Charlemagne in Medieval German and Dutch Literature
Thank you Professor Classen for taking the time to answer some questions about your new book Charlemagne in Medieval German and Dutch Literature. To begin with, can you please summarise your book?
In 2014, there were many major events in honor of the 1200th anniversary of Emperor Charlemagne’s death (d. in 814). I was invited to participate in a large research project organized by colleagues in Bristol and Edinburgh, to investigate the role of Charlemagne in medieval literature. My task was to examine medieval German and Dutch literature. This is what this book is about. I studied a large number of relevant texts where Charlemagne appears, mostly as a glorified figure, but sometimes also as a ridiculous, violent, tyrannical character. I follow the reception of this person from the eleventh to the early sixteenth centuries.
There is a lot out there about Charlemagne, how did you go about your research?
I read all the relevant research and focused on the primary material as my critical sources. I had also the opportunity to do research in various German university libraries.
Did anything you found during your research surprise you?
Yes, the extent to which various authors engaged with Charlemagne, and how much some of them, esp. in the late Middle Ages, took a rather negative view of him, or simply ridiculed him. I found it fascinating how much his mythical status mattered so much, and this actually until today.
What’s the earliest source that you found and which, if any, would you say was the most influential in shaping an image of Charlemagne?
Chroniclers dealt with him consistently throughout the ages, but the literary discourse on him set in only by the end of the twelfth century. Probably most influential was Priest Conrad’s Rolandslied (ca. 1180).
Is it possible to define for us the key different approaches towards Charlemagne in the two literatures?
No, not really; but we can say that many Dutch narratives influenced German literature.
Your book’s blurb notes changes in the presentation of Charlemagne in both literatures. Tell us about these and what you think was behind them?
By the late Middle Ages, the myth of Charlemagne was increasingly viewed critically, and he even became the object of ridicule and laughter.
How central to each literature and its development was the subject of Charlemagne?
Myths always exert a huge influence, especially when promoted through literary and artistic works. We discover Charlemagne virtually everywhere, in all kinds of genres and types of art work well into the 16th c.
Roughly how many Dutch and German narratives exist? Were you able to view many original manuscripts?
Tough to say, there are maybe 50 Dutch and German narratives from the entire time period. I looked at some of the original manuscripts to gain a better understanding of the discourse.
Do you have a particular favourite among the many different narratives?
I liked the most Countess Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken’s novel Königin Sibille, ca. 1437. Here we observe a woman’s suffering at the hand of a tyrannical husband, Charlemagne.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
I have suffered from the lockdown, of course, and the difficulty of having very limited access to our library, but otherwise, I have been extremely productive and successful during the entire pandemic, having completed three new books, started with two others, publishing ca. 10 articles, and writing several new ones right now. I have learned to utilize the web much more than before, and gained amazing access to medieval manuscripts and older books.
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ALBRECHT CLASSEN is University Distinguished Professor of German Studies at the University of Arizona; he received the title of Grand Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Three Lions in 2017, in recognition of his outstanding service to German studies.