The King and the Crown of Thorns

Kingship and the Cult of Relics in Capetian France

by Jerzy Pysiak (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)
©2021 Monographs 574 Pages
Open Access


In 1239, king Louis IX of France performed the translation of the Crown of Thorns from Constantinople to Paris. The translation celebrations became a splendid religious festivity showing sacral foundations of Saint Louis’s authority and the Capetian kingship. However, the translation of the Crown of Thorns to France had already a history under Louis’s reign: French hagiographers and chroniclers affirmed that the first relics of the Crown of Thorns from Constantinople were transferred to Aachen by Charlemagne, then to Saint-Denis Abbey by Charles the Bald. The book discusses Saint Louis’s translation of the Crown of Thorns as seen on the background of both Carolingian historical memory in Capetian era and Carolingian and Capetian tradition of the royal cult of relics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Prehistory of the Translation of the Crown of Thorns to France: Saint-Denis Abbey and the Carolingian Legend of the Translation of the Holy Crown of Thorns
  • Chapter 1. The Founding Narratives on the Translation of the Crown of Thorns from Constantinople to the Kingdom of the Franks
  • 1. Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus Clavum et Coronam a Constantinopoli Aquisgrani detulerit qualiterque Karolus Calvus haec ad Sanctum Dionysium retulerit
  • The Content and Dating of Descriptio
  • 2. Sources of Information about Charlemagne’s Expedition to the Holy Land
  • The Chronicle of Benedict of Sant’ Andrea del Monte Soratte
  • Relics from Charroux and Reichenau
  • Liber de constitutione Karrofensis cenobii
  • Libellus de translatione sanguinis “Domini” from the Abbey of Reichenau
  • 3. Do the Narrations from Charroux, Monte Soratte, and Reichenau Talk About the Origins of the Cult of Passion Relics in the Abbey of Saint-Denis?
  • Chapter 2. The Reception of Descriptio qualiter Until the Reign of Saint Louis: Iter Hierosolimitanum Karoli Magni
  • 1. Imperial Hagiography: De sanctitate Karoli Magni
  • 2. Vernacular Literature: Chansons de Geste and the Historical Prose in the Twelfth and the Thirteenth Centuries
  • Pèlerinage de Charlemagne
  • Fierabras
  • Karlamagnús saga
  • Chronicles and Gesta
  • Gesta episcoporum Mettensium
  • Helinand of Froidmont and Vincent of Beauvais
  • Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle: Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi
  • Descriptio-Turpin by Pierre de Beauvais: The Crown of Thorns and the Miraculous Healing of Scrofula during the First Indictum in Aachen
  • Chronique des rois de France by the Anonymous of Béthune
  • Gui of Bazoches and Alberic of Trois-Fontaines
  • Chronique rimée by Philip Mouskès
  • Les Grandes Chroniques de France by Primat of Saint-Denis
  • 3. The Reception of Descriptio qualiter in the Iconography of Capetian Churches
  • Stained Glass in Saint-Denis and Chartres
  • The Gravestone Epitaph of Charles the Bald in Saint-Denis
  • Chapter 3. Conclusion
  • 1. The Ideological Meaning of the Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s Expedition to Jerusalem and Constantinople from the Eleventh to the First Half of the Thirteenth Century
  • 2. The Translation of the Relics of the Crown of Thorns to the Kingdom of the Franks and the Miraculous Healing of Scrofula
  • Part II. Capetian Politics Towards The Relics, Eleventh–Thirteenth Centuries
  • Chapter 1. The Kings of the Franks and Relics in the Early Middle Ages: The Merovingians and the Carolingians. The Heritage of the Carolingian Policy of the Cult of Relics in the Holy Empire in the Ottonian and Salian Era
  • 1. Introductory remarks: Constantine’s Heritage
  • 2. The Cult of Relics under the Merovingians and Early Carolingians
  • 3. Charles the Bald and the Cult of the Relics
  • 4. The Heritage of the Carolingian Cult of Relics in the Ottonian and Salian Empire
  • Chapter 2. Participation of the First Capetians in the Cult of Relics (Tenth to Eleventh Century)
  • 1. The Capetians and Saint Walaric’s Prophecy
  • 2. The Cult of Relics during the Reign of Robert the Pious
  • 3. Philip I, the Holy Shroud of the Lord of Compiègne, and Other Translations during his Reign
  • Chapter 3. Revival of the Royal Cult of Relics in Twelfth-Century France: The Cult of Saints and Relics during the Reigns of Louis VI, Louis VII, and Philip Augustus
  • 1. The Ostensio of the Relics of the Crown of Thorns and the Nail of the True Cross in Saint-Denis
  • 2. Participation of Kings in Translations or Authentications of Relics during the Reigns of Louis VI and Louis VII (1108–1180)
  • 3. The Public Demonstration of the Relics of Saint Denis in the Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Twelfth Century
  • 4. Miraculous Healings of Kings in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century Owed to Saint Denis and His Relics
  • 5. The Translation of the Relics of Saint Denis in Saint-Denis Abbey in 1144
  • 6. Cult of Relics in the Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Twelfth Century as a Model for the King of England and the Emperor?
  • 7. The Capetian Monarchy and the Cult of the Relic of the Crown of Thorns and the Relics of Saint Denis in Hagiographic Sources: Lives of Saint Denis
  • 8. Importance of the Cult of Passion Relics of Saint-Denis from the Early Twelfth century until the First Years of the Reign of Saint Louis
  • The Holy Crown from Saint-Denis Abbey
  • Philip Augustus and the Cult of Relics
  • Part III. Saint Louis and the Cult of Relics
  • Chapter 1. The Translation of the Relics of the Crown of Thorns and Other Passion Relics to Paris in 1239–1242. A Tentative Reconstruction and Ideological Meaning
  • 1. Sources
  • Hagiographic Sources
  • De susceptione Corone Domini of Archbishop Gautier Cornut (1240)
  • Gérard of Saint-Quentin, Translatio Sancte Corone Domini Ihesu Christi (after 1248)
  • Other Hagiographic Sources (till the End of the Thirteenth Century)
  • Chronicles (until the Mid-Fourteenth Century)
  • French Chronicles
  • Foreign Chronicles
  • Other Sources
  • 2. The Historical Context of the Translation
  • Translation of 1239 in the Light of Hagiographic Sources
  • The Circumstances of the Translation of 1239 in the Light of French and Foreign Chronicles
  • 3. Reconstruction of the Translation of the Crown of Thorns in August 1239
  • 4. Translations of Passion Relics to Paris in 1241–1242. A Tentative Reconstruction
  • 5. The Feast of the Crown of Thorns and Other Festivities in Honour of the Passion Relics Brought by Louis IX
  • Chapter 2. Importance of the Translation of the Crown of Thorns and the Passion Relics and Their Cult for the Royal Ideology of Louis IX and the Capetian Monarchy
  • 1. Narrative Sources
  • 2. The Crown of Thorns as the Holy Crown and the titulus Imperii
  • 3. Selected Liturgical Sources
  • 4. Saint Louis and Other Translations of the Relics in France during His Reign
  • Conclusion. The Translation and the Cult of the Crown of Thorns during the Reign of Saint Louis against the Backdrop of the Capetian Cult of Relics
  • 1. Saint Louis IX – Rex Imago Christi
  • 2. Saint Louis as the New Charlemagne
  • 3. Sainte-Chapelle in the Times of Saint Louis
  • 4. Translatio Imperii or Translation of Jerusalem?
  • 5. The Capetian Monarchy and the Cult of Relics until the Thirteenth Century
  • Summary
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index of geographical names
  • Index of names
  • Index of sources

