Charlemagne’s rag and bone collection. Aachen, Germany. 2009

When I was very young I read a biography of Charlemagne by his chronicler Einhard, so from that time I’ve had an interest in him and it was for this reason we (my wife, Engogirl and I) visited Aachen in Germany. Aachen’s big claim to fame is that it was Charlemagne’s capitol and he built a cathedral there known as the Dom.

The original Dom was an eight sided church that was originally built 1,200 years ago and it has been so rearranged; added to and redecorated that as our tour guide said, “you will not see any Carolingian decoration, only Carolingian form.

Years ago I visited the famous cathedral in Chartes, France and the guide there said that an analysis of the mathematics of gothic architecture hadn’t led to an understanding of the origins and reasons behind the design style. A few years after I’d been to Chartes, I was lying on my back on an autumn day in the forest in British Columbia; as I looked up at the deciduous trees over arching me with their multicoloured leaves I was suddenly made conscious of where the gothic architects got some of their inspiration from.

In the belly of an alien beast thinking about alien ideas whilst looking into the face of the giant boogeyman in the sky

In the picture above, of a gothic addition to the Dom you can also see where H R Giger (the designer of the “Alien” movies) may have mined some of his ideas from.

Whilst listening to the guide talk about the various changes that the Dom has been through, I found myself thinking of what Joseph Campbell had to say in his “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” about the oedipal desire in the immature for things to stay the same.

In today’s western culture there is a reverence for things that are old just because of the fact that they are ancient. Cultures like the Japanese don’t care that much if something is old; they are more interested in if it is good on an aesthetic level.

The Dom was changed over the years to suit whatever the prevailing taste of whoever was in charge was. As I thought about the mentality of the people who decided to make the changes, I wondered if they made the changes through a self confident and mature sense of themselves or was it just pure ignorant arrogance. I’m pretty sure it was arrogance, but at least it got me thinking.
Is our reverence for old things, and desire to preserve them a manifestation of an oedipal desire for things to stay the same; the intellectual equivalent of not wanting to grow up? Are we now an anally retentive culture?

If our ancestors had the same attitude to the past and old things as we do, then no new art would’ve been produced to cover or replace the old, and our culture would’ve become as moribund as ancient Egyptian culture which didn’t change that much for thousands of years.

Another thing that caught my attention at the Dom was all the relics. First off there was the garments of Mary, the diaper of Christ and the beheading cloth (WTF!) of John the Baptist.

Yeh right!

I wish I was around when that load of crock was sold; I’d have been in with an offer to sell them a bridge.


To be fair to the contemporary people of Aachen, all the descriptions of the relics are prefaced in the tourist literature with, “the so called”. I got the impression that nowadays, no one outside of the church seriously thought that the relics were anything more than the products of medieval con artists. I’d also be willing to bet that there wouldn’t be too many Jesuits who think that the “so called” relics were real.

Then there was the alleged throne of Charlemagne (no one is sure he ever sat in it), said to be made from marble from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s a fairly pedestrian affair (I was reminded of an outhouse seat) but the interesting thing about it and the relics is that that were all used to add legitimacy to Charlemagne’s rule and the rule of those who followed him.

God always seems to get dragged into whatever causes suits those in power. Funny how every side sees god as being on their side. I suppose for many people in power way back then, the fact that they were in power, was proof of god’s favour. It’s sort of similar to the thing that those bible thumping evangelists who are into “prosperity preaching” go on about. I’m rich and powerful, therefore god is my co-pilot or god is my co-pilot and therefore I will be rich. The need for physical proof of the existence of god in the form of relics goes against the whole Christian teaching of the need to have faith alone. I guess back in Charlemagne’s times, Christianity was still on shaky ground. The same could be said for some congregations in parts of today’s affluent cultures. 

In the Dom there is also what is left of Charlemagne’s bones. Apparently there are only about 50% remaining, due to various bits and pieces ending up in other churches and hands. It would seem that everyone wanted a piece of the legitimacy that anything to do with Charlemagne bestowed.

