The Battlefield Of Alischanz




olfram’s supposed source, the Bataille d’Aliscans, contains – apart from the title – absolutely nothing of any use in trying to locate Wolfram’s battle scene Alischanz.

Wolfram’s description, on the other hand, leaves no doubt that it is located near Arles in the south of France. Were Wolfram von Eschenbach really solely dependent on this source, as is now generally believed to be the case, he would then have succeeded in somehow managing to personally complement this topographically sparse Bataille d’Aliscans in such a way that the scene of the two mighty battles – which on the basis of the ‘source” could just as well be found in Catalonia or at the mouth of the river Gironde – can without fail be located in the region of Arles.

          The decisive reference to this locality is the mention of the sarcophagi lying on that part of the battlefield on which in certain phases the second battle raged.

          Wolfram’s reference to these sarcophagi has been unjustly devalued by Wolfram researchers by saying that Wolfram would have known of the legend of the miraculous sarcophagi in Alischanz by the accounts of a traveller or by the Kaiser-Chronik (Imperial Chronicle of Charlemagne). In this decisive geographical detail, it is however not the legend that matters according to which on the morning after the first battle all fallen Christians were found buried in stone coffins, but the quite concrete geographical indication that such sarcophagi were scattered on Alischanz and the fact that in his description of the second battle Wolfram mentions these coffins every time that in various phases of the battle, the fighters stormed over this field scattered with these stone coffins.

          The battlefield of Alischanz has several sections, which are characterized by Wolfram as mountain, slope, wet meadow, lowland, moor, woods, sarcophagi, source, marsh, salt lake, Larkant, ford and sea. All the names of these landscape components are definitions for specific geographical localities. The section of the landscape that Wolfram depicts with the sarcophagi is only part of the greater battlefield. It is that part that has lent the whole battlefield its name and that even today can be defined by the metre, because through excavations archaeologists have established the exact size of this ancient necropolis.

          Whoever prepares to reconstruct the battlefield of Alischanz with the aid of Wolfram’s exact references, is well advised to begin with this clearly defined cemetery. Today, the sarcophagi are no longer to be found where they were placed two thousand years ago by the Romans and later by the Christians, and where they were seen by Willehalm in the 9th century, by Wolfram four hundred years later and by Mylius one thousand years after the battle. The last remaining sarcophagi, which were left over after their destruction or removal, were lined up along the avenue called les Alyscamps on the outskirts of Arles (Plate 9).



Plate 9. Les Alyschamps in Arles, France


The most beautiful specimens are now in the Louvre Museum in Paris and in the Musée d’Art Chrétien (Museum of Christian Art) in Arles. One sarcophagus is in Saint-Guilhelm-le-Désert, the place where Willehalm lived in quiet seclusion after having retired from public life. At the beginning of the 19th century a traveller named Mylius still described this large cemetery as follows:


From here one arrives at a fairly large plain, it is called: the Elysian Fields, Aliscamps according to the Provençal dialect. They are situated on the eastern part of the town Arles; everything that one gazes upon here leads one’s soul to melancholy and serious contemplation. Not far from the place where the masterpieces by Plautus and Terence were performed, the ground is scattered with antique stone coffins lying there as if thrown in disarray by an earthquake…Yet the chaotic position of these sarcophagi is not the work of destructive elements, but the result of human greed. Dastardly church-robber hands broke the tops of a great number of sarcophagi open and destroyed their outer parts in order to grab the precious stones that were believed to be in them…[1]


This description illustrates how well Wolfram is informed about this area, when in his battle report – in which his main concern are not the coffins, but characterizing the terrain – he depicts the precise course of the battle. As such, he does not forget to mention the coffins that are lying about, for example (Wh. 386:2):


          nu was Matusaleses kint,                                Now Matusales’ child,

          der mine gerende Josweiz,                              love-seeking Josweiz,

          zorse komn. des puneiz                                   rode forth. His massed attack

          was von maneger storje starc.                        was many a contingent strong

          beidiu heide und sarc                                     and both heathland and coffins

          wart getrett al gelîche.                                    were trampled down.


Or (Wh. 394:20):

ob der getoufte sarke                                     Could it be that the baptized men’s coffins

nu mit starken huofslegn                                are trampled now

iht wol getretet werden megn?                        beneath harsh hooves?


Or (Wh. 437:20):

al über die sarcsteine,                                    Over all the stone coffins

dâ die gehêrten lâgen,                                    where lay the exalted dead

die ze himele rouwe pflâgen,                          who were at peace in heaven,

mit sweten an den furt gement                        with swords to the ford

wart manc esklîr, der ungewent                      was driven many an eskelir

was daz er fliehen solte.                                 who was not accustomed to fleeing.


