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Charlemagne's Cheese: a study in the un/reliability of sources

by Heather Rose Jones

copyright © 2001 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved

(This article first appeared in slightly different form as a posting to and was later published in the current form in Tournaments Illuminated #139 (Summer 2001).)

Your first introduction to a historic field will often be a general-interest book: the sort with plenty of glossy pictures, a text that puts everything together into a coherent "story", and no intimidating footnotes -- and this is often the best sort of book to give you the "big picture" in that field. But these general interest books (the kind you may hear referred to as "tertiary sources") may be less reliable for specific details, and when a book doesn't tell you where it got its information (the purpose of footnotes), it can be difficult or impossible to evaluate the details for yourself. Consider the following cautionary tale.

There was an interesting discussion on the newsgroup on cheese in the medieval period: what varieties were used when and where, and what sort of evidence we have for this. In the course of this discussion, 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 immediate source of this information was Anthea Bell's translation of Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food. (This is far more information than one is often given for an assertion about period practice!)

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 marvelous 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 [i.e., Charlemagne] 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

Nature of Cheese

Other Aspects of the Cheese

Charlemagne's Opinion of the Cheese

Amount Supplied

Frequency of Supply

Difficulty Involved in Procuring the Cheese

We cannot know if the interpretations are Toussaint-Samat's own or if she has taken them from intermediary sources -- she remains silent on that point. (She appears to decline to provide citations for most of her 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 (and generous) explanation would be that she 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 (including a wholly-invented quote put in Charlemagne's mouth). On the one hand, it is hard to blame a general-interest author for not double-checking every single fact. It only took me an hour in a university library to discover the above information, but her book is full of thousands of such facts, and the research time involved in checking all of them would be prohibitive. But on the other hand, her uncritical repetition of information that turns out to be false puts the very usefulness of the book into question (outside of being an entertaining fiction).

But with that aside, what do we now know about Charlemagne's cheese?

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 testing with the skewer. That is, some intermediate 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 roquefort-type 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 assertions removed entirely from their contexts -- assertions of the sort that fill Toussaint-Samat's book -- which we have no way of verifying. And we must be skeptical of bare assertions like this because inaccuracies like the above happen all the time in books of this sort.

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. The information may be wrong, and you have no way to know it.


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.


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