Charlemagne, King of Beasts

  • Paul Edward Dutton
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


On the cold and freshly cut edge of a new millennium Otto III, that most precocious of Ottoman emperors, opened Charlemagne’s tomb, refreshed his Carolingian predecessors body with oil, and clothed it in white vestments. Before closing the sarcophagus, he wrapped the corpse in a purple cloth decorated with elephants.1 Otto knew what we, who have been too influenced by Einhard’s confining categories, have forgotten: that Charlemagne was also king of the beasts. He was “the lion who reigns over all living creatures and wild beasts.”2 When encountering hyperbolic praise, as we do in Alcuin’s animal boast, we should try not to hurry past the obvious: here that Charlemagne’s power was thought to extend over both the human and animal worlds. Otto’s elephantine winding-sheet said the same, if more softly.


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    Or so we may surmise, since this Byzantine fabric was moved in the twelfth century to Charlemagne’s shrine and survives today in Aachen. See Percy Ernst Schramm and Florentine Mutherich, Denkmale der deutschen Konige und Kaiser: Ein Beitrag zur Herrschergeschichte von Karl dem Grofien bis Friedrich II, 768–1250 (Munich, 1962), p. 154 and plate 104. On the details of Otto s repairs, see Chronicon Novaliciense 3.32, ed. C. Bethmann, MGH: Scriptores 7 (Hanover, 1846; repr. 1925), p. 106.Google Scholar
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