Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670
The oldest known epic in France, The Song of Roland, which dates from around 1100, bears traces of the battles that had taken place about 200 years earlier. While ostensibly telling the story of Charlemagne at Roncesvalles in 778, the events of The Song of Roland have been shifted into a contemporary setting, superimposing a long history of concerns about the Muslim upon the palpable fear of Muslim invasion that gripped France in Charles Mattel's and Charlemagne's time. The historical basis of the battle, most likely a decimation of Charlemagne's rear guard in 778 by Basques, then in control of the mountains separating present-day France and Spain, is transformed to make it more understandable, even more tragic, for the early twelfth-century audience. While it would no longer make sense for Charlemagne to be fighting what were now Chnstian brothers in Spain, the threat of the Muslim infidel had very real meaning and a long history of representation to the listeners. Charlemagne's struggle with the Saracen forces could thus take on the guise of good versus evil, right versus wrong, that makes ideal material for an epic tragedy.
Yet this tale that would seemingly be made up of straight-forward dichotomies of black versus white encounters ambiguities at each turn. When Roland decides not to blow the horn, his action could be interpreted as a mistake due to excessive pride, as Janet Boatner deems. At the same time, his refusal to summon Charlemagne can be viewed as Christian and Germanic bravery, as Constance Hieatt asserts. T. Atkinson Jenkins reads Charlemagne as heroic, while Eugene Vance counters that Charlemagne embodies disillusionment with the whole ideal of heroism. We cannot say that the author shows a progressive view of the role of women, for as Ann Tukey Harrison shows, Aude retires while Bramimunde acts. Apparently almost every question that is asked of the characters of the Chanson de Roland can be answered both one way and with its opposite. Nowhere does this statement hold truer than in the picture the author draws of the Muslim.
In the early twelfth century, concrete knowledge about the customs, habits and religion of the Muslims was little or non-existent. One of the problems when dealing with these invasions is precisely what to call the peoples who invaded Spain and the south of France. While the impetus certainly came from the extraordinary success of the followers of Muhammad, the people who actually carried out the invasions were not a homogenous bunch. Having come via Morocco and the Straits of Gibraltar up through Spain, the invaders included Arabs (both Muslim and non-Muslim), as well as a strong contingent of Berber tribesmen who had not yet converted to Islam. The victorious group did not even speak the same language, some conversing in Berber and others in Arabic. In many ways then, the medieval term of Saracen to refer to this disparate group of peoples embodies a generalizing, and therefore more accurate, terminology appropriate for the period.
The term Saracen probably comes from the Greek, sarakenos, the word used to describe the Arab invaders following the precepts of Muhammad. "Saracen," however, was used to describe all foreign enemies, even those residing in Hungary or the Holy Land, and even the Normans, with apparently no need for justification on the part of the author of a text. Saracen is used interchangeably with "pagan." In the late Middle Ages, the remains of Roman architecture, long-since unused and of forgotten origin, were sometimes termed "Saracen." The term Saracen seems to hold the same place in the medieval imagination that "foreign," "exotic," or "outlandish" represents for a late twentieth-century reader.
The Song of Roland undoubtedly speaks of the Saracen as Muslim, yet understanding of Islam plays no role in the text. In a piece of Christian crusade propaganda such as this epic, one would not necessarily expect the author to take a great interest in truthfully exposing the tenets of Islam and the differences between this faith and Christianity. However, even very basic, accurate information about Islam is lacking. The poet credits the infidels with numerous gods, contrary to the monotheism that makes "There is no god but God" the first and most fundamental belief of Islam. Examples of this misunderstanding include the author's assertion that Marsile worships three gods: Muhammad, Apollo, and Tervagant. Likewise, when the Saracens wish to swear an oath to do their best to kill Roland, they swear it on their holy book, mistaking Muhammad and Tervagant as the authors of, presumably, the Koran, whereas Islam holds the book to be the literal word of God. The Saracens, anticipating the return and vengeance of Charlemagne, pray to one of their gods, Tervagant, who predictably does not come to their aid. Angry with the non-response of their gods, the Saracens desecrate their own temple, cursing and tearing down the statues of Tervagant, Muhammad, and Apollo. This scene reflects perhaps the ultimate sacrilege to the Christian community, which believed quite strongly in icons, but it makes no sense in Islam as images and pictorial representations were and are not permitted.
