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Charlemagne’s Envoy among the Greeks

Hugh O’Reilly

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I must not conceal the wise answer that Charlemagne’s envoy gave during his embassy to Constantinople. For it is well known that the Greeks, torn with envy of the glory of the Franks, were always conniving and filled with tricks.

Now, Charlemagne’s envoy came with his companions to one of the royal Greek cities in the autumn. This envoy was quartered with a certain Bishop. This Bishop pretended to be given up to fasting and prayer, and left the envoy to perish of almost continuous hunger.

With the first smile of spring, he presented the envoy to the King. The King asked the Frank his opinion of the Bishop. Then the envoy sighed from the very bottom of his heart and said, "That Bishop of yours reaches the highest point of holiness that can be attained to without God.

The King was amazed, and said, "What! How can a man be holy without God?" Then said the envoy, "It is written that God is charity, and in that virtue he is entirely lacking."

Thereupon the King of Constantinople invited that clever envoy to his banquet and placed him among his nobles. Now these nobles had a law that no guest at the King's table, whether a native or a foreigner, should turn over any animal or part of an animal: He must eat only the upper part of whatever was placed before him. The penalty for transgressing that law was death.

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The envoy makes an unusual request of the King
Then a river fish, covered with spice, was brought and placed on the dish before the envoy. He knew nothing of the custom and turned the fish over, whereupon all the nobles rose up and cried out to the King, "Lord, you are dishonored, as no King ever was before you."

Then the King groaned and said to our envoy, "I cannot resist them. You must be put to death at once. But ask me any other favor you like and I will grant it."

The envoy thought awhile and then in the hearing of all pronounced these words, “I pray you, Lord King, that in accordance with your promise you will grant me one small petition."

And the King said: "Ask what you will, and you shall have it: except only that I may not give you your life, for that is against the law of the Greeks."

Then said the Frankish envoy, “With my dying breath I ask one favor: Let everyone who saw me turn that fish over be deprived of his eyes."

The King was amazed at the stipulation, and swore, by Christ, that he himself had seen nothing, but had only trusted the word of others. Then the Queen began to excuse herself: "By the beneficent Mother of God, the Holy Mary, I noticed nothing."

Then the other nobles, in their desire to escape from the danger, swore, one by the Keeper of the keys of Heaven, and another by the Apostle of the Gentiles, and all the rest by the virtue of the Angels and the companies of the Saints, that they also had seen nothing.

And so the clever Frank beat the empty-headed Greeks in their own land and came home safe and sound.

Adapted from Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard and the Monk of St. Gall,
trans. A.J. Grant, London: Chatto & Windus, 1913, vol. 1, pp. 110-112.
Posted October 22, 2011

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