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Rabbit Hole #5: Saint Eligius - Saddles, Thrones and All the Wrong Words

Chlothar II needed a new place to sit, a throne befitting his station as the new King of the Franks. He already had a throne that was to his liking in his original palace in Neustria, but now that he had won the crowns of Austrasia and Burgundy, he wanted to commission a piece that would, in no uncertain terms, tell the world that he was the new sovereign of both of these kingdoms as well.

Unfortunately, Chlothar’s desires, while sensible in a certain light, outstripped his resources. Raising armies was expensive work, and the payoffs he had had to make to ensure the loyalty of large groups of men had depleted his coffers. Another issue he had was figuring out where to put the new throne. If he put the throne in Metz, he would make the Burgundians believe he favored that northern kingdom above theirs. The same problem would arise if he did the reverse and placed a throne in Orléans. In the best of all worlds, he could have a seat in both.

With these headaches foremost in his mind, Chlothar called for artisans to whom he could at least try and discuss the commission. Several came before him, and to each he showed the gold and jewels with which he had to work. One, an Austrasian artist eager to work with his Kingdom’s new king, entered the court and inspected the materials. After a few moments, he drew himself aside and made a sketch of his envisioned work. This took only a few minutes to accomplish, which initially impressed Chlothar, as he expected a design of grand detail and would not have expected something of that magnitude to be drawn out quite so quickly. When he saw the design, he understood why it had taken so little time. The Austrasian had sketched out a very simple design, one that incorporated the gold and jewels into the seat back and nowhere else.

This is the best you can offer me?” the King asked.

“Your Grace, I tell you that it is the best that any man can offer to you. There is simply not enough gold here to work with. When the Queen Brunhilda ruled…”

The artisan instantly trailed off, realizing the mistake he had made by invoking that Queen’s name in this new King’s court. Chlothar made no response to the man, instead looking over his head to the guard standing at the chamber door. In seconds, the artisan was being dragged from the room by the soldier.

“Take him below,” the King ordered, “and help him learn to forget the word that just fell from his lips.”

While it gratified Chlothar to be in a position where he could forcibly put an end to that royal wench’s name, it did nothing to move his throne project forward. Realizing he would never be able to trust either a Burgundian or an Austrasian with this work, he sent one of his ministers to Tournai to search out to a proper Neustrian goldsmith.

Two weeks later, the minister returned with a young man in his mid-20s following in his wake. After making formal introductions, the minister handed the King a letter of recommendation for the young artisan written by the Royal Treasurer himself. It read:

“Your Grace, please accept, as my gift to you, the presence of the craftsman before you, Eligius. He has apprenticed under my tutelage for several years and has proven himself to be a young man of great renown, gifted beyond even myself in the metallurgical arts. I send him to you in full confidence that he will fulfill your commission with the utmost care and skill and will provide to you a full account of all material you provide to him. Your humble servant, Babo.”

Reading this note, Chlothar decided to end his search on the spot. He waved his arm toward the pile of gold and jewels with which his throne was to be designed and gave a simple instruction to artist: “You have two weeks.”

Eligius collected the gold and jewels and immediately set to work without so much as uttering another word. He worked day and night, taking rest only on the holy Sabbath day. When thirteen days had passed, Eligius sent word to the King that he was ready to present to him his commission. When everyone was in place in the court, he went to the King and handed him a small object: a golden ring.

“What is this?” the king demanded, instantly on guard against trickery. So many who had come before him had wished to defraud him and take from him, and at this moment he had no reason to expect any better from this young man.

“Your Grace,” Eligius explained, “what is in your hands is all that remains of the gold you have given to me. Babo instructed me to give you a full account of all of the materials you gave me, and that ring was set using the last of the gold left at the bottom of my smelter when your thrones were completed.”

“Thrones?” the King inquired, unsure if he had heard the young man correctly.

“Yes, your Grace,” Eligius clapped his hands, signaling the commission to be carried forward. “Thrones.”

