, his poem could be listed as political literature. Two allusions to the Song of Solomon (Ct 3, 7-8 in stanzas 7 and 13) and to the anthem Mons Gelboe from the liturgical service of the third or fifth Sunday after Pentecost (2 sm 1, 21-25) provide it with a steady spiritual undertone, but it takes the form of the most tragic planctus, without relief or hope, bereft of any eschatological certainties.

Angilbert's Versus has been preserved in three manuscripts, but only the Paris version has been supplied with an Aquitanian-style musical notation. This is the great Paris collection, BnF Lat. 1154, f. 136r, of which a facsimile can be found in Coussemaker, Histoire de l'harmonie au moyen âge, pp. i-iv. The second copy appears in the Saint-Gall manuscript, Stiftsarchiv, Cod. Fab. X (acquired in the XVth century by the abbey of Pfäfers; south-western writing from Germania, mid-IXth century), f. 10rv (incomplete; added folio). To these manuscripts must be added the copy of Kórnik (Poland: Biblioteka Kórnicka – Polska Akademia Nauk, BK 00124, DZ (former Dzialinski 124; IXth century, France?), f. 1r): the poem was copied on the front side of the first folio of the Commentaire de la Règle de saint Benoît by Smaragde de Saint-Mihiel.

Versus Paulini de Herico duce

Yet another first-rate piece, this poem on the death of duke Eric of Friuli is also the earliest composition in the selection featured in this recording. Carolingian annals have kept the memory of the battle of Tersatto (present-day Croatia) where Heric died in 799, during a war expedition against the Slavs of Liburnia, on the Dalmatian coast; he was a close friend of Charlemagne and a margrave, i.e. the duke of the March of Friuli. The author of the poem is none other than the great scholar Paulinus II of Aquileia (ca. 730/750-802), a Lombard who had rallied to Charlemagne and become the patriarch of Aquileia in 787, thanks to his protector. Paulinus mourned the margrave at whose court he was staying and to whom he had offered, shortly before 799, his first « mirror of the prince », which he had titled « Book of exhortation » (Liber exhortationis). The lamentation on the death of Heric is composed of 14 stanzas, each made up of five rhythmic lines, senarii. Paulinus is transported, as in a dream, into Liburnia, to the place of the tragedy; he depicts the tears of the young prince's next of kin and of his « family » in the broader sense; he grieves, then regains his composure, praying God the all-powerful to grant his servant Heric the joys of Paradise. One of the stanzas alludes to the anthem Mons Gelboe of the third and fifth sundays after Pentecost (2 sm 1, 21).

The poem of Paulinus II of Aquileia is preserved in the Paris manuscript, BnF lat. 1154 (f. 116r-118r) and two Bern manuscripts (Bern BB 455 (Xth c.) and Bern BB 394 (Xth c.), f. 1r in which only two stanzas are copied).

Versiculi de eversione monasterii Sancti Florentii
Paris, BnF nouv. acq. lat. 1930 (former Phillipps 70; XI-XII, prior to 1159)

The poem traditionally referred to as « On the destruction of the Saint-Florent monastery » has survived thanks to its insertion in the Chartulary of this abbey, which used to go under the name of Black book, compiled after 1055, folios 6r-8r. It actually chronicles the sacking of the Mont-Glonne, perpetrated by Nominoë, « king » of the Bretons, in 845. Until about 840, the Mont-Glonne monastery had benefited from the liberalities of Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious. This is now all over. Hardly have the fratricidal wars between Louis's sons died out when unrest starts shaking the kingdom of Western Francia under Charles the Bald. The monks, driven away by Nominoë, are said to have been rehoused in Saint-Gondon before returning to Mont-Glonne under the protection of saint Florent and the king. The trouble with this narrative is that the monastery can't possibly have been destroyed by Nominoë, and the site was devastated in 849, perhaps by Bretons, but more certainly, later on, by Normans. Supported by Charles the Bald, the monks were able to resettle in Saint-Gondon, on the border of the dioceses of Bourges and Orléans, whence they later came back to Mont-Glonne now called Saint-Florent-le-Vieil (Maine-et-Loire). Only between 940 and 975/977 did the earl of Blois, Thibaud the Cheat, summon the monks from Saint-Florent-le-Vieil to Saint-Florent-lès-Saumur (nowadays Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent). The composition of the 39 stanzas of this poem in regular iambic dimeters must be dated from the years 940-960 at the earliest, or otherwise from the late Xth century and then nothing would stand against its attribution to a monk from Micy near Orléans (Létald).