It must be recognized that with these concise words – simply according to his precise knowledge of the site – Wolfram says that the described phase of the battle takes place at a cemetery. He did not want to boast about the fact that his knowledge went beyond the source drawn from the Kaiser-Chronik (Carolingian Imperial Chronicle). Wolfram speaks as an objective reporter who knows that the Esklirs, unaccustomed as they were to fleeing, did just that towards the ford, passing the cemetery at this special spot (Plate 10).



Plate 10. Cemetery at Les Alyscamps in Arles, France


Mentioning the coffins was of no greater or lesser importance to him than mentioning the ford across the Larkant, or referring to the battle-calls Ipern and Arras yelled out by the Flemish in full pursuit of the infidels. He describes in all objectivity a certain phase of the battle with the reserve of a true battle correspondent, fully conscious of the fact, as he himself states, that his work can only be taken seriously by avoiding all fantasy.

          In connection with the last quotation (Wh. 437:20), it will now be shown how, starting from this passage, a topography of the battlefield can be drawn up. The infidels are fleeing. They are moving in the direction of their ships, i.e. southwards. Below the cemetery, at the ford, they cross the Larkant. Riding on in the same direction, they would soon reach the sea, for behind the stream the sea was, after all, visible from Willehalm’s observation post in this direction. By looking at a map and following the path of the fleeing warriors from the cemetery southwards, we come down at the slope to the canal from Arles to Port-de-Bouc. This canal or the body of water that was encountered there at the time is called Larkant by Wolfram (Plate 11).



Plate 11. Drawbridge over Wolfram’s Larkant


On the other side of this waterway we reach the plain Plan du Bourg, behind which we come across the main arm of the Rhone. According to Wolfram’s description we should now not reach the Rhone, but the ships at sea. As it turns out, however, the place where according to Wolfram we ought to find the ships, lies 40 km. away from the sea. Our reaction to this will depend on whether we consider Wolfram a poet or a historian. With the hypothesis that he is a poet, the matter is soon resolved: a sea would fit in here better according to Wolfram’s composition, and a poet has all the right in the world to do this.

Whoever halfway recognizes Wolfram’s resolve to be exact, says to himself: Wolfram could be right. Terramer’s fleet sailed up the Rhone and is now anchored keel to keel with the front line at the outskirts of the town Arles on the left bank of the Rhone: from keel to keel, a line stretching three miles long. A small rowboat serving as gangplank is tied from each keel to the shore. This formation corresponds absolutely to the way ships are moored in a river port. The fleet could not anchor this way at sea. Everything falls into place, down to the assertion that the seashore is here. But knowing how accurately Wolfram uses his words, one cannot be satisfied with this assumption yet. One scrutinizes the hydrology of the Rhone and, taking into account several changes in the bedding, learns that through alluvium the mouth is shoved yearly 30 meters further out into the sea. 1150 years ago – at the time of the battle in the second decade of the 9th century – the open sea must therefore have been 1150 times 30 meters or 34.5 km. closer to Arles. This would, according to Wolfram, be about the place where the end of the keel line of the anchored fleet must be situated.

Whether this is exactly right can of course only be established by examining the actual geological circumstances. For the time being, the rule of thumb of the average yearly deposit may suffice in order to arrive at the assumption that Wolfram’s reference could in principle be right: Terramer anchored in the mouth of the Rhone. At the place where the Rhone used to flow into the Mediterranean Sea, Terramer anchored his ships in river traffic formation from keel to keel. The Larkant canal that ran parallel to the Rhone formed a natural barrier behind which Terramer set up position and defended the anchorage (Plate 12).



Plate 12. The Larkant Canal parallel to the Rhone


Knowing that Willehalm had to move his army from Orange to the region of Arles now also enables us to establish on a good map and with the aid of Wolfram’s references the road that the army must have taken.

             When we learn that between the Alpillen Mountains and the Rhone as far as the region of Arles there was a morass from which the Hill Montmajour loomed up, we understand Wolfram’s saying that an almost impassable mountain had to be crossed on the way. Today the roads run through the plain of this dried up morass. The Roman roads, on the contrary, went over the mountain, and Willehalm also had to still cross this mountain (Plate 13).



