Song of Roland

Statue of Roland, symbolizing freedom and justice, in the town hall square of Riga, Latvia.  Now that is strange! Image courtesy Patrick Mayon

The Song of Roland, circa 1100 CE , is one of the most important of the numerous medieval French epics and reflects  the mythology that grew up around the figure of Charlemagne.

So, what really happened?

Charlemagne invaded Spain in 778 with the intention of seizing the city of Saragossa (Zaragoza) in northern Spain.  On his way there, he had traveled through Basque lands, plundering, looting and pillaging as he passed.  On Charlemagne's return to France, on the afternoon of 15 August 778, Basques attacked his rear guard and slaughtered it to a man at Roncesvals (Roncesvalles, Roncevaux) somewhere in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain--the exact location remains in dispute.  Einhard (775?-840), in his Life of Charlemagne, described the incident briefly in his notes on the Spanish expedition.  According to Einhard, a few nobles were killed, including "Hrudoland, lord of the Marches of Brittany."

It is unclear what impact the disaster had on Charlemagne's plans.  Because it merited few words from Einhard, one is tempted to conclude that it was minor and did not really hinder Charlemagne's military campaigns, but it did delay his establishment of a Spanish March by almost a decade, and it did allow Saragossa to remain an independent emirate.  In addition, the Basques remained an independent force (as a result of succeeding battles also).

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This "minor" military ambush, between French and Basque, in which Hrudoland died, served as the historical kernel which, over centuries, morphed into the Song of Roland that we know today.  Along the way, the facts changed dramatically.  At first, Roland's story circulated in a short oral form in the mid-ninth century, and later, by the time of the Norman Invasion of England, "a 'song about Roland' was sung to the Norman troops before they joined battle at Hastings." (wiki)  By the latter part of the eleventh century, when the form of the Song which we possess today was probably finally composed and written down, the historical essence of the story had pretty much disappeared.  It was no longer a tale of Basque treachery and Roland's simple death; it had become a saga of Muslim-Christian enmity and French loyalty to the cause of France and Church.  (BTW, the earliest version of the epic, dating to the twelfth century, is in a manuscript known as "Digby 23" in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.)

Points to consider:

  • The poem is the first of the great French heroic poems known as "chansons de geste" (songs of great deeds) from the Middle Ages.  These chansons all served as symbols of a newly-developing French national awareness, which was occurring in the High Middle Ages, a process that defined what it meant to be "French" and that culminated during the Hundred Years War with the figure of Joan of Arc (maybe).  The Song importantly illustrated some of the characteristics of what it meant to be an ideal knight (your paper assignment) in the service of the King of France (even though Charlemagne had never been technically a king of "France").
  • Another important point to remember is what we could call the "holy war" aspects of the poem.  In the Song, the battle that Roland fought was not against Basques but against Muslims.  The final version of the poem dates to the time when the Crusades were just beginning to be launched, and thus the final version portrays the duty of the ideal knight as serving not only the king of France but also the church in its battle against Muslim (note that Roland fights side-by-side with the bishop in the battle).  Thus, according to the Song, a major part of the definition of what it meant to be French was to be Christian.
  • On the other hand, there is a much in the poem that illustrated that the relationship between Christian and Muslim was not always based on hostility but on a supra-religious code of conduct (chivalry) expected of knights.  This brings me to the next point.
  • Much of the Song of Roland portrayed feudal ideals.  For example, note the repeated use of a "council," a council of lord and his lords, by Charlemagne, who repeatedly called his lords together for counsel.  That was the way that it was supposed to happen in the political arena.  Thus, in some respects, the Song was intended to serve as a reminder to kings, who were trying to increase their personal power at the expense of their feudal nobility, that they were just one among equals and should take counsel from their council of lords.
  • It is difficult to read the poem in its original language (I have a link to the original version in the Old French below).  There are still several mysteries connected with the manuscript, including the meaning of the "AOI" found throughout the poem, often at the end of a verse paragraph.

Note that I have not seen the movie (French, 1978)!  Please let me know how good or bad it is.

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Some recommended online lectures and websites:


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