From the first two lines the tone is that of legend. The reminiscences of Ovid and the sound of the lyre die away, the bugles of war start blaring. The Bretons, a race of uncultured brutes – so said the abbot of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys around 1125 – are let loose on the country. Here starts the narrative. The remembrance of the generous gifts of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious is only matched by the cruelty of Nominoë the Breton; this despicable leader (a tiller of the land who owes everything to chance, nothing to inheritance) demands from the monks of Mont-Glonne that they erect a statue in his image, facing the east, as a challenge to the authority of Charles the Bald. But Charles has the monks make the statue in his own image, and the impious Nominoë returns to ransack the abbey. The abbot refers to King Charles, saint Florent avenges them by paralysing the Breton and the king grants the monks a new and safer land of their own.

Planctus Hugonis abbatis

Hugo, a natural son of Charlemagne, was slain in battle in 844 while he held the office of secular abbot of the abbeys of Saint-Quentin and Charroux in the Poitou. The lamentation upon the body of the deceased was written by a monk, most probably from Charroux, where Hugo was buried. It consists of 8 stanzas composed of seven lines with a different structure each, the last one being « adonic » (a dactyl and a spondee). The piece testifies to the high cultural standards of the Poitou abbey, which is known to have been in relation with Florus of Lyons and with the great monastery of the Reichenau. The author juggles with learned reminiscences, of the heathen Virgil (70-19 B.C.: Aeneid, XI, 908) and of the Christian Lactantius († ca. 320), a most singular writer (On the wrath of God, c. 5). The Planctus Hugonis was handed down in the great Paris collection, BnF lat. 1154 (IXth c., Limoges, Saint-Martial) at f. 133r.

Planctus Karoli
Paris, BnF lat. 1154 (IXth c., Limoges, Saint-Martial), au f. 132r- 133v

This is the most famous IXth century planctus, one of the most ancient that the Frankish world has bequeathed to us. Soon after the death of Charlemagne, on January 28th 814, a monk from the abbey of Saint-Columbanus in Bobbio, Northern Italy, wrote a lamentation on the demise of the master who had transformed the kingdom of the Franks into a powerful Empire. He recalls the vibrant eulogy delivered by Alcuin of York about the one that was then merely the king of Franks: « another king David... is now our leader and our guide, a leader in whose shade the Christian people can now rest in peace, who strikes terror everywhere into the hearts of the heathen nations, a guide whose evangelical firmness and devotion have ceaselessly strengthened the Catholic faith against preachers of heresy... and striving to keep the Catholic faith radiant everywhere in the light of heavenly grace. » (Alcuin, Letter 41 (MGH, Epistolae II, n° 41, p. 84).

According to a XVIIth century manuscript, the monk of Bobbio had dedicated his poem to a bishop by the name of André (a byname commonly used among Charlemagne's retinue), who can hypothetically be identified with an Irishman by the name of Cadac. Bobbio, founded by saint Columbanus in the early VIIth century and showered with benefits by Charlemagne, was then often visited by islanders. Through the lines of the anonymous poet, all the peoples and the faithful of the Empire mourn the loss of a peerless being, master rather than conqueror, and voice their sorrow. The poet himself joins the procession of mourners, proclaiming his distress in the refrain «Alas, wretched me! I grieve and mourn » (Heu me dolens, heu mihi misero).

