In the 9th century, two major biographies were written about the reign of Charlemagne, who became king in 768 and died in 814. Einhard, an intellectual from Charlemagne’s court, wrote the earliest biography about the great king, completing it sometime during the 820s. For the time in which it was written, Einhard’s text was remarkably secular, focusing on the actions and demeanor of Charlemagne rather than the state of Christendom in Charlemagne’s empire.
Several decades later, in the 880s, a monk named Notker the Stammerer decided to publish his own commentary about the great king’s reign and strove to give the church a more significant position in his account of Charlemagne’s life. In fact, nearly the entire first book of Notker’s Deeds of Charlemagne consisted of compiled odd tales that occurred between the great king and his local bishops. These bizarre stories, told to Notker by a certain cleric named Werinbert, were unfortunately often left devoid of names and dates, so it is difficult to assign any historical validity to Notker’s first book. Nevertheless, the strange tales are immensely entertaining and can give a window of insight into what some 9th-century people believed.
One of Notker’s many stories took place somewhere in France that was suffering from a drought. In that region, there was a greedy bishop (name left anonymous) who used the opportunity to make money. The bishop opened up his warehouse to provide provisions for the hungry and thirsty, but charged unfair prices for his products. The greed of the bishop and the desperation of the townspeople apparently caught the attention of a supernatural being. According to Notker, a goblin or a mischievous demon entered the area to tempt the bishop’s neglected flock.
The goblin made its rounds through the town, breaking into homes and workshops to play with peoples’ belongings. In particular, the creature apparently had a fondness for the shops of the town’s blacksmiths, where it could spend the nights noisily drumming upon the anvils with hammers. As sightings of the goblin became more numerous, word spread around town that the creature could be banished by simply making the sign of the cross. One day, a certain haunted homeowner decided to try this method to banish the goblin from his home, but, before the sign could be completed, the creature made an interesting counter-offer. The goblin promised that, if he was allowed to stay, he would fill whatever container was left to him (no matter the size) with an alcoholic beverage on a nightly basis. The offer was especially tempting because of the drought that was plaguing the town. Therefore, the homeowner agreed to the proposal and handed over to the goblin the largest tankard or flask that he possessed.
As the goblin had promised, each morning the tankard was filled with wine. For several days this went on—while the rest of the town paid outrages prices to the bishop for supplies, the unnamed homeowner received free wine from the goblin. Nevertheless, all good things must end. After an unknown amount of time, the tankard disappeared and the goblin was nowhere to be seen. That same day, the bishop announced that he had caught a demon in his wine cellar. According to Notker, the bishop had discovered that a barrel of wine from his cellar had been cracked open and spilled on the floor each night. After the thefts kept occurring, the bishop eventually suspected that a foul spirit was the culprit. With this in mind, the bishop made a trap by sprinkling holy water on the floor of the wine cellar. In the end, the unsuspecting goblin somehow found himself trapped in the bishop’s cellar and was apprehended by the local authorities the next morning.
According to Notker, the so-called goblin or demon looked fairly human when it was caught, albeit a bit hairy. Interestingly enough, the supernatural being was apparently flogged for its crime of thievery. In a wholesome scene at the end of the story, when the goblin was being led away for punishment, he expressed sadness and remorse for losing the tankard that was left to him by the homeowner, whom the goblin considered to be a friend.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the legend of St Benedict, painted by Spinello Aretino (1350–1410), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.