The Saracen warrior mirrors the Christian quite frequently throughout the text. Charlemagne retires to an orchard, underneath a pine tree, following his initial defeat of the Saracens. Here his 15,000 soldiers gather around, but most notably present are the Peers, Charlemagne's closest men and advisors with whom he proceeds to discuss plans for leaving Spain. Marsile, the Arab ruler, also goes into an orchard following the same battle and is described as sitting in the shade. His 20,000 men surround him, and he takes this moment to call his closest advisors to brainstorm on how to finally crush the French. The political and governing strategies of the two groups are the same. Both leaders are greatly respected by their men, yet their best ideas and future directions come from a select group of noble advisors (dukes and counts), many of whom are related to each other and to the king. As Marsile and his men seal their treachery, the parallelism is complete; twelve chosen from the Saracens, led by the nephew of Marsile, will go head to head with the twelve companions of Charlemagne, led by Roland, his nephew. The glove that the Saracen carries as representative of his ruler will be the same emblem that Ganelon, ambassador of Charlemagne, accepts from his king.
The Saracen doubles the Christian in other aspects of the epic as well. During the battle, as is the convention in most battle scenes of the chansons de geste, each Christian knight meets individually with a Saracen knight. Blows are exchanged and one knight emerges victorious, having killed the other. The two armies are equipped identically, though a certain exoticism dominates the description of the Saracen outfit. The armor remains essentially western, as does the basic riding techniques (on a special war-horse, in tight lines). Yet, the Saracen is distinguished from the French by the provenance of his weaponry. The author gives the impression that excellent, perhaps the best, armor comes from far away, from the pagan lands of Saragossa and Valencia, in addition to Venice. No doubt about it, the Saracen is regally equipped. The shield of an Emir holds fascination and beauty, encrusted in stones, amethyst, topaz, diamonds, and a brilliant carbuncle. Admiration for the Saracen is not limited to his armor. The Saracen knight can be noble, handsome, loyal, and bold. In short, all the same characteristics admired in the Christian knight can be found in certain Saracen knights as well. The author highlights the prowess and beauty of the Saracen Margarit. Baligant, the Emir of Babylon serves as a prime example of the knight that would be perfect, were he only a Christian. Physically, even, this Saracen shares the traits of the Christian. His skin, most noticeably, is white.
The author is able to step back from the good versus evil dichotomy that forms the basis of the epic in order to admit a certain similitude and even admiration. The armor of the Christian knights is not quite so fabulous as that of the Saracen. Baligant distinguishes himself as almost a true baron, to be compared with the treasonous French renegade, Ganelon. By bringing the two armies together in moments of similarity, an implicit examination of the values and culture of the Christian results. Better weaponry can be found in other cultures. Superior knights are not limited to the French, and indeed certain Christian knights fall short of their Saracen counterparts.
The Saracen is not without his abominable traits, however. Roland sees the approaching hordes through a literal perspective of black versus white, noting that they "are blacker than ink and have no white except for their teeth alone." Just as the Emir epitomized the almost-ideal knight, the appropriately named Saracen, Abyss, serves as the stereotypical concentration of French fears of Arabs. Not only is Abyss morally corrupt, he is also physically repulsive. His very humanness is called into question by his inability or unwillingness to laugh and play. The archbishop/knight Turpin, symbolizing Christianity and Good, takes it upon himself to destroy the personified evil, Abyss. The fight is nothing other than good versus evil, right versus wrong, truth versus lies.
The portrait of the Saracen in the Chanson de Roland vacillates between the positive and the negative. At the same time that the audience of the 1100s feared the Saracens, and thus pictured them in monstrous terms, they also coveted the refinements of Muslim culture, many of which were totally lacking in the West. The Saracen characters of the epic echo this movement between fear and envy. As Joseph J. Duggan relates, the Chanson de Roland and other militant poems "helped shape the mentalities that made the crusades possible." Not simply by opposing Christians and Muslims, but also by constructing a Saracen who was frightening and inhuman enough to kill at the same time that he possessed objects and characteristics worthy of appropriation. The epic battle satisfied both these urges.
Source: Lynn T Ramey, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2680
When Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade to the Orient in 1095 at Clermont, the vernacular literature of France consisted of epic poems (chansons de geste), saints' lives, and lyric poetry. Most of these works were still being passed on orally rather than being written down. The immensely popular chansons de geste include several of the finest works in medieval French literature: the Chanson de Roland (ca. 1100; Song of Roland), Raoul de Cambrai, Garin le Lorrain, the Chanson de Guillaume, Girart de Roussillon, and Huon de Bordeaux. They were sung at fairs, weddings, and coronations, in public squares and in castles. Over 120 of them have survived, and the corpus totals more than a million lines. Many of the poems were translated into other medieval languages. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the most popular were reworked in prose, and several of these were among the first texts to be printed in the late 15th century. They continued to be read well into the 1800s in the Bibliotheque Bleue and other popular collections.