Plate 13. Mountainous Area with Roman Road


 On the other side of the Alpillen, towards Pîtit Punt, there was only a small land bridge – between the morass of Montmajour and the then still wide open Etang de Maugio or Etang du Comte corresponding to the present Marais desséchés des Baux – allowing access via land to the “Town of Morasses” as Arles was called then. This land bridge, which during rainy periods stood completely underwater and which only after long dry periods, above all in the autumn, swelled up to a width of some 2 km. was situated in the region of Barbegal where also the Roman aqueduct ran into the Costa Basse hill (Plate 14).




Plate 14. Roman Aqueduct


At the side of the Costa Basse plateau Willehalm has his army put up camp, while he accompanied by the commanders of his troops climbs up the mountain at the south-western edge of the plateau.

          From this observation post on the mountaintop, one kilometre east of Saint-Victor, Willehalm surveys the opposing army camped in tents near the Larkant. The view from there today still matches Wolfram’s description, provided one modifies it according to the geographical changes that have since taken place. The morass of Montmajour has dried up and changed into fertile land. There is an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh done from here, which gives a good impression of the area.




Map of the Battlefield of Alischanz


To the south lies the dried-up Etang de Meyranne, which at the time extended as far as the foothills of the approaching Thomasy Mountains. The Larkant is corrected and the seashore, which at the time was 8 km. away from the observation post, has been pushed ahead some 35 km. by the alluvium of the Rhone.

With the Larkant as an example, it will be shown how exact Wolfram’s concepts match the actual conditions by comparing them with the geographical reality then and there. Next to the greater and smaller Rhone, the Larkant was originally a third arm of the Rhone. In the region of the present slaughterhouse south of the motorway bridge it left the Rhone and flowed into the Etang de Meyranne, which at the time was connected with the Marius Canal and the Etang de Galejon, reaching the Mediterranean Sea by Fos-sur-Mer. During Roman times, this waterway was made navigable by Marius’ legions. Bypassing the rapids at the mouth of the Rhone, the canal connected Arles with Marseilles. It also collected the brook that led the water down from the Alpillen Mountains. These small streams were probably originally together an artery of the Durance, which flowed south past the Alpillen into the Marius Canal near Arles.

During the time of the battle of Alischanz, the exit of the Marius Canal from the Rhone in the area of Les Abattoires must have been blocked. By flow, the Rhone often changed its bedding and a deposit of a wall of Rhone gravel was enough to temporarily block the direct outflow of a side arm of the Rhone. This gravel, however, is very water transparent, so that the Rhone water seeped in large quantity through the gravel bank and resurfaced beyond the loose gravel barrier as a mighty, clear source. This is the place where after the first battle Willehalm comes across the dying Vivian.

If one does not know that this is a loose gravel area, one translates Wolfram’s concept steinwende (stone wall) with Felswände (rock walls). There are, however, no rocks in this region, but washed up walls of Rhone gravel with bush from the meadows and poplars – usually driftwood – growing on them.

Wolfram describes Willehalm’s approach to the source very beautifully, but above all accurately (Wh. 59:21):


der marcrâve zôch zehant                              The margrave went            

         gein’ dem wazzer larkant                               towards the river Larkant

         das ors an sîner hende                                   leading  the horse by the hand

         bî maneger steinwende                                   past many a stone wall

         unz in des wazzers ahganc.                            and into the riverbed.

         einen kurzen wec niht ze lanc                         A short way, not long at all

         reit er durch das stûdach                               he rode through the underbrush

         unz er vor im ligen sach                                 until he caught sight

         des weren Vivîanses schilt.                             of noble Vivian’s shield.


Wolfram’s geographical expertise, as opposed to the ignorance of the Bataille d’Aliscans, is so evident that after inspecting the battlefield of Alischanz, all attempts to prove that these Chansons de geste are Wolfram’s source are simply not convincing. In addition, the assumption made in the chapter Oransch is strengthened in Alischanz: Wolfram must have known the battlefield personally.

          If I may make another personal remark: locating the sites that Wolfram speaks about without a guide who knows the sites is, even with our modern means of transportation, an extremely time-consuming affair. Pitit Punt for example, I only found after several stays over many years in the region in question, even though Wolfram’s description is so exact that when looking at the locality, one has the impression that this point would have to be located straight away.

          Without wanting to detract from Wolfram’s ‘resourcefulness’ in any way, I am convinced that Wolfram must have been led there by Hermann of Thuringia, and that the latter must apparently have had a thorough knowledge of the battlefield. One even gets the distinct impression that Hermann played the role of chief of staff for Wolfram. In this sense, Wolfram – before finishing his excellent battle report – would have used a method still applied by an army commander today in planning an exercise for his troops: Accompanied by his chief of staff, he examines the terrain beforehand to see if the manoeuvre, which was planned with the aid of an accurate map, can take place on it as planned.