All the talk of Charlemagne’s bones reminded me of The Venerable Bede’s book, “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. In Bede’s book he mentioned about the medical practices of the 8th century. Bede told of how prayers were said over the sick person and “holy” relics (usually the bones of a saint) were waved over the affected area. Since Charlemagne was eventually canonised, his “relics” would’ve held powerful juju in the minds of many believers back in the old days.

It sounds an awful lot like the witchcraft from Africa that is lampooned so often in movies.

When you think about it, twelve hundred years ago isn’t that long ago. If a generation can be considered to be twenty five years, then a thousand two hundred years would be forty eight generations. It might sound like a lot but imagine a group of forty eight, twenty five years olds and you’d be looking at a thousand two hundred years manifest in the flesh in one hit.

We’re not that far ahead of cultures that we think of as primitive.

9 thoughts on “Charlemagne’s rag and bone collection. Aachen, Germany. 2009”

  1. Thanks razz!
    You’ve given me a lot to think about before bedtime.
    You are all over the place on this one: I will have to re-group and come up with a synthesizing reply.

  2. Where to start?? You say “many people in power way back then thought that the fact that they were in power, was proof of god’s favour.” As evidence that things have not changed, Google “The Family” or “C Street Center” to read about a semi-secret American organization of powerful right-wing-nuts who believe something similar about themselves. God is definitely on their side… unfortunately, if true, that must mean he is not on yours or mine. Lots of the members of “The Family” are male politicians who have been caught in bed with the wrong women, but that’s ok. What matters is god’s blessing of their power and use of it to further The Family’s goals.

    On a different subject, I wonder if our current “respect” for things old is just an artifact of how fluid and superficial most of western culture has become. Or perhaps, it’s just a status symbol, because there are only so many old things and to possess one brings status. Cynical today, huh?

  3. Dave

    I know a little about a lot of things, and a lot about nothing. The older I get the more I realise how little I know. Don’t ever hand my control of your plane when it’s flying because it’s all going to end in screams and tears!


    Have a toasted cheese whiz sandwich and weird dreams about it all. I look forward to your report.


    “read about a semi-secret American” I was alluding to that sort of thing but I didn’t want to mention the US because I know that you guys can feel a bit set upon at times. All that fundamentalist whacko Christian stuff from the States is starting to infiltrate Australian society and unfortunately a lot of people back home “throw the baby out with the bath water”, when it comes to all things American.

    A pity really.

    As for the fluidity of our culture, I think you may be onto something there. I once read that there is more information in a week’s worth of of one modern newspaper that what a 17th century person would’ve been exposed to in their whole life. I’d be willing to bet that the people of the past longed for change and were sick of the old, whereas I feel that some of us nowadys feel overwhelmed by all the change and want to slow things down. This is sort of what I meant by “the oedipal desire in the immature for things to stay the same”. A baby that has so little experience of the world can sometimes have a very difficult time with sharing their “mother” with the rest of the world, as they become more aware of everything around them.

  4. lots on my mind but first a question – what kind of a bridge?

    I guess dear old Marx was right on this one – it is opium for the people. And not very enlightened ones too. When I got a bit more acquainted with (Bosnian) Serb Orthodox beliefs, I realised it was not a religion but an organised universum of superstitions. NOthing more.

  5. Well, I heard it here first: “the diaper of Christ”. Couldn’t concentrate after reading that.
    But, that photo is a knockout! I love the image of you stretched out beneath a forest in British Columbia and while looking up at the arched trees understood some of the inspirations of gothic architecture.

    May I make a request for a future blog post? (Yes, Pat, I can hear you)

    Ok. You said this was the first time you had traveled around Europe and been able to afford to stay at nice spots instead of hostels, camping and the like.

    Could you post about some of your accommodations and what difference that makes in your experience of traveling??


  6. Grasswire

    “what kind of a bridge” Sorry but I don’t understand what “bridge” you are referring to.

    Marx was right about quite a few things and just like the words of various religious people from the past, his words were twisted to suit other purposes that he didn’t intend.


