The 11th-century epic poem “La Chanson de Roland” (the Song of Roland) tells of the betrayal of the epic hero Roland by sinister advisors at Charlemagne’s court, and Roland’s forlorn last stand against an overwhelming “Saracen” army. While Roland was a real historical figure, and a forlorn rearguard did take place — it wasn’t against a Muslim army. The tale of Roland, as told hundreds of years after the fact, was a heady mix of chivalric honor-code and anti-Muslim rhetoric that laid the foundations for the dawning of the Crusader era.
The Song of Roland: A Text From Oseney Abbey
What today we call the Song of Roland has come down to us in a single text, which survived among a collection of 13th-century papers from Oseney Abbey, Oxfordshire, UK (categorized as MS Digby 23). The pages themselves are badly faded and are written in Anglo-Norman French, a dialect of Old Norman French that would have been spoken by England’s new ruling class in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. It was written sometime in the second quarter of the 12th century (around 1120 CE), likely a copy of an earlier version.
The Oseney Abbey text probably represents the end-point of a long process of evolution for the story of Roland — from a semi-historical figure, whose cult spread by word-of-mouth in the years after his death, to a mythic allegory for everything that is right and noble. He ended up as a literary figure, who was transformed by self-conscious authors into a vessel for a moral message. There are fragments of several other earlier texts and poems that mention Roland, but the Oseney Abbey text is the only text of such epic scale and breadth: it stretches to over 4,000 lines! Due to the lack of surviving evidence, we cannot be sure of the exact time of the emergence of the Chanson de Roland in its “final” form, but historians have dated it somewhere between 1040 CE (the emergence of Crusader ideology in Western Europe) and 1125 CE (the Oseney Abbey text).
A Poem to be Read Aloud
Although most literate people would have been able to read ecclesiastical Latin, which was the universal language of the Medieval World, the fact that this epic was written in vernacular Anglo-Norman shows us something important: it was meant to be read comparatively widely, and likely read aloud as a performance. The poem’s form gives us a clue to this as well — it is written in what linguists call “assonal laisses”: irregular stanzas made up ten-syllable lines that echo each other’s vowel sounds, rather than a strict rhyme. This would give a jongleur (an Anglo-Norman bard) a fantastic range of performative options: altering the tempo, playing with the mid-line caesura, emphasizing the repeating vowel sounds, and so on. This was a poem that was read aloud in court, to joy and despair — and, as we shall see — to convey its moral and ideological content.
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As an interesting footnote, the Oseney Abbey text has the letters “AOI” written at several points at the end of certain lines. This has significantly puzzled modern analysts (a quick Google search will indicate enormous amounts of ink have been expended upon these three letters). Some academics say that it is a scribe’s note, perhaps indicating deviation from the earlier copied text, but a much more lively theory is that this is a note to the performing reader to pick up the pace for dramatic effect!
The Betrayal of Roland
The Song of Roland itself is a rip-roaring tale of honor, betrayal, and revenge. It is set at the court of Emperor Charlemagne, who is depicted as a wise old man over 200 years in age, with a flowing white beard and gimlet-sharp eyes. Charlemagne’s chief knight, Roland, is the paragon of heroic virtues: brave and bold, he wields the magical holy sword Durendal, matched only in sharpness and power by Charlemagne’s own Joyeuse. The Emperor is locked in a war with the implacable “Saracens” of Spain, and at Roland’s suggestion he sends Roland’s stepfather Ganelon to negotiate a peace. But Ganelon plots with the evil Saracens: he divulges the plans of Charlemagne’s army to King Marseille of the Saracens, and conspires to have Charlemagne’s army ambushed during its retreat. Returning to Charlemagne’s court, Ganelon make sure that his stepson Roland will lead the rearguard — ensuring his certain doom.
Sure enough, as Charlemagne’s army withdraws from Spain, the Saracens set up an ambush at the pass of Roncevaux. Against Roland’s rearguard of 20,000 Frankish knights, there are 100,000 Saracens, and Roland’s company is quickly surrounded. The poem at great length gorily depicts the devastating effects of medieval warfare and the clash of mounted warriors. During breaks in the fighting, Roland’s best friend Olivier begs him to call for aid: to blow upon his great horn Oliphaunt and summon Charlemagne’s main force to help. But no — Roland refuses to call for aid, stating that his bonds of loyalty to his liege demand his death in such a situation. Only when Roland and his friends are certain to die does he relent — raising his great horn Oliphaunt to his lips and releasing a horn-blast so loud that Charlemagne hears it back in his capital at Aachen, but blowing out his brains with the force in the process.
