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Charles-Chees-art - 2/27/02


"Charlemagne's Cheese: a study in the un/reliability of sources" by Tangwystyl.


NOTE: See also the files: cheese-msg, cheese-goo-msg, Cheese-Making-art, cheesemaking-msg, cheesecake-msg, dairy-prod-msg, research-msg, cattle-msg.





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).


Thank you,

   Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                         Stefan at florilegium.org



From: hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu ()

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

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'

amount supplied

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

had requested.

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

Miami Press.

Latham, R.E.  1965.  Revised Medieval Latin Word-List.  Oxford

University Press.

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



<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org