Primary Source

Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great


Later in the 9th century, Notker “the Stammerer” of St.-Gall wrote his Gesta Karoli Magni Imperatoris (Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great). He dedicated the work to Charlemagne’s great-grandson Charles the Fat (r. 876-888), a son of Louis the German, and indeed, Notker intended the work, at least in part, to serve as an exempla for Charles the Fat on the proper way to rule a kingdom. Notker’s Gesta is full of topics that are tangentially related to Charlemagne, revealing the author’s profound interest in bishops, corrupt clergy, the singing of mass and prayers, and divine justice. As such, Notker’s work is no cohesive biographical sketch; rather, it is full of anecdotes and isolated episodes, often involving the emperor’s interaction with bishops and clerics. When Notker recalls, for Charles the Fat’s benefit, stories about Charlemagne’s conquests, his narrative is consistent in several regards. First, Charlemagne embodies military prowess and good generalship. Notker consistently calls him things like victoriosissimus, invictus, invincibilus—most victorious, unconquered, invincible. Second, “unconquered” Charles’s victories are wrought by bringing massive armies to bear against his enemies, so large that the enemy cannot profitably resist Charles’s host (what we might these days call the doctrine of overwhelming force).

Here, Notker hits the mark. This was one of the preferred Carolingian methods of winning victories, one which decided conflicts without pitched battles and unnecessary loss of troops. This was particularly the case regarding sieges: direct assaults on fortified positions, even successful ones, resulted in large numbers of casualties for the attacking force, which obviously could be avoided if the enemy simply surrendered in the face of a force so large as to render the prospect of defense hopeless. Even if we accept that this was a useful Carolingian strategy, however, it seems clear that Notker has rather exaggerated the invincibility of Charles’s armies. Certainly, there were exceptions to this perceived military dominance, such as the famous Pyrenean slaughter of Charlemagne’s baggage train immortalized in the Song of Roland and the necessity for nearly three decades of Saxon campaigns to bring Saxony successfully to heel.

The following excerpt concerns Charlemagne’s wars against King Desiderius and his Lombard kingdom early in Charlemagne’s reign. Here we can clearly see the image of Charlemagne’s army that Notker wishes to convey, a force of unimaginable size and power that strikes terror into the hearts of its enemies, even of rival kings like Desiderius.

This source is a part of the The Legacy of Charlemagne through the Ages teaching module.


After the death of the most victorious Pippin, when the Lombards now troubled Rome for the second time, unconquered Charles, although thoroughly occupied in the Cisalpine regions, vigorously seized the road into Italy, and by bloodless warfare or voluntary surrender he accepted the humiliated Lombards into servitude. And, as a favor of his strength, and lest they ever depart from the realm of the Franks or inflict some injury upon the borders of St. Peter [i.e., raid the Papal See], he led off the daughter of Desiderius, leader of the Lombards, as his wife. This woman was relinquished as if dead after not much time by the judgment of the most holy priests, and her enraged father, binding the provinces to himself with a great oath, shut himself up within the walls of Pavia, and prepared to rebel against invincible Charles. When he [Charles] verified this for certain, he hastened upon the road thence. It happened several years beforehand that a certain man by the name of Otker from the highest of the nobility met with the offense of the most terrible emperor, and on account of it, he took flight to the same Desiderius. With the approach of the fearsome Charles having been heard, however, they ascended the highest tower, whence they would be able to see him coming both far and wide. Truly, with the baggage train approaching, which might have campaigned like the expeditions of Darius or Julius [Caesar], Desiderius said to Otker: “is Charles in such a huge army?” But he responded, “Not yet.” Truly, seeing the assembled army of the people from the broadest empire, he proclaimed to Otker, “truly Charles exults in these troops!” Otker responded, “but not yet, not yet.” Then he [Desiderius] began to seethe and said, “what shall we do, if more shall come with them likewise?” “You will see, with what sort he might come. Concerning us, however, I know not what might happen.” And behold, in that discussion, his retinue appeared, always ignorant of rest. Seeing which, the stupefied Desiderius said: “That is Charles.” And Otker said: “Not yet, not yet.” After this were seen the bishops, abbots, clerics, and chaplains with their soldiers. Having seen these, Desiderius, now an enemy of the light and with gasping as of death, bleated, “let us descend and be concealed in the earth from the presence of the rage of such an immense enemy!” At these things, the frightened Otker, formerly an expert of the affairs, and in better times, most accustomed to the equipment of incomparable Charles, recalled: “when you see,” he said, “the iron crop bristling in the field, and the walls of the cities of Padua and Pavia inundated with iron like crashing black seas, then is there the hope of the coming of Charles.” With these things not yet finished, it began to appear from start to finish like black clouds from the northwest or north wind, which clouds turned the most clear day into dreadful shadows. But shortly, with the emperor coming, the day was rising by the splendor of the armaments, darker than all night for the besieged. Then appeared Iron Charles himself, his crested iron helmet, armed with iron gauntlets, his iron chest and shoulders guarded with an iron breastplate. An iron spear lifted to heaven filled his left hand, for his right was ever extended to his unconquered sword. The outsides of his hips, which for some men were often unprotected by armor for the sake of easier mounting [of their horses], for him were encircled with iron plates. What might I say about his greaves? These were always of iron by custom, like all of the army. On his shield nothing was visible but iron. His horse glittered likewise with the spirit and color of iron. Which garments, all those preceding, around, and encircling, and following him imitated as much as possible. Iron filled the fields and roads. The rays of the sun were reflected by the sharpness of the iron. Honor was brought to the cold iron by colder men. The horrors of the sewers paled before the most splendid iron. “Oh iron! Alas iron!” resounded the confused shout of the citizens. The firmness of the walls and of the young men shook before the iron, and the counsel of the old was destroyed by the iron…And Otker said to Desiderius: “Behold! Here you have what you sought so much!” Saying this, he fell down nearly out of his mind.

[Following which episode, Charles conquers the city easily and without bloodshed, as the terrified defenders submit to him without offering resistance, overawed by the massive army arrayed before them.]

How to Cite This Source

"Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great," in World History Commons, [accessed May 28, 2024]