Charles-Chees-art - 2/27/02
"Charlemagne's Cheese: a study in the un/reliability of sources" by Tangwystyl.
This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.
This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.
The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.
Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).
Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
From: hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu ()
Subject: Charlemagne's Cheese [long]
Date: 4 Sep 1999 20:31:44 GMT
Organization: University of California at Berkeley
Charlemagne's Cheese: a study in the un/reliability of sources.
There was an interesting thread recently on cheese in period:
what varieties were used when and where, and what sort of
evidence we have for this. In the course of the thread, it was
mentioned that Charlemagne was (according to his biographer
Eginhard) fond of Brie and blue sheep's cheese, and was supplied
with significant quantities of both. Further information was
provided that the proximal source of this information was Anthea
Bell's translation of Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's "History of
Food". (I'm working from a screen-print, so I'm afraid I've lost
the names of the posters involved.)
The relevant quote from Toussaint-Samat is as follows:
"After the fall of the Roman Empire ... the monks of the
Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, thanks to whom the
population did not starve to death entirely during the Dark Ages,
were the pioneers of the new cheese-making industry of medieval
times. If the chronicles of Eginhard, Charlemagne's biographer,
are to be believed, it was in one of these monasteries --
probably the abbey of Vabres near Roquefort -- that the Emperor,
another lover of cheese, was given a sheep's milk cheese veined
with mould. Much to his surprise, he liked it. He made the
prior promise to send two crates of this cheese a year to Aix-
la-Chapelle, thus nearly ruining the poor community. Charlemagne
was equally enthusiastic about the cheese of Reuil in Brie. A
man of discernment, he pronounced it 'one of the most marvellous
of foods', and requisitioned two crates of this cheese as well,
to round off his dinners at Aix."
Toussaint-Samat is an entertaining and engaging writer, full of
detailed anecdotes -- the sort who enables you to enjoy yourself
thoroughly while learning something. The problem is, you just
learned something that ain't so: that's not what the biography
says, and it wasn't Eginhard who said it.
There are two contemporary biographers of Charlemagne. Eginhard
is the better known and was a member of the emperor's circle.
The other biography is by the anonymous "monk of Saint Gall",
sometimes identified with Notker the Stammerer. Eginhard's work
contains no mention of cheese (that I could find, but it's a
fairly short work and I read through the whole of it). The monk
of Saint Gall's work contains an anecdote about cheese that is
clearly the source of Toussaint-Samat's assertions, but just as
clearly overlaps them very little in content.
The anecdote makes up chapter 15 of the first book of the work.
I here give A.J. Grant's translation, with relevant vocabulary
from the original Latin included in brackets.
"In the same journey [as mentioned in chapter 14 -- the location
and course of the journey are not specified] he came to a bishop
who lived in a place through which he must needs pass. Now on
that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to
eat the flesh of beast or bird; and the bishop, being by reason
of the nature of the place unable to procure fish upon the
sudden, ordered some excellent cheese, rich and creamy [optimum
illi caseum et ex pinguedine canum -- a more literal translation
might be 'excellent ... oily and whitish/grayish-white'], to be
placed before him. And the most self-restrained Charles, with
the readiness which he showed everywhere and on all occasions,
spared the blushes of the bishop and required no better fare: but
taking up his knife cut off the skin [erugine -- apparently
'tarnish' in a literal sense], which he thought unsavoury
[abhominabili -- more literally 'abominable'], and fell to on the
white of the cheese [albore casei]. Thereupon the bishop, who
was standing near like a servant, drew closer and said, 'Why do
you do that, lord emperor? You are throwing away the very best
part." Then Charles, who deceived no one, and did not believe
that anyone would deceive him, on the persuasion of the bishop
put a piece of the skin [eruginis illius partem -- lit. "that
tarnished part"] in his mouth, and slowly ate it and swallowed it
like butter [in modum butyri]. then approving of the advice of
the bishop, he said: 'Very true, my good host,' and he added: 'Be
sure to send me every year to Aix two cart-loads [duas carradas]
of just such cheeses." The bishop was alarmed at the
impossibility of the task and, fearful of losing both his rank
and his office, he rejoined: 'My lord, I can procure the cheeses,
but I cannot tell which are of this quality and which of another.
Much I fear lest I fall under your censure.' Then Charles from
whose penetration and skill nothing could escape, however new or
strange it might be, spoke thus to the bishop, who from childhood
had known such cheeses and yet could not test them. 'Cut them in
two [incide ... per medium],' he said, 'then fasten together with
a skewer [acuminato ligno -- 'a sharp stick'] those that you find
to be of the right quality and keep them in your cellar for a
time and then send them to me. The rest you may keep for
yourself and your clergy and your family.' This was done for two
years and the king ordered the present of cheeses to be taken in
without remark: then in the third year the bishop brought in
person his laboriously collected cheeses. But the most just
Charles pitied his labour and anxiety and added to the bishopric
an excellent estate whence he and his successors might provide
themselves with corn and wine."
The immediately following chapter begins, "As we have shown how
the most wise Charles exalted the humble, let us now show how he
brought low the proud." This is pertinent in understanding the
purpose of the telling of the cheese incident.
