Charlemagne’s Elephant, Monkey, and Mouse
They were spectacular failures and resulted in much loud protesting, especially by Emma. The Shorter Catechism was supposedly designed for children, but I wonder if children were different back then. I wouldn’t dare introduce them to the predestination controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries, my main research area.
Fortunately, I recalled the story of Charlemagne’s elephant from my friend, Brian Matz, who works on Carolingian theological texts. I did a little research into the elephant and began to tell them about the story at bedtime. At first, they were not very enthusiastic, but within a few nights, they were hooked. The problem is, I ran out of material, so I had to do more research and embellish the story a little.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Charlemagne’s elephant, it goes something like this: Among the most unusual and interesting gifts sent to Charlemagne (c.742-814) was an elephant. Moreover, this elephant was sent by Harun al-Rashid (763/6-809), the Caliph of Bagdad, and fifth ruler of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), which had replaced the Umayyad caliphate, except in Spain and the western half of North Africa. This caliph was immortalized in the Arabian Nights. The caliph was hoping to form an alliance with the Franks against the Byzantines, ruled by the Empress Irene, who had offered Charlemagne the gift of her son in marriage to one of his daughters.
Charlemagne accepted only the elephant. Remarkably, the elephant survived the journey from Baghdad to Aachen, and actually lived for nearly ten more years. And, yes, Charlemagne apparently rode it into battle—but who wouldn’t? The elephant, understandably, drew not a little attention from the northern Europeans, who had never actually seen an elephant. The elephant even made it into the Royal Frankish Annals (Annales regni Francorum) and several biographies of Charlemagne.
The RFA covers the period from 741 to 829 and is considered the most important source for reconstructing Charlemagne’s reign. According to the RFA, Charlemagne sent envoys to the East, including the court of Harun-al-Rashid. Isaac the Jew had been sent to Persia several years earlier and returned with the elephant and other gifts. The RFA called the elephant Abul Abaz and later mentioned the sudden death of the elephant, in 810, while accompanying Charles, who was waiting to battle the Frisians on the other side of the Rhine, at Lippeham.
The best known biography of Charlemagne was written by Einhard (c. 770-840). In this account, the caliph thought most highly of Charlemagne, and gave him the “only” elephant he had at that time, simply because Charlemagne asked for it. The elephant is not mentioned again in the biography—his death went unnoticed by Einhard.
The unknown author of the Life of Charles (written in 888 to 891), referred to as the Saxon Poet, is the only account that explicitly mentions the excitement that the elephant produced among the Franks. All the excitement must have faded a bit—there is no other mention of the elephant afterwards. The Saxon Poet was, however, much more fascinated with the huge tent that the caliph also sent.
Notker the Stammerer or sometimes known as the Monk of St. Gall (c. 840-912) provides some interesting details not found in any other sources. The Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great has no mention of Isaac the Jew, but includes an account of the Persian embassy, which had great difficulty reaching Aachen because of the negative reactions of the Europeans they encountered.
In addition to the elephant, which is not named, Notker added monkeys to the list of gifts from the caliph. Notker also mentioned gifts from the King of Africa: a North African lion and a Numidian bear. Charlemagne gave the caliph Spanish horses and “German” hunting dogs, the latter gift, according to Notker, really impressed the caliph. As great as these gifts were, they, including the elephant, are not mentioned again.
Biographies of Charlemagne’s descendants make no mention of the elephant at all. Thegan, Ermoldus, the Astronomer, and even Nithard, a grandson of Charlemagne, failed to include the elephant.
What I find so fascinating about this early medieval (cf. the middle ages as the“dark ages”) event is how it reveals the extent of the interconnectedness of these three powers—which were culturally, religiously, and ethnically different. Another remarkable aspect of the story is the light it sheds on one of the great world civilizations, the Abbasid caliphate, in particular, the rule of Harun al-Rashid, every bit as comparable, in truth and in legend as Charles, son of Pepin.