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In 1239, the king of France, Louis IX (r. 1226–1270), brought the Crown of Thorns to Paris and, in 1241–1242, the Holy Cross and many other valuable relics of the Passion. All the relics came from the imperial treasury in Constantinople. All the three translations became splendid religious festivities revealing the sacral foundations of the power of Louis IX and the Capetian dynasty in general. The Passion relics had been interpreted by Christians as the insignia of Christ’s royal dignity from the early Christian era. Therefore, their possession by an earthly king could be considered an act of special grace bestowed by God upon the sovereign and his realm. The king as Lord’s anointed, who already during the ritual of anointing – modeled after the Biblical one – shared in the royalty of Christ, venerating the Crown of the True King and the Anointed One, and in this very evident way showed that the monarchy has a truly divine origin and he himself resembles Christ. This message was conveyed by a series of symbolic acts: public liturgical rites and gestures of the participating king, justified by the liturgical forms and texts explaining and commenting it, which were readily preserved by the chronicles and artists.

However, the Crown of Thorns had not always been one of the most important Passion relic. During the first millennium, it was seldom mentioned. After the Gospel, the next known mention was made by Paulinus of Nola, in his recounting of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land in ca. 400. The next mention comes from the anonymous pilgrim’s account from ca. 570, according to which the Crown was placed in Saint Zion Basilica in Jerusalem. In 680, the Frankish bishop Arculf allegedly visited it in Jerusalem. If this was the case, it would mean that the relic had not been transferred together with the Holy Cross and other Passion relics by the emperor Heraclius to Constantinople in 635. Between the seventh and the eleventh century, there is no mention of the Crown of Thorns as a venerated relic, although its particles were circulating across Byzantine and Latin Europe: single thorns were embedded in staurothekes, mentioned as found in the collections of relics or as precious gifts. However, no Byzantine source confirms that the Crown of Thorns was stored in the imperial palace in Constantinople together with the other Passion relics; especially significant in this respect is the fact that no mention of the Crown is made in De ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae attributed to emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913–959), which lists Christ’s relics owned by the emperor.

Then, at the end of the first half of the eleventh century, in Capetian France, in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, there appeared a hagiographic ←11 | 12→apocryphon recounting how Charlemagne set out to aid the Holy Land invaded by the Saracens and, having freed Jerusalem, was given as a sign of gratitude for saving the Eastern Christianity the relics of the Passion, including thorns from the Crown of Thorns. Charlemagne translated it to Aachen, the capital of the Kingdom of the Franks and then established there an annual festivity in its honour during which the relics were exhibited to the people (Indictum). Several decades later, his grandson, Charles the Bald, after becoming king, moved the Crown of Thorns from Aachen to the Abbey of Saint-Denis and revived the festivity already forgotten in the old capital. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis testifies in his memoirs that at the end of the eleventh century the public demonstration of these relics attracted large crowds of pilgrims to the Abbey, and it is known that since the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries a great fair of Saint-Denis used to open every year, with blessings administered with these very relics. The Saint-Denis fair used to be called L’Endit, which is an Old French version of Indictum. The legend recounting Charlemagne’s expedition to the Holy Land against the Saracens and the translation of the Crown of Thorns (and the nail of the True Cross) to Saint-Denis is called after its first words Descriptio qualiter Clavum Karolus Magnus et Corona and Constantinopoli Aquisgrani detu­lerit qualiterque Karolus calvus haec ad Sanctum Dionysium retulerit, or Iter Hierosolimitanum Caroli Magni. The legend appeared almost simultaneously with another account about Charlemagne, also bearing traits of a historical myth, concerning the emperor’s expedition against the Saracens in Spain, which quickly gained prestige and influence, becoming for many generations part of the Western European – but especially French – canon of knowledge about the past, referred to in the twelfth and thirteenth universal chronicles, epic poetry, and their prose adaptations. From the times of Louis VI (r. 1108–1137), the Capetian kings used to venerate the Crown of Thorns relics stored in Saint-Denis, regarding them as the main title to the glory and spiritual importance of the Abbey – besides the tomb of Saint Denis – considered to be the ecclesiastical capital of the kingdom. Thus, du­ring the reign of Saint Louis it was commonly known that Charlemagne performed the translation of the Crown of Thorns relics from Constantinople and Saint Louis certainly made use of that knowledge.

However, the translations from 1239–1242 were the result of unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances. The king of France could not have anticipated the dire military and financial troubles which the Latin Eastern Empire – established by the Crusaders in 1204 – had to face. They forced the emperor Baldwin II and his barons to pawn the Passion relics, stored in the Constantinople treasury, and urgently seek assistance in the West. But when the opportunity to acquire the most precious relics of Christianity unexpectedly arose, Louis IX not only took advantage of it but also – which ←12 | 13→will be shown below – did everything he could to shape his times following the model of the apocryphal past and present himself as an imitator of Charlemagne who carries the signs of the Passion of Christ from the East to the West. Soon after the translation, Louis IX set out to aid Jerusalem which, also in his times, was under Saracen rule.

Thus, the main theme of this book is the mutual relationship between two apparently different problems in the history of the medieval kingdom of France: the eleventh-century apocryphal legend of the Carolingian translation of the Crown of Thorns to the Frankish kingdom with its reception in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century writings, and the reconstruction of the actual Capetian cult of relics. In our view, these two phenomena of Capetian spiritual and political culture were connected and – between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries – laid the religious and ideological foundation for the Capetian monarchy.

