armed with sword and shield and his horn at his side, Roland attacks another soldier

The Song of Roland

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Eugene Vance (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: Vance, Eugene. “Formulaic Language and Heroic Warfare.” In Reading the “Song of Roland,” pp. 21-38. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Vance explains how the author of The Song of Roland uses traditional verbal formulas while managing to convey contradictions and abstractions in the poem.]

The manuscript of the Oxford version of the Song of Roland was produced by an Anglo-Norman scribe sometime during the third quarter of the twelfth century. Its language is basically the dialect spoken in England a century after the Norman conquest (1066);1 but the actual poem on which the Oxford manuscript is based predates this manuscript by at least a half century, and we cannot be certain whether the poet lived in England or on the continent.

A reader who has even a scant knowledge of French will recognize after brief exposure to the Song of Roland that its poetic idiom relies on movable clusters of words, which we arbitrarily call “formulas.” All language, even the most neutral prose, is to some extent formulaic; but in an oral tradition from which poems like the Iliad and the Song of Roland emerge, the use of formulaic language is a highly developed technique of composition. During the last few decades scholars have paid much attention to bards of rural Yugoslavia who still perpetuate an ancient narrative tradition and who are capable of reciting long epics from memory; as a result, we know that oral technique poses special problems for the literary critic.

Though there are many metrical irregularities in the Oxford manuscript, the standard line in the Song of Roland is assonanced and has ten syllables with a caesura after the fourth syllable. Any regular line in the poem will therefore call for the following components: one verbal unit of four syllables, another of six syllables, and a terminal vowel sound which fulfills the assonance of the laisse.

Because an oral poet tended to improvise during the recitation of his poem, he would draw on a stockpile of memorized formulas to satisfy the demands of meter and assonance that characterised his narrative form. Doubtless, the melodic accompaniment to his narrative was also composed of formulas and variations. It is not easy to define a “formula” in oral poetry. An oral formula has frequently been described by students of the epic as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given, essential idea.”2 However, the Song of Roland is full of formulas that may be inflected to suit all kinds of metrical conditions and may be contracted to a single hemistiche or expanded to occupy an entire laisse. Formulas tend to unite identifiable clusters of words which convey a particular idea, but the basis of a formula is not exclusively verbal. I am convinced that a formula may also exist in the memory as a nonverbal Gestalt before it is clothed in words that satisfy the metrical demands of the Old French decasyllabic verse. Whatever cognitive process underlies formulaic technique, this technique allowed a jongleur to compose without weighing his diction and to embellish his traditional themes by exploiting a “ragbag” of well-tried expressions that were the basic implements of his trade and the common property of all.

The tradition of epic poetry in northern France served the interests of a de facto aristocracy, which first began to establish itself by courage and military power following the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire. By the year a.d. 1000, political power had become so dispersed that the State for all practical purposes...

(This entire section contains 6985 words.)

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no longer existed, and the only real political unit was the fortified castle of a small lord who could offer protection to a certain number of local dependents attached to his domain.3 In this emerging military caste, the knight remained the nobleman par excellence, and the language of oral epic poetry which evolved during this period of French history favored the military values of that ruling caste. Consequently, the poetic language of the Old French epic was better able to deal literally with the action of warfare than with any other sector of human experience. Hence, when the poet of the Song of Roland describes the war between Christians and pagans, he unfolds a dowry of traditional formulas which represent in codified form the heroic ideals of a ruling chivalric class. If the Song of Roland is socially exclusive—the lower orders of society have no place in the poem—the poem's formulaic language is also exclusive and posits what amounts to a utopia of chivalric values, an idealized and simplified world where the nobility could find delivery from the torpor of everyday life and fulfill their most ardent dreams.

Because warfare was the primary activity of the early feudal nobility, it is no surprise that scenes depicting the key moments of combat rely more heavily upon traditional formulas than passages dealing with less typical areas of feudal life.4 Even though some readers may not be able to read the passages below with ease, they will recognize, through the recurrence of certain patterns of word and idea, that the poet operates within a well-defined system of formulas. The Old French epic formula is not like the Old English “kenning” (which occurs, for instance, when the poet of Beowulf calls the sea a “whale-road”) or those Homeric formulas that have a decorative allure (“the wine-dark sea”). On the contrary, it usually contains a “unit” of action, a single gesture, which combines with other formulas to generate a descriptive whole. As examples I have chosen several episodes in which a Christian slays a Saracen with his sword. Though the descriptions are enriched with variations, the poet is obviously following a single basic procedure as he presents that moment when a Christian's sword splits a pagan down the middle. I have purposely made my translations here as literal as possible, at the expense of meter, logic, and even syntax:

Trait Durendal, sa bone espee, nue,
Sun cheval brochet, si vait ferir Chernuble.
L'elme li freint u li carbuncle luisent,
Trenchent le cors [?] e la cheveleüre,
Si li trenchat les oilz e la faiture,
Le blanc osberc, dunt la maile est menue,
E tut le cors tresqu'en la furcheüre.
Enz en la sele, ki est a or batue,
El cheval est l'espee aresteüe;
Trenchet l'eschine, hunc n'i out quis jointure.
Tut abat mort el pred sur l'erbe drue.


He draws Durendal, his good sword, bare;
He spurs his horse, and goes to strike Chernuble.
He smashes his helmet where the carbuncles shine,
He splits the body and the hair on his head,
He splits the eyes and the face,
The white mail, whose chain is fine,
And the whole body right down to the crotch.
Into the saddle, which is of beaten gold,
Into the horse the sword went and stopped;
It splits the spine without seeking the joint,
And slaughters him dead on the field of thick grass.

In a less expansive version, where Oliver strikes the pagan Justin de Val Ferree, we still see the same motifs:

Danz Oliver trait ad sa bone espee
Que ses cumpainz Rollant li ad tant demandee,
E li il ad cum chevaler mustree.
Fiert un paien, Justin de Val Ferree.
Tute la teste li ad par mi sevree,
Trenchet le cors et la bronie safree,
La bone sele, ki a or est gemmee,
E al ceval a l'eschine trenchee:
Tut abat mort devant loi en la pree.


Lord Oliver has drawn his good sword
As his companion Roland has so long asked,
And he shows it off as befits a knight.
He strikes a pagan, Justin de Val Ferree.
He severed the whole head down the middle,
He splits the body and the saffron mail,
The good saddle, which is in gemmed gold,
And splits the horse through the spine:
He slaughters him dead before him in the field.

Here again is how Roland slays Grandonie:

Li quens le fiert tant vertuusement
Tresqu'al nasel tut le elme li fent,
Trenchet le nés e la buche e les denz,
Trestut le cors e l'osberc jazerenc,
De l'oree sele lé dous alves d'argent
E al ceval le dos parfundement;
Ambure ocist seinz nul recoevrement
E cil d'Espaigne s'en cleiment tuit dolent.


The count strikes him with such power
On the noseguard that he cracks the whole helmet.
He splits the nose and the mouth and the teeth,
Through the whole body and the linked mail,
And the pummel and the silver cantle
And deeply into the horse's back;
He kills them both beyond all reprieve,
And those from Spain cry out in anguish.

Such is the manner in which the epic hero, be it Roland, Oliver, or any other, slaughters a Saracen in single-handed combat. The force and precision with which a knight splits a pagan in two (and his horse) are the basis for honor and esteem in this chivalric world. As Roland cries out to Oliver during battle,

                                                            “Now I know you, brother!
If the emperor loves us, it's for such blows!”
From every side the cry “Munjoie!” resounds.


The reader will notice that all the distinct phases of chivalric combat entail their characteristic formulas—the taking up of arms, the mobilization of the army, the assault against the masses by a single-handed hero, the moment of the lance's impact—and that these formulas comprise the raw material from which countless scenes and episodes will be built. These formulas enter the poem with a built-in ethical value, and we may say of our poet's language what one critic has said of Homer's: “The formulaic character of Homer's language means that everything in the world is regularly presented as all men (all men within the poem, that is) commonly perceive it. The style of Homer emphasizes constantly the accepted attitude toward each thing in the world, and this makes for a great unity of experience.”5 This “unity of experience,” which is a function of the conventionality in the poem's language, would seem to create difficulties for a poet who wishes to isolate what is particular about a given individual; yet he may overcome this dilemma by making quantitative, rather than qualitative, distinctions between his characters' actions. Fatally wounded, for example, Archbishop Turpin delivers more than a thousand blows (CLIV); Roland puts a whole army to rout (CLX). In other words, the poet of the Song of Roland distinguishes his heroes by magnifying them, just as a romanesque sculptor (such as the master of Vézelay) will make his Christ twice as big as the lesser spiritual heroes around him. Physical dimensions and God-given force are measures of spiritual virtue in twelfth-century art.

As the story of Roland passed beyond the tenth century, certain tensions inevitably developed in a heroic ideal that was becoming increasingly archaic. Europe began to rebuild new feudal nations among the ruins of the Carolingian Empire, and society demanded more from its leaders than brute, heroic courage. During this period of regroupment, the Song of Roland does not seem to have lost popularity but did gain complexity. We do not know exactly when the story of Roland was combined with the story of Charlemagne to form a single chanson de geste, but the effect of introducing a second major hero was to introduce a counterpoint of perspectives into the poem. Roland has the blind, unreflective courage of youth, but Charlemagne has the wisdom (two centuries' worth) of a man whose honor is beyond question and who has come to value human beings more than heroes. The first half of the Song of Roland is Roland's, so Charlemagne's fatigue with the heroic world does not yet dominate the narrative. Nevertheless, the poet introduces some telling contradictions into his formulaic narrative which belie the oversimplification inherent in his material and suggest that for all its glory, the heroic world is out of joint.

For example, let us consider several passages that deal with the formation of an army of knights and with their preparations to attack the enemy. The first such passage occurs when the pagans prepare to ambush the rearguard of Charlemagne's army as it passes through the mountains:

Paien s'adubent des osbercs sarazineis,
Tuit li plusur en sunt dublez en tries.
Lacent lor elmes mult bons, sarraguzeis,
Ceignent espees de l'acer vianeis;
Escuz unt genz, espiez valentineis,
E gunfanuns blancs e blois e vermeilz.
Laissent les muls e tuz les palefreiz,
Es destrers muntent, si chevalchent estreiz,
Clers fut li jurz e bels fut li soleilz:
N'unt guarnement que fut ne reflambeit.
Sunent mil grailles por ço que plus bel seit:
Granz est la noise, si l'oïrent Franceis.


The pagans arm themselves with Saracen mail,
Almost all their hauberks are triply lined.
They lace their helmets, Saragossa's best.
They gird up their swords of Viennese steel.
They bear fine shields and Valencian lances,
And banners of white and blue and crimson.
They leave their palfreys and their mules behind,
And they ride their battle-horses in close ranks.
Clear was the day, and beautiful the sun:
No piece of armor did not flame in the light.
Great is the noise: a thousand trumpets sound
Embellishments, and all the Frenchmen hear.

In this passage we get the full chivalric treatment: the splendor of arms, the hordes of soldiers, the glint of weaponry in the sun, and the noise. This is a topos common to all epics from Homer to Milton, and a reality of the warrior's world even today. The poet reveals his exultation in lines such as, “They sound a thousand trumpets to make it more beautiful.” The jubilant tone of the passage is mirrored in Roland's ecstasy at the prospect of battle: “Ah, may God grant it to us!” (LXXIX). Roland thus provides the traditional hero's response to the opportunity for testing his valor, and he even understands that such occasions for glory will provide excellent material for a future Song of Roland: “Let everyone deal out mighty blows, lest bad songs be sung of us!” (LXXIX). We have in effect been shown the epic world through the central hero's eyes.

Soon, however, Oliver acts out of prudence and climbs a hill to assess the pagan forces. Through Oliver's eyes we witness the same formulaic scene all over again, and the same splendors attract emphasis as before—the noise, banners, flaming weapons—but now they are held in the parenthesis, so to speak, of Oliver's less heroic anxiety:

Oliver es desur un pui muntet.
Or veit il ben d'Espaigne le regnet
E Sarrazins, ki tant sunt asemblez.
Luisent cil elme, ki ad or sunt gemmez,
E cil escuz e cil osbercs safrez
E cil espiez, cil gunfanum fermez.
Sul les escheles ne poet il acunter:
Tant en i ad que mesure n'en set;
E lui meïsme en est mult esguaret.
Cum il einz pout, del pui est avalet,
Vint as Franceis, tut lur ad acuntet.


Oliver climbs to the top of a hill.
Now he clearly sees the kingdom of Spain,
And Saracens assembled all in a mass.
Their helmets shine with gold and studded gems,
And all those shields and saffron-colored mail,
And all those swords, and the banners unfurled,
So many ranks there are, he cannot count.
He cannot estimate the number of troops.
Oliver himself is much disturbed.
Down from the hill he runs as fast as he can,
And returns to the Frenchmen to tell them all.

Oliver does not tremble with joy at the prospect of battle but runs down the hill as fast as he can—cum il einz pout—and tells the Frenchmen all. His behavior is at odds with the heroic timbre of the formulaic description we have just witnessed. As loyal and highly principled as his friend, Oliver is more flexible and brings into the poem an ingredient of pragmatism contrary to the norm of blind heroism that allows Roland not to “see” the pagan army. Oliver is the only person in the Song of Roland who sees fit to penetrate beneath the surface of events and to articulate what everyone in his heart already knows—that Ganelon has betrayed the rearguard—and, most important, to propose a course of action that could ward off the disaster.

Once the French are irrevocably committed to mortal combat, however, Roland can permit himself to recognize the truth he earlier had denied. He surveys the on-coming army, and his heroic gladness modulates to solemn self-dedication to a glorious death in combat. Once again, we face the components of the life of chivalric glory, but this time they are seen in the perspective of Roland's own foreknowledge of certain disaster: “Very great will be the emperor's revenge” has the accent of both heroic exultation and acknowledged doom:

Marsile vient par mi une valee
Od sa grant ost que il out asemblee.
.XX. escheles ad li reis anumbrees.
Luisent cil elme as perres d'or gemmees;
E cil escuz e cez bronies sasfrees;
.VII. milie graisles i sunent la menee:
Grant est la noise par tute la contree.
Ço dist Rollant: “Oliver, compaign, frere,
Guenes li fels ad nostre mort juree.
La traïsun ne poet estre cellee;
Mult grant venjance en prendrat l'emperere.
Bataille avrum e forte e aduree,
Unches mais hom tel ne vit ajustee.”


Marsile comes up the middle of the valley
With his great army that he has assembled.
The king has gathered twenty corps of battle.
Their helmets shine with gold and studded gems,
And so too the shields, and the saffron mail.
Seven thousand trumpets sound the charge,
Great noise resounds throughout the countryside.
Says Roland: “Oliver, friend and brother,
The traitor Ganelon has sworn our death.
His treason can no longer be concealed.
Very great will be the emperor's revenge.
A long, hard battle is now close at hand.”


A final description of an army mustering for attack in the first half of the poem involves Charlemagne and the forward guard. Roland has just sounded his horn, and now Charlemagne and his men understand that their direst misgivings have materialized. They rally quickly to Roland's alarm but already grieve at the fate they know is in store for him. Here if anywhere one might have expected the poet to modulate his description to accord with the tragic circumstances. But not at all—still we see the sun shining on flaming armor, shields painted with flowers, lances, and golden banners:

Esclargiz est li vespres e li jurz.
Cuntre le soleil reluisent cil adub,
Osbercs e helmes i getent grant flabur,
E cil escuz, ki ben sunt peinz a flurs,
E cil espiez, cil oret gunfanun.


The day advances into evening.
The weapons glisten in the light of the sun,
Hauberks and helmets cast up great flames,
So too the shields with flowers finely painted;
So too the swords and the golden banners.

Then, suddenly the tonality of the whole scene is reversed when we see its effect on the emperor. Instead of feeling heroic exaltation at the prospect of battle, Charlemagne (our Roland grown old) experiences only vexation and grief:

Li empereres cevalchet par irur
E li Franceis dolenz a curoçus:
N'i ad celoi ki durement ne plurt,
E de Rollant sunt en grant poür.


The emperor rides forward in great wrath,
And the Frenchmen, too, grieving in their anger;
Every single one was weeping hard,
And they all fear greatly for Roland's sake.

Clearly, though the poetic language of a less complicated heroic age would tend to dictate the substance of poetic descriptions, our poet succeeds in introducing an expressive counterpoint to the heroic “party line.” Indeed, as if to thwart or short-circuit even more the lyricism inherent in the formulaic taking up of arms, the poet evokes another landscape whose dark and sinister valleys and roiled-up waters (themselves perhaps formulaic) visually abuse what we have just seen, making it seem very literally “out of place”:

Halt sunt li pui e tenebrus e grant, AOI.
Li val parfunt e les ewes curant.
Sunent cil graisle e derere e devant
E tuit rachatent encuntre l'olifant.
Li empereres chevalchet ireement
E li Franceis curuçus e dolent. …


High are the mountains, shadowy and vast,
The valleys are deep and the waters swift.
The trumpets echo behind and ahead,
And all together answer the Oliphant.
The emperor is riding forth in wrath,
And the Frenchmen too, in anger and grief.

By allowing contradictions into his narrative, the poet has questioned his material without rejecting it. He has welcomed the inflexibility of certain traditional motifs and refracted these through a sequence of perspectives, the first of which is Roland's and the last Charlemagne's: Roland is foolish and proud, the emperor old and wise. The emperor has come to value men more than heroes. His tragedy, his isolation (symbolized by two hundred years of age), is that he can in no way—not even in language—change the heroic formulas of a society that has become alien to him.

Nevertheless, Roland is decidedly the hero of the first half of this epic, and the poet remains committed to the virtuosity of his own formulaic material. Our suspicions that the poet may see more widely than his hero must remain dormant as the first half of the poem draws to a climactic close. Feeling the approach of death after he has been mortally wounded in his solitary struggle with the pagan masses, Roland staggers to a hilltop, where he tries to break his sword Durendal. Durendal symbolizes all of Roland's past conquests; indeed, as we shall see later, it even personifies his indomitable, heroic selfhood. The sword will not break but springs back up toward the sky, and one last, brief time we see a weapon gleaming in the sun. Because the audience has been well indoctrinated in the formulaic trappings of the warrior's world, this single detail suffices now to evoke the Gestalt of a whole glorious ethic. Now, Roland's condition is that of a solitary dying man who looks back on a life of hardship and suffering for Christ and Charlemagne. His joy at seeing the flash of sunlight on steel reveals that he remains steadfast, even in the sting of death, to those ideals of chivalric heroism by which he has lived:

Roland strikes his sword on the onyx stone.
The steel grinds, but does not break or chip.
And when he sees that it will never break,
Roland laments to himself for his sword:
“Ah, Durendal! So fine and clear and bright!
How you shine and flame out in the sunlight!
Charles was in the valley of Maurienne
When, through his angel, God commanded him
To let you gird one of his ranking counts:
Thus, the noble emperor armed me with you.
I conquered both Anjou and Brittany,
And then I conquered both Poitou and Maine. … ”


One danger of the formulaic theory is that it can explain too much and make us blind to other equally important considerations about language in the poem. Certainly, if Charlemagne allows himself to be drawn into a tragic web of personalities beneath him, it is not only because the language of his world is committed to inflexible formulas of heroic art. Charlemagne's impassivity reflects deeper attitudes about the very nature of language as a social instrument. Like Homer's Iliad, the Song of Roland grows out of an epic tradition whose heroes characteristically live a life of action, not one of words. In the Song of Roland discourse itself is seen as a form of action. This is not true of the Odyssey, which is also a formulaic poem, whose hero talks himself through the world more than he fights in it. When one reads such scenes as Roland's defiance of Ganelon or Ganelon's stormy visit to Marsile's court, one is inevitably struck by the interpenetration of language and gesture: in the first scene, Ganelon leaps up and throws off his cape when Roland names him for the embassy; Roland laughs out his sarcasm; Ganelon drops Charlemagne's glove. In the second scene, Marsile trembles with rage at Ganelon's message and brandishes a spear at him; Ganelon draws his sword “the length of two fingers” from its sheath; Ganelon throws off his cape; Marsile lunges to attack him; Ganelon backs off to retreat; Ganelon and Marsile come to terms and later kiss each other on the face and chin. Discourse in the Song of Roland is not a sphere in its own right and does not stand apart from the fabric of violence as a verbal realm opposed to action. It is not impossible to find analogous situations in our day where the word has approximately the same relationship to the deed. For example, on the football field, discourse serves to communicate the strategy of a forthcoming play, to exert the player to “beat” (if not “kill”) his opponent, and to convey the concerted emotions of spectators who vicariously participate in the violence before their eyes. It would be unthinkable for two football captains to sit down and talk things out instead of “having” them out in a game.

For the poet of the Song of Roland, as for the poet of the Iliad, discourse remains deeply rooted in that physical world in which his figures move. Discourse begins and ends in action, for ontologically they are at the same level. Thus, the five council scenes in the poem do not replace or even redirect action, but are part of it. The heroic ethos of the Roland is remarkably close to that of the Iliad, and especially of Achilles, who says to crafty Odysseus:

“ … I detest as the doorways of Death, I detest that man
Who hides one thing in the depth of his heart and speaks forth another.
But I will speak to you the way it seems best to me. … ”(6)

If an exception to this attitude exists in the Song of Roland, we may find it in Ganelon, who is a master of words and a devil. Ganelon first talks the French barons into rejecting Roland's strategy for dealing with the Saracens; he skillfully deceives Blancandrin into believing that Roland alone is to blame for the war against the pagans; he artfully exposes his plan for treason while they travel to Marsile's court; he convinces Marsile to play along with his deceit; finally, when Roland blows his horn, Ganelon lies openly to his emperor: “There is no battle! You are old and white as a flower, and such words make you seem childish” (CXXXIV).

Even Oliver, whose role is one of restraint and discretion, believes that a knight must not give himself over to vain discourse: when language becomes divorced from what lies immediately at hand, one's duty is to lay it aside and take up the sword. Thus when Oliver perceives that Roland is resolved not to sound his horn and that the fighting has already begun, he formally renounces discourse (“I do not want to speak”) in favor of the cry “Munjoie!”—this is the cry of action par excellence: “Whoever heard them cry ‘Munjoie!’ would never forget such noble vassalage” (XCII).

Ganelon, then, is the only figure in the Song of Roland in whom the slightest discrepancy between word and deed, between appearance and reality, is ever present. Adam Parry says of the Iliad:

Since the economy of the formulaic style confines speech to accepted patterns which all men assume to be true, there need never be a fundamental distinction between speech and reality; and between thought and reality—for thought and speech are not distinguished; or between appearance and reality—for the language of society is the way society makes things seem.7

We should not be surprised that Ganelon, who has betrayed the norms of his society, should use language differently from other men in the poem. We must remember that ideally, the cement of feudal society was an oath of faith between man and man, and when language became detached from a commitment of faith—faith of any kind—it became a tool of subversion. Achilles and Charlemagne are the most powerful men in the world, yet Achilles cannot bring himself to leave the Achaeans who have cheated him and sail away to a new world; it does not occur to Charlemagne to lift a finger against the tragedy that weaves itself about him. In both cases, there is a failure of language as a tool to analyze the world and to proffer an alternative to the horror of a present reality. Like Achilles, Charlemagne is cognitively circumscribed by the unreflective quality of his language—and this is the language of the poem—and is helplessly caught in an earthly community that is destined to destroy its better self. As if the poet wished to insist upon the deadly potency of the spoken word, he causes Ganelon's lie to Charlemagne (that the Saracen troops have been swallowed up by the sea) to become a terrifying prophecy of truth: Charlemagne will indeed drive the pagans en masse into the river Ebro (CLXXX). Let this be a lesson to medieval liars!

The close alliance between word and deed in the Song of Roland imparts great strength and virility to its poetry. … [M]ost of the formulas in the Song of Roland fulfill not only the exigencies of the ear (and the meter) but also the exigencies of the eye as the poet draws us into a world of things and movement. Word counts run the risk of being as subjective as value judgments; nevertheless one senses that the whole density and kinesis of the narrative in the Song of Roland derives, more than in most poetry, from an especially heavy reliance on substantives and verbs. The formulas, too, it must be remembered, have no absolute metrical length, but can be shortened, extended, or broken up and scattered through a whole line or two. A formula is as much a unit of space, mass, or action as it is a metrical unit of sound. The following two highly formulaic laisses will illustrate that concreteness that provides the fullest basis for knowledge in the heroic mentality, and even for communication as well:

Count Roland rides onto the battlefield,
With Durendal, which hacks and slices well.
He spreads great harm among the Saracens.
What a sight: man after man he kills;
Bright blood is everywhere upon the ground!
His hauberk and his arms are red with blood,
His horse, too, about the neck and shoulders.
Oliver, as well, is no less quick to strike,
And the twelve peers, who all fight blamelessly.
The Frenchmen strike, then multiply their blows.
Some of the pagans die, while others faint.
The archbishop says, “Blessed be our barons!”
“Munjoie!” he cries, which is the call of Charles.


Oliver now rides right into the mob.
His spear is broken, only a piece remains.
He goes to strike a pagan named Malun.
He breaks his shield, ornate with gold and flowers.
He knocks both of his eyes out of his head.
His brain spills and runs down to his feet.
Down he falls, with seven hundred dead men.
He kills then Turgis, and then Esturguz.
His spear breaks and splinters at the handle.
Thus speaks Roland: “Friend, what are you doing?
What good is a club in such a battle?
Steel and Iron are what should be used here.
Where is your sword, which is called ‘Halteclere’!?
The handguard is gold, the pummel crystal.”
“I could not draw it! too much work to do!”


Admirably suited to experience that is concrete, language in the Song of Roland is correspondingly weak when dealing with abstractions, generalities, and the area of subjectivity. The poet always evaluates his characters in terms of a specific role rather than in the light of any final, abstract ethical generality. One is not usually “good” in the Song of Roland—one is a “good vassal” or a “good baron”; or else one strikes “good blows” or carries a “good sword.” In such cases the word “good” does not derive its meaning from any ultimate notion of good and evil, but rather from some immediate, physical attribute.8 Often men will be described adjectively as vassal, baron, which means that they are good, or as serf, which means that they are evil. In other words, ethical judgments are made on the basis of extrinsic situations, not of intrinsic qualities. Even Charlemagne, the emperor, is vassal. As Roland says, “The French are good: they will strike like vassals.” In this poem it is impossible to know a man apart from his acts.

Occasionally, however, we see the poet groping for abstractions. The word bontet (goodness) appears twice in the poem, once in the words of Ganelon as he praises his emperor's “goodness” before Marsile (XL), and once again in the poet's description of the “goodness” of Charlemagne's sword, Joyeuse (CLXXXIII). In the first case, however, the context suggests that bontet means prowess or valor of a physical kind; in the second, the bontet of Charlemagne's sword derives from a relic of Christ's passion mounted in the handle. When the poet tries to tell us that Roland never liked any evil man, he falls back on a curious redundancy: ne malvais hume de male part (CLIX) is confusing until we understand that the poet instinctively reinforces his abstract ethical judgment (a “bad man”) by rooting it in a more concrete spatial axis (“from a bad part”). To shift the accent of Horace's phrase, we may say that from the beginning to the end of the Song of Roland we are constantly not “in the midst of things” but “in the midst of things.

Even though the poet shows signs of unrest within the traditional framework of ethical values he has inherited, he nevertheless remains in it; hence, a lord is good; a vassal is good; a serf is bad. However, beyond the feudal hierarchy of values in the poem is a larger and self-evident moral distinction: Christians are good and Saracens are evil. The Saracens are feudal like the Christians, yet the poet and his audience are so ideologically sure of themselves that the former can lavish feudal terms of praise on the Saracens to magnify their evil and not be misunderstood.

Thus, the poet can say of Blancandrin, Ganelon's pagan colleague in conspiracy, “In vassalage he was very much a knight; he showed courage in helping his lord” (III). These formulas of excellence are the means by which the Saracens' capacity for evil is exaggerated. In the same way, Milton can describe Satan sitting “exalted” on his throne in Hell, “by merit raised / to that bad eminence … ” (Paradise Lost, II.5). Or, again, the medieval poet praises the thieving pagan who attempts to steal Roland's sword as he is dying. The poet tells us that the Arab has soiled his body by smearing it with blood and that he has passed himself off as a dead man on the battlefield—this is a grotesque, but common, ploy of cowardice. Then he adds, “he was beautiful and strong and of great vassalage” (CLIX). Such an obvious contradiction may be understood in the same way as is one's saying to us that his sprained ankle is “good and sore.” The Saracens are “good and bad.”

Ethically, the Song of Roland tends to deal with effects and not causes. More exactly, we should say that in this poem it is impossible to distinguish between them. In other words, the language of the Song of Roland is well equipped to represent the social and political side of the feudal world, but it does not test the spiritual motives behind them. One could apply to this poem a descriptive anthropological term, which has also been applied to the Iliad: the Song of Roland expresses a shame culture instead of a guilt culture. I say this because the fear of God, despite the Christian context of the poem, is not the strongest moral force its characters know; rather, it is respect for public opinion. The enjoyment of honour is more their goal than a quiet conscience.

One reason why the poet does not explore the spiritual dimension of his characters is that he lived in a culture that was linguistically compartmented and stratified, where the diverse functions of language (religious, judicial, communicative, artistic, etc.) were fulfilled in diverse and well-differentiated spheres of language and style.9 A stratification of styles and even of language-functions is not easily understood in a linguistic community such as our own, where there has been an unprecedented stylistic leveling and where everybody from the President to the policeman is taught to talk from the hip. The Song of Roland, however, originated in and was destined for an exclusive audience, one of extraordinary ethical solidarity, whose members automatically understood the moral system operating in the language and idiom of the poem. One critic has suggested that this explains why the poem is so paratactic, that is, why it can set forth its propositions without those conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositions that normally would link phrase to phrase in an intelligible sequence where causality is clear.10 The culture shared by the poet's audience could be counted on to provide intellectual continuity. My own feeling is that the vernacular French oral tradition was simply unconcerned with the subtleties of reasoned, reflective narrative such as we find in the cultural tradition of medieval Latin. The French is a vernacular language of action; by contrast, the language of the medieval Latin epic, its cultural bedfellow, tends to be didactic and intellectual. A Latin epic such as Eupolemius' Messiad has for its narrative substance, allegory; for its heroes, Biblical figures or personifications of virtues and vices; and for its action, sermonizing harangues.11 The two kinds of poem play complementary roles in medieval culture, each stressing a different area of experience. The latter, destined to preoccupy the “busy leisure” (negotiosissimum otium) of the contemplative man in the cloister, who believed that there was no exterior path to the knowledge of God, asks its reader to look beyond the letter of the tale and to contemplate the eternal, spiritual truths it contains; the former is destined for men of active life who (without necessarily being less pious) accept passionate and physical daring as the best indication of moral worth.12 The poet says of the duel between Baligant and Charlemagne: “This battle can never end, until one of them recognizes his wrong” (CCLIX). So too, Baligant learns of his moral error only when the tide of events turns against him:

Baligant sees that his banner is fallen
And then he sees Mohammed's flag is down:
The Emir now begins to understand
That he is wrong and Charlemagne is right.


In a poem where discourse is a form of action, action is likewise a form of discourse. By virtue of his gestes, Roland is in a sense the “author” of the Song of Roland. Like Achilles, he knows that if his actions are worthy, men will sing a “good” song and not a “bad” one about him. The poet, for his part, gives himself over anonymously to his narrative, for the excellence of the material guarantees that the song will be good. Yet if the poet effaces himself one minute to allow the poem to “write itself,” the next minute he comes alive as an oral performer and lives out the passions of his hero, making them his own. In the heat of the oral performance, Roland's excellence becomes the poet's; the hero becomes an artist, and the artist becomes a hero, transformed by his own song.


  1. For a convenient linguistic survey of the poem, see Bédier's Commentaires, pp. 241-62.

  2. Milman Parry, “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making, I: Homer and Homeric Style,” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 41, 1930, p. 80. This definition has been accepted without reserve by certain students of oral epic for two generations. As we shall see in the discussion that follows, formulas do not always appear under the same metrical conditions, but can be dilated to any length, depending upon the will of the poet. Parry's definition of an oral “formula” is very narrow.

  3. Marc Bloch's Feudal Society, 2 vols., Chicago, 1956-57, is still the most authoritative history of this period.

  4. See the meticulous study of formulaic battle narrative in the chanson de geste by Renate Hitze, Studien zu Sprache und Stil der Kampfschilderungen in den Chansons de Geste, Geneva and Paris, 1965.

  5. Adam Parry, “The Language of Achilles,” in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 87, 1956, p. 3.

  6. Richmond Lattimore, trans., Iliad, Chicago, 1951, Book IX, ll. pp. 312-14.

  7. Parry, “Language of Achilles.”

  8. George Fenwick Jones, The Ethos of the Song of Roland, Baltimore, Md., 1963, pp. 20-21.

  9. See Paul Zumther's historico-linguistic study, Langue et techniques poétiques à l'époque romane, Paris, 1963, esp. pp. 38-55.

  10. I refer to Erich Auerbach's well-known thesis in Mimesis, Chap. 5.

  11. Eupolemius, The Messiad, ed. Manitius, Romanische Förschungen 6, 1891, pp. 509-56.

  12. Latin, the language of Bible and the liturgy, was capable of its own kind of action—spiritual action as opposed to physical. Grammatica is the medium of salvation. In the words of one monastic grammarian who comments on the Rule of St. Benedict,

    This little book is full of holy gifts; it contains Scripture and it is seasoned with grammar. Scripture teaches us to seek after the kingdom of God, to detach the self from the earth, to rise above the self. It promises the blessed these heavenly boons: to live with the Lord, to dwell always with Him. Grammar, then, through the goodness of God, confers great benefits on those who read it with care

    (Smaragdus of St. Mihiel, as quoted by Jean Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, New York, 1961, p. 52).


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The Song of Roland

(La chanson de Roland) French poem, c. 1170.

The following entry presents criticism from 1970 to 1999 on The Song of Roland. For more information on the work, see CMLC, Volume 1.

The greatest French epic and a landmark of medieval literature, La chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is the earliest extant example of the chanson de geste, or “song of deeds,” an enormously popular genre in Europe in the Middle Ages and after. In its celebration of heroic deeds and feudal chivalric ideals, The Song of Roland reveals much about the culture of which it is a product, is invaluable to historians in its depiction of the evolution of ethics and Christianity, and is prized for its literary merit and beauty. The original, anonymous manuscript of The Song of Roland has been lost, so it is best represented by the 4000-line manuscript held at Oxford, which is believed to be a copy of a copy of the original. Written in an Anglo-Norman dialect, it blends legend and romance with historical accounts in telling the tale of Charlemagne's nephew, the beloved knight Roland and his death in the Pyrenees in 778, as the King and his men are returning home from a seven-year-long Spanish campaign. Historians believe the story was told for inspiration, to help rally troops to battle. The Song of Roland has been compared in importance to the Iliad and its depiction of honor and courage has engaged readers for centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

The plot of The Song of Roland unfolds chronologically and directly, with no ancillary matters to interrupt its flow. The characters are largely symbolic representations of various qualities: Charlemagne, the wise king; Roland, the fearless knight; Marsile, the evil infidel; and Ganelon, the treacherous schemer. Charlemagne and his men, weary in their seventh year of battle against pagan forces in Spain, have captured every heathen stronghold but the kingdom of Saragossa. Its ruler, Marsile, offers a treaty: he will convert and be baptized in Charlemagne's capital, Aix. The offer is made in bad faith; Marsile has no intention of surrendering and wants only for Charlemagne to end his siege of the city and get out of Spain. Charlemagne does not trust Marsile but nevertheless accepts the overture, although Roland strenuously objects. Roland nominates his stepfather, Ganelon, as emissary to Marsile. Ganelon initially balks but is forced to accept the dangerous commission. He publicly vows to wreak vengeance on his hated stepson, who laughs derisively at the threat. In collusion with Marsile, Ganelon plots his revenge: he will see to it that Roland is given command of the rear guard, which the Saracens will ambush and destroy. The scheme proceeds as planned: as Charlemagne's army travels homeward, through the Roncevaux pass in the Pyrenees, Roland and the rear guard, which includes the finest knights of France, are ambushed by Marsile's army. Oliver, Roland's closest friend and a brave warrior in his own right, thrice begs his friend to sound his oliphant, or horn, to summon the aid of Charlemagne's main troop. Despite their forces being outnumbered five to one, Roland three times refuses, citing his desire to preserve his family honor and his determination to win alone. When defeat is imminent, Roland at last sounds his oliphant, though it is too late to save the rear guard. He blows his horn so forcefully that his temples burst, and Charlemagne hears and turns his forces around. Even with the rear guard destroyed, the Saracens are unable to vanquish Roland; after he slays Marsile's son and cuts off Marsile's right hand, the pagan army deserts the field, leaving Roland the sole survivor. Amid vain attempts to break Durandal, his sword, so that it may not be taken by a lesser knight, Roland painfully makes his way to the front of the battlefield, wishing Charlemagne and the Franks to know that he died bravely. As Roland dies from the wound he sustained sounding the oliphant, angels descend to accompany his soul to God. After Roland's demise, Charlemagne and the main army gain revenge by annihilating Marsile's troops. Next Charlemagne faces the pagan Baligant; Baligant's defeat represents the defeat of paganism by Christianity. Once this conflict is resolved, the trial of Ganelon begins. In the denouement of The Song of Roland Ganelon argues that his action was not treason against his liege lord, Charlemagne, but honorable personal revenge against Roland. The Frankish barons are disposed to exonerate Ganelon, but the knight Thierry proposes to prove Ganelon's guilt by trial of arms against Ganelon's champion, Pinabel. Thierry, maintaining that Ganelon's action did indeed constitute treason against Charlemagne because his revenge was undertaken while Roland was acting in the King's service, vanquishes his opponent and Ganelon is drawn and quartered. As The Song of Roland ends, a weary and mourning Charlemagne is summoned by the archangel Gabriel to undertake yet another crusade.

Major Themes

The Song of Roland's central themes are heroism, bravery, and honor. Many critics interpret Roland's refusal to call for help in the course of his last battle as overweening pride. Sarah Kay and other scholars, however, maintain that Roland is improperly judged when his behavior is evaluated by modern standards and that his behavior was beyond reproach according to the ethos in his own time. Critics use the story as a means of studying the history of ethics and its evolution over the centuries.

Critical Reception

Much attention has been focused on study of the surviving texts of the tale. The manuscript housed at the Bodleian Library at Oxford is the oldest and is generally considered the truest and most beautiful rendition of The Song of Roland. The twelfth-century German adaptation, the Rolandslied (circa 1185), is frequently studied as well, as are Norse, Welsh, Dutch, Franco-Italian, Latin, and other French versions. Eugene Vance has written of the evolution of the work through the centuries, beginning as oral poetry with portions improvised in various retelling by various reciters. What The Song of Roland reveals about the development of Christianity is taken up by E. Zimroth, Gerard J. Brault, and Laura Ashe, among others. Dating the work has always been problematic for scholars and historians. Among those offering their insights on this question are Dorothy L. Sayers and Hans E. Keller. Keller explains why assorted experts, using dialectical studies and histories of legal procedure to help them, have come up with so many different dates for composition, ranging over more than a century, from 1086 to 1170. The question of authorship is equally vexing. Some scholars believe that no single author can be credited with its creation, but that generations of poets revised and embellished The Song of Roland over many years. They do not believe the Oxford text is definitive, but simply representative of many different texts which have not survived. Opposed to this traditionalist view are the individualists, who declare that at some particular point during the telling of the legend of Roland, an individual deliberately set it to paper as an act of individual genius. The Oxford manuscript ends with a reference to Turoldus, but scholars cannot agree on whether it means that Turoldus is its author or merely a scribe. As is always the case with translations, especially of archaically written poetry, there are unsolvable problems and compromises in every edition, but there is a wide range from which to choose. The numerous translations reflect the universal critical acclaim and popularity of The Song of Roland.

W. S. Merwin (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: Merwin, W. S. Introduction to The Song of Roland, translated by W. S. Merwin, pp. v-xiii. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Merwin outlines Charlemagne's disastrous battle in the Pyrenees in which Roland was killed and describes how the tale of the defeat, through retelling, eventually achieved legendary status.]

Some time near the end of July, Charles (Charles the King, Charles the Emperor, Charles the Great, Charlemagne) turned his army north toward the Pyrenees and France. The year was 778. He was thirty-six years old and he was not used to failure, but even the royal chroniclers would have difficulty in trying to describe his ambitious summer campaign in Spain as though it had been a success.

It had not been hastily conceived. Suleiman, the Moorish governor of Barcelona, had visited Charles in the spring of 777 to urge him to cross the Pyrenees, and the request, and Charles' response to it, were both influenced by dynastic and religious promptings which had histories of their own.

Suleiman was a member of the Abassid dynasty, descended from an uncle of Mohammed. Earlier in the century the Abassids had overthrown the reigning Umayyad dynasty and assassinated every member of it except one, Abdur Rahman, who had escaped to Spain and established himself there as the Emir. Suleiman's hatred of Rahman was understandable, and it had already led him to seek and to obtain the protection of his Christian neighbor, King Pepin of France, Charles' father.

There were other reasons why Charles would have been sympathetic to Suleiman. He was himself a member of a young dynasty, a matter of subtle importance in a world governed to a great degree by tradition. And then, Abdur Rahman, as the last representative of the Umayyads, stood for the family which, half a century before, had commanded the great Moorish invasion of France. At that time the apparently invincible Umayyads had forced their way as far north as Tours before Charles' grandfather, Charles Martel, turned them back. It was the Umayyads whom Charles' father, Pepin, had fought and at last driven from France.

But doubtless none of these considerations would have impelled Charles to cross the Pyrenees if it had not been for a more powerful and obvious motive: his own ambition. In the first nine years of his reign he had conquered Aquitaine, beaten the Saxons and the Lombards, and become the official guardian of Christendom, whose boundaries he had extended to the north and east. An expedition into Spain would give him a chance to unify the different parts of his realm in a common effort, and incidentally to conquer the as yet unsubjected Basque provinces. Suleiman probably stressed the apparent fact that Rahman was a menace to Charles' southern frontier, and very possibly he would have told the French king that if he were to attack Rahman now he could not help succeeding, that the Abassids themselves were raising an army of Berbers to send against the Umayyad, and that the people of Spain were on the point of rebellion. The exact details of the embassage and the terms of the agreement that was reached are not known. But by Easter 778 Charles was in Poitou with an immense army recruited from every part of his kingdom: it included Goths, contingents from Septimania and Provence, Austrasians, Neustrians, Lombards, Burgundians, and Bavarians. After Easter he crossed the western end of the Pyrenees, through the Basque country, at the head of half his army. He sent the other half around the eastern end of the mountains. They were to meet before Saragossa.

Just what happened that summer was carefully obscured in the accounts and will never be known. Certainly there were no great triumphs. The Christian natives of Spain did not hasten to overthrow the tolerant Moorish rule and welcome the Franks; on the contrary, the Christians of the kingdom of Asturias preferred their own independence to the presence of a foreign army however dear to the Pope. It is also possible that they were in league with Rahman. At any rate they resisted the Franks. The Christian city of Pampelona refused entry to Charles and had to be stormed; it was the only city in the entire campaign which was actually taken. The native rebellion against Rahman never amounted to much and Suleiman himself had a falling out with his Moorish allies on the African continent. When the Frankish army assembled before Saragossa the city defied it, despite Suleiman's diplomatic efforts; it is not known how hard Charles tried to take it, but he had no siege machinery, and he failed. By some time in July he had received the formal surrender of a few cities—a gesture which may have owed as much to his alliance with Suleiman as it did to his own army—and he had gained some hostages, and little else. There is no way of knowing just why he abandoned the campaign so early in the summer. It is possible that he saw nothing to be gained by staying, in the circumstances, and was simply cutting his losses. Supplies may have run dangerously low. It is conceivable that the campaign had turned out far worse than the accounts would lead us to suppose, and that the army was in fact retreating. Even if that were so it cannot have been a rushed or disorderly retreat: in August the army stopped at Pampelona long enough to raze the walls of the city to punish the inhabitants for their resistance, and no doubt to weaken the Spanish side of the frontier. It has been suggested (by Fawtier) that if Charles had not been in a hurry, for some reason, he would have paused long enough to celebrate the important feast of the Dormition of the Virgin on August 15th. At any event he did not do so, but pushed on into the Pyrenees.

What happened next is one of the great riddles.

In the earliest history of Charles' expedition, the one included in a chronicle known as the Annales Royales, there is no reference to any military action whatever in the Pyrenees. All later writers on the subject have agreed that the author had something of importance to be silent about. Of such importance, in fact, that his immediate successors evidently felt that mere silence would not serve to conceal it, and set about explaining it. The original Annales were rewritten and expanded roughly a quarter of a century after they were first compiled. It was long thought that the rewriting was done by Charlemagne's biographer Einhard, and though it is now certain that the changes are not his, the second edition of the chronicle is still referred to as the Annales dites d'Einhard. In this work there is a brief and contradictory account of something which happened on the way back from Spain. The Basques, it says here, from positions at the tops of the mountains, attacked the rear guard and put the whole army in disorder; the Franks were caught at a disadvantage and did badly; most of the commanders of the different sections of the army were killed, and the enemy, helped by the nature of the terrain, managed to carry off the baggage and escape. There is a reference, too, to the bitterness of Charles' grief.

Then there is Einhard's own account. In the first place he is more ingenious than his predecessors at making it sound as though the Spanish campaign had been a success; then, having built up the picture, he sets against it the Pyrenean ambush on the way back as a relatively minor mishap. It was the treacherous Gascons, he says; they waited until the army was spread out in a long line in the gorges, and then they rushed down and threw the baggage train and the rear guard into confusion. There was a battle in the valley and the Franks were thrown back. The Gascons killed their opponents, the rear guard, to a man, seized the baggage, and scattered under cover of night. Their flight was made easier by their light armor and the nature of the terrain. And then Einhard says, “In this battle Egginhard the royal seneschal, Anselm the Count of the Palace, and Hruodland, the Warden of the Breton Marches, were killed, with very many others.” It is one of the only two glimpses in history of the knight whose name would come to evoke one of the richest bodies of legend in the Middle Ages, and one of its greatest poems. The other is a coin, worn, but still displaying on one side the name Carlus, and on the reverse, Rodlan.

One final mention of the battle, by the chroniclers, is of interest. While the army was making its way back from Spain, Charlemagne's wife, in France, gave birth to a son, Louis, who would be his heir. Sixty years after the battle Louis' own biographer, a writer known as The Astronome, in speaking of it said that the names of those who fell in that action were so well known that there was no need to repeat them.

Of all the battles of the period, this one probably has excited most curiosity, and almost nothing about it is definitely known. It is not mere historical interest in the sources of the Roland story which still draws the speculation of scholars to what scanty evidence has come down to our times. In this case the theories of how the legend developed from the event are even more than usually dependent upon a notion of what the event was: a bitter but militarily unimportant misfortune, on the one hand, or one of the critical defeats of Charlemagne's reign, on the other.

Bedier, one of the great students of medieval literature in modern times and the editor of the Oxford text of La Chanson de Roland, propounded the theory of the development of the legend which was generally accepted for years. The battle, he believed, was a minor event which had been remembered in the area near the battlefield and had become a local legend; from those beginnings it had been retold and developed in monasteries and pilgrim sanctuaries along the route leading to Santiago de Compostella, in Spain; the route crossed the Pyrenees at Roncevaux—the Roncesvalles associated with the Roland story. Bedier, incidentally, was convinced that a number of the French chansons de geste developed in more or less the same way and may have been written by monks, or at least in collaboration with monks. With reference to the Roland, in particular, he cites the fact that the pass at Roncevaux was commended for admiration (complete with a monumental cross said to be Carolingian and other relics claiming descent from Roland and the battle) by the monks at Roncevaux in the twelfth century; he points out that one variant of the Roland legend is contained in a twelfth-century guide written for the benefit of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella.

Bedier's theory was published just before World War I. It was subjected to criticism in the following decades by a number of scholars; one of the most interesting countertheories was put forward by Fawtier (La Chanson de Roland) in 1933. Fawtier analyzes the chroniclers' references to the battle and bases his conclusions, in great part, on the weaknesses in their accounts. The chroniclers, he insists, cannot have it both ways. Was it merely a massacre of the rear guard, or did it in fact involve the whole army and “throw it into disorder”? He poses some other interesting questions. Why, for instance, should the baggage train have been at the rear of the march, when it was usual to have it in the middle, especially in mountain country? Why should so many of the leaders of the different sections of the army have been in the rear guard (of course the legend itself, with its story of the Ganelon-Roland dispute, answers this one, but the legend in its final form came much later and a great part of it is concerned with the peculiar drama of this very situation). How many of these details, and how much of the picture of the lightning raid from the mountain tops may have been attempts to minimize and explain away a terrible defeat which had happened while Charles himself was in command?

In Fawtier's view, the battle, whether it took place at Roncevaux or elsewhere, was one of the great disasters of Charlemagne's career. The army, hurrying into the Pyrenees, was caught in a classical ambush: the van was blocked, the rear was then attacked, and the Franks had to fight their way forward, section by section, suffering losses so appalling that Charles never really managed to reassemble the survivors on the other side of the mountains, and instead set about hastily reorganizing the strong points in Aquitaine as though he expected further troubles from Spain. In fact the magnitude of the defeat was one of the things about the action which caught the popular imagination and contributed to the growth of the legend around the heroic figure of the doomed commander of the rear guard, Hruodland, Rodlan, Roland.

The legend may have grown in the region around Roncevaux, but it was elaborated in other parts of the kingdom too. By the late eleventh century, when the poem was written, it was possible for the poet to display, without fear of correction, an ignorance of the geography of Spain and, for that matter, of southern France, which indicates not only that he himself came from somewhere far from that part of the world, but also that the story and its heroes had long been familiar in places remote from the original battlefield. An audience at Roncevaux might just have been able to go along with the poet's assumption that Córdoba was near the hill city of Saragossa, which in turn was on the sea; it is unlikely that, even in the Middle Ages when simple experience was so meek an authority, they would have heard without a murmur that Narbonne and Bordeaux both lay on the same road north from Roncevaux. Furthermore, this shows a total ignorance of the Santiago pilgrim route and its monasteries, an interesting fact in view of the theory that the poem was composed in one of those places, on that route.

In Fawtier's opinion the story of the defeat was carried across France by its veterans, and in various localities, as it took on the character of legend through repetition, it was cast, in whole or in part, into the form of ballads. It is true that none of these survive, but then very little of the popular literature of the time has survived. The monks had nothing to do with the composition of La Chanson de Roland itself (although two other, later variants of the legend were composed by clerics). On the contrary, it was the legend, and perhaps the poem itself, which prompted the ecclesiastics at Roncevaux to exploit the pass as a pilgrim attraction—an enterprise which may have contributed to the poem's preservation.

There has been considerable controversy as to just when La Chanson de Roland was written. It must have been some time in the latter half of the eleventh century, but it is not possible to be much more definite than that. The poem apparently was already well known in 1096 when, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II made use of it in his appeal to the chivalry of France to follow in the steps of Charlemagne and send an army against Islam. Many of the crusaders who responded to Urban's summons, and many who came later, must have been following an image of themselves which derived, at least in part, from the legendary last battle of the now transfigured Hruodland.

The poem, in its original form, has not survived. Modern knowledge of it is confined to six different versions, whose separate relations to the original are not plain. There is, for instance, a twelfth-century German translation by a Bavarian priest named Konrad. There is a Norse translation of the thirteenth century. There is a version in Franco-Italian, in the library of San Marco in Venice, which ends differently from the others. And there are three versions in French. One of them, known as Recension O, or the Oxford version, has survived in a single copy, Digby Mss 23, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is supposed that it was a jongleur's copy of the poem. It is the oldest of all the versions, the most beautiful, and must have been much the closest to the original. Bedier's famous edition of the poem (the one I have used in making my translation) is based on the Oxford version, which Bedier compares at all points with the others.

Two other medieval retellings of the Roland legend are extant. One of them, the so-called Pseudo-Turpin, comes from Book IV of the twelfth-century Guide to the Pilgrims of Santiago de Compostella, to which I have already referred. It is in Latin prose and purports to have been written by the Archbishop Turpin himself. This worthy, as here presented, was with Charlemagne when Roland was attacked, and he had a vision in which he saw the soul of King Marsiliun being carried off by demons and the soul of Roland by angels. The narrative is clumsy, ill written, and encumbered with theological baggage. The other variant of the story, the Carmen de prodicione Guenonis, is also in Latin prose, but is shorter and more vigorous; it is possible that it is a translation of a lost French poem. A great deal of attention is paid to the character and actions of Ganelon. These two accounts, and the six surviving descendants of the Chanson itself were compared by Gaston Paris, who concluded that the author of the Pseudo-Turpin knew the Chanson but that the author of the Chanson did not know the Pseudo-Turpin variant; that there was no evidence of any relationship between the Pseudo-Turpin and the Carmen; that there was no way of establishing any relationship between the Carmen and the Chanson.

No decision about the spelling of characters and places could have satisfied everyone, and between the two extremes of modernizing and Anglicizing everything, on the one hand, or of keeping to the medieval versions in every case, on the other, I have not even been consistent. It would have struck me as affected and pointlessly archaic to have insisted on the original versions of names which have become familiar in modern English—Roland, Charles, Ganelon, Reims, Bordeaux. The work, after all, is a translation to begin with. But with names which, in my judgment, had not acquired such familiarity, I have either followed one of the original versions (sometimes there are several: Marsile, Marsilies, Marsilie, Marsiliun, Naimun, Naimon, Neimes, Naimes) or Bedier's standardized modern French version (Blancandrin, Balaquer, Thierry, Seurin), depending on which seemed preferable in the circumstances.

The Chanson de Roland, as it has survived in the Oxford version, consists of just under 4000 lines, arranged in laisses, or groups of lines all ending on the same assonance. The metrical pattern is based on a ten-syllable line with a clear strong beat. There are several drawbacks to trying to reproduce anything of the kind in English. For one thing, the assonance patterns: English is far more meager than are the Romance languages in the number of similar assonances which can be found for any given word ending. There have been translations of La Chanson de Roland which have aimed at producing assonance patterns like those in the original, but the results have been gnarled, impacted, and stunted, as the original certainly is not. It would also have been possible—and this too has been done—to translate the poem into a ten-syllable line more or less resembling that of the original. The trouble is that the associations of the ten-syllable line in English are not at all what they are in French. It would have been very difficult not to invoke the tradition of iambic pentameter in English literature, a gallery of connotations which would not only have been irrelevant to the poem but which also could not help disguising it. This is quite apart from my own strong disposition against even reading another transposition of La Chanson de Roland, or most anything else, into a sort of blankish verse.

I am not questioning the splendor of the verse in the Oxford version, the magnificence of the noise it makes. It would be boorish of me to do so after the pleasure they have given me. But the qualities of the poem which finally claim me are all related to a certain limpidity not only in the language and the story but in the imagination behind them, to a clarity at once simple and formal, excited and cool, to characteristics which I find myself trying to describe in terms of light and water. These qualities obviously could not be reproduced in any translation but I wanted to suggest them, and it seemed to me that I should try to do it in prose.

Principal Works

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La Chanson de Roland [The Song of Roland] c. 1170

The Song of Roland (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers) 1957

The Song of Roland (translated by Robert Harrison) 1970

The Song of Roland (translated by W. S. Merwin) 1970

The Song of Roland (translated by Gerard J. Brault) 1978

The Song of Roland (translated by Frederick Goldin) 1978

The Song of Roland (translated by D. D. R. Owen) 1981

The Song of Roland (translated by Glyn Burgess) 1990

The Song of Roland (translated by Patricia Terry) 1998

E. Zimroth (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Zimroth, E. “Grace and Free Will in the Chanson de Roland.Essays in French Literature, no. 9 (November 1973): 1-13.

[In the following essay, Zimroth analyzes the interrelationship in The Song of Roland between predeterminism, free will, and divine grace.]