Charlemagne and his vassals rush to the aid of the beleaguered rearguard, but they are too late — Roland and his friends have valiantly fallen in battle to the Saracens. The Franks wreak terrible vengeance upon the Saracens, and uncover Ganelon’s plot to ensure Roland’s death. Upon learning of her betrothed’s death, Roland’s sweetheart Aude falls dead upon the spot. Finally, Ganelon is put on trial for his crimes, and the poem closes with his just execution.
Charlemagne and the Historical Roland
The Chanson is clearly a towering literary achievement — but it’ll cause any historian of the Carolingian era to raise their eyebrows. Charlemagne and Roland are certainly historical figures, and there was indeed an ambush at Roncevaux Pass during Charlemagne’s campaigns in Spain in which Roland was killed. But the historical context has been highly distorted, and individual figures in the story have been ahistorically “colored-in”. Charlemagne is a very well-attested figure, not least because of the Vita Karoli Magni, a biography written by his courtier Einhard during his lifetime. But Charlemagne was only King of the Franks during his campaigns in Spain, not yet Emperor (let alone a 200-year old priest-king). Roland is attested in the Vita as one of Charlemagne’s generals — but his mention is merely a footnote as a casualty at the ambush at Roncevaux. It is possible that the authors of the Roland tales may have had some extra sources besides the Vita which are lost to us today, but it seems unlikely that they would stretch to magical swords and brain-bustingly loud horns.
There was certainly a battle at Roncevaux pass and it took place on August 15th 778 CE, but its context and its participants were very different from those portrayed in the Chanson de Roland. Far from fighting “the Saracens” (an ahistorical and problematic term used by Medieval writers to refer monolithically to all Muslims), Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain was conducted in alliance with some Muslims against others. The northward expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate into Western Europe from Spain had been checked by Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. With the fall of the Umayyads and their replacement with the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad, the Iberian Umayyads were left isolated. Successive Frankish monarchs courted the Abbasids for political support against the Umayyads in Iberia (known as the Emirate of Cordoba).
The campaign launched by Charlemagne was precipitated by pro-Abbasid governors reaching out to Charlemagne and requesting military intervention to expel their Umayyad overlords. It is likely that Charlemagne’s military force would have seen Muslims, Iberians, and Franks all fighting together against the combined Umayyad force. This is far more complex than just “the Saracens” presented in the poem.
In fact, the Carolingians were not even ambushed by Muslim forces at Roncevaux at all. While returning from the largely inconclusive campaign, Charlemagne took the opportunity to shore up his southern borders by attacking Basque settlements in Wasconia — a region that had historically resisted Caroligian overlordship. In retaliation for this brutal slash-and-burn treatment, Basque warriors pursued the Frankish army in secret, executing a successful ambush at — you guessed it — the pass at Roncevaux.
The clash likely involved only a few thousand troops; modern estimates suggest the rearguard consisted of around 3,000 Frankish warriors (of whom only a handful would have been “knights”), and the Basque guerilla force was likely of similar or slightly larger size. By all accounts, the Franks were completely surprised, and the Basques used their superior knowledge of the terrain and mountain-fighting tactics to slaughter the rearguard to the last man — including Roland and his household. The stiffness of the Frankish resistance permitted the escape of the main Frankish force, but Charlemagne’s baggage train was seized, probably including the plunder and gold taken from the Spanish campaign. Again, this is a very different picture from the 120,000 warriors depicted in the poem.
High Medieval Ideology
The question is: why did the Song of Roland’s composers make such obvious historical mistakes? It is a certainty that they would have had access to the Vita Karoli Magni, which sets the ambush at Roncevaux in its proper context. The answer lies in when the Chanson was written, and what its authors wanted to say.
The 11th century was a period of peace — and that was a problem for Medieval kingdoms. The fragmented post-Roman kingdoms of Early Medieval Europe had developed into a series of large and reasonably stable kingdoms: England, France, Muslim Iberia, and the Holy Roman Empire were all flourishing in the 11th century. The forms of feudalism that predominated in each region had one thing in common: the maintenance of a knightly class whose main job was the business of violence. The general de-escalation of inter-state conflict and the normalizing of relations between these large kingdoms meant that the knightly class had more time to make trouble: by seeking to expand their own power through civil conflict, extracting greater wealth through violence against their peasants, and switching allegiances for opportunities of plunder.