Seconds later, the court’s servants entered the hall carrying not one, but two of the most magnificent thrones ever beheld by the eyes of any monarch, in any Kingdom. The chairs, gloriously poured and lovingly worked, had bees – the symbol of the Merovingian princes - carved into the sides and the back. Between these bees, the gems given to Eligius glittered and shined. Every inch of both of the chairs fought for attention, with each part of the design more lovely than that which preceded it.

Chlothar II, Eligius, and Two Thrones

“How did you manage this?” the King asked, thinking back to the other goldsmiths who claimed they would not be able to get even a single throne from what was offered, much less two.

“I used everything your Grace gave to me, which was more than ample to fulfill your request. I drew my designs on the day we parted and set to work to form the molds. As I poured the gold from the smelter, the good Lord was kind enough to ensure for me that your gift was more than adequate and was in fact enough to pour two of the same design. And one ring.”

The King was awestruck. He had become so used to sycophants, swindlers and users that he was scarcely able to comprehend the notion of an honest man, skilled in his craft and timely enough to not only meet the given deadline but to finish well in advance.

“You,” the King began, “are one who shall not leave my employ. As Babo, under whom you apprenticed, remains my treasurer in Tournai, I shall entrust you to go forth and serve for me as the master of the mint at Marseilles. A man of your skill, talent, and honesty deserves no less.”

With that, Eligius began his career in the Merovingian court. In the next 50 years he would rise in esteem and position, advising Kings at every step. He would offer himself to the Church, and when he finally died late in life, his reputation and his deeds, beginning with the seeming miracle of the two thrones, would secure for him a title that would ensure his memory would last as long as the Church he loved: Saint. This is Thugs and Miracles.

Rabbit Hole #5: Saint Eligius - Saddles, Thrones and All the Wrong Words

Alright, welcome back! I’m Benjamin Bernier, and… yeah, we’re still on a break. Still, I wanted to get back today with a quick, fun Rabbit Hole episode for four very good reasons. First, today, the 25th of August, is the one-year anniversary of the show! What started as an interesting research project designed to sate my curiosity over a painting I saw in Versailles has now turned into its own sort of beast, replete with the podcast, the website, script compilations, novel manuscripts and, most importantly, my very own library card to Cambridge University! Not a shabby start for a show that began in a closet in south-central Georgia! The original trailer was posted exactly one year ago today, and while it has since been replaced with a slightly more updated version, I still know that I posted it on 25 August because… well, that’s my birthday! That’s right, I’m ironically horrible with dates (which is probably not something I really want to be telling people who want to hear from a history guy) but anyway, I started the show on my birthday to have one less thing I’d have to remember. Anyway, if you feel like giving me a present, I’d love a rating for the show on your podcast player of choice. Five stars, a full write-up, or something in between; you know the drill!

Alright, my birthday was point number two, so point three: T+M is back to work full-time on 6 September. We’ve already got our first episode of Season Two hung up and ready to go, and we’re looking forward to another great year. We’re starting off with the second half of Chlothar II’s reign, the part where he’s the King of All of the Franks, and right away we see just how hard it could be to be the king. Seriously, the Mayors of the Palace start taking over in Season Two, and they start with our boy Chlothar. They have almost a mafia-type feel about them; the best way I can describe the vibe is if you remember the movie GoodFellas (and if you don’t, please hit pause now and go watch it, it’s Scorsese at his best). Anyway, there’s a scene where a restaurant owner makes a deal with a mob boss who he thinks is friendly with him so he can get some “protection.” Over the course of the next five minutes of the film, you see that same friendly boss use the restaurant as a front to steal everything he can. Eventually, he has the place burned to the ground. Chlothar and the Merovingians definitely would have been able to sympathize with the restaurant owner, and I’d say that this scene in particular will act as a pretty powerful analogy for us once we get fully into Season Two.

The fourth and final point for why we have brought all of you here today: it’s the story of Saint Eligius, or Saint Eloi as he’s known in French, and to briefly discuss the perils of mistranslation. Eligius’s origin story is a good story all on its own, but it’s also a really interesting case study of how translations can go wrong. You see, there are several paintings out there that attempt to show the scene we laid out above but do so by showing Eligius handing the King two saddles. Like, horse saddles. Heavy, back-breaking, lovely but functionally useless golden saddles. So, how did these paintings come about?

Two saddles? Depends who you ask...

Well, this is a case study in how translators need to know not only the direct meaning of any given word, but they also have to know how to read that word in the context of the text they’re given. In this case, the Latin word “sella” was used in the original written stories of Eligius. “Sella” can translate as saddle. Or… chair. Or… throne. All of which leaves the text in the hands of the appropriately knowledgeable people to tell us what exactly is going on. And Latin in general isn’t the easiest tongue to still find speakers for, which is living in 2020 and having access to social media can occasionally be awesome (as a side note: This is one of the few times I will ever say those words, about 2020 as a year or social media in general! Usually I find social media to be an outstanding way to jump off a cliff into deep, dark, and partisan waters, but it’s also the only place I can think of where I can tap out a note asking for translation support of a dead language and get a response back within the day. Seriously, tremendously big ups go out from us to Medievalist Matt on Instagram. He’s an Associate Professor of History and Latin at Ohio Dominican University, and we can’t thank him enough for taking the time to break down some of the things we’re talking about. If you’re not already following him on Instagram @medievalistmatt, you’re missing out. The links are in the show notes).

Anyway, back to our narrative: I was saying that Latin isn’t easy to find translators for today; well, it wasn’t easy back in medieval times either. Most people who could understand the language were associated with the Church; if you were a lay person, you could accept their translations or… you could accept their translations. Most people wouldn’t have had a fallback in these cases, so if you’re a painter and the local monastery is telling you that Eligius made two saddles for Chlothar, well, you’re going to paint Chlothar getting two saddles. Even if a golden saddle seems kind of silly, illogical, or impractical. Beyond Eligius, however, there are some other examples of mistranslations that have made for interesting stories and paintings. We’ve got three of our favorites right here to tell you about.

The first comes from the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail), written in Old French in the early 13th century (and as another side note, a lot of the King Arthur story appears to have been written by the French; I’m not sure if I’m alone or not in finding it odd that one of the great mythological foundation stories of England was given a healthy dose of flair by the people they’ve gone to war with a few hundred times. But I digress…) In the Quest, a passage exists that describes a battle between Lancelot and a "une main toute enflammée", a flaming hand. Unfortunately, the English scribe translating the text misread "main" as "nain", also highlighting the importance of penmanship. Anyway, the French word “nain” translates directly to the English word “dwarf.” So, yeah, Lancelot went from fighting a man with a supernatural and pretty cool fire hand, to going into battle against a flaming dwarf. In our current vernacular, that turn of phrase could go down a path of its own, and no, I’m not going to walk that.

Flaming dwarves? Sure, why not...

This moves us to our second example: Horned Moses. Yep, I said horned. You see, the Vulgate Bible, written in Latin, used the word “cornuta” to describe Moses. The translators of the Vulgate Bible, drawing from Hebrew, appear to have taken the Hebrew word “keren,” which probably was going for a meaning of being radiant or radiating light, like a halo, and instead went with “keren’s” other possible meaning: growing horns. The Latin translators rolled with this latter meaning, the idea of Moses sprouting horns took a life of its own, which artists put it into effect. And not just any artist, but arguably the artist of all artists: Michelangelo. That’s right; if you head to the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, Italy, you can lay eyes on the master’s rendition of Moses, complete with nubby little horns popping out of his head. And one has to wonder: did Michelangelo find that just a little bit strange? Did he just accept, as Gospel truth, the interpretations of Latin and Hebrew coming from the mouths of people in the Church who he trusted? Would he have been in trouble if he had argued with them? And what’s more, what would he use to argue with them if he himself didn’t speak the relevant languages? These are all fair questions and may go a long way to illuminate some of the more... interesting versions of history and art that have made their way down to us, from Michelangelo and more!

Moses... with horns
Like, actual teeny horns...

Our final example shows how mistranslations can slander the reputation of even Kings, changing the way people view them forever. In Frank McLynn’s book, “1066,” he notes that Ethelred, one of the early Saxon kings of England, has been doomed for eternity in history and legend “by foisting on him the unforgettable nickname ‘the Unready’. Even though this is a mistranslation of un-raed – literally lack of counsel or decision – a wicked pun derived from the proper name Ethelred (which means ‘good counsel’) and applied by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers as an epithet to the king for his indecisiveness in the years 1011 and 1016, the mud has stuck.” That’s right, Ethelred the Unready; it’s just catchier for historians than Ethelred of Good Counsel. And it goes again to show that your legacy really does lie in the hands of those tell your story. Be sure to tip your publicists…

With all of this said, what can we take from this discussion. First off, direct translations are hard, no matter which languages are involved. Machines are getting better at this, but they’re not foolproof. As a small example of something that could get you into big trouble, go ahead and type in the phrase, “I am very excited” into the Google Translate English to French translator. You should receive the phrase, “Je suis très excité.” This looks pretty straightforward, right? I mean, it’s a super simple four-word phrase that doesn’t deviate at all from English insofar as sentence structure, and even includes a cognate. Now, go say this phrase to a random native French speaker. There’s a possibility that they will a) look at you weird, b) slap you, or c) both of the above. This is because excité in French, in this context, relates more to a person’s state of sexual arousal than to feelings of happy, positive, non-sexual intentions as we would mean by saying excited in English. Translations are based on context, language, eras, and so on and so forth. Throw bad handwriting, cognitive biases, poorly preserved texts, and a lack of cultural understanding into the mix and things can go downhill fast. Like flaming dwarf fast.

Second off, keep all of this in mind the next time you go to an art museum. It will give you a new appreciation for golden saddles and horned statues of Moses. Knowing that the artists of yesteryear were doing the best they could with what they were told by people who they trusted, who in turn were doing the best they could, and so on and so on, helps us understand that there was oftentimes a certain case of the Xerox effect going on, wherein the original copy of almost anything changes and morphs over time as more and more reproductions are made, and in our case, as more people get involved. And these issues don’t stop with Renaissance painters and sculptors; these errors are still made today, and from what I’ve read in the news lately, it’s a little easier to spread disinformation today than it was at any other time in history. This is a long way of saying that, despite all efforts, mistakes can still be made, and people like yours truly ask your forgiveness when and if something like this ever happens. Almost everyone starts off at least trying to get the story right, and as far as this show is concerned, if you let us know, we’ll do our best to fix it. Audio and writing are a lot more malleable than stone. Which leads me to one last thought: you have to have wondered exactly how Michelangelo felt, as he carved into the marble that would become his rendition of Moses, knowing full well that the end result was going to be an exquisitely rendered, powerful and striking representation… of a goat-man.

CONCLUSION: Okay, we’ll leave off there for today. As I said earlier, we are less than two weeks away from resuming our normal production schedule, so be sure to check out your podcast feed on 6 September and every subsequent ten days as we get into Season Two. I would like to thank all of you who made Season One a real success for us, and for having a bit of patience over this summer break as we tie up a lot of loose ends over here. Seriously, we’ve been working hard pretty much every day on some aspect of the show, and usually multiple aspects of the show, and having a little breathing room in the production schedule really has made it easier for us to get you a more polished end product. It has been a great working holiday for us, and we hope that your summer has been as good as it can be as well. And for everyone listening who has had their life disrupted, distracted, disordered, dislocated or otherwise disturbed in the past few months, well, we hope that our show provides a little distraction from what has otherwise been a crazy year. We’ll see you in under two weeks as we go ahead and try to finish it out strong, together.

OUTRO: Alright, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode, a list of sources, an updated monarchy/family tree, and also a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com. Be sure to sign up for our free e-mail list so I can keep you up to date with all things T+M and announcements on new shows; thanks to B. Dalstra for being among the most recent to join us there! Speaking of email, you can write to me at thugsandmiracles@gmail.com, you can hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. We always look forward to talking with our friends on social media and growing our network, and because of that we really highly recommend that, if you haven’t already, you check out the #TimeTravelTalks hashtag and account on Twitter, as well as HistoryPods.com and their associated Twitter handle, @podsofhistory. You won’t be sorry! All of this information is in the show notes and in the transcript at the website!


Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in just a few more weeks when we go down another Rabbit Hole, and then a few weeks after that when we get back into Season Two of Thugs and Miracles.

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