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Charles the Bald: the Story of an Epithet


Anderson, Margaret Audrey (2020) Charles the Bald: the Story of an Epithet. Senior thesis (Major), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/jsfq-q743.


For centuries, historians have followed the lead of their forebears by using standardized names to refer to people and events. The use of 'Charles the Bald' to refer to Charlemagne's grandson has been reinforced via centuries of copying, paraphrasing, and citing historical documents. The sobriquet is now inextricably linked to the man. But in the simple process of writing the epithet, it is easy to forget how much complexity is distilled into one word. Any sophisticated metaphors or hidden meanings have been nearly erased by time. But, this one word carries a wealth of nuance in meaning and intentions. Any analysis of this nickname must attempt to reconnect with the medieval mindset and understand how to reconcile the simplicity of the epithet with the complexity of the man. The investigation of Carolus Calvus (Charles the Bald) must consider not only Charles' own legacy and physical reality, but also evaluate the nickname as part of a larger naming phenomenon. Furthermore, understanding the way the medieval mind saw hair and baldness is instrumental in understanding the possible deeper meanings behind Charles' epithet.

Was Charles the Bald actually bald? Here are the facts: first, the true origin of Carolingian epithets (nicknames given to the kings of Charles' dynasty) will never be known, but their use and proliferation were certainly fueled by the need to distinguish between the overlapping names of the Carolingians. Second, the alliterative nickname Carolus Calvus, could come from as early as 869 or as late as the 10th century. The earliest written use of the epithet appears in a manuscript dated to the 10th century. However, the document is a copy of a text originally drafted before 869. Thus, the nickname could either be contemporary with Charles as a part of the original text or created up to a century after his death and added for clarity in the tenth century copy. Third, Hucbald's incredible alliterative poem on baldness, his Ecloga de Calvus (In Praise of Bald Men), was not written for Charles, as many historians once believed, but it does demonstrate that bald men were ridiculed in the ninth century and symbolically ties baldness to virtue and holiness. Fourth, Charles' grandson, Baldwin II of Flanders was known as 'the bald' by the 11th century; he seemingly inherited the nickname despite not being bald himself.

In their analysis of Charles' nickname, many historians conclude that the meaning is obvious and undeniable, that Charles was simply bald. Regardless of how much time these scholars spend analyzing other Carolingian epithets such as Charlemagne (Charles the Great), Louis the Pious, or Charles the Simple, Charles the Bald was 'obviously' bald. From the facts and theories cultivated during this thesis, however, there is no reason to believe that Charles was truly bald. There are no images or descriptions of a bald king and a significant lack of mocking from Charles' enemies and detractors. Furthermore, Charles certainly had hair into his early adulthood and the poet Hucbald, who lived in Charles' court for a time, does not address the king directly in his poem praising of bald men. Charles may have been called the bald in his lifetime, as the adoption of the epithet by his grandson would suggest, yet the nickname's earliest recorded use can only be certainly dated to the late tenth century. It is entirely possible that Charles' byname and its use by his grandson were invented by post-contemporary historians looking to distinguish between the Carolingians and make their mark on Charles' legacy. A non-physical baldness could symbolize any number of things via its negative associations with old-age, immorality, and low status or positive associations with humility, piety, and prudence. For Charles, it likely referenced a symbolic infertility tied to Charles' difficulty in producing a suitable male heir as well as the subsequent sunset of the Carolingian dynasty.

Item Type:Thesis (Senior thesis (Major))
Subject Keywords:Medieval history; European history; Carolingian history; epithets; sobriquets; naming; baldness
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy
Major Option:History
Awards:Library Friends' Senior Thesis Prize, 2020. Margie Lauritsen Leighton Prize, 2018.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Brown, Warren C.
Group:Senior Undergraduate Thesis Prize
Thesis Committee:
  • None, None
Defense Date:29 May 2020
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06032020-102905204
Persistent URL:
Anderson, Margaret Audrey0000-0002-0355-0994
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:13772
Deposited By: Margaret Anderson
Deposited On:03 Jun 2020 18:23
Last Modified:29 May 2024 18:09

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