The French epic was largely the creation of j
, itinerant performers who not only composed chansons de geste and performed the lyric poetry of the trouveres (inventors) of northern France and the troubadours of the south, but also juggled, did acrobatic tricks, exhibited trained animals, played instruments, and staged mimes and other entertainments. Jongleurs depended for their livelihood on the generosity of audiences; thus their songs can be taken to reflect the types of narrative diversion that the public desired. From the pronouncements of ecclesiastical officials, it is obvious that jongleurs belonged to the lowest level of medieval society. Female jongleurs, for example, were routinely assumed to engage in prostitution. Since literacy was confined almost entirely to the clergy and the higher nobility in the period in which the chansons de geste flourished, it appears that most jongleurs were illiterate. In any case, in medieval iconography jongleurs are never seen using books in their performances. Apparently they were able to perform chansons de geste of considerable length—examples of the genre range from 800 to 35,000 lines—through the use of an improvisational technique that has been solidly documented in other preliterate cultures: jongleurs developed a repertoire of stock scenes and phrases to aid them in reproducing, often in more or less the same form but sometimes with considerable modification, the songs that they heard others perform. In keeping with this oral and traditional transmission, the vast majority of the poems are anonymous.
Medieval illuminations show jongleurs playing a stringed instrument called the vielle, and treatises report that they sang the entire story to a chantlike melody. Chansons de geste are divided into laisses, stanzas of varying length, each characterized by a single assonance or rhyme; the lines are ten or twelve syllables long (though in one text, Gormont et lsembart, eight), and each is marked by a pause, or caesura. Variations in melody probably marked the first and last lines of the laisse, and the hiatus between laisses may have been filled with instrumental music.
Evidence for the existence of a thriving literature of epic song before the First Crusade is found in several precious texts: in his chronicle of the abbey of Saint-Riquier (completed in 1088), the monk Hariulf incorporates into his narrative an event from Gormont et Isembart; the Nota Emilianense, from the third quarter of the 11th century, summarizes a version of the Chanson de Roland ; and the Fragment of the Hague, an attempt around the year 1000 to render into a nostalgically classicized Latin the story of a fictional siege of Gerona, places there a number of heroes from what was later to be the cycle of epic poems recounting the deeds of Guillaume d'Orange, his forebears, and his nephews. The two other major epic cycles of chansons de geste (so divided by the 12th-century poet Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube) are that of the kings of France, sometimes referred to as the cycle of Charlemagne, and that of the rebellious vassals, treacherous or recalcitrant barons who are conceived as having all belonged to the same lineage. Several indications, including references to episodes from other songs in the early 12th-century Chanson de Guillaume and the presence of Guillaume-cycle heroes in the Fragment of the Hague, lead to the conclusion that the cycles had begun to develop well before the earliest chanson de geste to be preserved, the Oxford Chanson de Roland (Bodleian Library Ms. Digby 23), was copied in the second quarter of the 12th century. Not mentioned by Bertrand is the cycle that purports to give an account of the First Crusade: its content is, with the notable exception of the Chanson d' Antioche, almost entirely fictitious.
As a body of literature, then, the chansons de geste were conceived of genealogically. Typically each of the great heroes was the subject of a major song: examples are the Chanson de Roland, the Chanson de Guillaume, Renaut de Montauban, Girart de Roussillon, and Raoul de Cambrai. The process of cyclical development led to the composing of songs that told of the heroes' childhood exploits, or enfances (the Enfances Guillaume, the Enfances Vivien); their young manhood, or chevalerie (the Chevalerie Ogierde Danemark, the Chevalerie Vivien); their conversions to the monastic life, or moniage (the Moniage Guillaume, the Moniage Renouart); and their deaths (the Mort Charlemagne; the Mort Aimeri de Narbonne, which recounts the demise of Guillaume's father). The deeds of great heroes are set in the context of their kinship alliances, reflecting the medieval legal principle that one was responsible for the acts of one's relatives: thus in the Oxford Chanson de Roland, Roland is the son of Charlemagne as well as his nephew; Guillaume is the brother of six other heroes, each of whom sets out to conquer a different land (Les Narbonnais), and the uncle of the tragic Vivien; the traitor Ganelon of the Chanson de Roland is viewed as having been related to other untrustworthy knights, like him descended from the eponymous hero of Doon de Mayence. This emphasis on genealogy in the chansons de geste is hardly surprising: geste signifies not only "deeds" and "tale about a hero's exploits" but also "lineage" and "cycle of songs about a lineage."
