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Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1840) (Public Domain)

The Facts and Fiction of Charlemagne and His Paladin

In the early Middle Ages, the most eminent members who surrounded the sovereign of the empire were defined as Paladins, or Palatine Counts, who, among various other duties, served as Judges for Preliminary Investigations, to bring before the Emperor only those cases worthy of his personal judgement. The Matter of France, (also known as the Carolingian cycle), a body of literature and legendary material, addressing mostly Charlemagne and his associates, would be the equivalent of King Arthur in the Matter of Britain. Over the years and through flourishing myths and legends, the Paladins, fired by the collective imagination, were identified as the valiant defenders of the weak, of the poor pilgrims against the onslaught of the Moors, and as role models of chivalry.

The eight phases of The Song of Roland in one picture. Grandes Chroniques de France, St. Petersburg. (Public Domain)

The eight phases of The Song of Roland in one picture. Grandes Chroniques de France, St. Petersburg. (Public Domain)

It is known that the collective imagination, often and willingly, far exceeds the historical truth, and so the Paladins par excellence became the fearless ‘knights in shining armor’, defenders of the weak against the obtuse arrogance of the powerful and in the epic knightly poems, such as the Song for Roland, the almost legendary figures of the ‘Twelve Paladins’, began to emerge at the court of Charlemagne. The names of the Twelve vary according to the sources. One would always find Orlando, ‘nephew of the emperor’ and head of the Paladins, together with Oliviero, Gerino, and Berengario. Other sources describe the adventures of Turpino, Riccardo the Elder, Tebaldo da Reims and other much lesser-known, yet bold defenders, who lived more in the imagination of the trovadori than in historical reality.


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