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Navigating the Gaze in the Paderborn Epic

Eb Joseph Daniels

The epic recounting of the meeting between Charlemagne and Pope Leo III at Paderborn, usually referred to as the Paderborn Epic or Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa, has long been recognized as one of the primary vehicles for advancing the Carolingian imperial program through its characterization of the political, military, and religious excellence of Charlemagne (Schaller, 1977, 161-164, 178-179; Godman, 1987, 84). This paper will attempt to highlight one aspect of this characterization which has yet to receive extensive scholarly attention: the emphasis placed by the anonymous poet on the power dynamics inherent within seeing and being seen, which can be analyzed through an understanding of the gaze, and how Charlemagne navigates this gaze to solidify his own power.

            Previous scholarship concerning the Paderborn Epic has examined such topics as the historical context of the meeting at Paderborn (Padberg, 1999), the identity of the work’s anonymous poet (Stella, 2002), and its depictions of Charlemagne’s wife and daughters (Scheck, 2012). The concept of the gaze, however, has yet to be applied to this epic, largely because the effort to critique Latin epic relative to the concept of the gaze is a relatively new academic phenomenon (Lovatt, 2013). Although it would be anachronistic to claim that the anonymous poet of the Paderborn Epic was intentionally employing the concept of the gaze in his writings, internal evidence in the work does seem to suggest a prefiguration of this concept.    

            The poet of the Paderborn Epic alludes to the gaze in two ways. First, Charlemagne exercises control over individuals and situations through the act of perceiving or observing them. Whether overseeing the construction of Aachen or watching the approach of Pope Leo, the act of seeing becomes an illustration and an extension of Charlemagne’s power. The poet seems, in fact, to intentionally draw attention to instances when Charlemagne sees and observes individuals and events, and these representations of the gaze are invariably followed by some new triumph which Charlemagne achieves. Pope Leo himself seems to reference this fact when he stresses that he can only be safe once he is brought before Charlemagne’s gaze: Eripite his terris, David me obtutibus almis / Presentate (Beumann, 1966, Lines 394-395). Charlemagne’s gaze is thereby characterized as a vehicle for his achievements in the epic.   

Charlemagne also exercises power through the act of being seen. Charlemagne’s displays of strength, including the slaying of a fierce boar and wars with rebel nations, are cast as examples of public spectacles. In fact, the poet seems to craft situations in which Charlemagne is presented as the focal point of every scene. When Charlemagne slays a boar, he does so in a deep valley as the court watches from the periphery, as though he were on a stage. When meeting Pope Leo, Charlemagne greets the pontiff on a high peak where Charlemagne stands out prominently. In these instances, then, the poet invites the scrutinizing of Charlemagne. Charlemagne thus becomes a master of the gaze, as he is able to both employ the gaze and endure the gaze while maintaining his power.  

Since the introduction of the concept of the gaze in the writings of Lacan, Foucault, and Mulvey, scholars have traced the influence and power of the gaze in literature, art, and politics. By applying the modern intellectual methodology of the gaze to medieval Latin poetry, one is able to better understand the power dynamics inherent within seeing and being seen in its medieval context. This research serves to provide a more nuanced understanding of medieval poetry while also expanding the understood range and applicability of the concept of the gaze. This paper will begin to examine how the poet of the Paderborn Epic emphasized the power constructs implicit within seeing and being seen, and how this emphasis relates to the modern notion of the gaze.

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Medieval Latin Poetry

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