By T.S. Morangles
When summer comes, the amateurish History Buff starts looking at the calendar: Anniversary calendar, tell me what happened in?
1814… Napoleon horoscope: Not good.
1714 … Anne Stuart leaves the stage
1614: Nuptials. Pocahontas marries John Rolfe (too late to buy a wedding gift).
1514. Another wedding: Henry VIII marries off his buxom sister to King Louis XII of France. (Another cunning plan to snatch the French crown… doomed to fail).
1414, … 1314: Templars. Burning (note to self: holidays are people friendly; not executioner fun)
1214: Bouvines. Now we enter the real nitty-gritty of medieval stuff.
1114, … 1014 Aethelred the Unready is packing his suitcase: back to Britain (problem: I am in Britain and plan to travel eastwards)
914: Loads of battles in the Middle East (shaking sadly head as nothing seems to change)…. 814…
814! Charlemagne dies. Sorry. 814. Close enough to my favourite era: The Merovingian times! This settles it. Germany: Aachen and maybe… maybe… we shall see. The formula is simple: plan ahead sort of. And be ready for a bounty of delights. (Two cameras along with a mobile phone)
Are we ready? We shall cross the Channel (Napoleon dreamt of it: 1814 box ticked). First stop: France. Ticking boxes for 1514, 1414, 1314 etc. Charlemagne, I presume? Here, we come!
The crown is massive!
Let’s start by being open (frank which is a pun considering what follows) about what the expression Dark Ages may imply: some museums you will wish to visit may suffer drastic budget cuts: bring your torch (no joke). The Musee d’Archeologie Nationale (Museum of National Archaeology) covers finds related to French History. It is also dedicated to Gauls, Iron and Bronze ages and if you want to see the real thing albeit in a museum which keen on cutting its electricity bill: this museum is for you. You can see and almost touch items found in Queen Aregund’s grave. It is a pity the French Ministry of Culture which runs the museum spends so few monies on artefacts of value such as:
Or this mysterious terra cotta:
Who is this person? A cross on the forehead yet armed with a sword trampling a snake while carrying a spear and … a shield? Anyhow his boots were made for walking.
One thing is sure. As per this Saxon knife and its scabbard, Raedwald of Sutton Hoo fame had contacts with the Continent.
I want to thank the museum staffs who allow disabled visitors to use the goods-lift. Not fancy but kindly offered and welcomed. Also worth a bow the kind shops manager who gives sound advice if you want to buy books.
Next stop: Charlemagne Exhibition in Aachen
A triple exhibition (but you can from the start buy the three tickets with the much needed matching three audio-guides): 19 euros per person. A few booklets in your language about the Dom, the Treasure and the exhibition plus a Charlemagne Aachen guide!
This printed shopping spree will cost you about 50 euros. I recommend it as you cannot take photos; postcards only.
The original bronze fountain of Aachen as chosen by Charles will find you today at the Dom atrium.
Some decoration from a Langobard palace.
All you wanted to know about the palatial complex, how it was built, what are the actual lines of research can be found at the RatHaus: Town Hall for you and me. If you have money to spend, you can dine in Charles’s cellar or Keller as the RatHaus is built of the great hall of our bearded friend. The old coronation hall hosts the exhibition, which is nice considering that, up to 1531, all the Emperors of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire have been crowned in this room and possibly at one point on this real throne courtesy of France Bibliotheque Nationale. This is possibly Dagobert I’s own favourite chair. As dear Dagobert passed away in 639 AD, you will realize that our ancestors were building stuff which really lasted! Well, it outlasted them. By the way, this throne is massive; on par with the marble throne found at the Dom.
Is it Merovingian then Carolingian? It is rightly debated. Frankly, nobody is sure but for one thing. Charlemagne probably sat on it. As the Emperor was a tall man, it fits the imperial physicality.
Carolingian cavalry man, improvement on body armour, links with Byzantium and Baghdad. A must see : sadly no camera. And if you are wheelchair bound: the tags are too high to be read by our disabled friend. By the way, if you do not speak German, ready your souls. This exhibition should and will reconcile France and the Anglo-Saxons. No translation on the tags as for the books. The full catalogue exists only in German and to get a human guide, you must book it weeks ahead. None the less, you quickly get an idea of the richness of the architecture during the not-so-dark-ages…
I will add that the curator has a special door and lift for disabled visitors (one of our group had suffered a stroke some time ago hence our comments.).
