In the 880s, a monk named Notker the Stammerer decided to write about the life of Charlemagne, the famous king of the Franks who took power in 768 and died in 814. Notker, however, was not the king’s first biographer. The Life of Charlemagne by Einhard was written in the 820s and was already a widely read text by the time Notker began writing. Nevertheless, Notker the Stammerer must have felt that Einhard’s text was lacking in one aspect of Charlemagne’s life—religion and the church. In fact, nearly the entire first book of Notker’s Deeds of Charlemagne consisted of numerous bizarre stories told to Notker by a certain cleric named Werinbert. These tales were unfortunately often left devoid of names, locations and dates, so it is difficult to assign any historical validity to the stories of Notker’s first book. Even so, the strange tales are immensely entertaining and can give a window into the mind of a 9th-century author.
One of Notker’s stories told of an anonymous bishop who resided along an inland route that Charlemagne used frequently for his travels. While the king of the Franks was there, the unnamed bishop offered the king his hospitality, supplying food and drink from his own stores. The local church had plenty of supplies to feed the monarch, but there was a problem—the king arrived on the Friday Fast and, as a devout Christian, Charlemagne refused any dish made with meat from land animals or birds. Fish was an acceptable meal for the fast, but as the king was in an inland bishopric, Charlemagne would have been long gone before any seafood could be carted into town. Unfortunately for Charlemagne, all that the bishop could provide on that Friday was cheese.
Surrounded by his attendants and the bishop, Charlemagne prepared for his meal. As the bishop blushed with embarrassment, a wheel of cheese was brought before the king. It was the best cheese that the region had to offer, but it must have looked unappetizing, especially the rough, dry edges of the wheel. According to the tale, Charlemagne withheld any comment and silently cut away the edges, intending to eat only the smooth and creamy center. When the bishop realized what the king was doing, he hesitantly approached and lightly commented that Charlemagne had cut away the best part. It was a comment that the bishop would likely come to regret.
As the tale goes, Charlemagne trusted the bishop and looked for the choicest section of the unseemly hardened ends of the cheese. He cautiously ate the selected piece, slowly but methodically devouring the specimen. When the king finally swallowed the cheese, he enthusiastically turned to the bishop and agreed that the ends were delicious. Charlemagne was so delighted with the taste that he demanded two full carts of the cheese ends to be shipped to his capital at Aachen on an annual basis. The king even specified how the cheese should be shipped: The cheese wheels were to be cut in half, with the best halves going to the king and the lesser sections staying behind to feed the bishopric. The king’s cheese selections would then be skewered together and placed in a barrel, which, in turn, would be placed in the two carts that would carry the cheese to Aachen.
For three years the bishop meticulously carried out Charlemagne’s orders, selecting, barreling and shipping two cart loads of the excellent cheese to Aachen each year. The burden of finding enough pristine cheese to meet the king’s demands was no easy task, yet the bishop always met his quota and usually drove the carts to Aachen himself. After the third annual shipment was received at Aachen, Charlemagne released the dutiful bishop from the job of being the king’s supplier of cheese. Perhaps, Charlemagne recognized the effort it took for the bishop to collect the cheeses, or the king could have simply grown tired of cheese after three years. Whatever the case, Charlemagne rewarded the bishop for his three years of service by adding to his bishopric new tracts of fertile lands, which were pristine for the cultivation of grain and wine vineyards.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (“Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels”, by Clara Peeters (1594–), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.