    Glad you liked the picture and I’d like to know what you think about the “the oedipal desire in the immature for things to stay the same”. Much of this article was written with you in mind, so do me a favour and read past the diaper crack (by the way I didn’t make that up, one of the relics is supposed to be Christ’s swaddling clothes).

    I look forward to your report (my assignment to you).

    I’ve been photographing so many things and thinking about so much stuff that I’m having a hard time posting all about what I’m seeing right now, let alone digress about what I’ve done in the past. If you could remember to ask me your request in about 3 months I’ll get onto it for you, I promise.

    In short, travelling without money can be a bit like looking through a window at a feast; one can feel left out because you don’t have the money to join the banqutet on display and all you can do is just look at it all with your nose up against the glass.

    When you have the money, you do what ever you want, whenever you want.

    As sort of an example, we meet an American guy (of similar age to myself) the other day hiking around the town walls (a longish and steep walk) of Bacharach with his backpack on because he didn’t want to leave in storage for the day because he didn’t want to spend 4 Euros (about $6 US). For us the walk was a lovely unencumbered walk on a perfect day, for him it was a bone jarring slog on a day that so hot enough to make him dripping wet with sweat.

    I don’t know if you can tell, but we’re really enjoying ourselves and it’s been great so far.

  7. Ok. Just remember, you asked me to put on my thinking cap.

    Just random thoughts while reading:

    Western culture may revere old inanimate objects, but I don’t think that reflects that oedipal desire you spoke of, cuz I’m really not an oedipal freudian girl for one, but can more relate to how western culture treats old people.

    Now, that appears to get closer to wanting “things to stay the same” category and I don’t think it has to do with Oedipus.

    The Japanese culture, actually, appears to be the reverse of our own culture in that respect. I don’t know a great deal about their culture except have read about the tradition of respecting and caring for their elderly is in stark contrast to the US. As you point out perhaps that is due to their respecting something by its “aesthetic” value and they are more open to the elderly being a repository of aesthetic value along with their wrinkles and aches and pains. Western culture simply is bankrupt when it comes to knowing how to look and care for the elderly. No hospital, nursing facility, rehab facility, or home care business could operate without the immigrants who come to this country with a tradition of respecting their elders.

    I don’t agree with your thesis that no new art would have been created if ancient cultures had the same attitude that we do. Not because I want to go toe to toe with you on this as I don’t really think deeply about this as you do, but I guess I’m not totally buying your definition of what our attitude is now nor that ancient cultures didn’t have a touch of the same thing as well. Nor, that the changes you note in the Dom were all due to arrogance.

    I do think that the creative impulse can survive the Taliban. Perhaps, not my creative impulse but some artists. It finds a way. You may not find funding and you might get murdered but I think creativity is that essential to human nature.

    Oh, my head hurts now.

  8. Okay I’ve been thinking about this and am entwined in your

    ” I wondered if they made the changes through a self confident and mature sense of themselves or was it just pure ignorant arrogance.”

    There are so many reasons for changing something … and a fair number for wanting things to remain the same. I’m thinking more of all things, not just buildings.

    Arrogance; Ignorance; True belief that something new is better, more user friendly, is better suited for the times, fits better with the people’s outlook on life, standards, morals, wants, needs, economy, …
    I think all these things factor in to change: some for the good, some for the bad. In the long run the bad will be discarded and the good will be improved upon, refined, …

    I’m an optimist.

    As for things remaining the same, I don’t like change for change sake. I like changes that make a positive difference: maybe these changes have bad qualities that go with them, but eventually … at some time in the future the bad will be discarded and the good made better.

    I am truly an optimist.

    As for architecture; technology guides. If someone can do something different and new, then it will probably be done. In the future the good elements will be kept and the bad discarded … until something changes and the old is deemed outmoded … then it will probably turn into a tourist attraction or bulldozed/lasered/recycled into something else.

    My lifetime is limited. I can only appreciate the old things with wondrous eyes and the new with suspicion,envy, or awe.

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