Then on we moved to the Cathedral. As they say, the Dom and what a dom it is. Firstly it was raided by the Vikings in 881 AD. So it suffered plenty of destruction before it was one hundred years old… yet… what a yet. The marble and mosaic are modern as in late 1880s. Hagia Sophia inspired. You must imagine it white with maybe some red drawings? Maybe as in the few surviving frescoes of the 9th century still around (one can dream of a cortege copycatting Justinian and Theodora…
The Dom has a lot to offer: many bronze doors all from Charlemagne days, Roman columns, a white marble seat (proof of Imperial thriftiness as it comes from recycled marble floors) and balconies. The whole built on older Roman remains. The Dom tourist bureau offers a daily guided tour in English (do not complain; at least you get one in your native language. On the plus side, about all Europe was obliged to follow the English speaking tour since their Herman was as good or poor as mine).
Do this tour none the less as it will be your only way to set eyes on Charlemagne throne along Carolingian doors and balconies.
Between the Town hall and the Dom, you have the Charlemagne centre which hosts the Arts part of the exhibition. I recommend beginning by the top floor. All sorts of gospels, psalters.
The audio-guides are a much-needed item. Once you are again reminded that the Ages were not dark at all, you will take the lift down to admire crown (wondering if it was not at the townhall?) impressive, very big and very very heavy. Karl der Grosse was maybe great; he must have been some sort of giant to carry this crown around! Same goes for his queens’ jewels. Big is beautiful seems to have been their motto. Once again: no cameras. Here it makes sense with the fragile vellum of the illuminated manuscripts.
Last and not least: the lost treasures. Crosses, church fonts in ivory, Charlemagne sarcophagus.
What was moving was the samit of silk used as Charlemagne shroud. Sadly, the lift for disabled visitors was on strike and I could not leave my friend forlorn. Instead we had another look at the cathedral and at the time capsule built behind the Elisebrunnen. These are the actual hot springs (the water here is 37 to 40 Celsius but can be hotter in another part of town). Charlemagne loved the hot baths for his achy joints (justified ransom of continuous warfare and horse-riding); he would receive guests in the baths.
To return to the time capsule, behind said baths, the town archaeologists have found a place with ongoing use as habitats since roughly the 4500 BC until the 1660s where it was turned into a garden for a convent and today’s relaxing park for tourists.
After all these exalted locations, we took a ride to Cologne and its cathedral down to the two Frankish graves (about 540 AD) belonging probably to the family of Theudebert, Clovis’ eldest son. This time, I was able to take some pictures!
This cain/cross belongs to the Treasure of Cologne but like Dagobert throne is temporarily located in Aachen. This is 7th-8th century ivory (yes, the brown sculpted top is old ivory!) has some Carolingian, maybe late Merovingian decoration, the lower part is more modern (i.e. just Medieval!)
Shall we add that Cologne has twelve Romanesque churches set in the Old Town. Among of which, St Gereon (620 AD?) boasts of a decahedron dom. Along smaller Merovingian side chapels and crypt. Warning: The entrance is hidden behind a pedestrian-only access sign!
As we were by now driving back home, we had a stroll by Liege cathedral (and a deserved Liege Coffee Ice cream specialty followed by an in-depth visit at the Museum of the Barbarian Times of Marle.
In 1981, a farmer found by sheer luck a Merovingian necropolis…. A blend of West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, Jarrow Bede’s World and re-enactors in the summer.
At long last, we crossed Laon old city and its older houses as we were heading toward EuroTunnel. Why Laon? Because Charlemagne’s mother was Bertrade de Laon, daughter of the reigning Comte of this lovely city in the 720s.
All in all, it took us 10-11 days to achieve this tour. Admitting to a very soft spot for Early Medieval Europe, this rambling account does not include the Gothic and Romanesque admirable sights we visited.
We would like to thank the people working at Aachen tourist information and the Dom offices. Same for Cologne Treasury and St Gereon enthusiastic guide and postcard seller; same can be said for Marle museum wardens.
It was truly a wonderful Medievalist holiday!
~ T.S. Morangles
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