The larger picture of the Chanson de Roland is of a world rigidly circumscribed by divine preordination. The epic seems to illustrate the assumption that there exists a divine plan to be fulfilled in the future; the course of history here is predetermined by God so that with the progression of time, God's will is made apparent. That portion of the divine plan dramatized in the epic is the polarity between Saracen and Christian, an easy polarity in the sense that it gives rise to an unambiguous relationship between right and wrong, winning and losing. God naturally is on the side of His people and therefore He can and will assure their victory. Acting on that assumption, the Christians in the Roland enter the battles against the Saracens with the complete self-assurance that they are on the winning side. Roland, for example, asserts the unquestioned dichotomy when he says:

Paien unt tort e chrestiens unt dreit.
(Paynims are wrong, Christians are in the right!)

(laisse LXXIX)

Nos avum dreit, mais cist glutun unt tort.
(Right's on our side, and wrong is with these wretches!)

(laisse XCIII)

The results of the battles between Christians and Saracens bear out Roland's assertions. During the battle between the rear-guard and the Saracen army, dead Christians are ensured salvation while dead pagans are carted off to Hell (laisses XCVI, CXVII), a consequence concrete enough to indicate that the infidels were indeed on the wrong side of history. The Saracens themselves finally realize that they are fated to lose the battle:

Paien dient: “Si mare fumes nez!
Cum pesmes jurz nus est hoi ajurnez!”
(The Paynims say: “Why were we ever born?
Woe worth the while: our day of doom has dawned!”)

(laisse CLX)

In the next laisse, the Saracens flee the field, expecting Charlemagne's revenge and leaving Roland to die in peace. With the Saracen's retreat to Spain, the providential scheme of history has advanced one step further in its total realization.

God's plan is again seen in the momentous battle between Charlemagne and Baligant during which the Christians assume the same confidence in their inherent power to vanquish the pagans. “Carles ad dreit” (Carlon is in the right), the French say (laisse CCXLI). No reason need be given when “right” so clearly carries the implication of ultimate victory according to the providential scheme. God wills that Christianity be victorious and paganism be thwarted, and the French are witting agents of that divine plan:

“Ferez, baron, ne vos targez mie!
Carles ad dreit vers la gent …
Deux nus ad mis al plus verai juïse.” AOI
(“Barons, strike on,” they say, “and make no stint!
Against these villains Charles has the right of it!
God His true judgment thus to our hands commits!”)

(laisse CCXLII)

Again the Christians win this Manichaean battle between right and wrong “cum Damnesdeus le volt” (for God has willed it so) (laisse CCLXIII), and God's cause again is furthered.

Occasionally God intervenes indirectly through His divine agents, both revealing and ensuring the outcome of history. God's pre-ordained plans, for example, are symbolically revealed by Gabriel to Charlemagne in his dreams when he dreams first of Ganelon's treachery (laisse LVI), then of the battle between Marsile and Roland (laisse LVII). These dreams, which foreshadow divinely ordained events, also endow Charlemagne with some degree of tragic insight as when, after assigning Roland to the rear-guard, Charlemagne remembers the foreknowledge he gained in his dreams. Although he cannot forestall these events, Charlemagne is able to anticipate Roland's death and the destruction of the French forces, and so “sur tuz les altres est Carles anguissus” (Charles most of all a boding sorrow feels) (laisse LXVI). He speaks sorrowfully of a future that he knows will occur:

“Par Guenelun serat destruite France.
Enoit m'avint un'avisiun d'angele,
Qu'entre mes puinz me depeçout ma hanste:
Chi ad juget mis nés a reréguarde.”
(“Through Ganelon faire France is ruined quite.
An angel showed me a vision in the night,
How in my hand he broke my lance outright,
He that my nephew to the rear-guard assigned.”)

(laisse LXVII)

Ganelon's treachery and Roland's death, however, are only fragments of the divine plan which encompasses as well the ritualized and hieratic battle between Charlemagne and Baligant, the powers of Christianity and paganism, West and East. This portion of history is also revealed to Charlemagne before the event in a dream decreed by God and mediated by Gabriel (laisse CLXXXV). Charlemagne's dreams, thus, give him special knowledge of the future but also indicate the intimacy Charlemagne has with Christian history as he constantly fulfils a preordained plan.

Charlemagne is granted foreknowledge of the divine plan not only indirectly, through dreams, but also through direct conversation with God's agents, the angels. When Charlemagne prays to God for a suspension of time so that Roland's death can be avenged, an angel, with whom he is accustomed to talk (laisse CLXXIX), appears and assures Charlemagne that his victory is preordained. The angel exhorts and promises:

“Charle, chevalche, car tei ne fait clartet.
La flur de France as perdut, ço set Deux.
Venger te poez de la gent criminel.”
(“Ride, Carlon, ride; the light shall not come short!
The flower of France is fallen; God knows all;
Thou shalt have vengeance upon the heathen horde.”)

(laisse CLXXIX)

At the end of the Roland, Gabriel again visits Charlemagne to remind him that God's pattern is not yet completely wrought, and that Charlemagne is still needed in God's service. Gabriel calls on Charlemagne:

“Carles, sumun les oz de tun emperie!
Par force iras en la tere de Bire,
Reis Vivien si succuras en Imphe,
A la citet que paien unt asise:
Li chrestien te recleiment e crient.”
(“Up, Charles! assemble thy whole imperial might;
With force and arms unto Elbira ride;
Needs must thou succour King Vivien where he lies
At Imphe, his city, besieged by Paynim tribes;
There for thy help the Christians call and cry.”)

(laisse CCXCI)

The certainty of tone with which the epic's characters assert their part in the divine plan, and the supernatural occurrences, such as Charlemagne's dreams and his conversations with the angels, all suggest the establishment of a personal relationship between God and the Christians as God's ordained plan is revealed. The nature of the theophanies illustrates the predetermined scheme of history underlying the broader epic actions in the Roland.

When history is predetermined by God, there is little need to explain causality, so that, in the Roland, causality and causal relations are sometimes—though not always—obscured. For example, the motivation for the original animosity between Roland and Ganelon is not clear, nor is it apparent why Ganelon risks his life to threaten Marsile before he broaches the subject of the rear-guard (laisses XXXIII and XXXVII), nor why Roland suddenly decides to blow his horn to summon Charlemagne after all (laisse CXXXIII). Events occur because God willed them thus to happen; God's will alone is sufficient explanation for a deed.

But although the larger scheme of history encompassed by the Roland seems to have been predetermined by God, the individual acting within that scheme has freedom of choice. The contradiction between historical predeterminism and individual free will is ignored in the actual practice of the characters in the Roland. Throughout the epic, scenes of giving, taking, and rejecting advice are strongly emphasized. This stress on the need to consider advice and to make choices can be seen, for example, in the various council scenes throughout the epic. The first council is called by Charlemagne to decide on a course of action following Blancandrin's promise that Marsile will convert to Christianity if the French return to Aix. The debate is swift and emotional. Roland remembers a mistaken decision made in the past which resulted in the beheading of Basan and Basil (laisse XIV), and advises a plan on the basis of that memory. But his advice is rejected by Ganelon, Naimes, and the whole French army (laisses XV and XVI). As always, Charlemagne accepts the decision of his men:

Ses baruns mandet pur sun cunseill finer
Par cels de France voelt il del tut errer.
([He] calls his barons to council thereupon;
By French advice whate'er he does is done.)

(laisse XI)

The council is then asked to choose an emissary to deliver its message to Marsile, and, when Ganelon is chosen by Roland, the choice is ratified by the French. As Ganelon angrily threatens Roland with revenge for having chosen to put his step-father in jeopardy, Charlemagne remonstrates with Ganelon and avows his personal responsibility for the choice:

Carles respunt: “Trop avez tendre coer.
Puis quel comant, aler vus en estoet.”
(Quoth Charles: “Your heart is too tender within you;
Go now you must, for even so I bid you.”)

(laisse XXIII)

Ço dist li reis: “Trop avez maltalant.
Or irez vos certes, quant jol cumant.”
(Then said the King: “Your passion is too hot;
I bid you go and so you must be gone.”)

(laisse XXIV)

By confirming Roland's choice, Charlemagne invests the choice with the weight of kingly responsibility. Charlemagne's avowal of responsibility here is based on the assumption that, after he has been duly advised by his vassals, he is free to act according to his own will and is not merely fulfilling a certain predetermined plan.

Marsile, too, holds a council to consider Ganelon's suggestion. The physical details of the Saracen's council recall Charlemagne's previous council almost exactly. The background is rigidly fixed and the same objects appear: both kings preside by sitting on a faldstool (laisses VIII, XXXI), and both kings sit underneath a pine-tree surrounded by their armies. Only Ganelon moves in front of the fixed background to further link the two scenes. The two councils are thus juxtaposed through the repetition of emblems suggesting kingly responsibility, yet they cannot be juxtaposed in time since Ganelon has travelled from one to the other. The purpose of the juxtaposition is to heighten the relationship between the two councils, for in each an important decision is made. The decision of the one is to send Ganelon as ambassador to the Saracens while that of the other is to accept Ganelon's advice, deceive Charlemagne, and kill Roland. Yet Marsile's council could not take place unless Charlemagne's had preceded it; the second is dependent on the first and will, in turn, affect subsequent councils and events. So, despite the epic's lack of explanation for events and its assertions about a fated history—both of which suggest a predetermined format—the scenes themselves are constructed to reveal, by emblems and symbols, a causality certainly affected by individual decisions. By emphasizing councils and their attendant decisions, the Roland implies that man is free to act and react as he will.

During the temptation scene (laisses XXV-XLVI), for example, in which Ganelon persuades Marsile to have Roland killed, the action depends entirely on Ganelon's Iago-like manipulations of people and events. Causal relations are again emphasized since the success of each step depends on the success or failure of the previous step. For example, Marsile will not get a chance to attack Roland unless Charlemagne can be persuaded to appoint Roland to the rear-guard. Ganelon first has to persuade Marsile that Roland must be disposed of. On the advice of Blancandrin, Marsile accepts Ganelon's proposal. Marsile and Ganelon then plot the treachery which will determine the course of events in the future. Yet although God's plan for history seems temporarily thwarted by the will of Ganelon, it becomes apparent later in the Roland that divine providence is effective over and above the free will of men. Roland's death leads to renewed action on the part of the Christians to vanquish the Saracens, and the Christians, of course, are ultimately successful. So we see that the epic's narrative—with its assertions about fate, certain knowledge of the outcome of events, its tone, and the succinctness of its style—suggests a totally determined providential scheme for history. But it is equally true that individual scenes and actions, with their emphasis on decisions and causality, suggest a historical fluidity dependent on the free will of man.

This ambiguous connection between man's free will and the course of history can be seen more graphically in the relationship among the characters of the epic and between individual characters and God. At the top of the hierarchic arrangement of men is Charlemagne, an almost mythic character of extraordinary age and abilities, whose knowledge is composed of both wisdom and the foreknowledge of the future gained in dreams. In addition to his special knowledge, he merits special protection because of his closeness to the divine plan. During his final battle with Baligant, for example, he is seriously wounded on the head but is roused by an angel sent to remind him of his role in history:

Mais deux ne volt qu'il seit mort ne vencut.
Seint Gabriel est repairet a lui.
Si li demandet: “Reis magnes, que fais tu?”
(… God will not he be o'ercome or killed;
Saint Gabriel comes hastening down to him:
“And what,” saith he, “art thou about, great King?”)

(laisse CCLXI)

On hearing Gabriel's admonition, Charlemagne realizes anew that he is God's valued and protected agent, so he loses his fears and “repairet loi vigur e remembrance” (His strength returns, he is himself again) (laisse CCLXII). His most amazing display of power, however, is his ability to suspend time and, with God's help, to subject time to his own needs. When, for example, he needs extra time to avenge Roland's death, he requests and receives a prolonged day:

Pur Karlemagne fist Deus vertuz mult granz,
Car li soleilz est remés en estant.
(For Charlemayn God wrought a wondrous token:
The sun stood still in the mid-heaven holden.)

(laisse CLXXX)

Charlemagne's extraordinary ability to foresee the future, talk to the angels and control time indicates that he has been chosen by God to receive His divine grace. In Augustinian terms, then, Charlemagne is completely free. Through divine grace, Charlemagne's will is freed from the possibility of sinning; he indeed is unable to sin and can choose and follow only the good. When he controls time, it is because his faith and God's grace liberate him from ordinary human constrictions.

However, despite the obvious indications that Charlemagne has received God's grace and the gift of true freedom, he seems, as Auerbach has noted, at times paralysed, unable to perform any action whatsoever. He is unable to save Roland and the rear-guard from the effects of Ganelon's treachery which he foresees in his dreams (laisses LVI and LVII), and, later, is wholly dependent on Thierry's offer to act as his agent in Ganelon's trial (laisse CCLXVII). But the reason for this seeming impotence can again be found in the realization that Charlemagne has been given the gift of grace. His impotence is not impotence at all, but total submission to the will of God; his immobility, like that of Milton's Christ in Paradise Regained, is a sign of his knowledge that “All things are best fulfill'd in their due time, / And time there is for all things … ” (P.R., III, 182-3). Immobility, thus, is an eminently creative stasis, since Charlemagne, as God's agent, constantly fulfils the divine plan. His creative freedom, awarded him by God, enables Charlemagne, as God's agent, to participate completely in God's plan for the world. Although he operates in the secular world, he is liberated by grace from ordinary causal and historical processes in order to fulfil freely the providential scheme of history.

In contrast to Charlemagne, Ganelon is fully mortal. He lacks the supernatural powers of Charlemagne and there is no indication that he has received or will receive God's grace. Initially, Ganelon and Roland have equal status as co-agents of Charlemagne with each commanding a large following. Ganelon is apparently a competent warrior and a logical choice as emissary to Marsile (laisses XX and XXVII). The initial balance between Roland and Ganelon, however, is soon disrupted. He displays more and more will for evil until he finally makes the supreme mistake and betrays both Charlemagne and the Christian cause. This betrayal of Christianity is portrayed emblematically when Ganelon vows first on the relics of his sword, and then on the pagan bible, to be unfaithful to his own religion (laisses XLVI and XLVII). By promising to help the Saracen cause, Ganelon gives up his personality as a Christian warrior and thus proves himself to be unworthy of God's grace. His change from a noble Christian to a damned pagan is communicated again emblematically by his reception of the Saracen's gifts. He first desecrates his own sword, which represents his personality as a Christian warrior, accepts a Saracen sword, and then seals the treachery with a Judas-like kiss:

A tant i vint uns paiens, Valdabruns.
Icil en vait al rei Marsiliun.
Cler en riant l'ad dit a Guenelun:
“Tenez l'espee, meillur n'en at nuls hom;
Entre les helz ad plus de mil manguns.
Par amistiez, bel sire, la vos duins,
Que nos aidez de Rollant le barun,
Qu'en rereguarde trover le poüsum.
—Ben serat fait,” li quens Guenes respunt;
Puis se baiserent es vis e es mentuns.
(Lo, now! there comes a Paynim, Valdebron;
He stands before the King Marsilion,
And gaily laughing he says to Ganelon,
“Here, take my sword, a better blade is none.
A thousand mangons are in the hilt thereof;
'Tis yours, fair sir, for pure affection,
For help against Roland the champion,
If in the rear-guard we find him as we want.”
Quoth Ganelon to him: “It shall be done.”
They kiss each other the cheek and chin upon.)

(laisse XLVIII)

Ganelon then accepts the Saracen's helm and jewels and again seals the exchange with a symbolic kiss (laisses XLIX and L). He thus loses his identity as a Christian by proving his total unworthiness to receive grace, and so, through a series of symbolic exchanges, ensures his own damnation. After the agent acting for him loses his trial by combat and Ganelon is tortured to death, his soul is presumably carried straight to Hell as were the souls of other dead infidels.

Like Ganelon's, Roland's acts are a matter of his free choice, yet his relationship to God and destiny is more ambiguous than either Charlemagne's or Ganelon's. Charlemagne is clearly one of the saved and Ganelon clearly one of the damned, whereas Roland's relationship to the divine plan changes during the epic as the action itself develops. He begins, like Ganelon, as an agent of Charlemagne with ordinary human powers. He is characterized by Ganelon as “le destre braz” or the right hand of Charlemagne (laisse XLV), yet he causes the death of the entire rear-guard when his pride forbids him to blow his olifant and summon Charlemagne's aid. When Oliver begs him to sound the horn and so save the French army from destruction at the hands of the infidels, Roland cites his personal pride, his familial pride, and his pride in France as reasons for refusing:

… “Jo fereie que fols!
En dulce France en perdreie mun los.”
(… “Madman were I and more,
And in fair France my fame would suffer scorn!”)

(laisse LXXXIII)

… “Ne placet Damnedeu
Que mi parent pur mei seient blasmet
Ne France dulce ja cheet en viltet!”
(… “May never God allow
That I should cast dishonour on my house
Or on fair France bring any ill renown!”)

(laisse LXXXIV)

“Ne placet Deu,” ço li respunt Rollant,
Que ço seit dit de nul hume vivant,
Ne pur paien, que ja seie cornant!
Ja n'en avrunt reproece mi parent.”
(“Now God forbid,” Roland makes answer wroth,
That living man should say he saw me go
Blowing of horns for any Paynim foe!
Ne'er shall my kindred be put to such reproach!”)

(laisse LXXV)

In this case, Roland is choosing freely and choosing wrongly. Oliver, for example, holds Roland responsible for a wilful act of wrong-choosing and blames him by saying that he disregarded good advice:

“Quant jel vos dis, compainz, vos ne deignastes.
S'i fust li reis, n'i oüsum damage.
Cil ki la sunt n'en deivent aveir blasme.”
(“I asked you, comrade, and you refused, for pride.
Had Charles been here, then all would have gone right;
He's not to blame, nor the men at his side.”)

(laisse CXXX)

… “Cumpainz, vos le feïstes …
Franceis sunt morz par vostre legerie.
Jamais Karlon de nus n'avrat servise.
Sem creïsez, venuz i fust mi sire;
Ceste bataille oüsum [faite u prise];
U pris u mort i fust li reis Marsilie.
Vostre proecce, Rollant, mar la veïmes!”
(… “Companion, you got us in this mess …
Through your o'erweening you have destroyed the French!
Ne'er shall we do service to Charles again.
Had you but given some heed to what I said.
My lord had come, the battle had gone well,
And King Marsile had been captured or dead.
Your prowess, Roland, is a curse on our heads.”)

(laisse CXXXI)

When Oliver, who is “sage”, accuses Roland of irresponsibility and disregard for counsel, he attests to Roland's free will, although it is misused. The refusal to blow the olifant shows that Roland has not yet been granted divine grace; he does not have perfect freedom, in Augustinian terms, but is able to choose the wrong course of action.

Roland realizes too late that he has made the wrong choice, and so rectifies that choice by finally acquiescing and blowing the olifant (laisses CXXXIII and CXXXIV). By doing so, he admits his own responsibility for a mistaken act and tries to make amends for choosing wrongly. Blowing the olifant thus signifies the loss of his overbearing pride, and with the loss of pride comes the possibility of receiving divine grace. His acceptance of responsibility for making a wrong choice is signified verbally as well as by the act of blowing the olifant hard enough to burst his temples and cause his own death. In his lament for the dead barons, he seems to fix responsibility directly on himself when he says, “Barons franceis, pur mei vos vei murir” (“Barons of France, for me you go to death”) (laisse CXL). The “pur mei” however, is ambiguous and can mean either “for me” (that is, “in my service”) or “because of me”. The second reading, “because of me”, in which Roland blames himself is more appropriate because more in keeping with the way he used this same phrase before, as, for example, when he originally refused to blow his horn:

“Ne placet Damnedeu ne ses angles
Que ja pur mei perdet sa valur France!”
(“God and his angels forbid it now, I pray,
That e'er by me fair France should be disfamed!”)

(laisse LXXXVI)

When Roland repeats “pur mei” during his elegy for the barons who died because of his refusal to summon aid, the words acquire a tragic irony since it is precisely what Roland forswore that came to pass. Roland significantly ends his lament with a confession of personal weakness and assigns the dead barons to the beneficence of God:

“Je ne vos pois tenser ne guarantir;
Aït vos Deus, ki unkes ne mentit!”
(“Nought can I give you of safeguard or defence:
Now aid you God, who ne'er failed any yet!”)

(laisse CXL)

Once Roland begins to die, the tone of the narrative changes to become sombrely elegiac as all the events surrounding his death take on ritualistic and religious importance. During the death scene itself (laisses CLXVIII-CLXXVI), it becomes apparent that he was predestined from the beginning to receive God's grace. He was brought up by Charlemagne himself (laisse CLXXVI), and so, through symbolic kinship, will presumably inherit and approximate Charlemagne's intimate relationship to the divine plan. Another indication that he was predestined to achieve the gift of grace is in his remembrance that Charlemagne gave him the gift of Durendal, his sword (laisse CLXXII). The acceptance of Charlemagne's gift has the same emblematic significance as Ganelon's acceptance of the gifts of the Saracens. Gifts, the sword in particular, become in this epic symbols of personality and obligation. Durendal was apparently used by Charlemagne in his own youth and was bestowed upon Roland so that he could continue the admirable career that the youthful Charlemagne began. It was given to Roland expressly by God's command and so provides a concrete link in the hierarchy from him to Charlemagne, to God. Moreover, the sword has mystic properties—it is unbreakable, and its hilt contains the relics of Christian saints (laisse CLXXIII). As Roland meditates on his sword, he rehearses all of the victories he won with it in the past:

“Jo l'en cunquis e Anjou e Bretaigne,
Si l'en cunquis e Peitou e le Maine:
Jo l'en cunquis Normendie la franche,
Si l'en cunquis Provence e Equitaigne
E Lumbardie e trestute Romaine;
Jo l'en cunquis Baiver e tute Flandres
E Burguigne e trestute Puillanie,
Costentinnoble, dunt il out la fiance,
E en Saisonie fait il ço qu'il demandet;
Jo l'en cunquis e Escose e …
E Engletere, que il teneit sa cambre;
Cunquis l'en ai païs e teres tantes,
Que Carles tient, ki ad la barbe blanche.”
(“With this I won Anjou and all Bretayn,
With this I won him Poitou, and conquered Maine;
With this I won him Normandy's fair terrain,
And with it won Provence and Acquitaine,
And Lombardy and all the land Romayne,
Bavaria too, and the whole Flemish state.
And Burgundy and all Apulia gained;
Constantinople in the King's hand I laid;
In Saxony he speaks and is obeyed;
With this I won Scotland, [Ireland and Wales,]
And England, where he set up his domain;
What lands and countries I've conquered by its aid,
For Charles to keep whose beard is white as may!”)

(laisse CLXXII)

The enumeration of events occurring in the past links Roland to historic time. His actions have occurred within the medium of history, whereas Charlemagne's occur beyond ordinary historic time as is shown by his control of the length of day. Thus as he recites his past deeds he is reciting also an account of his bondage to ordinary time, a bondage relaxed only at his death. More importantly however, the recitation of past victories also suggests the greater inwardness he exhibits as he prepares himself for death; the evocation of place-names in his memory is another indication of his growing introspection which began with the admission of wrong-choosing in regard to whether or not he should have summoned Charlemagne. Such calling upon memory—very unusual for this epic where the future is often foretold but rarely is the past remembered, and never the personal past—is another indication that Roland is preparing himself spiritually for the possible reception of grace.

That he is granted divine grace is proven at the actual moment of his death. As he dies, he performs the ritual feudal gesture of offering his glove to God, who in turn accepts the token:

Sun destre guant a Deu en puroffrit.
Seint Gabriel de sa main l'ad pris.
(His right-hand glove he's tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.)

(laisse CLXXVI)

Although he previously served Charlemagne as God's agent, Roland, in this gesture of fealty, indicates that he now serves a higher agent, Gabriel, and God Himself. He then dies, surrounded by angels, and his soul is carried immediately to heaven:

L'anme del cunte portent en pareïs.
(The County's soul they bear to Paradise.)

(laisse CLXXVI)

Morz est Rollant, Deus en ad l'anme es cels.
(Roland is dead, in Heaven God hath his soul.)

(laisse CLXXVII)

When later Charlemagne returns to Roncevaux, he opens up Roland's dead body and takes from it the heart which he preserves in a marble urn as a relic (laisse CCXIII). Charlemagne in this way canonizes Roland. Roland has completed the transition from feudal warrior to saint. Now that he is in heaven, the record of his past sins is erased and Roland, like Charlemagne, has clearly become one of God's elect.

Despite the sense one receives from the epic of an entirely predetermined plan for history, the epic's main characters act in freedom. Yet the freedom with which they perform their roles in their battle to further the Christian cause is made complex by the epic's Augustinian vision of grace. With the gift of divine grace, one is released from historic time and ordinary causality—as is Charlemagne—and is free to do only the good, and even to do nothing at all but quiescently fulfil the divine plan. Or, oppositely, one has a free but depraved will, as does Ganelon, so that actions, though performed freely, are motivated so completely by pride and talent for working evil that damnation is assured. Or, free will and the subsequent release from the bondage of history can be gained through divine grace when a character, such as Roland, repents of his own depravity of will and then prepares himself spiritually to receive God's gift. Thus the epic communicates within a tightly organized Christian framework a fluidity about man's spiritual destiny dependent upon the reception of divine grace. Without it, one can perform only evil, but with the gift of grace, individual impulses become merged with God's plan for history. Characterization in this epic, then, goes beyond descriptions of psychology and motivation to become part of a larger theme, which reveals the spiritual difficulties in the achievement and use of freedom.

Further Reading

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Allen, John R. “Kinship in the Chanson de Roland.” In Jean Misrahi Memorial Volume: Studies in Medieval Literature, edited by Hans R. Runte, Henri Niedzielski, and William L. Hendrickson, pp. 34-45. Columbia, South Carolina: French Literature Publications Company, 1977.

Examines the family structures presented in The Song of Roland.

Ashby-Beach, Genette. The Song of Roland: A Generative Study of the Formulaic Language in the Single Combat. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1985, 190p.

Describes the methodology used in the analysis of formulaic language and uses it to analyze The Song of Roland.

Ashcroft, Jeffrey. “Konrad's Rolandslied, Henry the Lion, and the Northern Crusade.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 22, no. 1 (January 1986): 184-208.

Examines the Rolandslied, the priest Konrad's retelling of The Song of Roland, which features Henry the Lion.

Ashe, Laura. “‘A Prayer and a Warcry’: The Creation of a Secular Religion in the Song of Roland.Cambridge Quarterly 28, no. 4 (1999): 349-67.

Argues that, in terms of its religion and politics, The Song of Roland is subversive in that it champions a direct link between man and God, without an intermediary role for the Church.

Bliese, John R. E. “Fighting Spirit and Literary Genre: A Comparison of Battle Exhortations in the ‘Song of Roland’ and in Chronicles of the Central Middle Ages.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 96, no. 4 (1995): 417-36.

Contrasts the motivational speeches addressed to soldiers in The Song of Roland to those found in other chronicles.

Burgess, Glyn. The Song of Roland, translated by Glyn Burgess, pp. 7-25. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Outlines textual aspects of The Song of Roland that set it apart from other examples of the chanson de geste genre.

Cook, Robert Francis. The Sense of the Song of Roland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987, 296p.

Explicates the narrative content of The Song of Roland and presents a positive interpretation of Roland's sacrifice.

Cook, William R. and Roland B. Herzman. “Roland and Romanesque: Biblical Iconography in The Song of Roland.Bucknell Review 29, no. 1 (1984): 21-48.

Examines Biblical representations in romanesque art in order to better understand the same themes found in The Song of Roland.

Duggan, Joseph J. “Roland's Formulaic Repertory.” In The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft, pp. 105-59. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Describes the distribution of literary formulas throughout the text of The Song of Roland.

Kay, Sarah. “Ethics and Heroics in the Song of Roland.Neophilologus 62, 4 (October 1978): 480-91.

Argues that readers traditionally have condoned Roland's actions because he is the hero; in the world of the poem, the heroic outweighs the ethical.

Nichols, Stephen G., Jr. “Roncevaux and the Poetics of Place/Person in the Song of Roland.” In Romanesque Signs: Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography, pp. 148-203. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Reviews the Oxford version's treatment of the central battle of The Song of Roland.

Pensom, Roger. “The Treason.” In Literary Technique in the Chanson de Roland, pp. 77-95. Genève: Librairie Droz S.A., 1982.

Studies episodes dealing with the embassy of Blancandrin and explains their thematic importance.

Sudermann, David P. “Meditative Composition in the MHG Rolandslied.”Modern Philology 85, no. 3 (February 1988): 225-44.

Examines Biblical allusions in the Rolandslied.

Szittya, Penn R. “The Angels and the Theme of Fortitudo in the Chanson de Roland.Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72, no. 2 (1971): 193-223.

Discusses the prevalence and significance of the angels Michael and Gabriel in The Song of Roland.

Hans E. Keller (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Keller, Hans E. “The Song of Roland: A Mid-Twelfth Century Song of Propaganda for the Capetian Kingdom.” Olifant 3, no. 4 (May 1976): 242-58.

[In the following essay, Keller considers and rejects various dates of composition for The Song of Roland, advances his own timeline for its development, and contends that its chief purpose was to advance the interests of the Capetian kingdom.]

For more than a century now scholars have been discussing the Oxford version of the Song of Roland. It is thus scarcely surprising that all of those who have dealt with the poem have been intrigued as to the authorship of such an incomparable masterpiece, nearly classical in its structure. But it seems even more important to understand its significance and to define the audience to whom the poet is speaking, as well as to discover the message he wants to convey. For this purpose, it is most vital to know when the Oxford version of the poem was composed. If that problem can be solved satisfactorily, we will know more about the man who signed the Oxford version, Turoldus, and, further, the dispute as to whether or not the different parts of the work constitute later insertions can be resolved without undue difficulty. This paper, therefore, will examine the factors which help determine the date of the version preserved in the Oxford manuscript, and we will also propose a possible new solution to the problem.

For the dating of the Oxford Roland, it is not without interest that one finds all combatants using the spear in what Dorothy Leigh Sayers1 terms “the modern fashion (escrime nouvelle): the spear is held firmly under the right arm, with the point directed at the adversary's breast, the aim being either to pierce him through, or to hurl him from the saddle by weight and speed as the horses rush together.” She further points out that in the Bayeux Tapestry (which “fut pour la première fois suspendue de pilier en pilier à l'entour de la nef”2 for the celebration of the dedication of the newly rebuilt and considerably enlarged cathedral on 14 July 1077), “both the old (escrime ancienne) and the modern fashion are shown together, some knights being depicted with the right arms raised above head-level, using the spear as a throwing-weapon.”3 Sayers also calls attention to the fact that in the Bayeux Tapestry “the spears thus thrown have plain shafts, whereas most of those used in the modern escrime are adorned with a pennon or gonfalon just below the point, exactly as described in the Roland (e.g., vv. 1228, 1539, 1576, etc.).”4 It therefore can be safely stated that the Oxford version of the Song of Roland must have been composed after 14 July 1077.

But it is generally agreed today that the poem must have been composed even later, after 1086, the year of the battle of Zalaca, near Badajoz in western Spain, in which the Berber Moslem sect of the Almoravides inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Christians of Alfonso VI through the use of camels and drums. Neither had ever been seen or heard before by the Christians, reports the chronicler; consequently, the fact that they are mentioned in connection with the pagans in the Oxford Roland is currently considered a strong indication that the poem must have been written after 1086.5

It is much more difficult to determine the terminus ante quem of the poem, since there is no evidence in the work itself to provide help. Some scholars6 have maintained that the fact that the Song of Roland never mentions Santiago de Compostela and its importance for the pilgrims suggests a composition before 1095. Following the Council of Reims in 1049—at which time the archbishop of Santiago was excommunicated by the Pope—there were hostile feelings between the Spanish Church and the Pope, causing an estrangement dividing all of western Christianity. In the fight concerning the supremacy of the archbishop of Santiago over the Spanish Church, the French Church sided very strongly with Rome. This fact, it has been claimed, could explain the silence of the Song of Roland with respect to the central place of Christianity in Spain. But after the reconciliation in 1095, in view of the First Crusade, such a silence would have been senseless, all of which suggests composition of the Oxford Roland before that date. Such arguments ex silentio, however, are rarely convincing. The fact that this center of pilgrimage is not mentioned has little relevance, because the poem contains no proof whatsoever that its theme was to propagandize pilgrimages to Santiago.

The terminus ante quem of the poem should therefore be sought outside of the work itself. The fact that certain Byzantine coins are mentioned in the Song is no longer considered to be of significance, because evidence they provide for dating the poem has been so strongly contested. The only factors we can take into consideration, then, are: 1° the date of the Oxford manuscript; 2° the date of the adaptation of the poem into Middle High German by the priest Conrad; and, 3° the iconographic evidence.

1° The date of the Oxford manuscript has been much discussed. Some maintain that it was copied in the second quarter of the twelfth century, while others believe in a date around 1170 or even slightly later. Joseph Bédier never adhered to the early date assigned to the manuscript by his compatriot Charles Samaran in 1933. The latter, in an article published in 1973,7 tried to add even more weight to his argumentation based entirely upon paleographical evidence. Other paleographers, however, especially from Great Britain, have seriously questioned such an early date.8 Linguists have also stressed dialectal particularities which cannot be found yet in the second quarter of the century.9 Furthermore, it is a strange coincidence that the oldest extant fragments of Wace's Roman de Brut, also preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, show an astonishing paleographical and linguistic resemblance to the Oxford manuscript of the Roland: these fragments were dated in 1974 by two paleographers of the Library as having been written toward the end of the twelfth century.10 For these reasons, the Oxford manuscript can hardly have been composed before the second half of the century, in all probability not before the chancellery of King Henry II Plantagenet had begun to exert its overall influence in England, i.e., not before 1170.

2° In a recent article11 the writer hopes to have demonstrated that, contrary to a widely held view among Germanists, the Middle High German adaptation by Conrad was—as already maintained by Professors Rita Lejeune and Jacques Stiennon12—probably composed after 1180, perhaps between 1185 and 1189. That adaptation—which, incidentally, does not reflect so much the Oxford version as that of Venice IV13—was thus composed so late in the century that it is of no help in dating the composition of the Song of Roland as we read it today in the Oxford version.

3° Iconography is not much of assistance either in dating the poem, because the first time that it is found represented in its entirety by an artist is precisely in the Middle High German Ruolantes liet, of which the oldest manuscript (now preserved in Heidelberg) is decorated by inserted pictures as they were in use particularly in England in the second half of the twelfth century, especially in the Abbey of St. Albans in Hertfordshire.14 This points again to the end of the twelfth century, the date of the Heidelberg manuscript. Before that time, iconographic representations depict only the first part of the poem, up to Charlemagne's revenge upon the pagans. These images are indeed attested quite early in the century, above church portals and in church mosaics in Southern France and in Italy, as we know thanks to the research of Professors Rita Lejeune and Jacques Stiennon.15 The earliest iconographical representation, depicting the narrative from Ganelon's treason to Roland's death, is found at the cathedral of Angoulême in Périgord, Southern France, where it can be dated with the help of the date of consecration of the church, about 1123.16 As early as 1131, the name of the traitor Ganelon is also mentioned in the cathedral of Nepi, not far from Sutri, which was, for a pilgrim, one day's journey north of Rome: an inscription there speaks of the “turpissimam … mortem, ut Galelonem [sic] qui suos tradidit socios.”17 This inscription proves in effect that at least the first part of the Song of Roland was known by 1131 in Central Italy. But iconography is absolutely silent with respect to the second part of the poem, which does not appear, as previously stated, before the illustrations of the Ruolantes liet, i.e., toward the end of the century.

The composition of the Oxford version of the Song of Roland must therefore have taken place between 1086 and at least 1170 (the probable date of the Oxford manuscript), that is to say, in a period of time which stretches over nearly a whole century.

Is it possible to define more closely the period when the poem in its present form must have been composed? It is this writer's contention that that is indeed feasible. What has continued to mislead so many scholars for more than a hundred years now is the fact that research has concentrated upon the genesis of the poem, uncovering valuable evidence for an old song of the battle at Roncevaux and of the death of its principal hero due to a personal feud with his stepfather, Ganelon; yet few scholars have shown interest in the second part, and those that have done so have approached it with the attitude justified in itself for which Eugene Vance is typical when he writes: “To say the least, the Baligant episode inaugurates a wholly different poetic climate in the Song of Roland.18 Analyzing this “wholly different poetic climate” and realizing that iconographical evidence in the earlier part of the twelfth century depicts only the battle of Roncevaux and the revenge of its heroes by Charlemagne, lead to the conclusion which will be presented in the second part of this study.

But first a preliminary observation is necessary with regard to the structure of the Oxford Roland. In order to discuss the poem, it will be divided here into the following seven segments: 1) Ganelon's treason; 2) the battle of Roncevaux and Charlemagne's revenge; 3) the Baligant episode; 4) the death of Fair Aude; 5) Ganelon's trial; 6) the conversion of Bramimonde; and 7) an outlook over Charlemagne's future tasks. Quite a few scholars have tried to prove that the so-called Baligant episode (3) is a later insertion in the poem, because they too sensed that it “inaugurates a wholly different poetic climate.” Nevertheless, no one has succeeded to date in lifting the episode out of the text without damaging the whole structure, not to mention the fact that the poetic technique is the same as in the rest of the poem, the style is identical, and, as this study hopes to demonstrate, the thought expressed in the episode is an essential part of the whole work.19 Because of the persistent claim that the Baligant episode did not originally form part of the poem, this paper will concentrate mainly upon the second part of the poem (3 - 7 above). To begin with, the following represent some of the findings which have been published separately in the volume honoring the memory of the German scholar Erhard Lommatzsch:20

a) First of all there is the orie flambe, the royal banner mentioned exclusively in the Baligant episode, a name which was later transformed by chroniclers who no longer understood the term into oriflamme “golden flame.” For some years now we have known that it had nothing to do with gold but that it is a vernacular rendering of the Latin term aurita flammula “notched banner” (literally, “eared little flame”).21 It was indeed never a golden banner, but rather a scarlet one. It had formerly belonged to the counts of a region immediately north of Paris, the Vexin, which, in 1077, became a domain administered by the abbots of Saint-Denis and therefore indirectly a royal domain. But it was not until 3 August 1124, when Suger was already abbot of Saint-Denis, that the banner of the former counts of Vexin became known to a wider public. Suger arranged that his king, Louis VI, come to the Abbey of Saint-Denis to take it from the main altar, blessed by the abbot, for the purpose of carrying it in a military conflict with the German Emperor Henry VI and the English King Henry I. The ceremony was repeated with even more pomposity by Suger before the Second Crusade, when he could persuade King Louis VII to receive the banner on 11 June 1147, in the presence of the entire royal family, including Queen Eleanor, from Pope Eugene III in person, who had taken it from the main altar of Saint-Denis. This explains the fact that the author of the Oxford Roland was able to say of the banner that it first had been Saint Peter's and was called “Romaine,” but that from the French battle cry it derived the name “Munjoie.”22

b) The name of the Abbey of Saint-Denis has been introduced in the poem in particularly striking places. It is found for the first time in the scene of the twelve boasting pagan peers, who all assure their king, Marsile, that they will accomplish an extraordinary deed. We are reminded of the famous gabs in the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne—perhaps not accidentally. As the last of the pagans, the handsome hero Margariz of Seville, steps forward and boasts that they will conquer the whole of France within one year and will be able to sleep in the town of Saint-Denis,23 he makes an obvious reference to the heart of France, although Charlemagne's capital was Aachen, in reality as well as in the poem.

The second time the name of Saint Denis is found—in the moving scene of Roland's death when the hero addresses his sword, Durendal—Roland mentions the relics of saints contained in its hilt: one of Saint Peter's teeth, blood of Saint Basil (one of the favorite saints of the first crusaders), a piece of the Virgin Mary's clothing, and some hairs belonging to “my lord” Saint Denis.24 Saint Denis is the only saint whose name is accompanied by the title “my lord” (“mon seignor”)—a custom which would become quite popular with saints' names in the later Middle Ages—and this notwithstanding the fact that the name of Saint Denis is cited next to that of the patron saint of the crusaders (the mention of whom in the poem is only logical), next to that of Saint Peter, Christ's representative on earth, and even next to the name of Christ's own mother, whose cult had begun to gain popularity in France from the middle of the twelfth century. It is difficult to imagine a more prominent place for the Abbey of Saint-Denis and its patron saint than here, in the scene in which Roland, through his faith, is made an equal to the martyrs.

c) Certain names in the Baligant episode point without any doubt to the period of the crusade of Louis VII (1147-49), in which Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis was regent of France together with Count Raoul of Vermandois. It was a period of revolt against the Capetian king on the part of many barons who wanted to profit from Louis's absence in the Orient. Suger, the real ruler of the kingdom, succeeded in subduing the revolt thanks to the loyalty of two powerful vassals in particular, namely Duke Geoffrey Plantagenet of Normandy, the father of the future King Henry II of England, and Count Thierry of Flanders. Both are mentioned in the Oxford Roland: the former is Charlemagne's standard-bearer25—quite a symbolic office—and the latter is ambiguously referred to in the poem as Geoffrey's “frere” (v. 2883), a term which in Old French could mean both “brother” and “brother-in-law” (“frere en loi”).26 Thierry, it is true, is slightly disguised as Duke of Argonne,27 but this is one of the many mystifications of our author, mystifications which are reminiscent of those employed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, of which the composition was completed between 1136 and 1138; Geoffrey's influence is also perceptible elsewhere in the poem.28 Argonne, the region of France east of Paris and Champagne, is where Thierry of Flanders's inherited personal domain (his “alleu”) began, for Thierry and his ancestors were counts of Alsace; their territory in fact reached northwest to the region of Argonne. The same type of mystification is also used in the case of Duke Geoffrey Plantagenet of Normandy, who is called “Geffrei d'Anjou” (vv. 106, 2383, 2945, 2951, 3093, 3535, 3545, 3938), for he held Normandy only since 1144 and he and his ancestors had been counts of Anjou. Even the designation “brother” for Thierry of Argonne is historically correct, for, since 1134, Thierry of Flanders was indeed brother-in-law to Geoffrey Plantagenet.

Given our poet's inclination for a bit of mystification, it is to be expected that other historical personalities of Suger's regency would similarly be “mystified” in the Oxford Roland. It has been possible to identify quite a few of the barons of the period, though it is not essential for the present argument to go into further details.29 Nevertheless, in order to demonstrate another type of mystification used by the author, attention should be called to the way in which the poet introduced Suger's co-regent, Count Raoul of Vermandois, into the poem. His name is found split into two personages, Rabel and Guineman, to whom Charlemagne says (vv. 3016-18): “Be in place of Oliver and of Roland, the one may carry the sword and the other the olifant; ride in front of all!” again one of the sententious formulas dear to Abbot Suger. The name “Rabel” is a play on words—there are many other instances in the poem—upon the local pronunciation found in the county of Vermandois northeast of Paris, for the ending -able is pronounced -aule in the region.30 Knowing this was easy for a monk of the Abbey of Saint-Denis, located not far from Vermandois. As a hypercorrection he could therefore easily transform the name “Raoul” into “Rabel.” That he spelled it -bel and not -ble is further evidence of his knowledge of the local dialect, which in effect inserts an e in a cluster formed by a consonant and l.31 His knowledge of the local dialect is also revealed by the second name, Guineman, undoubtedly a misspelling of the Oxford scribe, or of the model he was copying, for *Guireman. The poet obviously knew that in Vermandois Germanic initial w- is preserved,32 for in another hypercorrection he rendered it by gu-, used in the region of Paris, in a name which he derived from the medieval Latin form of “Vermandois” and for which he assumed a pronunciation with /w/, namely “Viromandensis.” As -ensis is the Latin ending of adjectives derived from place names, he clearly refers to Vermand, the capital of the Gaulish tribe of the Viromandui, today's Saint-Quentin.33

d) For the dating of the Oxford Roland the name of the head of heathendom, Baligant, is of course of particular interest. A French Islamist34 recently succeeded in identifying him as Yahya Ben Ali Ghâniya, a leader of the Spanish Moors who in 1134 inflicted a crushing defeat on the Christians of Aragon and their French allies under Alfonso I, the latter mortally wounded in the battle. Charlemagne's victory over Baligant therefore also represents a literary revenge for this injury to national pride, reminding us again of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Britains under King Arthur take a late revenge at Siesia against the Romans for their victory at Alesia over the hero of the last Celtic resistance in Gaul, Vercingetorix.35 At the same time the date of the battle of Fraga, 1134, furnishes us with an additional terminus ab quo for the Oxford version of the Song of Roland.

e) But the name of Ganelon's champion during his trial, Pinabel, indicates an even more recent date for the poem. The author dwells on the scene at court where Pinabel is admired by all for his behavior and especially by those of Auvergne, who are said to be the most courtly of Charlemagne's people (v. 3796). This observation makes sense only if we assume that the military virtues of the term “curteis,” as it appears in the Song of Roland, are coupled here with the qualities of politeness, sociability, wisdom, and even physical beauty, qualities which intrude upon the moral values of Northern France only about 1150 under the influence of the South, as is attested by the first of the Old French romans d'antiquité, the Roman de Thèbes, written shortly after 1150.36 But the admirable, courtly, well-spoken and handsome, towering Pinabel holds the castle of Sorence! Those who are familiar with twelfth century French paleography recognize that the form “Sorence” must actually be a scribal mistake for *Sorente, Sorrento on the Bay of Naples. This means that the name of Pinabel, Ganelon's champion in the episode of his trial, probably has to be explained by Southern Italian linguistic elements. It is there, indeed, that we find that tree names are of feminine gender, as, for instance, faga, instead of standard Italian fago “beech tree.” But in addition, the type of compound adjective with “bel,” meaning “beautiful like, as,” is of Mediterranean origin, for it is found from Italy to Spain but not at all in Old French.37 “Pinabel,” interpreted in this way, would be a name whose meaning was easily discernible to a twelfth century man in Southern Italy, “beautiful like a pine tree.”

In order to have access to such a Mediterranean name, our poet must have had some contact with this totally different world (it should not be forgotten that most of the poem's heroes have names of Germanic origin). This fact can be explained only when it is recalled that when King Louis VII and his crusaders returned from the Holy Land, they crossed the Mediterranean and landed in Calabria early in the summer of 1149. The region, at that time, belonged to King Roger of Naples and Sicily, whom Louis met in the city of Potenza, after which meeting he continued to Rome where he sojourned at the court of Pope Eugene III, during the months of July and August, in order to reconcile his marital difficulties with his wife, Eleanor. The noble champion of Ganelon, Pinabel, is thus in all probability a reminiscence of King Louis's stay in this part of Italy in the year 1149, although that does not necessarily imply that the poet himself must have spent time in Southern Italy. Such a word construction could doubtless have been easily understood in Northern France, though with a different meaning.38 Further evidence for a South Italian origin is provided by the Catalogue of the Barons, compiled in approximately 1150 for King Roger, in which a “Pinabellus” is recorded.39

f) The above assumption accords perfectly with other indications in the second half of the Song of Roland, particularly in Ganelon's trial. The Germanic legal procedures described in that episode, those concerning the relationship of a baron toward his feudal overlord, were successfully challenged by Suger and his master, King Louis VII, in their drive toward royal centralization of the judicial power and in their search for a jurisdiction for the king which would best represent his sovereign authority as it is represented by the Charlemagne of the Song of Roland. “Ganelon's trial does more than bring together the loose ends of the narrative and provide a satisfying punishment for the villain of the piece. It raises and answers one of the most essential questions of the earlier Middle Ages: where is loyalty due?”40 This question could have been answered the way in which the poem does only around 1150 at the earliest.41

g) But there is still more evidence to support a date of composition for the Oxford version of the Song of Roland around 1150. The defeat of the French rearguard in the Pyrenees in 778 was never more meaningful than around 1150, when the recent defeat of the crusaders under Louis VII in Anatolia was fresh in everyone's mind, especially in that of the chronicler of the crusade, Odo of Deuil, who eventually became Suger's successor as abbot of Saint-Denis in 1151. According to Odo's work About Louis VII's campaign in the Orient, Book Six,42 the French crusaders left the city of Laodicea in Phrygia on 6 January 1148 in order to cross the mountains of ancient Pisidia, with the goal of reaching the port of Adalia on the Mediterranean Sea, from whence they hoped to sail to Antioch. Louis had prescribed a strict discipline in these mountain passes, where the Turks could attack them from behind nearly each rock, but only the Templars complied with his orders. One night, instead of camping as planned on the top of a pass, the commander of the vanguard chose to march on and to camp on a plain further down, thus breaking contact with the main body of the army. The Turks realized this and immediately occupied the intervening mountains. The next morning they attacked the main body of the army commanded by Louis himself. The king, after a heroic battle, succeeded in rejoining the vanguard with a few barons and reached the port of Adalia against all obstacles. The relevance of the battle of Roncevaux at this point doubtless did not escape a poet as familiar with the history of France as the monks of Saint-Denis, who, under Suger, revived the idea that they should be the depositaries of the history of France, an idea promoted by Suger himself. Suger, of course, had a strong inclination for history, had written the chronicle of the reign of his past master, Louis VI, and had started another on the reign of his present king, Louis VII.43

h) Finally, the interest in Charlemagne himself should be mentioned. Although the cult of Charlemagne in the twelfth century was particularly fostered by the imperial party in Germany,44 the monks of Saint-Denis jealously guarded their relics, the crown of thorns, a nail of the Holy Cross, and a splinter of wood from it, which Charlemagne had allegedly brought back from his journey to Jerusalem. During the twelfth century, the Abbey of Saint-Denis was most instrumental in the ascendency of the cult of Charlemagne in France. In this respect the abbey rivaled with the historical capital of Charlemagne, Aachen, as already mentioned with respect to the name of Saint-Denis itself in the poem (see above, sub (b)). But in its rivalry with Aachen, the Abbey of Saint-Denis lost out, for in Germany the cult of Charlemagne by the Hohenstaufen even led to his canonization in 1165, a fact which the Pope (who was a Frenchman!) and his faithful followers in France could not accept. This does not mean, however, that Charlemagne was not venerated in Northern France during this period. The cult had slowly emerged during the eleventh century, when Saint-Denis had written a Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus clavum et coronam Domini a Constantinopoli Aquisgrani detulerit qualiterque Karolus Calvus haec ad S. Dionysum retulerit,45 up to the period of Suger, where Charlemagne was used in order to heighten and strengthen the Capetian kingdom. Even Tierry of Flanders—the Tierri d'Argonne of the poem—stresses his ties with Charlemagne by observing before his duel that he owes this service to Charlemagne because of his ancestors.46 As a matter of fact, Thierry of Flanders could indeed trace his family tree back to Charlemagne, for he was by his mother a descendant of Count Baldwin I, who in 862 succeeded in making a runaway match with Judith, the daughter of Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bald; but the Tierri d'Argonne of the poem refers at the same time to a kinship with the reigning king, Louis VII, because Bertha of Holland, the stepdaughter of his grandfather Robert I the Frisian, was married to King Philip I of France.

A first conclusion can then be derived from these facts. There is no doubt that there must have been an old poem, probably containing Ganelon's treason (1) and the battle of Roncevaux and Charlemagne's revenge (2), because the evidence unearthed by scholars such as Paul Aebischer, Rita Lejeune, Jacques Stiennon and Ramón Menéndez Pidal is totally convincing. Traces of this old poem are already found iconographically before the first half of the twelfth century even in the neighboring countries of Spain and Italy.

But it is impossible today to reconstruct that poem, even with the help of the existing work, for it has been amply demonstrated that the style and poetic technique of the Oxford Roland are absolutely the same throughout the whole work and that it is impossible to lift out, for instance, the Baligant episode without damaging the work or its significance.47 The poet of Saint-Denis, who must have lived in the immediate surroundings of Abbot Suger during and following his regency (a gratuitous guess is that it was Odo of Deuil himself, the author of the chronicle of Louis's crusade) had apparently seen the parallel between Louis's defeat in Asia Minor and the defeat of Charlemagne's rearguard in the Pyrenees, as described by the old song of Roncevaux. He wrote a new poem, but—unlike Jean de Meung more than a century later—he rewrote the old song before adding a second part to it in which he showed that in the Emperor's service Roland was not acting on his own behalf but merely as a representative of Charles. Ganelon's action was therefore not personal revenge, as claimed by Ganelon during the trial; rather, as Louis VII and Abbot Suger chose to understand it, and as shown by the stand taken by Tierri d'Argonne, Ganelon's action was a clear case of high treason. Tierri asserts the precedence of a loyalty higher than traditional bonds, which in turn implies a denial of the vendetta ethic for the sake of the common good. “An extremely important principle, it might even be called revolutionary, for it announces the overthrow of a traditional pattern of social organization for a new one to which the old must yield.”48 And this drive toward royal centralization had already made considerable progress by the time the poem, as we read it today, was written.49

If this represented progress, however, it was not without provoking a violent reaction, for it is reflected even in literature, as can be seen from poems such as Raoul de Cambrai, Les Loherains, Renaut de Montauban, Girart de Roussillon and others written in the same period or later. But the mere fact that the viewpoint of the Germanic tribesmen could successfully be challenged is an indication of the time in which the Oxford version of the Song of Roland must have been composed: historians are unanimous in affirming that the drive toward centralization, even in judicial matters, began to make progress from the 1140s onward.50 This is exactly the period in which the Charlemagne cult came to its first peak, and hence it is not surprising that our poet felt compelled to enhance the personal drama of two vassals, Roland and Ganelon, by a confrontation of the two highest rulers of the secular world, Charlemagne and Baligant, using this idea concomitantly to affirm the sovereign authority of the king over all his vassals during the period they were in his service.

That these views of the kingdom must have appealed to King Henry II Plantagenet of England should not be surprising. As a matter of fact, it is under the veil of a slight Anglicization that the Song of Roland of the Oxford version is preserved today.51 Someone in England even succeeded in twice introducing the name of his king in his copy, once probably instead of Duke Geoffrey Plantagenet, and in another instance in place of Tierri d'Argonne,52 in order to remind his audience of the realities of life in their own country. But even more important is the fact that the poem is already found to be slightly altered, for this Anglo-Norman version contains an episode not previously attested: the conversion of Bramimonde (6).53 Between its composition at Saint-Denis and the copying of the Oxford manuscript by the scribe Turoldus, a redactor felt that the indication at the end of the Baligant episode (3), namely that Queen Bramimonde was made prisoner and brought to France so that she could become a Christian of her own volition, needed expansion. Thus he introduced an additional laisse in which the christening of the queen is described,54 a laisse which is not contained in any other manuscript of the Song of Roland. It is true that the Middle High German adaptation also contains the conversion of Brechmunda,55 but this scene is recounted immediately after her seizure at Sarraguz and developed absolutely independently of the French model. Even the fact that the Bramimonde of the Oxford version is baptized Juliane points toward England, where the cult of this saint was particularly prevalent. There exists an Anglo-Saxon hagiographical poem on the life of Saint Juliana by Cynewulf as early as the beginning of the ninth century, based on a Latin manuscript also written in England. In addition, there are half a dozen versions of the saint's life in Middle English, composed between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, and an Anglo-Norman version written in the same period in which the episode of Bramimonde's conversion was inserted in the Oxford Roland. It is also noteworthy that the German Ruolantes liet does not contain the name Juliana for the baptized Queen Bramimonde.

In conclusion, it can safely be stated that, although some scholars still cling to an earlier date, the Oxford manuscript cannot have been written earlier than around 1170. The Middle High German Ruolantes liet does not contradict this dating, for it was written in the 1180s. Nor is the iconographic evidence in opposition with this view, because the very first time that the whole poem is represented in the arts is precisely in the oldest manuscript of the Ruolantes liet, from the end of the twelfth century at Heidelberg. The Oxford manuscript, on the other hand, contains an Anglo-Norman adaptation and expansion of the poem as it was composed around 1150, probably at the Abbey of Saint-Denis.

It is then basically the poem of Saint-Denis which we read and admire today, a poem whose main purpose was to enhance the Roland tragedy through the addition of a drama concerning Charlemagne, in order to further Capetian interests as formulated by the political genius of Abbot Suger. As Otto von Simson states so well:56

Suger employed historiography as an instrument of politics. For this very reason history was for him not merely, nor even primarily, the documentation of fact, but rather the reaction of political reality. He was not more inclined than his contemporaries to let factual proof interfere with the flight of the imagination. To realize his political aims Suger had recourse to poetry and fable. Hence these aims appear not only in the official history he wrote or inspired, but in the popular tales of the jongleurs that were launched by the abbey and soon became the most effective means by which the great sanctuary established itself in the public mind.