The Roman Catholic Church, whose pan-European spread uniquely placed it to deal with common social problems, had two inter-related approaches to this problem of idle, violent knights, and they both appear strongly in the Chanson de Roland.
The first was chivalric ideology. Appearing from the middle of the 10th century, chivalric codes of behavior sought to regulate knightly excess by preaching honor, chastity, and defense of the poor to the dishonorable, profligate, and violent knightly class. These Christian virtues became wildly popular from the 11th century to the end of the Medieval period: the Song of Roland is one of the earliest in a form of Old French epic poetry known as the chansons de geste, and they were matched by similar chivalric epics in English (the tales of King Arthur) and German (the Nibelunglied). Though chivalric ideology and iconography permeated art, literature, and state ideology, it largely failed to regulate knightly misbehavior in any real way: the Medieval record is littered with examples of brutality, violence against women, and disloyalty.
The second approach to knightly violence taken by the Church became more pronounced towards the end of the 11th century — the Crusader ideology. The underlying logic was that, if Western knightly violence couldn’t be eliminated, it could be externalized. The notion of the peace of God (i.e. that Christians should not make war on one another) gradually morphed into its corollary: that wars against non-Christians were not only permissible, but also desirable and a route to salvation. This ideology took root like wildfire, and in an increasingly stable and internationalized Europe, it was inevitable that this animus would be directed politically. The much-vaunted “mistreatment” of pilgrims to the Middle East by the Islamic polities of the region was an easy flashpoint.
Pope Urban II exploited this popular ideology very effectively in the run-up to the First Crusade (1096-1099 CE), using it as a trump card to boost the Papacy in its ongoing conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. In his speech at Clermont initiating the First Crusade, he explicitly invoked this tradition: he promised that the past sins of anyone participating in the expedition to seize Jerusalem would be expunged. After the foundation of the Levantine Crusader States by Western Christians in the aftermath of the First Crusade, this “safety-valve” for Western European violence became integrated into regular international politics, with many separate Crusades undertaken in the Middle East until the Fall of Acre in 1291 CE.
The Song of Roland’s Ideology
We can see both of the twin ideologies of chivalry and Crusader theology throughout the Song of Roland, and it explains why the author(s) took such liberties with historical fact. Its characters are not an exploration of historical fact; they are a morality-play of chivalric values: from Charlemagne, the patient and wise king, to Roland, the brave and pure knight, to Ganelon, who dishonorably conspires with an enemy and receives just punishment. The “Saracen” enemy is not a serious attempt to understand the political situation in Charlemagne’s time, it is a contemporary klaxon-warning, in which the authors try to sound the alarm about the Muslim “threat” to Western Christian Europe by creating a demonic caricature.
We can even see this ideological struggle played out in the characters of the poem. Roland’s friend Olivier desperately attempts to convince Roland to summon aid, calling upon him to invoke the old Frankish conception of reciprocal duty — but Roland refuses, trusting himself only to God’s grace, and he is rewarded by being spirited away to Heaven. This fusion of Frankish feudalism and Christian theology was not at all the same thing up until this point — we can see here the very starting point for the Western Medieval literary tradition, that continues to inform our modern forms of storytelling.
If you think that this form of story-telling is outdated or purely Medieval, you are sorely mistaken: the format of Medieval morality stories informs the core of the Western literary tradition and can be seen in Hollywood movies today. Compare the tropes in The Song of Roland to that of modern action-thriller films like the James Bond series or the Mission: Impossible movies. The hero is almost impossibly dashing, exemplifying the finest qualities within the dominant paradigms of manhood: self-sacrifice and enmity towards evil, even at great personal cost. The enemies are implacable, evil and morally flawed. There are long sequences of blood, gore and graphic violence. But they are ultimately self-consciously reliant upon dominant tropes, shadowy Russian oligarchs as a stand-in for the threat of communism during the Cold War, or, even, caricatured “evil” Islamic terrorist organizations, which reproduce the unspoken ideological consensus about the threats to our world. Sound familiar?