Visual History of the World




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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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The Modern Era
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The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



The Kingdom of the Franks


Charlemagne's Wars

Map showing Charlemagne's additions (in blue) to the Frankish Kingdom.

Charlemagne enlarged the Frankish kingdom by annexing numerous territories.

Pepin III's son, Carloman, died just three years after his father, in 771.

His elder brother, 1 Charlemagne, took Car-loman's territories for himself and ignored the custom whereby the lands would be divided between the sons.

Carloman's sons then fled to seek refuge in the court of the Lombards, who were at this time threatening the Papal State.

When, in 772, 5 Pope Hadrian I reminded Charlemagne of his duty as protector of Rome, Charlemagne came to his defense in 773-774.

1 Charlemagne riding, statue, ca. 870

Charlemagne (left) and Pippin the Hunchback. Tenth-century copy of a lost original
from about 830.

5 Pope Hadrian I greets Charlemagne as he arrives in Rome,
illustrated manuscript. 13th century

The Frankish king Charlemagne was a devout Catholic who maintained a close relationship with the papacy throughout his life. In 772, when Pope Hadrian I was threatened by invaders, the king rushed to Rome to provide assistance. Shown here, the pope asks Charlemagne for help at a meeting near Rome.

The Lombards were comprehensively defeated, and Charlemagne proclaimed himself their new king. Most of northern Italy was thereby incorporated into the Frankish kingdom.

Since 772 Charlemagne had also been attempting to conquer the Saxons. Initial military successes, attempts at Christianization and even collaboration with the Saxon nobility were not enough to subjugate the free Saxon peasants, who fought against the Franks under 3 the leadership of Wittekind.

3 Wittekind bows before Charlemagne,
painting, 19th century

After they annihilated a Frankish army in 782, Charlemagne ordered a vengeful massacre. Thousands of captured Saxons were murdered at Verden an der Aller. In 785 Wittekind made peace with Charlemagne and was baptized. It still took a long time, however, until all the Saxons submitted to Charlemagne and were baptized as Christians.

The Bavarians were particularly reticent and refused to pay taxes to the Church. In the course of his campaign of Christianization, Charlemagne established many new 2 bishoprics among the Saxons.

2 St. Peter's Dome in Minden,
seat of the bishopric founded ca. 800
by Charlemagne

In Bavaria, which Charles Martel had already conquered, Duke Tassilo III threatened to allv himself with the Avars and secede from the kingdom. He was deposed for this disloyalty at the Diet of Ingelheim in 788.

Charlemagne then began to secure his borders by setting up margravates in which the royal administrators also held military authority. In 796, the Avarian margravate was founded after the Avars in present-day Hungary had been subdued. Further north, treaties with the Bohemians and the Slavic Sorbs regulated the flow of tribute payments, and in 811 Charlemagne made peace with the Danes on the northern border.

His only defeats came against the Basques and 6 the Arabs—the latter triumphing in 4 the 778 Battle of Roncesvalles, which is described in the medieval "Song of Roland."

6 Arabs dress as devils to frighten Charlegmagne's army,
book illustration, 14th century

4 Battle of Roncesvalles, stone relief,
twelfth ńĺntury

Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne
in an illustration taken from a manuscript
of a chanson de geste




Einhard wrote the famous biography of Charlemagne called the Vita Caroli Magni.

He entered Charlemagne's palace school around 794 at the age of 25 and was soon employed in diplomatic work.

Einhard counseled Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious in his church policies and was the abbot of Seligenstadt monastery until his death in 840.

Einhard writing the life of Charlemagne,
manuscript, 14 ń



The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael , circa 1516-1517


Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad, by Julius Kockert


The Empire of Charlemagne

8 Bust of Charlemagne,
silver with gold-plating, 14th century

Charlemagne modernized the administration and culture of his empire.
Under his successors, however, the Frankish empire fell to ruin.
Despite this, the reign of Charlemagne had a major bearing on the course
of history in the Middle Ages.

By the turn of the ninth century 8 Charlemagne's empire encompassed major portions of West and South Europe.

The papacy wanted to secure the support of the powerful Frankish king for good, and so Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne 10 emperor in 800 during the Christmas Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

10 Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne,
illustrated manuscript, 15th century

The emperor of Byzantium, who considered himself to be the true heir of the Roman Empire, initially refused to accept this.