Indeed, the Oxford version of the Song of Roland is the quintessence of the national spirit of the Capetian kingdom toward the middle of the twelfth century, of which Suger's Saint-Denis was the soul.57


  1. The Song of Roland, trad. Dorothy L. Sayers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1937), p. 35.

  2. Simone Bertrand, La Tapisserie de la reine Mathilde à Bayeux (Paris: Hachette, n.d. [1969]), p. 9.

  3. Sayers, loc. cit.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Martín de Riquer, Les Chansons de geste françaises, 2e édition, entièrement refondue, trans. Irénée Cluzel (Paris: Nizet, 1957), p. 76.

  6. The idea goes back to Aurelio Roncaglia, “Il silenzio del Roland su Sant' Iacopo: le vie dei pellegrinaggi e le vie della storia,” in Coloquios de Roncesvalles, Agosto 1955 (Zaragoza: El Noticiero, 1957), pp. 151-71.

  7. Charles Samaran, “Sur la date approximative du Roland d'Oxford,” Romania, 94 (1973), 523-7.

  8. For example, see Ian Short, “The Oxford Manuscript of the Chanson de Roland: A Paleographical Note,” Romania, 94 (1973), 221-31.

  9. See Jules Horrent, La Chanson de Roland dans les littératures française et espagnole, Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l'Université de Liège, Fascicule 120 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1951), pp. 34-42. To Horrent's pertinent remarks should be added another feature found in v. 3986, where the Oxford manuscript has “Truvee li unt lo num de Juliane”; the spelling “truvee” for a masculine past participle does not occur in Anglo-Norman texts before the later twelfth century; cf. Mildred K. Pope, From Latin to Modern French, with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Phonology and Morphology, revised edition (Manchester: University Press, 1952), §1235.

  10. “We feel that fol. 83-4 are certainly no later than the beginning of the thirteenth century and may belong to the late twelfth” (private communication from Mr. Bruce C. Barker-Benefield, 16 September 1974).

  11. “Der Pfaffe Konrad am Hofe von Braunschweig,” in Wege der Worte. Festschrift für Wolfgang Fleischhauer (Köln: Böhlau Verlag, forthcoming).

  12. Rita Lejeune and Jacques Stiennon, La Légende de Roland dans l'art du moyen âge (Bruxelles: Arcade, 1967), I, 119.

  13. Cf., Hans-Erich Keller, “La Place du Ruolantes liet dans la tradition rolandienne,” Le Moyen Age, 71 (1965), 215-46, 401-21. Cesare Segre, in his edition of La Chanson de Roland, Documenti di Filologia, 16 (Milano-Napoli: Ricciardi, 1971), p. xvii, questioned the writer's view, but not basically, for he too admits another model from which both K and V4 were copied.

  14. See Otto Pächt, The Rise of Pictorial Narrative in Twelfth Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 50 ff. and plates 30, 33, and 34.

  15. Op. cit.

  16. See Rita Lejeune and Jacques Stiennon, I, p. 36.

  17. See Pio Rajna, “Un' iscrizione nepesina del 1131,” Archivio Storico Italiano, ser. 4, vol. 18 (1886), 332.

  18. Reading the Song of Roland (Engelwood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 73.

  19. Cf. also André Burger, “Remarques sur la composition de l'épisode de Baligant,” in Mélanges Maurice Delbouille (Gembloux: Duculot, 1964), II, 59-69.

  20. Hans-Erich Keller, “La Version dionysienne de la Chanson de Roland,” in Philologica Romanica. Erhard Lommatzsch gewidmet (München: Fink Verlag, 1975), pp. 257-87. (Abstract in Olifant, 1 [April 1974] 4, 64-67.)

  21. See André Burger, “Oriflamme” in Festschrift Walther von Wartburg zum 80. Geburtstag, 18. Mai 1968 (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1968), II, 357-62.

  22. “Gefreid d'Anjou portet l'orie flambe: / Seint Piere fut, si aveit num Romaine; / Mais de Munjoie iloec out pris eschange.” Edition Moignet, vv. 3093-5.

  23. “Jusqu'a un an avrum France saisie; / Gesir porrum el burc de seint Denise.” Edition Moignet, vv. 972-3.

  24. “En l'oriet punt asez i ad reliques, / La dent seint Perre e del sanc seint Basile, / E des chevels mun seignur seint Denise; / Del vestement i ad seinte Marie.” Edition Moignet, vv. 2345-8.

  25. “Gefreid d'Anjou portet l'orie flambe.” Edition Moignet, v. 3093.

  26. See FEW, III, 765, col. 1; V, 292, col. 1.

  27. See edition Moignet, vv. 3083, 3534.

  28. See Hans-Erich Keller, “La Version dionysienne de la Chanson de Roland,” pp. 278-80.

  29. Ibid., 261-7.

  30. See Carl Theodor Gossen, Französische Skriptastudien. Untersuchungen zu den nordfranzösischen Urkundensprachen des Mittelalters, Oesterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte, 253 (Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1967), p. 209.

  31. See Carl Theodor Gossen, Grammaire de l'ancien picard, Bibliothèque française et romane, Série A (Paris: Klincksieck, 1970), p. 103.

  32. See Carl Theodor Gossen, Französische Skriptastudien, p. 209.

  33. See Auguste Vincent, Toponymie de la France (Bruxelles: Imprimerie Générale, 1937), p. 113, col. 2.

  34. Jean Poncet, “La Chanson de Roland à la lumière de l'histoire: vérité de Baligant,” in Actes du Deuxième Congres International d'Etudes Nord-Africaines (Aix-en-Provence 1968), Revue de l'Occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée, numéro spécial (1970), pp. 125-39, espec. pp. 131 ff.

  35. See Edmond Faral, ed., La Légende arthurienne. Etudes et documents, 1st part: Les plus anciens textes, III: Documents, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes historiques et philologiques, 257 (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1929), 166-76.

  36. Glyn Sheridan Burgess, Contribution à l'étude du vocabulaire pré-courtois, Publications romanes et françaises, 110 (Genève: Droz, 1970), p. 23.

  37. See Gerhard Rohlfs, Historische Grammatik der italienischen Sprache (Bern: Francke, 1949-54), II, 77; III, 225; Oscar Schultz-Gora, “Zum griechischen Akkusativ,” Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, 53 (1933), 103-12.

  38. See FEW, VIII, 550, col. 1: OFr. pine “membre viril” (since the Roman de la Rose), OPr. pina.

  39. Evelyn Jamison, “Notes on S. Maria della Strada at Matrice, its History and Sculpture,” Papers of the British School at Rome, 14 (1938), 71.

  40. John Halverson, “Ganelon's Trial,” Speculum, 42 (1967), 666.

  41. Cf. Marcel Pacaut, Louis VII et son royaume. Bibliothèque Générale de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, 6th section (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1964), pp. 166 ff.

  42. Odo de Deuil, De profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem, ed. and English trans. Virginia Gingerick Berry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), pp. 114-20.

  43. Cf. Hans-Erich Keller, “La Version dionysienne de la Chanson de Roland,” pp. 276-7.

  44. Cf. Robert Folz, Le Souvenir et la Légende de Charlemagne dans l'Empire germanique médiéval (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1950).

  45. Ed. G. Rauscher, in “Die Legende Karls des Grossen im XI. und XII. Jahrhundert,” Publikationen der Gesellschaft für rheinische Geschichtskunde, 7 (1890); an edition of a manuscript at Montpellier has been published by F. Castets, in Revue des Langues Romanes, 36 (1892), 407-74 (cf. R. Folz, op. cit., p. 179, n. 110).

  46. “Par anceisurs dei jo tel plait tenir.” Edition Moignet, v. 3826; George F. Jones, The Ethos of the Song of Roland (Baltimore, 1963), pp. 70-1, came to the same conclusion, and so did John A. Stranges, “The Character and the Trial of Ganelon: A New Appraisal,” Romania 96 (1975), 361.

  47. Cf. also André Burger, “Remarques sur la composition de l'épisode de Baligant,” in Mélanges Maurice Delbouille (Gembloux: Duculot, 1964), II, 59-69.

  48. John Halverson, op. cit., 667.

  49. See above, n. 41.

  50. Ibid.

  51. See above, n. 9.

  52. “Richard li Velz e sun nevold Henri” (ed. Moignet, v. 171), and “Naimes li dux e li quens Acelin, / Gefrei d'Anjou e sun frere Henri / Prenent le rei, sil drecent suz un pin” (ed. Moignet, vv. 2882-4).

  53. Cf. Hans-Erich Keller, “La Conversion de Bramimonde,” Olifant, 1 (October 1973) 1, pp. 3-22, reprinted in the Actes du VIe Congrès international de la Société Rencesvals (Aix-en-Provence: Université de Provence, 1974), pp. 177-203.

  54. Edition Moignet, laisse CCXC, which, unfortunately, is damaged in the Oxford manuscript at the end of the vv. 3983 and 3984; perhaps even several lines may be missing between the two lines.

  55. Edition Wesle-Wapnewski, vv. 8625-30.

  56. The Gothic Cathedral, Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 111.

  57. Cf. also Leonardo Olschki, Der ideale Mittelpunkt Frankreichs im Mittelalter in Wirklichkeit und Dichtung (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1913).

Gerard J. Brault (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Brault, Gerard J. Introduction to “The Song of Roland”: An Analytical Edition, Vol. 1: Introduction and Commentary, pp. 1-116. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Brault discusses the historical, political, and religious background to The Song of Roland.]


The Song of Roland is an epic poem that recounts the events surrounding the death of Charlemagne's nephew Roland at Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. The Emperor and his men were journeying home after a military campaign in Spain. The disaster actually took place in the year 778, some three centuries before the poem is generally dated.1

In 732, twenty-one years after landing on the Spanish Peninsula, the Saracens were decisively stopped at Poitiers by Charles Martel (688?-741), Charlemagne's grandfather.2 Throughout this Muslim advance, however, Christians in the Asturias, the northwestern corner of Spain, had succeeded in resisting the general onslaught. By the ninth century the Christians had broadened their dominions to encompass a number of adjacent provinces, including Galicia and most of León to the south and east.

Christian reconquest of the northern tier of Spain was greatly facilitated by internal dissention among the Arabs.3 At the invitation of Suleiman, the Arab governor of Barcelona—and recognizing an opportunity to establish a buffer against the Saracen threat from south of the Pyrenees, and to make converts to Christianity—Charlemagne amassed an army and entered Spain in two main columns in 778. Alerted to a Saxon uprising to the north and forced to lift the siege of Saragossa, Charlemagne took a number of hostages including Suleiman himself, whom he suspected of treachery, and fell back on Pamplona, destroying it and forcing its inhabitants, including many Christians, to flee. As the Franks were making their way back across the Pyrenees, Gascons ambushed the rearguard, killing all its defenders. Loaded down with booty, they escaped into the night. Charlemagne was unable for the moment to avenge this stunning defeat, but he returned several years later and established a zone of Frankish influence in the northern tier of the peninsula known as the Spanish March.

This is the most faithful account of the events of the year 778, which has been pieced together by historians from scattered and often contradictory sources. The best-known narrative of these events is contained in the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer (d. 840):

Cum enim absiduo ac pene continuo cum Saxonibus bello certaretur, dispositis per congrua confiniorum loco praesidiis, Hispaniam quam maximo poterat belli apparatu adgreditur; saltuque Pyrinei superato, omnibus quae adierat oppidis atque castellis in deditionem acceptis, salvo et incolomi exercitu revertitur, praeter quod in ipso Pyrinei jugo Wasconicam perfidiam parumper in redeundo contigit experiri. Nam cum agmine longo, ut loci et angustiarum situs permittebat, porrectus iret exercitus, Wascones in summi montis vertice positis insidiis—est enim locus ex opacitate silvarum, quarum ibi maxima est copia, insidiis ponendis oportunus—extremam inpedimentorum partem et eos qui, novissimi agminis incedentes subsidio, praecedentes tuebantur desuper incursantes in subjectam vallem deiciunt consertoque cum eis proelio usque ad unum omnes interficiunt ac, direptis inpedimentis, noctis beneficio quae jam instabat protecti, summa cum celeritate in diversa disperguntur. Adjuvabat in hoc facto Wascones et levitas armorum et loci in quo res gerebatur situs; econtra Francos et armorum gravitas et loci iniquitas per omnia Wasconibus reddidit inpares. In quo proelio Eggihardus regiae mensae praepositus, Anshelmus comes palatii et Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus cum aliis conpluribus interficiuntur. Neque hoc factum ad praesens vindicari poterat, quia hostis, re perpetrata, ita dispersus est ut ne fama quidem remaneret ubinam gentium quaeri potuisset.4

(While the war against the Saxons is being fought energetically and almost continuously, he [Charlemagne], having stationed troops at strategic places along the borders, attacks Spain with all the forces that he can muster. He crosses the Pyrenees, accepts the surrender of all the towns and fortified places that he encounters along the way, and returns without his army having sustained any losses except that, during the withdrawal, while traversing the Pyrenees, he happened to experience Gascon treachery. While his army was marching in a long column, because of a narrow pass, some Gascons lying in ambush at the top of the mountain—for the thick woods which are very plentiful in that area afford a great opportunity for sneak attacks—swoop down on the last elements of the baggage train and on the rearguard protecting the main body of the army. They drive them back into the valley, join battle, and massacre every last one of them. Then, having looted the baggage train, they disperse very rapidly in every direction under cover of night which was falling. On this occasion, the Gascons had the advantage of light armament and control of the terrain; the Franks were greatly hindered by their heavy armament and lower position. In this battle were slain Eggihard, the royal seneschal; Anselm, count of the palace; and Roland, prefect of the Breton march, and many others. This reverse could not be avenged immediately because the enemy, having done this deed, dispersed in such a way that no one could even tell in which direction they might have been sought.)

In this account no reason for Charlemagne's invasion of Spain is provided, and the ambush is said to have taken place after he had conquered all the towns and castles in his path on the peninsula.5 According to Einhard, the defeat was occasioned by Gascon treachery (Wasconicam perfidiam).6 Duke Lupus of Gascony had earlier submitted to Charlemagne's authority but, breaking his oath, allowed a marauding band of his followers to lead a successful attack against the rearguard.7 Charlemagne's campaign was motivated by political and religious considerations.8 The Annales Mettenses priores, written shortly after 805, indicate that Charlemagne responded to appeals from the oppressed Christian community in Spain, an assertion confirmed by a letter from Pope Hadrian dated May 778 and reiterated by the Astronomer of Limoges about 840.9 It has been suggested that Saracens as well as Gascons participated in the ambush.10

What is most significant in Einhard's narrative is the amount of space devoted to the disaster, which not only suggests the impact of the defeat on the people of the day, but lists a number of illustrious victims, including Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus, the hero of the Song of Roland,11 and mentions treachery, which will later motivate the action in the poem.12


The myth of Charlemagne (742-814) began to grow during his lifetime, and in the two centuries after his death, numerous anecdotes about him had been circulated and his name intimately associated with the Empire.13 There are scattered references to the incident in the Pyrenees in medieval annals, and it is safe to assume that by the eleventh century a fairly elaborate legend had developed, perhaps giving rise to more than one work in Latin or French, none of which have survived.14 The custom of naming brothers Roland and Oliver, which dates from the beginning of the eleventh century, is an important witness to the development of the legend.15

There has been considerable speculation concerning the presumed ancestry of chansons de geste in general and of the Song of Roland in particular. If the prototype of this epic was Latin, it doubtless circulated in monastic circles in written form, like the saints' lives, which it probably resembled in form and content. On the other hand, a vernacular version, the product of oral composition, may have been part of the repertory of jongleurs, or singers of tales, who traveled about the country at the time.16 In any event, many scholars are convinced that the so-called Baligant episode—roughly a thousand lines, or about one-fourth of the poem in its present state—was not part of the original material.17

Whether inspired by legend or poem, a man of genius, referred to henceforth as Turoldus18—the name found in the Oxford manuscript—living in France about 1100,19 composed the work known today as the Song of Roland. The questions as to the precise manner and form in which Turoldus received his material and how much of the poem's style is due to his creativity and skill are much debated. However, the extant French works composed before 1100 are but pale forerunners of this remarkable epic, and the oral literature, the existence of which one can assume and even reconstruct to a certain extent, was doubtless far less complex and sophisticated.

Turoldus's masterpiece is superior to the kind of verse that singers of tales usually composed, but it has many features in common with this oral literature. Jean Rychner links the repetitions in the initial laisses of the Roland to the poet's need to have his audience clearly understand Marsile's proposal.20 On the other hand, he finds only one instance of recapitulation in Turoldus's poem (vv. 2769-2787), a technique which the singer of tales often utilized to refresh his listeners' memory when a new session was beginning or to allow recent arrivals in the audience to catch up on what had already been narrated.21

Turoldus was obviously familiar with the formulaic diction used by the jongleurs, and he skillfully fused this procedure with the techniques of written literature taught in the schools. Other authors of his day did the same, if somewhat varying the blend, although the chansons de geste that have survived generally appear to be more the work of clerks than of jongleurs.22

The lines between chanson de geste, chronicle, and saint's life are not always easy to discern in Old French literature. Traditional definitions remain valid for the most part; but how does one classify a poem like Ami et Amile?23 The confrontation of, say, the Song of Roland, the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, and the Rolandslied (Introduction, 10), with their varying mixtures of the sacred and the profane, of edifying, historical, and legendary material, tends to negate the concept of genre. The medieval author's habit of citing well-known but often—as in the Song of Roland—nonexistent annals or chronicles for authentification complicates the matter even further.24

If one is to appreciate the condition of the surviving chansons de geste, it is also important to understand the habits of medieval scribes. Copyists at times reproduced the manuscript before them quite faithfully but at other times altered their transcript, with changes ranging from occasional word substitutions to substantial abridgments and lengthy amplifications or interpolations. Transposition into a different dialect, modernization of language to reflect current usage, and, from the thirteenth century onward, switching from assonance to rhyme and from verse to prose, were common practices. Many years and even centuries sometimes elapsed between the time the original work was composed and a particular manuscript was copied, and there was often more than one intervening transcript. Turoldus's poem was subjected to all of these transformations.

Scholars have established the relationship between the extant manuscripts of the Roland25 and, in general, agree that the copy preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford offers the oldest and the best surviving version of the poem. This manuscript, often referred to by its library reference number, Digby 23, is in a twelfth-century hand.26 In Anglo-Norman dialect, it is believed to reflect rather closely Turoldus's original poem, which was composed sometime earlier.27

Efforts to narrow down the date of the poem itself and of the Bodleian copy continue. There are many proposals for dating the work before or after 1100, but no convincing argument has been advanced for dissociating the poem in its present form from the other early French epics it resembles and which were composed about this time: Chanson de Guillaume, Gormont et Isembart, Pèlerinage de Charlemagne.

The copy of the Roland in Digby 23 has too many scribal errors to be an original,28 and a second hand (“the revisor”) made some sixty-odd changes in the text.29 The manuscript seems too small and inelegant in execution to have been a presentation copy for some important personage.30 Was it, then, as some have proposed, meant to be used by a jongleur?31 After reviewing all the available evidence in this regard, Charles Samaran was unable to resolve the matter32 and later efforts have not removed this uncertainty.33

A good deal is known about the circumstances under which a chanson de geste was recited,34 but relatively little effort has been made to visualize how such a performance appeared to a medieval audience. New light on the oral interpretation of the Song of Roland is provided below (Introduction, 20).

To sum up, some jongleurs were also trouvères, or authors, but their compositions probably have not survived. The epics that the jongleurs performed as they traveled about the country may have been of two different types: (1) the popular form, now lost, which was heavily dependent upon the formulas, motifs, themes, and techniques about which Rychner has written, and (2) the more literate, polished, and sophisticated form, which has much in common with the popular form but which bears the hallmark of the clerical tradition. However, there is no incontrovertible proof that the Roland or any other chanson de geste was ever sung before an audience in the form preserved in medieval manuscripts.35 There are limits, therefore, to any claim that can be made about the medieval audience's presumed reaction to any epic passage.

One can only speculate, too, about the manner in which jongleurs transmitted chansons de geste to the clerks who copied and doubtless altered them. Turoldus may have combined the skills of jongleur and clerk, but this does not seem likely.

One thing is certain, however: The Song of Roland is the greatest French epic and its appearance was an event of the highest importance in the history of Western literature. …


In the late eleventh century Western Europe was very different from what it is today.36 Its diverse peoples were just beginning to emerge from a long era marked by armed invasions and raids from far and near. They had abandoned once-flourishing cities established by the Romans37 and had retreated from the countryside into isolated, self-sufficient, fortified enclaves. Royal authority was not very strong. Villages had developed in the shadow of castles and a small class of warriors—perhaps one-tenth of one percent of the population—ruled over serfs clustered around them for protection.38 By now the hierarchical structure of lord and vassal had assumed its definitive form and individuals at all levels of society were bound together by vows of homage and fealty.39 Whenever the term chevaler is used in the Song of Roland it refers to a fighting man, distinguished by birth and by ownership of expensive heavy armor, weapons, and a war-horse.40 Armies of Turoldus's day also included a large number of attendants (serjanz) who assisted the warrior, but usually in a noncombatant role.41

Commerce had disappeared for the most part and virtually everyone was engaged in the serious business of subsistence agriculture. The local lord offered protection in return for ownership of all the land, a percentage of the crop and domestic animals, and various services. The baron and his knights spent a good part of their time in martial activities, warring against marauding aggressors or among themselves. Whether in a castle or in a village hut, life was rude and precarious by modern standards, alternating between times of starvation and relative plenty, between grim survival and joyous feasting. Nature and manmade violence were important factors conditioning the daily routine and seasonal cycle of work and rest. Age-old religious and folk beliefs, customs, and traditions also influenced the lives of these profoundly conservative people.

Two major activities could seriously affect an individual's life. A military expedition or a pilgrimage to a distant land might remove a person for years at a time from familiar surroundings.42 Powerful dukes and counts often became involved in foreign campaigns (there were numerous expeditions into Italy and Spain, for instance), and permanent resettlement at times ensued, such as that of certain Norman barons and their retinues in Sicily. The most popular pilgrimages were of course to local shrines, but they might also involve a trip to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or even the Holy Land.43 Crude itineraries—maps or narrative accounts—provided some assistance to pilgrims who were, by custom, accorded hospitality in monasteries and hostels along the way.44 Travelers followed ancient routes, but it is misleading to think in terms of specific “pilgrimage roads,” a fiction invented by turn-of-the-century scholars.45 Pilgrims normally traveled in groups, a custom immortalized in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The services of a guide (OFr. guieor, guior), that is, a person who had presumably traveled the road at least once before, helped pilgrims establish a pace and avoid obvious hazards. Whether embarking on a military adventure abroad or on a distant pilgrimage, individuals knew that travel entailed grave risks. Modern historians estimate that, in the Middle Ages, life expectancy was thirty-five years until the thirteenth century.46

Patriotism as we conceive it today was nonexistent in Turoldus's day.47 National and ethnic stereotypes, extending down to the regional level, were commonplace, as evidenced perhaps in v. 3796 (Icels d'Alverne i sunt li plus curteis). Foreigners and even inhabitants of neighboring lands were commonly viewed with distrust. The poet's use of the recurring expression dulce France may be in imitation of classical models.48 On the other hand, affection and nostalgia for one's homeland and for familiar surroundings are only natural. For Turoldus, to be a Franc de France meant one enjoyed special status in Charlemagne's army.

Local political matters at times altered daily living in the eleventh century. A marriage contract negotiated between two noble families (the bride usually had little say in this matter) might bring about a change of administration and improve or worsen the serf's lot dramatically, depending on his new lord's humaneness or greed.49 The eruption of a feud between barons could spell disaster for everyone concerned.

The sense of belonging to Christianity imparted a much stronger feeling of solidarity than any corresponding national identification, but religion then as now affected individuals' outlook on life and ethical behavior in a variety of ways. The notion of Christian unity and of a certain internationalism50 was enhanced during the course of the eleventh century by a growing concern over the Saracen peril, a situation precipitated by the appearance of the Turks upon the scene, which sent shock waves throughout Europe and inaugurated a new phase in history.51 The many disruptions occasioned by the Turkish conquests, among many other factors, culminated in the world-shaking proclamation of the First Crusade at Clermont on 27 November 1095.52 The Roland's international appeal is evident from the fact that it was translated into several languages.


The impact of the Church on the Middle Ages is incalculable, for its influence permeated and shaped every activity known to man. In the eleventh century the Catholic hierarchy was associated with every facet of life, imparting counsel and ministering to spiritual needs in the entourage of sovereigns and lords of every degree, as well as among the lowest-ranking serfs. Regular clergy, living under vows in monasteries and various religious establishments, or as recluses, outnumbered knights by perhaps five to one; secular priests and clerks in minor orders (Introduction, 7) doubtless increased that proportion to ten to one.53

A theoretical distinction had long ago54 been drawn between the powers of Church and State, and the question of investiture was a bone of contention.55 However, in practice the Church usually succeeded in maintaining its primacy, symbolized notably by the incident at Canossa. In January 1077, Henry IV, King of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor, stood for three days bareheaded and barefoot in the snow in a castle courtyard until Pope Gregory VII, who was staying there, consented to grant him an audience and absolve him from excommunication. Less than a century later, in 1177, Henry II of England, having quarreled with Thomas Becket on the question of ecclesiastical authority—a dispute resulting in the latter's murder—was forced to perform a humiliating public penance at the Archbishop's shrine.

Abbots and bishops shared in the benefits of the feudal system, holding estates in fief and exercising the right to collect tolls and market dues.56 On the other hand, sovereigns and even lesser lords commonly held churches in benefice and derived considerable income from their tithes and other revenues, a practice the Church succeeded in limiting in Turoldus's day.57

Monks maintained schools and, although the age of the great universities was yet to come, institutions such as those at Chartres, Cluny, Laon, Orleans, Reims, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, and Saint-Riquier, to name but the major French establishments,58 were already regarded as important centers of learning. Lesser schools could be found in areas boasting a few thousand inhabitants or a thriving monastery.59 Most of the artistic activity of the period can be traced to the monastic orders, which supervised the construction and decoration of abbeys, churches, and related edifices, copied and illuminated Bibles, hymnals, pericopes, and other manuscripts, composed music and simple liturgical dramas,60 and in general promoted esthetic values.61

Monks also produced a wide variety of didactic, exegetical, and theological writings in Latin. Every monastery corresponded regularly with its mother house, reporting on its activities and particular needs. A talent for composing homilies and hymns was highly regarded. However, even greater interest was shown in the writing and reworking of Latin chronicles and hagiographic literature. When they were in a position to do so, monasteries maintained annals and recorded important occurrences in their community life and other events deemed worthy of note. Other sources were consulted when more ambitious narratives were undertaken, the result being so-called universal chronicles. The scope and value of these compilations vary a good deal, some being a mere list of dates and occurrences, while others present biased or fragmentary accounts. To establish a simple historical fact—for instance, the incident in the Pyrenees in 778—one must often sift a bewildering mass of hearsay and contradictory evidence.

W. J. Brandt has classified medieval chronicles according to the particular mode of perception that characterizes them.62 He finds that chronicles present either an aristocratic or a clerical view of the world and that these perceptions of reality are essentially antagonistic: “The important discontinuity in the value system of the medieval cleric was within the profession itself, between absolutely unreconcilable views of life which were equally cherished and equally believed.”63 The aristocratic ideal, he maintains, was one of worldly values and stances, great admiration being shown for profit and materialistic concerns, whereas the clerical tradition constantly judged people and events according to atemporal norms, and held innocence, purity, and the like in high esteem. The former usually adopted a narrative mode of expression, while the latter depended a good deal more on rhetorical models.64

Without perforce disagreeing with this typology, which, like most generalizations, tends to lose some of its luster upon close examination, Paul Archambault has shown that the early chroniclers differ rather significantly from their later counterparts, and that one can also distinguish between “mirror” and “window” chroniclers, the former merely recounting events, the latter endeavoring to grasp their deep significance.65 Archambault's categorization should be borne in mind in discussions of the meaning of Turoldus's poem.

Clerical activity in the eleventh century was not restricted to chronicling events that impressed contemporaries as being interesting or significant. The production of saints' lives was another major preoccupation. The earliest narratives of this type provide relatively few details and are documentary in style.66 However, there arose in the Middle Ages a group of writers—known today as hagiographers—who developed a vast corpus of fiction loosely termed saints' lives. With a few exceptions, the typical Latin passio was drawn up according to a well-defined plan, but one that betrayed an astonishing lack of imagination:

Il ne faudrait pourtant point exagérer la fécondité des “trouveurs” hagiographes. Un classement méthodique des thèmes exploités par eux amène à constater que les répétitions du même trait merveilleux sont fréquentes, et que c'est surtout grâce à diverses combinaisons de lieux communs qu'il règne, dans certains groupes de légendes hagiographiques, un semblant de variété. Ce qu'il faut surtout se garder de croire, c'est qu'au point de vue de l'esthétique même, le niveau des créations merveilleuses de l'hagiographie populaire soit, en général, bien élevé. A côté de quelques trouvailles réellement heureuses et de certains motifs ingénieux et intéressants, que de banalités s'y rencontrent, que d'inventions bizarres et souvent extravagantes!

Le cadre de la narration est nettement dessiné. D'abord, une description plus ou moins détaillée de la persécution. Les chrétiens sont partout recherchés; un grand nombre tombe aux mains des soldats, et parmi eux le héros du récit; il est arrêté et jeté en prison. Mené devant le juge, il confesse sa foi et endure d'affreux supplices. Il meurt, et son tombeau devient le théâtre d'une foule de prodiges.67

Certain hagiographic themes and narrative techniques appear in the Song of Roland. Saints' lives were read, but others—in the vernacular and in metrical form—were sung by jongleurs, constituting an important contact with the chansons de geste.68 Turoldus's poem is neither chronicle nor saint's life; it is an epic. Each, however, was composed by clerks and it was inevitable that the first two genres would influence the other.

One cannot discuss the Church and the arts in the eleventh century without mentioning the Cluniac movement.69 Monasticism, which dates to the dawn of Christianity, was given a decisive impetus with the foundation of the Abbey of Monte Cassino and the institution of the rule of Saint Benedict in a.d. 529. Abbeys began to proliferate throughout Europe, and, in addition to preserving for centuries the classical learning that managed to survive the Fall of the Roman Empire, they steadfastly nurtured the beliefs and exercised the moral authority that generally characterize our concept of the Church in the Middle Ages. In the year 910 the Benedictine abbey of Cluny was founded, inaugurating an unparalleled era of construction and of intellectual and spiritual vitality. About the time the Song of Roland was composed, Cluny controlled no fewer than 1,450 different religious establishments housing 10,000 monks throughout Europe.70 Cluniac monasteries and hostels dotted the countryside and were familiar landmarks encountered by pilgrims and travelers everywhere.71 “You are the light of the world,” wrote Pope Urban II to the monks at Cluny in 1098.72

Cluny's impact on monasticism was characterized by a spirit of reform that emphasized asceticism and war on secularism. This new seriousness was reflected in the contemporary strictures of monks and councils against the jongleurs.73 Recriminations against scandalous personal conduct and licentious performances were part of the condemnation of public amusements and spectacles that originated with the Fathers of the Church. There is evidence, however, that some religious looked with favor upon the singing of saints' lives and epics by the jongleurs, even authorizing performances of the former in church and of the latter in the cloister.74 This practice and the strongly clerical adaptations known as the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle and the Rolandslied (Introduction, 10) lend considerable support to the view that the Roland and other early chansons de geste were considered to have important didactic content.

In the eleventh century the Church strove mightily to inspire Christians to cease their constant warring against one another and upon the unarmed and the helpless. It sought energetically to establish law and order by means of various associations and oaths, notably by instituting the Peace of God, designed to protect certain classes of persons and objects—such as churches, clerics, livestock, and vineyards—and the Truce of God, prohibiting violence on certain days.75 Although enforced by spiritual penalties and eventually by temporal punishments, these movements were only intermittently successful. “The human race,” wrote the contemporary chronicler Raoul Glaber, “was like a dog that returns to its vomit. The promise was made, but it was not fulfilled.”76 The Crusades were to afford the military class with an unprecedented outlet for their warlike energies. Historians and moralists continue to debate whether any true ethical progress was achieved during this era.

The Church transformed what was primitively a pagan dubbing ritual into the knighting ceremony, which assumed its definitive form by the eleventh century and included the blessing of the sword and other Christian observances.77 The religious also fostered the evolution of what was originally simple class-consciousness into the code of chivalry, whose Christian coloring reached its highest expression in later times, but a number of whose essential elements can already be found in the Song of Roland.78 The moral position of the Church had an important bearing upon such concepts as avarice, pride, right and wrong, and spoils in Turoldus's poem.


Dancing, singing, and storytelling, like ornamental and ritual painting and sculpture, are part of the folklore of all nations, and this tradition is reflected in the Song of Roland. Demonology and belief in magic, the marvelous power of the oliphant, the naming of swords and horses, and teratology are among the most obvious forms of popular influence in Turoldus's epic. Councils, cursing, dreams, and oath-taking are frequent motifs in the tales told by people all over the world. Bruce Rosenberg believes that the image of the betrayed hero dying on a hill as the last survivor is an age-old cliché whose manifestations can be found in the Bible, the Roland, and in the myth that developed following Custer's Last Stand.79

The authors of the chansons de geste and Old French romances were fond of inserting brief anecdotes in their narratives.80 These miniature stories—as a rule no more than a few verses long—either concern a notable event in the character's life or the origin of an object to which he is strongly attached. At first glance they seem rather trifling, and for the most part they have been neglected by scholars or regarded as mere digressions or make-rhymes. The following examples drawn from the Song of Roland illustrate the genre:

Marsile's mules: Que li tramist li reis de Suatilie.
Margariz's sword: Si la tramist li amiralz de Primes.
Siglorel: L'encanteür ki ja fut en enfer,
Par artimal l'i cundoist Jupiter.
Valdabron: Jerusalem prist ja par traïsun,
Si violat le temple Salomon,
Le patriarche ocist devant les funz.
Turpin's war-horse: Siet el cheval qu'il tolit a Grossaille,
Ço ert uns reis qu'il ocist en Denemarche.
Abisme's shield: En Val Metas li dunat uns diables,
Si li tramist li amiralz Galafes.
Durendal: Carles esteit es vals de Moriane,
Quant Deus del cel li mandat par sun agle
Qu'il te dunast a un cunte cataignie:
Dunc la me ceinst li gentilz reis, li magnes.
Charlemagne's horse: Il le cunquist es guez desuz Marsune,
Sin getat mort Malpalin de Nerbone.

As is evident from the preceding illustrations, anecdotes of this type utilize formulaic diction and spin fantastic yarns, often involving the supernatural. Proper names play an important and affective role in these formulas, and the objects and animals have all been acquired either as a gift or as a battle trophy. Some of these stories within a story seem plausible enough, but they are all fictions designed to place events in an appropriate epic context. Thus the medieval audience grasped full well that Charlemagne's expedition in Spain in 778 and the Muslim peril of the eleventh century were historically authentic, but they felt quite differently about the anecdotes concerning the Emperor's horse or a Saracen's shield. Nevertheless, a skillful author knew how to go about elaborating a story involving heroic exploits and extraordinary events, on the one hand, and historical facts, on the other, so as to blur the line that separates illusion and reality.

Like literary portraits in medieval literature, with which they may usefully be compared, these thumbnail sketches, which can be classified as marginal anecdotes, possibly derive from classical models,81 but it is better to study them according to their own esthetic. Alice M. Colby has defined the literary portrait in terms that also apply to the anecdote. It is, she says in part, a description that

may give many different kinds of information about an individual, which affects the listener's interpretation of the work by provoking in him an emotional reaction to the important character being described, and which stands out from the context as a semi-independent, stylistically ornate, well-organized, and completely panegyrical or censorious descriptive unit, much of the content of which is stereotyped. We have shown that this definition is partially supported by material available in the treatises on Latin rhetoric and poetic art which were widely read in the twelfth century or which, in all probability, represent twelfth-century practice, but we have also demonstrated the wisdom of tentatively basing this definition entirely on the empirical evidence to be found in the vernacular literature before seeking support from the Latin theorists. Although most of the Old French poets had in all likelihood studied formal Latin composition, it cannot automatically be assumed that, when writing in the vernacular, they applied all the rules they had learned or made no attempt to develop independent vernacular traditions.82

These important principles influenced Turoldus's technique of character portrayal. Marginal anecdotes must be distinguished from what can be referred to as kernel anecdotes. The latter—for instance, the stories which Ganelon and Charlemagne tell about Roland—are of vital importance to the proper interpretation of the poem and, in certain instances, provided the nucleus around which elaborate episodes and even whole epics were later constructed.

One must not confuse rhetoric of the type originally developed by Greek and Latin authors (Introduction, 7) with forms that appeared in medieval French literature independently of this tradition, albeit often along parallel lines. The latter is rhétorique coutumière, a mode of expression that is no less formal and systematic for all its indigenous characteristics than rhétorique scolaire.83 When Turoldus describes Turpin's horse, he is following quite closely a model cited by Isidore of Seville.84 On the other hand, the brief portraits that the poet gives of certain individuals in the Song of Roland, the elaborate parallelism, and the laisses similaires technique85 belong to a rhetorical tradition clearly distinct from that found in the works of Latin grammarians and treatise writers.

Finally, synonymic repetition deserves special mention here.86 Classical authors—Cicero, notably—joined related expressions for the purpose of adding nuances to their thought. Old French writers paired words that were semantically identical in order to reinforce a single concept. No shading of meaning was intended. As Jones has shown, association is the key to understanding many elusive terms in the Song of Roland. The known form elucidates the doubtful expression to which it is joined.87 On the other hand, one must also have a firm grasp of the ethical possibilities of each member before attempting to arrive at a conclusion as to the meaning intended by the author. Thus Jones is correct in pointing out that proz e vaillanz in v. 3186—the epithets concern Oliver—“is practically tautological,”88 but he errs when he asserts that the usefulness implied in the adjective proz (< Late Latin prodis < prode est < Classical Latin prodest, a form of prodesse ‘to be useful’) alludes exclusively to the courage and physical strength of the fighting man;89 for proz refers to all the virtues of the ideal knight, including wisdom. …


One cannot always distinguish between popular and learned matter in the Song of Roland. For instance, knowledge of the Bible, demonology, and proverbs90 can be both. Many, or perhaps most, of the elements cited above as popular could just as easily be relegated to the category of learned matter. It would be a gross oversimplification, too, to characterize popular influence as coarse, learned as elegant, when the opposite is often the case.

What is a clerk?91 The Old French word represents Ecclesiastical Latin clericus and is ultimately derived from clerus, the Latin term for clergy. Clerk is used in a variety of ways in the Middle Ages. It can mean a person who has been to school, a learned man, or simply a man of the church, a clergyman, although there were of course many degrees of association with the Church. In theory it is possible to distinguish between the cleric, whose duties were essentially religious, and the clerk, whose functions were purely secretarial or bureaucratic, but in practice, the clerk often served in both capacities.92 It is not until the fifteenth century, in fact, that the word clerk becomes specialized in its present-day meaning; that is, a person who has minor administrative duties in an office.93

The situation was otherwise, however, in the eleventh century, and if Turoldus was a clerk, it may be assumed that he was in one of the several ranks of the ministry, that is, either in major or in minor orders. Being a clerk implies that Turoldus attended school and was exposed to classical learning, especially rhetoric, and received religious training involving familiarity with the Bible and other works of edification and spirituality. Clerks were often attached to royalty or to the households of noblemen or high-ranking ecclesiastics. Literary patronage at this time did not necessarily entail the explicit commissioning of a poem or other work as the clerk's sole obligation in return for payment of one kind or another. Quite frequently it resembled the sort of sponsorship or support a modern university provides professors—whose chief duty it is to teach—for creative writing or research in the humanities.94

How did Turoldus's learning shape his poem? The most important influence was the Bible. This knowledge has been abundantly detailed by Busigny, Jenkins, Dickmann, Faral, and others.95 To cite but the most obvious borrowings, there are certain proper names—Canelius, Dathan and Habirun,96 for example—the sun-stopping episode, a reminiscence of the Book of Joshua; the earthquake and storm announcing Roland's death, which are modeled on the Passion of Our Lord; Ganelon as a Judas figure; the role of the angels; and a number of biblical words and expressions.97

Fortitudo et sapientia has been accorded far too much significance for the interpretation of the Roland (Introduction, 3). This is not to say, however, that the theme does not play a role in the poem. This and the ubi sunt motif, as Charles searches for his nephew's body, are also part of the epic's religious inspiration.98 A certain amount of material derives from the saints' lives, in particular the manner of depicting the hero's death as martyrdom in imitation of Christ, and the concept of death as a victory.99 Some of this can be classified as the sort of knowledge with which almost anyone living in the Middle Ages would have been familiar. However, these allusions taken as a whole, together with the archetypes, stereotypes, and other clerical modes of perception discussed below, point to advanced schooling of the traditional sort.

A second type of clerical inspiration results from familiarity with classical authors. Several scholars—Tavernier, Jenkins, and Curtius, in particular—have studied the many situations, techniques, and themes in the Roland that may be said to be imitated from the classics.100 One may mention, for instance, death wishes, foreboding, irony, olive branches as symbols of peace, omens, laments, nature responding to strong human emotion, nostalgia for a “sweet” homeland, and understatement. One of the most characteristic devices in the Song of Roland is that of foreshadowing, a device traditionally associated with classical writers.

No specific allusion to a classical author has been ascribed to Turoldus, but many scholars strongly sense that he was exposed to certain masterpieces of Latin literature, the Aeneid in particular.101 Suetonius was also widely read in the Middle Ages and influenced Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni, which may in turn have been familiar to our poet.102 There is a possible allusion in the Gautier de l'Hum episode to Suetonius's account of Augustus's cry “Vare, redde legiones.” The passage is missing in Digby 23 but may have been found in the original poem composed by Turoldus.103 Finally, one of the major themes of the Song of Roland, the Struggle, may derive from Prudentius, whose Psychomachia exerted a lasting influence on medieval art and literature.104

Virtually all the classical borrowings in Turoldus's epic were skillfully adapted to his purpose and are not immediately evident.105 The poet appears to have consciously tempered his display of learning and to have artfully masked his sources.106 Not infrequently, the modern scholar accurately perceives the nature of the influence but, being unable to put his finger on the exact source, concludes, as does Maurice Delbouille in his discussion of Ganelon's anecdote about Roland and the apple, that “cela sent l'école.”107 Curtius, Martín de Riquer, and others have listed the rhetorical figures that abound in the Roland: amplificatio, antithesis, apostrophe, iteratio, recapitulation, repetition, and so on, characteristics never found in such profusion in popular literature.108

The principal reason Latin literature was read and classical rhetoric was studied in the schools was to provide a proper foundation for interpreting the Bible and to prepare the clerk for his religious duties and for such mundane tasks as keeping records or carrying on correspondence. A by-product, doubtless considered incidental by the men of the Middle Ages but of surpassing interest to us today, was the fact that this schooling influenced clerks when they composed literature in the vernacular.

In the final analysis the difference between Turoldus and other authors of chansons de geste is not so much a question of the degree of his familiarity with the techniques of oral composition or of his mastery of clerical skills: It is rather a matter of his superior talent, that is, that spark of genius and devotion to his task which enabled him to use his knowledge and training to great effect.


Turoldus did not deliberately set out to transpose Charlemagne's campaign of 778 into contemporary terms or to make propaganda for the First Crusade or for any other similar endeavor. He simply wished to tell of an event that happened some three hundred years earlier. That circumstance, however, had been seriously altered by the passage of time and by the process of myth-building. The story would be further transformed now through the workings of his poetic imagination.

The chansons de geste were sung before aristocratic audiences who enjoyed being entertained in their castles after the evening meal, in their gardens, or while on long horseback journeys.109 The jongleurs numbered among their many talents juggling, playing various musical instruments, singing, and tumbling, and the performance of chansons de geste was doubtless viewed in that light, that is, as entertainment. Noblemen enjoyed visualizing themselves accomplishing great deeds, striking mighty blows, and achieving the high renown associated with epic heroes.110

Jules Horrent points out that aristocratic audiences were sophisticated enough to appreciate esthetic effects and to recognize biblical and literary allusions.111 This would have been even truer in the case of the clerks who happened to be present on such occasions. The moral and spiritual value of the chansons de geste was also acknowledged, for, as we have seen, authorization to have epics sung in the cloister is known to have been granted.112 Finally, poems such as the Song of Roland were also heard in public squares.113 Thus while the major figures in Turoldus's poem are aristocrats involved in actions familiar, for the most part, only to members of the privileged class, the epic itself no doubt elicited an enthusiastic response from all levels of medieval society.

The Song of Roland is replete with aristocratic situations: Sovereigns and knights deal with problems in characteristic fashion, assuming stances designed to enhance their reputations and relentlessly pursuing their own advantage, profit, and revenge. There is decided realism here as well as in the description of contemporary armor, equitation, feudal relationships, military organization, and the like. However, constant exaggeration and fantasy offer important counterpoint to this reflection of contemporary manners and mores, projecting everything away from the here and now into the universe of the chansons de geste.114 There are a few conscious archaisms,115 but epic distantiation is Turoldus's main technique for situating his characters in a realm where realism plays no part.

Of even greater significance for the interpretation of the poem is the fact that Turoldus idealizes and spiritualizes these very same activities. Thus, for example, boasting and refusing help in the face of danger are familiar aristocratic stances, but in the Roland they become part of the Theme of Victory associated with the hero, a process which in the present instance is religious in essence.

The metamorphosis of worldly into spiritual achievements and attitudes, and the symbolic process by which a lion becomes the devil, and a tree the Cross, constitute the least understood phenomenon in the Song of Roland. Viewing events and utterances in isolation or with clinical detachment, as scholars studying a particular aspect of this epic frequently do, often strips them of their true significance. It is only by situating these activities in the context of the entire work and by allowing oneself to be swept along by the poem's evocative power that one can penetrate Turoldus's overall design.

The myth-making process itself also militates against realism. Given that Roland must die, Christians are in the right, pagans in the wrong, Charles is Emperor, treachery must be punished, and so on, Turoldus is constrained to make his story line conform to these inflexible parameters. On the other hand, he obviously feels free to elaborate the legend, to create new characters and situations, and to make legendary personages behave according to his poetic vision. Thus the majestic character Charlemagne, Defender of the Faith and Ruler over the Christian World, was drawn from tradition, but Turoldus imagined him as an Abraham-Job figure, knowingly yet unhesitatingly sacrificing his nephew and steadfast in his great travail. In the eleventh century royal power was at one of its low points, yet the poet instilled great authority in the Emperor, depicted him as a priest-king, and showed him in almost daily communication with the Deity.

Whether or not consciously, Turoldus utilized archetypes and topoi that are familiar to the literary critic. He makes frequent use of irony and symbols, revealing a constant search on his part for what lies beyond literalness. Individuals are often limned with a striking gesture or are involved in dramatic confrontation, thus manifesting the poet's predilection for visual impact.


Poetry often involves a peculiar ordering of reality and always entails exceptional use of language. In order to achieve certain effects, the author suggests meanings, employing, notably, the metaphorical mode. Allusive speech is inherently ambiguous, yet it conveys emotion and impressions with particular force and appeal. That medieval writers were acutely aware of the relevance of these matters is borne out by Saint Augustine in a famous passage: “No one doubts that things are perceived more readily through similitudes and that what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure.”116

In order to reconstruct the interplay of concepts and associations in the Song of Roland, one must at times put aside twentieth-century notions of what constitutes logic or common sense (this is notably true in the two oliphant scenes), for what appears bizarre or unorthodox today may not have seemed at all peculiar to the poet's contemporaries.117 Finally, it must not be assumed that all the workings of Turoldus's imagination were typical for his day and age.


There are indications which suggest that Turoldus was influenced by certain contemporary views regarding literary interpretation.

In medieval Christian thought the chief events of the Old Testament were held to be mere prefigurations or archetypes of those in the New Testament.118 This tradition dates back to the time of the Apostles. However, these typological patterns often appear forced today. For instance, Samson carrying the gates of Gaza upon his shoulders was said to prefigure Christ carrying his Cross;119 or associating Eve with the Blessed Virgin seemed perfectly natural.120 Medieval madonnas, such as the one dated about 1100, preserved at Essen …, frequently represent Mary as the New Eve, holding the Infant Jesus on her lap and an apple in her right hand.121 Through Eve's fault Man was lost, through Mary's intercession he was saved.122

Medieval exegetes combed the Scriptures for adumbrations of the Gospel narratives, eventually concluding that all things in Creation were, in a very real sense, metaphors of the Christian experience. By the eleventh century an impressive list of such identifications had been compiled and had found its way into glosses, homilies, and a variety of devotional and didactic literature. So far as interpretation of the Bible is concerned, many exegetes distinguished four levels of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical. The latter view was crystallized in a celebrated rhyming couplet:

Littera gesta docet, quod credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.(123)

The classic illustration was that Jerusalem, in the literal sense, is a city of Palestine; in the allegorical sense, the Church; in the tropological sense, the Christian soul; and in the anagogical sense, Heaven.124

A slight modification of this system is to be found in what Hugh of Saint Victor describes as the standard approach to all literature, whether sacred or profane, in the schools of his day. This approach involved exposing the littera, or grammatical points, the sensus, or surface meaning, then the sententia, or doctrinal content, of each text under consideration.125 A widely attested formulation provides yet another distillation of the process and probably offers the most useful formula for approaching medieval texts in this fashion. Sacred texts were held to consist of a kernel and an outer shell. According to Honorius Augustodunensis: “Nux est Sacra Scriptura, cujus cortex est littera, nucleus vero spiritualis intelligentia.”126

It would of course be ideal if one were always able to distinguish purely literary devices and meanings from deeper spiritual sense.127 An effort will be made to do so here whenever possible, but more often than not the line between the two levels of significance cannot be discerned.

From the time of the Church Fathers, pagan literature was read by the exegetically-inclined for its moral precepts as well as for the Christian truths it was believed to mask. Thus Saint Jerome spoke of secular literature as a captive woman whose beauty and eloquence could lead to higher spiritual understanding,128 while Saint Augustine compared its value to that of the gold and silver ornaments which the Israelites took with them when they fled from Egypt in order to put them to a better use.129

It is but one step from such views of the Scriptures and of classical authors to similar interpretations of vernacular literature. D. W. Robertson, Jr., is in the forefront of scholars who have promoted the study of exegetical writings as the key to understanding medieval secular authors.130 While the “polarities” popularly associated with the Princeton professor need not concern us here,131 many of his views are applicable to the Song of Roland.132

The Song of Roland has different meanings for different readers, but the possibilities afforded by what has become known as a “medieval reading” should not be overlooked. Symbolism was part and parcel of medieval education at all levels; it had important manifestations in Romanesque art and was utilized in sermons from the pulpit. The recurrence of the ironic mode in Turoldus's poem implies that the audience will be able to distinguish surface from real meanings. Reading more than one meaning into a poem or perceiving a symbolic allusion in a particular passage is not at all the same as applying the fourfold exegetical method. The latter approach is always possible of course, but Turoldus doubtless expected a far less technical mental operation on the part of most individuals in his audience—for instance, grasping the notions referred to below in the sections relating to meaning and structure.

Modern critics use the term allegory in a variety of ways that irritate many Old French specialists who prefer to restrict its meaning to the consistent and elaborate form found, for example, in the Roman de la Rose.133 Yet medieval writers conceived of allegory in a much broader sense, encompassing all figurative speech, and they uncovered symbols in a manner some scholars of today find contradictory, excessive, or incongruous.134

The Latin Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle and the German Rolandslied are important witnesses to the process of medieval interpretation of the Song of Roland. The first of these works was strongly influenced by Turoldus's epic and the second is essentially a translation of the French poem.


Opinions vary as to the exact date of the prose work purporting to be by Archbishop Turpin, but it would appear that the earliest surviving version of the Latin chronicle was composed about 1130 by a Frenchman who was familiar with Spain.135 The following interpretations are noteworthy, for they relate to images, motifs, and themes present in the Song of Roland and doubtless were not foreign to Turoldus's intentions.


On the eve of Charlemagne's first battle with Aigolandus near Sahagún in the province of León, the Christians plant their lances in the ground. The next morning the lances of those who are destined to die have taken root, are covered with bark, and have sprouted leaves.136 The miracle is repeated later before the castle of Taillebourg (Charente-Maritime).137 The image of the flowering lances ultimately stems from Psalms 92:12-13: “So the virtuous flourish like palm trees and grow as tall as the cedars of Lebanon. Planted in the house of Yahweh, they will flourish in the courts of our God.”138 In the Song of Roland the hero is associated with a lance or spear139 on several occasions (vv. 707-708, 1156, Roland raises or brandishes his pennant-tipped lance; v. 720, he is the spear that Ganelon shatters in Charlemagne's first dream);140 this weapon is merely an extension of the right arm, a symbol of power and strength (Psalms 98:1; 138:8), and a metaphor linking Charles and Roland (vv. 597, 727, 1195).141 The flowers of Paradise (vv. 1856, 2197, 2898) and the blossoms stained with the blood of the Christian martyrs at Roncevaux (v. 2871) are related to this motif, as is the concept of the French being interred inside a church. …


The miracle of the flowering lances is interpreted in the following terms: “Mira res, magnumque gaudium, magnum animabus proficuum, ingensque corporibus detrimentum!… In praefata acies fas est intelligi salus certantium Christi.”142 Turoldus refers to Roland and his men as martyrs (vv. 1134, 1922) and their deeds help sustenir chrestïentet (v. 1129). The joy of martyrdom is intimately related to Charlemagne's thoughts about the slain Roland and to the terms Joyeuse and Monjoie. …143


In what is evidently, to the anonymous chronicler's mind, a logical development, the flowering lances suggest the battle for man's soul:

Sicut enim Karoli milites pugnatori ante bellum arma sua ad debellandum praeparaverunt, sic et nos arma nostra, id est bonas virtutes, contra vicia pugnaturi praeparare debemus. Quisquis enim vel fidem contra haereticam pravitatem, vel caritatem contra odium, vel largitatem contra avaritiam, vel humilitatem contra superbiam, vel castitatem contra libidinem, vel orationem assiduam contra daemoniacam temptationem, vel paupertatem contra felicitatem, vel perseverantiam contra instabilitatem, vel silentium contra iurgia, vel obedientiam contra carnalem animum ponit, hasta eius florida et victrix in die iudicii Dei erit. O quam felix et florida erit in celesti regno victoris anima qui legitime contra vicia decertavit in terra! Non coronabitur quis nisi qui legitime certaverit.144

The metaphor derives from Ephesians 6:10-17.145 Arming is an epic commonplace,146 but this does not mean that it is always devoid of the spiritual significance alluded to here. In fact, Christian symbolism is strongly suggested in the riverside encampment episode (Laisses 180-182), where the motif of vigilance appears together with that of weapons. Cf. Ephesians 6:13-18:

You must rely on God's armour … So stand your guard, with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to put out the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword. … Never get tired of staying awake.

The battle of the virtues and vices, overtones of which are frequently perceived throughout Turoldus's epic, notably in the single combats, was graphically portrayed in the Psychomachia, but the oppositions noted in the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle are not those found in Prudentius's poem. The particular alignment here derives either from contemporary tracts or from Romanesque sculpture.147


In another free association the Latin chronicler links the notion of spiritual combat and martyrdom to that of “dying” to vices: “Et sicut Karoli pugnatores pro Christi fide obierunt in bello, sic et nos mori debemus viciis et vivere virtutibus sanctis in mundo, quatinus palmam de triumpho floridam habere mereamur in celesti regno.”148 The comparison is a patristic commonplace149 stemming from Romans 6:2: “We are dead to sin, so how can we continue to live in it?” Cf. 6:11: “You too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.”


Following a truce, during which Charles attempts to convert Aigolandus in a theological debate, battle is resumed. Twenty, forty, then a hundred Christians slay an equal number of Saracens. However, when a hundred more Christians attack, the enemy destroys them all because they have fled out of fear.

