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Charlemagne’s Care for Singing

Hugh O’Reilly

This excerpt comes from the Life of Charlemagne by the Monk of St. Gall, who remains anonymous. All we know is that he was a monk in the Monastery of Saint Gall when Grimald and Hartmuth were abbots, and that he knew the Emperor Charles III, and, at his bidding, wrote in 883-884 an account of Charlemagne and his deeds and ways. Here he tells how the Emperor made the Church chant uniform throughout the lands of the Franks.
Charles, that never-wearied lover of the service of God, was grieved to observe how widely the different provinces - nay, not the provinces only but also the districts and cities - differed in the praise of God, that is to say in their method of chanting. He therefore asked of Pope Stephen of blessed memory to provide him with 12 clerks deeply learned in divine song.

Charlemagne singing the Divine Office in his tent

Charlemagne singing the Divine Office before a battle
The Pope yielded assent to his virtuous wish and his divinely inspired design and sent to him in Frankland from the Apostolic See clerks skilled in divine song. They were 12 in number, according to the number of the 12 Apostles.

Now, when I said Frankland just above, I meant all the provinces north of the Alps. For as it is written, "In those days 10 men shall take hold out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew." So it was at that time, by reason of the glory of Charles, Gauls, Aquitanians, Aeduans, Spaniards, Germans, and Bavarians thought that no small honor was paid to them if they were thought worthy to be called the servants of the Franks.

Now when the aforementioned clerks were departing from Rome, being, like all Greeks and Romans, torn with envy of the glory of the Franks, they took counsel among themselves. They determined thus to vary their method of singing that the kingdom and dominion of Charles should never have cause to rejoice in unity and agreement. So when they came to Charles they were received most honorably and dispatched to the chief places.

And thereupon each in his allotted place began to chant as differently as possible, and to teach others to sing in like fashion, and in as false a manner as they could invent.

But the most cunning Charles celebrated one year the feast of the Birth and Coming of Christ at Treves or Metz, and most carefully and cleverly grasped and understood the style of the singing. And then the next year he passed the same solemn season at Paris or Tours, but found that the singing was wholly different from what he had heard in the preceding year. Moreover, he found that those whom he had sent into different places were also at variance with one another.

A frankish songbook

He ordered uniform song books to be made throughout Frankland
Thus he reported the whole matter to Pope Leo, of holy memory, who had succeeded Stephen. The Pope summoned the clerks back to Rome and condemned them to exile or perpetual imprisonment, and then said to Charles:

"If I send you others, they will be blinded with the same malice as their predecessors and will not fail to cheat you. But I think I can satisfy your wishes in this way. Send me two of the cleverest clerks that you have in such a way that those who are with me may not know that they belong to you. And, with God's help, they shall attain to as perfect a knowledge of those things as you desire."

So said, so done. Soon the Pope sent them back excellently trained to Charles.

One of them he kept at his own court: the other, upon the petition of his son Drogo, Bishop of Metz, he sent to that cathedral. And not only did his energy show itself powerful in that city, but it soon spread so widely throughout all Frankland, that now all in these regions who use the Latin tongue call the ecclesiastical chant Metensian. Or, if they use the Teutonic or Teuthiscan tongue, they call it Mette; or if the Greek form is used it is called Mettisc.

The most pious Emperor also ordered Peter, the singer who had come to reside with him, to reside for a while in the monastery of Saint Gall. There too Charles established the chanting as it is today, with an authentic song-book, and gave most careful instructions, being always a warm champion of Saint Gall, that the Roman method of singing should be both taught and learned. He gave to the monastery also much money and many lands: he gave too relics, contained in a reliquary made of solid gold and gems, which is called the Shrine of Charles.


Blason de Charlemagne
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From Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard and the Monk of St. Gall,
trans. A.J. Grant, London: Chatto & Windus, MCMXII, pp. 72-75
Posted July 30, 2011
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