Louis, the son of Charlemagne, Is Baptized in Exile and Persecution

September 12, 2019

The most pleasing account of a christening, of all those which we find in our old poems, is in Macaire. The young mother is no less a personage than the Queen of France: the child is no less an individual than the son of Charlemagne, the heir to the immense empire of his father. But on this occasion you must not expect anything of a cheerful nature—nor any ceremonial. It is on foreign soil, in the small house of a Hungarian tradesman that the unfortunate Blanchefleur—daughter of a king—wife of a king, and mother of a future king, brought into the world her first child—a  child so impatiently looked for-and bathed him with her tears.

The empress had been accused of a terrible crime:  the whole race of traitors, the whole house of Mayence had leagued themselves against her innocent self: the emperor believed the accusers and condemned the accused. Had he sentenced her to death, her execution would have entailed the decease of the heir to the throne, so she was quickly banished from France. Nevertheless, the malignity of the traitors was not appeased; for the good knight Aubri, who had been instructed to accompany the queen, was one day set upon unawares and treacherously slain!

The unfortunate lady was thus left alone and unattended in the midst of a forest, where she would certainly have perished of hunger and grief, had not a woodcutter, a vilain—a man of no descent, but one who possessed the heart of a true knight—come to her assistance.

This man—one of the few plebeians whom our poets have immortalized—was named Varocher. He left all—his country, his house, his family—to serve as guide and protector to this lady, to the unfortunate queen. With her he crossed France, Provence, and Lombardy, Venice—the sea: and it was he too who kept guard at the door of her humble apartment, while Blanchefleur caressed and fondled her new-born babe!

Now nothing could be more extraordinary than the physiognomy of this man, of this faithful guardian whom the queen attempted to pass off as her husband. He was tall, strong, square­ shouldered, large-limbed, with an immensely large head and disheveled hair. He brandished an enormous knotty club, a kind of rustic mace, which he never willingly laid aside, night or day.

In fact, he was about as strange a man as it was possible to meet with. The poet of the thirteenth century has well described this original figure, this sort of Quasimodo with a tender heart, and who was only a “vilain” by birth.

Hildegard of the Vinzgau, Mother of Louis the Pious.

Under the protection of this rough-looking champion, the queen remained for eight days in her own apartments, as was customary at that period; and then the question arose as to the baptism of the child. So the host of the lady—the owner of the cottage, the good Primerain—came and carried the infant to a neighboring monastery.

Varocher was present, carrying his big stick, for he would not leave his young protégé, and walked gravely in the rear of the little procession. The King of Hungary happened to pass by.

“Whose pretty child is this?” he inquired.

Primerain told him of the unknown lady in his lodgings, and, while he was telling his tale, all the barons were laughing loudly at Varocher, who was not in the least put out by their merriment.

Someone then raised the child’s cloak to obtain a better view of him.

“Eh! What is this?” exclaimed the king. “He has a white cross on the right shoulder. By this sign Providence witnesses to children of royal lineage—of princely race. This infant must be the son of a king, and,” he added, “I intend to be present at his christening.”

Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious

When they had reached the church, the king summoned the priest, and said to him-

“Baptize this child in a manner befitting the son of an emperor.”

The king dismounted from his steed, and a magnificent procession was arranged. They all entered the church, and the abbé made ready the holy oil: then he turned to the king, and said—

Coronation of Louis I the Pious

“What will you have him called? What name shall I give him?”

“Call him Louis, after me,” said the king.

So the ceremony proceeded, and was completed before the eyes of Varocher, who was delighted, and more particularly pleased when a purse full of gold-pieces was presented to him.

The poet naively adds that the young mother was taken greater care of by her hosts when they found she had money to pay well for her entertainment.  After a while she revealed her true history to the king, who then learned that he was the sponsor of a son of Charlemagne.

 

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 95–7.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 691

 

 

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