Hii vero tipum gerunt certantium fidelium Christi. Quia, qui pro Dei fide volunt pugnare, nullo modo debent retro abire. Et sicut illi ideo occiduntur quia retro fugerunt, sic Christi fideles qui debent fortiter contra vicia pugnare, si retro reversi fuerint, in viciis turpiter moriuntur. Sed qui bene contra vicia pugnant, hi inimicos, id est daemones qui vicia administrant, leviter occidunt. Non coronabitur quis, inquit apostolus, nisi qui legitime certaverit.150

The reference in the last sentence is to 2 Timothy 2:5.151 In the Song of Roland fleeing is an act generally associated with the Saracens, and Paien s'en fuient is a first-hemistich formula used in vv. 2162, 2164, 2460, 3625, 3634 (cf. v. 1875). Scholars have read religious meaning in the image of the Saracens running before Roland (v. 1874: Si cum li cerfs s'en vait devant les chiens). It is also worth noting that when Gautier de l'Hum makes his eleventh-hour appearance, he is said to have been forced to flee from the enemy (v. 2043: Voeillet o nun, desuz cez vals s'en fuit). …


There is no Baligant episode in the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, but the Emperor's struggle against Aigolandus, which precedes Roncevaux in the Latin work, has points in common with this lengthy incident in Turoldus's poem. When Aigolandus is decisively defeated at Pamplona, the chronicler offers this commentary: “Quapropter patet quia lex christiana omnes ritus et leges tocius mundi excellit sua bonitate. Cuncta transcendit, super angelos etiam ascendit.”152 The idea that Christianity is superior to all other religions is central to the meaning of the Song of Roland (Introduction, 11, a). Unwavering faith permeates Turoldus's entire epic. Its major themes gravitate about this ideal and its story line is constructed on the Abraham-Isaac archetype, a symbol of instant and unquestioning acquiescence to divine promptings. One of the most important metaphors in the Roland has to do with Ascent (Introduction, 15, c). The Latin chronicler thinks along the same lines, for he continues the passage in the following fashion:

O Christiane, si fidem bene tenueris corde, et operibus in quantum poteris adimpleveris, veraciter super angelos cum capite tuo Christo, cuius membrum es, sublimatus eris. Si vis ascendere, firmiter crede; quia omnia possibilia sunt credenti, dicit Dominus.153


Following Charlemagne's great victory over Aigolandus, about a thousand Christians, coveting gold, silver, and other riches, return to the battlefield. Loaded down with spoils, they are on their way back to camp when the Almaçor of Córdoba and his cohorts ambush and slay them to the last man. According to the chronicler:

Hii vero tipum gerunt certancium Christi. Quia sicut illi, postquam inimicos suos devicerunt, ad mortuos, cupiditatis causa, redierunt, et interficiuntur ab inimicis, sic fidelis quisque, qui vicia sua devicit, et poenitenciam accepit, ad mortuos, id est ad vicia, iterum redire non debet, ne forte ab inimicis, id est a daemonibus, interficiatur malo fine.154

Amplifying his thought and aiming his shafts now at monks who betray their calling, the anonymous author adds:

Et sicut illi qui ad aliena spolia revertentes praesentem vitam perdiderunt, et necem turpe acceperunt, sic religiosi quique qui seculum dimiserunt, et ad terrena negocia postea inflectuntur, vitam celestem perdunt, et mortem perpetuam amplectuntur.155

There is no such episode in the Song of Roland, but readers will be struck by the parallel with the Rash Saracen incident in Laisses 178-179. As Roland, eyes closed, solemnly prepares to meet his Maker, a pagan soldier, who until this moment has been feigning death, rushes toward him, hoping to take Durendal away as a trophy. The hero, feeling his sword slip from his grasp, opens his eyes and, summoning up his last reserve of strength, strikes the Saracen a mortal blow with the oliphant. The passage lends itself to various interpretations, one of which readily suggests itself following a reading of the battlefield despoliation scene in the Pseudo-Turpin.


At bay at Roncevaux, Roland sounds the oliphant. Charlemagne hears its call and wants to rush to his nephew's aid. Ganelon attempts to dissuade the Emperor, suggesting that his stepson blows the horn at the slightest provocation and is probably merely hunting a wild animal in the forest. However, Ganelon is well aware that Roland is dying and his counsel is the height of treachery: “O subdola controversia! O Ganaloni pravum consilium, Iudae proditoris tradicioni comparatum!”156 The Judas comparison, clearly yet only indirectly alluded to in the French original (e.g., the manner in which Ganelon is introduced in v. 178, betrayal with a kiss, the greed motive including the denarii mentioned in v. 1148, and, by inference, the Christlike characterization of Roland, the individual he betrays),157 is thus spelled out in the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle. The Ganelon-Judas connection became a literary commonplace in the Middle Ages.158


Exegetical commentary is also evident in Conrad's German adaptation of the Song of Roland. As in the case of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, from which it borrowed, considerable controversy swirls around the date of the Rolandslied, which appears to have been composed about 1170.159 Following are some of the observations by Conrad that relate to the matter at hand.


On the way to Saragossa Blancandrin and Ganelon reach an agreement to kill the hero. In Turoldus's poem the plot is hatched on horseback but in no particular locale (vv. 402-404: Tant chevalcherent Guenes e Blancandrins / Que l'un a l'altre la sue feit plevit / Que il querreient que Rollant fust ocis). Although the preliminary discussion in Conrad takes place in the same fashion, the final details are worked out during a halt under an olive tree (v. 1920: under einem oeleboume), mentioned only in passing at the beginning of the scene in the French original (v. 366: Guenes chevalchet suz une olive halte).160 The German translator then states that Ganelon imitated “poor” Judas (v. 1925: den armen Iudas er gebildot), who betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver.161 Conrad even suggests that Ganelon's treachery was greater, for whereas Judas sold only his Master, the villain of his poem sold a large number of noble Christians to the Infidel (vv. 1936-1939). Finally, when Ganelon vainly tries to persuade Charles not to answer Roland's oliphant call, Conrad has Naimes characterize the villain as a man in Satan's power and whose behavior has been worse than that of Judas, who betrayed Our Lord (vv. 6102-6104).


Ganelon's good looks and impressive physique are detailed by Turoldus in vv. 283-285, immediately after Roland nominates his stepfather for the mission to Saragossa, and again at Aix just as the traitor begins his formal defense (v. 3763). In the latter instance Ganelon's handsomeness is promptly followed by a crucial disclaimer: S'il fust leials, ben resemblast barun (v. 3764), a phrase linking him to the evil Saracens (vv. 899, 3164). Ganelon's attractive features have misled many scholars into believing that Turoldus stood in grudging admiration of the traitor or, for some reason or other, refrained from painting him completely black. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the German version makes abundantly clear. Conrad omits the two descriptions of Ganelon cited above, but he inserts a comparable phrase (v. 1960: Genelun was michel unde lussam) in the council scene on the way to Saragossa. He compares the handsome villain to a tree that is green on the outside but is rotten to the core. This symbol, he explains, represents the man who speaks fine words but has a false heart (vv. 1962-1975). The allusion is doubtless to Christ's warning about false prophets: “You will be able to tell them by their fruits. Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, a sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit.”162


In Conrad the discussion between Ganelon and Marsile at Saragossa begins, as in the French version, beneath a pine tree (v. 407: Un faldestoet out suz l'umbre d'un pin; cf. v. 500: Vait s'apuier suz le pin a la tige). However, in Turoldus's poem Marsile and his advisers subsequently withdraw to a garden (v. 501: Enz el verger s'en est alez li reis) where Ganelon is later led before the Saracen king (v. 510: Enz el verger l'en meinet josqu'al rei). No garden is mentioned in the German translation, although movement away from the pine tree is clearly implied at one point (vv. 2176-2178). In the Rolandslied the council is chiefly associated with the pine tree and is, in fact, referred to in a style reminiscent of the manner of designating adventures in the romances as der Pinrat (v. 2411). Nowhere in the Song of Roland does the poet specify that Ganelon was inspired by the devil, although the villain's machinations and sacrilegious oath are clearly diabolical, and Charlemagne's angry reaction to his nomination of Roland to the rearguard (vv. 746-747: Si li ad dit: “Vos estes vifs diables, / El cors vos est entree mortel rage!”) is tantamount to such an accusation. Conrad shows no comparable reticence (v. 2365: Den tuuil gab ime den sin) and, having identified the diabolical source of Ganelon's deeds in the Pine Tree episode, likens his words to that of the Accuser (Heb. satan) in Psalms 109:6.


As the French heroes prepare for battle, Conrad compares their comradely devotion to one another to the brotherly love binding priests and Levites in Psalm 133 (vv. 3455-3457). Companionage is frequently alluded to in the French original and, at times, clearly assumes the mystical quality referred to by the German poet.163


Pinabel's giant stature as opposed to his adversary's slightness is plainly designed to enhance the magnitude of Thierry's victory. Such an unequal duel also, however, brings to mind the David and Goliath archetype, a connection specifically made by Conrad (vv. 8847-8850).164

One must avoid the pitfall of suggesting that, because Conrad or the author of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle read certain meanings into characters and situations found in the Song of Roland, Turoldus necessarily shared these views. One must always distinguish, too, between the artist's work and the meanings that contemporary or later translators and adapters—not to mention modern critics—attach to it.165 A good example of the gap that exists between theory and practice in the Middle Ages may be seen in the curious views found in heraldic treatises, which are often strikingly at variance with the art practiced by contemporary compilers of blazoned or painted rolls of arms.166

Turoldus tends to narrate events and leave their interpretation to his audience, whereas the Latin chronicler and the German translator frequently explain them to us. Their glosses may at times seem destructive of the obscurity or variety of possible interpretations we enjoy wrestling with.167

On the other hand, Turoldus had no intention of mystifying his audience. His art is often one of subtle suggestion, but he also wanted his meaning to be understood: Ki tant ne set ne l'ad prod entendut (v. 2098). Many renderings in the Pseudo-Turpin and the Rolandslied ring false and must obviously be ignored. This does not mean, however, that their novel interpretations and commentaries should all be summarily dismissed. There is, after all, a good chance that Conrad and the Latin chronicler were at times more attuned to Turoldus than modern readers can ever hope to be.


In addition to the literal sense conveyed by the story line, there is another dimension in Turoldus's poem. This deeper meaning, which has to do with its moral and spiritual significance, is at times only dimly perceived, yet it is ever-present in this work and is fundamental to its correct interpretation.


The essential statement made by Turoldus is that Christianity transcends all other faiths. It is so superior, in fact, as to be in a class by itself, other forms of belief being poor excuses for religion.


In Turoldus's view God has chosen Charlemagne and the Franks for a special task, that of establishing his rule throughout the world by means of armed conquest or conversion. This election is chiefly embodied in the figure of Charlemagne. Roland fights to defend his los and the reputation of his parents, of France, and of Charlemagne. However, at the time the poem was composed, these ideals were frequently synonymous and had deep spiritual significance. … In the eleventh century Frenchmen considered themselves to be the Chosen People, the nation selected by God to accomplish his ends, and believed that the Emperor was the vicarius Christi.169 This ideology is manifest in the De consecratione pontificum et regum, composed by the Norman Anonymous about 1100:

The power of the king is the power of God, in that God possesses it by his nature and the king through grace. Thus the king also is God and Christ, but through grace; and everything he does, he does not do simply as a man but as a result of having become God and Christ through grace.170

This christological concept explains the bold transposition of the Majestas Domini in the Gospel Book of Otto II at Aachen …, executed about 973:

[L'empereur] est véritablement divinisé en ce sens qu'il trône comme le Sauveur carolingien de Gyulia Fehervar, comme les Sauveurs ottoniens de Darmstadt et de Heidelberg, originaires de la Reichenau, au sein d'une gloire entourée du tétramorphe. Otton II tient le globe crucigère, tandis que sur sa tête, la Main du Père dépose un diadème. Ce couronnement est un legs carolingien (cf. Sacramentaire de Corbie à Paris, B.N. lat. 1141, 2e moitié du IXe siècle), ainsi que l'assistance des guerriers et des clercs (comme dans le Codex aureus de Saint-Emmeran à Munich Clm. 14000, vers 870). Aussi bien, la célèbre formule “a deo coronatus” est-elle utilisée dès le règne de Charlemagne sur les actes de chancellerie. Cependant les apports de la Basse-Antiquité sont encore plus significatifs à Aix-la-Chapelle: intervention de la Terre, symbole de domination universelle, qui, accroupie, supporte le poids du tabouret impérial—mais surtout “christomimétisme” dont s'accompagne l'apothéose, comme le montre E. Kantorowicz: entrée en vigueur, sur le plan chrétien, d'un principe cher aux derniers empereurs de la Rome païenne, car Otton II est la réplique visible de la Majestas Domini, comme Probus ou Constantin le sont du “Sol Invictus” dont ils s'avèrent les sosies sur certaines de leurs monnaies. Quant au fond d'or, utilisé ici pour la première fois dans l'enluminure occidentale, il provient directement de l'art byzantin posticonoclaste.171


Christomimeticism leads inevitably to Sapientia. The virtually inexhaustible concept of wisdom in the Middle Ages derives from popular as well as from learned sources.172 However, a distinction was always drawn between worldly wisdom and Divine Wisdom. The latter was considered to be one of the attributes of God and was identified with Christ. As a corollary, one finds the notion that all worldly wisdom was vanity, whereas the Folly of the Cross was the only true Wisdom. This idea is frequently expressed in the Epistles of Saint Paul. Saint Augustine's views, which dominated all metaphysical speculation on the subject until the end of the eleventh century, are derived from that concept.

A study of the terminology of wisdom in the Song of Roland reveals that, with one notable exception,173 it has nothing to do with Sapientia in the biblical sense but refers instead to things of this world. Most of the time these terms have to do with military decisions—either in a council or before or during a battle—or with diplomacy. Such wisdom was held in high regard during the Middle Ages except, of course, when it pertained to an evil person whose vice transformed it into cunning or guile. Turoldus repeatedly underscores the vanity of such wisdom, represented here by the advice and counsel offered by the majority of the Franks, and by the Saracens.

Nevertheless, the type of Sapientia found in the Bible and in the writings of the Fathers of the Church is very much in evidence in Turoldus's poem. It is apparent in Turpin's revelations concerning the significance of the Battle of Roncevaux, and in Roland's arduous ascent and incarnation of the Folly of the Cross. Above all, it is evident in Charlemagne's perception of the tragedy as it unfolds and in his key role in allowing it to happen.174

Wisdom in the Song of Roland implies unswerving faith in God, absolute confidence in the inevitability of Christian victory, and total commitment to the view that immediate and spontaneous compliance with divine promptings is the way to personal salvation and to the edification of mankind.

Sapientia is the supreme virtue and, like all such qualities, a gift from God. But it is not easily acquired. The Church Fathers believed that the Liberal Arts could at best provide a beginning of learning. True insight into the meaning of things was to be found in Scripture alone.175 Turoldus epitomizes Wisdom in his poem by Monjoie, which often suggests Joy mixed with Suffering,176 and Roncevaux, where life is viewed as a Vale of Tears, but with Joy at the End of the Journey.177


Roland's passio is the central fact in Turoldus's poem: The hero's suffering and death is an imitation of Christ, and his sacrifice constitutes a new kind of martyrdom.178

Anyone endeavoring to justify Roland's behavior has to contend with a number of ambivalent character traits, in particular his boasting (Introduction, 19, c) and his apparent indifference to the fate of his men at Roncevaux. … Roland may be a martyr, but his behavior does not coincide with the modern idea of the individual who voluntarily suffers death for his faith.

It is difficult for the modern mind to apprehend the medieval ideal embodied by Roland. However, an illuminating parallel is to be found in the stubborn and imprudent conduct of Thomas Becket, whom the Church has always regarded as one of its most glorious martyrs.179

Turoldus created complex characters, but he surely did not mean to highlight the hero's weakness or to portray him as a scapegoat. Roland's unswerving determination to play the role assigned to him and his exemplary death are Christlike and were intended to edify, that is, to instruct and fortify Turoldus's contemporaries. “Mira res, magnumque gaudium, magnum animabus proficuum, ingensque corporibus detrimentum,” exclaims the anonymous author of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle at the death of the Franks, revealing indifference to what is detrimental to the body as he considers with unbounded joy the soul's enormous benefit (Introduction, 10, a, 2).180

The seeming ingenuousness that characterizes the Latin chronicler's solution to the age-old problem of the premature death of just men (quia noluit ut ad propriam patriam amplius redirent, ne forte in aliquibus delictis incurrerent; et enim voluit illis pro laboribus suis coronam celestis regni per passionem impendere)181 has a basis in Wisdom 4:11 ([The virtuous man] has been carried off so that evil may not warp his understanding or treachery seduce his soul), an answer which, the biblical sage readily admits, leaves many looking on, uncomprehending (4:14).

Roland must die, for “unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”182

The hero's sacrifice gives the poem a mystical dimension that is extended by Durendal, Joyeuse, the oliphant, the landscape, and the rituals associated with the passing of the Franks. Sacredness in the Roland is further enhanced by the contrasting effect of Ganelon's sacrilegious oath and Judas-like betrayal, the pagans' demonic presence, and the intrusion of the Rash Saracen at the moment of Roland's death. The dying attitude and position on the field assumed by Roland and the way he arranges the bodies of his slain comrades are important semaphore messages for Charles and his men. … Viewed from a Romanesque perspective, Charles's triumphs over Marsile's and Baligant's forces, Bramimonde's conversion, and Thierry's victory are the fruits of Roland's martyrdom. Miraculous occurrences such as these traditionally follow the saint's passio.183


The Song of Roland is not merely a paean to martyrdom; it is also, and above all, life viewed as a series of difficult choices, the correct response requiring one to follow the hard road and to enter by the narrow gate.184 Roland, like Christ, provokes dissension because of the strict alternative he offers, whether in council (his recommendation with respect to Marsile's proposal) or on the battlefield (the debate with Oliver): “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man's enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36). At the conclusion of the poem, the prospect before Charles of yet another campaign constitutes a brilliant extension of this agonistic metaphor.185 Life is a never-ending Roncevaux that must be faced with courage and with faith (Introduction, 15, a and e). …


  1. On the day and month of the battle, see Jenkins, notes to vv. 1002 and 2772 (cf. also his note to v. 2628); André de Mandach, Naissance et développement de la chanson de geste en Europe, vol. 1, La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland, Publications romanes et françaises 69 (Geneva: Droz; Paris: Minard, 1961), pp. 50-55; Jules Horrent, “La bataille des Pyrénées de 778,” Le Moyen Age 78 (1972): 197-227. On the date of the poem, see n. 27 below.

  2. A History of the Crusades, gen. ed. Kenneth M. Setton, vol 1, The First Hundred Years, ed. Marshall W. Baldwin (Madison-Milwaukee-London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), pp. 31-34.

  3. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland et la tradition épique des Francs, trans. Irénée-Marcel Cluzel, 2d ed. (Paris: Picard, 1960), pp. 181-230, provides a detailed account of these events. Cf. Horrent, “La bataille des Pyrénées.”

  4. Eginhard, Vie de Charlemagne, ed. and trans. Louis Halphen, 3d ed. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1947), pp. 28, 30. This work is hereafter referred to as Halphen. English translation mine.

  5. Actually, only those in the north of Spain, but not Saragossa. Saracens (Sarraceni) are mentioned by name only once in Einhard's Vita, in a passage concerning Charles Martel's victory at Poitiers (Halphen, p. 10). See, however, Charlemagne's close relationship with Harun-al-Rashid (Aaron), Caliph of Bagdad (pp. 46, 48) and his action against the Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean (pp. 52, 54).

  6. Gascons, not Basques. Paul Aebischer, Préhistoire et protohistoire du Roland d'Oxford, Bibliotheca Romanica, Series prima: Manualia et commentationes (Berne: Francke, 1972), pp. 75-87. Horrent, “La bataille des Pyrénées,” pp. 202-3, suggests that the attackers were Pyrenean Gascons, rather than French Gascons (often referred to as Basques).

  7. Halphen, pp. 16, 18.

  8. Menéndez Pidal, p. 192.

  9. Ibid., pp. 194-95; texts on p. 195, nn. 1, 2 (also pp. 528-29); Barton Sholod, Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncesvalles (Geneva: Droz, 1966), p. 40 and n. 65.

  10. Menéndez Pidal, pp. 204-9; Sholod, p. 41. Horrent, “La bataille des Pyrénées,” p. 204, expresses reservations about Saracen complicity in this respect. Aebischer, p. 88: “l'assertion de Menéndez Pidal [à propos d'une] collaboration des Arabes et des Basques à Roncevaux … ne repose que sur le fait mal interprété par lui de l'enlèvement de Sulaiman par ses fils.”

  11. In the poem Roland is a Franc de France, not a Breton. Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 37-40; Horrent, La Chanson de Roland, pp. 305 and 306, n. 2. On the historicity of this personage, see Aebischer, pp. 93-145.

  12. In Einhard perfidia means ‘treachery’ and is associated with the Saxons. Halphen, p. 23 and n. 4. In patristic literature perfidia often refers to the disbelief of non-Christians and is synonymous with incredulitas. Blaise, par. 392; see also Commentary, 2 (vv. 24-26) [in “The Song of Roland”: An Analytical Edition, Vol. 1. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978].

  13. Originated by Pope Leo III in a.d. 800 and styled the “Empire of the West” and the “Roman Empire,” the concept became the “Holy Empire” with Frederick I Barbarossa in 1157 and the “Holy Roman Empire” in 1254. Charlemagne was canonized at Frederick's behest on 29 December 1165.

  14. André Burger, “La légende de Roncevaux avant la Chanson de Roland,Romania 70 (1948-49): 453-73. See, however, Jean Rychner, “A propos de l'article de M. André Burger ‘La légende de Roncevaux avant la Chanson de Roland’,” Romania 72 (1951): 239-46, and Burger's reply, “Sur les relations de la Chanson de Roland avec le Récit du faux Turpin et celui du Guide du Pèlerin,Romania 73 (1952): 242-47; Horrent, La Chanson de Roland, p. 155; Maurice Delbouille, Sur la Genèse de la Chanson de Roland (Travaux récents—Propositions nouvelles): Essai critique, Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1954), p. 100; Menéndez Pidal, pp. 348-49; pp. 417 ff. (speaks of a lost Cantar de Rodlane).

  15. Horrent, pp. 292-7; Menéndez Pidal, pp. 355-65; Rita Lejeune, “La naissance du couple littéraire ‘Roland et Olivier’,” Mélanges Henri Grégoire, Annuaire de l'Institut de philologie et d'histoire orientales et slaves 10 (Brussels, 1950), 2:371-401; Delbouille, Genèse, pp. 98-120. …

  16. Horrent, p. 302, n. 1.

  17. Ibid., pp. 120-34, 138-40, 242-59; Menéndez Pidal, pp. 123-29; Joseph J. Duggan, The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 1973), pp. 63-104; John R. Allen, “Du nouveau sur l'authenticité de l'épisode de Baligant,” Société Rencesvals pour l'étude des épopées romanes. VIe Congrès International (Aix-en-Provence, 29 Août-4 Septembre 1973). Actes (Aix-en-Provence: Imprimerie du Centre d'Aix, 1974), pp. 147-56. For arguments in favor of the authenticity of the Baligant episode, see Paul Aebischer, “Pour la défense et illustration de l'épisode de Baligant,” Mélanges de philologie romane et de littérature médiévale offerts à Ernest Hoepffner (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1949), pp. 173-82; Delbouille, Genèse, pp. 32-61. For a more extensive bibliography on this question, consult Marianne Cramer Vos, “Aspects of Biblical Typology in La Chanson de Roland,” Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1970, pp. 165-66, n. 26; Duggan, p. 69, n. 7; idem, “The Generation of the Episode of Baligant: Charlemagne's Dream and the Normans at Mantzikert,” Romance Philology 30 (1976): 59-82.

  18. For bibliography and discussion relative to this personage, see Jenkins, pp. xlviii-lxv; Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 31-40; Horrent, pp. 326-33; Pierre Le Gentil, La Chanson de Roland, Connaissance des lettres 43 (Paris: Hatier-Boivin, 1955), pp. 32-35; Martín de Riquer, Les Chansons de geste françaises, trans. Irénée-Marcel Cluzel, 2d ed. (Paris: Nizet, 1957), pp. 105-16; Mandach, Naissance, 1: 159; Rita Lejeune, “Turold dans la tapisserie de Bayeux,” in Mélanges offerts à René Crozet à l'occasion de son soixante-dixième anniversaire, eds. Pierre Gallais and Yves-Jean Riou (Poitiers: Société d'études médiévales, 1966), pp. 419-25; Jean Dufournet, Cours sur la Chanson de Roland, Les Cours de Sorbonne (Paris: Centre de documentation universitaire, 1972), pp. 16-17. Each of these scholars concludes that Turoldus was the poet or last redactor. For the view that Turoldus was merely a copyist, see Aebischer, Préhistoire, pp. 224-28. On the manner in which medieval authors signed their works, see Ernst Robert Curtius, La Littérature européenne et le moyen âge latin, 2d ed., trans. Jean Bréjoux, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956), pp. 624-27.

  19. On the date, see Jenkins, pp. xliii-xlvi (1099-1120); Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 40-59 (c. 1100); Horrent, pp. 287-304 (first half of the eleventh century for “la première Chanson de Roland”; c. 1100 for the redaction including the Baligant episode [pp. 315-19]; reign of Henry II [1154-89] for the reworking by Turoldus [p. 330]); Michel de Bouard, “La Chanson de Roland et la Normandie,” Annales de Normandie 2 (1952): 34-38; J. C. Russell, “The Chanson de Roland: Written in Spain in 1093?” Studies in Philology 49 (1952): 17-24; Delbouille, Genèse, pp. 62-73 (c. 1100); Le Gentil, pp. 23-32 (c. 1100); M. Dominica Legge, “Archaism and the Conquest,” Modern Language Review 51 (1956): 229 (1130-50, but “1150 … may be on the late side”); Hans Erich Keller, “La conversion de Bramimonde,” Société Rencesvals. VIe Congrès International, pp. 175-203, and Olifant 1, no. 1 (1973): 3-22 (1. “Chanson de Roncevaux,” 1086-95; 2. “version capétienne” with Baligant episode, 1147-49 at Saint-Denis; 3. “version angevine” with new version of Bramimonde, third quarter of the twelfth century); see also Keller, “The Song of Roland: A Mid-Twelfth-Century Song of Propaganda for the Capetian Kingdom,” Olifant 3, no. 4 (1976), 242-58. For Menéndez Pidal's dating, see note 22 below. On the place, see Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 37-40; Horrent, pp. 304-7; David Douglas, “The Song of Roland and the Norman Conquest of England,” French Studies 14 (1960): 99-116; Keller, “The Song of Roland.” On the significance of the late-eleventh-century Nota Emilianense, see Dámaso Alonso, “La primitiva épica francesa a la luz de una ‘Nota Emilianense’,” Rivista de Filología Española 37 (1953): 1-94; Ronald N. Walpole, “The Nota Emilianense: New Light (But How Much?) on the Origins of the Old French Epic,” Romance Philology 10 (1956/57): 1-18; Le Gentil, pp. 45-47 (including Latin text and Modern French translation); Menéndez Pidal, pp. 384-447 and pls. X, XI; Moignet, pp. 293-94 (Latin text and Le Gentil's translation); Dufournet, Cours sur Roland, p. 26.

  20. Jean Rychner, La Chanson de geste: Essai sur l'art épique des jongleurs, Société de publications romanes et françaises 53 (Geneva: Droz; Lille: Giard, 1955), p. 59.

  21. Ibid., pp. 49, 61-62. Cf. Duggan, Song of Roland, pp. 63-67.

  22. Rychner, p. 36, suggests the exact opposite but concedes that the Roland is an exception and involved a “création poétique” of the more conventional type, presumably clerical. … Menéndez Pidal, p. 342, denies that the original Song of Roland was composed by a clerk but allows, pp. 343-76, that later reworkings (e.g., the late-tenth-century version including Oliver and Alda, the eleventh-century version mentioning the Twelve Peers) were produced by individuals with schooling. Joseph J. Duggan, “Virgilian Inspiration in the Roman d'Enéas and the Chanson de Roland,” in Medieval Epic to theEpic Theaterof Brecht, eds. Rosario P. Armato and John M. Spalek, University of Southern California Studies in Comparative Literature 1 (Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1968), pp. 9-23, refuses to see any significant clerical influence in Turoldus's poem. Duggan, Song of Roland, pp. 13-14, 16, 36-60, 193, rejects the principle of composite creation: “the Roland which we possess must be a very nearly unadulterated product of oral tradition, little changed, except for its orthography, from the form in which it was first taken down from the lips of a singer or written down by a singer who had acquired literacy” (p. 60). My own view bears similarity to that propounded by Le Gentil in the series of articles cited by Duggan, p. 4, n. 7. See also Cecil M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 247, 250-53, 368; Maurice Delbouille, “Les chansons de geste et le livre,” La Technique littéraire des chansons de geste: Actes du Colloque de Liège (Septembre 1957), Bibliothèque de la Faculté de philosophie et lettres de l'Université de Liège 150 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1959), pp. 295-428; idem, “Le chant héroïque serbo-croate et la genèse de la chanson de geste,” Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona 31 (1965/66): 83-98; idem, “Le mythe du jongleur-poète,” Studi in onore di Italo Siciliano (Florence: Olschki, 1966), pp. 317-27; Jean-Charles Payen, “De la tradition à l'écriture: à propos d'un livre récent,” Le Moyen Age 75 (1969): 529-39; idem, Le Moyen Age, vol. 1, Des origines à 1300, Littérature française, ed. Claude Pichois (Paris: Arthaud, 1970), p. 120: “Les plus belles chansons ont été valorisées par l'écriture, et le Roland d'Oxford lui-même est un texte trop bien composé pour procéder d'improvisations, même géniales”; Edward A. Heinemann, “La composition stylisée et la transmission écrite des textes rolandiens,” Société Rencesvals. VIe Congrès International, pp. 253-72. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), chap. 2, “The Oral Heritage of Written Narrative,” pp. 17-56, is a useful introduction to this complex question.

  23. William Calin, The Epic Quest: Studies in Four Old French Chansons de Geste (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), pp. 57-117; on the problem of definition in the case of the Chanson de Guillaume, see p. 93; for the Song of Roland, Gormont et Isembart, and Girart de Roussillon, see p. 116. See also Thomas E. Vesce, “Reflections on the Epic Quality of Ami et Amile: Chanson de Geste,Mediaeval Studies 35 (1973): 129-45, and the critique by S. N. Rosenberg in Olifant 3, no. 3 (1976): 221-25.

  24. Frederick W. Locke, The Quest for the Holy Grail: A Literary Study of a Thirteenth-Century French Romance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960), pp. 18-22.

  25. But with important variations; see, for example, the discussion and stemmata in Jenkins, pp. xcv-xcviii; Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 83-92; Eyvind Fjeld Halvorsen, The Norse Version of the Chanson de Roland, Bibliotheca Arnamagnaeana 19 (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1959), pp. 272-73; and Segre, pp. ix-xviii. The medieval texts of the Roland are described in Segre, pp. xxxvii-xlvii. Mortier (see Abbreviations) is a convenient edition of the essential texts.

  26. La Chanson de Roland: Reproduction phototypique du manuscrit Digby 23 de la Bodleian Library d'Oxford, ed. Comte Alexandre de Laborde, Etude historique et paléographique de M. Ch. Samaran (Paris: Société des anciens textes français, 1933), pp. 28-32. This work is hereafter referred to as Samaran.

  27. On the dialect, see Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 241-62. Dating of the hand in Digby 23 varies considerably: Bédier, Commentaires, p. 66 (c. 1170); Samaran, p. 30 (1130-50); Horrent, pp. 32-42 (second half of the twelfth century); Robert Marichal, Annuaire 1969-1970 de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études, IVe section: Sciences historiques et philologiques. Extrait des rapports sur les conférences: Paléographie latine et française (Paris, 1970), pp. 363-74 (“plus proche de 1125 que de 1150” [p. 367]); Félix Lecoy, reviewing the latter work in Romania 92 (1971): 141, accepts its findings; Ian Short, “The Oxford Manuscript of the Chanson de Roland: A Paleographical Note,” Romania 94 (1973): 221-31 (c. 1170); Charles Samaran, “Sur la date approximative du Roland d'Oxford,” Romania 94 (1973): 523-27 (1130-50); Keller, “The Song of Roland,” pp. 244-45 (“not before 1170”). On the date of the original poem, see note 19 above.

  28. Samaran, in La Chanson de Roland, ed. Laborde, pp. 33-36, 38.

  29. Ibid., pp. 20-22, 39-40. Many, but by no means all, of these are inept changes and give editors of the Roland a headache.

  30. Ibid., pp. 36-37.

  31. Ibid., p. 39, citing the catalogue of the New Paleographical Society.

  32. Ibid., pp. 39-41.

  33. See references in note 27 above.

  34. Edmond Faral, Les Jongleurs en France au moyen âge, 2d ed., Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des hautes études 187 (1910; rpt. Paris: Champion, 1964); Bowra, Heroic Poetry, chap. 1, “The Heroic Poem,” pp. 1-90; Rychner, La Chanson de geste.

  35. Scholes and Kellogg, Nature of Narrative, pp. 30-40, discusses the relationship between oral and written versions of the Roland and other epics intelligently and objectively but offers no new solutions to this problem. …

  36. The best general introduction to matters discussed in this section is Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. L. A. Manyon, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961). Another useful survey is J. W. B. Zaal, “A lei francesa” (Sainte Foy, v. 20): Etudes sur les chansons de saints gallo-romanes du XIe siècle (Leiden: Brill, 1962), chap. 1, “La France géographique et culturelle au XIe siècle,” pp. 27-44.

  37. Some urban activity is starting up again, but major developments are yet to come. Henri Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, trans. I. E. Clegg (New York: Harcourt Brace, [c. 1956]), chaps. 2 and 3.

  38. Bloch, 2:288: “if the concept of nobility as a legal class remained unknown, it is quite permissible from this period [i.e., the first feudal age], by a slight simplification of terminology, to speak of a social class of nobles and especially, perhaps, of a noble way of life.” On the role of the clergy, the third element of feudal society, see Introduction, 5 and 7.

  39. Ibid., 1:145-275; Ganshof, Feudalism, pp. 65-155.

  40. R. C. Smail, Crusading Warfare (1097-1193) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), pp. 106-7. See also Oxford Text, English Translation, v. 34. The word chevaler is used indiscriminately by Turoldus for both Christians and Saracens. That a certain type of behavior was expected of the Christian knight is clearly indicated by the expression a lei de chevaler (v. 752).

  41. The functions of light-armed horsemen and pedites are discussed by Smail, pp. 107-12.

  42. On the significance in this regard of “collective” vs. “individual” man about 1150, see Richard William Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 222; Burgess, Vocabulaire pré-courtois, p. 7; Anthony M. Beichman, “Ganelon and Duke Naimon,” Romance Notes 13 (1971): 358-62. Such a generalization tends to break down upon close scrutiny, as does the familiar dictum that the Middle Ages is an era of participation, the modern period, one of separation.

  43. See Introduction, 15, b. On medieval pilgrimages, see Jacques Le Goff, La Civilisation de l'occident médiéval (Paris: Arthaud, 1972), pp. 172-74.

  44. On the significance of itineraries, see Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., “The Interaction of Life and Literature in the ‘Peregrinationes ad loca sancta’ and the ‘Chansons de geste’,” Speculum 44 (1969): 51-77.

  45. See, for example, the maps in Jenkins, pp. lxxviii-lxxix, (“after Bédier”), and Menéndez Pidal, pl. IX. Cf. Le Guide du Pèlerin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, ed. and trans. Jeanne Vielliard, 3d ed. (Macon: Protat, 1963).

  46. David Herlihy, “The Generation in Medieval History,” Viator 5 (1974): 347-64.

  47. Léon Gautier observed that France occurs 170 times in this poem in the meaning ‘Charlemagne's Empire’; see Jenkins, note to v. 36.

  48. Jones, p. 130 and n. 97.

  49. John F. Benton, “Clio and Venus: An Historical View of Courtly Love,” in The Meaning of Courtly Love, ed. F. X. Newman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968), p. 20. Common sense suggests, however, that the nobleman, who depended for his livelihood on the cooperation of his serfs, realized that harsh treatment would ultimately do more harm than good.

  50. Horrent, p. 307; Payen, Le Moyen Age, pp. 31-32.

  51. History of the Crusades, 1:135.

  52. Ibid., 1:221.

  53. Statistics for the period under consideration are not available, but the percentages were probably not very different from those provided here, which are based on figures for England in Sir Maurice Powicke, The Thirteenth Century 1216-1307, 2d ed., The Oxford History of England 4 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 445-46 (clerks), and Noel Denholm-Young, History and Heraldry 1254 to 1310: A Study of the Historical Value of the Rolls of Arms (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 1 (knights).

  54. As early as the end of the fifth century, according to Zumthor, Histoire littéraire, p. 19.

  55. Bloch, Feudal Society, 2:348.

  56. Ibid., 2:346-47; Ganshof, Feudalism, p. 113.

  57. Ganshof, pp. 116-17.

  58. Zaal, A lei francesa, pp. 42-43.

  59. Bernard de Clairvaux, Commission d'histoire de l'Ordre de Cîteaux 3 (Paris: Alsatia, 1953), pp. 687-88 (“Bernard et les écolès”). Cf., however, Abbot Guibert of Nogent, writing c. 1115:

    In the time just before my birth and during my childhood there was so great a dearth of teachers that it was practically impossible to find any in the small towns, and scarcely even in the cities. And supposing that by chance they were to be found? Their learning was so meagre that it could not be compared even with that of the little wandering scholars of today.

    Text in Bloch, Feudal Society, 1:104; see also Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent (1064?-c. 1125), trans. C. C. Swinton Bland, revised by John F. Benton (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 45. A similar statement is found in Gargantua's letter to his son. François Rabelais, Pantagruel, ed. Verdun L. Saulnier, Textes littéraires français (Paris: Droz, 1946), chap. 8, pp. 43-44.

  60. Grace Frank, The Medieval French Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), chaps. 2-7, pp. 18-73.

  61. Bernard de Clairvaux, chap. 8, “L'essor économique de Clairvaux,” pp. 95-114.

  62. Brandt, Medieval History.

  63. Ibid., p. 169.

  64. Ibid., pp. 152-53, 171-72.

  65. Paul Archambault, Seven French Chroniclers: Witnesses to History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1974), pp. 1-6, 119.

  66. What follows is based upon Hippolyte Delehaye, Les Légendes hagiographiques, 4th ed., Subsidia Hagiographica 18a (1927; rpt. Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1955), and idem, Les Passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires, 2d ed., Subsidia Hagiographica 13 B (1921; rpt. Brussels: Sociéte des Bollandistes, 1966). Father Delehaye's views are accepted by René Aigrain, L'Hagiographie, ses sources, ses méthodes, son histoire (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1953), the best guide available to the Old French scholar for whom Latin saints' lives constitute a terra incognita.

  67. Delehaye, Légendes hagiographiques, pp. 49, 86-87.

  68. Edmond Faral in Joseph Bédier and Paul Hazard, Histoire de la littérature française illustrée (Paris: Larousse, 1923), 1:7-8; Horrent, pp. 302-3; Delbouille, Genèse, pp. 137-38, 142; Riquer, Chansons de geste, p. 109; Zaal, A lei francesa, chaps. 2 and 3, pp. 45-136.

  69. Bernard de Clairvaux, chap. 5, “Le monachisme à l'apparition de Bernard,” pp. 45-63. For a list of early Cistercian abbeys, see app. 3, pp. 543-47.

  70. This is the traditional figure. On the difficulty of ascertaining the exact number of monks and monasteries at this time, see Bernard de Clairvaux, p. 45.

  71. For Cluniac establishments in northeastern Spain, the theater of events in most of Turoldus's poem, see Sholod, Charlemagne in Spain, p. 65.

  72. L. M. Smith, Cluny in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (London: Allan, 1930), p. 95, Latin text (Vos estis lux mundi) quoted in n. 2. The phrase, found in a charter granted to Cluny at Abbot Hugh's request by Pope Urban II in 1098, refers to Matthew 5:14.

  73. Faral, Jongleurs, chap. 2, pp. 25-43.

  74. Ibid., pp. 44-47. Faral also studies the relationship between these two genres and pilgrimages. According to Bowra, Heroic Poetry, p. 29, the composer of epic poetry “wishes not to instruct but to delight his audience.” However, he concedes, p. 30, that the poet with a Christian outlook may also have a didactic purpose.

  75. Bloch, Feudal Society, 2:412-20.

  76. Cited by Bloch, 2:417. Cf. Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22.

  77. Ibid., 2:312-16.

  78. Ibid., 2:316-18.

  79. Bruce A. Rosenberg, Custer and the Epic of Defeat (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974).

  80. This kind of anecdote is also found in medieval French romances, e.g., Le Roman de Thèbes, ed. Guy Raynaud de Lage, Classiques français du moyen âge 96 (Paris: Champion, 1968), 2: vv. 6219-6224, 6241-6244; Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes, vol. 1, Erec et Enide, ed. Mario Roques, Classiques français du moyen âge 80 (Paris: Champion, 1952), vv. 2355-2376, 6668-6670 (cf. the more elaborate description of Enide's dress in vv. 6674-6741). This paragraph and the next two are drawn from my article “Ganelon et Roland: Deux anecdotes du traître concernant le héros,” Romania 92 (1971): 392-94.

  81. Cf. Suetonius, an important model for Einhard. Halphen, pp. x-xiii.

  82. Alice M. Colby, The Portrait in Twelfth-Century French Literature: An Example of the Stylistic Originality of Chrétien de Troyes (Geneva: Droz, 1965), p. 178.

  83. Paul Zumthor, “Rhétorique et langage poétique dans le moyen âge roman,” Poetyka [First International Conference of Work-in-Progress Devoted to Problems of Poetics, Warsaw, August 18-27, 1960] (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe; The Hague: Mouton, 1961), pp. 745-53; Zaal, A lei francesa, pp. 46, 89, 92-116. For useful distinctions between culture cléricale and culture profane, on the one hand, and culture aristocratique and culture populaire, on the other, see Payen, Le Moyen Age, pp. 33-42.

  84. Jenkins, notes to vv. 1470 and 1490 ff.; Bédier, Commentaires, p. 304 (see also Foulet, Glossaire, p. 354); Edmond Faral, La Chanson de Roland: Etude et analyse, Les chefs-d'oeuvre de la littérature expliqués (Paris: Mellottée, 1934), pp. 198, 199. Duggan, Song of Roland, pp. 139-40, treats the verses in question as an elaboration framed between two formulas (v. 1649, Siet el cheval; v. 1657, Beste nen est nule). Jean Györy, in his review of Raimund Rütten, Symbol und Mythus im altfranzösischen Rolandslied, Archiv für das Studium der neureren Sprachen und Literaturen 4 (Braunschweig: Westermann, 1970), in Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 16 (1974): 345, refers to: “le cheval de Turpin, décrit en ordre inversé, de bas en haut, pour marquer la provenance chtonienne de l'animal et en même temps son élan ascensionnel.”

  85. Jenkins, p. xxxviii; Menéndez Pidal, p. 375; Zaal, A lei francesa, p. 94.

  86. Robert L. Politzer, “Synonymic Repetition in Late Latin and Romance,” Language 37 (1961): 484-87.

  87. Jones, Ethos, p. 9.

  88. Ibid., p. 22.

  89. Jones's initial statements relative to this word (pp. 22-23) are judicious enough, but he soon slips into categorical assertions concerning its special meaning and, when discussing semantically related terms, repeatedly suggests that proz always refers to courage and physical strength. See my review of Burgess, Vocabulaire pré-courtois, in Speculum 46 (1971): 363-64.

  90. Proverbs are usually considered to be popular in origin and transmission, but many adages are found in classical sources or in collections such as the twenty-nine medieval French compilations analyzed in Proverbes français antérieurs au XVe siècle, ed. Joseph Morawski, Classiques français du moyen âge 47 (Paris: Champion, 1925). Maxims such as Ki tant ne set ne l'ad prod entendut (v. 2098) and Mult ad apris ki bien conuist ahan (v. 2524) have a learned flavor, whereas a phrase like Plus qu'om ne lancet une verge pelee (v. 3323) has a decidedly popular aspect.

  91. Bloch, Feudal Society, 2:345-52. See note 38 above.

  92. Horrent, p. 307: “Notre poète était un clerc [n. 2: Mais non un moine (voir O vv. 1880-1881)],” citing Fawtier. Cf., however, Jenkins, note to v. 1881: “Tavernier points out that this judgment necessarily implies no scorn of the monk, as such: each is useful, nay indispensable, in his own field.” On clerical self-satire, see Philippe Ménard, Le Rire et le sourire dans le roman courtois en France au moyen âge (1150-1250), Publications romanes et françaises 105 (Geneva: Droz, 1969), pp. 175-78. Bernard de Clairvaux, p. 263, n. 1:

    Nous ne confondons pas clericus et canonicus. Le clericus n'est pas nécessairement un canonicus. Mais dans le haut Moyen-Age, le terme de clericus était singulièrement ambigu. Saint Jérome avait proposé cette définition de l'étymologie du mot kleros: ‘Les clercs sont appelés de ce mot parce qu'ils sont la part du Seigneur ou bien parce que le Seigneur est leur part’ (ep. ad Nepotianum, PL. 22, 531). Définition assez imprécise, qui fut reprise par le Décret de Gratien (11a, causa XII, qu. 1, c. 5 et 7) et qui autorise deux acceptions du mot clericus, l'une large, l'autre restreinte. Ainsi en matière favorable, c'est-à-dire quand il s'agissait de l'application des privilèges, tous les religieux, même les moniales et les frères convers étaient compris parmi les clercs. Parfois même le terme de clerici désignait des laïcs serviteurs de l'Eglise. C'est en ce sens qu'il faut comprendre une décision du concile de Tours en 567, prescrivant à l'archiprêtre de se faire accompagner d'un canonicus (clerc) ou au moins d'un clericus (serviteur laïc). En un sens plus restreint, en matière pénale, il fut reçu d'exclure du sens du mot clerc, les cardinaux, les évêques, les dignités et les chanoines des églises cathédrales. On n'était pas d'accord sur les chanoines des églises collégiales. Les clercs qui accomplissaient des fonctions déterminées dans une église (et à cause de ces fonctions percevaient une part des revenus de l'église) portaient le nom de clerici canonici, soit qu'ils vécussent selon une règle (kanón) soit plutôt parce qu'inscrits sur la table ou liste (kanón) d'une église. Un peu plus tard, vers le VIIe siècle, interviendra la notion de vie commune, qui amènera la distinction, classique au XIe siècle, entre canonici regulares et canonici seculares, les premiers vivant dans des monastères sub abbate, les seconds dans des cathédrales ou collégiales (in domo episcopali) sub episcopo. Sur cette question voir Dict. Dr. Canon, éd. Letouzey, t. III (1942) et R. Naz. Traité de Droit canonique. Letouzey (1946), t. I. passim.

  93. Oscar Bloch and Walther von Wartburg, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française, 4th ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964), s.v. clerc.

  94. Cf. Faral, Jongleurs, chap. 3, “Les jongleurs aux cours seigneuriales,” pp. 93-102; chap. 4, “Les ménestrels,” pp. 103-18; chap. 5, “Les revenus des jongleurs,” pp. 119-27.

  95. Felix Busigny, Das Verhältnis der Chansons de geste zur Bible, Inaugural-Dissertation (Basel: Reinhardt, 1917); Jenkins, pp. xlvi-xlvii; Adolphe J. Dickmann, Le Rôle du surnaturel dans les chansons de geste (Paris: Champion, 1926); Faral, La Chanson de Roland, pp. 186-95; Jessie Crosland, The Old French Epic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1951), p. 74. See also Bédier, Commentaires, p. 314; Riquer, Chansons de geste, pp. 109-10; Zaal, A lei francesa, pp. 130-34; Dufournet, Cours sur Roland, p. 28. According to Marie-Madeleine Davy, Initiation à la symbolique romane (XIIe siècle) (Paris: Flammarion, 1964), p. 121: “Les moines du XIIe siècle possèdent une parfaite connaissance de la Bible. Ils savent les textes par coeur et leur propre pensée est essentiellement biblique.”

  96. Jenkins, notes to vv. 3238 and 1215, respectively.

  97. For discussion and bibliography, see my paper “Le Thème de la Mort,” pp. 229-30, notes 20-23; Zaal, A lei francesa, pp. 117-19. … Bédier, Commentaires, p. 314, notes the resemblance between Roland and Judas Maccabaeus. Riquer, Chansons de geste, p. 102, believes the image of the stag in vv. 1874-1875 is drawn from the Bible.

  98. Faral, La Chanson de Roland, pp. 198-201; Jones, pp. 127, 182; Brault, “Le Thème de la Mort,” p. 229.

  99. Brault, pp. 230-35.

  100. Wilhelm Tavernier, “Beiträge zur Rolandsforschung. I. Äneide, Pharsalia und Rolandsepos,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literature 36 (1910): 71-102; Jenkins, pp. xlvii-xlviii; Curtius, pp. 111, 245, 530 (but see, especially, Curtius's article “Zur Literarästhetik des Mittelalters,” Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 58 [1938]: 215-32). See also Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 316-17; Riquer, Chansons de geste, p. 108; Jones, pp. 130-34; Aebischer, Préhistoire, pp. 232-34; Dufournet, Cours sur Roland, pp. 27-28. Turoldus's contemporary, Saint Bernard, refers in his works to Boethius, Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Persius, Seneca, Statius, Tacitus, Terence, and Virgil. Bernard de Clairvaux, p. 479 and app. 4.

  101. Virgil is mentioned by name in v. 2616.

  102. See note 82 above.

  103. See … n. 6.

  104. See Introduction 15, a; 19, b. Prudentius is not, strictly speaking, a classical author.

  105. Bédier, Commentaires, pp. 316-17.

  106. Cf. Jones, pp. 134-35, with reference to the Waltharius.

  107. Delbouille, Genèse, p. 121. …

  108. For Curtius, see note 100 above; Riquer, Chansons de geste, pp. 102-5. See also Manfreid Gsteiger, “Note sur les préambules des chansons de geste,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 2 (1959): 213-20; Zaal, A lei francesa, pp. 84, 91 Cf. Faral, La Chanson de Roland, p. 252: “La rhétorique ne tient ici aucune place.”

  109. Faral, Jongleurs, p. 59, n. 2. Payen, Le Moyen Age, p. 125, citing Legge and Duby, suggests that the chansons de geste were primarily intended for bachelers.

  110. In real life eleventh-century warriors were at times quite satisfied to win campaigns without fighting a single battle. Smail, Crusading Warfare, pp. 140-56.

  111. Horrent, p. 307. Composing a chanson de geste for different audiences was not unlike preparing a sermon to be preached to the educated at the same time as to the unlettered. On the latter art, see Guibert of Nogent, Liber quo ordine sermo fieri debeat (PL, 156, cols. 11-21), English translation in Readings in Medieval Rhetoric, p. 170.

  112. See Introduction, 5. See also note 74 above.

  113. Rychner, p. 14. Payen, Le Moyen Age, p. 125, agrees, but cautions against going so far as to term the chansons de geste “popular” literature. See also pp. 38, 126.

  114. Smail, Crusading Warfare, pp. 166-67, warns historians against using literature as a source of realistic accounts of battles. Poetry, he notes, strives to be vivid and endeavors to make clear what is essentially a confused picture. See also Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., “Historical Illusion and Poetic Reality in the ‘Chansons de geste’,” French Review 43 (1969): 23-33; Payen, Le Moyen Age, pp. 61-62. Bowra, Heroic Poetry, pp. 476-507, distinguishes three main types of heroic poetry: primitive, proletarian, and aristocratic. The latter two types are characteristic of a society that has a cultured, lettered class. More refined aristocratic poetry exists only where the ruling class shares the interests and outlook of the ruled (pp. 478-79). He considers the Song of Roland to be in the latter category (p. 478). Chap. 4, pp. 132-78, is a useful study of “The Realistic Background.”

  115. Jenkins, p. xxxv, citing Baist, on the organization of Charlemagne's army and trial by combat. For possible verbal archaisms, see Delbouille, Genèse, pp. 127-29, 133-34, 149-50. … René Louis, “La grande douleur pour la mort de Roland,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 3 (1960): 67, n. 20, referring to Lot, dismisses the possibility of deliberate archaism in the poet's designation of the boundaries of France. Cf. Guy Raynaud de Lage, “Les romans antiques et la représentation de l'Antiquité,” Le Moyen Age 68 (1961): 247-91; Raymond J. Cormier, “The Problem of Anachronism: Recent Scholarship on the French Medieval Romances of Antiquity,” Philological Quarterly 53 (1974): 145-57. On epic distortion of reality, see Eugene Vance, Reading the Song of Roland, Landmarks in Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 19-20. Cf. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 127: “it is of the essence of imaginative culture that it transcends the limits both of the naturally possible and of the morally acceptable.”

  116. Saint Augustine: On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr., Library of Liberal Arts 80 (New York: Liberal Arts Press: 1958), p. 38 (2.6.8); Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, pp. 53-54.

  117. Le Gentil, p. 120: “Ce serait une erreur de s'appuyer sur une logique trop positive pour contester telle ou telle de ses décisions, pour parler ici ou là d'accidents, de déficiences ou d'interpolations.”

  118. For discussion and bibliography, see Réau, I, 2: chap. 4; Frye, pp. 141-50 (see also p. 359, note to p. 141, line 21); Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, pp. 286-317; Vos, “Aspects of Biblical Typology,” chap. 1, pp. 1-25. Working independently of each other, Prof. Vos and I have on occasion used a similar approach but reached different conclusions. See my “Quelques nouvelles tendances,” p. 24, n. 29.

  119. Réau, II, 1:244.

  120. On the Eva-Ave connection, see Pierre Jonin, Les Personnages féminins dans les romans français de Tristan au XIIe siècle: Etude des influences contemporaines, Publication des Annales de la Faculté des lettres, Aix-en-Provence, n.s. 22 (Gap: Ophrys, 1958), pp. 444-45. Jonin cites examples in Peter Damian (d. 1072) and Wace, and notes that the association may date back to the eighth century.

  121. Percy Ernst Schramm, Sphaira, Globus, Reichsapfel: Wanderung und Wandlung eines Herrschaftszeichens von Caesar bis zu Elisabeth II; ein Beitrag zumNachlebender Antike (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1958), pp. 72-73; pls. 28c, 46.

  122. Réau, I:197; II, 1:83; II, 2:82.

  123. Ibid., I:62; Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, p. 293.

  124. Réau, I:63.

  125. Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, p. 315. On these terms, see D. W. Robertson, Jr., “Some Medieval Literary Terminology, with Special Reference to Chrétien de Troyes,” Studies in Philology 48 (1951): 669-92; F. Douglas Kelly, Sens and Conjointure in the Chevalier de la Charrette, Studies in French Litterature 2 (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1966). On the importance of exegesis in medieval education, see Payen, Le Moyen Age, pp. 44-45.

  126. Réau, I:62. Honorius was born c. 1080 and was a native of Regensburg in Bavaria, not Autun, as Réau suggests. Le Goff, Civilisation, p. 602. The concept was used metaphorically by Chrétien de Troyes in the Chevalier de la Charrette and in Yvain; see Gerard J. Brault, “Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot: The Eye and the Heart,” Bibliographical Bulletin of the International Arthurian Society 24 (1972): 145, n. 4. For Rabelais's satirical use of the notion, see François Rabelais, Gargantua, ed. M. A. Screech, Textes littéraires français 163 (Geneva: Droz; Paris: Minard, 1970), Prologue, pp. 12-13.

  127. See Morton W. Bloomfield's review of Judson B. Allen, The Friar as Critic: Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971), in Speculum 48 (1973): 329-30, citing Anthony Nemetz, “Literalness and the Sensus Litteralis,Speculum 34 (1959): 76-89.

  128. Curtius, p. 48 (bibliography in n. 1); Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, pp. 340-41.

  129. Robertson, p. 340.

  130. A. Leigh Deneef, “Robertson and His Critics,” Chaucer Review 2 (1968): 205-34.

  131. The expression is Robertson's (Preface to Chaucer, p. 92, n. 67), indicating that he has modified certain views he once held.

