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I had one of those forehead-slapping, “Why didn’t I think of that?” moments when I saw the comment on the Historical Novel Society Facebook page. It was a thoughtful–and very helpful–response to my post about Western Europe’s first organ, a gift from the Byzantine emperor to the Frankish King Pepin (Charlemagne’s father) in 757. (Special thanks to M.M. Bennetts and Tinney S. Heath for suggesting sources.)

The comment made a reference to Notker, also call Notker Balbulus, or the Stammerer (did I mention medieval people weren’t politically correct?). In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker described an organ. And it is a true gem:

“The chief of these was that musicians’ organ, wherein the great chests were made of brass: and bellows of ox-hide blew through pipes of brass, and the bass was like the roaring of the thunder, and in sweetness it equalled the tinkling of lyre or cymbal.”–From The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne, posted on Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Notker the Stammerer

Image from Wikipedia. A 10th century illustration of Notker from a medieval manuscript (published before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.).

Actually, I know why I didn’t think of Notker. In fact, I had written him off as a reliable source a long time ago. Notker’s anecdotes about Charlemagne were written in 883-4, seven decades after the emperor’s death in 814. But that’s not the only reason I hesitate to use his book.

It’s Notker’s personality, which shines through his book. We all know people like Notker, chatty types who embellish stories they’ve heard and/or just make stuff up. Scholars have had a similar reaction to mine when they’ve read Notker’s stories.

In the quote above, I question the veracity of the incident he is describing–a visit from the Byzantines during which the Frank secretly reverse engineered musical instruments. If that were the case, Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s heir, would have no need in 826 to transport a Venetian priest to Aachen to build an organ–and order his treasurer to provide the priest with everything he needed. The source for this information is the much more reliable Royal Frankish Annals, although its authors, too, have embellished or omitted information to suit their purposes.

But Notker’s description is as close as I can get to what an organ from this era looked and sounded like. So, just this once, I’ll use his work.