The first part of the book presents an analysis of the apocryphal Carolingian story of the Crown of Thorns – as it emerged in the mid-eleventh century in the Abbey of Saint-Denis – in order to reconstruct its role in the Capetian literary French culture and the prominence it gained abroad. Equally important is the attempt at finding the sources of this astonishing apocryphon, which is part of a broader cultural phenomenon of the eleventh- and twelfth-century Latin Europe, which may be called ‘the second Carolingian renaissance.’ That is, the longing of Capetian elites for a Carolingian past that was albeit completely reconstructed, thus producing the historical myth of Charlemagne that proved to be more attractive than his actual life story. Inspired possibly by Otto III’s personal fascination with Charlemagne and the idea of Imperium christianum, the myth of Charlemagne was initially shaped in the monastic scriptoria of the tenth and eleventh century which, in the times of the struggle with unrest and crisis of the public authority, along with the perceptible threat of Islam, showed the person and legend of Charlemagne as the embodiment of the desired order. The image of Charlemagne’s rule created at that time presented the new institutional and social order a return to which was advocated. Like the slightly earlier Pax Dei and Treuga Dei, which were to replace the non-existent or not functioning institutions of the public authority, the myth of Charlemagne was meant to play the same part in the world of ideas. The stories and epic poems about Charlemagne’s victories over the Saracens stressed the current need for an expedition against the Saracens. By reconstructing the history of their Abbey – using a legen­dary Carolingian foundation or the translation of the relics of Christ – the local monks wished to restore in this way the right order of the world in which their monastery was to regain its due status in the kingdom thanks to the foundation myth. Thus, the monastic narrations from Charroux, ←13 | 14→Saint-Denis, or Compiègne created an ideal image of the monarch’s rule: an ideal king who not only respected and protected the venerable monasteries but also revered the relics, especially the Passion’s ones. The success of these legends was naturally a function of the importance of each of the monasteries for the monarchy, in which it originated: in the past, contemporarily and in the future; of its proximity to or distance from the centre of government and of the real power that the monarchy had at its disposal. In the case of Saint-Denis, the seed fell on good soil: from the turn of the eleventh and twelfth century, after several decades ineffective reigns in the preceding century, the Capetians began to consolidate their state and – possibly owing to the ‘second Carolingian renaissance’ – successfully refer to their Carolingian heritage. The success of Descriptio qualiter resulted also from the announcement and success of the First Crusade, whose promoters may have viewed Charlemagne as the archetypical crusader. Therefore, it is Iter Hierosolimitanum written in Saint-Denis that was to play – together with the Pseudo-Turpin’s Chronicle – a pivotal part among the monastic legends related to Charlemagne. To assess how much this topic influenced the elites of the Capetian monarchy, we will not only assess what place it occupied among the other pseudo-Carolingian monastic narrations – from Reichenau, Monte Soratte, and Charroux – but also its connections with Pseudo-Turpin’s chronicle and its reception in the diplomatic sources, chronicles, historical, and hagiographical compilations from the twelfth and thirteenth century; not to mention the iconography of that epoch: the stained glass from Saint-Denis Abbey and from Chartres cathedral. This will allow us to show that Louis IX and his contemporaries must have associated the 1239 translation of the Crown of Thorns with Charlemagne, hence Louis IX consciously referred to that model.

However, the translation of 1239 are not a lonely flower that have grown in a fallow. Like the other Christian kings, the Capetians had for a long time venerated the saints and relics, following the example of the legendary and semi-legendary acts of piety of the Christian Roman emperors. The act of translation – a liturgical ritual of transferring the relic to a new cult place – appears in the descriptions of how the True Cross was found by Saint Helena and deposited in the basilicas in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome, and of how it was ceremonially introduced in Jerusalem by emperor Heraclius, and became an inalienable part of the cult of the relics. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross by Heraclius (629) was compared to the introduction to Jerusalem of the Ark of the Covenant by David and Christ’s entry to Jerusalem. The fact that the Christian emperors of Rome participated in these rituals was the best proof for those who wanted to implement the idea of renovatio Imperii of the Carolingian kings that the active participation of a king or emperor in the translation is his right or even duty. ←14 | 15→Similarly, already in the Merovingian times, the Frankish kings sought to imitate the Byzantine emperors as collectors of relics, like all other monarchs of the romanised Barbarian kingdoms. The Carolingians followed this example as well. The second part of the book will show how the new – usurpation-based – Capetian dynasty was to refer to the existing forms of the cult of saints and relics in order to legitimate their authority.

A very important aspect of the Capetian cult of relics is, as it seems, its relative variability of the forms of worship, its objects; that is, the venerated saints and relics, but also the sovereign’s involvement in the liturgical rituals. We will study the formal evolution of the Capetian cult of saints and relics in the eleventh and twelfth centuries especially by examining narrative – hagiographical and chronicle – and diplomatic sources. We will show that similarly to the monastic legends connected with the cult of relics in the preceding century, beginning with the twelfth century, the Capetian cult of relics brought about the reconstruction of the Carolingian past, a reconstruction in which completely new forms were created and ‘dressed’ in an old historical costume. This happened in the case of the ancient cult of Saint Denis, permeated with new meanings in the early twelfth century in the times of Louis VI and the abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger. Despite changes or innovations in the ritual, these meanings survived until the end of the Capetingians and even longer. Moreover, the twelfth century saw a return to Carolingian practices, forgotten for a hundred years after the death of Robert the Pious, namely king’s physical and personal contact with the relics. Interestingly, initially overshadowed by the cult of Saint Denis – the personal patron saint of the king and kingdom – also in the twelfth century do we observe the gradually increasing cult of the Passion relics of the Saint-Denis Abbey brought, according to the apocryphal Descriptio qualiter from Constantinople by Charlemagne. The Passion relics were seen, following Saint John the Evangelist, as Christ’s royal insignia. So, in the twelfth-century Capetian France, there appeared a reliquary for a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, which will have the shape of a royal diadem which was called the Holy Crown until the end of the Middle Ages.

This is the background on which Saint Louis’s translation of the Crown of Thorns and its ideological meaning given to it by the king and his contemporaries will be reconstructed with the use of narrative and liturgical sources. The aim of the reconstruction is to show both the unique features of the new cult and the ones taken over from the old forms, and in particular to prove that – although it was a result of the unexpected coincidence favorable to Saint Louis – the 1239 translation of the Crown of Thorns and its subsequent royal cult (as shaped by Louis IX) became a synthesis of two themes, both very important for building the ideological ←15 | 16→foundations of the Capetian monarchy: the legendary Carolingian translation and the religious rituals related to the relic shaped by the Capetians in the twelfth century.


It took me a long time to write this book. During that time, I made academic debts to many people and institutions. First of all, I would like to mention my mentors at the University of Warsaw: Professor Henryk Samsonowicz and Professor Roman Michałowski. I owe a lot to their advice, remarks, and scrutiny of the finished parts of the book. I am also grateful to Professor Halina Manikowska and Professor Hanna Zaremska from the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of the History, Polish Academy of Sciences. A considerable contribution was brought into my work by the participants in the Doctoral Seminar in Medieval and Early Modern History at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw and in seminars conducted by the Department of Mediaeval History at the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences. I had the pleasure to present some of the issues discussed in this book at both these seminars more than once.

Moreover, I wish to mention the invaluable help extended to me du­ring the twelve years of research by many French scholars, especially by Professors Jean-Claude Schmitt and Pierre Monnet from École des hautes études en sciences sociales and Groupe d’Anthropologie Historique de l’Occident Médiéval and by Professors Érico Palazzo, Claude Andrault-Schmitt and Cécile Treffort from the Centre d’Études Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale in Poitiers. Numerous invitations to the EHESS and the CESCM allowed me not only to present my investigations to the most demanding listeners – as my research concerned the history of France – but also to make use of the rich library collections in Paris and Poitiers. I had the honour to present some of the topics of my studies to the Poznań Society of Friends of Sciences at the annual Professor Alicja Karłowska-Kamzowa Medievist Seminars. I would like to express my gratitude to all the friends of science – and hopefully my own friends – from Warsaw, France, and Poznań. I am also very grateful to Dr. Grzegorz Pac who, when I stayed in Warsaw finishing this book, provided me from Notre Dame University, Indiana, with every item from my bibliography I requested. For – as it often happens at the last stage of writing – some items proved indispensable, even though when I had easy access to them, they seemed unimportant.