  132. Robertson's interpretation of the Song of Roland is in Preface to Chaucer, pp. 163-71. … At the Fifth International Congress of the Société Rencesvals held at Oxford in 1970, Larry S. Crist and I presented convergent views of the Song of Roland. However, my colleague declared himself to be a far more orthodox Robertsonian than I. … My paper, “Sapientia dans la Chanson de Roland,” was published in French Forum 1 (1976): 99-118. I do not know what prompts Burgess, Vocabulaire pré-courtois, p. 13, to assert that “la notion de sen était étrangère au poète de la Chanson de Roland.

  133. Curtius, pp. 248 ff.; Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, pp. 89-91; Theodore Silverstein, “Allegory and Literary Form,” PMLA 82 (1967): 28-32; Paul E. Beichner, “The Allegorical Interpretation of Medieval Literature,” PMLA 82 (1967): 33-38.

  134. Robertson, pp. 297-98.

  135. Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi ou Chronique du Pseudo-Turpin, ed. C. Meredith-Jones (1936; rpt. Geneva: Slatkine, 1972), pp. 71-75 (1130); Horrent, pp. 87-94 (1145-65); Mandach, Naissance, 1:56-58, 149 (1125-1130); Frappier, Chansons de geste, 2 (1965): 124, note (1125-30). Meredith-Jones, p. 81, does not believe the author visited Spain. Mandach's elaborate theory concerning the early evolution of the Latin text, presented in Naissance, vol. 1, is conveniently summarized in vol. 2, Chronique de Turpin: Texte anglo-normand de Willem de Briane (Arundel 220), Publications romanes et françaises 77 (Geneva: Droz, 1963), pp. 13-14. The German scholar Adalbert Hämel devoted twenty-three years to the study of the Pseudo-Turpin. His edition of that work was published posthumously: Der Pseudo-Turpin von Compostela, eds. Adalbert Hämel and André de Mandach, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte, Jahrgang 1965, Heft 1 (Munich: Beck, 1965).

  136. Meredith-Jones, p. 111. On the cult of Saint Facundus (= Sahagún) and Saint Primitivus martyred near this city, see Meredith-Jones, pp. 295-96; Réau, III, 1:485; Vielliard, pp. 6-9, 83, and nn. 1, 2.

  137. Meredith-Jones, p. 119 (see also note, p. 300). Cf. the miracle of the red crosses, which appear on the shoulders of the knights in Charles's army who are to die the following day (pp. 146-47; see also note, p. 300).

  138. Blaise, par. 484. Cf. the flowering staff associated with Saint Christopher (Réau, III, 1:305, 309) and the attributes of Aaron (Réau, II, 1:188-89) and Saint Joseph (Réau, III, 2:757).

  139. See Introduction, 19, d. Turoldus uses espiet ‘spear’ and lance ‘lance’ interchangeably, although only the former is thrown (Foulet, Glossaire, s.v. espiet); cf. hanste (< Lat. hasta ‘lance’) ‘handle [of the spear]’.

  140. Brault, “Le Thème de la Mort,” p. 236. …

  141. Cf. the further extension constituted by the motif of Marsile's right hand and Ganelon being torn limb from limb, Commentary, 21 (v. 1903) and 47 [in “The Song of Roland”: An Analytical Edition, Vol. 1. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978].

  142. Meredith-Jones, pp. 111, 113.

  143. See also Introduction, 11, d.

  144. Meredith-Jones, p. 113.

  145. See also Isaiah 11:5. Blaise, par. 441; Psychomachia, v. 52 (Prudentius, ed. and trans. H. J. Thomson, The Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. [1949; rpt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: Heinemann, 1962], 1:274-343); Delehaye, Les Passions des martyrs, p. 154; Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, p. 175, n. 1, citing Alain de Lille.

  146. Rychner, pp. 128, 132-33.

  147. Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Mediaeval Art From Early Christian Times to the Thirteenth Century, trans. Alan J. P. Crick (1939; rpt. New York: Norton, 1964), chaps. 1 and 2.

  148. Meredith-Jones, p. 113.

  149. Blaise, par. 462.

  150. Meredith-Jones, p. 135. In devotional tracts the enemy of Fortitude is often not Fear, but Sloth (Accidia), the virtue representing not physical strength and force, but a nobler quality. Tuve, Allegorical Imagery, pp. 84, 97, 133, et passim.

  151. In his Anglo-Norman translation Willem de Briane substitutes another passage from Scripture; see Mandach, Naissance, 2:39 (text on p. 64, lines 478-79).

  152. Meredith-Jones, p. 143.

  153. Ibid., p. 143.

  154. Ibid., p. 145.

  155. Ibid., p. 145. Cf. the commentary on the Christian warriors who fornicated with Saracen women, p. 185.

  156. Ibid., p. 195.

  157. Brault, “Le Thème de la Mort,” p. 230, n. 21. …

  158. See, for example, Introduction, 10, b, 1; Robert A. Pratt, “The Old French Sources of the Nonnes Preestes Tale (Part II),” Speculum 47 (1972): 653-54, 661-62; Marianne Cramer Vos, “Ganelon's ‘Mortal Rage’,” Olifant 2, no. 1 (1974): 21. It is pointless, therefore, to deny the Ganelon-Judas connection as do, for instance, Tavernier (see Vos, p. 21, n. 20) and John A. Stranges, “The Character and the Trial of Ganelon: A New Appraisal,” Romania 96 (1975): 354-56.

  159. Das Rolandslied des Pfaffen Konrad, ed. Carl Wesle, 2d ed., Altdeutsche Textbibliothek 69 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1967). On the date, see Lejeune and Stiennon, 1:111-19; André de Mandach, “Encore du nouveau à propos de la date et de la structure de la Chanson de Roland allemande,” Société Rencesvals. IVe Congrès International, pp. 106-16. For a summary of the published findings concerning Conrad's use of the Pseudo-Turpin, see Mandach, pp. 108-12, 116.

  160. Fig. 43 [in “The Song of Roland”: An Analytical Edition, Vol. 1. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978]. Lejeune and Stiennon, 1:124-25; 2: fig. 96 (the illustration shows a stylized olive tree). Lejeune and Stiennon, 1:124, asserts that the scene in Conrad takes place after the plotters have arrived at Marsile's court. I find no textual basis for situating this daylong stop (v. 1982: Si wonten da allen einen tach) at Saragossa. The arrangement of the figures in this illustration is not without a certain ironic parallel with the formula of Jesus among the Doctors (Réau, II, 2:289-91). One might even consider it to be an extension of the possible parody of the Journey of the Magi in the preceding drawing (Lejeune and Stiennon, 2: fig. 95; discussion in 1:124, with no reference, however, to the Wise Men formula; on the latter, see Gabriel Millet, Recherches sur l'iconographie de l'évangile aux XIVe et XVIe siècles d'après les monuments de Mistra, de la Macédoine et du Mont-Athos [1916; rpt. Paris: Boccard, 1960], figs. 36, 37, 38, 39, 67, 85, 86, 87, 95, 100, 101; Gérard Cames, Byzance et la peinture romane de Germanie: Apports de l'art grec posticonoclaste à l'enluminure et à la fresque ottoniennes et romanes de Germanie dans les thèmes de majesté et les évangiles [Paris: Picard, 1966], index, p. 319, s.v. Mages (cycle des), se rendent à cheval à Bethléem; idem, Allégories et symboles dans l'Hortus deliciarum [Leiden: Brill, 1971], pl. LXXVII).

  161. On the concept of “poor” Judas, see Wayland D. Hand, A Dictionary of Words and Idioms Associated with Judas Iscariot: A Compilation Based Mainly on Material Found in the Germanic Languages, University of California Publications in Modern Philology 24, no. 3 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1942), pp. 303-4.

  162. Matthew 7:16-18; cf. 12:33-37. Cf. also the “whited sepulchre” metaphor in Matthew 23:27-28; and the cup, clean outside, but filthy within, in Matthew 23:25. Locke, Quest, p. 106, nn. 20, 21. …

  163. On companionage, see William A. Stowell, “Personal Relationships in Medieval France,” PMLA 28 (1913): 388-416; Bloch, Feudal Society, 1:154, 155, 169, 173, 236; Jones, pp. 114, 143.

  164. Similarly, in the Pseudo-Turpin, Roland fights the giant Ferracutus, who is said to be de genere Goliath (Meredith-Jones, p. 147). The David-Goliath aspect of the Pinabel-Thierry duel is noted by Jenkins, p. xxxii.

  165. The lines between chronicle, epic, and saint's life are not clearly drawn at this time. See Introduction, 2.

  166. Gerard J. Brault, “Heraldic Terminology and Legendary Material in the Siege of Caerlaverock (c. 1300),” in Romance Studies in Memory of Edward Billings Ham, ed. Urban T. Holmes, Jr., California State College Publications 2 (Hayward: California State College, 1967), pp. 15-16.

  167. See Introduction, 9. The tendency in the Pseudo-Turpin and the Rolandslied to explain symbols and clarify mysteries found in Turoldus's poem may be characterized as Gothic. See Eleanor Roach, “Les termes ‘roman’ et ‘gothique’ dans le domaine littéraire: Essai de définition,” Les Lettres Romanes 29 (1975): 63. The Pseudo-Turpin and Conrad's adaptation are frequently viewed as distortions of the French original; see, for example, Helmut A. Hatzfeld, “Le Rolandslied allemand: Guide pour la compréhension stylistique de la Chanson de Roland,Cultura Neolatina 21 (1961): 48-56. The Latin and German versions may well be inferior to the French epic, yet each deserves to be judged on its own terms.

  168. See Karl-Heinz Bender, “La genèse de l'image littéraire de Charlemagne élu de Dieu au XIe siècle,” Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona 31 (1965/66): 35-39; Dufournet, Cours sur Roland, pp. 183-85. See also Campbell, Hero, pt. 2, chap. 3, 6, “The Hero as World Redeemer,” pp. 349-54.

  169. Bédier, Légendes épiques, 2d ed. (1921), 4:456; Boissonnade, Du Nouveau, pp. 265, 281-85; History of the Crusades, 1:241; and, especially, Ernst R. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), chap. 3, “Christ-Centered Kingship,” pp. 42-86; chap. 5, par. 3, “Pro patria mori,” pp. 232-72. Cf. Menéndez Pidal, pp. 241-62; R. Foreville, “La typologie du roi dans la littérature historiographique anglo-normande aux XIe et XIIe siècles,” Etudes de civilisation médiévale (IXe-XIIe siècles): Mélanges offerts à Edmond-René Labande (Poitiers: Centre d'études supérieures de civilisation médiévale, 1974), pp. 275-92; Le Goff, Civilisation, p. 183.

  170. Kantorowicz, p. 48, n. 11 (translation mine); Cames, Byzance, p. 40, n. 69.

  171. Cames, p. 40. See also Kantorowicz, pp. 61-78.

  172. For fuller details, see Eugene F. Rice, The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom, Harvard Historical Monographs 37 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), chap. 1, “The Medieval Idea of Wisdom,” pp. 1-29; Paul Archambault, “Commynes' saigesse and the Renaissance Idea of Wisdom,” Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 29 (1967): 613-32; Morton W. Bloomfield, “Understanding Old English Poetry,” Annuale Medievale (Duquesne Studies) 9 (1968): 5-25. On the related notion of contemptus mundi, see Payen, Le Moyen Age, pp. 70-71.

  173. E l'arcevesque, ki fut sages e proz (v. 3691).

  174. Faral, La Chanson de Roland, pp. 245-46. Introduction, 19, e, f, i, k. For the figure of a Carolingian king in the traditional guise of Sapientia enthroned in the New Jerusalem (as in the conclusion of the Psychomachia), see Paul Lacroix, France in the Middle Ages: Customs, Classes and Conditions (New York: Ungar, 1963), p. 349, fig. 298.

  175. Meredith-Jones, pp. 221-29; Réau, I:154-62; Curtius, pp. 47-50; Katzenellenbogen, Allegories, index, p. 96, s.v. Arts, the seven liberal. See also Introduction, 10.

  176. … Cf. Bédier, Légendes épiques 3:443 (referring to Roland): “comme il convient à un martyr, sa Passion est à la fois toute souffrance et toute joie.” The notion of Joy in the Midst of Suffering is found in the Beatitudes; see Matthew 5:11-12. Cf. 1 Colossians 24. …

  177. See Introduction, 15, e. For a similar view, see Vos, “Aspects of Biblical Typology,” p. 89.

  178. Brault, “Le Thème de la Mort,” pp. 229-35. For Charles as a Christ symbol, see William Wistar Comfort, “The Character Types in the Old French Chansons de geste,PMLA 21 (1906): 338; Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 101. The word martyr means ‘witness’ (in the New Testament, Gr. martus ‘witness of God’; Bloch and Wartburg, Dictionnaire, s.v. martyr), that is, one who confesses his faith. According to Christian belief, this type of confession is superior to merely unburdening one's sins to a priest or to God; Blaise, par. 109.

  179. Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, La Vie de Saint Thomas Becket, ed. Emmanuel Walberg, Classiques français du moyen âge 77 (Paris: Champion, 1964), introduction. Cf. Le Gentil, p. 131:

    entre Oliver et Roland il y a toute la différence qui sépare le juste du saint. L'un proportionne ses actes aux simples exigences du devoir et ne voit dans l'excès que folie et orgueil; l'autre se croit toujours en deça de ce que Dieu demande ou espère. Olivier sera sauvé. Mais au ciel, plus encore que parmi les Francs de France, il cédera la première place à Roland. Peut-il même prétendre à la seconde?

  180. Meredith-Jones, p. 111. The building metaphor appears in 1 Corinthians 3:9-15. … In the Pseudo-Turpin Roland dies, his arms crossed over his breast in a very explicit imitatio Christi (Meredith-Jones, p. 205). For illustrations of the hero in this attitude, see Lejeune and Stiennon, 1: pls. L, LX; 2: figs. 288, 293, 508. … In the Latin chronicle Saint Denis appears in a vision to Charles and informs him that those who died or are about to die in Spain for the Emperor's edification (Meredith-Jones, p. 219: Illis qui tua ammonitione et exemplo tuae probitatis animati in bellis Sarracenorum in Hyspania mortui et morituri sunt) will be absolved from all sin.

  181. Meredith-Jones, p. 183.

  182. This passage from John 12:24 is quoted in Conrad, vv. 7885-7888. For the Pseudo-Turpin, see Introduction, 10, a, 2.

  183. Delehaye, Les Passions des martyrs, pp. 213-18. Cf. also the destruction of the idols in vv. 2585-2591 and Delehaye, pp. 215-16.

  184. Matthew 7:13-14. The affection and admiration with which Roland's men view their protector precludes conceiving of him as a kind of Ishmael.

  185. Mickel, “Parallels in Psychomachia and Roland,” pp. 451-52. See also Introduction, 15, a. …

Abbreviations and Frequently Cited Works

Bédier: La Chanson de Roland, publiée d'après le manuscrit d'Oxford et traduite par J. Bédier. Paris: Piazza, 1921. Glossary and Index of Proper Names by Lucien Foulet (= Foulet, Glossaire) in Bédier, Commentaires. The “édition définitive” (1937) has often been reissued.

Bédier, Commentaires: La Chanson de Roland commentée par Joseph Bédier. 1927; rpt. Paris: Piazza, 1968.

Blaise: Blaise, Albert. Le Vocabulaire latin des principaux thèmes liturgiques. Turnhout: Brepols, 1966.

Châteauroux: See Mortier.

CL: Classical Latin.

Conrad: Das Rolandslied des Pfaffen Konrad. Ed. Carl Wesle. 2d ed. Altdeutsche Textbibliothek 69. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1967. For Modern French translation, see Mortier.

Curtius: Ernst Robert Curtius. La Littérature européenne et le moyen âge latin. 2d ed. Trans. Jean Bréjoux. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956.

d.: died.

E.: English.

FEW: Wartburg, Walther von. Französisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Basel, Bonn, Leipzig, Tübingen, 1922-. In progress (22 vols; 2d ed. of vol. 1 [1922-28] numbered vols. 24 and 25).

Foulet, Glossaire: See Bédier.

Fr.: French.

Ger.: Germanic.

Godefroy: Godefroy, Frédéric. Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes, du IXe au XVe siècle. 10 vols. 1881-1902; rpt. Paris: Librairie des sciences et des arts, 1937-38.

Gr.: Greek.

Greimas: Greimas, A. J. Dictionnaire de l'ancien français jusqu'au milieu du XIVe siècle. Paris: Larousse, 1969.

Harrison: The Song of Roland. Newly translated and with an Introduction by Robert Harrison. Mentor Book. New York and Toronto: New American Library; London: New English Library, 1970.

Heb.: Hebrew.

Horrent: Horrent, Jules. La Chanson de Roland dans les littératures française et espagnole au moyen âge. Bibliothèque de la Faculté de philosophie et lettres de l'Université de Liège 120. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1951.

Jenkins: La Chanson de Roland: Oxford Version. Edition, Notes and Glossary by T. Atkinson Jenkins. Rev. ed. Heath's Modern Language Series. Boston - New York - Chicago - London: Heath, 1929.

Jones: Jones, George Fenwick. The Ethos of the Song of Roland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.

Lat.: Latin.

Le Gentil: Pierre Le Gentil. La Chanson de Roland. Connaissance des lettres 43. Paris: Hatier-Boivin, 1955.

Lejeune and Stiennon: Lejeune, Rita, and Jacques Stiennon. La Légende de Roland dans l'art du moyen âge. 2d ed. 2 vols. Brussels: Arcade, 1967.

Lyon: See Mortier.

ME.: Middle English.

Menéndez Pidal: Ramón Menéndez Pidal. La Chanson de Roland et la tradition épique des Francs. Trans. Irénée-Marcel Cluzel. 2d ed. Paris: Picard, 1960.

Meredith-Jones: Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi ou Chronique du Pseudo-Turpin. Textes revus et publiés d'après 49 manuscrits. Ed. C. Meredith-Jones. 1936; rpt. Geneva: Slatkine, 1972.

MFr.: Modern French.

Moignet: La Chanson de Roland. Texte original et traduction par Gérard Moignet. Bibliothèque Bordas. Paris: Bordas, 1969.

Mortier: Les Textes de la Chanson de Roland. Ed. Raoul Mortier. 10 vols. Paris: La Geste Francor, 1940-44.

I. La Version d'Oxford (1940).

II. La Version de Venise IV (1941).

III. La Chronique de Turpin et les Grandes Chroniques de France, Carmen de proditione Guenonis, Ronsasvals (1941).

IV. Le Manuscrit de Châteauroux (1943).

V. Le Manuscrit de Venise VII (1942).

VI. Le Texte de Paris (1942).

VII. Le Texte de Cambridge (1943).

VIII. Le Texte de Lyon (1944).

IX. Les Fragments lorrains (1943).

X. Le Texte de Conrad. Trans. Jean Graff (1944).

OE.: Old English.

OFr.: Old French.

OHG.: Old High German.

OPr.: Old Provençal.

Owen: The Song of Roland: The Oxford Text. Translated by D. D. R. Owen. Unwin Books Classics 3. London: Unwin, 1972.

Paris: See Mortier.

PL: Migne, Jacques-Paul. Patrologiae cursus completus … Series latina. 221 vols. Paris: Migne, 1884-91.

Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle: See Meredith-Jones.

Réau: Réau, Louis. Iconographie de l'art chrétien. 3 parts in 6 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955-59.

Ronsasvals: See Mortier.

Rychner: Jean Rychner. La Chanson de geste: Essai sur l'art épique des jongleurs. Société de publications romanes et françaises 53. Geneva: Droz; Lille: Giard, 1955.

Samaran: La Chanson de Roland. Reproduction phototypique du Manuscrit Digby 23 de la Bodleian Library d'Oxford. Edition avec un avant-propos par le Comte Alexandre de Laborde. Etude historique et paléographique de M. Ch. Samaran. Paris: Société des anciens textes français, 1933.

Segre: La Chanson de Roland. Edizione critica a cura di Cesare Segre. Documenti di filologia 16. Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1971.

Sp.: Spanish.

The Jerusalem Bible: The Jerusalem Bible. Gen. ed. Alexander Jones. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

Tobler and Lommatzsch: Tobler, Adolf, and Erhard Lommatzsch. Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: Weidmann; Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1925-. In progress (10 vols.).

Venice IV: See Mortier.

Venice VII: See Mortier.

VL: Vulgar Latin

Whitehead: La Chanson de Roland. Ed. F. Whitehead. Blackwell's French Texts. 2d ed. 1946; rpt. Oxford: Blackwell, 1965. Often reissued.

Frederick Goldin (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Goldin, Frederick. Introduction to The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Goldin, pp. 3-46. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Goldin explains the roles of history, Christianity, and loyalty in understanding the world of The Song of Roland.]

In the year 777 the Saracen governor of Barcelona and Gerona, Sulaiman ibn Yaqzan ibn Al-Arabi, appeared before Charles, King of the Franks, to persuade him to bring his army into Spain. Al-Arabi had revolted against the authority of the Emir Abd al Rahman of Cordova (a rebel himself against the Abbassid caliphs), and he now made the following offer: if Charles came to his aid against the Emir, then Al-Arabi and his allies (among whom was the governor of Saragossa) would submit to the authority of the Franks. This meeting took place in Paderborn. Charles agreed.

The King led a column of his army into Spain in 778, took Pamplona, and arrived at Saragossa, where, according to plan, he was joined by a second column approaching from the east. From that moment on, things went wrong. Al-Arabi's supposed ally, the governor of Saragossa, kept the gates of the city closed and repudiated the agreement made in Paderborn. Charles besieged the city. For a month and a half the Frankish army lay beneath the walls of Saragossa. Then, at the end of July, Charles decided to give it up and return to France.

On the 15th of August, in the year 778, Charles's army was stretched out along the narrow defiles of the Pyrenees, bound for home. What happened on that day is told in a biography of Charles written some fifty years later, the Vita Karoli by Eginhard:1

…on their journey home in that same pass through the Pyrenees, they had to suffer for a moment the treachery of the Basques [Wasconicam perfidiam]. It happened this way: as the army was proceeding, stretched out in a long thin column because of the narrowness of that defile, the Basques [Wascones] lay in ambush on top of a mountain—the place is thickly covered with woods and therefore well suited for such covert attacks; and they rushed down upon the end of the baggage train and upon those troops in the rear-guard who were protecting the main army ahead, forced them down to the bottom of the valley, engaged them in battle and killed them to the last man; then they looted the baggage, and protected by the gathering night they scattered in every direction with all the speed they had. In what took place the Basques were favored by the lightness of their arms and the terrain in which they fought; and the Franks were put thoroughly at a disadvantage by the great weight of their arms and the unevenness of the ground. In this battle were killed Eggihardus, seneschal of the royal table; Anshelmus, count of the palace; and Hruodlandus, prefect of the marches of Brittany, among many others.

This disaster is the historic kernel of The Song of Roland. The presence of the Frankish army in Spain, as well as one can judge from shreds of evidence pieced together from many sources, both Carolingian and Saracen, seems to have been the result of a power play by the great King, who apparently saw in the internal strife of the Spanish Saracens a chance to extend his realm. It ended badly for everyone (except the Wascones), and it was a bitter memory to the King for the rest of his life, judging from the fact that the full scope of the disaster—the destruction of the rear-guard and the plundering of the baggage train—was not disclosed in any Carolingian document until after Charles was dead. No crusading intent can be detected in this enterprise, though there were attempts both before the event (in the benediction of Pope Hadrian upon the departure of the army) and especially afterward, to give it such a coloring, as though Charles had entered Spain to protect the Christians from the cruel yoke of Saracen oppression—an oppression that in fact did not exist.2

This is the poor, bare, inglorious event, a thwarted enterprise ending in a painful loss. Between this sad date of August 15, 778, and the composition—probably between 1095 and 1100—of the poem we now possess in the Oxford manuscript, [The Oxford manuscript (Digby 23 in the Bodleian) is the oldest known extant version of The Song of Roland, written between 1125 and 1150 in Anglo-Norman French. Since the manuscript is a copy at least once removed from the archetype, its dialect tells us little about the French of the original. For a study of the entire manuscript tradition, see Cesare Segre, La Tradizione dellaChanson de Roland’ (Milan and Naples, 1974).] there is an interval of some 300 years. The poem before us now has retained little of the historic event apart from the last name mentioned among the fallen and the annihilation of the rear-guard on the homeward march through the Pyrenees. Somehow this non-event has been enlarged into a great epic of treachery and loyalty, and this humiliating defeat at the hands of unknown brigands transformed into a holy crusade, a glorious martyrdom, a great apocalyptic victory ordained by God.

It is no wonder that nearly everyone who has studied this poem since the manuscript was rediscovered and then published in 1837 has been fascinated by the question of its origin. How did those unedifying events of 777-78 lead to the creation of The Song of Roland? Was it the work of a single poet or of generations of poets? Was it created all at once or by continual accretion over a long period? This much is certain: there are documents that show that before the composition of the Oxford Roland, during those three centuries, there developed an oral tradition centered on the battle at Rencesvals.3 “Someone invented the Emir Baligant, as someone invented Turpin's participation in the battle, as someone invented Oliver, as someone invented Ganelon, as someone invented the beautiful Aude.”4 Whoever put the Oxford Roland together might have invented Baligant, but he inherited all of the other important characters and events in the story, for they were famous before he did his work. Who he was, however, and how he worked, and what he had to work with, are all matters of dispute.

Whatever the circumstances in which it was composed, The Song of Roland looks back: it tells a tale that is set in the past. By the time of the Oxford version it was the remote and therefore the glorious and exemplary past, a golden age in the age of grace. It was looked upon as the time when the great dream of Christendom had come true, when a worldwide Christian community was established under a pious and crusading Emperor, and all men were bound in ascending loyalty to each other and to the Lord of all. The Carolingian Empire was seen as the fulfillment of a divine intention.

The numerous “errors” in this representation and in the figure and career of Charlemagne are frequently pointed out and sometimes rashly attributed to the poet's (or poets') ignorance. Charlemagne was in fact thirty-seven and not yet Emperor when the rearguard was ambushed: he was the King of the Franks, and he was not 200 years old; he wore a mustache but never a beard (which became à la mode in the eleventh century). Islam is and was monotheistic and forbade graven images of God: no Saracen ever prayed to the idols of that motley trio Mahum, Apollin, and Tervagant. The poet's many “errors” in geography have also been duly noted—Saragossa lies in the valley of the Ebro and not on a high mountain; and all those unidentifiable place names—though often at the cost of obscuring his poetic truth: for the fantastic name of every place locates it unerringly in the realm of God's enemies or in the sweet land of His servants. If one reads the poem as a chronicle, one can compile a tremendous list of such errors. But that is not how the poem should be read. The poet himself calls upon a chronicle, the Geste Francor, at certain times, usually to support what looks like a verifiable statement of fact, and in referring to such a chronicle he explicitly distinguishes his own narrative from one.

Judged rightly, these are not errors at all but essential elements in the picture that the poem presents. The great value one derives from studying the facts and identifying the “errors” is that one learns what has been rejected as unfit for the representation set forth in The Song of Roland. As it happens, nearly every detail of the historical incident has been rejected: history knew only a terrible defeat; the song reveals a glorious victory. But if Saragossa, that last pagan citadel, had really been set upon a towering eminence, or if Charles had really been 200 years old and at all similar to that patriarchal figure with the great beard white as the flowers of April, it is safe to say that the poem would have preserved, with lingering accuracy, these revealing historical facts; and we can be sure that the victory over Baligant would never have been invented if anything like it had ever occurred. For the poem sets forth the vision of an exemplary past—the past as it had to be, given the way things are; the past that guides the present and enjoins the future.

We see in the Charlemagne of the epic, not the historical king and emperor, but the true and accurate representation of an ideal ardently praised at the time the poem was cast into its present form, around the year 1100.5 Today we read a poem created in the distant past in which the poet looks back to a past even more remote, holding out to his audience the picture of an age when things were as they ought to be and all men were in their right places—an inspiring age that must be brought to earth again, when all Christian powers oriented themselves in homage to this great man, wise with the wisdom of 200 years of God's grace.

The positive historical context in which this vision of the past arose is usually identified as the long struggle of the Capetian rulers to centralize political power in France.6 From the death of Charlemagne in 814, the Carolingian kings presided over less and less, apart from the expanding dissolution of the empire; their lands and their powers were lost to the great barons, and in the end the king was a mere figurehead whose realm barely extended beyond Paris. Then, in 987, the last Carolingian king was gone, and a new line was established by Hugh Capet. From that moment on, he and all his descendants—including Philip I (1060-1108), who reigned when the Oxford Roland was composed—were involved in the struggle to bring the barons under the king's power. The Song of Roland is often held to be a kind of propaganda, a defense and glorification of royal power—the principle of the supreme sovereignty of the king is explicitly introduced into the poem in the trial of Ganelon, and it is authenticated in the judicial battle of Tierri and Pinabel, in which the judgment of God is revealed.

It is therefore a mistake to look in this poem for an account of the life of a particular period, whether in the eighth or the eleventh century: that approach leads to the preoccupation with “errors.” The poem shows us something else, something that a work of literature can show better than any chronicle or history: we see how an age regarded its past, recreated history in order to find precedence and dignity for its own aspirations. It may be true that the early Capetian rulers wanted some historical sanction to strengthen the poor foundations of their rule and commanded this version of the poem so that the glory of Charlemagne would shine on them. Whatever practical intention there may have been, the poem transcends it. The Song of Roland speaks to any age that wants to see its present struggles as something more than the madness of accidents and lusts, as something noble and necessary, as an ordained part of a vast integrity. There is a great difference, however, between the way in which we regard the past that engendered us and the way the poem looks to the past in which its action is set. The past it revealed to its earliest audiences was really a vision of their future.7 Those who shared that past were to give their support to the King's great struggle, a struggle that aimed not to progress from that auspicious time when angels came down from heaven and the sun stood still to help the Emperor defend all Christendom, but to return to it, to regain what had been lost: a perfect state pleasing to God.

Once this line into the past is begun, it can be extended infinitely further back. When Charlemagne, Roland, and Turpin pray, they look back to those who lived in an even earlier time but still command a vivid presence. Daniel in the lion's den, the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace, Jonah in the belly of the great fish: these are not only the ones who came first, they are also brother heirs to Roland and Charlemagne and Turpin, sharers in God's loyalty and love, less separated by time from those who recall them in prayer than joined to them as fellow servants of the one Lord who protects them.

Therefore, in the figure of Charlemagne, religious and political aspirations are united; he is at the center of history's pattern, the nexus between the past and the future. For the same line that connects this old poem to an even older time, and to the beginning of time, can be extended into the future as well, to the end of time, when the empire of Charlemagne is upon the earth again. Those last days are foreshadowed by the action in the poem. For near the end of time, as God's word in Revelation foretells, the Antichrist will come who will suborn the human race when it is on the verge of sanctity, and he will rule until he is defeated by the angelic hordes of heaven—a battle prefigured in the song by the Baligant episode, whose apocalyptic imagery, as has long been recognized, shows the full range of the poet's vision.8

The poem's frame of reference, therefore, is infinite, ranging from before the beginning to after the end of time. And once we see the vastness of that frame, we can see how much is left out of it: we are left out, or at least everything personal and unique about us, the selves we know. For the vision of the poem is blind to our own linear notion of time: it cannot see that values change, it cannot conceive that one day human beings may stand in a different relation to those who rule and even to the Lord of all—to that Lord whose immanent justice and, in fact, whose very existence, they may, with perfect integrity, deny. In its apocalyptic vision and in its blindness to the conditions in which we make our way, it demands that we join in the struggle to bring back again the state and the age over which Charlemagne ruled. For it says in its very first line and repeatedly thereafter: nostre emperere! “Our Emperor!” We do not have to answer the poem's demand in order to read it aright. But we do have to see that it makes a demand, that the tale it tells contains an injunction upon the audience, that its vision surpasses the frame of its narrative.

When the poem looks to the future, then, it does not see us—at least not in the skins that we inhabit. It sees a pattern that involves all of the generations of mankind: the drama of redemption, foreseen by God. It is by the authority of that pattern that the poem enlists all of its audiences into the struggle to restore the state that God has blessed. We do not share that vision, and yet, because the language and style of the poem assume the immediate and corroborating presence of an audience—our Emperor!—even we, at this great distance, have a certain role to play. We are cast into that role by a world-view that is as deep and complicated regarding time as it is narrow and indifferent regarding space. This sense of organic time—time that stretches in a providential pattern over all creatures past, present, and future, and makes them contemporaries—puts us within the moral grasp of the poem and into its very action, no matter who we are and no matter how thoroughly we reject its feudal notions of faith and authority. For though we may reject that pattern as historical truth, we can still feel its effect as a poetic strategy, a way of calling upon the audience to complete the meaning of the song, and of heightening our awareness of the poet's conception of time and of the poem's origin in history. “Let no bad songs be sung about us,” says Roland, meaning: let songs be sung in our praise—and that means: this song, the Oxford Roland, witnessed by this audience—by us.9 The song's enduring ability to win an audience is just what Roland wished for, the fulfillment of all his boasts and promises, like his triumphant death. We today still witness the story of a brave man keeping faith, even though his faith is not ours, and our notion of bravery is, thank God, far different from his. For the song, by assuming our presence, puts us into the position of witnesses. We are, with all our disbelief, maneuvered by the providential strategy of the poem. As we read, we become that laudatory future now, and our attendance on the song is Roland's continual victory. We will most probably come away from this dialogue across the ages with all our disbelief intact; but as soon as we see how the song positions us, we can also see how the song presents itself, how it wants its narrative to be read, or heard: as a vision of history stretching across time and encompassing us, as revelation.

The Song of Roland is a chanson de geste, an Old French epic poem about the exploits (Latin gesta) of a great vassal in the service of his lord (or, as in certain later poems, in revolt against his lord). The lord that Roland serves is depicted as the Emperor of Christendom; Charlemagne, in turn, is in the service of the supreme Lord of heaven, and so the feudal pyramid rises above the world to end in the Author of all existence. The close relation between the epic genre of this poem, the feudal society it depicts, and the religious war that comprises nearly all of its action is the principle of its unity, and many errors of interpretation occur when one forgets what holds the poem together.

Paien unt tort e chrestïens unt dreit, says Roland, rallying his men (line 1015); Nos avum dreit, mais cist glutun unt tort, he says again, in the midst of the battle: pagans are wrong and Christians are right; we are right and these swine are wrong. Nowadays, of course, nobody has the right to talk like that, and so this famous exhortation is often condemned as a soldier's mindless partisanship. But in fact Roland is stating a major theme of the poem: the life of the feudal vassal can have no value unless it is sanctified by service to God. The pagan vassals are exact doubles of Christian vassals—they are brave, meticulously hierarchized, faithful to their lords; they wear the same armor, they have their councils, their battle-cries, their twelve peers, their famous swords, and their men of wisdom—and so the one radical difference between the two sides in this poem is exactly what Roland says it is, the fact that Christans are right and pagans are wrong.10 The pagans have devoted all of their virtues and their vast feudality to the worship of false gods; and so the greater their nobility, the greater their crimes and treasons. The pagans are loyal, but their loyalty is obstinacy, because they are against God and steadfast in their refusal to worship Him. The Christians are savage in battle, but their savagery is sanctified, transformed into the zeal of martyrdom, because they are justified by God. The poet goes to great pains to show how the Saracen structure reflects the Christian at every point; it is because they are the enemies of God and worship Mahumet that the pagans can never be more than reflections. Roland's famous utterance therefore means exactly the opposite of what it is often taken to mean. It is the warrior's expression of humility, his understanding that without the belief in God we are all glutun. Roland is a Christian vassal and knows that without the grace of God his great qualities would lead him to perdition.

One must always be mindful of the Christian inspiration of The Song of Roland. The immanent justice of God is the ground upon which the entire poem is constructed.11 Every formal conflict in the poem is defined as a judicial battle whose outcome is God's verdict for the victor and against the vanquished. The pagans vastly outnumber the 20,000 Christians of the rear-guard; Baligant's hordes swarm over the countryside, far superior in size to Charles's army (ten divisions versus three times ten); the physically mediocre Tierri is by any normal standard no match for the great fighter Pinabel, whose towering presence intimidates all the barons of Charlemagne's empire—except for this one unremarkable man. In each case the miraculous victory of the smaller side reveals the will of God, for only He could have caused the astonishing outcome. Whatever propagandizing purpose it may have been meant to serve, the Oxford Roland is a religious poem because every event in it (including the establishment of the King's supremacy) is finally revealed as ordained by God, though there may be a secular precedent that looks like a cause; because all of its ethical values, though they are expressed in feudal terms, are ultimately justified as forms of Christian virtues; because all of its battles are cast as questions addressed to Him, and all of its victories are cast as His answer.

The ultimate religious reference of the poem clarifies its genre as well. To see this, we have to consider the kind of questions that the epic, especially the chanson de geste, is meant to answer. Many readers of The Song of Roland, for example, are distressed when they try to account for the motives behind certain actions, or to judge their moral value. What lies behind the hostility of Roland and Ganelon? Why does Ganelon explode with such murderous rage when he is named to carry out a plan that he himself had argued for? Why does he threaten Roland before the Emperor confirms the barons' choice? Above all, why does Ganelon commit treason? Or: Roland refuses to sound the olifant and thus ensures the martyrdom of the rear-guard. Should he have refused, many ask; was he right, or was he the victim of démesure, a term used by many who have written on this poem (but never by the one who composed it) to designate recklessness and inordinate pride?12 Does he regret the deaths he might have prevented; does he repent before he dies? And soon we find ourselves plagued by questions that arise from the moral uncertainty of everyday life—but not from the poem.

For the poem tells a story purportedly based on history—and in history, too, motives are often obscure and usually held to be less important than events. Furthermore, though the poem is not unconcerned with human motives, it does not—cannot—recognize the values upon which our judgments of our contemporaries are based; and the rash condemnation of Roland's act often expresses nothing more than what we all would think of a man who did the same thing today. Questions such as whether Roland should have acted as he did are out of court. They address themselves to a false issue and raise doubts concerning values regarded in the work itself as beyond questioning; they are alien to the epic world, obscurantist, and anachronistic, for the alternatives implied in such questions belong to another time and to another genre, with another truth to tell. That other genre, in the medieval period, is the romance, a courtly form adapted to the depiction of individual moral experience. Some of the differences between these two kinds of narrative are spelled out in the following passage:13

The chanson [de geste] presents a coherent relation between one event and another, the romance a series of episodes that are, as far as their content is concerned, completely independent of one another. For the chanson, therefore, the surface development of the action is far more important than it is for the romance. … In the beginning there is an event that sets the action in motion; the action then runs its course almost on its own, autonomously, and the poem closes at that point where the chain of events (which began with that initial action) comes to an end. Every single episode has its fixed place in the totality of the action; it cannot be arbitrarily omitted or moved to another place without disturbing the progress of the narrative. The aesthetic unity that develops in this way is first of all a unity of the surface: it lies in the coherence and self-containment of the sequence of events. …

In the romance, on the other hand, each episode appears to be governed by coincidence and arbitrariness. … Its aesthetic unity is to be grasped not in the surface action but in the agent, the hero.

In the chanson, too, the hero can play a dominant rôle, but he is always in the service of the action, as its agent. One can see this most clearly in the fact that the hero can change in the course of the poem. In the Chanson de Roland, for example, the action does not end with Roland's death: from the point of view of the whole work, the most crucial part has not yet even come. After Roland, Charles takes over the action and leads it to a conclusion. This changing of the agent is not felt as a break, because the unity of the chanson lies not in the person of the hero but in the encompassing continuity of the action.

The motives of the epic hero are therefore determined by the action. They conform to a well-known course of events, which the audience is willing to accept as historical fact. The story related in an epic is always a version of some famous and significant historical event, some episode that is crucial, or held to be crucial, in the history of the people among whom the epic arises. Epic action thus has an historical core: it is centered on a past event. Even if the story is fictitious, the events in it are treated as though they had really occurred in the past and engendered the present state of things. For the epic is concerned with “actions irremediably completed.”14

Since the epic must have an historical core, it must always look back, and its point of view will always be anchored in the presence of its audience. Both the poet and the audience look back to a critical moment in history, the event from which their world emerged, the past they share in every performance. For the epic genre is rooted in the idea of performance; every epic poem needs listeners in attendance. Even if those listeners are utterly alien in time and place, they are bound to the poem. For if the pastness of epic action is essential, there must be a present audience—even if it is an implicit audience—by which that pastness is established and the continuance of its effect realized. Nowadays the old epic poem has an audience of readers, and we look back to other moments in the past to find the roots of our being. But the poem will not modify its demand on us; it insists with even greater conviction: Charlemagne is our Emperor. And so the poem's effect on us depends on our willingness to respond to its words, at least for the time that we play the role of audience, as though we were not alien to this remote part of the human past. For, in fact, this moment too is at the root of our being.

In this one respect we today can identify ourselves with those who heard this poem in the beginning, because we take up a similar position regarding the time in which the action is set. We corroborate its retrospective point of view, we complete its context: with every performance, or with every reading, the presence of the audience establishes the pastness of the action. The audience therefore plays an indispensable role in the creation of the epic world: it calls that world forth by looking back upon it. Now there is a famous passage in Boethius that analyzes what takes place when one regards an action in the past, and the terms he uses will be of great help to us. In Book Five the lady Philosophy speaks as follows:

And I will answer you by saying that a future event, when it is referred to God's omniscience, appears necessary; but when that same future event is considered in its own nature, it appears to be completely free and undetermined. For there are two kinds of necessity: one is simple, absolute—for example, it is by necessity that all human beings are mortal; the other exists only in a particular condition, so that if you know that someone is walking, he must necessarily be walking; for when something is known, it cannot be otherwise than as it is known. But this condition in no way involves the other kind of necessity, simple necessity; for what makes the thing that is known necessary is not its own nature but the condition that is added: no inherent necessity forces a man walking of his own free will to step forward; however, if he walks, he is necessarily stepping forward. In the same way, an event that Providence sees as occurring must necessarily be, even though it may have no necessity by its own nature. Now God sees the occurrence of future things that come forth from the freedom of the will, sees them as present things; and so these future things, if they are referred to God's vision of them, are made necessary by the fact that He knows they are to occur, by the condition of divine knowledge; but considered in themselves they do not relinquish the absolute freedom of their own natures. Without doubt, therefore, all those things will occur that God knows are going to occur. But some of these things happen as the result of free will; and these things, though they occur, do not by coming into existence lose their own nature, by which, before they occurred, they were able not to occur.

(V, 6, 124-126)

The world of The Song of Roland is ruled by conditional necessity, necessitas condicionis. The condition that makes things necessary is “added,” as Boethius says, to every event in that world, and it is we, the audience, who add it. Before we become an audience, we know, or are expected to know, what has occurred in history, or in the revered legend that the poem regards as the most authentic history; and so on becoming an audience we know what is going to happen in the tale we listen to: our ordinary knowledge becomes foreknowledge, becomes an analogy of divine providence, and every event in the epic is made necessary (in the Boethian sense) by the fact that we know it is going to occur, by the condition of the audience's knowledge. We know what happened in history; and since this or that event lies entirely in the past, we know further that it is a part of the history of the world thus far, that it participates in a transcendental design: it therefore has to happen, it is necessary.

Epic action is set in the past, as required by the genre. The historical event is now viewed within the frame of a narrative; it is integrated into a vast structure, endowed with significance, exempted from chance: the aesthetic form of the epic reflects the transcendental design of history. And since the epic event is thus completely enacted and framed, it is fully present to us in all its moments, we know it from beginning to end. Therefore, we can say, prompted by Philosophy: we know that we will walk, and therefore he must walk; for we knew, before the first notes of the song were intoned and we became an audience, that he did walk. We know—and our knowledge precedes every event, every cause, every motive—that Roland will refuse to sound the olifant: therefore, his refusal is necessary, for it is accomplished. The witnessed and believed authenticity of his act is all that counts. His motives, whatever they are, are at best secondary causes, completely determined by the action and significant in this poem, not because of what they bring about, but because of what they reveal: the loyal spirit of a true hero. We must regard his great spirit, his proud motives, and his famous act as praiseworthy, exemplary, pleasing to God, because they are necessary, foreseen, exactly as they occurred, in the destiny of Sweet France. For otherwise the Geste Francor would be nothing but the history of accidents and whims.

We have no right to ask: should he have done what he did? shouldn't he have considered another way? shouldn't he have been more reasonable? Questions like these deny the terribly necessity of history and the monumental dignity of the epic. They are questions brought in from the Age of the Team. Once we view the epic world from a true perspective, that of an audience witnessing the reenactment of an unalterable past, we see a world governed only by providential force. Within that world, however, considered only in his nature, the epic hero moves in his own present with undiminished freedom of the will; “I would be a fool to sound the olifant,” says he; or “I shall strike a thousand seven hundred blows.” The unpredictable present and the immutable past thus wonderfully coincide in an epic poem.

It is the past, or rather the audience's sense of the past, that ennobles these figures and their deeds, as it determines the form and technique of the poem. Because of the double perspective from which we, the audience, view the action—we see it looking back from our present, and looking forward from the hero's present—we experience at once in every figure and event the two forces of a free human will and a transcendental historic purpose. This is obviously true of an epic poem like The Song of Roland, in which this purpose is revealed as divine Providence: in Charlemagne's dreams,15 for example, or in the three judicial battles, the will of God announces itself. But even when all the figures and events are the consequences of a mindless causality devoid of purpose, we still recognize the presence of a transcendent design. That is because every epic presents its narrative as history, no matter if it is really a fiction. It demands of us that we regard its action, down to the rightness of the last detail, as a crucial part of the real past—of the living past, for the world that surrounds us as we listen derives from it. Even if some event were in its inception completely accidental, it was nevertheless caused, and it produced consequences that led, in turn, to a ramifying pattern of causes; and so, what began as an accident becomes bound by causality and consequence to the ineradicable continuity of the past. For if we were to recreate the fabric of history, we would need this event to weave into our pattern. No matter how it happened, it has led somehow to the present state of things, to the facts we find in our world and the condition of our community, and so becomes, as we look back upon it, a part of the providential past: as things have turned out, it has served a purpose; therefore, it is necessary.

In case all this sounds too theoretical and abstract, let us consider two concrete examples. We can get some idea of how a thing is ennobled by our sense of its pastness if we consider how the death of someone we have loved or admired affects our feelings about his life. Sometimes death is a frightening specter, when it is almost in our ken: we get glimmerings of it, especially when we are ill. At such times we are frightened because we suddenly become aware that our body follows laws that pre-existed us and will go on after us, laws we never made or even properly understood; all of a sudden our body no longer belongs to us, it is no longer the agent of our will, it responds to something that eludes our knowledge. Its governance is now taken over by another reality, another life, something that seems utterly alien to us but awes us by its immensity, its absoluteness, its intimacy. And so it sometimes happens that when someone we love has died, we identify his personal reality with that larger reality that ruled his body, and we find ourselves thinking of his death as an incredible achievement, for we magnify his image with the greatness of that which engulfed him. Somehow, in dying, he has grown larger, become ancient and infinite; and our sense of that vast causality blots out our awareness of chance and circumstance—his whole life takes on the coherence and inevitability of the laws that ordained his extinction. Everything that was gratuitious and accidental in his life now becomes inevitable with his death. For no law decreed his existence: he did not have to live; but once he lived, he had to die. What had seemed to be the purposeless welter of his experience—the meaningless color of his eyes, the incoherence of his enthusiasms, the unpredictability of his indifferences, the chance occurrence of his neighborhoods, the wild inconsequence that followed his choices—now, in the light of his extinction, reveals an inspiring necessity. Now it can be seen that all his sleeping and waking moments were required exactly as they were to complete the form of his life. This is when we think of him in a few essential poses—working with the tools of his trade, sleeping on his side with his hand under his head, listening to the news on the radio; and our every image of him is the illustration of an epithet—he is the skilled, the childish, the gentle one, the unjudging, the long-sleeping, the incorruptible—for we see him now transfigured with significance, a reality defined for all eternity. The things about him that irritated us when he was alive, if we remember them at all, we think of now as derived from his essential meaning. We regard him now as a perfect being, an aesthetic triumph, the fulfillment of an idea—a father, a prophet, a fool, an irreplaceably ordinary man, but in any case unique, for his specific life and death were ordained.

What about the death of someone we neither love nor admire? Here we can find an example in American history, in an event whose centennial coincided with the bicentennial celebration of our origins.16 Again we can see how conditional necessity transfigures men and events. In 1876 General George Armstrong Custer led the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, despite numerous warnings and apparently acting in disobedience of orders, into an ambush. He and his entire division were annihilated in the combined attack of the Sioux and Cheyenne, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Since then historians and American history buffs have reexamined the various possibilities of the situation. Should he have attacked the numerically superior Indians? How would it all have turned out had he ordered the region to be properly reconnoitered, had he not been so hungry for fame, had he not desired a promotion so keenly, had he awaited (as he was supposed to) the arrival of the division led by his superior, had he not—like Roland—longed for a glorious victory?

We have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to ask such questions, because we know that this episode was completely unnecessary: the General could have acted otherwise. The massacre was gratuitous, the result of pure coincidence—it could have not occurred. For this event took place only because a fool on the one side and two brilliant strategists on the other found themselves in the same place at the same time.

And it is now more than a hundred years old, it is part of our past. One may claim, with some pride, that the passage of time has not conferred upon this event the dignity of necessity. And yet time and the sense of the past have in fact done their work. This event is permanently recorded in our history as an act of madness, the result of a single man's grotesque conviction and ambitiousness and a whole nation's crusading spirit and racist zeal; and it has, enlarged in this fashion, taken on something of the quality of the poet's marveling portraits of Ganelon. Even in raw history Custer's madness has achieved a classic ingloriousness, even a kind of satanic dignity, as a point of reference for the nation that went on to Vietnam, as the American locus classicus of moral imbecility and self-destruction.

But suppose this event were to be related in an epic. Then there would be another kind of transformation: all these accidents would immediately become inevitabilities. For the condicio would be added: lacking necessity in themselves, they would become necessary by being viewed from the perspective of a transcendent vision—providence and posterity know that these things will happen. We embarrassed and suspicious descendants would now become the audience, conscious both of the pastness of the event and of the epic form; and in that role we would, by our vision, transform the event into an enactment of necessity. Then the General's recklessness would become exemplary courage, an essential virtue of the American hero; the senseless slaughter would become a blessed martyrdom, the fulfillment of a sacred covenant; and above all, the defeat would become the first moment of an ordained rebirth. All these transformations would take place because our vision had enclosed the event in an historical and aesthetic frame that signifies that everything within is foreseen and therefore necessary. Looking back as inhabitants of the world that has emerged since then, we would see not an isolated catastrophe but the most critical moment in a providential structure. The question whether the General also acted as he did because he wanted a promotion would now be eradicated by the force of conditional necessity and replaced by motives better suited to the grand design.

Was the “real” Roland—the “original” uncrusading Hruodlandus, prefect of the Breton march, whose name appears, perhaps added by a later hand, in a few of the manuscripts of Eginhard's biography of Charlemagne—was this Roland, like Custer, a reckless fool, unmindful of the welfare of his men? Judging from all that we know of the original incident, Hruodlandus never had the choice that confronts the hero of the epic; he had no chance to summon help, much less to decide whether he should. All that we can surmise is that he fought bravely in a hopeless situation. We also surmise that nothing more specific was known about him during the genesis of the poem. Whatever the circumstances in which this poem came into being, there were no hard facts that could prevent those who sang the song from magnifying Hruodlandus into Roland.

But we know too much about Custer to make him an exemplary figure; there are too many witnesses to his nasty egotism and his lack of self-control. We cannot, without criminally deluding ourselves, give him the character of an epic hero, one that is worthy of receiving the commandments of necessity. Let us therefore give thanks that no one we know of has attempted anything of this sort, apart from a few foolish lyrics of the time and some “epic” movies since then. But simply from toying with this idea we can see that the hero's motives can never truly explain what takes place in the poem: they are mirrors, rather than movers, of epic action. For the hero would be diminished and his deeds trivialized if (like Custer) he had nothing but his own reasons and he were not appointed by history.

As epic necessity imposes coherence on the past, so it bestows dignity on men and events, for it removes them from the vanity of a personal will and identifies them with a divine intention. Necessity eradicates accidentality and creates, with its tremendous retrospective power, a need for every moment. The hero's motives are exactly right, even when he appears to a lesser man (like Oliver) to be most willful and undisciplined, for they realize a purpose too great for ordinary men to understand. He desires, with all his character and vitality, to bring about the crucial facts of history. Roland does what he does because he must do it, because the event has already taken place, in our view, and he has no choice. He is the agent of an accomplished action, and we are privileged to witness the true hero's graceful conformity to the rule of necessity.

Because we know the history of these events, we see Roland's acts as part of a pattern; and though we may later force ourselves to change our minds, we first see every pattern as the product of a deliberate will. For the point of view that sees, or projects, an immense design where there is only the welter of blind causality is a religious point of view; and so, even when we reject the substance of religion, we adopt its view of history when we are the audience of an epic poem. Roland's acts are part of an historical pattern, and we perceive them as emanating from the Will that produces history. Because of the ennobling effect of necessity, because his actions are always sanctioned by the demands of that transcendent pattern that we, in our present role as audience, cannot dissociate from the movement of a higher will, the hero can never be denounced as vain, or proud, or lacking in wisdom; nor, it follows, can his enemy ever be dismissed as simply a scoundrel. We must never judge Roland's motives by our common freedom and our common sense, because they are purely epic motives, his personal resolve to bring about what has already been enacted. Thus it is through necessity that the epic hero realizes his greatness and his humility; for he is the agent of providence.

The poet has exploited the effect of the pastness of the action and has arranged the narrative so as to put Roland's eminence beyond doubt; at the very least, if we do not simply admire Roland's actions, we refrain from judging them. But we are meant to admire them. Roland is the only one who knows the right thing to do when the Christians are confronted with Marsilion's offer of peace. The others have every conceivable good reason for accepting that offer. For one thing, nobody in the council knows that it is a trick. And Marsilion does promise to become Christian: his conversion was the object of Charlemagne's expedition. Naimon and Ganelon speak ably from principles—the highest principles. Roland speaks from experience—Basile and Basan had been slain earlier through Marsilion's treachery on a similar occasion: if Marsilion tricked them then, it is likely that he is tricking them now. They must not give up all that they have achieved for a mere promise; the war that Charlemagne came to fight is not over. But the others do not listen, for they are reasonable, and tired.

The scene in Charlemagne's court bears comparison with a scene in another medieval poem in which men make a choice in a necessitarian world, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The characters in that work are involved in a tremendous providential upheaval, the translatio imperii, the movement of the center of universal authority from Greece to Rome. Now for this great event to take place, Troy must be destroyed and Aeneas must make his escape; and for Troy to be destroyed, it must take in the agent of its destruction, the traitor Antenor. All of the characters are of course in the dark concerning the great moment in the history of salvation about to occur, and everything hinges on their reaction to the Greek offer to give them back their warrior Antenor in exchange for Criseyde. Hector sets before them the simplest and most obvious dictate of their moral code: their worth and dignity lie in their refusal to trade women. But the others think it would be mad to keep a useless woman when they can get a great warrior back. They are free to make their choice, and they choose the course that leads to their annihilation. Thus, as the matter is arranged by the poet, the freedom of the human will is preserved even as the force of necessity prevails; for though the Trojans did not know about the vast designs of Providence, they knew enough, especially after Hector had told them, to make the right decision, the one that would have excluded the traitor and saved the city.

The situation is worked out in the great English poem to reveal the moral failing of the Trojan populace; that same situation is developed to a different end in The Song of Roland. Like Hector, Roland tells the barons all that they need to know in order to make the right decision. We do not see in this any sign of a moral failing among the barons—they are all men of principle worn out with fighting—and least of all any sign of Roland's démesure or bellicosity. What takes place is the revelation of Roland's privileged position in the world. He is right, and all the others are wrong—and that is all: this scene does not show that he is right for the wrong reasons, or that Naimon is wrong for the right ones—two impossible and inconceivable ideas in the Middle Ages; it does not even show that his natural and unaided judgment is better than theirs. It simply shows that he is graced with the right decision. But in the world that this poem celebrates, he cannot be right by accident: not only his decision but his entire attitude is right—his militant response to the pagans, his whole sense of what a Christian knight must do is nearest to what pleases God, for it comes from God.