          Willehalm, who in reality had to face up to the battle immediately, could not prepare for it on the terrain itself. He was put to the test right away. We must keep in mind thereby that Willehalm knew the terrain exactly, while Wolfram – coming from afar – had to first familiarize himself with this area, before being in the position to write a battle report of such excellent quality as usually only the commander himself is capable of.

          This report places the reader so concretely in the midst of the battle that Willehalm’s intentions can be recognized in every phase. Through the skilful employment of the means at his disposal, Willehalm shows himself to be a great strategist, forcing his opponent to act and thereby achieving a greater effect with fewer means.

          But neither does Terramer prove himself a bungler in Wolfram’s battle report. He orders Pojdius to charge on the flanks, causing Willehalm great difficulties and preventing him from taking the offensive. This stark reality of the course of the battle could in fact only be described that realistically by a correspondent capable of completely identifying himself with the intentions of the army general.  The correspondent had to be an astute tactician himself in order to describe the course of the battle in such a way that we do not get confused by the simultaneous events happening on many points. Wolfram succeeds therein by changing this synchronicity of events into a row of events happening one after the other and by also indicating geographical details at each moment of this murderous fighting, so that the movement of the main focus of the battle could be followed throughout the whole battlefield.

          Wolfram von Eschenbach has taken his battle report very seriously. He knows he has to describe phases which appear fantastic, but which are nevertheless real. He stands still by the fact that others lose all measure in their poetic license, thereby causing the exact descriptions of those committed to relating the simple historical truth to turn pale. This conscious attitude on the part of a responsible historian prompts him to make the following remark (Wh. 384:23-30):


ich hoer von Witegen dicke sagn                I often hear it claimed about Witege

daz er eins tages habe durch slagn            that on one single day he smashed

ahtzehn tûnst, als einen swamp,                  eighteen thousand helmets as if they were

helme. der als manec lamp                          mushrooms. If you brought him

gebunden für in trüege,                              as many lambs already tied

ob er eins tages erslüege,                           and he slaughtered them in one day,

sô wær sîn strît harte snel,                          he would have to work fast,

ob halt beschoren ir vel.                             even if the lambs were shorn.

Man sol dem strîte toun sîn reht:                Battle must be given its due:

dâ von diu mære werdent sleht.                  that way stories get properly told.


Concerning Wolfram’s art of limitation in describing the bare facts or about his gift for immersing himself into the reality of the fighting, nothing is to be found in the so-called source. This entertainment genre presents the battle as a great chaos of incoherent single events. Everything appears haphazard and confused; equally unreal are the descriptions of the characters. Terramer lacks the most elementary qualities of leadership. The commander of an army, who is dependent on reliable information, even when it may be disconcerting, will soon receive no reconnaissance anymore, were he to treat his scouts in such an incredibly stupid manner as Terramer from the “source” does with respect to the scout from Cler. This army leader gets irritated about the only man with initiative he has, because the latter personally decides to take over the reconnaissance work that he himself failed to do. He saddles him up with his discontent about the bad news. A capable army leader, on the contrary, would praise a man for doing something that he himself failed to do. This is precisely what Wolfram’s Terramer does. He attempts to extract all the possible results of reconnaissance from his scout, proving thereby that he is Willehalm’s equal.

          Even these small details show the great difference in quality between the two battle descriptions, which cannot be explained by Wolfram’s character, but only by his superior detailed knowledge. Since Wolfram himself was a brave knight and a great poet, but hardly as excellent an army leader, it may be assumed that he must have visited the battlefield accompanied by Hermann of Thuringia, a proven army leader.

          In any case, the battle report from Thuringia is qualitatively so far superior to the one from Aliscans that a military expert cannot for a moment have the impression that Wolfram’s assumed source is Wolfram‘s source. On the contrary, were not the fact known that Aliscans appeared earlier, we would have to agree with the conclusion of every military commander that it is Wolfram who delivers the original report, while the Aliscans can only be a layman’s tale, devoid of any tactical understanding of the outstanding original. Purely militarily speaking – this must be admitted – the roles have simply been reversed. The source lies in Willehalm, and Aliscans is just a derivative. But this is chronologically impossible, since Aliscans was already in circulation when Wolfram dictated his Willehalm, and so nothing else remains than to assume that Wolfram gives an exact account of the original French battle report, while Aliscans garbles it.