This piece is composed of twenty rhythmic stanzas made of distichs of two dodecasyllables with a metrical word at the end, and each stanza ends with the heptasyllabic refrain. It was copied and notated in neumes in the Xth century.

The first words sound very much like a hymn composed by Coelius Sedulius (Vth century), sung every year for the celebration of Christ's resurrection. But the Planctus Karoli is not a hymn, it affects the IXth century listener as the complete opposite of the Easter hymn; it is rather close to the ritual of the service for the dead. Can't we thus imagine, as Peter Stotz suggests, that it was performed by a double choir as the alternated chant of the funeral procession?

Versus Godischalchi
Gottschalk d'Orbais to his Reichenau friend

The monk Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 807-867/869) is famous for triggering a theological disputation about predestination in the years 840-850. He raised, and finally answered in a most pessimistic way, the insoluble question of the dilemma between God's salvific will and the human propensity to sin. Around 850, he addresses the poem O quid jubes pusiole to his boyhood friend Walafried Strabon (808/809-849). The pusiolus, or young boy, is now nearing forty and has gained, in the monastery of the Reichenau, the intellectual stature that turns him into one of the great learned abbots of the IXth century. As for Gottschalk, he had been brought up in the other great monastery of Germania, in Fulda, which was the seat of a brilliant school, most particularly under the abbacy of Raban Maur (780-856, abbot of Fulda from 822 onwards) and relationships between the monk and the abbot had soured, long before the predestination dispute. The argument precisely breaks out in 848 and 849. Gottschalk is severely condemned, in Mainz, in Reims, when suddenly his friend Walafried begs Gottschalk to write a poem to him. But « why should you ask me to sing? », Gottschalk answers. The complaint stirs up no overtones of presumed homosexuality, it only deals with the friendship that brings together two men that have drifted apart in their very conceptions of theology.

Two copies of the poem are known, in a book from Autun (BM 33) and in the Paris collection, BnF lat. 1154, f. 131v-132r. In this manuscript, the transcriber marks, as is customary, the beginning of each stanza with a crimson initial, and the refrain is in red ink; the musical notation only appears on the first stanza.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, Consolatio Philosophiae (Book I, ix)
Ms.: Paris, BnF lat. 1154, f. 118r-119v

Boethius, the schoolteacher of the Middle Ages, « the saintly soul that unfolded the deceits of our world » (Dante), wrote his Consolation of Philosophy brought to him by Dame philosophy in the prison where he had been thrown by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, while awaiting his execution in 524. His prose writing, interspersed with poems, bequeathed to the Middle Ages not only the form of the prosimetrum, but also the philosophical theme of consolation. The first poem in the Consolation (Book I, ix) expounds the way in which God the Creator subjected Nature to his sovereign authority. Nature has no power to organize and harmonize chaos, but God does. God created a Nature that mimics the creative movement in its rational and numerical perfection. What about humans? God has abandoned them to the whims of Fortune and also to their own crimes. No opposition between providence (God) and destiny (Nature): the former is the source of the latter. This famous hymn of the Consolation of Philosophy, widely circulated all through the IXth century, rings with Boethius' neo-platonism. This never bothered Christian thinkers, who recycled it in their liturgy and steadily commented on it, particularly, in the IXth century, Alcuin of York († 802), Moduin of Autun († 840/843), Jonas of Orleans (bef. 780-843), Loup of Ferrières (805-862) – who wrote a specific explanation for all the poems in the Consolation, or Rémi of Auxerre († 908). With or without the Consolation, the hymn O stelliferi conditor orbis has migrated over the centuries towards vernacular-language literature: Jean of Meun writes an adaptation of the Consolation between 1269 and 1278 and a literal translation in 1305, but Chaucer also uses the material, in The Knight's Tale, around 1380.