The massacre at Rencesvals does not begin with Roland's refusal to sound the olifant: it begins right here, in “the council that went wrong,” as the poem says.17 And we are expected to respond to Roland's act at Rencesvals in the light of the grace bestowed upon him in this council, remembering always that he is right, that the perilous position of the rear-guard would never have come about if his voice in council had carried the day, and that after Roland's death Charles ends up doing exactly what Roland had urged; so that the fact of his having been right then confers an authority upon his actions now, at Rencesvals. For judge him as one will, if he was bellicose, impulsive, proud, and foolish in council (that is how Ganelon judges him), he is all of those things now; and he was right then—these qualities led him, completely unaware of Marsilion's plan, to make the right decision. Now the pattern repeats itself at Rencesvals, and Naimon's wisdom is replaced by Oliver's wisdom. We the audience, knew that Roland was right in council because Marsilion's perfidy had been enacted before us. He is doing now what he did then, following the dictates of the Christian vassal's calling with unquestioning faith, though now we cannot see the corroborative light.

Still, it may be there, and the possibility of its presence, the inappropriateness of our moral categories to Roland's act, the very fact that what he does eludes definitive judgment, all indicate that we are not supposed to judge. It is an error as well to think that Roland regrets his act and repents before he dies. If he were truly to repent, it would have to mean that his act—his refusal to summon help—was free of all necessity; in that case he could not be an epic hero, and he would become the proper victim of the audience's common sense. For the moment we think that he should have acted otherwise, we deny the force of necessity. If there is no necessity, there is no providence; and if there is no providence, then Roland's heroism becomes an aberration, a state of madness, a terrible display of the private will gone berserk. Only from one point of view—Roland's own—is his choice completely free. From the perspective of the poem's audience, he had to do what he did, for the battle of Rencesvals was now locked into the great design of history—the glorious history of France. From that perspective, the action he takes is necessary, pre-established; and Roland's greatness lies in his willingness to carry it out. We are moved by his warrior's rapture as he speaks of the duties of the vassal, not because we share his notion of loyalty, but because we see his notion of loyalty leading him to fulfill the role into which, from the audience's point of view, history has already cast him.

Roland explains why he refuses to summon help: he says that to do so would bring shame upon himself, upon his family, and upon France. He also gives the reasons why it would bring shame. He believes that it is his duty to fight alone: that is why the poem makes him twice speak the famous passage on the vassal's duty at this moment. He is also sure that he can win, and it would be shameful to summon help when he and his men can defeat the Saracens alone, for he had sworn that Charles would not lose a single man, not a horse or a mule, as the army made its way through the passes.18 The concerns that led him to refuse to summon help—honor, lineage, sweet France—are named and praised by Charles, later, in his lament for Roland. These are the lights by which Roland acts. But we, the audience, enlightened by necessity, can see more: if Roland calls for help and Charles returns, the battle will lose its judicial character.19 Only if there is a victory of the few against the many can the outcome of the battle reveal the will of God. If Roland is right, then God has bestowed upon his outlook a special grace. He is the agent of God's will, the supreme vassal, and God has sanctified his calling, endowed it with a mission. In this we can detect an historical resonance. When the Church, in the interests of the peace movement and the crusade, set about enlisting the warrior class into its service, it did not try to temper the ferocious instincts of these men but rather attempted to train their martial spirit, in all its savage pride, upon a new, universal, Christian goal.20

This may be the best moment to warn against importing twentieth-century sanctities into this 900-year-old poem. The Saracens in The Song of Roland, as the fantastic names and the ludicrous creed attributed to them make clear, are the postulated enemies of God, which meant in the Middle Ages that they are the force opposed to all human values. The poem is not, therefore, a genocidal tirade against the civilization of Islam; the Saracens here are demonic reflections, human souls degraded into automatons because they are without God—without reverence and humility. The true faith they lack is the faith of love, the commitment to the human community. Charlemagne naturally looks back to the time of Daniel, his brother-heir; but, except for the fathers who lose their sons, there is no kinship and fidelity among the Saracen generations—they have no past to look back to. They are agents of discontinuity, mad votaries who trample the idols they worship underfoot, who disintegrate the structures they mimic. Compassion for the enemy would be treason to man's community.

But that does not mean that the human reality of the enemy is obliterated in this great poem. Sometimes vehement hatred of another signifies a greater human commitment than pity, for pity often means that one has given up hope for the other's chances and, amid copious tears, written him off. It is said of Baligant that if he had been Christian he would have been a great man, a remark that is often mistaken as an expression of blind intolerance. But it is really an explicit recognition, in the poem's early feudal idiom, of the secular equality of Christian and pagan, and of the infinitely redeemable humanity of the enemy. The pagans are condemned, not because they are without God, but because they are without God by their own choice.21 They have used their heroic powers to thwart human value, but to their dying breath they have the chance to be converted by love. That is, as things turn out, a privilege reserved for Bramimunde alone. The others, if they are not killed by the sword, are converted by it. The poem's outlook is thus irreconcilable with the celebration of pluralism characteristic of our enlightenment; but it also excludes the ultimate nightmare, our nightmare, the vision that we dread: the tribalism of the industrial age, which regards those on the far side of the world as alien in essence, morally strange, incapable of our humanity.

Each man in this feudal community finds his place in a hierarchical structure of loyalties that ends in Charlemagne, to whom all are bound, as he is bound to them in the obligation to protect them.22 Each of the barons holds a position with respect to his own men—the men he brought with him to battle—analogous to that of Charles with respect to the great barons and ultimately to the whole community. The men are bound to the lord, the lord to Charlemagne. The word “man,” hume, is a technical term here, designating the sworn vassal, one who has done homage to a lord in exchange for protection, nurture, and gifts. The relation that binds man and lord, and man and man, in this way is designated amur, love; so that when Ganelon, at the height of his rage, shouts at Roland: Jo ne vus aim nïent (306). “I do not love you,” that is no understated and ironical insult but the most terrible thing he could utter. It means: the bonds of loyalty are cut, we are enemies. It is a desfiance, a withdrawal of faith, a declaration of war, and, in the feudal age, it legalized revenge. This is a point on which Ganelon pins his life at his trial.

We can see here how the poem depicts Ganelon always as a conscientious follower of the law and of the oldest feudal values. One of the many instances of perfect feudal love (in the sense defined above) occurs in the scene in which Ganelon parts from his men to go on his mission to the Saracens. Here we see the deportment of true vassals and a true lord: they beg to accompany him, he refuses to endanger their lives recklessly and provides for the succession of his son and the peace of his realm in the event of his death. And here we see as well the true Ganelon, the essential Ganelon—the man who, in his whole-hearted obedience to the law, subverts its intention and works the destruction of his community. For the effect of his brave departure is to sow the seeds of discord and to endanger the life of Charles's greatest vassal (lines 342ff). Ganelon the traitor is a pure creature of convention: his every word and deed are preceded by a passage indicating how someone regards him and what someone expects of him, and everything he does or says confirms that description and fulfills those expectations.23 Depending on who describes or observes him, he is a raging malcontent, a faithful vassal, a false counselor, a revered lord of ancient lineage and long service, a liar, a protector. Note the utter inconsequence of his bringing up Basile and Basan (line 330) after he had argued in favor of accepting Marsilion's offer of peace. In recalling their memory he is restating a point made earlier by Roland (lines 207-10). He has completely reversed himself. His successive states of character are bewildering, all the more striking in comparison with the consistency of his effect: he is continually programed and reprogramed, and invariably destructive. Only in the trial is he named and defined forever.

The fact that Ganelon, the traitor, is repeatedly depicted as the perfect lord and vassal is eloquent testimony to the secret, indwelling weakness of the structure over which Charles presides. Ganelon never breaks any rules: he sees himself, and rightly so, as an upholder of the most venerable law, the earliest bonds of human community. [With one exception: he lies to Charlemagne about the death of the Algalife (lines 681-91), a clear act of treason for which he deserves to die. And yet, nothing more is ever said about it. In his indictment of Ganelon, Charles never mentions it. The poet wants Ganelon's treason and the justice of his execution to be beyond question to the audience; but he does not want the trial to be affected by this evidence, which, if it were mentioned, would have made the rest of the trial and especially the judicial combat unnecessary. The poet wants the trial to hinge on a completely different issue.] In his first outburst against Roland, he denounces his stepson for putting a kinsman in danger and thus breaking an ancient and prefeudal bond. And yet, Ganelon is a traitor. In fact, it is by following the rules that Ganelon commits his treason. That is the unspeakable wonder of Ganelon: he betrays his land by conforming to its law.

He denies with his last breath that he committed treason and insists that what he did was legal. This argument is no courtroom trick. His sincerity and the authenticity of his claim are reflected in the truly admiring portrait that the poet inserts at this moment (3762-64); in the admiration of his peers; in the unwillingness of his judges to condemn him, intimidated as they are by Pinabel, who will fight for him in the trial by battle and whose immense strength reflects the strength of Ganelon's position; in his status as a noble lord of a great and ancient family. He is no outsider, no Sinon, but an authentic member of this society and a passionate believer in its original law. He claims that revenge was his right and that he had fulfilled all of the established prescriptions by which revenge is sanctioned. “I took vengeance,” he says; “I'll admit to no treason in that.” For the right to take revenge is a basic right in the feudal community ruled by Charles, the oldest sanction of justice. Now the trial must determine whether there is a higher right than vengeance.24

In the grandeur, sincerity, and persuasiveness of Ganelon is reflected the weakness of the entire system, for Ganelon, as he sees it, did nothing more than what the system authorized. And he is right; nobody had ever imagined the things their covenant could sanction. It is a fact that Ganelon could never have committed his treason had he lacked what the system provided and his own honored place within it. From his native status and his adherence to the law arises his treason. Without due process, without the prescriptions of custom, without a communal heritage of ethics and rights (as, for example, the right to take revenge), without those conventions that preserve the life of a community, Ganelon would have lacked the means to betray his native land. He is therefore the arch-traitor, for through him the system betrays itself. Ganelon plays an essential role in this system: he is its traitor. He brings to pass the unsuspected consequences of its fundamental laws, endows it with a shadow. For his presence is as necessary as the shadow cast by a body: if a body exists, its shadow necessarily exists; without the shadow there can be no body. Without the traitor or the traitorous force, there can be no system. In Ganelon we see, not a man who for one reason or another—rage, disaffection, avarice—becomes a traitor, but a man who was a traitor from the very beginning, a traitor by necessity, whose destructiveness is uncaused because his essence precedes every cause. For what can be the cause of his treason? It is true that Roland provoked him; one may even believe Ganelon's assertion that Roland cheated him—and these would be sufficient causes if Ganelon were only an avenger. But he is something more—the trial proves it: he is a traitor, and no motive conceivable in the poem explains that. His uncaused act can accommodate every cause conceivable in the feudal world. The mystery of his treason is a sign of his elemental being.

Ganelon is the destructive element of every secular structure, the indwelling cause of its instability. In him we recognize the traitorous possibility of every institution. Custom can betray, because it can preserve and reinforce an evil. The law can betray, because it can show the criminal how to commit a crime and be acquitted. Even loyalty can betray, because the object of one's loyalty may obscure higher values: Ganelon keeps faith with his family and his ethical code and just for that reason cannot see the supreme good of the Emperor's mission or the rights of the community sworn to fulfilling it. Praise of one's comrades, the longing for peace, piety itself can betray.

Ganelon's treason reveals that the precious rights and customs of every community will tear it to pieces if they are not hierarchized. Some rights have precedence over others, and the right of the King in fulfilling his God-given role has precedence over all. This is a hard-won principle, for according to the poem, no conflict had brought it down to earth before this, and it is not articulated until the trial, at the very end, by one man—“not too tall, not too short”—a man whose eloquence lies in his lack of personal brilliance and his willingness to stake his life on that principle. And still no one sees the principle, save Charles and his man: the barons do not see it, they are blind and filled with panic before the grandeur of Ganelon's lineage and the strength of Pinabel. They are reasonable, moderate, forgiving, and therefore almost traitors themselves (line 3814), for they do not know what is at stake—they bear no scars, they cannot see, they did not witness the martyrdom at Rencesvals. It takes the hand of God in the battle between Charles's properly nondescript man and the mighty and beautiful Pinabel to reveal the truth: the right of the King precedes all others.

Through the crime of its native-born traitor, the system has discovered its essential weakness, and a better system has emerged, the system of Charlemagne's great Christian empire. The grave losses caused by Ganelon's treason are redeemed, transformed into the precious suffering of rebirth, the moment he is declared a traitor. For a new state is brought into being by the treason of Ganelon, which appears as a shadow-act of the great treason that inaugurated the salvation of the human race, and by the trial in which he is condemned. For the first time, the reality of dulce France is fully established in the poem: sweet France is what he betrayed. For the first time, France is more than the remote and undefined object of the Christian's love and the Saracens' hate. Here, in the trial of Ganelon, it is involved in the action in the way that the other characters are, both as sufferer and as agent. The trial that defines the identity of Ganelon affirms the existence of a coherent political being, a state, whose presence is now immediate and effective. And this dramatic appearance of the state within the frame of the poem's action comes about for this reason: when something can be betrayed, that is proof that it exists, that it is no longer a mass of disunited powers but a defined being capable of engendering obligations. It can be betrayed because it is real and has the right to demand loyalty. And when this being is the community of a people and its king, then the treason committed against them is proof that they have established the institutions that make up a state; for Ganelon has shown that these institutions are the necessary condition of treason. And further, when this being declares itself betrayed, that is proof that it has become aware of its identity, that an act of self-consciousness, a prise de conscience, has taken place. And finally, when the state condemns its traitor, it reveals not only its power as an entity but also the ethical basis of its claim to loyalty: the destruction of the state through treason would be an arch-crime because it would threaten the basis of all human community, of human existence itself. Thus in the same act the state declares its identity and asserts its right to exist.

This is the precious moment for which every other moment in the poem was a preparation. We can recall, for example, the “impotence” and “passivity” of the King when Ganelon names Roland to command the rear-guard. Charles's immobility stems from the fact that he is legally paralyzed: Roland has not been chosen for the rear-guard as Charles's vassal, and so Charles is not in a position, even though he is Roland's lord, to order him to stay or go. Roland is chosen by an assembly of the barons, who, in giving the King their counsel, are acting as representatives of the whole state and, in effect, exercising the authority of the state.25 That is why the King's weakness at this moment is a preparation for the great trial at the end: the King cannot become strong until an act of treason is declared.

Charles's behavior in this scene is usually interpreted as a reflection of the king's historic position vis-à-vis the barons at the time of the poem's composition. There may be something to that idea, but the full effect of this scene is clear only at the end of the poem. If this scene reflects an historical situation, it does not do so directly, for the barons are not shown acting in their own interests against those of the King. They are acting on a state matter, and Roland is named to perform a service to all. That is why it is a tremendous moment when Tierri says to Charles: “Roland was acting in your service”: for the first time the idea is put forth that service to all is identical with service to Charles, and vice versa, that Charles embodies the interests and authority of the state.

Thus it is only after the trial that it becomes possible to define the meaning of “sweet France” and the principle of its unity. Before that, we get only fleeting glimpses of a certain spirit shared by those who fight in that land's name: the courteousness and companionship of Roland and his comrades, the universal love for Charles, the sumptuousness and concord of the Christian camp. But these impressions are obscured by others: the disagreements in council, the sudden revelations of Charles's weakness, the private feuds, the disintegrative allegiances to family and private interests. The French, when they think of their land, remember their wives and daughters, their fiefs and domains (lines 820f). Thus the expression France has a certain effect but no clear definition: Baligant and the other pagans speak with perfect ease of “sweet France.”

Before the trial, France was defined only by its outer enemies: the hostility of the Saracens proved that France was dulce, pleasing to God, for it was locked in combat with the enemies of God. Now, however, through the condemnation of its native-born traitor, France takes on a native character and reveals exactly what it is that pleases God: it is a state in which all men are bound in loyalty through their ultimate obligation to the King, a state whose unity and well-being derive from the subordination of all privileges, rights, and interests to the King chosen by God. At the end of the poem Charles receives a new mission as head of a new born state.

Before the treason, when Roland was still alive, the God-given principle of the supremacy of the King was not yet clear, despite his own exemplary loyalty to Charles. Because of Roland's eminence, the greatest reverence could still be given to horizontal obligations—to family loyalties and the demands of personal honor—until Ganelon revealed the disintegrating effect of these unordered rights. But now all is arranged as it is pleasing to God, in a vertical hierarchy that ends, on this earth, in the King.

In other words: after the trial, as the system expunges its essential traitor, it also makes an end of itself: we do not see emerging from the trial the system that had always existed only now in a healthier condition, but rather a different system, something new and nearer to God's intention. Modern readers may be satisfied with an interpretation of the poem as a justification and celebration of a political and religious order. But for the audience that shared its past and its vision of the future, there was more. The action of The Song of Roland foreshadows, as we have seen, the great apocalyptic battle and the end of time as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. That last great battle will also be caused by treason, and it will end in the Last Judgment, after which the world will be set right again. Now since Charles's battle against the pagans prefigures that final battle, it must also prefigure that last stage in the restoration of the world: the historical event reveals the eschatological truth. Viewed in this light The Song of Roland resembles what Dante calls “the allegory of the theologians,” setting forth real events—things that really happened—as a revelation of the last things to come. And when the action of the epic is finally completed, when the historical event has taken place, then the condition of the world is in fact closer to the final eschatological perfection that the event foreshadows.

A new state arises from the destruction wrought by treason. The traitor has used to evil purpose all that was good in his society and has thereby served the good: his treason made the King strong. The poem draws a parallel between the crimes of Ganelon and Judas: an immeasurable good arose from both. Therefore this too, this ultimate service of evil to the good, is foreseen. In John 6:70 Jesus says: Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?—and these words filled Saint Augustine with wonder:26

He might have said: “I have chosen eleven”; is the devil chosen, is the devil among the elect? One speaks of the elect in praise: is that man elect through whom, contrary to his will and without his knowledge, a great good arises? Just as wicked men use God's good works for evil, so God uses the wicked works of men for good. … What is more evil than Judas? Among all those who followed the Master, among those twelve, it was to him that money was entrusted and the care of the poor. And then, ungrateful for this great privilege, for so great an honor, he took in money and did away with justice, this dead man betrayed life, turned as an enemy against Him whom he had followed as a disciple. This is the great evil of Judas; but the Lord used his evil for good. He suffered Himself to be betrayed, that He might redeem us: behold the evil of Judas turned into good! How many martyrs has Satan persecuted? And yet had Satan ceased his persecution, we would not this day be celebrating the glorious martyr's crown of Saint Laurentius.

Thus it is foreseen that the traitor must participate in every structure and be the necessary cause of human amelioration. Here again we see that the poem wants its narrative to be judged in the light of providence; and in that light Roland's death is a great victory, and the cause of great good for all—martyrdom and a place among the flowers of Paradise for those who fell, a new state for those who survive and inherit the earth. Of this new state we are permitted to see only the circumstances of its birth and in Tierri its characteristic man. Its essential traitor has not yet appeared: that belongs to another story. And so we are shown a view of human progress, the providential cycle of treason and rebirth, which will come to an end in the conflict between the last traitor, the Antichrist, and the hordes of heaven—the great battle prefigured in the episode of Baligant. Through this painful cycle a small advance has been won, the foundation of a new state, whose good lies in loyalty, or, in the feudal sense, love.


Every reader of The Song of Roland is struck by its distinctive and unforgettable style: the flat declarativeness of its lines, the dizzying shifts in tense, the absence of an explicit connection between one statement and another, the wholesale repetition of many passages, the frequent restatement of the same idea and retelling of the same event, the thinness of its vocabulary (consisting of fewer than 1800 words) and the rare use of figurative language, the powerful conclusiveness of each laisse (each group of lines), which gives one the feeling that the narrative repeatedly comes to an end and then resumes. The style is a powerful instrument in the hands of the Roland poet, a man who works with silences as well as words. We can trace here only a fraction of what he achieves with his strong meter, his formulas, his few words.

Many of the stylistic features mentioned above reflect the poet's use of the techniques of oral poetry—poetry composed as it is being performed, as the poet sings or chants or recites it before a present audience. In the last fifty years a great deal of light has been shed on the technique of oral composition.27 Here, in abbreviated and simplified form, are some of the main points that bear on the style of our poem.

The performer of oral poetry, who is usually if not always unlettered, does not try to memorize a number of lines already composed, a “text”: considering the enormous length of some oral epics, that would be beyond the capacity even of primitive memory. Instead, he uses his memory to retain a great hoard of formulas that have been developed, honed down to perfection, over many generations and that he has learned in the course of a long apprenticeship and professional life. He possesses as well in his trained and capacious memory a great keyboard of narrative elements—longer elements (sometimes called “themes”) and shorter elements (“motifs”) such as, for example, the scene of the council, the arming of the warrior, the preparation for a journey, the journey itself (often depicted as a quest, a bridal quest or a quest for treasure), the death of the warrior in battle. Depending upon the occasion, the audience, and the length of time at his disposal, the performing poet chooses among the vast range of themes that would be included in the full, unabridged version of his tale. He composes the narrative on the spot, line by line, guided in his choice of incident and formula by the theme; for in his mind each theme is already attached to a particular subgroup of motifs and formulas, and his final choice, in performance, is determined by the narrative and metrical pattern.28 He does not—could not—compose each line word by word, nor could he choose in each line from the whole, enormous common stock of formulas, for he would be paralyzed in mid-recitation by the sheer quantity of his choices.

In the Chanson de Roland, for example, each line consists basically of ten syllables divided by a pause (or caesura) after the fourth syllable (occasionally after the sixth). A formula of four or six syllables will obviously fill out the first or second part of a line. But a formula may also have fewer syllables, in which case it must be so designed that it can be joined to another brief formula to fill out one part of the line (or hemistich). The formula ço dist li reis (“the king said this”) fills up the first part of the line; and whatever the semantic value of ço, it does fill out the meter. If the attribution of speech is to occur in the second part of the line, the formula must contain six syllables: dist li emperere Carles. To take another example: ki a or est gemmee (“which is set with precious stones in gold”) is a frequent and useful second-hemistich formula: it can be applied to different objects (sun elme, “his helmet,” line 3142; la bone sele, “the good saddle,” line 1373) and turned around to fit the assonance (ki est gemmee ad or, line 1587). It is an essential principle of oral poetry that whenever the same combination of metrical, lexical, semantic, and phonological conditions occurs, the same formula is used: this is the principle of economy or thrift. …

Is The Song of Roland an oral poem? Opinion is divided, and the entire question has often—too often—been reduced to a dispute between “traditionalists” (who believe in the continual re-creation of the poem by generations of anonymous poets) and “individualists” (who believe in the unique creation of the poem by a single poet, perhaps named Turold).29 The extreme individualist position, as we have seen, is now untenable because there is evidence that before the composition of the Oxford Roland a legend had developed concerning Roland, his lord, his companions, his betrayer, and his enemies.

Anyone who argues the traditionalist position must insist that the Oxford Roland is an oral poem, for otherwise this position is equally untenable: the only kind of poem that develops by slow accretion through many generations is an oral poem, untouched by the definitiveness of a written “text,” a poem of continuous potentiality, brought forth anew from the great matrix of formulas and themes each time it is performed—a poem “that lives in variants.”30 Traditionalism therefore regards the Oxford Roland as an accident: of the actual and potential variants, which are as infinite and impermanent as the patterns of a continually revolving kaleidoscope, one version (and not necessarily the greatest one ever performed) has chanced to get written down. For there can be no talk of “development” without the assumption of this fluidity. That is why traditionalism must consider the manuscript an anomaly, and it warns us continually against attributing any kind of scriptural authority to it as though it were the “author's” last word:31

… the manuscript is a pure accident: it represents nothing more in effect than the recording through writing of some one of the innumerable versions that do not cease being born as long as the song is sung. … The manuscript of an individual poet represents an enduring reality, that is, the text fixed by an author; whereas the manuscript of a traditional [i.e. oral] work represents a fleeting moment of a multiform reality.

There are, in fact, other versions of the story of Roland extant, and though these are later than the Oxford poem they are without question based on earlier material and may very well argue the existence of countless other renditions.32

Now it is clear that the techniques of oral poetry are at work in the Oxford Roland, for part of it is composed by formula and theme. But that does not prove that it is an oral poem. And so the question remains: does the Oxford manuscript contain a copy of a unique creation prepared (not necessarily written) in advance of performance; or is it the accidental recording of one performance among a vast number that have been sung into the air? The question is of some importance, for it affects the way we read the poem. If we believe that it was prepared in advance, then we can read it as a “literary” work and respond to its words, images, characters, and events as we do when reading written poetry. We are free to look back, reread, compare part with part, consider what happens to a word or image each time it occurs, study the retroactive effect of one turn of events upon all that has preceded: we respond to the work as a construct designed so that every part affects every other. If we believe that it was composed in performance, then we read it as an oral poem, and we guard against the reader's habit of close reading. If we want to explain why a certain word or image or event is there, we must be careful to remember that it belongs to the theme and to the group of formulas that the theme has attracted: it is there because of the technique of oral composition. We have to block every exegetical impulse; the only context we can refer to is the context of the line—the meter, sound, and sense of ten syllables—and the theme. We must refer every element to a pre-existing, universal, unrestricted repertory of narrative units and fixed expressions, and to the rules governing their use: we must not explain it by some other element in the poem, especially one that is remote from the local context—that would be relapsing into our reader's habit.

These are the alternatives that face us if we take a hard line in this matter. When we come upon the word martyrie (“slaughter,” “martyrdom”), for example, should we refer to all the other passages in which that word appears and consider whether it takes on an added meaning or an ironic connotation as a result of its frequent recurrence? Or should we say that it is there because of the nature of formulaic poetry, that the poet uses the word each time it occurs, not because he wants it to reflect upon an earlier use of the word, but because it fits the meter, the sound pattern, and the narrative moment and because it is traditionally associated with a certain narrative theme in the field of warfare? If we believe that the poem was prepared in advance, we refer every element to a system within the poem; if we believe that it was composed in the pressure of performance, we refer every element to a system outside the poem. That is the hard line.

Obviously we can never know for sure whether this poem was prepared in advance or composed on the spot. There is, however, one thing that is sure: if we make the same demands of this poem that we would make of a written text, it responds with amazing beauty. Let us take that same word martyrie as an example. If we bear in mind that it can be used either in the sense of “slaughter” or in the spiritual sense familiar to us, then we can see that it is often used with wonderfully illuminating irony. In line 591 Ganelon warns Marsilion that he must pay a price for the attack on the rearguard: ne l di por ço, de voz iert la martirie: “Your men will be martyred.” In betraying the Christian side he still thinks in Christian terms, and he unintentionally reveals how the pagans are doomed to die a worse death than the death of the body: they will be “martyred,” but to what cause? In line 965 Margariz boasts of what he will do to the Christians: li. xii. per sunt remés en martirie: “The Twelve Peers await their martirie”; he means “slaughter,” but his words contain a truth—the promise held out by Archbishop Turpin of eternal honor among the flowers of Paradise—that Margariz cannot imagine. In line 1166, Roland says, cist paien vont grant martirie querant: “These pagans seek a great martirie.” Here one might argue that, in the context of battle, martirie simply means “slaughter,” without any religious connotations whatever; but this argument, far from disproving an ironic use of the word, explains what makes it possible. For if the word did not have a literal and obvious sense to begin with (“slaughter”), it could not have a second, or ironic, meaning (“martyrdom”). Roland's words mean that the pagans are coming to be slaughtered and that they will be “martyrs” to an unholy cause. The pagans' “martyrdom” is, like the pagans' feudal system and their apparent virtues—their courage and loyalty—an exact image of the Christian reality, only grounded in error and ending in perdition. In line 1922, on the other hand, Roland uses the word in both senses without any ironic intent: Ci recevrums martyrie.

Is it possible that the Chanson de Roland came into existence as a written text employing a number of oral formulas and themes? For a long time this possibility was denied: there was no such thing as a “transitional” poet, one who could write and still feel free to make use of the oral-poetic system. A poet was either “oral” or “literary” and would use only the techniques appropriate to his type. But now there is evidence that the Chanson de Roland (as well as other medieval epics) was composed precisely in conditions formerly considered impossible.33 A great poet—“the last redactor”—using material that was preserved in oral tradition (and perhaps by other means as well) composed a text intended for oral delivery. And because this poem was meant to be performed, he used the techniques of oral composition: those were the techniques employed in the poetic material he inherited, as well as in most vernacular poetry, and they were adapted to the entertainment of an attending audience—just as the principles of rhetoric, which began as an oral art, have been preserved and venerated for centuries in written prose. Thus the poet was not bound by the principle of economy and could make use of a wider choice of expressions and techniques than those of purely oral poetry. If this is true, then we should read The Song of Roland as words on the page, a literary text.

Nor can we, in fact, read it in any other way. No matter what traditionalists and individualists may say, the alternatives we have been examining are not mutually exclusive. We say that if it is a literary poem, it is prepared in advance; but if it is an oral poem, how can it not be prepared in advance? The lettered poet can write several drafts and revise indefinitely. But what does the oral poet do? He retells a tale that he has heard and told many times before: every past performance is an earlier draft, and every present performance in effect a revision. The oral poet would, to be sure, find the idea of revision incomprehensible and would swear that he is retelling a story exactly as he has heard it; but we know that in fact he does not tell it the same way twice—the very nature of oral poetry rules that out, for that would be tantamount to memorizing a text. He may not intend to alter his narrative, but he does: The effect of his repeated performance of the narrative is to refine and improve his treatment of it.34 Even if he does not think in terms of making the poem better, even if in most cases he only makes it different, all these distinctions fall when a great poet appears: the line between alteration and revision becomes very faint then, if it exists at all. He knows what he is going to say—the tale is mapped out by themes and the formulas that they attract—and he is free to use a certain word or image or episode now because he knows he will use it or something similar later: The Song of Roland is distinguished by this parallelism. The whole song is present to the poet. He therefore has a sense of context similar to the literate reader's. A strictly oral poet would not “revise” as a lettered poet does, for the one composes word by word, the other by groups of words. Nevertheless, what shall we call his refinement of the poem but “revision”? Besides, the “strictly oral poet” is a disputed postulate as far as this poem is concerned. Only about twenty-five percent of the lines of The Song of Roland contain word-groups identified beyond question as formulas. A good part of the poem may have been composed with greater freedom. As far as the question of how we should read this poem is concerned, the difference between the two kinds of poetic composition boils down to two issues: the poet's perception of what he was doing, and the conditions in which he worked on the earlier versions—two issues about which we can never have sufficient knowledge and which in any case have no bearing on our response to the poem before us.

Then let us respond to every feature of this poem and not fear that the procedures of its technique can invalidate our response. Every feature affects us in a certain way, and the capacity to produce that response is part of its essential reality. For example, the poem is effectively anonymous: the name Turoldus in the last line may be the name of the poet, or the scribe, or the redactor, or the performer, or the author of the source, and the mystery of his name only intensifies the effect produced by anonymity. Most epic poems from this period are, as it happens, anonymous; but if we rest content with that observation, we imply that the anonymity of The Song of Roland is accidental and therefore irrelevant to our response. But in fact it affects us profoundly, just as we are affected by the appropriate mystery of Turoldus' name; and if we define that effect, we shall discover something essential in the poem. For its anonymity reflects its style, and its moral disposition. In our response to the poem, its anonymity is a positive sign of its mode of expression, which is enormously powerful without being in the least idiosyncratic. In that same anonymity we find its ethical bias confirmed: its unconcern with subjective experience, its celebration of a communal heritage, its sense of the mission bestowed upon a people newly chosen in the age of grace, its injunctive force trained with visionary blindness upon all of its audiences—all who hear these words must struggle to restore the kingdom that once pleased God—a force that no man speaking in his own name could ever command.

We may react to this anonymity as we would to an ancient ritual gesture, if we regard it as something that was once ordained and significant, a revelation to a circle of witnesses, the poem's mark of its own authenticity. We are about to hear, not the imaginings of some vainly “original” poet, but a privileged vision of history, beheld long ago by a nation that believed itself called to the service of God. Its anonymity identifies it as something monumental and inherited, with an authority that transcends the credibility of any one person. It is therefore analogous to the anonymity of the Scriptures: it declares that the true author is greater than any man who can be named, the events it narrates are more fraught with meaning than any man can imagine, the truth it reveals is higher than any man can conceive: it is a monument, it belongs to all.

Something needs to be said in this connection about the role that formulas play in epic style, and particularly in the style of The Song of Roland. Because they are meant for limitless repetition, formulas do not strive to be brilliant or literary. The more “original” and unexpected any expression is, the less it can bear repetition. The formula has to be honed down, polished, made spare, indivisible, uniform, inconspicuous with regard to its literary merits, serviceable, purified of every element that may restrict it to a single use or a single context or even a single poem. The deathless line belongs to written poetry and usually to an individual talent; moreover, it is not a greater cause for celebration than the true formula, which will keep its force and deliver its message no matter how many times it is repeated. Milton's line “When Charlemain with all his peerage fell / by Fontarabbia” makes us pause in admiration, with that astonishing burst of sound at the end. But our high estimate of this line and of the poet's talent would be utterly wiped out if we found him using it another time, or every time the occasion could accommodate it. Par amur et par feid, “in love and loyalty,” does not arrest our attention with its brilliance, for the oral poet does not want us to miss the movement of his narrative as we ponder the beauty of his words. The formula gives us the pleasure of feeling a metrical demand fulfilled, the keystone fitting into the place reserved for it. Some of these formulas are certainly beautiful by any standard and would glisten in a work meant for reading; but it is not such beauty that the poet strives for above all—just as individual bricks and stones may have a special glint and texture, though their greatest effect lies in the part they play in the whole structure: whatever that part may be, they must not detach themselves.

It is not enough for a formula to have a certain metrical shape: it has to have as well an indestructible semantic content and ethical integrity. That is one of the reasons why an oral formula sometimes requires generations to perfect: it is an expression that has a certain metrical form and that does not become degraded with repetition. “Don't call us, we'll call you,” though it has a good six syllables, is the exact opposite of a formula.

The brilliance with which the Roland poet uses the formulaic style has long been celebrated. You hear the same formulas that were used to describe Christian victories now being used to describe pagan victories, and that is frightening (compare lines 1228 and 1576, 1233 and 1578, for example). But the great power of his style cannot be conveyed by such strategies, effective as they are.

We call it a formulaic style even though only about a quarter of the text has been identified beyond question as consisting of formulas. For one thing, it is reasonable to assume that many other expressions are formulas, even though we have not been able to find them used elsewhere. In any case, as far as the style is concerned, this is not a key issue. We may need to know what percent of the text consists of formulas in order to decide whether the Chanson de Roland was an oral poem, but we do not need this information in order to see that it is in the style of an oral poem. For the only way in which we can identify a word-group as a formula is to find it used elsewhere in the text or in other texts; a formula cannot be distinguished from another word-group in the poem by any other objective standard. If one compares hemistichs identified as formulas with those that are not, one finds no differences in meter, vocabulary, or phonology—a mun espiét trenchant (line 867) can be identified as a formula (compare lines 3051, 3114, 3351, and others); ki ben trenchet et taillet (1339) cannot, although each word in this group appears several times in the poem. If the Roland poet in fact made up wholly new lines, he drew from the same lexical field, he used the same kind of words and constructions that had gone into the making of the formulas.

No matter where he found his lines, the most important thing with respect to his style is that he composed in word-groups rather than single words. Every expression was designed to fit into a four-syllable or a six-syllable mold with a tonic accent at the end, and to be instantly recognized by the audience as part of a traditional motif: when a warrior boasts of what he will do to his enemy, or when he is actually engaged with his companions in bitter combat, something will be said about the sharpness of his spear or the cutting edge of his sword, something familiar and anticipated with pleasure. The technique of composition consisted in molding a grammatical unit—the subject well known to all (li quens Rollant), the predicate affirming a famous act (vait ferir le paien), the modifier fixing the physical and moral coordinates of the feudal world (a lei de chevaler), or any combination of these (cil sunt prudome)—into a pre-established metrical form.

The question that concerns us here, therefore, is not whether this or that half-line can be identified as a formula; but given the fact that the entire poem is composed in the style of the formulas, with its metrical demands and its feudal vocabulary, how shall we define the power of that style, and how does the poem make use of that power?

Formulaic language is the refined product of a long tradition and is therefore impersonal, objective, authoritative; it cannot be toyed with or used idiosyncratically. If the theme is war and the motif is the death of the warrior in single combat; and if, when the time comes for the warrior to fall or for his blood to flow, there is a need to define in the first hemistich the direction of this movement, then that need may be filled only with a formula, like sur l'erbe verte (“on the green grass”), or a formulaic expression, a word-group that sounds like a formula because its language and structure are the same—in any case not with the kind of surprising and inimitable phrase that we admire in later poetry and identify as the hallmark of a certain poet. In the old epic poem every word-group comes forth as an inevitable expression, both familiar and obligatory, and the property of all.

This was the style prescribed by tradition. And this language, bound as it was by strict rules inherited from the past, was the language of authority, the language reserved for the telling of the nation's history in song. Thus the formulaic style and the historical content of the chanson de geste—the great deeds performed by noble ancestors—were inseparable, even indistinguishable. That history was the precious heritage of the feudal community; and apart from charters and documents (like the Geste Francor to which the poem refers), it was only the song that preserved the memory of the past; only in its language was the wisdom and greatness of those who came first made available to those who lived now.35 The words and constructions of the song became the language authorized by tradition for the recital of those great events that revealed the destiny of “sweet France.”

Now in using the techniques of oral poetry, Turoldus (if that was the poet's name) was a master of its injunctive and authoritative style. We can see the effect to which he used formulaic language—that is, language that consists of, or emulates, oral formulas—if we recall for a moment our earlier discussion on the nature of epic action. For the power of The Song of Roland lies in the relation between necessity and formulaic style.

The formula returns, obeying a law of its own, beyond the pathetic field of the hero's experience: Hector is “tamer of horses” by a rule to which his pains and joys are irrelevant. The blood of the dismembered Ganelon is li cler sanc, and it falls sur l'erbe verte, as the blood shed by many victims, both pagan and Christian, was bright and famous and flowed upon the green grass. The formula appears according to a transcendent system of versification, whose operations are never affected by the will or the condition of those involved in the process of the action. That system—that strong meter demanding a fixed and venerable expression—cannot take note of any unique or unprecedented experience: it is a system of inflexible word-groups, each of which defines a segment of a universal motif; every fallen warrior's blood flows alike—before the warrior falls, it is already determined how his blood will flow. Every formula occurs, and every newly coined formulaic word-group seems to occur, because the system demands it. That system is therefore one of the structures through which necessity exerts its force. Necessity operates in the appearance of the epithet—the epithet appears because it must, because it is, in the light of the system, foreseen.

Every great poet who uses the oral-formulaic technique makes the force of that system his own. As an apparent product of necessity, the epithet reflects, not the action that is going on at any particular moment, but, depending on the context, the glorious stature of the hero as the executor of a providential design, the indispensability of the traitor, the irreplaceable foppery of the king, the fateful compassion of the friend. Hector is “tamer of horses” even when he is being pursued and then transpierced and his body desecrated in the full sight of the family to which he was devoted. The epithet occurring now defines the true freedom of the heroic will—the freedom to chose what necessity decrees—and completely ignores the subjective experience; it continually recasts the sufferer in the role that fate has foreseen for him. His suffering is ordained by the same necessity that chose him as its agent and that now in another mode commands the occurrence of the formula. Now we see him ennobled by necessity: the epithet that celebrates his role transfigures his suffering, associates his pain with his heroic privilege, with the sanctions of a universal order, and prevents his dignity from being obliterated by the spectacle of his undoing.

So, too, the formulas that depict the death of Ganelon come forth, in the work of this great poet, as the result of necessity. The rule that prescribed the four-syllable formula and the six-syllable formula in the line: Sur l'erbe verte en espant li cler sanc (3972), corroborates the meaning of the next two lines—

Guenes est mort cume fel recreant.
Hom ki traïst altre, nen est dreiz qu'il s'en vant!
(Ganelon died like a traitor, like one who broke faith.
When one man betrays another, it is not right that he should live to boast of it!)

None of the hemistichs in these two lines can be positively identified as a formula (they do not occur elsewhere in the poem), but they are strikingly formulaic, in the sense that we have defined—the words fel and recreant and key words throughout the poem; and that last sententious line recalls line 3959: Ki hume traïst, sei ocit et altroi (“A traitor brings death, on himself and on others”). Ganelon's death fulfills an ancient and universal injunction: a traitor must be destroyed. Now we see that the execution of Ganelon has taken place by the ultimate authority of a design. The sequence that has led to this event was prescribed, like the long-established order of the words that commemorate it. For necessity operates everywhere: in the death of the traitor, in the singing of the song. The act of treason was necessary, the punishment of the traitor was necessary—the memory, the pattern of the song, the presence of the audience, the mission reaffirmed in the performance, all appear as though foreseen, and they are reflected in the language of necessity, the formulaic style.

We see this again in those remarkable moments when the phrase dulce France is uttered by a pagan—Baligant, for example, or Blancandrin. He says dulce France because the line demands this formula, but the rule that determines its appearance has all the inexorability of the law that condemns the speaker. In saying dulce France he confirms his exclusion from the land of the blessed, his willing enactment of the role assigned to him by providence. The inexorable return of the formula is a mode of necessity, patterned like the action that takes place in the world of the epic.

The demonic stature of Ganelon is revealed through the formulas by which the account of his death is recited. His life and death are foreseen; the evil he did is now located in a divine plan—for this religious resonance is inherent in the formulaic style. The word order of each formula and the rule that determines its use are fixed by the ancient customs of a close-knit people. Now all of these features—the immutable phrasings inherited from a remote past, the revered tradition that prescribes the times when these words must be uttered, the implicit attendance of an initiated audience united by a common heritage, the commemoration of a decisive act in a necessitarian world—are essential features of a sacred text.36 The formulaic poet stands to the tradition governing his words in a relation formally identical with that of the scriba Dei to the divine source of his text; and his performance participates in the nature of a rite. He “makes up” nothing, he does not “choose” his words like the solitary prodigy admired in a later age, he does not own his text: he is the instrument—the authentic voice, the privileged hand—of a higher being and a greater will: the mystic source of community.

The poet may, as we have seen, invert the formula, adjust it, for the sake of the meter and the assonance, but his action is never capricious or arbitrary. It is prescribed, and it is therefore the sanctioned exercise of the words' power. The formulas he uses contain remnants of an earlier stage of his language—utterances once heard in the Land of Fathers, archaic words, old forms that preceded changes in sound and idiom, preserved intact by the immutability of the phrase.37The Song of Roland contains many echoes of the old language; and this, too, the presence of archaic formulations hallowed by tradition, is characteristic of a sacred text. The Song of Roland was the monument of its audience and of all the audiences recalled in each performance, it was the secular scripture of their community.

Each laisse was a relic and an oracle, retracing the history and revealing the future of the audience—and of the song as well. It commemorated in its archaic phrases all of the past performances of the poem witnessed by the forebears of the audience, and it confirmed the promise that these same words, fixed as they were forever, would be heard by the descendants of those who now attended. Each laisse celebrated the past and the future of the nation and of the song; and so, when it was chanted in the ritual of performance, it reflected upon the nation the immunity to time and the integrative power of the song, and affirmed the communion of all those who listen, have listened, will listen. For the formulaic laisse immobilized time, transformed it into an edifice, a human structure infinite in its accommodation and ordained by providence, in which all the heirs of Charlemagne were assembled. Through the miracle of the singing of the song, their forebears became their companions, the empire of their descendants was restored, Charlmagne was nostre emperere.

Therefore, each laisse contains not so much the linear narration of a certain act as a meditation upon it, a reflection upon one event from several different points of view (the agent's, the audience's, the providence of conditional necessity) the points in time (the agent's present, the audience's present, the chronicled past, the revealed past, the political future, the apocalyptic future). This can be seen most readily in the laisses parallèles and laisses similaries—successive laisses rooted in the same moment in the narrative38—but it is the controlling principle nearly everywhere. The action is rarely advanced in each of these narrative units; even in those laisses where there appears to be plenty of action in rigorous sequence, as, for example, in the case of “the epic blow,” the narrative is halted, rather than advanced. In lines 1642-51, for example, we follow the path of Roland's fearful blow through the helmet, the nose, the mouth, the teeth, the body, the silver saddle and the battle horse of his enemy. This sequence is described in the present tense. Then the action is chronicled, in the simple past, the doumentary tense: “He slew them both”; and the chronicle line is the only one that advances the narrative.39 Otherwise, the action is refracted, broken down into its elements, stopped, recollected, and then set into the vast mosaic of the past. For the passages describing “the epic blow” are intended not to advance the action but to reveal the quality of the warrior who strikes.

The laisse is therefore a circumspection rather than a narrative, a reminiscence and an anticipation focused upon an action that is often (as, for example in lines 1902-3, when the tense shifts suddenly from present to present perfect) not even, strictly speaking, narrated. Each laisse is a lyrical arrest, and this static, meditative, reverential attitude of commemoration is one of the most distinctive features of The Song of Roland.


  1. Translated by Lewis Thorpe in: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969). The translation in the Introduction is the present writer's.

  2. For a full account of the incidents of 777-78, see Jules Horrent, “La Bataille des Pyrénées de 778,” Le moyen-âge, 78 (1972), 197-227. See also Martín de Riquer, Chansons (see Bibliography, below), pp. 13-21; and Paul Aebischer, Préhistoire et protohistoire du Roland d'Oxford (Berne, 1972), pp. 13-92.

  3. For a survey of all the documentary evidence concerning the development of the story of Rencesvals, see the works listed below by Martin de Riquer and Jules Horrent; and Ramón Menéndez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland et la tradition épique des Francs, 2d ed., tr. I.-M. Cluzel (Paris, 1960).

  4. de Riquer, Chansons, p. 88.

  5. See Robert Folz, Le Souvenir et la légende de Charlemagne dans l'Empire germanique médiéval (Paris, 1950); Heinrich Hoffman, Karl der Grosse im Bilde der Geschichtsschreibung des frühen Mittelalters (Berlin, 1919).

  6. See Erich Köhler, “Conseil des baronsund “Jugement des barons”: Epische Fatalität und Feudalrecht im altfranzösischen Rolandslied (Heidelberg, 1968); Barnaby C. Keeney, Judgement by Peers (Cambridge, Mass., 1949); Jean-François Lemarignier, Le gouvernement royal aux premiers temps capétiens (987-1108) (Paris, 1965). See also Karl-Heinz Bender, König und Vasall (Heidelberg, 1967).

  7. See Matthias Waltz, Rodlandslied-Wilhelmslied-Alexiuslied, zur Struktur und geschichtlichen Bedeutung (Heidelberg, 1965), p. 24.

  8. See Karl Heisig, “Die Geschichtsmetaphysik des Rolandsliedes und ihre Vorgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, 55 (1935), 1-87; and Michael Wendt, Der Oxforder Roland (Munich, 1970), pp. 170ff.

  9. See George Fenwick Jones, The Ethos of the Song of Roland (Baltimore, 1963), p. 121.

  10. See Herman Gräf, “Der Parallelismus im Rolandslied,” dissertation Julius-Maximilians-Universität, Würzburg (Wertheim a. M., 1931); Wendt, Der Oxforder Roland, pp. 179-211.

  11. See Paul Rousset, “La croyance en la justice immanente à l'époque féodale,” Le moyen-âge, 54 (1948), 225ff.

  12. See, for example, the interesting debate among Larry S. Crist, Wolfgang G. van Emden, and William W. Kibler in the 1974 and 1975 volumes of Olifant.

  13. Joachim Bumke, Wolframs Willehalm (Heidelberg, 1959), pp. 57ff. Compare Hans Robert Jauss, “Chanson de geste et roman courtois au XIIe siècle,” in Chanson de Geste und höfischer Roman, Heidelberger Kolloquium, January 30, 1961 (Heidelberg, 1963), pp. 61-77; translated by the present writer.

  14. Menéndez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland, p. 504.

  15. See Karl-Joseph Steinmeyer, Untersuchung zur allegorischen Bedeutung der Träume im altfranzösischen Rolandslied (Munich, 1963); W. G. van Emden, “Another Look at Charlemagne's Dreams in the Chanson de Roland,” French Studies 28 (1974): 257-71.

  16. Compare Bruce A. Rosenberg, Custer and the Epic of Defeat (University Park, Pa., and London, 1974).

  17. See Menéndez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland, pp. 165ff, especially 167.

  18. See lines 755ff, 790ff, 806; Menéndez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland, p. 432.

  19. See Wendt, Der Oxforder Roland, pp. 281ff.

  20. See Waltz, Rolandsliedslied, pp. 110ff; L. C. Macinney, “The People and Public Opinion in the Eleventh-Century Peace Movement,” Speculum, 5 (1930), 181-206. The peace movement led by the Church was an attempt to get the nobles to stop fighting among themselves.

  21. Uitti, (see Bibliography, below), p. 99.

  22. See F. L. Ganshof, Feudalism, trans. Philip Grierson, 2d English ed. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961).

  23. See Frederick Goldin, “Die Rolle Ganelons und das Motiv der Worte,” Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, forthcoming.

  24. See Bender, König und Vasall, p. 33f.

  25. See Köhler, “Jugement des Barons.

  26. Saint Augustine, Tractatus CXXIV in Joannis Evangelium, Tractatus XXVII, P. L. 1619f.

  27. See the following works: Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford, 1971).

    Jean Rychner, La Chanson de geste: Essai sur l'art épique des jongleurs (Geneva and Lille, 1955).

    Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960); reprinted in paperback by Atheneum, New York, 1973.

    Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., Formulaic Diction and Thematic Composition in the Chanson de Roland (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1961).

    Edward A. Heinemann, “Composition stylisée et technique littéraire dans la Chanson de Roland,Romania, 94 (1973), 1-28. See also the same author's review of Duggan's book in Olifant, 1 (October 1973), 23-31.

    John Miletich, “The Quest for the ‘Formula’: A Comparative Reappraisal,” Modern Philology, 74 (November 1976), 111-23. See also the same author's article, “Narrative Style in Spanish and Slavic Traditional Narrative Poetry: Implications for the Study of the Romance Epic,” in Olifant, 2 (December 1974), 109-128.

  28. See Lord, Singer of Tales, p. 95.

  29. See Italo Siciliano, Les Origines des chansons de geste, tr. P. Antonetti (Paris, 1951). The monumental statement of the individualist position is the four-volume work by Joseph Bédier, Les Légendes épiques, published in Paris from 1926 to 1929. This remains a vital and indispensable work, though the argument has lost credit. One should also consult his Commentaires to his translation of the poem, published in Paris in 1927.

  30. A poem “that lives in variants:” this phrase is taken from the title of Chapter 2, “Une poésie qui vit de variantes,” of the work by Menéndez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland.

  31. Ibid., p. 63f.

  32. The only other assonanced version is contained in a manuscript in the library of San Marco in Venice, designated V4. Written in a mixture of French and Italian, the manuscript dates from the fourteenth century, though the composition of the poem is much earlier. In its first 3845 lines this version is close to the first 3681 lines of the Oxford version; it then goes on to relate other episodes to the end, line 6011.

    There are, in addition, seven rimed versions (of which two are fragmentary) dating from the end of the twelfth and the thirteenth century. These versions recast the old song into rimed couplets and expand the material, adding much that betrays the influence of the courtly romance.

    There were also translations and recensions of various versions of the story into German, Norse, Welsh, English, Dutch, Spanish, and other languages. Of these, the greatest is the Ruolandes liet of Pfaffe Konrad, composed either in the 1130s or around 1170 (each date has its defenders). For an account of all of the versions of the story of Roland, see de Riquer, Chansons (see Bibliography, below), pp. 52-59.

  33. See Rudy S. Spraycar, “La Chanson de Roland: An Oral Poem?” Olifant, 4 (1976), 63-74. For a balanced and thorough examination of this question, see Maurice Delbouille, “Les chansons de geste et le livre,” in La technique littéraire des chansons de geste, Actes du Colloque de Liége, Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l'Université de Liège, Fascicule 150 (Paris, 1959), pp. 295-407.

  34. See Lord, Singer of Tales, pp. 25ff.

  35. On oral poetry as a system for preserving and retrieving the wisdom of the past, see Walter J. Ong, S.J., “World as View and World as Event,” American Anthropologist, 71, 4 (August 1969), 634-47, especially pp. 638-641 and the bibliography at the end of the article.

  36. See Paul Zumthor, Langue et techniques poétiques à l'époque romane (XIe-XIIIe siècles) (Paris, 1963), pp. 27-69.

  37. See Robert A. Hall, Jr., “Linguistic Strata in the Chanson de Roland,Romance Philology, 13 (1959-60), 156-61.

  38. In the laisses similaires (for example, laisses 40-42, 83-85), the action stops completely; in the laisses parallèles (for example, laisses 71-78, 93-95, 96-103, 218-225, 232-34), the action is advanced. See Rychner, La chanson de geste, pp. 83-107.

  39. Exceptionally beautiful examples of this process of chronicling and laudation are in lines 2083-93, and 1678-85. See Frederick Goldin, “Le noyau temporel de la laisse dans la Chanson de Roland,” forthcoming in the Actes of the Eighth Congress of the Société Internationale Rencesvals.


For an introduction to the poem and its literary and historical background, the following are recommended:

Jules Horrent. La Chanson de Roland dans les littératures française et espagnole au moyen-âge. Paris, 1951.

Pierre Le Gentil. La Chanson de Roland. 2d ed. Paris, 1967.

———. The Chanson de Roland, tr. Frances F. Beer. Cambridge, Mass., 1969.

Martín de Riquer. Los Cantares de gesta franceses. Madrid, 1952.

———. Les Chansons de geste françaises. 2d ed. tr. Irénée Cluzel. Paris, 1968.

D. Karl Uitti. Story, Myth, and Celebration in Old French Narrative Poetry, 1050-1200. Princeton, N.J., 1973.

Eugene Vance. Reading The Song of Roland. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970.

Studies of the poem are listed in the standard bibliographies (such as those by Robert Bossuat, Urban T. Holmes, John H. Fisher). A good critical survey of earlier scholarship can be found in the following articles by Albert Junker:

“Stand der Forschung zum Rolandslied,” Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift 37 (1956): 97-144.

“Von der Schönheit des Rolandsliedes (O) im Spiegel neuester Forschung,” in Medium Aevum Romanicum, Festschrift für Hans Rheinfelder, ed. H. Bihler and A. Noyer-Weidner. Munich, 1963.

Critical bibliographies of the most recent work on the poem can be found in The Year's Work in Modern Language Studies, and especially in the Bulletin bibliographique de la Société Rencesvals. A lively and useful review of recent work and many important contributions are published by the American-Canadian branch of the Société Rencesvals in its quarterly, Olifant.

On the story of Roland in art, see Rita Lejeune and Jacques Stiennon, La Légende de Roland dans l'art du Moyen Age, 2 vols. (Brussels, 1966); translated by Christine Trollope, The Legend of Roland in the Middle Ages (London and New York, 1971).

John F. Benton (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Benton, John F. “‘Nostre Franceis n'unt talent de füir’: The Song of Roland and the Enculturation of a Warrior Class.” Olifant 6, nos. 3 and 4 (Spring and Summer 1979): 237-58.

[In the following essay, Benton examines how the treatment of war in The Song of Roland inspired soldiers in the twelfth and twentieth centuries.]

During the German siege of Paris in December 1870, a learned and patriotic medievalist, Gaston Paris, delivered a set of lectures at the Collège de France on La Chanson de Rolandet la nationalité française.1 It would now be timely for a specialist in contemporary history and literature to prepare another study on the Song of Roland and modern nationalism, particularly in the period of World War I. Influential historians have blamed the newspapers and the popular press for inflaming public opinion on the eve of the Great War.2 That “yellow journalism” helped to indoctrinate the masses who marched enthusiastically to war cannot be doubted, but scholars and professors also played their part in the movement, and while the press harangued the future foot soldiers, the academic elite was addressing the officer class. Every poilu knew about Joan of Arc, but the officers had also learned in their lycées of the valor of the heroes of Roncevaux. While the greater part of this paper is devoted to the social and political values conveyed by the Chanson in the Middle Ages, the use of literature to buttress values can conveniently be illustrated by some reference to the Song in more modern times.