My studies on the history of the Crown of Thorns cult were co-financed by many Polish and foreign institutions. The first one to mention is my mother Institute of History at the University of Warsaw, at which I was granted funds for statutory research; the latter were conducted under the guidance of Professor Henryk Samsonowicz and Professor Roman Michałowski. I also owe important financial support to two French academic institutions: École ←16 | 17→des hautes études en sciences sociales and Fondation de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris. Thanks to their generous support, I was able to make numerous survey stays in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I also greatly benefitted from participating in the Semaines d’Études Médiévales and the research stays in the Centre d’Études Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale in Poitiers. Moreover, grants from the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven have been of invaluable help: the library of the Theological Faculty there is a dream for a Polish Medievist. I also benefitted considerably from a monthly stay in Rome funded by the Lanckoroński Foundation.

M. Cecilia Gaposchkin from Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire) offered me invaluable help in preparing the English version of this book. I have benefited greatly both from our conversations and her generous bibliographical clues concerning the most recent works (including her own) on the topics I have studied.

However, the English edition of this book would have never been published if it had not been for the constant support of the Faculty of History of the University of Warsaw, which, since September 1st, 2020, functions as the Faculty of Culture and Arts. Special thanks should go to the Faculty’s Vice-Dean, Professor Grażyna Jurkowlaniec, but also to Mr. Łukasz Gałecki, Managing Director of Peter Lang in Poland, who welcomed the idea of publishing the book and supported me during the editorial process. I would also like to thank the editors, Mr. Jan Burzyński and Dr. Mikołaj Golubiewski, for many months of cooperation in verifying the translation of the original Polish text. Last but not least, I wish to express enormous gratitude to my wife, Karolina, and my twenty years friend, Dr. Mateusz Wilk from the University of Warsaw, for their contribution to the refinement of the translation.

I dedicate this book to my Master, Professor Henryk Samsonowicz, in the year of his nineteenth birthday.

Warsaw, August 2020

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Part 1: Prehistory of the Translation of the Crown of Thorns to France: Saint-Denis Abbey and the Carolingian Legend of the Translation of the Holy Crown of Thorns

In Capetian France the Passion relics were venerated even before Saint Louis’s reign. They comprised the relics of the Crown of Thorns and the Nail of the Holy Cross kept in the Abbey of Saint Denis from the eleventh century. It is known that Saint Louis (Louis IX) greatly venerated these relics. The loss of the Nail of the Cross and its miraculous rediscovery in 1232 were a dramatic experience for Saint Louis.1 What is important, Saint Louis must have known the Saint-Denis hagiographic legend of the Passion relics according to which Charlemagne had freed the Holy Land from the Saracens and translated the Passion relics from Constantinople to Aachen, from which they were said to have been moved to Saint-Denis by Charles the Bald. We will try to prove that this legend played a crucial part in shaping the cult of the Crown of Thorns by Saint Louis, so an analysis of its meaning is important not only for the interpretation of the sacral and theological policy of Louis IX but – as I will prove later – for the reinterpretation of the ideological program of his reign.

Moreover, this legend had a large impact on the later chronicle writing, hagiographical literature, and epic writing in France, Germany, Italy, England, and even Scandinavia. Thus, it is necessary to analyze it in detail, which I do below.

←19 | 20→

1 LE GOFF, Saint Louis, pp. 124–127 (abbreviations are explained in the Bibliography); cf. GUILLAUME DE NANGIS, Gesta sancti Ludovici / Vie de Saint Louis, pp. 320–326 (Latin and French versions).

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Chapter 1. The Founding Narratives on the Translation of the Crown of Thorns from Constantinople to the Kingdom of the Franks

1. Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus Clavum et Coronam a Constantinopoli Aquisgrani detulerit qualiterque Karolus Calvus haec ad Sanctum Dionysium retulerit

The hagiographic legend describing the first translation of the Crown of Thorns relics to France has been preserved in several slightly different manuscript versions. The earliest one has been found in a manuscript from the late eleventh century or the first decades of the twelfth century,1 which is a compilation of hagiographic texts – mostly the Lives of the saints-called Clavi et corone Domini descriptio, quomodo prima a Karolo magno eorum fuerit ad Aquile capellam delatio, secunda vero a Karolo calvo in ecclesia beati Dyonisii Ariopagitae relatio.2 It comes from the Saint-Ouen Abbey in Rouen. If we assume it is the earliest manuscript, then it must be a copy of the Saint-Denis version. The second manuscript, slightly later or contemporary to the Norman one, is a twelfth-century historical compilation written at the Saint-Denis Abbey.3 It is sometimes (wrongly) called Descriptio clavi et corone Domini,4 even though the incipit in the manuscript has a different ←21 | 22→wording:5 Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus Clavum et Coronam a Constantinopoli Aquisgrani detulerit qualiterque Karolus Calvus hæc ad Sanctum Dionysium retulerit. The manuscript was published by Gerhard Rauschen6 (the Parisian manuscript P+P2),7 who included in it the variants from the fifteenth century Vienna manuscript (V).8 A later version of the manuscript dated for the first half of the thirteenth century and stored in Montpellier9 was published by Ferdinand Castets under the title Iter Hierosolimitanum.10 The other preserved manuscripts are: a manuscript from Rouen (R), earlier than that from Montpellier, but unpublished, found in the manuscript written down in the twelfth and at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth century in the Jumièges Abbey;11 the unpublished Parisian manuscript P3 written in Saint-Denis in the fourteenth century;12 and manuscript K, that is the contents of the second book of the Life of Saint Charlemagne (De sanctitate Karoli Magni)13 written in ca. 1165.14

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The Content and Dating of Descriptio15

Descriptio begins with a statement that at the time when emperor Charlemagne ruled in the Kingdom of Gaul, the Church had to face numerous adversities. However, being highly devout to the faith and doctrine, Charlemagne took great care of his subjects in order to ensure peace for the Church. He subjected the neighboring peoples to his rule and subordinated them to the Church – by giving them new rights or through war – for he always won his battles, thanks to God’s help. As the fame of his righteousness, piety and power became known around the world, the Romans, impressed (even terrified) by Charlemagne’s tremendous power, offered him the Roman Empire and even the right to elect the pope. At the same time, the pagans invaded the Christians in the Holy Land. Exiled from his capital, the patriarch of Jerusalem went to Constantinople to ask for help, where with tears in his eyes he told the emperors Leo and Constantine about the destruction of the Holy Land, its fields, towns, and castles, about the profanation of the Holy Sepulchre, about the killing or imprisoning of many believers in Christ. As Charlemagne’s fame had already reached the Eastern Christians, they sent to the emperor of the West an envoy composed of two Christians: David, the archpresbyter of Jerusalem, and the priest John of Neapolis (i.e. Nablus, Nābulus), whose task was to deliver to Charlemagne a letter written by the patriarch on his own and emperor Constantine’s behalf, signed by the latter. They were sent along with two Hebrews: Isaack, learned in law, and Samuel, a Jewish high priest, who delivered a second letter, written personally by emperor Constantine. The Descriptio quotes both letters: the patriarch’s, in Latin, and Constantine’s (written with the emperor’s own hand), an alleged translation from Hebrew (the author makes pseudo-Hebrew citations). Besides the letters, the envoys brought Charlemagne rich gifts from the patriarch and emperor.