Only when Charlemagne relinquished territories on the Adriatic, under the Treaty of Aachen in 812, did Byzantium recognize the new empire. Charlemagne ruled his empire from Aachen and wanted to turn the city, his main residence, into a "new Rome."

He had an imperial cathedral, with an 7, 9 octagonal chapel built.

7 Cupola of the Imperial Cathedral
in Aachen, built 788-805


Charlemagne's throne in the Octagonal chape of Aachen Cathedral,
marble, late 8th century


Charlemagne sent missi dominici— agents—11 to control the counts in whose hands the provinces were placed.

As long as the laws of the subjugated peoples did not contradict those of Charlemagne, they were allowed to retain them.

When he died in 814, Charlemagne left his whole empire to his youngest son, Louis the Pious.

Louis's sons, however - Louis the German, Charles II (the Bald), amd Lothair I - later fought for the succession and ended up dividing the empire in the 12 Treaty of Verdun of 843.

This division roughly established the future frontier between France and Germany. The border territory was named Lotharingia (later Lorraine) after Lothair II. Further divisions and disputes among the successors, as well as attacks by the Normans and Magyars, saw the empire decline. The Carolingian line died out in the Fast Frankish empire— today's Germany—with the death of Louis III (''the Child") in 911. In the West Frankish territories—today's France— they ruled until 987.

11 Charlemagne dispatches messengers to the provinces of his empire, illustrated manuscript, 15th century

12 The signing of the Treaty of Verdun,
wood engraving, 19th century



The "Carolingian Renaissance"

The "Carolingian Renaissance" of Charlemagne, who probably could not read or write himself but sought the restoration of the Roman Empire, aimed to fuse Christian, ancient, and Germanic cultures.

Under the leadership of the Anglo-Saxon scholar and priest Alcuin, an educational campaign was set in motion and scholars were summoned from all over Europe. The centrally established palace school was emulated throughout the empire in the form of cathedral and monastery schools.

 In these, monks functioned as the leading disseminators of medieval culture. The Carolingian minuscule' script forms the basis of today's Roman, or Antigua, typefaces.

Charlemagne's signature,
a monogram written in Carolingian Minuscule script,
this became the standard across most of Europe.

Sample of Carolingian minuscule,
one of the products of the Carolingian Renaissance.



The Song of Roland

see also text

"Song of Roland"


The Song of Roland

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various different manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these versions is the one in the Oxford manuscript, which contains a text of some 4,004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century (between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and most outstanding example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero.

Historical background

The story told in the poem is based on a relatively minor historical incident, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass on August 15, 778, in which the rearguard of Charlemagne's retreating Franks, escorting a rich collection of booty gathered during a failed campaign in Spain, was attacked by Basques. In this engagement, recorded by historian and biographer Einhard (Eginhard) in his Life of Charlemagne (written around 830), the trapped soldiers were slaughtered to a man; among them was "Hruodland, Prefect of the Marches of Brittany" (Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus).

The first indication that popular legends were developing about this incident comes in an historical chronicle compiled about 840, which mentions that the names of the Frankish leaders caught in the ambush, including Roland, were "common knowledge" (vulgata sunt). A second indication, potentially much closer to the date of the first written version of the epic, is that (according to somewhat later historical sources) during William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 a "song about Roland" was sung to the Norman troops before they joined battle at Hastings:

Then a song of Roland was begun, so that the man’s warlike example would arouse the fighters.
Calling on God for aid, they joined battle.
Taillefer, who sang very well, rode on a swift horse before the Duke singing of Charlemagne and Roland
and Oliver and the knights who died at Roncevaux.

This cannot be treated as evidence that Taillefer, William's jongleur, was the "author of the Song of Roland", as used to be argued, but it is evidence that he was one of the many poets who shared in the tradition. We cannot even be sure that the "song" sung by Taillefer was the same as, or drew from, the particular "Song of Roland" that we have in the manuscripts. Some traditional relationship is, however, likely, especially as the best manuscript is written in Anglo-Norman French and the Latinized name of its author or transcriber, called "Turoldus," is evidently of Norman origin ("Turold," a variant of Old Norse "Thorvald)."

