The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Decoding the Codes: Treason in the Medieval Charlemagne Epics
Vickie Ziegler, Pennsylvania State University

Treason, in whatever and and under whatever conditions, cuts to the heart of the human condition, since it ruptures those bonds of trust on which we base our lives. The gravity of the deed explains its perennial appeal, particularly with the betrayal of Roland, the nephew of the great Frankish emperor, Charlemagne/Karl der Große.

Turoldus' Old French Chanson de Roland, written around 1100, describes the ambush of Charlemagne's rear guard by Muslims in Spain, an ambush arranged in this work by none other than Roland's stepfather Ganelon, in collusion with Islamic rulers supposedly under Charlemagne's control. Forbidden by Charlemagne to head the delegation to the Muslims, Roland nominates Ganelon, known for his wisdom and valor. Ganelon, using the prerogative of the feud, determines to seek revenge and betrays Roland and the Frankish rear guard to the Muslims for a considerable sum of money. After Roland's death, he is brought to trial, complete with a judicial duel to decide his fate, and is executed. The power struggles in this work, between Charlemagne and Ganelon, plus the high drama of the trial for treason, ensured its popularity as a narrative, as the late medieval German versions of this story attest.

Karl der Große and his astounding achievements provided a linchpin for German historical and political references throughout the Middle Ages. In addition, the emperor's reputation as the representative of the law was widely known in the German lands in the high Middle Ages, reflected in the phrase karles reht. The Charlemagne literature of medieval Germany portrays Karl as the embodiment of the law, most notably in the trial of Genelun (Ganelon) for treason. Beginning with Priest Konrad's twelfth-century Rolandslied, with strong ties to the Chanson de Roland, as a reference point, this talk analyzes Genelun's trial with the judicial ordeal in two later and little-known medieval German Charlemagne epics: Stricker's thirteenth-century Karl der Große and the fourteenth-century Karlmeinet.

In the case of Stricker and the Karlmeinet compiler, a major function, outside of the dramatic nature of the narrative, is to give readers information about Karl as a ruler and as a judge. In both cases, these portraits of Karl were meant to serve in an exemplary way to the Germans of the high and late Middle Ages who looked to the great emperor as a sort of political lodestone. The Genelun/Wellis treason trial gives each writer a wonderful opportunity to present the basic situation in a contemporary context and to comment upon current issues by placing them in Karl's exemplary reign, thereby resolving them using the approach of the legendary monarch. In Stricker's work, the differing legal approaches to dispute settlement appear as means of characterization, negative for the feud and positive for the recourse to the courts and the imposition of corporal punishment. In the case of Karlmeinet, Karl, as the representative of God's justice on earth, presides over a trial and sentencing that ties together late medieval legal practices, such as the increasing use of torture and extreme physical punishments, and currents in the larger society, such as the extensive emphasis on the Passion of Christ and the example of the redeemed thief who died a good death. In this section, the Karlmeinet compiler seems to try to achieve verbally what artists of the period, in their portrayals of the Passion, did visually, and to link himself, to some degree, to the spirit of the Passion narratives. Both writeres give readers today a kind of cultural photograph, not only of the symbolic value of Karl in the societies in which these works appeared, but also of contemporary issues and problems for which invocation of the great emperor's name had some relevance.

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