In his alleged letter, the patriarch of Jerusalem complains that the pagans dispossessed him of Saint James’s throne, desecrated the Holy Sepulchre, and killed many Christians. He asks Charlemagne – greeting him as the invincible Caesar and always Augustus – to help the oppressed Church of Jerusalem and convey its cry for help to the bishops of the West. Finally, the patriarch evokes the Judgment Day, when God is going to punish those who were tardy in avenging the offences of the pagans against the Tomb of He who, having become a man, remained in that Tomb for three days to rise again. Emperor Constantine and Leo, his son and co-ruler, also appeal to Charlemagne for military aid, adding that they defeated the pagans by ←23 | 24→attacking Jerusalem more than once but this time by God’s decree, the Holy City should be liberated by the emperor of the West. It has been proved by a miraculous vision Constantine had one night when he was thinking of how to save Jerusalem and asked God for help. Immersed in prayer ecstasy, Constantine saw a youth who conveyed him God’s ruling in a melodious voice: Constantine was to accept the help of Charlemagne, who is the emperor and king of Gaul, and a warrior making God’s peace in God’s name. Then, the youth showed Constantine a figure of a knight wearing a breastplate and shin guards, wielding a sword with a scarlet hilt, a red shield, a white lance with a flaming head, and holding a golden helmet in his hand. The knight was an old man with a long beard and grey hair, a beautiful face and posture, and his eyes shone like stars. The vision of the knight was for emperor Constantine a sure sign that the revelation he had just experienced was sent to him by God. Thus, knowing Charlemagne as an eager promoter of peace, Constantine appeals to Charlemagne to stop the shedding of the Christian blood and to fulfil the God-given task of saving the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Then, the belt of justice will gird his loins forever, the crown will rest on his head, and the Lord will crown him with glory.

Having arrived in Gaul, the envoys visited Paris, Reims, and Saint-Denis, before they succeeded to get an audience with Charlemagne, who had just returned from a military expedition to Auvergne. The emperor fell in dismay upon hearing about the pagans’ invasion of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre but rejoiced upon learning that God had selected him to free the Holy Land. Next, he summoned archbishop Turpin to explain the content of the letters of the patriarch of Jerusalem and emperor of Constantinople to all the mighty of his kingdom, who immediately pledged that they would go with Charlemagne to free the Holy Sepulchre. Having heard the barons’ acclamation, Charlemagne ordered to make an announcement in the whole Empire that all men able to carry weapons, old and young, are obliged to follow him against the pagans. Those who will not aid Jerusalem would, together with their male descendants, have to pay a humiliating tribute of four denarii a year, as if they were serfs.16 As a result, the largest known military expedition was assembled, which soon set off to the East.

Two days away from Jerusalem, Charlemagne’s army lost its way in a forest inhabited by griffins, bears, lions, lynxes, tigers, and other bloodthirsty beasts eager to shed the human blood. At night, the emperor began ←24 | 25→to sing the psalms:17 “Deduc me, Domine, in semitam mandatorum tuorum quia ipsam volui,”18 and then, “Educ de carcere animam meam Domine; ut confiteatur nomini tuo.”19 Charlemagne’s prayer was answered by a swan, and the Franks and the inhabitants of the Holy Land considered it as a miraculous event, for this bird had never been heard to sing in a way understandable for humans: Greeks used to know birds that greeted the Byzantine emperor with human voices, yet they did it in Greek, not in Latin. According to the author of the Descriptio, the use of Latin by the birds inhabiting the Jerusalem forest was a sure sign that they were sent by the Lord to guide Charlemagne and his army out of the forest, which the emperor had prayed for with the use of the words of the Psalm. The author adds that also in his times pilgrims and peasants who live in this land said that the swans in that forest still sang, showing the lost pilgrims how to find the way. Having returned back on the right track, thanks to the swans singing in Latin, Charlemagne arrived in Constantinople (sic!), defeated the pagans, entered Jerusalem, and returned the throne of Saint James the Apostle to the patriarch. The story contains a clear inconsistency as to the towns in which Charlemagne stayed: the initial narration suggests that the events with the swan took place in Jerusalem, but then Charlemagne evidently enters to Constantinople. This is indicated in the incipit itself, according to which the translation of the relics was made from Constantinople (not from Jerusalem) to Aachen and then to Saint-Denis. Slightly later on in the text the author talks about Charlemagne’s return to France from Constantinople, not Jerusalem.20

Having done the task assigned by God, Charlemagne intended to immediately return to Paris, but Constantine wanted to shower the Emperor of the West with gifts: he gave him precious colorful clothes, jewels, exotic birds and quadrupeds. Charlemagne did not accept any of these gifts, believing that it was not decent to receive an earthly reward for liberating the Holy Lands. He did not want to be accused that his expedition was not an act of piety but was inspired by greed for new lands or riches. Hence, Charlemagne announced again his intention to return to France, but the emperor of Byzantium still would not let him leave until he expressed a wish ←25 | 26→that Constantine could make true. Thus, Charlemagne asked Constantine for Passion relics to bring home, so that those of Charlemagne’s subjects who had not gone on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem could also see them and make their hearts repent. Constantine called archbishops, bishops, abbots, monks, and barons to learn where the relics were, as he himself did not know where Saint Helena had deposited them. This clearly indicates that the Passion relics were not duly venerated in the East. The clergy knew where the treasury with the Passion relics was, but the fact that the emperor did not is quite surprising.

The holy men advised Charlemagne to prepare for the inventio of the relics with a three-day fast. Twelve selected men, who were considered deserving to open the treasury with the relics, were purified in this way. In the set time, the two emperors arrived at the site. In a gesture of prostration, Charlemagne immediately made a confession to archbishop Ebroin – even though he had done it already at the beginning of the three-day penitential ritual – and ordered his companions to do the same. Both monks and secular priests attending the ceremony began to sing psalms with litanies.

Next, archbishop Daniel of Neapolis opened the reliquary containing the Crown of Thorns. All those present could smell the miraculous scent resembling the ever-blossoming gardens of Paradise: odor sanctitatis. Kneeling, Charlemagne said a prayer asking God to allow him to take to France a part of the Passion relics in order to show them to his subjects. The emperor humbly asked God to confirm by miracles the authenticity of the relics so that no sceptic could question their authenticity. In response to this prayer a miraculous mist fell from Heaven on the Crown making its branches and thorns blossom, then the blossoms emitted a marvelous scent. The phenomenon was accompanied with such brightness that those present felt like in Heaven, and all the sick who witnessed it became healed. To celebrate this great miracle, Charlemagne began to sing the psalms and the clergy intoned Te Deum laudamus. The wreath of thorns covered with leaves and archbishop Daniel began to cut off the thorns for Charlemagne, one by one. Reluctant to see the miraculously blossoming flowers fall to the ground, where they could have been trampled by the growing crowd of people attracted by the miraculous smell, Charlemagne picked up the blossom and, together with the thorns, wrapped them in a precious fabric and put them into his gloves, which he handed to archbishop Ebroin. Possibly because of the tears of emotion that blinded the eyes of the two men, their hands did not meet and the gloves containing the holy treasures levitated for an hour. When the emperor decided to take the holy objects out from the gloves, fearing that such a place for storing the relics would not please God, it turned out that the miraculous blossoms became manna which, as the hagiographer adds, together with the manna sent to the Israelis on the ←26 | 27→desert, is still stored with the relics of the Crown of Thorns in the Abbey of Saint-Denis. After having sung several psalms with the Emperor and the people, archbishop Daniel returned to the relics of the Passion and handed Charlemagne a nail from the Holy Cross; at that instant, there also appeared a beautiful scent. The scent surrounded the whole town, attracting more and more faithful. Among them were many ill and disabled. Owing to the virtus of the Crown of Thorns and the nail from the Holy Cross, all of them were miraculously healed. The clergy sang Te Deum laudamus again, Charlemagne prayed, interlacing the psalms with words of joy for having obtained the relics: “da michi intellectum, ut discam mandata tua, que tuis servulis, videlicet meis compatriotis, ostendendo memoria tue passionis et penarum nos liberantium plenissime valeam edissere;” “quoniam qui timent te videbunt me et letabuntur, quia in verba tua supersperavi.”

