Charlemagne’s Alphabet

Here’s a sort of “fun fact” about Charlemagne I just came across in a 15th century source. Ok, technically it may not be an actual “fact” but, as the Italians say: se non è vero, è ben trovato – if it’s not true, it’s well conceived…

Anyway, the source in question is Hans Waltheym’s travel journal, describing a journey he undertook in 1474 from eastern Germany to southern France. On his way back he came through Zurich and, regarding this city, he notes that its main church, the Großmünster [Great Minster], had been founded by Charlemagne.

15th century statue of Charlemagne, Großmünster, Zurich (Image © Andrew Bossi via Wikimedia Commons)

Then Waltheym adds this bit of trivia:

It is noteworthy that the Emperor Charlemagne founded as many minsters as there are letters in the alphabet, and he began with the letter A and founded Aachen first, and he did the same with all the letters, one after the other, so that Zurich was the last minster he founded.

Oh, and here’s another fun fact about Zurich from Waltheym’s account:

Zurich is such an ancient town that it had actually been built before the Deluge.

I bet you didn’t know that! Of course, Waltheym goes on to say, in Zurich as everywhere else everyone drowned in the Deluge, but the buildings remained intact so they could be reused later, once Noah and his clan had produced enough offspring to repopulate the planet. Now it’s not that Hans von Waltheym made these stories up himself. I distinctly remember having read the bit about Zurich pre-dating the Deluge before, and while I’m not sure where exactly that was, I’m positive that it was in another 15th century travel journal. It seems that this was simply the kind of story the locals in late medieval Zurich would tell visitors from abroad.

Ok, I’m in a bit of a conundrum now on how to end this post. The thing is, I had intended to end it by poking fun at the credulity of medieval people and the weird stuff they believed. But I just remembered some of the wildly outrageous stories I’ve heard modern-day tour guides try to sell as “historical facts”, so it might be wiser to stick to that old saying about throwing stones when living in a glass house, and just shut up…

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Update: Reading artsymbol’s comment regarding the so-called A of Charlemagne in Conques caused me to do a bit of googling (which, perhaps, I should have done before writing this post), and I can now inform you that a thorough discussion of the stories about Charlemagne’s alphabet may be found in: Amy G. Remensnyder, Remembering Kings Past: Monastic Foundation Legends in Medieval Southern France, Cornell University Press 1995, pp. 157-164, which conveniently is available on google books.

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2 Responses to Charlemagne’s Alphabet

  1. artsymbol says:

    Conques has a reliquary in the shape of an A, known as the A of Charlemagne. The legend is that it was donated to the abbey when he founded it and that it signified it was the first such foundation. Most of the Benedictine abbeys of France claimed they were founded either by Charlemagne or one of his immediate successors.
    Yes, poking fun at medieval credulity is like shooting at fish in a barrel.

    • Oh thanks, I’d never heard about the A at Conques, that’s really interesting!

      So, does anyone know any more examples for Charlemagne’s alleged fondness for the alphabet when it came to church foundations?

      Edited to add: I just googled the A at Conques – those as curious as me can find a picture of it here.

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