A dozen French translations of the Roland appeared between 1870 and 1914 and in 1880 it was assigned officially as a “texte classique à l'usage des élèves de seconde.”3 In 1900 a professor at the Lycée Henri IV told his audience at the École Spéciale Militaire at Saint-Cyr, “La Chanson de Roland est notre Iliade” and concluded, “Elle n'est pas seulement un sujet d'étude pour nos esprits: c'est une des sources vives où nous devons retremper nos âmes.”4 During the summer of 1918 a professor at the École Normale of Fontenay-aux-Roses urged future teachers, when reading to future Rolands and Olivers from the Chanson, to show “le lien toujours vivace qui joint au passé le présent” and the ideals inherited from “nos aïeux du Moyen Age,” including “ardent amour de la patrie,” “culte souverain de l'honneur,” and “crainte de forfaire et d'être honni.”5

Joseph Bédier's love of medieval France and contempt for German culture, expressed in the great Légendes épiques he first published between 1908 and 1913, was shared widely by and with his countrymen.6 Five days after Germany declared war on France, a friend of Charles Péguy, editorializing in a Parisian Catholic daily, offered his readers two inspirational (if technically incongruous) quotations, “Finis Germaniae” and the invocation of the Carolingian Salic (and therefore, Germanic) Law, “Vive le Christ qui aime les Francs.”7 Battle strategies for the war were created by military theorists like Ardent du Picq and the enthusiastic Colonel Grandmaison, rather than medievalists and their sympathizers, but all shared a common sense of national heritage and spirit. The Field Regulations of November 1913 declared: “L'armée française, revenue à ses traditions, n'admet plus, dans la conduite des opérations, d'autre loi que l'offensive,” and stated formally, “Les batailles sont surtout des luttes morales.”8 On the battleground of morale, the Chanson de Roland could serve as a weapon.

As preparations for war against Germany developed, the Song leaped the Channel and two translations appeared in England in 1907, just three years after the Anglo-French Entente. Scott Moncreiff began his own translation as a “solace” in the summer of 1918, and John Masefield in 1918 introduced each chapter of his apologetic Gallipoli with a hortatory passage from the Song of Roland.9 The precise links connecting literature, ideals and actions are most uncertain, for it is so difficult to distinguish the determinants of behavior from their after-the-fact justification. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the Chanson played a part in the mentality of the Great War. The use of the Roland in modern times, either for inspiration or for solace, may be considered a part of the process of enculturation, a process which is probably harder to understand but easier to recognize in earlier or non-Western cultures than in our own.

“Enculturation” is a term recently created by anthropologists as an alternative to “socialization” to distinguish different aspects of the educational process and its relationship to cultural change. Specialists differ over the distinctions between these terms and their specific meaning, and I will not insist on a matter of definition here. But since “socialization” may lead one to think of children learning (however well) to listen respectfully to their elders or of a page being taught not to pick his teeth in public, I have preferred to use “enculturation” here, defined as “the process of acquiring a world view.”10

Great poetry both gives pleasure and teaches. The epic transmits information about the heroic past, and in either its oral form or in successive reworked texts, this information can change with circumstances. In nonliterate societies, we are told by two field anthropologists, “what continues to be social relevance is stored in the memory while the rest is usually forgotten,” and in proof of this point they note how the Tiv people of Nigeria changed their “traditional” genealogies over forty years. As a second example they cite the case of the state of Gonja in northern Ghana, which was divided into seven divisional chiefdoms in the early part of this century, at which time the local myths indicated that the founder of the state, Jakpa, had seven sons; sixty years later two of the divisional chiefdoms had disappeared and in the collective memory of the people Jakpa was said to have had only five sons.11 We should expect analogous changes in an evolving story like that of Roland.

Information such as that just mentioned about genealogy and lineage is useful to a society in understanding its past or present political organization, but the transmission of techniques seems to play a very minor part in epic poetry. A young warrior would never learn how to fight in battle formation from hearing the Song of Roland.12 He would not even learn how to use his sword. The “fragment” from The Hague, dated about the year 1000, describes an “epic stroke” which splits the middle of the opponent's head and body and even cleaves the spine of his horse.13 This overhand stroke is used repeatedly in the Chanson de Roland (except that in the Baligant episode Charlemagne splits only the emir's head), the Bayeux tapestry depicts the beginning swing of such a stroke, and its consequences can be seen in numerous medieval illustrations.14 Now if one reflects on this stroke, it is better suited to legendary heroes than to real-life survivors. If a warrior raises his arm like a tennis player about to serve, he exposes the vulnerable area of the armpit, loses the ability to parry all but a similar stroke, and gains nothing from the forward movement of the horse. According to those of my students who have fought with heavy swords on foot (I have not), a sweeping side-stroke is more powerful than an overhead smash, because it can be delivered with the torque of the whole body. And for a mounted warrior, a thrust is preferable to a cut, and the “epic stroke” is particularly dangerous, because if the opponent veers, the stroke would then descend on the head of the rider's own horse. In short, the Chanson de Roland is not a manual of practical use for either a medieval warrior or a modern historian. It teaches not skills but values or morale. This is surely what the author of a thirteenth-century sermon had in mind when he wrote of the use of the deeds of Charles, Roland, and Oliver “to give spirit to the audience.”15

The complex problems of dating, of different chronological “layers” in the Oxford text, and of different versions of the Chanson which were produced and written after “Turoldus” had completed his epic, are troublesome issues for any commentator. At this point I should say that I find compelling the major arguments of “traditionalism” that the Oxford text does contain much material which entered the collective or poetic memory in earlier centuries, such as the “epic stroke” or the episode of Charlemagne, like Joshua, making the sun stand still outside Zaragoza as reported in the Annales Anianenses.16 Because it deals with traditional material, the poem of “Turoldus” is notoriously hard to date precisely. The reference to Saracen battle drums in the poem helps to place its composition after 1086,17 but beyond that point controversy rages. Some paleographers have dated the Oxford manuscript as late as ca. 1170, allowing other critics to place its composition in the 1150's. Others consider that the manuscript could have been written as early as 1125 and not later than 1150, thus ruling out a mid-twelfth-century composition and placing the text either shortly before the First Crusade or within a generation or so after.18 For the purposes of this paper, dealing as it does with enculturative values, the precision of dating is not of great importance, so long as one accepts the principle that some portions of the epic entered the Chanson, in either oral or written form, well before the twelfth century, but that in a fluid tradition early material which does not have “social relevance,” which goes against the cultural values of a later time, will tend to drop from sight. What is certain is that even if it were first written in the late eleventh century, the Chanson de Roland as we have it is culturally a twelfth-century poem, copied in the twelfth century, cited by twelfth-century authors, and popular enough to give birth to translations and other versions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Moreover, a host of critical studies shows that the poem of “Turoldus” is no mere pastiche of fragments from different epochs, but was intended by its author to have a unified form and meaning.19

The remainder of this paper is concerned with some of the ways in which the Chanson might have inspired or justified the behavior of its twelfth-century audience. Among the enculturative values which the Song of Roland displays, the most prominent is the glorification of warfare, a “just war,” a “Holy War,” to be sure, but warfare all the same. I doubt if many, if indeed any, bellatores of the period when the Chanson was still a living epic needed to be reassured that warfare was a proper and honorable occupation. But when one looks outside the Chanson and the values of the warrior class, one can see that they are in contradiction to the lingering remnants of traditional Christian pacificism, a theme of great importance in many of the Fathers and clearly expressed by the quotation in Sulpicius Severus's popular vita of Saint Martin of Tours, “I am a knight (miles) of Christ, I am not permitted to fight.”20 Whether or not a Song of Roland was chanted by a Taillefer to inspire the Norman army before the battle of Hastings, the twelfth-century authors William of Malmesbury and Wace considered the Chanson appropriate for such an occasion.21 While the warriors of William the Conqueror or of the succeeding period can scarcely have been expected to have puzzled over Tertullian and Basil, and presumably gave no thought to the fact that Saint Martin deserted from the Roman army, not all bishops were warriors like the poetic Turpin or the historical Odo of Bayeux, who as members of the clergy were forbidden by canon law to bear arms.22

Attitudes toward warfare varied, of course, and I am not sure that the Gregorian Reform itself marks a great turning point on the issue of Christian pacifism. In the early eleventh century, Bishop Hubert of Angers was excommunicated for fighting at his king's command, while Bishop Wazo of Liège did lead troops in battle, but conscientiously did so unarmed.23 When critics, with their own ideas about the nature of Christianity (medieval or modern), call the Chanson a devoutly Christian epic, a Vita or Passio sancti Rolandi, we need to remember that Archbishop Turpin provided an uncanonical model for any clergy who heard the poem.24

In what I have just said about the positive value placed on warfare I noted that the war commemorated in Roland, unlike those in the more common epics of revolt such as Raoul de Cambrai, was a “Holy War” against the infidel. Practically all medievalists agree that there is a relationship between the Chanson and the development of the idea of crusade, the Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens, though the chronology of that relationship has been hotly disputed. As Carl Erdmann has put it, “Some say that ‘the Chanson de Roland would be impossible without the First Crusade,’ while others maintain that ‘the crusade would be incomprehensible without the Chanson de Roland.’”25 Erdmann did not attempt to date the poem, except to state that “the Chanson cannot antedate the time of Alexander II.”26 The theme of a bellum domini fits both the actual historical circumstances of the invasion of Spain and the period after the renewed religious expansionism of Christian Europe in the 1060's, that is, about the time of the writing of the Nota Emilianense, and so is of little help in dating either the Oxford Roland or its predecessors. While I feel that the Chanson accords well with a military-religious ethos common in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, what strikes me most is how difficult it is to find clearly demonstrable echoes of the crusade to recover Jersualem in a text which took its present written form well after the First Crusade.27 Equally, it is surprising how seldom the name of Roland or reference to the Chanson appears in the extensive literature written in support of the crusading movement.28 Even in the early fourteenth century, when Pierre de la Palu turned to a literary source for his treatment of Charlemagne in his Liber Bellorum Domini, he used the story of Amis and Amiloun.29 The Chanson de Roland must have been immensely popular in the twelfth and later centuries (as manuscripts, translations, and onomastics all attest), its ethos does support the militant expansion of Christianity, but the vigor of scholarly debate over precise dating suggests that it could have been composed before 1095, and the relative silence of crusading sources and propaganda with respect to Roland or the epic Charlemagne indicates that contemporaries could have understood, described, and advocated crusades quite well if the Chanson de Roland had never existed.

Besides the positive value placed on fighting itself and on militant Christianity, a third obvious but easily misunderstood cultural value transmitted by the Chanson is loyalty to king and country.30 This point too has been amply treated in our literature on the Chanson, and in this brief discussion I wish particularly to express a caveat about an apparent “French” or “Capetian” nationalism. The “patriotic” loyalties which I think the Oxford Roland exemplified for its listeners were loyalty to the warrior's highest recognized ruler, the ruler who led one's army into battle, a loyalty which we may call “feudal,” whether its object was an emperor, king, duke, or count, and willingness to fight and die for one's homeland, for Tere Majur, the familiar theme of pro patria mori, whatever that homeland or pays actually was. In addition, the Chanson also stresses imperial authority in terms which seem particularly appropriate to the Anglo-Norman “empire,” in part because William the Conqueror ruled to some degree in a Carolingian mode.31 It may at first seem perverse not to emphasize the importance of dulce France and not to argue that the author of the Oxford Roland was trying to inculcate loyalty to the king of France (any king, from Henry I to Louis VII, depending upon the date assigned to the text). But let us consider the historical origins and context of the poem a bit more fully.

Whatever the means of transmission, the Song of Roland had to have its origin in the battle, the twelve-hundredth anniversary of which was commemorated in 1978. And when that event was celebrated in song, the ruler to whom highest honor was given had to be Charlemagne, and his warriors necessarily Franks. Charlemagne, the unifier of Christian Europe, became in legend and belief a universal hero, a Christian Alexander, but once the Capetians had overthrown the Carolingians, it took a long time for the Capetian monarchy to develop a special affinity for him. His canonization in 1165 was, after all, the work of an anti-pope opposed by the French monarchy and acting at the instigation of the German emperor. A prophecy created at Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme about 1040 predicted that the Capetians would hold the throne of France for seven generations, when it would return to a descendant of Charlemagne. Early in the twelfth century Hugh of Fleury and Sigebert of Gembloux both stressed the usurpation of the Capetians in their influential histories. Only at the end of the twelfth century did the reditus ad stirpem Caroli become a literary theme centering on Philip Augustus.32

One of the literary merits of the Roland is that Charlemagne is a noble figure throughout, ready to become the saint placed in Heaven by Dante, and is not insulted as he is in many other chansons, though his comparative impotence at the trial of Ganelon may reflect this tradition.33 It has been suggested that the Chanson de Roland was commissioned by Suger or one of his successors to strengthen the prestige of the Capetian monarchy, but this idea, even if it does not fall on chronological grounds, finds precious little support in the writings of Suger himself. In his student days a distinguished French medievalist set out to write a diplôme on “L'idée de Charlemagne dans la pensée de Suger,” and abandoned the project when he found, as can be seen by anyone who consults the index of the Oeuvres complètes de Suger, that the great propagandist of Saint-Denis scarcely mentioned Charlemagne and when he did treated him as simply one more king who had the good sense to make donations to the abbey. The arguments of Professor Hans-Erich Keller, which derive a good deal of rhetorical force from repetition and the cumulation of philological detail, all too often must depend on the concept of mystification. “Mystification” can be useful for a writer of religious allegory or a humorous author, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had to deal with split allegiances in a turbulent political setting, but it is a senseless technique for a propagandist trying to strengthen royal power, when direct writing would be so much more effective.34

The reputation of Charlemagne, as far as we can tell, never died. As the Nota Emilianense suggests, a cantar de Rodlane about Charlemagne and his peers may have existed in Castile in the eleventh century.35 Scholars have placed the origins of the Chanson de Roland in areas of France as widely separated as the Midi and Brittany.36 The existence of songs about Charlemagne in his native Germanic tongue has been postulated, though textual evidence for an early Song of Roland in German is as lacking as evidence for a Chanson in Francien dialect. For an historian unable to form an independent judgment about the philological discussions, the arguments about the “national origin” of the Chanson seem analogous to those about the origin of Honorius Augustodunensis, who was born in one place and traveled a lot.37 What is clear from translations and manuscripts is that after the beginning of the twelfth century the Chanson de Roland could find a welcome home in France, England, Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain, and eventually Brazil.

In short, one did not have to be French or a subject of the Capetian monarchy to enjoy and be inspired by the Song of Roland. The Anglo-Normanisms of the Oxford Roland, combined with other evidence, including the name Turoldus, have suggested to some a Norman or Anglo-Norman origin.38 A French critic has recently written that if the author of the Oxford Roland was Norman or of Norman origin, he did not reveal “de véritables partis pris normands,” and that “son idéal s'élève pourtant au-dessus de tous les particularismes, et apparaît déjà vraiment national.”39 I would prefer either to consider the ideal of the Chanson supranational or to say that the term nationalism has little or no meaning in the period we are considering. In The Battle of Maldon Byrhtnoth, who in dying for his king and homeland exhibits much the same fierce pride and loyalty as Roland, has been said to show “un haut sentiment national.”40 Perhaps so, but it is probably to the England of Byrhtnoth's king, Ethelred II, that we owe our single medieval manuscript of Beowulf, a manuscript which shows that the glory of the Danish court stayed alive in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom which had suffered grievously from Danish attacks.41 If we move forward to the twelfth century we find that the French welcomed Arthur and the “matter of Britain” without regard for his national origins. In the medieval world we are considering, loyalty and love of homeland were admired and “nationalism” was not understood in the sense that it is today. With equal justice it could be said that if the author of the text from which the Oxford Roland was copied was French, he did not reveal “any deep French prejudices,” for the Normans, the men of Auvergne, the Bavarians, the Gascons, the Saxons, all the troops of Charlemagne's empire as the author conceived it, are treated with respect.

But what, one is bound to ask, of the special place in dulce France given to the Francs de France, of the phrase “nos Franceis”?42 In the Chanson “France” sometimes indicates all the empire held by the Franks, just as “Francs” and “Franceis” are usually interchangeable, but in other places the heartland of Francia is more limited. Those limits, as worked out by Ferdinand Lot and René Louis, are enclosed in the territory marked out by the four points Mont-Saint-Michel, Sens, Besançon, Wissant, that is, the ancient Neustria of the late tenth-century Carolingian Kingdom.43 For the Rolandslied the territory of Francia can be expressed as Carolingie (see v. 6930). If any political significance is to be given to the limited “France,” it should be directed not at the Capetian monarchy but at that of the late Carolingians, which had so little significance in the twelfth century that the copyist of the Oxford Roland garbled his text. A sense of long past history, which is, after all, what an epic preserves, is a different matter from positive political loyalty. To turn from literature to charters for an example, the Catalans forgot neither their historical relationship nor their nominal ties to the French monarchy, so that well into the twelfth century notaries in obscure villages were still dating charters by the regnal years of the kings of France.44 But that formal, historical tie does not mean that any Catalan, no matter how moved by epic poetry, made the slightest effort to fight and die for a Capetian monarchy which never led a military expedition to the south until Louis VI's campaign in Auvergne.

Up to this point we have dealt with the way in which the Chanson treats warfare itself and the Holy War in particular, as well as the question of French or Capetian loyalty, but for a fourth and final theme we come now to the topic which has interested me most and which lies behind the title of this paper. The Chanson teaches not the techniques of fighting but the virtues desired for an ideal warrior. My main example is the condemnation of flight, expressed not only in the title of this paper (v. 1255), but in such warnings as “Dehet ait ki s'en fuit!” (v. 1047). The idea that it is better to die than retreat is, of course, a commonplace of the chansons de geste, as it is of most epics.45 But it is not, I should add, an ideal military strategy. Confidence in cran or guts rather than prudent concern for tactics or logistics was very nearly disastrous for the French in World War I. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries mutual consent was a necessity before individual combat between mounted warriors could take place, and flight or retreat was common. Sometimes it was a skillfully executed and disciplined feigned or Parthian retreat, as probably occurred at Hastings. Sometimes it was ignominious retreat, like that of Stephen of Blois. And sometimes a retreat followed by a later victory, as in the case of Henry Beauclerc, seemed only to illustrate to chroniclers the prudent wisdom that he who fights and runs away, may live to fight—and win—another day.46

Even though disciplined retreat can sometimes be the best strategy, every commander wants troops who will risk, indeed sacrifice, their lives if necessary.47 To ensure such readiness to die, the enculturation of warriors through a code of honor and glory that condemns flight as shameful has great value, and epic poetry plays its part in creating this code. The Institutiones Disciplinae on the education of noble youths urged instruction in “the ancestral songs by which the auditors are spurred to glory,” and in the Chanson de Roland no one wants to have bad songs sung about him.48

Central to the Chanson de Roland is a code of honorable loyalty. Loyalty to one's kin appears, notably in the support Ganelon receives from his family.49 But towering far above loyalty to kin are a warrior's loyalties to his companions in arms, to his battlefield commanders, to his pays and his ruler, and to the Christian religion, all of which are skillfully combined in the Oxford Roland. Examples of such loyalty can be found in the twelfth century, perhaps more commonly in England than in France, but the ideals of the Chanson were rarely part of everyday life. The tenacious bond of the Germanic comitatus is a commonplace of literature and idealized history, but the military and political realities of eleventh and twelfth-century France were not those of Tacitus, Beowulf, or even of the historical Charlemagne, who could enforce ties of dependence with a large amount of traditional auctoritas. In the France of the first half of the twelfth century, the king had little control over the great princes, who when well-behaved were more allies than subjects. A warrior-king like Louis VI nearly exhausted himself controlling the minor nobility of the Ile-de-France, territorial princes had to worry about the loyalty of their barons, hereditary castellans could dream of retaining more and more power for themselves, and roving juvenes were ready to join the most promising commander. If governments were to reverse the disintegrative forces of localism, family loyalty, and self-interest, they needed above all two things. One was institutions which would distribute political power and benefits sufficiently widely to the military class to convince it that its best interests lay in the stability of principalities and indeed in the building of states.50 The other was an ideal of loyalty that could bind the entire class, from barons to bacheliers, into a group which could conduct war, govern, and administer together in support of its common interests, from defense against foreign invasion to mutual repression, exploitation or control of a dependent peasantry and burghers. The question of whether the chansons de geste should be classed as aristocratic or considered intended for bacheliers draws a distinction where none is necessary.51 The Chanson de Roland can be considered an enculturative instrument for an entire warrior class, from the most aristocratic descendants and successors of the heroes named in the text to the lowest milites with pretensions to chivalric honor.

To conclude this paper we shall now return to the question of the Chanson and its particular audience. The “traditionalist” school holds, with quite forceful arguments, that a Chanson de Roncevaux existed from some time after the actual battle in the eighth century in one form or another, having as one purpose the commemoration of the event and the glorification of the fallen, and the “individualist” school allows that versions of the Roland “story” circulated before “Turoldus” wrote. The enculturative values of earlier compositions were presumably the political and military ideals of the Carolingian warrior class, though since the prehistory of the Oxford Roland is so uncertain, we have almost no evidence of what specific effects an earlier song might have had on its audience, how much of its emphasis, for example, was on loyalty and treason, how much on Christianity, Holy War, kingship, or the special rôle of the Frankish “nation.” Early songs or stories presumably traveled about the Frankish empire, perhaps circulated with the royal court or army, were carried along the pilgrimage roads described so evocatively by Bédier, or were even part of the “baggage” of other itinerants, such as the rotuligeri who bore mortuary rolls between churches as widely separated as Ripoll, Pampeluna, Paris, and Aachen.52 Their language could have been Latin or vernacular, their content surely changed with time and local circumstances, and all that can be said with certainty of them today is that their interest must have been sufficient for some elements to have survived and to have left their mark on written records like the Nota Emilianense and the “fragment” of The Hague.

In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries in France Carolingian government and its political ideals were only a memory, while “modern,” centralized, “national” government of the type administered by Henry Plantagenet and Philip Augustus was still in statu nascendi. In the absence of centralized, bureaucratic governments the burden of social control and civil cohesion fell upon the institutions of the Peace Movement, in which the episcopacy played such an important rôle, and on those relatively short chains of command, of one man bound to another by fief and homage, which we call “feudal.” Such “feudal” hierarchies could and eventually often did strengthen kingship, and they brought a new class of men, the milites, into the functions of government. In real life from the middle of the eleventh century on, as in the Chanson de Roland, a large group of lesser men began their training in power along with the higher nobility or “peers.” Surely it was one of the enculturative functions of the Chanson to extend the values of the aristocracy to these “others,” the altres.53

Awareness of the importance of the knightly class and of the process by which these “two levels of feudalism” could be brought to work together has provided increased understanding of the political dynamics of Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Analysis of the process has usually concentrated on the incentives offered by rulers to counter the presumable self-interest (or family and local interest) of the class of milites; in the words of a recent study of territorial power in the twelfth century, “to retain the fidelity of other lineages and of equestrian fighting men, the ruler had to share his power with them.”54 Administrative records necessarily concentrate attention on the distribution of power and wealth, but literature has the peculiar property of allowing us to see as well the sharing of ideals.

The political ideals of the Oxford Roland are precisely those which would cement the structure of the military society of the twelfth century. Its audience could hear of vassals bound by a sense of military brotherhood which transcended lineage, of courage and honor in the face of the enemy which assured the survival not of individuals but of the group, of “loving” loyalty to a ruler who deferred his more important decisions to a council of his barons. A politically-minded critic might move from the observation that these enculturative values ideally prepared men to take their place in a changing society to the conclusion that a shrewd ruler, be he a William the Conqueror or a Suger, would naturally attempt to propagate literature like the Roland as part of a political program, but such an observation would miss two crucial points. In the first place, no twelfth-century ruler had sufficient control over “communications” to give the Chanson the circulation and popularity it did in fact enjoy. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ideals and institutions we have been discussing served the interests of the warrior class at least as well as they did the princes. The popularity of the Chanson in the class which provided its major audience was surely not due to imposition or nostalgic tradition but to a form of ideological natural selection, a natural selection of ideals and esthetics passed on with appropriate modifications from generation to generation.

The major point of this paper is that the Chanson de Roland filled a need, or many needs, for its medieval audiences, and that it had the power to move men to rethink their self-interest in terms of higher ideals, to the point that in real life as in epic imagination they might actually prefer honorable death to shameful flight, group loyalty to limited personal advantage, and in the process build stronger governments and assure peace and stability. Historians examine the structures which helped to shape such ideals and behavior, but they can never read or hear the Chanson precisely as medieval men did. In this case, however (and unlike, let us say, Beowulf or Maldon), the Chanson de Roland had a repeat performance on the stage of modern European history, and in the Great War was again in the minds or on the lips of men who fought for ideals in battles. In analyzing the affective power of the poem the medievalist can perhaps learn from modern experience. But if a study of the Chanson in the twentieth century is written, perhaps the modernist can also make a comparison with the medieval experience and ask if the enculturative values of the Chanson were of equal benefit for those Rolands and Olivers who were asked to fight—and die—under its influence.


  1. Printed in his La Poésie du moyen âge: leçons et lectures, 2 vols. (I cite the 7th ed. of 1913), I, 87-118; cf. the partial English trans., Patriotism vs. Science (New York, 1935).

  2. Sidney B. Fay, The Origins of the World War, 2 vols. (New York, 1928), I, 47-49; G. Lowes Dickinson, The International Anarchy, 1904-1914 (New York and London, 1926), pp. 40-47.

  3. On Léon Gautier's classroom text and translation see Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., “Poetic Reality and Historical Illusion in the Old French Epic,” French Review, 43 (1969), 23. In Rennes in 1889 students were asked to respond to the question, “En quel sens la Chanson de Roland a-t-elle pu être appelée nationale?”; see Abbé Blanoeil, Baccalauréat: Histoire de la littérature française, 31st ed. (Nantes, 1897), p. 515 for the “Sujets de devoirs français donnés dans différentes facultés,” with 6 of 12 questions on the chansons de geste devoted specifically to the Roland.

  4. L'Armée à travers les âges: Conférences faites en 1900 (Paris, 1902), lecture on “La Chanson de Roland” by Paul Lehugeur, pp. 65 and 102.

  5. Henri Chamard, trans., La Chanson de Roland (Paris, 1919), pp. iii-iv, introductory letter to his students at Fontenay-aux-Roses dated 21 August 1918.

  6. On Bédier's “fobia antitedesca” see Luigi Foscolo Benedetto, L'epopea di Roncisvalle (Florence, 1941), pp. 65-66: “La teoria del Bédier non è in fondo che un episodo della campagna germanofoba condotta dagli intellettuali di destra negli anni che precedettero la guerra mondiale, campagna de cui la guerra mondiale venne come a legittimare la violenza e la passione.”

  7. La Croix, August 8, 1914 (no 9633), p. 1. The editorialist, who also cited Péguy's trust in “saint Michel, sainte Geneviève et Jeanne d'Arc,” was identified only by the initials R. T. The first “quotation” is a reformulation of the late-eighteenth-century “Finis Poloniae.” On the second quotation, which comes from the second and longer prologue to the Lex Salica written under Pepin, see Ernst H. Kantorowicz. Laudes Regiae (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1946), p. 59, who punctuates as “vivat qui Francos diligit Christus, … ” In the Pactus Legis Salicae, I 2, Systematischer Text (Göttingen, 1957), p. 315, Karl August Eckhardt curiously punctuates as “vivat qui Francos diligit, Christus eorum regnum custodiat, rectores eorum det. … ”

  8. Decret du 28 novembre 1913 portant règlement sur la conduite des grandes unités (service des armées en campagne) (Paris: Librairie Militaire Berger-Levrault, 1914), p. 7 and Fernand Engerand, Le Secret de la frontière, 1815-1871-1914: Charleroi (Paris, 1918), p. 228; Engerand appears to have cited a fuller text of the decree than that published in 1914. On Col. Grandmaison see Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York, 1962), pp. 33-34, and on Ardent du Picq see John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York, 1976), pp. 70-71.

  9. La Chanson de Roland adapted into English Prose, by Henry Rieu (London, 1907), and The Song of Roland Newly Translated into English by Jessie Crosland (London, 1907); C. J. Scott Moncrieff, trans., The Song of Roland (London, 1919), often reprinted. On Masefield see Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York and London, 1975), pp. 87 and 147.

  10. See Margaret Mead, “Socialization and Enculturation,” Current Anthropology, 4 (1963), 184-188, and Nobuo Shimakara, “Enculturation—A Reconsideration,” ibid., 11 (1970), 143-154. The definition given here is that of Philip E. Leis, Enculturation and Socialization in an Ijaw Village (New York, 1972), p. 5.

  11. Jack [John R.] Goody and Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5 (1963), 307-310.

  12. On the need to fight in battle formation see R. C. Smail, Crusading Warfare (1097-1193) (Cambridge, Eng., 1956), pp. 126-130. Once the shock of a cavalry attack had occurred, however, combat between mounted warriors was necessarily individual or fought by small groups of men; see Brault, Song of Roland, I, 417, nn., 76, 80. The poem presents the “new” method of using a lance without showing how to do it; see D. J. A. Ross, “L'originalité de ‘Turoldus’: le maniement de la lance,” Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale, 6 (1963), 127-138.

  13. On the Fragment see Paul Aebischer, “Le Fragment de La Haye, les problèmes qu'il pose et les enseignements qu'il donne,” Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, 72 (1957), 20-37, and on the stroke itself, Menéndez Pidal, Chanson, pp. 376-378. According to the Pseudo-Turpin, Charlemagne characteristically used the full stroke; see Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi, ch. 20, ed. C. Meredith-Jones (Paris, 1936), p. 177.

  14. Many illustrations of split heads and even bodies are reproduced in Rita Lejeune and Jacques Stiennon, La Légende de Roland dans l'art du moyen âge, 2 vols. (Paris and Brussels, 1966), as well as D. D. R. Owen, The Legend of Roland: A Pageant of the Middle Ages (London, 1973). In the Bayeux tapestry the beginning of the stroke appears in the scene labeled “Hic ceciderunt simul,” reproduced in Brault, Song of Roland 1, plate 49. Cf. the sword realistically raised for a cavalry thrust in the late twelfth-century Rolandslied, Heidelberg University, Pal. germ. 112, fol. 74, reproduced by Brault, Song of Roland, 1, plate 51.

  15. “Solent gesta Caroli, Rolandi et Oliveri referri ad animandum audientes” in a sermon attributed to Nicholas de Biard, cited by Edmond Faral in “A propos de la Chanson de Roland,” in La Technique littéraire des chansons de geste (Paris, 1959), pp. 277-278.

  16. The “traditionalist” position is, of course, forcefully stated by Menéndez Pidal, Chanson, who discusses the Annals of Aniane on pp. 305-311. For those who respond to this particular point that the manuscript of this text was written in the early twelfth century and could have been “contaminated” by the Roland itself, Menéndez Pidal provides an answer in his reference (p. 308, note 2) to the appearance of the same phrases in a continuation of the Chronicon Isidorianum from the year 1017 (MGH SS, 13, 262).

  17. The frightening and novel use of battle drums by the Almoravids at the battle of Zalaca in 1086 (cf. v. 3137) is noted by Martïn de Riquer, Los Cantares de gesta franceses (Madrid, 1952), p. 81; French trans. by I. -M. Cluzel, Les Chansons de geste françaises (2nd ed., Paris, 1957), pp. 75-76.

  18. As stated above (n. 17), the reference to battle drums places the text after 1086. The paleographic arguments, still unresolved, about the Oxford manuscript are whether it was copied in the period 1125-50 (Samaran, Marichal) or whether it could have been produced as late as 1170 (Bédier, Short); see Ian Short, “The Oxford Manuscript of the Chanson de Roland: A Paleographic Note,” Romania, 94 (1973), 221-231, and Charles Samaran, “Sur la date approximative du Roland d'Oxford,” ibid., pp. 523-527. The Oxford text is clearly a copy, and in his edition of La Chanson de Roland (Milan-Naples, 1970), p. xiii, Cesare Segre has argued that at least one copy lies between 0 and the archetype. On this point André Burger, “Leçons fautives dans l'archétype de la Chanson de Roland,Mélanges E.-R. Labande (Poitiers, 1974), pp. 77-82 has raised doubts, suggesting that 0 could have been copied directly from the text of “Turoldus.” On the basis of the evidence currently available it appears that the Oxford text could have been composed as well as copied in the early years of the reign of Henry II, but if this is the case, the author consciously maintained an archaic style and avoided obvious contemporary allusions. For arguments for a mid-twelfth-century dating of the Chanson see the unscholarly but suggestive work of Émile Mireaux, La Chanson de Roland et l'histoire de France (Paris, 1943), pp. 79-105, who places its composition c. 1158 in the circle of Henry II Plantagenet, and the articles of Hans-Erich Keller (some of which are cited below, n. 34), who considers it was written at Saint-Denis in the circle of Suger.

  19. On the unity of the poem of Turoldus see Bédier, Légendes épiques, 3rd ed., III, 410-453 or more recently, Brault, Song of Roland, I, 47-71. A “remanieur” could of course be an excellent, indeed inspired, author.

  20. Vita s. Martini, c. 4, ed. Jacques Fontaine, Sources chrétiennes, 133-135 (Paris, 1967-69), I, 260; see the editor's commentary on the militia Martini, II, 428-538. On Martin's changing rôle as a model see Barbara H. Rosenwein, “St. Odo's St. Martin: the uses of a model,” Journal of Medieval History, 4 (1978), 317-331. On Christian pacifism in general see Roland H. Bainton, “The Early Church and War,” Harvard Theological Review, 39 (1946), 189-212, and his Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (New York, 1960).

  21. On the testimony about the song chanted before the battle see David Douglas, “The Song of Roland and the Norman Conquest of England,” French Studies, 14 (1960), 99-100. How we evaluate the story of Taillefer depends in large part on whether we conclude that the so-called Carmen de Hastingae Proelio was written shortly after 1066 or well into the twelfth century. The latest editors of the Carmen, Catherine Morton and Hope Munz, have argued that the work is both early and accurate; see their The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy, Bishop of Amiens, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1972), pp. xv-xxx. R. H. C. Davis contends that it is neither in “The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio,English Historical Review 93 (1978), 242-261. The issue appears still to be sub judice.

  22. The often quoted admonition of St. Ambrose against the use of weapons by the clergy (Ep. 20, MPL 16, 1050) appears, among many other places, in the Decretum of Gratian (C 23 q. 8 c. 3, ed. Friedberg, 1, 954). It should be noted that the traditional prohibition against fighting by the clergy, which the Frankish kings included in their capitularies, specifically mentioned war against the infidels.

  23. For Hubert see The Letters and Poems of Fulbert of Chartres, ed. Frederick Behrends, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1976), ep. 71, pp. 118-129. The letter or tract against any fighting by the clergy usually attributed to Fulbert (MPL 141, ep. 112) has been shown to be a twelfth-century forgery. See Behrends, “Two Spurious Letters in the Fulbert Collection,” Revue bénédictine 80 (1970), 253-275; chronologically shifted by a century, the tract's contents remain significant. On Wazo see Anselm of Liège, Gesta episcoporum Leodiensium, c. 54-56 (MGH SS, 7 [1846], 221-223).

  24. See Edmond Faral, “A propos de la Chanson de Roland: genèse et signification du personnage de Turpin,” in La Technique littéraire des chansons de geste, pp. 271-280. The idea that there could be a sharp distinction between secular and religious culture in the crusading period seems to me a false dichotomy, but on this topic see Julian White, “La Chanson de Roland: Secular or Religious Inspiration?” Romania, 84 (1963), 398-408, and Gerald Herman, “Why Does Oliver Die before the Archbishop Turpin?” Romance Notes, 14 (1972-73), 376-82. Mireaux, Chanson de Roland, pp. 59-63, argues that the Oxford Roland is anti-pseudo-Turpin in emphasizing that Turpin was a warrior rather than a simple singer of masses. Whatever the chronology, the differing rôles of Turpin suggest some sort of dialectical relationship.

  25. Erdmann, Die Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens (Stuttgart, 1935), p. 264; I have quoted the excellent new translation with additional notes and bibliography by Marshall W. Baldwin and Walter Goffart, The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (Princeton, 1977), pp. 284-285. See also Hans-Wilhelm Klein, “Der Kreuzzugsgedanke im Rolandslied und die neuere Rolandforschung,” Die neueren Sprachen 6 (1956), 265-285.

  26. Ibid., p. 265; English trans. p. 285. Menéndez Pidal, Chanson, pp. 244-248 stresses the counterargument of Charlemagne's actual “Holy War” mission. The reservation that not all medievalists are agreed on a relationship between the ideas of the Chanson and those of the crusading period is necessary because of the same author's emphatic statement (p. 243): “Toutes ces idées n'appartiennent pas au temps des croisades.”

  27. Clearly there are some echoes of military experience in the eastern Mediterranean theater of operations, notably the proper names in the Baligant episode, though the critical response received by Henri Grégoire makes the precise number uncertain; see on this point Joseph J. Duggan, “The Generation of the Episode of Baligant,” Romance Philology, 30 (1976), 73. The argument of Rachel P. Rindone, “An Observation on the Dating of the Baligant Episode,” Romance Notes, 11 (1967-70), 181-185, seems relatively weak to me.

  28. Raoul of Caen uses the names of Roland and Oliver to praise two heroes of the First Crusade, and Ordericus Vitalis compares Guiscard to Roland; Raoul of Caen, Gesta Tancredi, in Historiens des croisades, Occidentaux (Paris, 1866), 3, 627 and Ordericus, Historia ecclesiastica, Bk. 7, ed. Marjorie Chibnall, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1969), IV, 36 (ed. Le Prevost, III, 186). As Menéndez Pidal has noted (Chanson, pp. 234-235), references to the story of Roland are strangely lacking in vernacular poetry intended to excite crusading zeal. I am unconvinced that the speech of Urban II as reported by Robert of Reims necessarily referred to the epic rather than the historical Charlemagne and his son (as suggested by Duggan, “Generation,” p. 70), since Charles and Louis did actually “destroy pagan kingdoms and expanded in them the boundaries of the holy Church” in campaigns against the Saxons and the Avars.

  29. J. F. Benton, “Theocratic History in Fourteenth-Century France: The Liber Bellorum Domini by Pierre de la Palu,” The [University of Pennsylvania] Library Chronicle 40 (1974) = Bibliographical Studies in Honor of Rudolf Hirsch (Philadelphia, 1974), pp. 38-54.

  30. Cf. D. D. R. Owen, “The Secular Inspiration of the Chanson de Roland,Speculum, 37 (1962), 390-400.

  31. Jacques Boussard, “La Notion de royauté sous Guillaume le Conquérant,” Annali della Fondazione italiana per la storia amministrativa, 4 (1967), 47-77, compares the Salisbury oath to the oaths exacted by Charlemagne (pp. 68-69) and states (p. 64) that the concept of royalty in England in 1066 was “beaucoup plus proche de l'idéal défini par Hincmar au IXe siècle, que de la royauté française du XIe siècle, dans laquelle le roi n'est qu'un ‘primus inter pares’.”

  32. Karl F. Werner, “Die Legitimität der Kapetinger und die Entstehung des Reditus ad stirpem Karoli,Die Welt als Geschichte, 12 (1952), 203-225. I agree with Laura Hibbard Loomis that the use of the word auriflamma at Saint-Denis under Philip Augustus probably derives from the influence of the Chanson, rather than the reverse, for orie flambe describes the vexillum given by Leo III to Charlemagne at Rome, whether it means “notched standard” or “golden flame.” See L. H. Loomis, “The Oriflamme of France and the War-Cry ‘Monjoie’ in the Twelfth Century,” Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene (Princeton, 1954), pp. 67-82, trans. as “L'Oriflamme de France et le cri ‘Munjoie’ au XIIe siècle,” Le Moyen Áge, 65 (1965), 469-499; André Burger, “Oriflamme,” Festschrift Walther von Wartburg zum 80, Geburtstag (Tübingen, 1968), 2, 357-363; Hans-Erich Keller, “La Version dionysienne de la Chanson de Roland,Philologica Romanica, Erhard Lommatzsch gewidmet (Munich, 1975), 270-275. When Carl Erdmann wrote Kaiserfahne und Blutfahne, Sitz. Akad. Berlin, Phil.-hist. Kl., 28 (1932) and “Kaiserliche und päpstliche Fahnen im hohen Mittelalter,” Quellen und Forschungen, 25 (1933-34), 1-48, he had not yet taken account of an eleventh-century forgery (MGH Const. 1, 1668), which claims that Charlemagne received the vexillum b. Petri apostoli at Rome in 774, and the tenth-century chronicle of Benedict of San Andrea (MGH SS, 3, 710), which states that on his alleged trip to Jerusalem Charlemagne presented to the Holy Sepulcher a vexillum aureum; see Entstehung, pp. 179, n. 47 and 183, n. 60 (Eng. trans. pp. 195, n. 47 and 200, n. 60). M. Berger's etymology of “notched standard” is a solution to the old problem of the color of St. Peter's standard, which according to the Lateran mosaic was a notched green banner (illustrated in Brault, Song of Roland, 1, pl. 60). See also Léon Gautier, Les Épopées françaises (Paris, 1880), 3, 124f., n. 2; cf. the banner di fiamma e d'oro in the Italian Nerbonesi (Bk. 1, ch. 2), cited ibid., p. 639 n.

  33. Karl-Heinz Bender, “Les Métamorphoses de la royauté de Charlemagne dans les premieres épopées franco-italiennes,” Cultura Neolatina, 21 (1961), 164-174; see also Gautier, Épopées III, 155-160, who expatiates indignantly on the debased image of Charlemagne in many chansons de geste, blaming the uncomplimentary portraiture on a chronological shift.

  34. Professer Keller's arguments that the Oxford Roland was composed about 1150 by a poet writing at Saint-Denis in the circle of Abbot Suger may be found in “La Version dionysienne” (above, n. 32); a shorter paper along the same lines, “The Song of Roland: A Mid-Twelfth-Century Song of Propaganda for the Capetian Kingdom,” Olifant, 3 (1976), 242-258; and most recently “La Chanson de geste et son public,” Mélanges … offerts à Jeanne Wathelet-Willem, Marche romane (Liège, 1978), pp. 257-285. These arguments seem to me to be unsound for three reasons: (1) as stated in note 32, there is no compelling reason to associate the oriflamme with the banner of the Vexin preserved at Saint-Denis; (2) the statements (in Olifant 3, 254) that “during the twelfth century, the Abbey of Saint-Denis was most instrumental in the ascendancy of the cult of Charlemagne in France” and that in “the period of Suger … Charlemagne was used to heighten and strengthen the Capetian kingdom” are unsupported by documentation, doubtless because it is hard to find evidence to show that Suger accorded Charlemagne anything more than the respect appropriate for one of many rulers who had richly endowed his abbey; and (3) the discussion of proper names which make the Chanson a roman à clef depends upon “mystification” and etymological subtleties entirely inappropriate for a work of “propaganda.” For example, the name Pinabel “would be a name whose meaning was easily discernible to a twelfth-century man in Southern Italy, ‘beautiful like a pine tree’.” But of course the Oxford Roland was not written for an audience in Southern Italy (“this totally different world”), and we are told that the name “could doubtless have been easily understood in Northern France, though with a different meaning”—i.e., with the sense of “membre viril” (Olifant 3, 252). Whatever the basis of Pinabel's beauty, arguments of this sort have nothing to do with whether the Roland was written at Saint-Denis.

    Much stronger textual arguments have been made that the Historia Karoli Magni of Pseudo-Turpin was either written at Saint-Denis or by a cleric who favored that monastery: see the ed. of Meredith-Jones, pp. 323-333, and Ronald N. Walpole, “Sur la Chronique du Pseudo-Turpin,Travaux de linguistique et de littérature 3, 2 (1965), 7-18. If one is willing to accept the idea that the “final” version of the Oxford text was composed in the 1150's, then one must also consider seriously the hypothesis of Émile Mireaux that the poem was composed not only in Angevin rather than Capetian circles but also by someone who precisely wished to contradict the version of Pseudo-Turpin (see Chanson de Roland, pp. 70-78). A certain, “early” dating of the Oxford text would invalidate the theories of both Mireaux and Keller, but if a mid-twelfth-century date is permissible I find the Angevin hypothesis much more convincing than the Dionysian.

  35. Menéndez Pidal, Chanson, pp. 384 ff; cf. Miquel Coll i Alentorn, “La introduccio de les llegendes epiques franceses a Catalunya.” Coloquios de Roncesvalles (Zaragoza, 1956), pp. 133-150.

  36. Rita Lejeune, “La Naissance du couple littéraire ‘Roland et Olivier’,” Mélanges Henri Grégoire 2, Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d'Histoire Orientales et Slaves, 10 (1950), 371-401 (Midi); Gaston Paris, “Sur la date et la patrie de la Chanson de Roland,Romania, 11 (1882), 400-409 (Brittany).

  37. Cf. V. I. J. Flint, “The Career of Honorius Augustodunensis. Some Fresh Evidence,” Revue bénédictine, 82 (1972), 63-86. This is only one contribution to a continuing reexamination of Honorius by a number of writers.

  38. Ettore L. Gotti, La Chanson de Roland e i Normanni, Bibliotheca del Leonardo 40 (Florence, 1949); Michel de Boüard, “La Chanson de Roland et la Normandie,” Annales de Normandie, 2 (1952), 34-38; David C. Douglas, “The Song of Roland and the Norman Conquest of England,” French Studies, 14 (1960), 99-116; for an objection see Thomas S. Thomov, “Sur la langue de la version oxonienne de la Chanson de Roland,Société Rencesvals IVe Congrès international, Heidelberg, 29 août-2 septembre 1967. Actes et mémoires (Heidelberg, 1969), pp. 179-193.

  39. Pierre Le Gentil, La Chanson de Roland (2nd ed., Paris, 1967), p. 34; Eng. trans. by Frances F. Beer, The Chanson de Roland (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), p. 26. I am happier with the old textbook formulation (I cite from a pre-World War I edition) of Gustave Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française (11th ed. rev., Paris, 1909), p. 31, who refers to “un profond et encore inconscient patriotisme, qui devance la réalité même d'une patrie.” Cf. Robert A. LeVine, “The Internalization of Political Values in Stateless Societies,” Human Organization 19 (1960), 51-58.

  40. Quotation from Menéndez Pidal, Chanson, p. 321. A distinction between the ideals of Roland and Byrhtnoth is asserted by Frederick Whitehead, “Ofermod et démesure,Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale, 3 (1960), 115-117 and Cecily Clark, “Byrhtnoth and Roland: A Contrast,” Neophilologus, 51 (1967), 288-293.

  41. The contents of the codex was probably assembled in the second half of the tenth century; see Dorothy Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf (Oxford, 1961), p. 51. Paleographers have placed the writing of Beowulf in the last decades of the tenth century. It should be noted that the codex contains three other works—all written by one of the scribes of the Beowulf—which other paleographers have placed in the mid-eleventh or even the twelfth century; see Robert L. Reynolds, “Handwriting Illustrations: Some Problems in Economic-Historical Research,” Studi in onore di Amintore Fanfani (Milan, 1962), 3, 433-435.

  42. See Pietro Paulo Trompeo, “Dulce France,” in his L'Azzurro di Chartres e altri capricci. Artesusa 5 (Caltanissetta-Rome, 1958), pp. 27-33. Léon Gautier, “L'Idée politique dans les chansons de geste,” Revue des questions historiques, 7 (1869), p. 84, n. 3. calculated that in the Chanson de Roland the terms “France” and “Franceis” were applied to the entire empire of Charlemagne 170 times. Gautier's view that Bavaria, Normandy, Germany, Brittany, Frisia, etc. should be considered dependent or conquered territory was challenged by Carl Theodor Hoefft, France, Franceis & Franc im Rolandslied (Strassburg, 1891). Douglas, “The Song of Roland and the Norman Conquest,” p. 110, points out that William the Conqueror addressed his continental subjects, Normans and Angevins, as Franci sui.

  43. Ferdinand Lot, Études sur les légendes épiques françaises (Paris, 1958), pp. 260-279 (first pub. 1928), and René Louis, “La Grande Douleur pour la mort de Roland,” Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale, 3. (1960), 62-67; cf. K. J. Hollyman, “Wissant and the Empire of Charles le Simple,” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association, 8 (1958), 24-28. I find the theory of Rita Lejeune that v. 1428 refers to Saint-Michel-Pied-de-Port near Roncevaux reasonable but in the end unconvincing; see her “Le Mont Saint Michel au-péril-de-la-mer, la Chanson de Roland et le pèlerinage de Compostelle” in Millénaire monastique de Mont Saint-Michel, 6 vols., (Paris, 1966-1971), II, 411-433.

  44. Though forbidden by the Council of Tarragona in 1180, dating by the regnal years of the kings of France continued in a few instances into the thirteenth century; see Arthur Giry, Manuel de diplomatique (2nd ed., Paris, 1925), p. 93.

  45. Cf. the vow of Vivien in the Chanson de Guillaume, vv. 580-589, ed. Duncan McMillan, SATF, 2 vols. (Paris, 1949-50). For a moralization of the theme see Pseudo-Turpin, ed. Meredith-Jones, ch. 12, pp. 134-135, or Brault, Song of Roland, 1, 34-35.

  46. Bernard S. Bachrach, “The Feigned Retreat at Hastings,” Mediaeval Studies, 33, (1971), 264-267. On charges of cowardice leveled against the counts of Blois-Champagne see Michel Bur, La Formation du comté de Champagne (Nancy, 1977), pp. 482-485. For a medieval version of the proverb which closes this paragraph see The Owl and the Nightingale, v. 176 (“Wel fiȝt þat wel fliȝt”), ed. Eric Gerald Stanley (London, 1960), with notes on other appearances.

  47. On the “will to combat” see Keegan, Face of Battle, pp. 269-279 and elsewhere; this study of the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme is informative and thought-provoking throughout.

  48. See Paul Pascal, “The ‘Institutionum Disciplinae’ of Isidore of Seville,” Traditio, 13 (1957), 426: “In ipso autem modulandi usu voce excitata oportet sensim psallere, cantare suaviter nihilque amatorium decantare vel turpe sed magis praecinere carmina maiorum quibus auditores provocati ad gloriam excitentur.” Though its editors have attributed this text to St. Isidore and it is treated as authentic by Menéndez Pidal, Poesia juglaresca y juglares (6th ed., Madrid, 1957), p. 348, its authorship is uncertain; Jacques Fontaine, “Quelques observations sur les Institutiones disciplinae,Ciudad de Dios, 181 (1968), 617-655, considers that it is not by Isidore and places its probable composition in Carolingian Gaul. In either case, a Visigothic or Carolingian author added a favorable reference to the carmina maiorum to St. Ambrose's condemnation of love songs. See also Jean Györy, “Réflexions sur le jongleur guerrier,” Annales Universitatis Scientiarum Budapestensis, Sectio Philologica, 3 (1961), 46-60.

  49. See John Halverson, “Ganelon's Trial,” Speculum, 42 (1967), 661-669. In “The Character and the Trial of Ganelon: A New Appraisal,” Romania, 96 (1975), 333-367, John A. Stranges argues well that Thierry is the champion of Charlemagne and of justice, but in my opinion greatly overstates the position that the audience could be expected to feel sympathy (as he seems to) for Ganelon.

  50. Joseph R. Strayer, “The Two Levels of Feudalism,” in his Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History (Princeton, 1971), pp. 63-76.

  51. While Brault, like many critics, describes the audience of the Chanson primarily as “aristocratic,” he notes that some authors have suggested “that the chansons de geste were primarily intended for bacheliers”; see Song of Roland, I, 27-28 and 353, n. 162. The argument that the Chanson reflects the ideals of the bacheliers or apprentice warriors is presented from a Marxian point of view by R. Constantinescu, “Aspecte ale reflectării societătii feudale in Cinecul lui Roland,Studii [de Institul de istorie şi filosofie de Romine], 16 (1963), 565-589.

  52. On the bearers of mortuary rolls see Jean Dufour, “Les Rouleaux et encycliques mortuaires de Catalogne (1008-1102),” Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale, 20 (1977), 13-48.

  53. On the institution of peers in the mid-eleventh century see Paul Guilhiermoz, Essai sur les origines de la noblesse en France au moyen âge (Paris, 1902), pp. 75-182. But besides the peers, who dominate the “fragment” of The Hague and the Nota Emilianense, the named heroes of the Oxford Roland are joined by a host of “altres,” 15,000 chevaliers and bacheliers in vv. 108-113. Moreover, like the milites discussed by Strayer, these “others” not only fought but took part in judicial functions; the duel of Pinabel and Thierry was to take place “par jugement des altres” (v. 3855).

  54. Thomas N. Bisson, “Mediterranean Territorial Power in the Twelfth Century,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 123 (1979), 145.

This is a revised version of a paper presented on October 6, 1978 at the conference Roncevaux 778-1978 held at the Pennsylvania State University. The author wishes to express his gratitude to the organizers and the participants at that fruitful gathering. In addition, he owes special thanks to Professor Joseph J. Duggan of the University of California at Berkeley for generous bibliographic and critical assistance, and to Professor James W. Greenlee of Northern Illinois University for primary research on modern aspects of the topic. Besides the older, standard tools of Roland scholarship, I have made extensive and generally unacknowledged use of Duggan's A Guide to Studies on the “Chanson de Roland,” Research Bibliographies and Checklists, 15 (London, 1976) with mimeographed supplements supplied by the compiler, and Gerard J. Brault, The Song of Roland: An Analytical Edition, 2 vols. (University Park, Pa., and London, 1978).

Eugene Vance (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Vance, Eugene. “Roland and the Poetics of Memory.” In Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, pp. 374-403. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Vance analyzes the narrative patterns of The Song of Roland and explains its emphasis on commemoration.]

La différence, c'est ce qui fait que le mouvement de la signification n'est possible que si chaque élément dit “présent,” apparaissant sur la scène de la présence, se rapporte à autre chose que lui-même, gardant en lui la marque de l'élément passé et se laissant déjà creuser par la marque de son rapport à l'élément futur, la trace ne se rapportant pas moins à ce qu'on appelle le futur qu'à ce qu'on appelle le passé, et constituant ce qu'on appelle le présent par rapport même à ce qui n'est pas lui: absolument pas lui, c'est-à-dire pas même un passé ou un futur comme présents modifiés. Il faut qu'un intervalle le sépare de ce qui n'est pas lui pour qu'il soit lui-même mais cet intervalle qui le constitue en présent doit aussi du même coup diviser le présent en lui-même, partageant, avec le présent tout ce qu'on peut penser à partir de lui, c'est-à-dire tout étant, dans notre langue métaphysique, singulièrement la substance ou le sujet.

—Jacques Derrida

During a long period of its history, medieval culture granted special importance to the faculty of memory, and my intention in this essay is to describe as simply as possible what I believe to be certain obvious features of this culture that I shall call commemorative, and then to show to what extent a commemorative model is operative in the Chanson de Roland, at the level of both deep narrative configurations and a system of values expressed at the ethical surface of that poem. I shall also show how, especially in the second half of the Roland, this model is violently disrupted, and I shall suggest some of the cultural forces that may have contributed to this disruption.

By “commemoration” I mean any gesture, ritualized or not, whose end is to recover, in the name of a collectivity, some being or event either anterior in time or outside of time in order to fecundate, animate, or make meaningful a moment in the present. Commemoration is the conquest of whatever in society or in the self is perceived as habitual, factual, static, mechanical, corporeal, inert, worldly, vacant, and so forth.

Even if no theories of memory had been written during the Middle Ages, the strictly pragmatic functions attributed to it in medieval culture would be very much in evidence. It is well known, for example, to what extent the ideal of the imitatio Christi impregnated every sphere of the medieval consciousness, and in broader terms one can hardly fail to glimpse the centrality of a commemorative model in the cult of ancestors, in the tradition of precedence in common law, in the ritual of pilgrimages, in the typology of monarchical theory, and in notions as diverse as those of archetype, universal, exemplum, authority, figura, and miracle, not to mention that of historia itself, as a representation of the past: in short, in any pattern of thought that ontologically privileges some moment or principle of origin.