After having accomplished all these sublime liturgical ceremonies, Charlemagne returned to France with the following relics hidden in a pouch made of buffalo leather suspended from his neck: a branch of the Crown of Thorns with eight thorns, a Holy Nail and a piece of the Holy Cross, the Lord’s Shroud, Our Lady’s gown, the swaddling clothes of Jesus Child, the arm of Saint Simeon, and many other relics, mentioned, but not named by the author. During his journey to France, especially in the Ligmedon castle, there were many healings, and even a resurrection of a deceased young man.

Having arrived in Aachen, Charlemagne ordered to build a magnificent church to deposit the relics, where there happened many more miraculous healings. The emperor sent envoys almost all over the world to spread the news that the populace of the West should arrive to Aachen on the Ides (15th) of June to see the holy relics, which the emperor had brought from Jerusalem and Constantinople.

Countless numbers of the faithful arrived on that day. Following the emperor’s order, all of them had made their confessions earlier. Then, Charlemagne accompanied by archbishops, bishops, abbots, and learned priests climbed a hill near the imperial palace and showed the relics to the populace, in other words, conducted the ritual of ostensio reliquiarum known in medieval liturgy. The accompanying clergymen announced to the faithful that the ostensio of the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Nail from the True Cross, the Holy Wood, the Holy Shroud, and other relics – henceforth called Indictum – will take place every year, always in the second week of June, on the Friday during the summer quarterly fast. After confession, everyone who would take part in the Indictum would be granted by pope Leo III, and almost all Charlemagne’s bishops and abbots, indulgences exempting them from up to as much as one third of their Purgatory penance.

←27 |

After Charlemagne’s death, especially during the civil wars among his grandsons, the pious and lofty ritual was forgotten. Finally, one of his grandsons, Charles the Bald, unified four kingdoms and won the emperor’s crown. Then, he took the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Nail of the Holy Cross, and the Holy Shroud away from his grandfather’s palace in Aachen.

Like his glorious grandfather, Charles the Bald cared greatly about the well-being of the Church. He exceeded all his predecessors and successors in his generosity for the monasteries. He extended it especially to two monasteries: the Saint-Denis Abbey and the Abbey of Our Lady in Compiègne.

The Abbey of Our Lady in Compiègne became part of the palace built by Charles the Bald after Constantinople, which he called Karlopolis.21 In order to sanctify his capital, Charles, following the example of Constantine the Great and Charlemagne, deposited the Holy Shroud of Christ in the local church. As to the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Nail, the the Holy Wood, and other relics brought by his grandfather from Constantinople, Charles the Bald gave them to the Abbey of Saint-Denis to make up for the looting of its treasures and pay for the war with his elder brothers. Moreover, in 862, Charles in Saint-Denis the annual ostensio reliquiarum, Indictum. The legitimacy of the translation from Aachen to Saint-Denis was confirmed by God with miracles: in the year of the first Indictum, France was rife with hunger and disease, which stopped after the blessing made with the relics.22

One of the first researchers studying Descriptio qualiter, Gaston Paris, believes that its actual version is a compilation of two separate texts. One of them would be the story of the translation of the Passion relics from Constantinople to Aachen, while the other was the story of translating the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Nail to Saint-Denis and the establishment of the Indictum.23 Such a claim may seem justified, yet already Gerhard Rauschen rightly notes that both threads of Descriptio are coherent in their ←28 | 29→ideology: they present the aspirations of the French monarchy to intercept Charlemagne’s heritage, consistently calling him imperator Gallicus and treating Paris, Saint-Denis, and Reims as the actual capitals of the Frankish Empire. There are also linguistic arguments suggesting that the author was French.24

It is not easy to date this text, so very important for the history of the translation and cult of the Crown of Thorns in France. Whereas the terminus ad quem does not cause any difficulties, the terminus post quem is a subject of an unfinished debate. Most historians agree that the summer quarterly fast (quatember, quatuor temporum) observed in the week following the second Sunday in June, mentioned in the text, dates its creation to the years before 1095, because Urban II announced during the synod in Clermont that this fast should be observed during the week after Whitsunday.25 Joseph Bédier moves Descriptio’s date of writing to the early twelfth century, claiming that the reality in the text is intentionally made archaic by the author;26 this claim was convincingly opposed by Léon Levillain.27 According to Levillain, the most probable terminus post quem of writing Descriptio is the date of the ceremonial translation of Holy Shroud to Saint-Corneille church in Compiègne (April 3, 1079). During the translation – in which king Philip I took part – the Holy Shroud was placed in a new reliquary, donated by the English queen Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror.28 The Abbey of Saint-Corneille, which was part ←29 | 30→of Charles the Bald’s palace complex,29 consecrated in 877 by pope John VIII and dedicated to Our Lady, claimed that the Holy Shroud and the reliquary made of ivory were donated by Charles the Bald. As the author of Descriptio claims that Charles gave the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Nail to the Abbey of Saint-Denis in 862, and the Holy Shroud to the monastery in Compiègne,30 Levillain concludes that Descriptio was written under the influence of the Compiègne translation of 1079 and that is why Levillain dates its origin to 1080–1095.31

The debate about the time of writing of Descriptio qualiter has been recently taken up by Rolf Grosse32 who summs up the state of research33 and – basing on the contents of the legend – moves the datation to the turn of the first and second half of the eleventh century. According to him, the story of Charlemagne’s reign presented in Descriptio – and especially of granting the emperor the right to elect the pope (“pape electionem ipsi prescripserant”) by the Romans – reveals the political reality of Henry III’s reign (1039–1056), who dethroned the conflicted popes Benedict IV, Gregory VI and Sylvester III and nominated a new pope, Clement II, at the synod of Sutri in 1046. Grosse also draws attention to the fact that the legend does not contain any allusions to the conflict about the investiture, which he considers impossible in the last quarter of the eleventh century. Taking into account the absence of references to the conflict between the Roman and Constantinople churches in Descriptio, which led in 1054 to mutual excommunication and schism, since the image of the emperor and clergy in Constantinople is presented in Descriptio in an unquestioningly positive way, Grosse suggests the year 1054 as the terminus ad quem.34 Grosse’s claims are entirely hypothetical, but it cannot be otherwise, since ←30 | 31→they had to be based only on the interpretation of the content of the legend; however, it is impossible to falsify them. Nevertheless, the argument about the absence of the Gregorian conflict may inspire some doubt as the Abbey of Saint-Denis was one of the pillars of the French royal power over the Church and, in the last quarter of the eleventh century, it had just became directly dependent on the king again, which was fully accepted by the monastery, as it is interestingly described by Grosse himself.35 The role the Abbey played in the Capetian monarchy does not justify searching in the translation legend for traces of the Abbey’s involvement in the Gregorian conflict, which the abbots of Saint-Denis avoided at all cost. However, the suggested dating to between 1046 and 1054 seems very interesting for other reasons, which I will discuss below.