We can now compare the details of the original with the retelling
in Toussaint-Samat. The first thing to note is that the single
cheese incident in the biography has been multiplied (perhaps
miraculously like the loaves and fishes) into two different, but
parallel, cheese incidents.
supplier of cheese
S. Gall: bishop of an unspecified region
T-S #1: a monastery, probably abbey of Vabres near Roquefort
T-S #2: Reuil in Brie (another monastery implied?)
nature of cheese
S. Gall: oily (creamy?), whitish or grayish-white, with a white
interior and a 'tarnished' exterior that at first appears
'abominable' but is judged to be the best part of the cheese
T-S #1: a sheep's milk cheese veined with mould [sic]
T-S #2: unspecified (but readers have clearly interpreted the
passage as referring to the type of cheese modernly known as Brie
-- and this may have been the author's intent)
other aspects of the cheese
S. Gall: the cheese is tested by being cut open, after which it
is fastened back together with a sharp stick; the cheeses are
collected during the course of the year and then shipped.
T-S #1: no mention of this aspect
T-S #2: no mention of this aspect
Charlemagne's opinion of the cheese
S. Gall: considers cheese a dispreferred alternate to fish for a
fast day; after sampling, agrees with the bishop that the
unsavory-looking rind is "the best part"
T-S #1: a lover of cheese, is surprised to like the moldy cheese
T-S #2: equally enthusiastic about this cheese; quoted as
pronouncing it 'one of the most marvellous of foods'
S. Gall: two carts
T-S #1: two crates
T-S #2: two crates
frequency of supply
S. Gall: every year
T-S #1: every year
T-S #2: unspecified
difficulty involved in procuring the cheese
S. Gall: difficulty in identifying cheeses of the same type and
quality, they must be "laboriously" tested and collected; fear of
displeasing the emperor in this
T-S #1: provision of cheese nearly ruins the "poor community"
T-S #2: no difficulties mentioned
We cannot know if the interpretations are Toussaint-Samat's own
or if he has taken them from intermediary sources -- he remains
silent on that point. (He appears to decline to provide
citations for much of any of his material. We are lucky, in this
case, that Eginhard's name gave us a clue to the actual source of
the material.) To me, the most plausible explanation would be
that he has worked from two different intermediary sources, each
of whom claimed Charlemagne's cheese as identical to their own
local specialty and affixed details to that effect to the story.
At any rate, he has either been an extremely uncritical user of
secondary sources that involved a great deal of invention, or he
has been an enthusiastic inventor himself (including the
invention of the quote attributed to Charlemagne).
From the description in the original, some cheese in the general
brie/camembert family would certainly be consistent with what we
know: i.e., a soft, "oily" white interior, and a "whitish or
grayish-white" exterior that can be removed with a knife, appears
distasteful, but is actually quite tasty.
The interpretation of the cheese as a blue sheep's milk type
(e.g., a roquefort-type) would appear to be inspired by the bit
with the skewer. That is, some intermediary source may have
fastened upon the process of cutting the cheese open and piercing
it with a skewer, then storing it subsequently before
consumption, as the origin of a bluing process. The major
conceptual problem with this interpretation (setting aside that
blue/sheep cheeses cannot really be described as "oily/creamy"
and one might balk at describing their interior as "white") is
that Charles ordered the bishop to supply "just such cheeses"
[talibus caseis] as he had just eaten. The cheese he had just
eaten had not undergone the cutting and skewering. If the
cutting and skewering produced a blue cheese, then the bishop
would be supplying cheeses radically different from what Charles
In summary, we see an original text, which actually supplies
useful details about the nature of the cheese being described,
but which has been rendered functionally useless in the secondary
(and presumably tertiary) sources by over-zealous interpreters
who (possibly in a spirit of local chauvinism) have added details
and specifics to the bare facts until we cannot know truth from
invention. Fortunately, in this case, the original is fairly
easy to identify and access, but in all too many cases of this
sort, we are left with intriguing but de-contextualized
assertions of the sort that fill Toussaint-Samat's book, of which
we _must_ be skeptical (because cases like the above happen all
the time in books of this sort), but which we have no way of
It's an object lesson in why one should never stop at tertiary
and secondary sources, and why one should be _extremely_ wary of
sources that don't tell you where they got _their_ information.
It may be wrong.
Grant, A.J. 1926. Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard & the
Monk of St Gall. Chatto & Windus, London.
Einhard. 1972. Vita Karoli Magni: the Life of Charlemagne.
Trans. Evelyn Scherabon Firchow & Edwin H. Zeydel. University of
Latham, R.E. 1965. Revised Medieval Latin Word-List. Oxford
Lewis, Charlton T. & Charles Short. 1907. A New Latin
Dictionary. American Book Company.
Monachus Sangallensis (Notkerus Balbulus). 1918. De Carolo
Magno. Fehr'sche Buchhandlung, St. Gallen.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne (trans. Anthea Bell). 1987. A
History of Food. Blackwell.
Heather Rose Jones hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu