Rabbit Hole #6: The Soul in the Boat
Hey, I know this is supposed to be an “off” week, but it has been a while since we brought you a Rabbit Hole episode and we've come across a series of stories that are germane to what we’ve been discussing, so we've decided to pop up in your feed for a quick hitter.
This week, we’re going to look at the path to Heaven and Hell, as described in the Middle Ages, and in particular as depicted in the story of one man’s journey. The notion of this path has been the source of a constant stream of writing, with many of our modern ideas springing wholly formed, à la Athena, from medieval visions. Probably the best known example of these writings come to us from Dante Alighieri, who wrote powerfully about his journey to the bottom of Hell and up through to Paradise in the Divine Comedy. Painters have used his motifs for years, and the most powerful example of these that we here at T+M have personally been able to go see is the art that resides in the Hell Staircase of the Burghley House, a huge Elizabethan residence and park that's situated not too far from where we currently live. This effect of the staircase is to lead the viewer up from the depths of Hell and into the Heaven Room, and it’s intense! The ceiling above the staircase is macabre, dark and harrowing, as one should rightfully consider the entrance to Hell to be; oddly, in this case, the entrance to Hell doubles as the mouth of a cat, which I thought was an interesting artistic choice. For what it’s worth, I’m not making any of these names - or the cat/hellmouth motif - up! If you want to see an awesome 360 tour of what I’m speaking about, follow this link to the Burghley House.
Anyway, going further down this Rabbit Hole, we’re going to take a look at the story of Dagobert and his near-miss with hell, a story which predates both Dante and the Burghley House Hell Staircase by over 500 years! It’s a wild ride, but there’s a moral to all of it which I’ll tell you up front; after I tell you, I’ll use the rest of the episode to explain how we got there. Anyway, the moral is this: Good friends, gifts to the Church, and adherence to the True Faith can save you from damnation; otherwise, prepare to ride a black stallion into Hell, the mouth of which resides in a volcano in Sicily!
Like I said, I’ll explain... For now, this is Thugs and Miracles.
Rabbit Hole #6: The Soul in the Boat.
“When goodly King Dagobert left this vale of tears, the dear God allowed Satan to seize his soul because he had not purged it of every sin. The devil took his soul and placed it on a ship and desired to sail the seas with it. But Saint Dionysius did not for- get his dear friend. He prayed to God that he might assist the soul and this request was also granted. St. Dionysius took with him St. Mauritius and other friends who had once honored and celebrated King Dagobert during his lifetime. A choir of angels also followed them and guided them to the sea. But when they met up with the devil, they did battle with him. The devil had little power over the saints, was soon vanquished and thrown out of the ship into the sea. The angels then collected Dagobert’s soul and Saint Dionysius with his choir of angels and saints returned to heaven.”
This telling of Dagobert’s harrowing escape from the clutches of the Devil comes to us from Grimm's Saga No. 439: King Dagobert’s Soul in the Ship. Now to be honest, I stumbled across this telling while in the middle of my research for the Dagobert episodes we just concluded. It was on the Webarchive site for the Fairy Tale Channel and, while the sourcing was a tad suspect, the way the story was written did sound like the type of crazy/nonsensical medieval story that we've come to love, so I dug a little deeper and was able to verify this telling as an actual Brothers Grimm story thanks to a 1986 article by Peter Dinzelbacher entitled, “The Way to the Other World in Medieval Literature and Art.” More than the Brothers Grimm, however, the story has also appeared in the Gesta Dagoberti, a chronicle on the life and deeds of Dagobert written sometime around 835 at the Abbey of Saint Denis. Now, given that I said in the opener that the moral of the story is all about keeping good friends, giving gifts to the Church, and adhering to the True Faith, well, we’re going to take this self-serving story about Dagobert, written by the monks at the Abbey of Saint Denis, with a very large grain of salt.
So, knowing that we have to be careful with how we accept the Gesta, what does the book say about Dagobert’s story. Well, first off, it makes the case for how Dagobert signed over all of his property and treasures to the Church right before he died, going so far as making his son, Clovis II, sign a document confirming the order. Now remember, Clovis II was only four or five years old at this point, so the story is already a little suspect, but the story does go on to mention that after his death, the gifts don't go forth as the king had wanted. Long story short, the monks of Saint Denis are saying, “The King totally wanted us to have all of his stuff,” making a case for how they had been cheated. Why they were saying this in a 1980s California surfer accent, I couldn’t explain. They also had the only known version of the king’s “will”, and were the ones writing his biography. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no doubt: it’s absolutely fascinating how many times the succession of kingdoms seems to have come down to the dying whispers of monarchs who tell their last words to the people who get bequeathed everything. I’m beginning to lose faith that this is a coincidence! Moving on...
From his book, “Hell and Its Rivals: Death and Retribution among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Early Middle Ages,” Alan Bernstein tells us that the following happened to Dagobert next:
“On the day that Dagobert died, his spirit was seen being maltreated by ugly demons who were conducting him in a rapid boat toward one of the seismically active volcanic islands of the Aeolian archipelago off the north coast of Sicily. The Frankish emissary, Ansoald of Poitiers, and his delegation, who were on a mission nearby, came ashore to meet a famous recluse, who informed them of this news. He told them that he had seen the king being drawn toward an active volcano... But, says the hermit, the king called out to Saints Denis, Maurice, and Martin with insistent appeals for his release. The saintly team intervened to transfer Dagobert to the Bosom of Abraham. The account ends with a reference to the king’s gifts to churches, which “he enriched far and wide...” Whatever the social, political, and economic context, Dagobert can be counted as one said to be saved, if not out of hell, certainly from the rim of its crater.”
Now, it wasn’t just the Franks saying that the mouth of Hell was in southern Italy. Again according to Dinzelbacher, stories perpetuating the end of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great point to Hell’s mouth being a volcano, and the nearest volcanoes to Ravenna - at least based on my limited geographical understanding - would be well further to the south, like Pompeii and Sicily. The story of Theodoric’s hell-ride is another nice bit of self-serving, with the most famous example of the story of Theodoric’s hell-ride residing in the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona and dating to around 1130. Theodoric, if you remember from Season 1, was an adherent of Arianism; as such, with Catholicism growing by leaps and bounds in the 12th century and Arianism disregarded as a heresy, it seems appropriate that the Church would portray the Great Goth as being deserving of such a fate. Throw in the story of his having killed a Pope, and well, we’ve got ourselves a story! Dinzelbacjer tells us, “the legend, which can be reconstructed by the help of many texts, tells how the king, having killed Pope John I, Symmachus and Boethius, was bathing when a hart, sent by the demon, came into his view. He jumped out, mounted a jet black horse, sent by the demon as well, and hunted the animal. But he was not able to dismount the horse which carried him straight into hell through a volcano.”
So there it is, another life lesson kids: never mount a conveniently placed horse when you set off to smite a deer. Given the amount of trouble we’ve seen Kings getting into whilst deer hunting, maybe just leave Bambi alone altogether. But I digress.
So now that we know that the mouth of Hell lies in southern Italy and in the mouth of a volcano - or an extremely large cat - let’s get to the end of today’s Rabbit Hole by looking at one last particularly germane spot: the tomb of le bon roi himself. You see, we can verify the Brothers Grimm version of the story of Dagobert and Saint Denis thanks to the tomb built in the 13th century by Louis IX, aka Saint Louis. Dagobert’s tomb is an intense and imposing monument in the heart of the Saint Denis Basilica, and I’ll be sure to have plenty of pictures posted to social media and the website.
Anyway, above the lying, recumbent effigy of Dagobert himself is a great and ornate set of carvings set out on three levels. On the lowest level we can see a relief of one of Dagobert’s primary life-event stories, the story of Saint Denis waking him while he slept on the Saint’s altar (an altar Dagobert found while deer-hunting; remember kids, fear the deer). Also along this lowest tier, we can see Dagobert sitting sadly in a boat with a slew of imps paddling him off to Hell.
Moving to Tier Two, we see Dagobert at the head of the boat, the imps behind him flung into the air and falling into the water as a collection of saints and angels come to take the King away from a wretched fate.
Finally, on Tier Three, we see Dagobert, exalted, ascending into Heaven and the “Bosom of Abraham.” Based on everything I've learned about Dagobert, if I ever had to pick a single friend that I could have for all time, it's definitely going to be Saint Dionysius, a.k.a. Saint Denis!
CONCLUSION: Alright, that’s brings us to the end of the Rabbit Hole! Thank you for indulging me as I got to tell a final story about Dagobert. For what it’s worth, considering the hero worship he has received historically, I think it’s telling that there’s such a body of tales that seems to agree that the Good King died without expunging all of his sins. This could be alluding to his early and unexpected death, but I think it could also be pointing to the notion that Dagobert wasn’t as clean-cut as he was made out to be. Taking part in two attempted genocides will do that to a guy. Anyway, I’ll have quite a few pictures going up on Instagram, Twitter and the website as a result of this story; head over to any or all of these to check them out!
OUTRO: Alright, thanks again to That’s Not Canon Productions; I’m proud as can be to be a part of their network, so if you’re looking for new and intriguing content when you’re done here, be sure to check their menagerie of shows at ThatsNotCanon.com. 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. We’ve made it easier than ever to sign up for our free email list, so please, take advantage of that so we can keep you up to date with announcements on new shows and our monthly newsletter. Speaking of email, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. Also be sure to check out the #TimeTravelTalks hashtag and account on Twitter and HistoryPods.com and their associated Twitter handle, @podsofhistory. Finally, as always, if you haven’t already, head over to your podcast player of choice and leave T+M and all of your other favorite pods a rating. We appreciate what you have to say, and as always, we appreciate you!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you again next week, as we continue to explore Thugs and Miracles.