The seemingly sudden profusion of French texts after the First Crusade has frequently been viewed as the product of a great burst of authorial energy. Much of that textual production, however, resulted simply from the writing down of an oral literature that was in full blossom long before the crusade got under way. Although debates about the origins of French literature are often confined to the few hagiographic texts that were actually copied before the crusade, such as the late 9th-century Cantilene or Sequence de sainte Eulalie (Sequence of Saint Eulalie) and La Vie de Saint Alexis (ca. 1050), in a very real sense there were no discrete origins, since, it appears that the oral literature of France came into being along with the French language as it developed out of popular Latin.
Viewed in that light, the relationship between the chanson de geste and history takes on added significance. Many of the earliest and most famous of the songs have at their center a historical kernel, frequently a great battle. Thus the Chanson de Guillaume recalls William of Toulouse's capture of Barcelona from the Moors in 803; the battle of Saucourt in 881, in which Louis III defeated a Viking force that had attacked and burned the monastery of Saint-Riquier, inspired the tradition that produced Gormont et Isembart; the attack of Raoul, son of a certain Raoul de Gouy, on the county of Vermandois in 943 is at the core of Raoul de Cambrai. Sometimes surprisingly accurate details are preserved in the epics, such as the name of William of Toulouse's wife, Witburgh, which comes down in works of the Guillaume cycle in the corresponding French form Guibourc. Generally the historical events found in the chanson de geste date from the Carolingian period, although names and occurrences from as early as the Merovingian monarchy and as late as the taking of Antioch in 1098 figure in the French epic, and the Occitan chanson de geste, composed south of the Loire, contains material from as late as the civil war in Navarre of 1276-77. The preservation of events for as long as 300 years says much about the conservatism of the oral tradition.
Nonetheless, only a modicum of the tens of thousands of events recounted in the epics have a basis in history, and even in those cases the facts have been adapted to the dramatic and mythical requirements of the genre. The poets appropriated the details of history to their own needs—compositional, socio-economic, and occasionally even propagandistic—shaping a vision of the French past that centered on the achievements of legendary figures from the formative period in which the consciousness of national identity had begun to appear. In the process, they sometimes merged the deeds of historical figures who shared the same name, assigned one person's actions to another, created independent heroes from the same historical prototype, ascribed straight-forward military defeats to the machinations of traitors, and took other liberties with the facts that had entered their ken. Still, they claimed that their songs were true, as a result of which the chansons de geste were viewed as history by many a medieval cleric, and modern readers have not been exempt from the tendency to accept their testimony. In fact the chanson de geste embodied a popular form of historiography that competed with both the official annalists and chroniclers and the ecclesiastical historians.
Chansons de geste were sometimes used to spread the news of great historical events. The late 12th-century chronicler of the house of Guines, Lambert d'Ardre, tells a revealing anecdote concerning Arnold de Guines, who took part in the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade: A jongleur singing a Chanson d'Antioche one day offered to include Arnold's deeds in his tale in exchange for a pair of scarlet shoes. When Arnold rejected the bargain, the jongleur excluded him from his version of the song. This example of the use of a chanson de geste to propagate the news of a recent event is also valuable for the insight it provides into the economic mentality of jongleurs, who did not hesitate to exact a price for the fame they were capable of spreading. That noble families did indeed pay attention to the songs that told of their putative ancestors' achievements is indicated by the fact that, from the last quarter of the 12th century on, the viscounts of Narbonne began to call their heirs "Aimen" in obvious emulation of the epic—and probably fictitious—Aimen de Narbonne of the Guillaume cycle.
Legends from the chansons de geste were also invoked for purposes of persuasion. The First Crusade offers a salient instance: the chronicler Robert of Reims, an eyewitness to Urban II's speech launching the idea of the crusade, reports that the pope called upon the assembled nobles to follow the example of their predecessors Charlemagne and his son Louis, who destroyed pagan kingdoms and extended the boundaries of the holy church. In the context of the struggle against Islam, this image of Charlemagne and Louis corresponds more closely to their deeds as transformed in the chansons de geste than to their historical undertakings, and suggests that the fictional story of Charlemagne's journey to the Holy Land, told in the Pelerinage de Charlemagne, provided an ideal precedent for French knights to take the cross.