Establishing the time when the Passion relics first appeared in the Abbey of Saint-Denis is a separate problem. The terminus ad quem for the writing of Descriptio qualiter clearly indicates that the relics were in the Abbey in the eleventh century and certainly before 1095. The terminus post quem is at the same time, evidently, the terminus ad quem for the appearance of the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Nail in Saint-Denis. Michel Bur36 and Françoise Gasparri37 consider as reliable the information in Descriptio that the relics were in fact donated by Charles the Bald, regardless of the fact that Levillain has already proved that this information in Descriptio is self-contradictory. According to Descriptio qualiter, Charles seized the relics ←31 | 32→after having taken Aachen and – at the same time – the first Indictum in Saint-Denis honouring the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Nail is dated to 862.38 It is known that Charles the Bald took Aachen in 869, thus there are no reasons to believe that Descriptio presents true information. When dating the translation of the Crown of Thorns to Saint-Denis to the ninth century, neither Gasparri nor Bur, nor Donatella Nebbiai dalla Guarda – who believes that Descriptio was written in the ninth century39 – support their claims with sources external to Descriptio or subject literature, so I consider their opinions as groundless and rejected.

Mainly interested in determining when the Lendit fairs first took place – whose name derives from the ostensio of the Passion relics “Indictum” (“reliquiarum”) and “L’Endit”40 – Léon Levillain draws attention to the source describing the ostensio of the bodies of Saint Denis, Rusticus, and Eleutherius, conducted on June 9, 1053, called Liber de detectione corporum Macharii Areopagite Dionysii sociorumque eius, written by Haymo, a monk of Saint-Denis41 – hence called Liber Haymonis – who was active in the late twelfth century, but based on a charter supposedly drawn up when these relics were exposed in public view in 1053.42 In the ca. mid-eleventh century the Abbey of Saint Emmeram in Regensburg began to boast that it had the body of Denis the Areopagite. In 1052 the monks from Saint-Denis were shaken by the news that pope Leo IX, staying in Regensburg, recognized the authenticity of the relics of Saint Denis allegedly deposited in the Abbey of Saint Emmeram.43 A convincing dating of Liber Haymonis ←32 | 33→is presented by Levillain.44 There are all reasons to believe that the Abbot Hugh – to whom the dedicatory letter was addressed – was Hugh V Foucaud (1186–1197) during whose times the reliquaries were reopened (1191), this time in order to reject the claims of owning the Saint’s head – who was the first bishop of Paris – made by the canons of Paris cathedral. It seems quite probable that Haymo wrote his text basing on the document found while opening Saint Denis’s reliquary in 1191, which related the dispute between Saint-Denis and Sankt Emmeram, and, as Haymo says, it was deposited in it after the ostensio of 1053.45

According to Haymo, the access to the martyrium of Saint Denis, Rusticus, and Eleutherius, deposited in the crypt – whose foundation is attributed to Dagobert I – was restricted by a cryptula46 with two locks, in which the relics of the Crown of Thorn and the nail of the Holy Cross were placed. On the basis of Haymo’s rather hazy description it is difficult to reconstruct the layout of the crypt, but one matter is certain: the bodies of the martyrs could not be touched or even seen in any other way than through the cryptula in which the relics of the Crown of Thorn and the Holy Nail were stored.47 Haymo puts the crypt’s description in the mouths of French envoys speaking in front of the emperor in Regensburg in 1052, yet it is not possible to determine whether they concerned the reality from the mid-eleventh century or, rather, from the late twelfth century, when the layout of the sacred crypt in Saint-Denis may have been changed after the redevelopment of the church ordered by Suger.48 Certainly, this fragment of Liber Haymonis is a polemic with the eleventh century treatises from Sankt Emmeram describing the furtum of Saint Denis’s body but neglecting to ←33 | 34→mention the cryptula with the Passion relics, which guarded the access to the Areopagite’s grave.49

The claim that instrumenta Passionis were in the crypt already before 1095 – in which Haymo saw them – seems quite probable, but it is based on hypothetical premises. Although he does not consider Haymo’s description of the place where the relics were stored as reflecting the eleventh-century reality,50 Levillain draws attention to a very interesting coincidence of dates: according to Descriptio, the first ostensio of the relics of the Crown of Thorns and the nail of the Holy Cross in Saint-Denis was said to have been performed on June 10, 862. It was the second Wednesday after the Whitsunday, thus this was the day on which the summer quarterly fast began in 862. As Levillain establishes, a similar coincidence for the eleventh century occurred in 1047, 1052, and 1058 only.51 The day of June 9, 1053, selected by abbot Hugh IV to celebrate the integrity of Saint Denis’s body resting in Saint-Denis also occurred in the week after Whitsunday and at the beginning of the summer fast ieiunia quatuor temporum.52 According to Levillain, this is an indirect evidence that the year 1048 is the most probable date when the Lendit fair in Saint-Denis was first held. This conclusion is derived from Haymo’s account, which says that in 1053 – to the dissatisfaction of the pilgrims – at first there were no miracles that usually accompanied the ostensio. Although, one miracle did happen on that very day: the prices of cereals and wine suddenly dropped, making the populace happy and the merchants sad.53 Thus, the year 1053 could not have been the date of the first, but of a successive ostensio. Assuming that June 10, 862, is not mentioned in Descriptio qualiter as the date of the legendary first Indictum established by Charles the Bald randomly but as a retrospective reference to the actual Indictum which took place in Saint-Denis in the eleventh century and occurred on the second Wednesday after Whitsunday in June, Levillain concludes that the relics must have been appeared in the Abbey in 1047 and the Indictum with the fair accompanying it were held on the first anniversary, in 1048. Basing on the same sacral logic, the Abbey of Saint-Denis is said to have intentionally chosen the same day of the liturgical calendar in 1053 (but it was then June 9, not June 10) as the date of the ceremony of the solemn confirmation of the integrality and also authenticity of Saint Denis’s ←34 | 35→body.54 However, this hypothesis did not persuade Levillain to shift the date of Descriptio qualiter’s origin to before 1079–1095 but to make an assumption that the events from the turn of the 1040s and 1050s – including the event in which the author of Descriptio qualiter could have taken part (but there is no proof of that) – inspired the anonymous hagiographer and influenced the content of the legend about the translation of the Passion relics.55 However, this view does not seem to be justified. Whereas the choice of the same day for the Indictum and the authentication of Saint Denis’ body may be considered as intentional, the proximity of the date of the Indictum of 1053 to the date of the legendary (862) and hypothetical actual ostensio of the relics of the Crown of Thorns (1047 or, perhaps, 1052?) was entirely accidental. However, it may be assumed as probable – but impossible to prove – that the date in the liturgical calendar chosen for the legendary Indictum was selected in connection with the actual date when the relics of the Crown of Thorns were deposited in Saint-Denis.56