          Were a philologist to agree with this assessment, it would mean that in the future he would no longer have to verify what Wolfram makes out of his source, what he adds, improves or leaves out. He would rather have to examine what important details are missing in the French original battle report and what meaningless trivialities have been added to the expertly streamlined battle report of the essential aspects that has been preserved for us in Thuringia. Apart from that, it must in fact also be admitted that the Bataille d’Aliscans corresponds in thousands of lines almost literally to Willehalm – and as such with the historical original.

          It has been said that Wolfram copied from Aliscans, but that he also ennobled it. The priority in time of Aliscans forbids one from saying the other way around that the poet of Aliscans copied Wolfram’s Willehalm, but that he coarsened it. Not to be excluded is a third possibility, namely that both authors drew from an older, no longer extant tradition, perhaps even from an eyewitness report, so that they are completely unknown to each other.

          The objection has been levelled with regard to Wolfram’s Parzival that the only reason for him mentioning the older source in the person of Kyot is that his copy work from Chrétien will then not be noticed. But if this were so, he would indeed be a more naïve forger than the present-day plagiarizers, who also copy upon finding something, but then take pains to avoid mentioning the author whom they copy by name, not admitting that they know him.

          I do not mention this to still further cloud the Kyot problem. But attention must be drawn here to the fact that Wolfram does not criticize the author of Aliscans, but Chrétien de Troyes again. In Willehalm Wolfram alludes to the way that Chrétien dealt with the Willehalm material  (Wh. 125:20):


Christjâns ein alten tymît                                Chrétien dressed him

im hât ze Munlêûn angelegt;                          in  old dimity at Munleun;

dâ mit er sîne tumpheit regt,                           anyone who talks as foolishly as that   

swer spricht sô nâch wâne.                            shows his stupidity.


Today we tend to shake our heads at this, since we are so sure that Chrétien copied William the Conqueror, Erec and Cligès, but not William of Oransch. Yet, Wolfram must also have known a Willehalm or a Guilhelm d’Orange from the hand of Chrétien, which we do not know because it has been lost. This Willehalm by Chrétien de Troyes probably differed much less from Wolfram’s own tradition than the one from Aliscans.

          The example of the armour shows the degree of accuracy that Wolfram’s report reckons with. He says that Chrétien dresses Willehalm in old dimity in Munleun, even though Willehalm – as everybody knows – was wearing Arofel’s armour.

          If Wolfram was so concerned with levelling criticism, he could have found and criticized much greater differences in Aliscans. Those describing him as a “smart aleck”, would have to establish consequently that he does not seem know his source Aliscans at all, for then he, the born polemicist, would not have let the chance go by to criticize others to a much greater degree. With his remark, Wolfram shows that he believes Chrétien to have written a Willehalm, which to be sure differs much less from his own Willehalm than Perceval from Parzival, but which nevertheless contains grave errors.

          This opinion by Wolfram cannot be refuted. It is certainly possible that an older version of the tradition exists from which both authors drew independently from each other. The third party adapting such an original would then be – next to Wolfram and Chrétien – the poet who wrote Aliscans. Through his single remark about Chrétien, Wolfram confirms that the version by Chrétien de Troyes of this unknown French Willehalm is much truer to the common French original than was the case with Perceval.

          Wolfram is no moaner. As a writer of history, he points to a fault. Such faults do not seem to appear as much in Willehalm by Chrétien, and above all do not seem to be so grave as in Perceval. Kyot has apparently been much offended against in Perceval, and he, who out of the love of truth or respect for his source, has to correct false opinions, is easily earmarked as a pedant, polemicist or a know-it-all.

          That Wolfram is much better informed becomes apparent upon examining his geographical references. It is therefore, at least theoretically, possible that he is better informed than we are in other aspects as well. Scientific statements to the contrary have not been made until now.

          If we do not a priori discard Wolfram’s opinion that Chrétien authored a Willehalm, we are admittedly in danger of further complicating the source question. We cannot allow ourselves, however, for the sake of Wolfram to let complications scare us away. Wolfram is sure of his case. That he has his reasons for that is proven by his astoundingly exact topographical knowledge of the battlefield. If Wolfram is of the opinion that his Parzival as well as his Willehalm material has been adapted by Chrétien too, we may not reject this out of hand, even if it raises new source problems. 

          We would like to merely touch upon this theme here. We want in due course to return to this question of source and summarize the issue here by saying that the original battle report that Wolfram left us is unique in the entire literature of war. We are convinced that, next to the geographical expert Wolfram von Eschenbach, there is just as good a war correspondent Wolfram von Eschenbach. The question as to whether on top of that he is also a useful historian shall be examined in the next chapter.



[1] Mylius, Malerische Fussreise durch das südliche Frankreich, Carlsruhe 1818.