Thus it is very likely that the Chanson de Roland and similar militant poems helped to shape the mentalities that made the crusades possible. Struggles between paganism and Christendom are predominant themes in the chansons de geste, and the ways in which the French Crusaders imagined Islam and the Arabs could not help but be shaped by their depiction in the epics. Not that the forces who opposed the Crusaders can simply be equated with the Saracens of the chansons de geste. The inclusion among the latter of such diverse tribes as the Ireis (Irish), the Argoilles (Scottish Argyles), the Esclavon (Slavs), the Ermines (Armenians), the Avers (Avars), the "people of Samuel" (Bulgars of Macedonia), the Hums (Huns), and the Hungres (Hungarians) renders it plausible that the Saracens represent all the external forces of paganism that were perceived as threats in early medieval France. Understanding of the tenets of Islam did not figure in the stock of knowledge available to the Crusaders, most of whom probably held a notion of that religion informed by the chansons de geste: the Saracens are said in the epics to worship many gods in the form of idols and to keep pigs—characteristics that are not only alien to Islam but abhorrent to its followers. That Mohammed is included among the gods of the Saracens is perhaps the crowning distortion. But rather than an anti-Islam conceived in calculated fashion, this depiction of the pagans who held Spain, North Africa (whose chief city in the epics is "Babylone," that is, Cairo), and the Holy Land represents a failure to differentiate between, on the one hand, the Germanic, Scandinavian, and Slavic pagans, many of whom did indeed worship idols, and, on the other, the monotheists emanating from Arabia, Persia, and Turkey. These reminiscences of the earlier threat of northern and eastern paganism is an archaism in the epic conception of the world: just as many of the subjects of the chansons de geste hark back to the Carolingian era, when the poems presumably first began to take shape, so the view of the non-Christian world represented in them reflects a popular historiography of the 8th through 11th centuries rather than the view of Islam that men of learning began to develop in the 12th century.
The acknowledged masterpiece of the genre, the Chanson de Roland, has traditionally been viewed as the story of Charlemagne's nephew, but an obscure reference to the emperor's confessor, St. Giles, in lines 2096-98 reveals that the poet composed his work in full awareness of the legend that Charlemagne had committed incest with his sister, who as a consequence gave birth to Roland. These events are detailed in the First Branch of the Karlamagnus Saga, a Norse text of the mid-13th century that is based on lost French epics of the 1 lth and 12th centuries. The most renowned of the chansons de geste is thus the tale of the tragic death of Charlemagne's son, the genealogically pure offspring of the Frankish royal family, whose death, caused not by the Saracens but rather by his own extraordinary effort in sounding the horn to call for help after he and his men have fallen into a trap arranged by his stepfather Ganelon, is no doubt a punishment for his father's sin. Hence the Chanson de Roland belongs among a range of myths concerning heroes and gods born of incest—Heracles, Romulus, Mordred, Zeus, Apollo, Freyr, and in particular Sinfjotli in the Volsunga Saga, son of a brother (Sigmund) and a sister (Signy), who refuses to call for his father's help in a fight against overwhelming odds and who dies young and without offspring through his stepmother's treachery. The Chanson de Roland is a foundation myth, the story of the suffering and eventual triumph of Charlemagne, the figure who in the national consciousness is the founder of the French collectivity, on the occasion of his own son's death. In keeping with the character of the chansons de geste, however, the myth is anchored in a historical event, the defeat of Charlemagne's rearguard in the Pyrenees in the year 778. The evidence for Roland's historical existence is fragile and ambiguous.
The Chanson de Roland exemplifies the mutually beneficial relationship between the jongleurs and history: the poets preserved in their songs fragmentary memories of historical events, which they embellished for artistic purposes, while historical figures such as Urban II appropriated and exploited the epic legends to further their political and social agendas.
Source: Joseph J. Duggan, "The Epic," in A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 18-23.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2855
Modern students of the humanities in high school, college, and graduate school who study the history of western civilization in a wide variety of disciplines from anthropology to comparative literature and French are currently exposed to the Chanson de Roland (in English, modern French, or Old French). Usually they read short passages of a hundred verses or so, and they are told about the content and emphasis of the work as a whole.
Such readers are led to two conclusions concerning women characters in French epic literature: 1) women are unimportant or even nonexistent in the French epic; 2) the major female character in the Chanson de Roland, Aude, Roland's fiancee, offers a typical feminine depiction: her appearance is brief, unusually beautiful, and poignant. The first premise does find corroboration in many chansons de geste, where women are secondary or tertiary figures, not major protagonists of heroic proportions. The French epic seems to have been written for, by, and about men.