In view of the long period of oral tradition during which the ambush at Roncevaux was transformed into the Song of Roland, there can be no surprise that even the earliest surviving version of the poem does not represent an accurate account of history. Roland becomes, in the poem, the nephew of Charlemagne, the Christian Basques become Muslim Saracens, and Charlemagne, rather than marching north to subdue the Saxons, returns to Spain and avenges the deaths of his knights. The Song of Roland marks a nascent French identity and sense of collective history traced back to the legendary Charlemagne. As remarked above, the dating of the earliest version is uncertain, as is its authorship. Some believe that Turoldus, who is named in the final line, is the author; however, nothing is known about him besides his name. The dialect of the manuscript is Anglo-Norman, which suggests an origin in northern France. However, some critics, notably the influential Joseph Bédier, have held that the real origin of this version of the epic lies much further south.


There are nine extant manuscripts of the Song of Roland in Old French. The oldest of these manuscripts is held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This copy dates between 1140 and 1170 and was written in Anglo-Norman.

Scholars estimate that the poem was written, more or less, between 1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098. Some favor an earlier dating, because it allows one to say that the poem was inspired by the Castilian campaigns of the 1030s, and that the poem went on to be a major influence in the First Crusade. Those who prefer a later dating do so on grounds of the brief references made in the poem to events of the First Crusade. In one section, Palestine is named Outremer, its Crusader name – but is presented as a Muslim land where there are no Christians.


For seven years, the valiant Christian king Charlemagne has made war against the Saracens in Spain. Only one Muslim stronghold remains, the city of Saragossa, under the rule of King Marsile (or Marsilius) and Queen Bramimonde. Marsile, certain that defeat is inevitable, hatches a plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne. He will promise to be Charlemagne's vassal and a Christian convert in exchange for Charlemagne's departure. But once Charlemagne is back in France, Marsile will renege on his promises. Charlemagne and his vassals, weary of the long war, receive Marsile's messengers and try to choose an envoy to negotiate at Marsile's court on Charlemagne's behalf.

Roland, a courageous knight and Charlemagne's right-hand man, nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged, thinking that Roland has nominated him for this dangerous mission in an attempt to be rid of him for good. Ganelon has long been jealous of Roland, and on his diplomatic mission he plots with the Saracens, telling them that they could ambush Charlemagne's rearguard as Charlemagne leaves Spain. Roland will undoubtedly lead the rearguard, and Ganelon promises that with Roland dead Charlemagne will lose the will to fight.

After Ganelon returns with assurances of Marsile's good faith, Roland, as he predicted, ends up leading the rearguard. The twelve peers, later known as the Paladins, Charlemagne's greatest and most beloved vassals, go with him. Among them is Oliver, a wise and prudent man and Roland's best friend. Also in the rearguard is the fiery Archbishop Turin, a clergyman who also is a great warrior. At the pass of Roncevaux, the twenty thousand Christians of the rearguard are ambushed by a vastly superior force, numbering four hundred thousand. Oliver counsels Roland to blow his olifant horn, to call back Charlemagne's main force, but Roland refuses. The Franks fight valiantly, but in the end they are killed to the man. Roland blows his olifant so that Charlemagne will return and avenge them. His temples burst from the force required, and he dies soon afterward. He dies facing the enemy's land, and his soul is escorted to heaven by saints and angels.

Charlemagne arrives, and he and his men are overwhelmed with grief at the sight of the massacre. He pursues the pagan force, aided by a miracle of God: the sun is held in place in the sky, so that the enemy will not have cover of night. The Franks push the Saracens into the river Ebro, where those who are not chopped to pieces are drowned.

Marsile has escaped and returned to Saragossa, where the remaining Saracens are plunged into despair by their losses. But Baligant, the incredibly powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived to help his vassal. The emir goes to Rencesvals, where the Franks are mourning and burying their dead. There is a terrible battle, climaxing with a one-on-one clash between Baligant and Charlemagne. With a touch of divine aid, Charlemagne slays Baligant, and the Saracens retreat. The Franks take Saragossa, where they destroy all Jewish and Moslem religious items and force the conversion of everyone in the city, with the exception of Queen Bramimonde. Charlemagne wants her to come to Christ of her own accord. With her captive, the Franks return to their capitol, Aix.