Rolf Grosse questions both Levillain’s dating of Descriptio qualiter to 1079–1095 and the choice of the year 1047 as the date when the relics were translated to Saint-Denis. Grosse notes that Liber Haymonis does not mention the Indictum and the information about the presence of the Passion relics in the crypt appears in an apocryphal speech of the French envoys to the emperor, which cannot be considered as proof that the Crown of Thorns and the nail of the Cross were in the Abbey in 1053.57 However, since Grosse believes that the years 1046–1054 were the most probable time when the first legend about the translation of the Crown of Thorns to Saint-Denis emerged, the relics must have appeared in the Abbey approximately at the time indicated by Levillain. The argument per analogiam for either of the datations may be another Christ’s relic that appeared in the Empire in the eleventh century: the Holy Blood of the Lord, miraculously discovered in Mantua in 1048; the same relic that had been miraculously discovered in 804, whose part was given to Charlemagne by the pope Leo III.58 Henry III received a part of the Holy Blood in a crystal reliquary, which he carried with him wherever he went until the end of his life. We cannot deny that the miraculous inventio of the Saviour’s Blood may have inspired Saint-Denis ←35 | 36→to promote its own alleged Passion relics, which is suggested by the fact that the Crown of Thorns and Descriptio qualiter appeared there in the mid-eleventh century. On the other hand, there was a solemn translation of the Holy Blood to the Abbey of Weingarten in 1094, so this event may also be interpreted as a possible inspiration.

One more approach to dating Descriptio qualiter, the origins of the text, and – in consequence – also the time in which the Passion Relics appeared in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, is presented by Matthew Gabriele. According to him, the text about the translation, written soon after the translation of the Christ’s Shroud of Compiègne in 1079, was inspired by king Philip I, the true author of the Capetians’ Carolingian aspirations.59 I will discuss Gabriele’s claims below.

2. Sources of Information about Charlemagne’s Expedition to the Holy Land60

The tale of Charlemagne’s expedition to the Holy Land and Constantinople61 is probably based on the accounts describing the actual diplomatic contacts of the Carolingian court with the patriarch of Jerusalem and the caliph of Bagdad, Harun ar-Rashid, from the late eighth and early ninth century, found in the chronicles written during Charlemagne’s reign and soon after his death. The accounts confirm the emperor’s interest in the cult of Christianity in the Holy Land and especially those of its aspects connected with the Passion relics.62 According to some historians, the increased diplomatic activity of the Frankish court toward Jerusalem before 800 was ←36 | 37→part of a broader political and ideological program closely connected with the later imperial crowning of Charlemagne.63 According to Annales regni Francorum and Annales Mettenses priores, the patriarch of Jerusalem in 799 sent Charlemagne the relics from the Holy Sepulchre and the keys to the town and the Imperial basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, and the Mount of Olives. This gesture should be evidently understood as a symbolic submission of the Holy Lands to the protection of the king of the Franks. In the following year, Charlemagne sent the envoys from the Holy Land back to their homeland in the circumstances suggesting that the king of the Franks was the ruler of the West, truly functioning as the emperor. The mission from Jerusalem was sent back from Rome during the debates of the synod held under the leadership of Charlemagne, on the day when pope Leo III made his cleansing oath to Charlemagne and the bishops assembled in Rome. By handing the keys to the town and the basilicas back to the patriarch’s envoys, Charlemagne symbolically confirmed his protection over the Holy Lands; he also gave the envoys numerous rich gifts for the Church of Jerusalem.64 The event is described with the use of the same words in Annales Fuldenses,65 archbishop Ado of Vienne’s Chronicle,66 the so-called Chronicles from Jean du Tillet’s library,67 and the so-called Chronicles from Loisel’s library.68 Arthur Kleinclausz interprets the “vexillum” mentioned ←37 | 38→in Annales regni Francorum as a relic of the Holy Cross. Einar Joranson contradicts that claim by stating that the vexillum was simply a banner or standard.69

Some Carolingian, and, later on, Ottonian and Salian, chroniclers believe that under the agreement concluded by Charlemagne and the caliph, Haroun ar-Rashid – whom they called king Aaron – Charlemagne’s empire embraced the Holy Land. Although the Annales regni Francorum confirm only the exchange of gifts between Charlemagne and Haroun,70 Einhard wrote in Vita Karoli Magni that the Persian king Aaron gave Charlemagne the power over the Holy Sepulchre as an expression of his friendship and respect for the emperor of the West.71 Charlemagne’s diplomatic contacts with ‘king Aaron’ and Jerusalem are mentioned in Miracula sancti Genesii written in Reichenau Abbey between 822 and 838, which describe how the relics of Saint Genesius were obtained by that monastery.72

Notker the Stammerer (Balbulus), allegedly a monk from Saint Gallen, the author of Gesta Karoli Magni imperatoris written during the reign of Charles the Fat (881–887), presents a high dialectic agility when describing how Charlemagne took power over the Holy Land. Namely, the exchange of envoys between ‘king Aaron’ and Charlemagne, and especially Aaron’s gift to Charlemagne of excellent bloodhounds resulted in establishing a brotherhood between the caliph and the emperor; the Holy Land was subjected to the rule of Charlemagne, but Haroun remained the most faithful governor of these territories (“advocatus,” “procurator provintiae”) and their defender against barbarian invasions on Charlemagne’s behalf, because, as the ruler of the East has adjudged, Charlemagne’s Western empire was too ←38 | 39→big and too distant for hi the Holy Land to efficiently protect it.73 In this way, the monk from Saint Gallen says, the prophecy from Virgil’s Eclogue 1 came true.74 Also Poeta Saxo in Book IV of his Annales de gestis Caroli magni imperatoris – dedicated to Arnulf of Carinthia (887–899) – mentions for the year 802 that the Persian king Aaron submitted to Charlemagne’s eternal rule “locum sanctum Hierosolimorum.”75 Similar rumors probably circulated also in the ninth century Britain: the Northumbrian Annals (Annales Nordhumbrani), known from a twelfth-century compilation but written in the early ninth century, say that together with the imperial crown Charlemagne also received in Rome the envoys from Constantinople and the Christians from Jerusalem. Besides the usual gifts, the Greeks offered Charlemagne the imperial power and the Christians from Jerusalem asked him to extend his rule and protection over them and to defend them against the pagan invaders, which Charlemagne agreed to do.76


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (March)
Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) Charlemagne Saint-Denis Abbey mediaeval hagiography mediaeval christianity mediaeval Europe
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 566 pp., 11 fig. col., 10 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Jerzy Pysiak (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)

Jerzy Pysiak 1999: PhD University of Warsaw; 2013: Habilitation Degree at the Faculty of History, University of Warsaw. 1999–2020: Assistant Professor at the Institute of History, UW, from 2020 at the Faculty of Arts and Culture, UW. Guest Professor at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; Université Lumière Lyon 2; Université de Nantes; Comenius Universisty, Bratislava.


Title: The King and the Crown of Thorns
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576 pages