The second premise, asserting the representative nature of Aude and the remarkable beauty of her few verses, continues to be popular, both in French and English language scholarship. In some ways, this can be seen as a direct response to the intellectual currents of our own time, when women as students and scholars are increasingly interested in the roles of women in literature and in the cultures that produced such writings. Two questions are central to a balanced appraisal and understanding of women characters in the Chanson de Roland: how important to this work is Aude? Are there other artistically interesting women characters in the poem?
Aude is first mentioned during the rearguard battle. When first named in verses 1719-1721, she is a relative latecomer to the story. The poet focuses at once on her relationship or kinship to both of the heroes, Roland and Olivier: she is fiancee to one, sister of the other. The two companions have disagreed vigorously earlier, and their debate is renewed at the turning point of the battle, when their heroism is at its apogee. Here the reader first hears of Aude, from Olivier, in the heat of anger.
Critics have observed the importance of the whole battlefield debate without much attention to its effect on the characterization of Aude. She is introduced at a privileged moment of high emotion, in a passage that circumscribes four traits essential to her character: her noble family lineage; her passive status therein dominated by their right of bestowal of her person in marriage; her prestigious betrothal; and her discreetly sexual role as bride-to-be. At this point, Aude's possession, within the limits of family and marriage—two of the primary circles of medieval woman's social existence—is a subject of a mild oath, uttered in anger, a corollary to the foremost male pursuit—warfare. It is not an exaggeration, within this context, to equate Aude with royal booty, one of the better prizes of conquest.
Aude's major episode, two thousand verses later, consists of a dialogue with Charlemagne, about Roland, followed by her death and internment. Described only as "une bele damisele" ["a fair damsel"], she meets the emperor on the steps of his palace, to ask: "Co dist al rei: 'O est Rollant le catanie, / Ki me jurat cume sa per a prendre?'" ["She said to the King: 'Where is Roland, the captain, / Who gave me his solemn word he would take me to wife?'"] Charles, weeping and tearing his beard, tells her she inquires after a dead man, and he then offers her his own son Louis in marriage. Aude finds the offer "estrange," which I interpret to mean "incompatible or inconsistent with my nature and view of my life." Praying that it not please God, his angels, and saints for her to survive Roland, she drops dead. (The same idiom, "aler a sa fin," is used to describe Roland also, right after his death.) Charlemagne, thinking she has fainted, attempts to revive her, then calls four countesses to carry the body to a convent, where, after a night's vigil, she is buned beside an altar. Finally, Charlemagne endows a convent in Aude's honor.
Aude is faithful, pious, beautiful, and a noblewoman whose sacrifice is honored. Her status is thrice indicated: first, by her direct approach to the emperor, which is well received by him; second, by his reactions to her words, his deep concern for her and his marriage offer of his own heir; finally, by his endowment of the convent. Although Aude is here an initiator of action, a woman who speaks and acts, she does so only in relation to male characters. As her introduction as a character was defined by her relationship to Roland and Olivier, her deeds here are directly related to Charlemagne, her sovereign, with full power over her person. The poet implicitly suggests the spatial and legal constraints within which she exists (the palace and the arranged marriage), while explicitly stating the male dominance that circumscribes her life. Charlemagne's actions begin and end the episode, and his words or deeds occupy seventeen of the twenty-nine verses. Aude's life has been one of honor, within the confines of family, betrothal, and church; although she is associated with the major heroic figures of the poem (Roland, Olivier, Charlemagne), she is sheltered, protected, bestowed. She is wholly dependent, and her honor, like her status, is reflected from male characters.
Some critics call her death a martyrdom, and both Reau and Brault associate her demise with the iconographic formula of the Death of the Virgin. As Brault writes:"Like Mary, Alda is a virgin, and her passing, which is so peaceful it completely deceives Charles into believing she has merely fainted, is an awe-inspiring dormition." Scholars have seen her as the last victim of the Battle of Roncevals, the most touching reminder of Roland, the incarnation of ideal love and the most moving of all tributes to Roland's glory, one of Roland's greatest claims to glory. Although her twenty-nine verses are surely not mere decoration, some of these claims on her behalf are hyperbolic and distorted. Her episode is woven well into the epic's action; she does contribute to the character development of both Roland and Charlemagne, but she does not directly reinforce the poem's central theme of Christian supremacy over the pagans. Beautiful Aude is tightly confined, subordinate, and supportive, and if that is typical of unmarried noblewomen of her time, then she can be called representative and, if not mimetic, at least grosso modo realistic.