Ganelon is put on trial for treason. Pinabel, Ganelon's kinsman and a gifted speaker, nearly sways the jury to let Ganelon go. But Thierry, a brave but physically unimposing knight, says that Ganelon's revenge should not have been taken against a man in Charlemagne's serve: that constitutes treason. To decide the matter, Pinabel and Thierry fight. Though Pinabel is by far the stronger man, God intervenes and Thierry triumphs. The Franks draw and quarter Ganelon (tie each limb and head to one of five horses running in opposite directions, which tears the victim to pieces). They also hang thirty of his kinsmen.

Charlemagne announces to all that Bramimonde has decided to become a Christian. Her baptism is celebrated, and all seems well.

But that night, the angel Gabriel comes to Charlemagne in a dream, and tells him that he must depart for a new war against the pagans. Weary and weeping, but fully obedient to God, Charlemagne prepares for yet another bloody war.


The poem is written in stanzas of irregular length known as laisses. The lines are decasyllabic (containing ten syllables), and each is divided by a strong caesura, which generally falls after the fourth syllable. The last stressed syllable of each line in a laisse has the same vowel sound as every other end-syllable in that laisse. The laisse is therefore an assonal, not a rhyming stanza.

On a narrative level, the Song of Roland features extensive use of repetition, parallelism, and thesis-antithesis pairs. Unlike later Renaissance and Romantic literature, the poem focuses on action rather than introspection.

The author gives few explanations for characters' behavior. Characters are stereotypes defined by a few salient traits: for example, Roland is proud and courageous while Ganelon is traitorous and cowardly.

The story moves at a fast pace, occasionally slowing down and recounting the same scene up to three times but focusing on different details or taking a different perspective each time. The effect is similar to a film sequence shot at different angles so that new and more important details come to light with each shot.

Modern readers should bear in mind that the Song of Roland, like Shakespeare's plays, was intended to be performed aloud, not read silently. Traveling jongleurs performed (usually sections of) the Song of Roland to various audiences, perhaps interspersing spoken narration with musical interludes


La Chanson de Roland

French epic poem
English The Song of Roland

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Old French epic poem that is probably the earliest (c. 1100) chanson de geste and is considered the masterpiece of the genre. The poem’s probable author was a Norman poet, Turold, whose name is introduced in its last line.

The poem takes the historical Battle of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) in 778 as its subject. Though this encounter was actually an insignificant skirmish between Charlemagne’s army and Basque forces, the poem transforms Roncesvalles into a battle against Saracens and magnifies it to the heroic stature of the Greek defense of Thermopylae against the Persians in the 5th century bc.

The poem opens as Charlemagne, having conquered all of Spain except Saragossa, receives overtures from the Saracen king and sends the knight Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather, to negotiate peace terms. Angry because Roland proposed him for the dangerous task, Ganelon plots with the Saracens to achieve his stepson’s destruction and, on his return, ensures that Roland will command the rear guard of the army when it withdraws from Spain. As the army crosses the Pyrenees, the rear guard is surrounded at the pass of Roncesvalles by an overwhelming Saracen force. Trapped against crushing odds, the headstrong hero Roland is the paragon of the unyielding warrior victorious in defeat.

The composition of the poem is firm and coherent, the style direct, sober, and, on occasion, stark. Placed in the foreground is the personality clash between the recklessly courageous Roland and his more prudent friend Oliver (Olivier), which is also a conflict between divergent conceptions of feudal loyalty. Roland, whose judgment is clouded by his personal preoccupation with renown, rejects Oliver’s advice to blow his horn and summon help from Charlemagne. On Roland’s refusal, the hopeless battle is joined, and the flower of Frankish knighthood is reduced to a handful of men. The horn is finally sounded, too late to save Oliver, Turpin, or Roland, who has been struck in error by the blinded Oliver, but in time for Charlemagne to avenge his heroic vassals. Returning to France, the emperor breaks the news to Aude, Roland’s betrothed and the sister of Oliver, who falls dead at his feet. The poem ends with the trial and execution of Ganelon.


Eight phases of The Song of Roland in one picture.


Illustration to Song of Roland


Roland in the Valley of Ronceval.
Illustration to Song of Roland by Odilon Redon


Illustration to Song of Roland


The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux,
from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460.


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