Primary Source

Speculum Historiale by Vincent of Beauvais


Earlier accounts of Charlemagne’s life, rife with positive bias though many may be, pale in comparison to the heavily legendary account present in the thirteenth century’s memory of Charlemagne. By the time that the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais wrote his Speculum Historiale (Historical Mirror), the figure of Charlemagne had become infused with the stuff of legend and myth. Vincent was not an original author but a compiler of other texts, and Speculum Historiale was but one part of the massive work Speculum Maius (Greater Mirror). As such, Vincent applies no real historical criticism, but incorporates parts of other works into his text unchanged, a relatively common medieval practice. This makes the encyclopedic source particularly interesting, as Speculum Maius received huge readership and thus spread this composite image of Charlemagne widely, playing a large role in dictating the thirteenth century and later reception of his memory and legacy.

Vincent’s Charlemagne is a legitimate giant, a man who could lift a fully armored knight in his hand, eat a dozen or so pounds of meat in one sitting, and led armies to the Holy Land on Crusade—fully three hundred years before Urban II’s famous call to the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095. This, of course, was entirely fanciful, though one can find the kernels of inspiration for the stories in Charlemagne’s own life. He certainly was a large man for his time, standing over six feet tall and with a hefty build, owing to his deep fondness for roasted meats, according to Einhard. He had some diplomatic contact with the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate at Baghdad, though certainly not remotely crusade-like or even military in nature. It was from Caliph Harun al-Rashid that Charlemagne received the embassy that brought the immensely popular elephant Abul-Abbas to Aachen.

In this selection from Speculum Historiale, Vincent, excerpting from the Chronicon, another thirteenth-century work by the Cistercian Helinand of Froidmont, Vincent tells of Charlemagne’s purported—though entirely ahistorical—journey to the Holy Land. It is full of the trappings of romantic myth: a great journey at the head of an army, getting lost in the forest, and relying upon the intervention of birds to find the correct path out of the wood. Vincent addresses the military encounter that never happened in one quick phrase: “with the pagans put to flight and the land regained…” Apparently, the encounter itself must have been a foregone conclusion once Charles had brought his armies to bear upon the enemy!

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


How Charles Liberated the Holy Land According to Divine Revelation

Helinandus. It is said that at the time when Charles was given the Roman imperium, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, having been expelled from the city by the pagans, came to Constantinople to the Emperor Constantine and his son Leo. With him were the priest Johannes Neapolitanus and David, the arch-priest of Jerusalem, which men he sent to Charles with letters from the patriarch Johannes, which were written by the hand of the same Constantine, and with the two aforementioned men were two other Hebrew legates, Isaac and Samuel. In the final part of the letter it was written: “On a certain night it happened that in a trance I saw a certain young man standing before my bed, who, calling to me charmingly, touched me lightly, and said: ‘You ask divine aid in this matter for Constantine. And behold, take Charles the Great, king of Gaul, the champion of the Lord,” and he revealed to me an armed soldier in greaves and a breastplate, holding a red shield, girded with a sword, of which the handle was purple, with a very great spear, the point of which emitted flames. He held in his hand a golden helmet, and he himself was an old man with a long beard, handsome in the face and tall in stature, whose eyes shone like stars, and his head had gone white in the hairs. Rejoice in the Lord, remember him with praise, with the girdle on his loins and the crown on his head... Therefore, preserve the foundation according to the teachings of the Lord. This Constantine himself expelled the pagans seven times from Jerusalem, but they prevailed still.” These legates came to the King at Paris and handed over the letters to him. When he had read them, the king began to cry tears for the tomb of the Lord. The king ordered the archbishop Turpinus to relate these epistles in the presence of all the people. Which things having been heard, they all prayed the king to depart. The prayer was heard, and soon the king put forth a proclamation that all who were able to bear arms ought to march with him against the pagans, and those who did not march, both they and their sons should provide four servants at their own expense. Thus he collected a greater army than had ever been had before, and they set off. When, however, they arrived at a certain forest of Jerusalem, which was usually crossed in a space of two days, in which there were griffins, bears, lions, tigers, and other various beasts, Charles, thinking to cross it in one day, advanced with his army. But with night arriving, Charles ordered the wandering army to encamp. With this having been accomplished, however, in the silence of the night, the king, reclining in his bed,
began the Psalms. And when he said this verse: “O Lord, lead me on the path of your commandments, because I traveled the same,” behold, clearly the voice of a bird proclaiming was heard to his ears, close by to his bed. Hearing this thing, the men awoke. The king, however, continued the Psalms up to this place: “Lead my soul according to your protection, et cetera.”

When he said this thing, the bird cried out a second time: “What do you say, Frank? What do you say Frank?” The king followed the bird down a small path, until they recognized the path from which they had departed the day before. The pilgrims declared that from that time the birds began to be heard as if speaking through that land. With the pagans put to flight and the land regained, the king asked permission to return home from the emperor of Constantinople and the patriarch of Jerusalem. The emperor detained him for one day at Constantinople, and meanwhile, he had prepared before the gate of the city animals of various origins and colors, as well as gold and gems. Charles, however, lest he seem boorish if he accepted nothing, asked counsel from his chiefs what he ought to do. Those men responded that he ought to accept gifts from no one for his labor, which he undertook only for the love of God. The king, praising the counsel, ordered to all his men that they not deign to consider all the things set before them.

How to Cite This Source

"Speculum Historiale by Vincent of Beauvais," in World History Commons, [accessed June 21, 2024]