A much more significant female figure is the Saracen queen Bramimunde, wife of Saragossa's King Marsile. By far the most developed woman character in this epic, she is an independent, active participant in four different passages, each of which is strategically located within the poem's action. Bramimunde first appears in the scene of treachery (when the betrayal of the French rearguard is planned by Ganelon and the Saracen leaders to whom he is an ambassador); she is next a central figure during the scenes showing the reactions to Marsile's defeat; she is prominent in three stages of the second half of the poem when Charlemagne as Roland's emperor and Christendom's champion defeats the Emir Baligant, sovereign of Marsile and ruler of Araby; and finally, her conversion to Christianity is reported by the poet as part of the poem's conclusion. In each instance she is directly and explicitly linked with the emperor Charlemagne. She is the sole individualized Saracen survivor, and by her baptism, arranged at Charles' behest, she embodies the primary theme of the chanson: the Christians are right, the pagans are wrong.
Laisse 50, within the section of the poem where Ganelon plans the Saracen ambush of the French rearguard led by Roland, contains a description of Bramimunde's gifts to the wife of the French ambassador and traitor. While Ganelon is in council with the enemy Saracens, Bramimunde comes to the gathering, declares her affection for the Frenchman, and states that she is sending two necklaces (with gold, amethysts, and sapphires) to Ganelon's wife. In this her first appearance, Bramimunde concludes with a formulaic, oblique reference to Charlemagne: "Vostre emperere si bones n'en out unches" ["Your Emperor never had such fine ones"]. The Queen is not the only pagan to give presents to Ganelon; Valdabrun has already offered his sword and Climorin his helmet, but the men's gifts are to the ambassador directly, and the men exchange kisses as well to seal the gift-giving. Bramimunde's gifts are non-military, for Ganelon's wife (a woman never mentioned again), and the feudal kiss is replaced by a statement that "Il les ad prises, en sa hoese les butet" ["He took them, he sticks them in his boot"]. The author of the chanson is fully cognizant of Bramimunde's femininity, and he depicts actions and statements that are appropriate for women.
Brault finds Bramimunde's words to Ganelon "bold and suggestive..." He explains that "the voluptuous and amoral Saracen lady is a stock character in epic literature." He also notes that, in this passage, as elsewhere in the epic tradition, "diabolism and eroticism are closely intertwined." I find little substantiation for this interpretation, in this section of the text or in other appearances of Bramimunde in the poem. She is a queen, with a political and religious role, her gifts are to Ganelon's wife, and nowhere else in the text does her conduct convey an erotic connotation, much less diabolism.
Bramimunde's second scene takes place in Saragossa, immediately after the defeat of Marsile. In laisse 187, she cries out, along with 20,000 men. They are reported to curse Charlemagne, then proceed to depose their gods while uttering blasphemous shouts and curses quoted by the poet directly. Although Bramimunde is the only individual of the stanza, her appearance is very short (three verses), and the actions and words are attributed to the mob as well. The next stanza, laisse 188, the last before the principal division of the poem (the second part or Baligant episode), is devoted entirely to Bramimunde's outpouring of grief, in deed and word. The Saracen reaction to Marsile's defeat is described in terms of the undifferentiated mob and Bramimunde, who is the only individual to speak for the infidel cause. She performs the ritual actions of grief and delivers a carefully balanced, eleven-verse speech of formal lamentation.
The third set of passages in which Bramimunde appears are the three stages of the Baligant section when she is still a part of the Saracen court. Marsile, her husband, was victorious over Roland's rearguard, but Charlemagne's army has destroyed the Saracen troops. Now Marsile's sovereign, the Emir Baligant, comes to do battle with the Emperor Charles, in the ultimate conflict between pagan and Christian. When the messengers from Baligant arrive at Saragossa, at the court of Marsile, his Queen receives them, and she counsels them twice. Neither speech is well received, and both times a male character virtually tells her to be quiet, in so many words. Their refusal to listen to her is, eventually, their undoing, for she has ended each statement of advice with a warning about the power of Charlemagne.
Bramimunde is the official of the court to welcome the Emir Baligant, throwing herself at his feet, as she bemoans her pitiful situation, since she has lost her lord (Marsile being wounded and incapable of protecting her).
And finally, Bramimunde, from a tower, witnesses the Emir's defeat, called the confounding of Araby, and she invokes Mohammed while reporting the shame and death she sees. Upon hearing her words, her wounded husband Marsile turns his face to the wall and dies of grief.
