The idea for this book was suggested by the general editors of a self-contained sub-series called ‘Charlemagne: A European Icon’, published under the umbrella of Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures (https://www.charlemagne-icon.ac.uk/). This venture has so far resulted in several volumes about the reception of Charlemagne in different cultural and linguistic communities across Europe, with further works planned. The Charlemagne sub-series, edited by Marianne Ailes and Philip Bennett, emerged out of two projects, funded respectively by the AHRC and the Leverhulme Trust, to explore the legacy of Charlemagne and his literary myths, firstly in medieval England, and then in other regions of Europe. Both the Celtic and the Nordic literatures about Charlemagne were obvious contenders for the sub-series, and the more we all discussed the texts we wanted to include, the more it became evident that there was actually a good case for combining these traditions into a single volume.
The most obvious common factor is the transmission of the French legends of Charlemagne to both areas of northern Europe, forming a common base for the translations, adaptations, and assimilations of the legends made by specific and different language communities. Translation was clearly a key factor – to what extent were the legends translated more or less faithfully, and to what extent were they adapted to suit local readers and audiences? And what would such changes tell us about the perception of Charlemagne and the function of his legacy within the various communities? Another factor was transmission – how did the legends travel to these relatively far-flung corners of Europe, and what manuscript sources were available to the translators? Finally, how did Welsh, Irish, and Nordic writers assimilate the traditions of Charlemagne into other strands of their literature, incorporating Charlemagne into the broader preoccupations of their writing?
Our book offers some answers to all these questions, and the work of our contributors is therefore relevant to Charlemagne studies in general where similar issues need to be addressed. What the Charlemagne sub-series as a whole demonstrates very clearly is that the legendary Charlemagne was not simply a protagonist of French romance, but took on a much more meaningful and pan-European character as his legends spread across the continent. In other words, there is not just one Charlemagne in literature but a host of them, each one constructed so as to be recognisable to different audiences while not losing what we might describe as the essence of Charlemagne – his historical presence as ruler, emperor, and, in some contexts, saint. The plurality of Charlemagne mirrors that of another of the Nine Worthies, Arthur, who was similarly re-imagined by different linguistic communities at different times. Since Arthur was not a historical figure, there is less of an ‘essential Arthur’ to be grasped and so he remains a far more amorphous and shape-shifting character than Charlemagne.
In the end, we feel that bringing those linguistic communities together has helped us foreground some of the similarities and differences of those traditions. These have in turn aided in highlighting particular local, as well as communal, socio-political concerns of both the Celtic and Nordic communities and the role the Charlemagne legend has played in upholding or challenging those at any given time. Finally the comparative approach has been helpful – we hope – in drawing out the cultural identities at stake and the function of literature in sustaining such identities.
This guest post was written by HELEN FULTON, Chair of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol, and SIF RIKHARDSDOTTIR, Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Iceland.