Guy Lobrichon
(Translation: Pierre Bourhis)

About Latin in the Carolingian era

Our present-day knowledge of Latin as a whole remains first and foremost literary; it was nevertheless a language of daily oral communication, from Antiquity to the Renaissance... Within the scope of this recording, we have thus attempted a plausible restitution of the variant of Latin in usage at the court of Charlemagne, in the VIIIth century and the early IXth century, but, as we only had written sources at our disposal, we must needs restrict ourselves to conjectures that will never be corroborated, given that, apart from a few certainties attested by some treatises or substantiated by alternative written forms of some terms, comparative and diachronic phonetics is not altogether an exact science as far as dead languages are concerned, for want of audio-oral data.

As they drifted ever further away from Vulgar Latin (lingua romana vulgaris) during the VIIIth and IXth centuries A.D. (1), Carolingian grammarians and clerics became more and more aware of the dichotomy between the vernacular languages derived from Latin, and Latin proper. Hence their desire to restate the role of Latin... The reform initiated by Pepin the Short in order to improve the teaching of Latin grammar and writing was then carried on by his son Charlemagne as soon as he came to the throne (768), the most remarkable feature in this respect being the adoption of the Caroline minuscule, inspired by the Roman uncial of the IIIrd century, itself inherited from the cursive script of Roman Antiquity.

Although Charlemagne and his peers were mostly speakers of Low Frankish, one of the Germanic dialects in use near the Rhine, to which group also belong the Ripuarian Frankish of Cologne or the present-day language of Luxembourg, it was with a view to restoring to its prominent position the language so dear to the heart of Varro that Charlemagne appointed Alcuin – born in York ca. 730 or 740, who could speak Old English as well as Latin – to the head of the Palatine Academy, in 782, as the study of Latin was no longer the exclusive preserve of clerics but was now open to the laity.

As Low Frankish had influenced the phonology of Romance languages of the Rhenish era and that of Latin as well to a significant extent, it seemed quite natural to take it into consideration so as to manage consistent standards of pronunciation, of which we will now detail the most salient features.

Unlike the Latin-speaking islanders from across the Channel, who had kept up the guttural character of the /c/ in all positions, particularly in front of /e/ or /i/ (both of them closed syllables), the confusion between /ci / and /ti/ (see the alternative forms etiam/eciam, clementia/clemencia and fatio/facio) tends to testify to the Germanic usage of reading the /c/ as a /ts/ when it comes before either of these vowels, which is further evidenced by certain mistakes that can be ascribed to copyists, a frequent giveaway of the phonetic reality of the time. A term such as cella (cellar) which was pronounced [kella] in Cicero's time eventually turned into Zelle – pronounced [tselle] – beyond the Rhine, to mention this famous example only (2) & (3).

The group /di/ was probably pronounced [dz] before a vowel, whereas /ti/ was articulated as [ts] before /e/ and /i/, like /c/ (2), a trend corroborated by Erasmus which will survive until the dawn of the French Renaissance and even later than the XVIIIth century, in Italy.

Besides, we have decided to keep the diphthong /ae/ rather than assimilating it to the phoneme [e], a tendency that only became standard usage much later (let us mention, in this respect, quae and ecclesiae which will be spelt que and ecclesie as a rule in all writings after the XIth century (4).

Lastly, to the difference of the so-called « church Latin », we have retained the occlusive sound of the unpalatalized /g/ in all positions, considering that the phoneme [dz] (similar to the English « j » in jungle) was unknown to Frankish speakers of Germanic dialects, who were in the habit of pronouncing all the letters (5), even if the groups /ce/-/ci/ and /ge/-/gi/ were already widely palatalized in the greater part of the Romance-language area, in the middle of the Vth century A.D.

Christopher Tellart
(Translation: Pierre Bourhis)

(1) Antoine Meillet, Esquisse d'une histoire de la langue latine (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
(2) Dag Norberg, Manuel pratique de latin médiéval (Picard, 1980)
(3) Pascale Bourgain & Marie-Clotilde Hubert, Le latin médiéval (Brepols, 2005)
(4) Keith Sidwell, Reading medieval Latin (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
(5) Roger Wright, La période de transition du latin, de la lingua romana et du français (Médiévales, 2003)