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The Worldly Bishop & Charlemagne

Hugh O’Reilly

There was a Bishop who sought above measure vanities and the fame of men. The most cunning Charles heard of this and told a certain Jewish merchant, whose custom it was to go abroad and bring back rare and wonderful things, to find something to give a lesson to that worldly Bishop.

So the Jew killed a large ordinary household rat, painted its skin, disguised its shape to look different, stuffed it with rare herbs and then offered it for sale to the Bishop to eat it at his table, saying that he had brought this most delicious never-before-seen animal from Judea.

Charlemagne, nobles

Charlemagne calls a meeting of his nobles and exposes the Bishop's vanity
The Bishop was delighted with what he thought a stroke of luck that would allow him to show such a rare treat to his guests, and offered the Jew three pounds of silver for the precious ware.

But the Jew protested with sarcasm, “A fine price indeed for so precious an item! I had rather throw it into the sea than let any man have it at so cheap and shameful a price."

So the Bishop, who had much wealth and never gave anything to the poor, offered him ten pounds of silver for the incomparable treasure.

But the cunning rascal, with pretended indignation, replied: "Heaven forbid that I should thus lose the fruit of my labor and journeys!"

Then our wordly Bishop, all eager for the prize, offered twenty pounds.

But the Jew indignantly wrapped up the rat in the most costly silk and made as if he would depart.

Then the Bishop, as thoroughly taken in as he deserved to be, offered a full measure of silver for the priceless animal. And so at last our trader yielded to his entreaties with much show of reluctance. Then, taking the money, the merchant went to the Emperor and told him everything.

A few days later the Emperor called together all the Bishops and chief men of the province to hold discourse with him. After many other matters had been considered, he ordered that the full measure of silver be brought and placed in the middle of the palace hall.

Then he spoke and said: "Fathers and guardians of our customs, Bishops of our Church, you ought to minister to the poor, or rather to Christ in them, and not to seek after vanities. But instead you act quite contrary to this, and are vainglorious and avaricious beyond all other men."

Then he added: "One of you has given a Jew all this silver for a painted rat to be served at his table."

The Bishop, seeing himself so wickedly deceived and now justly humiliated, threw himself at the feet of a Crucifix before the Emperor and begged God pardon for his blind vanity. Charles upbraided him in suitable words and then let him depart in confusion.

Adapted from Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard and the Monk of St. Gall,
trans. A.J. Grant, London: Chatto & Windus, MCMXII, vol. 1, pp. 81-82.
Posted September 17, 2011

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