Bramimunde is in evidence and speaks at three crucial moments during the Baligant encounter: the arrival of the messengers, the arrival of the Emir himself, and the defeat of Baligant along with the subsequent death of Marsile. She fills an official role, both as queen and as witness.
The fourth stage of her role in the Chanson de Roland is her conversion to Christianity. It is annouced by the poet during the sack of Saragossa; each time the reader is told that it is the will of the king that she be converted, but by love and not by force, in France and not in Spain. She is to be taken, as a prisoner, to Aix. This information is conveyed directly twice. The first time, she is the only individual taken, unconverted, from Saragossa home to France. The second reference says that the Emperor wishes her only good.
After the trial of Ganelon and the execution of his kin (among whom there is no mention of his wife, to whom Bramimunde sent the necklaces), Charlemagne's first concern seems to be the conversion of his queenly captive. In the baptism scene, as with the gift-giving scene, the poet is conscious that Bramimunde is a woman, and the ritual observed is appropriate for a nun, not a male convert.
The final stanza of the entire poem contains the reiteration of the conversion of Charlemagne's important prisoner; this is the third accomplishment of his mission—he has done justice, assuaged his anger, and given Christianity to Bramimunde. Although converted and baptised Juliana, she is in the last reference known under the old, familiar Saracen name, and she here represents the Saracen community of which she is the sole individualized survivor.
A feminist appraisal of Bramimunde must answer at least three crucial questions: Is she a full-fledged member of the society depicted? Does she act outside of the love-marriage situation? Is she a role model? Certainly Bramimunde's participation in her society is full, if not extraordinary. The gift scene, her role in the formal reception of Baligant's embassy and the Emir's arrival at Saragossa, and finally her conversion, at the singular behest of Charles: the importance of these episodes and her particular behavior in them show her as not only a full-fledged member, but, by the end of the geste, as the representative of the Saracen world. On two instances when she is rebuffed by Saracen men, rudely, the poet shows that Bramimunde is right and the pagans are wrong when they do not heed her warnings.
Though the reader would infer that her title Queen of Spain comes to her through marriage with Marsile, the author of the Roland only twice qualifies her as "his wife," both in stanza 187, in the scene where she sees and understands the severity of her husband's wounds. The poet far prefers to call her by name or royal title. Bramimunde is portrayed as a loyal wife, fulfilling the regal duties of her status, but after the mortal wounding of her spouse Marsile, her activity, prominence, and representative position increase, verse by verse. And long after her king-consort has died, Queen Bramimunde is alive, a worthy convert, far beyond the love-marriage identification of other medieval women in other works of literature, such as Iseut.
The most important facet of Bramimunde's presentation by the Roland poet is her close association, specifically stated in each instance, with Charles. Every time she appears, without exception, she or the poet makes explicit reference to Charles the Emperor. And this link, forged from her debut as gift-giving queen, to the great king, with a divinely bestowed mission of subduing or converting the pagans, brings Bramimunde into contact with the major theme of the poem. Neither diabolic nor erotic, she is not a romantic foil for Charles, or a feminine counterpart, or a pseudo-consort, she is instead a living example of the most lasting and benevolent side of his assigned earthly task—the flower of the pagan world converted to Christianity, admitted in honor to the very center of Christendom, and the only preoccupation of Charles when the vengeance is over.
Aude and Bramimunde offer an interesting set of opposite characteristics; in some ways they are complementary to one another: Christian/Saracen, virgin betrothed/wife then widow, noblewoman/queen, representative of women left behind/representative of the Saracen political and religious community, inexperienced youth of uncompromising idealism/experienced middle age capable of compromise and conversion. Critics observe a religious association for both (Aude with the Virgin Mary in death, Bramimunde with St. Juliana in baptism), and both are clearly female, depicted as women in actions appropriate to women. Teachers who decide to emphasize Aude at the expense of Bramimunde are choosing to stress Roland's sacrifice as the central event of the epic, since Aude as a character serves, perhaps exclusively, to reinforce Roland's role. Bramimunde as a character is more full, much more active, and woven into the greater theme of the whole epic: Charlemagne's conquest of the pagans, as the champion of Christendom. Although the total number of verses devoted to both women is small (twenty-nine for Aude and one hundred forty-seven for Bramimunde, out of four thousand), these women are integral to the plot, character, and thematic development of the chanson. An examination of them both, in measured fashion, is but another way of observing the meticulous artistry of the Roland poet.
Source: Ann Tukey Harrison, "Aude and Bramimunde: Their Importance in the Chanson de Roland," The French Review, Vol. LIV, No. 5, April 1981, pp. 672-79.
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