Otto III

Otto III

The world had grown old and was even on the brink of death. To be sure, it was not known when Christ would return through the clouds to pass the Last Judgment on the miserable human race, but all indications were that the time was near at hand. Not a month went by when there was not a report of an erupting volcano, an earthquake, a falling star, a comet or a baby born with the body of a goose, etc. Now that the Muslims had devastated one of the most holy Christian places of pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostela, the dominion of the Antichrist, predicted by all the prophets to precede the second coming of Christ, seemed to have begun.

It was the year 1000 A.D. and the Emperor Otto III was traveling feverishly through Europe. This ascetic young man was burdened with the almost inhuman task of protecting his subjects against the tribulations of the end of the world. From Rome he travelled over the Alps, paid a visit to a martyr’s grave in Prague, appointed bishops for the recently converted Poles, and continued westwards without allowing himself a moment’s rest to visit his estates in Saxony.

Before proceeding to Rome to celebrate the millennium of Christ’s birth, the young monarch held court in Aachen. It was here that he did business with the nobles of the empire. He received the Polish sovereign who came to swear allegiance, and an envoy who invited him for a top-level meeting with the Burgundian King and Queen; he passed judgment in court cases, commissioned the building of a castle in Antwerp, gave orders for the distribution of alms and gifts and held audiences to receive oaths of allegiance. In the evenings there was entertainment: he laid on banquets for his guests and amused them with performances by singers, dancers, acrobats and jugglers. Even in this time of gloom and doom, the monarch spared nothing to give an impressive show.

On one of the church feast days he appeared in full regalia: Otto III – by the grace of God Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, principal servant of Christ and the Lord’s Anointed, King of Germany, Duke of Saxony, and so on, and so forth – wore his gold crown, set with precious stones, carried the orb and scepter, and was dressed in beautiful brocaded robes and purple boots. The Duke of Bavaria and other nobles served their sovereign as grooms during the procession to the Cathedral, and some hours later, when dinner was served, they poured his wine, served his meal and acted as his valets.

The wearing of ceremonial garb and the humbling of the nobles were customary ways to send out a very clear message as to who was the boss. However, Otto deviated from tradition in some small details. He did not sit on his throne which was decorated with hounds’ heads, but on a simple chair. And as if the cross on the orb was not enough indication of the emperor’s religion, he had a gold crucifix around his neck. Furthermore, he wore an old garment over his gold and purple robes. A penitent’s garment, the people present thought. Very quickly, however, they learned the origins of the unfamiliar objects. The young emperor had opened the tomb of the legendary emperor Charlemagne, who had ruled over Europe two centuries earlier. Otto had prayed for guidance, rearranged Charlemagne’s remains and taken Charlemagne’s seal, crucifix and mantle for himself.

Otto’s guests were deeply impressed. Their ruler demonstrated that he was not just the equal of Charlemagne but more: he showed himself to be a pious man who took care of a grave with respect and devotion. Should they have doubted the legitimacy of the rule of the young man, then this was the moment to dismiss those doubts. Their monarch was strong enough to break any kind of resistance, and in his scrupulousness he would be a good sovereign. The thought never occurred to anyone that it was more than a little macabre to don a century-old shroud.

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