Well, here is my first post not really directly related to my work as a scholar. My work as a teacher, however, has from time to time included enterprises that merit mention here. This is one of them.
As many people may know, the emperor Charlemagne died in the year 814. That was 1200 years ago, so some time ago I figured I would do something academic to commemorate the occasion. The best idea I had was to teach a travel course, so that’s what happened last month. My college’s academic calendar makes it possible to devote nearly all of May to the occasional, unusual course offering, especially when somebody can dream up a course featuring travel to a faraway place. This one took about a year of planning and making arrangements, but in the end it was all worth every minute spent. Two faculty colleagues and I led a group of fourteen students and six guests to various sites in Germany, as well as two cities in France, over three weeks. Most places featured some link to Charlemagne or the Carolingian dynasty, but some were related to other historical developments connected to the formation of the Carolingian world or Charlemagne’s legacy. Because Charlemagne was the key element of the course, we all called the endeavor “Charle-May-Term.” The official name was “Charlemagne’s Europe,” which is more professional but less fun.
I neither want nor intend to offer here a full travel journal or photo album, but I did want to share some of the highlights. As the Carolingian period is my professional specialty, it seemed to me appropriate to publicize here, even though the trip was teaching, and also it gives me something to write about, which is the purpose of this blog. So here we go (note, this post is rather long-ish):
For three days, the class met on campus. I gave several lectures on the historical developments leading to the creation of the Frankish kingdom and the rise of the Carolingian family, as well as Charlemagne’s empire. My colleagues, who teach German and French, gave lessons on German and French culture, the medieval literatures of those cultures, and crash courses in “survival” French and German for travelers. I was pleased with how well all the students engaged with this material—historical, linguistic, and literary—and it proved a solid foundation for the period of traveling.
Stop #1: Frankfurt
This was the first stop because it’s where the airplane landed. We saw an interesting archaeology museum featuring Roman and barbarian artifacts from the Frankfurt region, which taught our group quite a bit. I gave a lecture reminding everyone about Charlemagne’s church council at Frankfurt in 794, which addressed the doctrinal controversies of Adoptionism and Iconoclasm, among other things. We had good food and apple wine, and everyone pretty well liked the place.
Stop #2: Köln (Cologne)
I went here on a previous May Term in 2010 (that one was just for “Medieval Germany”) and wanted to return, mostly because of the Roman-Germanic Museum in town and the Dom (cathedral). The museum, which has tons of interesting stuff, could easily be related to the course, because Charlemagne inherited the cultural mixing of Roman and Germanic cultures that took place in the centuries before his own time. The Dom made the itinerary simply because it is spectacular. Whoever is able to make a trip there should do it. And climb the stairs to the observation deck in the tower; it’s well worth the few euros to trek up, passing stones laid in eras from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth, to take in an amazing view of the city and Rhine valley.
Stop #3: Aachen
You can’t do a Charlemagne tour and not go to Aachen. On the In the 790s, Charlemagne made Aachen his capital city, after decades of being an itinerant king. Frankish custom for ages had held that the king would move around the kingdom to administer justice and so forth. But as Charlemagne got a bit older, he appreciated the natural hot springs in Aachen and decided to stay put. We of course went to his octagonal church, now the centerpiece of the Aachener Dom—it’s been added onto over the centuries and now has some lovely Gothic elements. Inside the Dom you can see his throne. The last time I was in Aachen, the gallery where the throne is was under construction, so I didn’t get to see it. This time, we made sure to go up and get a good look. Everything was coming up Charlemagne all over town. A shiny, new Charlemagne museum was set to open—just after we left—and the big pilgrimage was also set for after we left. Depending on when I get this posted, the pilgrimage may still be going on! There was more to see, including a little area in a park where they conducted an archaeological dig. They left part of the site open for observation, behind glass walls, and you could take a gander at things dating all the way back to the palaeolithic. Cool. A good number of students also took advantage of Aachen’s proximity to the Netherlands and Belgium and went for a hike to visit three countries in one day. Also cool.
Stop #4: Paris
I admit that this stop was stretching things a bit. I had halfway held out hope that somebody somewhere in Paris would be into observing Charlemagne’s anniversary, but if anyone was, we missed them. The class took in Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle as official visits. The site most closely related to the course, though, was Saint Denis. It took a good trip on the Metro to get there, but you could see the tombs of Charlemagne’s ancestors Charles Martel, Pippin the Short, and Bertha. Some of his descendants are there, too. Plus, as textbooks will tell you, Saint Denis was the first church structure to be built totally in the Gothic style. That happened because the earlier church burned down, so the abbot had a new one put up in the 1140s. You can easily see that the sarcophagi are in Gothic style, too.
We stayed in Paris longer than anywhere else, because it’s Paris. One whole day was basically devoted to the Louvre, which has a nice Carolingian collection. Then there was a free day, because we couldn’t take students and others to Paris and not let them just be tourists. As for me, I went with my home crew and took in the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and other such things. It was nice. The feedback on Paris was that it was both the high point and the low point of the trip: it’s famous and definitely worth seeing, but as by far the largest city on our tour, there were big-city drawbacks, too.
