The Watchfulness of Caesar: Charlemagne’s Imperial Insomnia

The history books inform us that Charlemagne died on the 28th January 814 and was buried on the same day in Aachen. This is of course a lie. As we all know from the Brothers Grimm, Charlemagne is not dead, but merely sleeping beneath the Untersberg on the modern Austrian-German border. Confirmation of the truth of the sleeping Charlemagne came when Otto III opened his tomb in the year 1000 and found a perfectly preserved body. After giving his nails a quick trim, they left him to his rest. As with many Kings in the Mountain, such as King Arthur, Frederick Barbarossa, Constantine XI and Alan Rickman, it is prophesied that he will arise from his slumber to save his people in a time of crisis.

Some magnificent bed hair on display in the Stuttgart Psalter, Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Bibl. fol. 23.6r

Quite when this will happen is a little unclear. In his Chronicle, Abbot Ekkehard of Aura noted fabulous stories of Charlemagne returning for the First Crusade. If we share his scepticism we must face a major problem. Given that Charlemagne has managed to sleep undisturbed through the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War and the Second World War, we might ask ourselves exactly how large a crisis would be necessary to wake him.

This issue seems particularly strange if we consult Alcuin, who in a poem describes Charlemagne leaping out of bed in the mornings. In his biography of Charlemagne, Einhard provides us with a possible explanation for Charlemagne’s long slumber, informing us that ‘he was in the habit of awaking and rising from bed four or five times during the night’, supplementing this limited rest with a short siesta in the afternoon.  Einhard drew upon Suetonius’ description of Augustus in this, right down to the afternoon nap. Suetonius’ Augustus ‘often suffered from want of sleep’.

In Suetonius’ portraits of the early Roman Emperors, an inability to sleep could be a sign of a fundamental disorder in the individual’s mind. His Caligula:

was especially tormented with sleeplessness; for he never rested more than three hours at night…weary of lying in bed wide awake during the greater part of the night, he would…wander through the long colonnades, crying out from time to time for daylight and longing for its coming.

A similar flavour of the unnatural appears in Procopius’ description of Justinian in the Secret History. The Emperor’s insomnia is presented as a mark of the Satanic:

And how could this man fail to be some wicked demon, he who never had a sufficiency of food or drink or sleep, but taking a taste at haphazard of that which was set before him, walked about the Palace at unseasonable hours of the night, though he was passionately devoted to the joys of Aphrodite?

As with Macbeth, the inability of these Emperors to sleep demonstrates monarchs at odds with the natural order of things.

However, a more positive interpretation of sleepless kings was available. Seneca said of Claudius that ‘the watchfulness of Caesar guards the sleep of everyone’. In his Anabasis Arrian describes Alexander reproaching his mutinous troops ‘I wake before you and watch so that you might sleep properly’. The Harun al-Rashid of the Arabian Nights also fits this pattern, as the sleepless Caliph wanders his city in disguise in order to right wrongs and protect his people.

These rulers stay awake in order to safeguard their subjects. Nor is the model of the vigilant guardian alien to the modern age. Napoleon declared that the number of hours’ sleep required was ‘Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.’ Margaret Thatcher famously got by on four hours of sleep a night as Prime Minister. So too, it is rumoured, does Vladimir Putin. While there are plenty of people who might wish that both had got a bit more sleep before making some of their decisions, these stories add to the mystique of both, as indefatigable leaders endlessly working for the good of their peoples. While earlier rulers defend their people at night, modern restless leaders are celebrated out for their discipline and dedication.

Given this continuity between the ancient and the modern worlds, it is unsurprising that the model of the watchful ruler can be found in the early medieval period. Nor were Classical models the sole source for early medieval biographers. In the figure of Christ they had perhaps the perfect example of the ever vigilant king. As the Psalms promised ‘He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’. Elsewhere David says ‘I have slept and have taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me’. The Old Testament offered another model of the sleepless ruler in King David, weeping that ‘I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears’.   

We can see the concept of the sacrificing king in Asser’s King Alfred, who works day and night to deal ‘with the cares of the royal office at home and abroad, and also with the invasions of pagans by land and sea’ (Life of Alfred cap. 25). Elsewhere the West Saxon king is described working all night to alleviate the plight of the poor (cap. 105). All of this is done at the expense of leisure time to read, learn languages and above all, sleep.

This was also a familiar trope in the Carolingian period. In his poem in praise of Louis the Pious, Ermold the Black mocked the Prince of the Bretons as ‘so weighed down with drink and deep sleep that he can scarcely open his eyes’ (In Honour of Louis, bk. 3). This was in contrast to Louis, who the Astronomer portrayed staying up on the roof of his palace to protect his people from evil portents (cap. 58).

As is often the case, the exemplar of these tendencies was Charlemagne. The century after Charlemagne’s reign saw intense mythologizing of the Emperor, as he became an ideal ruler. Stories of Charlemagne’s nocturnal watchfulness grew with the years, drawing upon and expanding the details found in Einhard. The clearest celebration of the ever vigilant emperor appears in the anonymous work of the Poeta Saxo, written in the 880s, which declares:

Charles seldom fell to sleep

Occupied as he was with serious deliberations

Constantly turning over in his mind great issues.

He responded to his many cares with watchfulness,

For this reason, four times every night or even more often,

He shook off sleep and arose from bed.

Oh how greatly did the state prosper under his attention;

How the safeguarded empire flourished!

(trans. Dutton, Politics of Dreaming)

The reference to Charlemagne rising four times or more each night is taken from Einhard, and helps us to think about the transition between history and myth in the epic of Charlemagne.

Writing just before the Poeta Saxo, Notker the Stammerer recounts a tale of two nobles who got drunk and fell asleep while they were meant to be guarding Charlemagne’s tent during the Saxon Wars. Charlemagne was able to creep past them and go about the camp without disturbing his slumbering guards, before upbraiding them in the morning (Deeds of Charles 2.3). Notker’s story provides us with a vision of Charlemagne as the war leader, wandering past the camp fires in the manner of Henry V, reassuring his nervous men in dangerous country. 

But if Charlemagne was watchful on campaign, nowhere was his nocturnal vigilance more effective than in the palace of Aachen, which in the legends comes to seem a sort of Panopticon for the Emperor. This caused difficulties for his daughter Bertha, who was engaged in a relationship with the poet Angilbert, one of the results of which was to be the soldier and historian Nithard. According to the Chronicle of Lorsch, in order to hide the evidence of a nocturnal tryst, Bertha gave Angilbert a piggyback across a snow covered court, so that only one set of small footprints would be visible in the morning. Unfortunately for the lovers, Charlemagne was awake and saw them from his rooms. Luckily Charlemagne forgave them and let them continue with their affair.

In this manner the people of Francia could sleep easily, knowing their beloved Emperor was forever vigilant. Given his lack of sleep during his reign, Charlemagne’s failure to emerge from under the mountain makes rather more sense.

(For more on this subject, see Paul Dutton’s magnificent The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (Lincoln and London, 1994).)

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