Now, where does the monkey and mouse fit into all of this? I kind of ran out of material. It is difficult to keep their attentions, so I started adding some creative details. The monkey was just pure luck—I found out about the monkeys (Notker) after I had already included a monkey in the bedtime story. I figured, why not a monkey? And I was right. The name of the monkey is Emma, who likes monkeys and often acts like one. The elephant I named Zoe. They met at the Baghdad Zoo. This idea came from our “research” trip to the local animal prison, the Louisville Zoo.
Most believe it was an Asian type of elephant (the African kind has larger tusks and huge flapping ears) that may have been white or albino, but I could make up the species of monkey. I concluded it was a Asian elephant, probably of the Indian Asian subspecies. Bagdad had much easier access to trained Asian elephants—places like India had a long tradition of employing Asian elephants in battle. The zoo had both kinds, equally strange and magnificent. There are a lot of different kinds of monkeys. I decided on the Gelada, a monkey/baboon, only found in the highlands of Ethiopia.
This is all part of my plan: I wanted the elephant to be Indian—introduce the girls to India and the great religious traditions and cultures of this land: Hinduism and Buddhism primarily. The monkey was Ethiopian—a great way to introduce the ancient African-Coptic Christian tradition. So, the elephant is a Hindu, the monkey is a Christian, the animal trainer/transporter a Muslim, and Isaac, Charlemagne’s legate, is a Jew. I thought it was great way to introduce them to the rich cultural context.
So, the bedtime stories are based on an aspect from the “real story.” The elephant from India—cf. Ganesh. The monkey was made up, but it had to come from somewhere, and what better way to remind my girls of the universal spread of Christianity, both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches. Yeah, it didn’t go over too well with the girls—they just wanted to hear about the elephant and the monkey.
Thus far we have covered their meeting (two orphans living adjoining cages at the Baghdad Zoo) and their journey from Bagdad to North Africa and then to Italy and then Aachen. I had Isaac disguise the elephant as a big wagon so they could sneak past the Byzantines. The monkey rode on the elephant the rest of the way. There were adventures in the desert, on the ships they had to travel on, the hike over the Alps, and living in Aachen.
The elephant and the monkey were met by a church mouse in the large stable that housed them. His name was Alcuin, and he wore wire rimmed glasses, was tonsured and had a tiny monk’s habit—he was a church mouse, after all. The mouse tells them about Aachen and the Franks, and Charlemagne. They talk theology and other more important things like finding bananas—the monkey was dreaming of bananas since leaving Baghdad. They go skiing in the winter time, swim with Charlemagne in the river in the summer, and unwind in Aachen’s natural hot springs. They did not like going to war with Charlemagne, who insisted on taking the elephant to battle, when the elephant was obviously a pacifist. There was an incident when a fire broke out in the palace and the elephant and the monkey came to the rescue—and the idea of the fire hose was born.
I plan on continuing my research on this extraordinary event. Any help, either with the bedtime story or the scholarship would be greatly appreciated.
A great place to begin is The Medieval Charlemagne Legend: An Annotated Bibliography by Susan E. Farrier (Garland Medieval Bibliographies series, 1993). The section, “Relations with Moslems,” contains a good number that re-re-reexamines Pirenne’s thesis.
Jeff Sypeck’s Becoming Charlemagne (HarperCollins, 2006) is one of the few modern biographies that explores the elephant, and includes notes on recent work on the elephant, including two children’s novels about the elephant. Sypeck notes that Isaac is missing from these accounts.
The internet has a few interesting articles on the elephant:
Jon Mandaville, “An Elephant for Charlemagne,” provides a general overview of the gift.
Kristin Zeier, “Baghdad, Jerusalem, Aachen—On the Trail of the White Elephant,” is a news story that covers reports on the “Ex oriente: Isaac and the White Elephant” exhibition in Aachen, in 2003.
Richard Hodges, “Charlemagne’s Elephant,” History Today 50, no. 12 (Dec. 2000): 21-27, places the elephant in the context of long distance trade.
Alexander Hwang is a visiting professor at Brescia University.