Stop #5: Strasbourg
What a lovely city! It got put on the itinerary by the French professor, but I justified it as the location of the Oaths of Strasbourg, sworn by Charlemagne’s grandsons Charles the Bald and Louis the German as they made an alliance with each other against their older brother Lothar. There was a decent archaeology museum in which we saw artifacts from Roman to Frankish times, but an even better museum on the history of the city. I do not exaggerate when I say that it is one of the most well-executed museums I have been to. It features a whole lot of post-medieval stuff, but I can’t hold that against it. The way they have artifacts displayed, in large cases that show types of things vertically while moving by chronology horizontally allows you to see the developments in how, say, cooking vessels were made over a period of decades. On the shelf below there would be something like writing implements, and again you could see changes over time by moving along the display case. I found that preferable to the “go into the room for the 1250s and look at how everything was made then” organization more typical of what I’ve seen. The historical museum also has complete rooms done up in period fashion. Cool. And a cathedral nearby. Learning about Alsatian culture was hugely interesting as well. By the time we left Strasbourg, it had become most students’ favorite city on the trip.
Stop #6: Sigmaringen/Meßkirch – Campus Galli
This was perhaps the highest highlight of the trip. Sigmaringen is a small town in the Black Forest, but we didn’t go there for the town. Oh, it’s lovely and has a cool (modern) castle of the Hohenzollern family. But the reason we were in the area was to visit Campus Galli. The folks there are building a Carolingian-era monastery complex according to the so-called Plan of St. Gall. The plan exists in a manuscript found at the very old monastery of St. Gall, but it wasn’t the plan for St. Gall itself. In fact, no monastery was ever built according to the Plan. So, let’s do it now! With ninth-century plans! And ninth-century tools and techniques! And have everyone dress and spend their time on-site as authentically ninth-century as possible! I’m all for that. They’ve really just begun, so no official buildings are up yet. Artisans’ huts are, so we got to see the woodworker, blacksmith, basket-maker, and wool women do their stuff. They are preparing the foundations for the wooden chapel, on the spot where the “real” stone church will go, and everything else will follow. This will be a 40-year project, to which the crew members have basically given up their previous life pursuits to join. Really cool. I want to return with students every few years to check in on their progress.
Stop #7: Nürnberg
Nürnberg is one of the places we went to dig into the legacy of Charlemagne. While in France, we read and had class discussion on The Song of Roland, to follow up on the lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker that we had addressed in Aachen. For Nürnberg, though, it was all about the “Holy Roman Empire” that came along in the Middle Ages, with emperors modeling themselves on Charlemagne. We saw the Burg (citadel), which has been turned into a museum, and lucky for us had a special exhibit on just the theme we needed for class—the emperors modeling themselves on Charlemagne. (Not that they called it that at the exhibit, but it was a running theme.) Good food, as was the general rule at all these places, good times.
Stop #8: Bamberg
More Holy Roman Empire stuff, and also a stop at the university in town, with which my college has a student exchange relationship. This cathedral has two towers on each end, which is neat to see. It’s also in a Romanesque style, different from the Gothic prevalent in so many other places. Plus, right across the plaza is a location of the Bavarian State Library, of which we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour. The earliest manuscripts there are from the Carolingian period, but we were unable to see them as they are being digitized. We met with the international studies director at the museum and also met up with students from our college who are doing the exchange program there. There may have been some kind of event relating to a beer garden. The students liked this town, too, even without as much of a direct link to the course themes.
Stop #9: Mainz – Bacharach – Bingen
In many ways, Mainz is an excellent place to end a medieval-history themed trip. The production there of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type printing press marks one aspect in which medieval civilization gave way to modern. While we were there, we of course saw the cathedral, the history of which has some links to the Carolingians. St. Boniface, and Anglo-Saxon missionary, was made the first archbishop in Germany and was given Mainz as his see in the eighth century. In the cathedral is a marker for the grave of Fastrada, fourth (or third, depending on how you count ‘legitimate’ wives) wife of Charlemagne.
From Mainz we made a day trip to Bacharach and Bingen, because Bacharach is simply too picturesque of a place to pass up, and Bingen is of interest to serious medieval nerds because of the local should-be-a-bigger celebrity Hildegard. Even though there isn’t much Hildegard-related to see, and nothing pertinent to Charlemagne’s Europe other than the Rhine valley itself in these places, it was worth the trip. There’s the touching story of the Wernerkapelle up the hill in Bacharach, and then the fairly outstanding old castle at the top of the hill, now a youth hostel. Not to mention the wine of the Rhine valley. Our visit to the Gutenberg Museum was, in fact, the last official group event, and the excellent dinner I had on the last night was the appropriate high note for ending the trip.
Fourteen students, three instructors, and six guests made this trip, and to the best of my knowledge, all returned safely to their homes. The feedback I’ve received from students has been quite positive, although I do hope that if anyone has serious recommendations for how to do better, from a student’s perspective, next time, that they will let me know. I enjoyed it, and while it took me away from research and writing, it inspired me to get back to the sources and scholarship with vigor and enthusiasm. I would do another travel course. Not next year, certainly, but sometime soon. The experience on my end is always first-rate! Good memories made, that’s for sure.
Wow, this seems like a very long post. Thanks to whoever among you kept going to the end! I hope the narrative was lively enough and the content informative enough to give a taste of what we did, and the photos satisfying as illustrations. As always, thoughts, reactions, and feedback are welcome. Thanks!