It is easy to show that Christianity—especially that Platonizing strain of Christianity which dominated pre-Scholastic thought for more than seven centuries—is founded upon a commemorative épistémè of the purest sort, for its eucharist is centered upon the gestures of a Lord who gathered together with his apostles on the eve of his death to celebrate a final repast (itself a commemoration of the Jewish Passover feast), and who exhorted them thus: “This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me”—in meam commemorationem.1

A commemorative culture will inevitably rationalize its ideologies in the perspective of a metaphysics of signs. If Reality or Truth is conceived of as being anterior to the present—or, more radically, as being anterior to existence itself—this original Truth that is always absent will signify or present itself partially to man in time and space by means of the words and things that constitute his palpable world—visibilia, to use a term of St. Paul. At best, these signs can reflect only poorly an ineffable Truth that transcends them; however, one day man will enjoy perfect knowledge, that is, a presence without mediation, without signs: Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate; tunc autem facie ad faciem.2

Like the doctrine of signs, the commemorative impulse is inseparable from a cult of the voice, or what one may call the phonocentrism that defines the creative force of the Logos as it was understood in the Middle Ages. According to St. Augustine, God “spoke” the universe through the matter of the abyss during the creation. The syntax of God's discourse is the history of the world.3 Even though God gave of his substance in an act of material expression that was authentic yet susceptible to corruption, the original cogito did not allow itself to be contaminated along with the firmament that is its state-ment:

It is as when we speak. In order that what we are thinking may reach the mind of the listener through the fleshly ears, that which we have in mind is expressed in words and is called speech. But our thought is not transformed into sounds; it remains entire in itself and assumes the form of words by means of which it may reach the ears without suffering any deterioration in itself. In the same way the Word of God was made flesh without change that He might dwell among us.4

In such a cosmogony, any notion of mimesis will ultimately involve regression, and it is the memory that bridges the hiatus between the empirical presence of signifiers and a transcendent signified at the origin of all. This incorporeal otherness can be partially remembered through the traces (vestigia) it has left in our souls. One has only to read Book 10 of Augustine's Confessions, his De trinitate, or his De magistro to grasp the radical interchangeability of metaphysics, sign theory, and memory theory in medieval thought.5 The importance of memory in the epistemic system of classical culture has been indicated by numerous studies during the last decade and more: the names of Finley, Havelock, Russo, Yates, Vernant, Détienne, and Peabody come immediately to mind.6 Moreover, in classical antiquity, the commemorative process tends to be allied with operations of the organs of speech. We cannot be surprised, then, that in a predominantly oral culture a privileged agent in the ritual of recall should be the speaking poet, in whose performance historical discourse is replenished and vivified with a new inspiration of truth. As Vernant has written:

Mnemosyne presides, as is well known, over the poetic process. It was obvious for the Greeks that such a process demanded a supernatural intervention. Poetry is one of the typical forms of divine possession and rapture: it is the state of “enthusiasm,” in the etymological sense of that word. Possessed by the Muses, the poet is the interpreter of Mnemosyne, just as the god-inspired prophet is the interpreter of Apollo. … The bard and the diviner have in common a single gift of “vision,” a privilege that they have paid for with their eyes. Blind to light, they see the invisible. The god who inspires reveals to them those realities that escape the sight of ordinary men. It is a twin vision that bears in particular upon those parts of time inaccessible to mortals: what once was, what has yet to come … in contrast to the diviner who must usually answer for the future, the activity of the poet is oriented almost exclusively toward the past. Not his individual past, nor a past generalized as if it were an empty framework independent of the events that have occurred there, but “ancient times” with its own contents and qualities: a heroic age or, still further, a primordial age, the origin of time.7

The proposal that the apotheosis of memory was a determining force in medieval history will no doubt seem an exaggeration to some, yet the vastly suggestive study by Frances Yates has already allowed us to glimpse, however fleetingly, the scope of the problem.8 The notion of memory, however—like the notion of time, to which it is related—is one of those numerous categories of our daily vocabulary that become massively complex with a moment of scrutiny.

Consider, for instance, the implications of the psychic model one invokes in order to deal with the basic functions of memory. Already in classical antiquity it was clearly understood that acts of recollection or of reminiscence involved a problematic of mediation: how, it was asked, does some absent object of memory relate to the object stimulating its recall in the present? Aristotle claimed that retrieval occurred by three types of mental association: similarity, contiguity, and opposition. Hence, the prelinguistic operations of memory are already essentially rhetorical.9 Modern theories of memory have regarded such acts of substitution as a kind of primordial violence. Freud held that the passage of an image from the preverbal system of the unconscious into the conscious system of language (or vice versa) involves both radical substitutions and changes of valence: such is the transforming power of repression in our mental activity, hence the potentially pathological ambivalence of the remembering subject to the substance of his own recollections. To recognize that such transformations might indeed occur even in our most familiar rituals of commemoration is to recognize that our daily cultural life is constituted as a balance of the dialectical forces of repression and recollection. In Freud's explanation of Christ's sacrifice, the medieval notion of imitatio Christi involves a struggle simultaneously to remember and to repress, a struggle rooted in primal yet unresolved acts of violence:

If the Son of God was obliged to sacrifice his life to redeem mankind from original sin, then by the law of the talion, the requital of like for like, that sin must have been a killing, a murder. Nothing else could call for the sacrifice of life in expiation. And if the original sin was an offense against God the Father, the primal crime of mankind must have been a parricide, the killing of the primal father of the primitive horde, whose image in memory was later transfigured into a deity.10

One need not accept the topical content of the categories that Freud brings to the theater of the mind; however, the complexity that he attributes to their operations of memory is plausible enough to suggest that a definition of memory, or a fortiori, a history of its functions, is impossible. If one will grant, however, as Freud himself willingly did, that what we call poetic discourse is a notation that, alongside those of philosophy and psychology, has its own special ways of apprehending a problematic of memory, one will not lack interesting material, especially in the Middle Ages.11

With these priorities in mind, I should like to consider certain narrative patterns observable in the Chanson de Roland, especially with regard to the mode—rather, the modes—of performance that brought this poem into existence. For if there is any truth in the notion that the basic function of any act of communication is to make experience intelligible, we must be willing to consider that among the things that must be made intelligible is the model that subtends communication itself. In other words, I am suggesting that what we call myth and legend (poetic or not) always tend to be structured no less by their mode of dissemination in culture than by the “events” in the past that such myths are purported to convey, no matter how much these events are accepted as being truly historical. Thus, if memory is the principal means of preserving sacred history, history must serve, reciprocally, to sacralize the faculty of memory. The special interest of the Chanson de Roland is that ever since the Romantic age, the Roland has always been considered one of the most “historical” of all poems. This reverence notwithstanding, it is not difficult to show that at every level the drama of the Chanson de Roland is not only a product but also a drama, and even a tragedy, of memory.

Like so many other poems of the Middle Ages, the Chanson de Roland bears all the marks of a long oral prehistory, during which time the primary creative—or rather, conservative—process was that of an oral performance that was also a feat of memory. (I shall explore later the serious consequences of a glaring and important paradox, which is that the Roland is accessible to us only as a written text, and that a system of writing has already intervened in the process of transmission.)

To claim that the Chanson de Roland is a drama of memory is also to presume that if such a drama originates in a specific legendary corpus, its substance must be compatible enough with modes of oral poetic production to be both conservable and renewable through the ages. We know nothing definite about what we commonly call the historical origins of the poem, but we may be fairly certain that the Roland as we possess it is a coagulation of disparate narrative materials that once perpetuated themselves in oral performances during which the poet and his heroes would be simultaneously reborn together, thanks to the memory and voice of the poet. Thus the heroes of the Roland, like those of the Iliad and the Odyssey, speak in the same metrical formulas as the poet; they employ the same epithets, the same lists, and they even share the same foreknowledge of events. The fact that these heroes live only by the memory and the voice of the poet ensures, in other words, a strong cognitive identification between them, and this is evident in the motivation imputed by the poet to the heroes themselves. For if it is the antique glory of the hero that animates the voice of the poet, inversely, it is the commemorative posterity of the singer that inspires the epic blows of the hero. Roland, in short, constitutes himself as the true “author” of his songs, and he is aware that his immortality is to be consummated in the living poetic word:

“Now let each man take care to deal great blows,
Lest a bad song be sung of us!…
A bad example shall never be made of me.”


It is not surprising that in such a monologism (Bakhtin) no noun denoting the distinct figure of the poet is available: the twelfth-century poet is known not as an entity, but only through his action, which is that of singing (chanter).13 Moreover, in such action his identity as a poet is not expressed so much as it is possessed by the legendary gestes of his heroes. One can imagine, moreover, that the fame of epic singers, like that of certain film and television actors today, is derived more from their interpretations of certain roles than from their “real” personalities.

The “song,” as Roland himself says, is an “example” (essample) that revitalizes a moment in time and space—the instance of performance—with a therapeutic truth, a meaning, a signifié that re-presents itself each time anew through the phonic substance of speech. Such is the role, Jean Bodel says clearly in the opening lines of another epic, the Chanson des Saisnes, of the matière of Charlemagne: it must be voir chacun jour apparent. Truth is in uttering, not in the utterance. The truth that manifests itself anew “each day” in the oral performance, however, is not something that one grasps objectively, or even, for that matter, subjectively: on the contrary, the commemoration of “truth” abrogates altogether the matrix of self and other. It provokes instead a movement of undifferentiation where the commemorating self is given over to a field of forces that is infinitely (hence fatally) regressive. Its sweep includes the identity of the listener as well, tacitly engaged by the poetic word only to find himself no less dissolved in it. The psychology of the poetic performance is not determined by events of history, but rather by circumstances of language, and the Greeks were eager to analyze it with some precision. As Socrates says to a rhapsode, a man who performs the Homeric poems:

This gift you have of speaking well on Homer is not an art; it is a power divine, impelling you like the power in the stone … which most call “stone of Heraclea.” This stone does not simply attract the iron rings, just by themselves: it also imparts to the rings a force enabling them to do the same thing as the stone itself, that is, to attract another ring, so that sometimes a chain is formed, quite a long one, of iron rings, suspended from one another. For all of them, however, their power depends on that lodestone. Just so the Muse. She first makes men inspired, and then through these inspired ones others share in the enthusiasm, and a chain is formed … a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him. So long as he has this reason in his possession, no man is able to make poetry or to chant in prophecy … Herein lies the reason why the deity has bereft them [poets] of their senses … in order that we listeners may know that it is not they who utter these precious revelations while their mind is not within them, but that it is the god himself who speaks, and through them becomes articulate to us.14

In the oral performance, then, poet, hero, and audience recreate each other in a common, discursive space; yet their presence to each other is consummated only in a regressive series of “magnetic” alignments, through speech, with some originary presence. As in the Iliad, this movement is reinforced by the genealogical consciousness of its audience, if we may believe modern scholars who say that the twelve peers and the Christian warriors in the chronicle of the Baligant episode could be identified as distant ancestors by twelfth-century listeners. We have relatively few documents from the Middle Ages which capture the épistémè of oral epic discourse, yet the following statement by Jean de Grouchy insists precisely upon the regenerative effect of oral narrative on a crowd of laborers and humble people who have been beaten down by their daily tasks and routines, yet who are revived in a collective regression into the heroic past:

We call a chanson de geste that in which the deeds of heroes and of our ancient fathers are recited, such as the lives and martyrdoms of saints and the adversities that beset men of old for the Faith and for Truth. … Moreover, this song must be ministered to the old people, to the laboring folk and to those of humble condition, so that by hearing miseries and calamities of others they may bear more easily their own and so that their own travails may become lighter. And thus this song brings about the conservation [conservatio] of the whole community.15

Commemoration, however, involves not just an act of retrieval by the mind of the poet but simultaneously the perception of what lies before him in the present as being deficient, as a vice, a lack that the memory will fill; the present may even be seen as an obstacle to the possession of some reality or meaning belonging to the past. Such a dialectic is already implicit, as I have said, in the duality of the sign as a material signans of an immaterial signatum. In pragmatic terms, however, such a dialectic could be welcomed and intensified by poets and orators who had mastered the art of memory. For, as Frances Yates has shown, it was customary for orators from classical antiquity to the Renaissance to practice what was called compositio loci, that is, to memorize a speech either by linking, however arbitrarily, the elements to be retrieved during performance with physical objects in the orator's immediate presence, or by imagining some spatial scene whose details (imagines), often made vivid through effects of violence and the grotesque, would swiftly summon up the memory of those elements to be recalled.16 Thus violence may be understood as being not only the “subject” of oral epic narrative but also as an aide-mémoire or as a “generative” force in the production of its discourse. By extension, it is interesting to ask if the semiological prominence given to violence in classical and post-classical culture—the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the tortures, the beheadings, the crucifixions, the quarterings, the burnings—was not primarily mnemonic in function. If the Odyssey ends in joyous recollections that reconcile husband to wife and fathers to sons, it also ends with a violent exemplary massacre from which only a bard and a herald are spared, for it is they who will remember and speak. In a commemorative culture, then, history “stages” itself around events of violence by which the collective judicial memory reinforms itself—as narrative.

However one wishes to describe it, the dialectic of presence and absence that arises in the very circumstances of oral performance tends, as we shall now see, to double itself within the Roland as basic configurations of narrative that command the relationships of characters both to each other and to the physical world in which they move. Indeed, such a configuration informs the Chanson de Roland from the start: the Franks have fought in Spain for seven years, an expanse of time easily understood, in the Middle Ages, as a metaphor—rather, as a synecdoche—for all the travails of earthly existence. Despite the victories of the moment, the Franks are now weary of the war and nostalgic for “sweet France,” the terrestrial seat of God's presence among men (Charlemagne, one will recall, figured as a vicarius Christi in medieval iconography). The pagans, who have been his adversaries, imagine how tired Charlemagne must be. As Marsile, their king, puts it:

                                                                                                              “I greatly marvel
at Charlemagne, who is white-haired and old.
I would say he's two hundred years old or more.
Many are the lands where he has wearied his body
And taken so many blows of lance and spear …
Never will he give up fighting.”


The geographical opposition between Spain and France provides to the heroes within the poem and above all to its audience an epistemological framework in which a dialectic between presence and absence is historically significant in both ideological and affective terms. Blancandrin, a Saracen who is Marsile's ambassador to the council of the Franks, concludes the treasonous proposals of the Saracens by eliciting nostalgia in the Franks:

“You have been in this country long enough.
You must now return to Aix, in France.
There my master says that he will follow you.”


The topographical location of Roncevaux only makes these feelings more dramatic. Situated in the mountains between Spain and France, Roncevaux serves as a threshold of intense recollections for the war-weary Franks, who now contemplate their tranquil homeland: a place of abundance, security, and appeased desires. The tantalizing proximity of France is all the more poignant in that an imminent and foreknown tragedy separates the Franks from it:

When they came to the Tere Majur
They saw Gascoigne, the land of their lords.
Then they remembered their fiefs and their possessions,
And their maidens, and their noble wives;
There's not a one who does not weep for pity.


The passage through Roncevaux stirs up a particularly violent anguish in Charlemagne, who is already grieving for a Roland destined never to return. The future already belongs, as it were, to the past, and such foreknowledge is a condition of that fatalistic cognitive homology of hero, poet, and audience, bound to each other in a single commemorative language. Never does it occur to Charlemagne that he might act to reverse the course of events.

Above all others, Charles is anguished:
At the gates of Spain he has left his nephew.
Pity seizes him, he cannot hold back from weeping.


Moreover, Charlemagne is fated to lose in Roland his “right hand,” a privileged agent of his own potency. The experience of Charlemagne is an instance of what seems to be a general tendency of the process of commemoration to be closely associated with—if not to demand—some act of mutilation or immolation. Did not time itself begin with the castration of Kronos—and once again with a crucifixion? Though some in our time might see such acts as manifestations of a castration complex disguised as instances of what Freud calls “organ speech,” I suggest that such violence, especially when it occurs in medieval narrative, is a manifestation less of some trauma in the authorial unconscious than of the conflicting nature of words (or things) as signs. For, as medieval thinkers knew so well, any signifier is a corporeal trace that must at once subsist and yet efface itself in order to convey a signified that is absent and different from it: that difference may be called “time.”

As an epic hero, Roland no doubt appealed to medieval audiences on more than one political or ideological score, but it is easy to show that Roland is also a hero of memory. The force of his memorial “logic” is evident from the very moment he appears in the poem. Blancandrin, one will recall, has just delivered Marsile's treacherous proposals to Charlemagne, who submits the question, as a good feudal lord must, to the counsel of his barons. Roland is the first to speak out; and he initiates his speech not with a rational opinion but with an aggressive outcry and a formulaic recital of his previous conquests. Roland's aggressions in the past, in other words, entirely determine the weight of his argument in the present. Then Roland reinforces his opinion with the exempla, likewise remembered from the past, of Basan and Basile, two Christian knights who had been sent as emissaries to the Saracens—at the price of their heads. Thus, counsels Roland, “Pursue the war as you began it.” Whether Roland is motivated by an excess of zeal or by outright pride, we the audience know by our privileged perspective that Roland, the champion of the idée reçue, is right.

Ganelon's memory, however, is less acute. Eloquent, a good rhetorician, this future traitor persuades the Frankish barons that the present appearance of things suffices as proof that it would be a “sin,” as he says, to continue the war. Seduced by Ganelon's speech, the Duke of Naimes, who is ordinarily a paragon of good sense among the Franks, corroborates Ganelon's counsel. “Ben ad parlet li dux,” cry the barons; but the irony of this judgment is obvious; the rhetoric of appeasement is subversive not only in ethical terms but in artistic terms as well. Without war, there could be no hero, no history, no song, no jongleur, and no audience.17

Once Roland and the twelve peers have been named to command the rear guard, a new dilemma arises: faced with the vast numbers of the pagan forces, should the Franks summon the aid of Charles? Perhaps because Oliver seems to have entered the Roland legend late in time and is, accordingly, somehow detached from the heroic (and commemorative) ethic that commands its principal figure, he accepts the empirical evidence of the pagan masses as justification for sounding the alarm. It would seem that Oliver is a champion not primarily of memory but of knowledge that derives from what is present, knowledge that has objective truth and can be treated rationally and even communicated. Even so, Oliver is not to be dismissed as a relativist, as his future conduct in the poem will clearly show. For Roland, by contrast, knowledge is always a priori, and language is never an instrument of true dialogue or exchange but rather of invocation or commemoration or of aggression, and it expresses his bond to a truth that is always both universal and anterior to the present and immutable. We are faced here with an epistemological difference that is finally smothered by events in the Roland, yet one that will have great ramifications in the intellectual environment of the century to follow.18 Roland invokes against Oliver's empiricism the formulaic obligation to respect at any cost the earlier orders of his lord, Charlemagne. Not only does Roland live by the oath of fidelity between vassal and lord (his contractual link to the past); he also evokes, as I mentioned earlier, the importance of his present performance on the battlefield as an exemplum for audiences of the future—thanks to the good offices of the jongleurs.

But Roland, as we know, is not beyond reproach. And if his idealism is founded upon a rectitude of memory, his pride, like Ganelon's, consists of a willful forgetting; Roland will simply not tolerate Oliver's recalling the earlier threats and the prominent gesture—the dropped glove—that had portended Ganelon's treason:

“Quiet, Oliver!” Count Roland replies.
“He is my stepfather: I want no further word about him.”


The battle now begins, and at several points the poet makes it clear that a victory on the battlefield is also a victory of memory over oblivion. Moreover, no less for the soldier than for the poet, a triumph of memory culminates in an outcry of the human voice. As the poet says of Oliver,

Whoever could see him dismember the Saracens
And throw one dead man upon another
Could remember a good vassal.
He does not want to forget Charles' ensign:
He cries “Munjoy” loud and clear.


Even the characters themselves give tongue to the commemorative impulse that motivates any true hero, demonstrating, once again, virtues that are perhaps only arbitrarily related to superlative martial conduct but which are necessarily related to the continuation of oral epic. Oliver's exhortations to fight and remember are echoed by the praise of the poet:

“Lords, Barons, hold your ground!
In God's name I pray you, be careful
To strike good blows, to take and to give them!
We must not forget Charlemagne's ensign.”
Upon this word the French cried out.
Whoever could hear them cry “Munjoy,”
Such a man would remember the deeds of a good vassal.


The nearer Roland approaches the moment of his death, the more the action of the poem tends toward that of pure commemoration. Almost surreptitiously a strange substitution of priorities takes place as a heroics of memory displaces a heroics of the sword. In other words, the commemorative performance must ultimately rise to the dramatic surface of its own narrative vehicle. We may observe here the manifestation of a desire that outweighs all others in an oral culture, the need to commemorate. In short, during the final moments of Roland's life we witness a kind of reversal in the process of mimesis: if the oral poet first imitates the voice and gestures of his heroes, in the end it is the hero who imitates the poet.

Once all of the twelve peers but Roland have been killed, he interrupts his heroic struggles and begins to gather up the dead bodies of his companions in order to have them blessed by Archbishop Turpin and to commemorate their heroism with his own voice. Planctus and prayer, poet and priest, answer to the single burden of past and future. The spectacle of the bodies arranged before him, like a dead audience, provokes from Roland a planctus and a series of mimetic gestures that are also those of the poet: indeed, the hero at this point is merely imitating the poet, though with this difference, slight in the eyes of a good Christian: the audience within the poem is dead and will not revive, except, one hopes, in heaven.

Roland's final moments provide insight into what we might call the psychology of commemoration, at least to the degree that an isolated hero appears to be addressing only himself. But it is hardly an individualized psychology, because Roland's formulas of conquests belong to a repertory of deeds that are not his alone, and his voice becomes more and more that of history itself speaking to us. After his attempt to break his sword, Durendal, on a stone, Roland discovers in its imperishability a reminder of the numerous conquests that he himself has made in the past as Charlemagne's vassal. The intrinsic virtue of Roland's sword, which has now become his silent interlocutor, encourages, moreover, a sequence of psychic reflexes that are regressive, both chronologically and in an ontological sense. The sword Durendal, we are told, had been given to Charlemagne by God (through the mediation of an obedient angel) with the instructions that Charlemagne should in turn bestow it on one of his best captains. Thus Roland's sword shines with the light of good works that originate, ultimately, with the Father in heaven. Furthermore, the list of conquests that Roland recalls undoubtedly corresponds to the boundaries of Charlemagne's empire as they would have been imagined by an epic poet at the beginning of the twelfth century. Each name in Roland's list of conquests must have coincided with a whole epic cycle, and in its entirety, this list is a capsule expressing the totality of a history that for the eleventh and twelfth centuries was sacred. Though Roland would hardly pass for an intellectual giant in ages to come, at the time he had only to recite the list of his conquests to show that he knew (and had performed) “everything.”

If it is true that in a commemorative culture the power to recall is a conquest, then Roland's reminiscences—and the violence that instigates them—mark a victory not only over the world but also over himself. Likewise, with regard to the poetic performance, if the poet succeeds, through memory, in making his voice resonate with a certain heroic timbre that is also his own, we may state that the reminiscences of the victorious Roland are consubstantial with a victory of poetic discourse over obstacles in the mind of the temporal speaker: by the blows of one and the phonemes of the other a culture endures.

To the degree that Roland's personal glory opens, through speech, into a less and less differentiated field of forces that includes first the presence of a Charlemagne absent and last the Great Magnet hidden behind everything, Roland's commemorations are infinitely regressive. But such regression cannot occur without a certain destruction of the self: the more the self languishes for communion with the infinite, the more it must confront the corruption of its own finitude. If the self is to liberate its own spirit, then the body (whose ontological status is equal to that of a mere signifier) must give way. The self, in other words, must come home from its exile among those multiple and disparate traces that constitute the palpable world yet point beyond themselves to an original, redeeming presence whose eternal, uncreated, indivisible substance is different—absolutely different—from them. Such is the dilemma facing the Christian hero who carries the logic of commemoration to its limits—that is, to the limits of his mortality.

But this is a dilemma for which the Christian religion has remedies, and those remedies also stem from the faculty of memory. Thus, having commemorated the glory of Charlemagne and finally that of God, Roland engages in another type of reminiscence (whose discourse is no less formulaic), in which he becomes momentarily present to himself. The transition (which I have italicized) is clearly signaled in the text:

He began to remember many different things,
So many lands that he conquered as a good baron.
And sweet France, and the men of his clan,
And Charlemagne, his lord, who nourished him;
He could not restrain himself from weeping and sighing for them
But he does not want to forget himself.
He confesses his sins and prays to God for mercy.


By means of his memory, Roland now confesses and succeeds in purging himself of the evil that has held him captive of the world: here, the ritual of commemoration gives rise to an act not or recovery but of expulsion. The self willingly discovers within its own substance a pharmakos whose expulsion cures the difference between body and spirit, or, more generally (but not more abstractly), between signifier and signified, in a universe of speech. Purifying himself, then, of evil through a labor of memory, Roland recalls the beneficial exempla of Lazarus and Daniel, of two mortals in the past who were revived by their faith in God. Thanks again to his memory, Roland is now prepared to quit the vassalage of Charlemagne, his spiritual father and his terrestrial lord, in order to rejoice in an unmediated relationship, facie ad faciem, with God the True Father (Veire Patene), “who never lies.” The first half of the Chanson de Roland is nothing other than an exalted Christian “comedy” of memory—and of signs.

Roland dies in the middle of the poem, however, and it is Charlemagne who inherits the bitter consequences of Roland's heroic splendor and brings to them sharp tragic relief. The Chanson de Roland is populated by characters who are perhaps static, yet our perspective is not so: on the contrary, with the change from a young hero to an old—Charlemagne is a Roland grown old—many of the values and triumphs that seemed so absolute in the first half are thrown radically into question.19 If it is true that the legend of Roland himself is the most archaic “nucleus” of the epic and that with succeeding eras other characters and episodes (Oliver, Baligant) were added in order to restore symmetries and to revive interest, then we may consider the Roland as a poem in which problems of history are not represented by language, but rather inscribed into language in all of its materiality. Similarly, it seems obvious to me that displacement of Roland by Charlemagne as the central protagonist of this epic also carries with it a disruption of the fundamental epistemic models immanent in the Roland legend, and it is with this shift in mind that I shall now focus on the story of Charlemagne.

From his initial appearance in the Roland, Charlemagne is strangely remote from the events that develop around him. Even though Christians and Saracens agree that Charles is the most powerful man in the world, Charlemagne broods in painful silence over the fatal cleavage in his heroic world. Charlemagne's detachment from that world is expressed most obviously in his two centuries of age, a distance from the glory of youth which no doubt coincided with a twelfth-century audience's sense of its own remoteness from a “heroic” age—the age when oral epic discourse was constituting itself, two or more centuries before. Charlemagne is also strangely undetermined—indecisive, even—with regard to Ganelon's dispute with Roland, even though he knows that Ganelon is a “living devil” and that the division of his army into vanguard and rear guard will result in the destruction of its best heroes. Charlemagne is also uncertain about the sinister prognostications in his dreams: videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate. Charlemagne seems especially remote from the discursive arena around him, in which younger heroes are so quick to argue, threaten, and boast:

He bows his head and begins to ponder.
The emperor holds down his head.
In his words he was never hasty;
His custom is to speak with deliberation [a leisir].


Charlemagne's silence inspires mostly awe in the first half of the poem, yet this same detachment from the motivations of the heroic world will ultimately give rise to a perspective so tragic as to call into question the adequacy of epic language, if not of all language itself. By contrast, Roland is a warrior whose motives and gestures remain profoundly compatible with the ethical values that underlie the traditional formulaic language of his poem, and both the hero and the poet of the first half of the Roland seem to feel that “meaning” is not something that we need to discover, but rather something that we assume and perform as our own: we declare it, we give it off; this is the original but long-forgotten sense of the word hermeneuein, so badly served by its translation as interpretatio.20 In Roland's actions, then, both the language and the values of a commemorative culture find adequate realization, and Roland has every assurance that he will live again, after his death, in the performance of poetic song. The more violent and bloody are his deeds, the more easily they may be remembered and uttered: his victory over the pagans will also be a victory of memory over oblivion. Inversely, he who is most brilliant in battle is also, in the end, he who is the most commemorative: the planctus that generally follows episodes of violence is nothing other than a formulaic type of verbal action which doubles, within the universe of the poem, the commemorative function attributed to the poem by the community of audience and poet attempting to recover, through song, their own heroic origins: oral epic usually tends toward the elegiac, and the elegiac presupposes the epic.

As he becomes the protagonist, Charlemagne initiates profound disruptions in the coherence of the epic imagination. Not only is Charlemagne unable to grasp, except dimly, the prophecies of the future revealed to him in his dreams (much less to alter that future by producing alternative “interpretations” by his actions); he is equally incapable of reuniting himself with Roland—his nephew, his “son” and link with his own heroic past—and of triumphing in the future: “Against me will rebel the Saxons, / the Hungarians, the Bulgarians” (2921-2922). During the entire second half of the poem, the memory of an absent Roland eclipses (even literally, at one point) all apprehension of the present. Not even the vengeance of Charlemagne on the Saracens (“an eye for an eye” is an especially futile type of “commemoration” because it is also a new beginning)21 can recover a splendor of young blood irrecoverably lost: at best, the joy of new victories can be only a forgetting of the pain of Roland's loss, rather than a remembrance. Revenge no longer works; hence for Charlemagne there can be no triumph in revenge. To the degree that the heroes of this poem are emanations of a poet's voice, apart from which they have no separate existence, it should not surprise us that, along with its new hero, the very language of the Chanson de Roland should inscribe into itself—into its very formulas—a kind of subtle nostalgia, during which a present moment in speech is experienced as a falling off, as a decomposition of a more splendid heroic discourse that was once possible in the universe of the poem. Such is the case, I propose, in the narration of Charlemagne's exhaustion in his grief for Roland; for, if we look closely at the passages evoking the emperor's grief, we see that they are comprised of a sequence of formulas—or of antiformulas—which systematically reverse the content of those earlier formulaic passages where heroes joyfully took up arms in brilliant sunlight in preparation for the fatal glee of combat. Consider, first, this passage, in which the pagan and Frankish forces poise themselves for the attack:

The pagans arm themselves with Saracen hauberks,
Most of which have three layers of chain.
They lace their helmets, the best of Saragossa.
They gird up their swords of Viennese steel.
They bear nobel shields, and spears from Valence,
And flags that are white, blue, and crimson.
They leave their mules and palfreys;
They mount their steeds and ride in closed ranks.
Clear was the day and beautiful the sun.
There was no armor that did not flame in the light.
A thousand trumpets sound, to make it more beautiful.
The noise is great, and the Franks hear it.
Oliver says, “My comrade, I believe
That we shall do battle with the Saracens.”
Roland answers, “Ah, may God grant it to us!”


Consider next how, along with the now exhausted hero Charlemagne, heroic language itself is generated as antiformulas that acquire special poignancy because of their counterpoint with a more glorious heroic discourse, now part of an irretrievable narrative past. A world of warriors once teeming with potency, movement, and exuberance, buoyant with sunlight, color, and fine weapons, has given way to a wasteland (terre déserte) of darkness and the dim pallor of moonlight; here men and horses are too fatigued even to stand up under the weight of armor or saddle, much less to rejoice in their recent revenge. This dark night of the heroic soul threatens to become a dark night of poetic language. Even the name “Joyous” given to Charlemagne's sword is invested with a torturesome paradox of a joy born in suffering and death, since Charlemagne's imperial sword contains the tip of the very spear that killed Christ, the man-god nailed to a cross:

The French dismount on the barren land.
They have taken the saddles from their horses.
They remove from their heads the reins of gold.
They put them afield, where there is much fresh grass.
They can give them no further care.
Whoever is that tired sleeps on the ground.
On that night they do not set up guard.
The emperor has lain down in a field.
His great spear is by the baron's head.
That night he does not wish to disarm himself.
He wears his great saffron-colored hauberk,
His helmet laced, which is of gemmed gold.
His sword Joyous is girded at his side,
A sword without peer, which gleams thirty times a day.
We know all about the lance
With which our Lord was killed on the cross.
Charles has the point, thanks be to God,
And has had it encased in the golden handle.
Because of that honor and its great goodness
The name Joyous is given to the sword.
The Frankish barons must never forget it.
And for that they cry out “Munjoy”
So that nothing can resist them.
Clear is the night and the moon is shining.
Charles lies down, but he grieves for Roland,
And for Oliver he is greatly weighed down
And for the twelve peers and the Frankish people.
He left them bloodied in death at Ronceval.
He cannot hold back from weeping and lamenting.
And he prays that God protect their souls.
The king is tired, for his pain is very great.
He falls asleep, for he can endure no more.
Now the French are sleeping all about the fields.
Not a horse can stand.
If he wants grass, he grazes lying down.
He who has suffered much has learned much.


In short, a tragic flourish of counterpoint between joy and grief operates in this passage, not just thematically, but also at the more material level of poetic language as a medium. Though it is true that other formulaic descriptions of the heroic taking up of arms occur in the second half of the Roland, their promise is never fulfilled by unequivocally glorious deeds. Epic language is becoming differentiated and alienated from itself—or, to use the terms of Bakhtin, is passing from the monologic (which is the precondition of “truth” in language) to the dialogic, where “truth” is at best equivocal and relative. This dissipation is the inscription of a hero's death into the poetic Word.

The amazing and poignant gestures of Charlemagne that follow in the Roland dramatize, among other things, a very real anxiety of the medieval world before the dilemma of signs: the spirit, it would seem, does not always vivify. Unable for the moment to regenerate either the world or the word by a brassy new sequence of heroic deeds of his own, Charlemagne withdraws and devotes himself to the task of commemorating as meticulously as possible the final gestures of his nephew. No longer a theater of blind, unreflective action, the “present” world reduces itself to the status of a mere trace, a text inscribed with the past glory of Roland; thus, as Charlemagne walks reverently about the spot where Roland died, he becomes less an epic soldier than an epic déchiffreur who interprets Roland's sublime hieroglyphs of blood on grass, his calligraphy of sword blows incised in stone:

When the emperor goes seeking his nephew
He finds the flowers of so many plants in the field
That are crimson with the blood of our barons!
Pity takes him; he cannot hold back from weeping.
He came beneath two trees,
He recognized the blows of Roland on three stones;
It is no wonder if Charles feels grief.
He goes now by foot, and goes forth at a full run.
Between both his hands …
He faints over him, so great is his anguish.


Charlemagne vainly attempts to restore the “presence” of Roland by embracing his nephew's dead body—that is to say, a thing whose pure thingness is both an irreducible presence and a conspicuous absence. Despite his efforts to commemorate, regression beyond the inertness of the signifier is impossible for Charlemagne. Imprisoned in a totally corporeal presence that is a total absence, Charlemagne and the Franks now faint, as if life could symptomatically possess death, its opposite; or, as if by miming the dead, life could somehow “represent” what has been denied to it. But Charlemagne's struggles are as vain as they are extravagant, and he is condemned to survive in a world that will neither signify nor vanish altogether: a “desert,” as Charlemagne calls it, a barrenness of futile redundancies. Indeed, the poem's “end” will be merely another unhappy beginning. Thus the devastation of the Frankish empire has left Charlemagne empty of all desire, except the desire to conclude his “exile” in history in order to rejoin the fellowship of his barons, spiritually present to each other in the timeless kingdom of the dead:

“My nephew is dead, who conquered so much for me. …
Who will lead my army with such force
When he is dead, who each day led us forth?
Ah, France, how deserted now you are.
So great is my grief that I no longer want to live!…
May God grant it, St. Mary's son,
That before I come to the great gates of Size
My soul may be severed from my body,
And be placed among theirs,
And my flesh be buried beside theirs.”


Broadly speaking, the vision of death imparted to Roland's passion at Roncevaux is ultimately one of compensation, reintegration, and even fruition as martyrs blossom into the “holy flowers” of the saved. Roland and his companions had been absolved and blessed well in advance of their dying, and after their death Roland's last gesture as a good feudal lord was to gather together the bodies of his peers and to commemorate their glory in song; shortly Roland would incant his own salvation as well and be borne aloft to heaven by Gabriel and Michael, God's most chivalrous angels. Thus all Christian warriors could be certain, it seemed, of being reunited in heaven's sublime peerage and of being remembered on earth in song.

But the experience of death that prevails in the wasteland that Charles inherits is quite opposite. Here death is not a reward but a punishment that degrades even the punishers. We witness first the tenuous triumph of a skinny Thierry over a magnificent Pinabel; then we are told that thirty of Ganelon's relatives are hanged for having pledged their loyalty to his person and his cause; finally we witness the drawing and quartering of Ganelon himself, a knight who quite properly defended his honor under the old dispensation only to find himself defined as a traitor under the new. In contrast with the ultimately integrative vision of death that was manifested earlier in the martyrdom of Charlemagne's troops, death becomes a centrifugal force, a violent dispersion of things both material and spiritual as Ganelon's limbs are torn from his body in “splendid torment” by four wild, thirsty horses.22 One last time chivalric blood spews formulaically onto the green grass, but now it is the unredeemable blood of a traitor. Not only the heroic world but heroic language itself has lost its center:

Each of his nerves is tightly stretched
And all his body's members split apart:
The bright blood spills onto the green grass.
Ganelon has died like a hateful traitor.


Such as it is, the conclusion of the Song of Roland points more to unending violence than to forgiveness or consolation. True, there is the baptism of Bramimonde, a pagan woman who abandons the pagan law for that of the true God, yet this is hardly material for a new epic; if anything, it marks the obsolescence of the old. The past hangs over the present only as memories that are painfully in conflict. The hardships of Charlemagne, who must set forth once more, this time for the city of Imphe in the perhaps infinitely distant land of Bire, are the hardships of a man who has come to hate the heroic role with which history has burdened him; and it is no less clear that this desolate, two-hundred-year-old man is radically at odds with a poetic language that will neither serve him nor let him die:

The emperor does not want to set forth.
“O God,” says the king, “how painful is my life.”
He weeps from his eyes and pulls on his white beard.


It seems to me that the tragedy of the Roland is not primarily that of a poet who has “used” language to express the purgative anguish of nobel souls: the Roland is less a tragedy in language than a tragedy of language itself, the loss of force in the heroes of this poem being a way of dramatizing a more pervasive loss of signification in the world. It is a poem that transcribes into its very substance a loss of transparency—of apparence, to borrow Jean Bodel's term—and a fatal discovery of the opacity of signifiers and, by extension, of all things. A cleavage is produced in the Roland between thought and action, between the knower and the known, and between the world and language. The seemingly permanent semantic universe of formulaic discourse is disrupted by discontinuities that are those of time itself, which an ethics of memory cannot finally remedy. If true temporal perspective is lacking in the verb system of the Roland, its semantic and cognitive shifts express this perspective in a perhaps more profound and tragic way. Meaninglessness in language is the soul's death. As John of Salisbury wrote, near the time when the Roland was written down, “A word's force [vis] consists in its meaning [sensus]. Without the latter, it is useless, and (so to speak) dead. Just as the soul animates the body, so, in a way, meaning breathes life into a word.”23

The ending of the Roland may be admired and explained in many ways, and ever since the poem's discovery a century and a half ago, each generation of readers has discovered in it their own provocations and rewards. By way of conclusion, I should like to return briefly to a problem that I deferred earlier, one that stems, frankly, from concerns of our own time: that the Roland, for all the marks of its oral tradition, is available to us not as an oral performance, but only as a written text. If it is true, as scholars claim (correctly, I believe), that the most archaic legends of the Roland endured three centuries and more as oral narrative, what new cultural constraints, we may ask, were brought to these legends by the intervention of the technè of writing? If it is true that any narrative is shaped at least in part by the process of its dissemination, is it not possible that the dyptich structure of the Roland documents, in some painful way, a historical transition from an oral épistémè to one of writing—a passage necessarily seen, however, from the experience of a culture of scriptors contemplating its pre-history as some kind of paradise of the oral word?

Admittedly, we know very little about the way a culture of scriptors selects the legends (or their variants) it will preserve from the infinitely variable repertory available in an oral tradition, but I would say that it is safe to assume that as a rule writers tend to choose material—and to organize it—in accordance with their own mode of experiencing the world. Hence it is perhaps not unreasonable to speculate that at least part of the fascination that the legends of Roland and Charlemagne held (and still hold) for a culture of scriptors was precisely that they delineated, in the successes and failures of their principal heroes, a problematic of memory that had special poignancy for the mind of the scriptor laboring in the language of interpersonal communication (as opposed to Latin) to create, with his text, a material object that would “forget” him and his “truth” as it became closed upon itself and assumed the alien existence of an economically negotiable commodity. I would suggest that the story of Charlemagne, which is one of progressive alienation and isolation from a world of people, things, and language, is also a story in which the scriptor found a reflection of his own potential destiny. Given the importance in the Middle Ages of the notion of the world-as-text, Charlemagne's tragedy in the world is one in which the scriptor could no doubt easily find analogies with his own potential fate in the labor of letters, which were seen as arbitrary signs of arbitrary signs, hence doubly remote from the reality they would represent.

Of course, such conjectures can hardly be “scientifically” proved—but neither can it ever be proved that “our” Roland died historically in Roncevaux or, on the contrary, that the Roland sprang during some “sacred minute” into the mind of an inspired “Franc de France.” Though it would be silly to suggest that the Song of Roland is first and foremost a song of writing, we have every reason to examine its implicit models of communication for indications of disruption and change that might correspond to an epistemological crisis rooted in the competing cultural functions of speech and writing.

Though I believe that there are many such indications, I shall mention only one. It involves a fundamental shift in the conceptions that Roland and Charlemagne express, respectively, about the mode in which the memory of Roncevaux will be conserved and communicated to the future. Roland, one will recall, hurls himself into the fray with the conviction that his legend will live on in song: his epic blows will animate the performance of both bard and hero in generations to come, and his blood will flow forever in words. Charlemagne, by contrast, though he quite properly deciphers Roland's last moments and delivers the most moving and elaborate planctus in the whole poem, immediately thereafter undertakes to monumentalize the glory of Roland and Oliver not in song but in the more viable medium of stone:

The emperor had Roland's body prepared,
And Oliver's and the Archbishop Turpin's.
He had all three opened right before him,
And had all of their hearts wrapped in silk,
And placed inside a coffin of white marble. …
He brought his nephew back to Blaye,
And Oliver, his noble companion,
And the Archbishop, who was wise and bold.
He places the lords in white coffins:
The barons are buried at St. Roman.

[2962-2966, 3689-3693]

If we assume (as did John of Salisbury) that there is a close affinity between stone monuments and texts—each conserves the memory of something important that is absent—and that the epitaph is an instance of textuality in one of its most awesome and enduring forms, then we may see in Charlemagne's instincts a fundamental change in the notion of monumentality. This change coincides, moreover, with a general tendency of twelfth-century vernacular culture, as its languages assumed the status of writing, or of grammatica, to confer upon these languages a function of “monumentality” (Paul Zumthor) previously reserved for Latin. (Such concepts would of course be elaborated more specifically later by Dante.) Since we discover suspiciously late in the Roland (v. 2955) that Charlemagne's army is fairly swarming with “bishops, abbots, monks, canons, and tonsured priests,” we may safely deduce that at the end of the eleventh century these clerical custodians of the letter became suddenly quite eager to identify themselves as proper heirs to Roland's legend. Moreover, with later written versions of the story of Roncevaux, the story of the burial of the twelve peers tended to become more elaborate (and contradictory), reflecting, once again, the desire of literate clerical poets to appropriate the prestige of Roland's legend by attaching it to their parish or monastery.24 Such details may, of course, be interpreted in ways that have no necessary bearing on the historical function of texts, but there is no question but that even in the twelfth century such leading churchmen as John of Salisbury and Thomas Aquinas argued very clearly for the text as the privileged device by which society conserved its memories of the past and by which men distant in time and space remained “present” to each other.25

Such claims for the text as society's best aide-mémoire are disturbingly complacent, however, and one may easily imagine that for poets and their audiences the transition from an oral or preliterate culture to that of inscriptions and texts involved some kind of violence. Yet if a radical anxiety about the difference between uttering and writing was felt at such a time, it was surely not easily expressed (in writing). Perhaps in this light we should look more carefully at Charlemagne's personal tragedy to see what analogies it might have with the scriptor's experience of detachment from the world about which he writes. To formulate an admittedly mannered question: If Roland is Charlemagne's “right hand” cut off, is this not also the writer's right hand writing itself off?

No culture could have been more obsessed with the problems and dangers of textuality than the Christian Middle Ages; and lest writing become, as Socrates had earlier called it, “the language of the dead,” Christian culture maintained potent weapons. Not the least of them may be found in the Bible, the archtext par excellence, which perpetrated its hermeneutic dream (one of an ultimate presence, a voice spoken and heard in the duration of all time)26 precisely by anathematizing those who lived by the law of the opaque letter, those who took the text of the Bible “literally”: in particular, the scriptor as mere scribe, to be associated with the despised Pharisees. For the scribe is one who lives by externals: he favors the signifier at the expense of the signified; he neglects what is “inside” the otherwise killing letter. Here we may recall Christ's magnificent curse of the scribes who have defiled the temple and who have dared to sit blindly on the throne of Moses, the inspired author of the Pentateuch. Surely the curse helped prevail upon the early witnesses of this living Word to mind their alphas and omegas. It is an expansive, vocal curse, of which I need cite only this passage in which Christ compares the subversive text of the scribe to the empty cup and the tomb:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but within they are full of robbery and uncleanness. Thou blind Pharisee! clean first the inside of the cup and the dish, that the outside too may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you are like whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and of all uncleanness. So you outwardly appear just to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.27


  1. Luke 22:19.

  2. I Corinthians 13:12.

  3. Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum XCIX: Confessions, 12.13.16 and 13.15.16-18.

  4. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.13.12, trans. D. W. Robertson (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), p. 14.

  5. See Confessions, 1.13.20, and On Christian Doctrine, 1.4.4 (Robertson, p. 10). See also E. Vance, “Le Moi comme langage: Saint Augustin et l'autobiographie,” Poétique, 14 (1973), 164-177; and “Augustine's Confessions and the Grammar of Selfhood,” Genre, 6 (1973), 1-28.

  6. M. I. Finley, “Myth, Memory and History, History and Theory,” Studies in the Philosophy of History, 4 (1965), 281-302; E. A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963); J. Russo and B. Simon, “Homeric Psychology and Oral Epic Tradition,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968), 483-498; F. A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966); J.-P. Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les grecs (Paris: Maspéro, 1965); Marcel Détienne, Les Maitres de vérité dans la Grèce archaique (Paris: Maspéro, 1967); and Berkeley Peabody, The Winged Word (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975). I would like to acknowledge a personal debt to Professors Russo, Vernant, and Détienne, who as colleagues have generously shared their knowledge with me in the past.

  7. Vernant, p. 53; all translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.

  8. See Yates, pp. 63-114.

  9. Aristotle, De memoria, 451b18.

  10. Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1957), XIV, 292-293.

  11. Freud, “The Uncanny,” Standard Edition, XVII, 219-252.

  12. La Chanson de Roland, ed. and trans. G. Moignet (Paris: Bordas, 1969). All subsequent references are to this edition; English translations are mine.

  13. I am grateful to Paul Zumthor for sharing this insight with me.

  14. Plato, Ion, 533d-534d, trans. L. Cooper (1938), reprinted in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (New York: Pantheon, 1961), pp. 219-220.

  15. J. de Grouchy, De musica, in “Die Musiklehre des Johannes de Grocheo,” ed. J. Wolf, Sammelbände der internationalen Musikgesellschaft (1899), I. 90.

  16. See Yates, chap. 1.

  17. Apart from his courage, Ganelon represents an interesting coincidence of ethical principles, both good and bad: he is courageous but also a rhetorician; he is also a liar, a traitor, and a negotiator of peace and monetary exchange. As a creature of evil, Ganelon, like his coconspirators, always turns the signifier against its proper signified.

  18. For an interesting study of this epistemological change, see Brian Stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

  19. In the discussion that follows, I draw freely on points made previously in my book Reading the Song of Roland (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970).

  20. Jean Pépin, “L'Herméneutique ancienne,” Poétique, 23 (1975), 291-300. It is interesting to note that in v. 2454 of the Roland, an angel promises Charlemagne clartet, by which he will achieve vengeance. This use of the word clartet shows the semantic overlapping of the notions of “light,” “force,” and “understanding” (as illumination). Darkness, by contrast, seems to be associated with impotence and confusion.

  21. “Venge your sons, your brothers and your heirs
    Who died the other evening at Roncevaux!”


  22. I owe this insight in part to a sentence in a seminar research paper by Lucie Brind'Amour, University of Montreal, 1975.

  23. John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, II.4, trans. Daniel McGarry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), p. 8.

  24. Ramon Menendez Pidal, La Chanson de Roland et la tradition épique des Francs, rev. ed., ed. René Louis, trans. I. Cluzel (Paris: Picard, 1960), pp. 112-126.

  25. John of Salisbury, Policraticus, II.12-13; Aristotle, On Interpretation, Commentary by St. Thomas and Cajetan, trans. J. Oesterle (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1962), II.2., p. 24.

  26. Psalms 18:2: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day pours out the word to day, and night to night imparts knowledge; not a word nor a discourse whose voice is not heard; through all the earth their voice resounds, and to the ends of the world their message.”

  27. Matthew 23:25-28.

Peter Haidu (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Haidu, Peter. “Funerary Rituals in the Chanson de Roland.” In Continuations: Essays on Medieval French Literature and Language: In Honor of John L. Grigsby, edited by Norris J. Lacy and Gloria Torrini-Roblin, pp. 187-202. Birmingham: Summa Publications, Inc., 1989.

[In the following essay, Haidu explores how Charles breaks with tradition in his reaction to Roland's death.]

The Baligant episode interrupts, in its various segments, narrative developments whose coherence is defined by a common theme: not only do they come after Roland's death, these narrative syntagms are concerned with problems posed by that death. Death is a problem for the living, as is well known, not the dead. Anthropologically speaking, the crucial problem is the reintegration of the members of the social group into its unity after the disappearance of one of its crucial members. Vis-à-vis the fact of death, the social group performs its rituals, the means by which the absentification of the dead is acknowledged and the re-presentification of the living achieved. The values of the group define the individual who dies as a hero, and his actions as the idealized narrative representation of at least one ideological potential in the group's semiotic universe. Issues of responsibility and culpability, problems of the figuration of value in a mode transcendent of the quotidian, the radical incommensurability between the survivors and the human gap facing them, are social and ideological fissures obsessing the survivors, not those who are gone. The group's task is to knit again the web of its social unity, to reintegrate its members into the collectivity.

While portraying the generality of the surviving Frankish troops as grieving their losses, the narrative focuses on the figure of Charles as survivor. It is Charles who is cast into the textual figures of the consciousness of loss. The rhetorical charge of this aspect of the figure is not to be denied. It is perhaps that aspect of the Roland-text that remains the most accessible to the poetic taste and values of the typical reader of our time: an academic reader, haunted by the nostalgia for an imagined past of wholeness and integration. The continued effectivity of this emotional charge, however, must not be allowed to mask the fact that the poem is here performing an essential operation. The section in question changes things, it performs a transformation upon those materials that, at its beginning, are givens because they are the product of the earlier sections of the poem. In doing so, of course, it functions like any narrative syntagm: it constitutes a transformation of its narrative materials.

The essential Moments of this transformation are three: the lament for the dead, the revenge upon the retreating Saracens, and the discovery, collection, evisceration, and burial of the heroes' bodies. These three moments imply successive locative displacements: Roncevaux, the River Ibre, Roncevaux again. They also are constituted by different types of textualizations: as implied by the noun that designates it, the lament is a purely verbal textualization; the revenge, though it includes some dialogue, is primarily a narrative moment; the complex “burial” of the heroes is composed of a particular combination of the verbal and the narrative.

The lament takes the form, somewhat surprising, of a classical topos in an oral text: it is the first use of the ubi-sunt theme in vernacular French poetry. The appearance of this poetic theme from the classical and written tradition in the oral text of the Chanson presents clear evidence of the mixed character of the Chanson de Roland. It is “mixed” not only in its ontological status, but also in its socio-historical and ideological content. Its form as a rhetorical question—Where are the dead?—is “empty” in the sense that the question is not a real one: the answer is not open to question. In this case, the inevitable answer to the rhetorical question is, after each naming of a hero, that he is dead, dead on the field of battle […]1

Although “empty” in this sense, the lamentation in the form of ubi sunt does perform essential narrative structural roles. It presents itself as the expression of emotions, a theme textualized a number of times in this syntagm. This textualization is a necessary precondition of the following narrative program. It is only once the emotions of Charles and his men have been given socio-textual existence that they provide the content of a qualifying statement justifying the revenge obtained against the fleeing Saracens. Duke Naimes intervenes upon the expression of the emperor's great grief, pointing to the fleeing Saracens: “Look, two leagues ahead of us, See the great dusty roads, There is the mass of the pagans: Ride! Avenge this pain!” (vv. 2425-28). Vengez ceste dulor!2 provides the link between the emotion and the succeeding action. The grief is experienced as an impermissible trespass upon the survivor, a damage done him for which legal reparation can be claimed. That reparation is the basic narrative stuff of the chanson de geste as a whole, in particular that which is known as the rebellious barons cycle: there, revenge is taken upon the feudal lord whose treatment of the vassal is unjust. Here, it is revenge against those who by definition have no moral or juridical status before a strictly Christian law, the nonbelievers. In any case, the survivor experiences his grief as an injury done him, for which the appropriate mode of treatment is the exaction of vengeance, conceived as a legal mode of compensation. The expression of grief here transforms what a twentieth-century consciousness would consider pure interiority into a social and semiotic fact that is the basis for narrative action.

That narrative action is collective: “tuit en sunt cummunel” (v. 2446). In fact, it is so collective that it requires the intervention of God in a new mode. In the Roland-text, God intervenes by saintly interposition, either cognitively (as in the dreams brought to Charles by the angel Gabriel) or pragmatically (to collect Roland's soul as his ultimate Destinator). Here, however, God is presented as directly interfering with the operations of Nature: at Charles's prayer, God stops the flow of time to allow the Franks to catch up with the Saracens. It is thus a miracle, a type of grant of a magic Adjuvant that had not been awarded Roland. Charles is endowed by the text with the power not only to receive privileged communication from God in the form of proleptic dreams—a power he already had in the Roland-section, and which he retains in this second major half of the Chanson: Charles will once again be visited by annunciatory dreams. His communicative competence with the divinity extends to the point of being able to request and obtain a change in the fundamental assumptions, not only of human life, but of narrative itself. The suspension of the flow of time, the ability to perform narrative actions that would otherwise be prevented by something as fundamental as the passage of time, changes the very conditions of possibility of narrative itself. What would be impossible for any normal/human/actor becomes possible for Charles. The miraculous interference of the divinity in the workings of Nature foreshadows the perhaps equally miraculous solution that will be achieved in the final trial scene of the epic.

At this occasion, “religion” makes a striking entry into a text that is anything but religious or Christian in its fundamental content. In view of this limited import, the form this religiosity takes should be noted. It constitutes a direct grant of power to Charles as King and Emperor, utterly disregarding (as the poem does in general) the historical institutions of religion: the medieval Church in any of its forms. It may well be that the Pope and Emperor are mutually defining binary opposites in the historical, extra-textual domain: in this concrete text, the Pope and the institution he heads simply do not exist. All the ideological power associated with the Pope and the Church in contemporary cultural codes is attributed to the figure of the King of France who is also the Emperor of Christendom. Within the economy of the text, this “extra” ideological valorization is of the same order and function as the Baligant episode: the extraordinary investment of ideological value in this particular figure is functionalized by the need to enable him to perform certain narrative acts that might otherwise prove too difficult for an ordinary human agent. The character of these acts, the specific isotopy on which they will occur is indicated by the third Moment.

Having despatched the fleeing Saracens by drowning and by the sword, Charles and his men return to Roncevaux. This a/b/a structure marks the revenge wrought upon the Saracens as necessary on the one hand, but as a necessary interruption of the basic business of this section, namely the enactment of the rituals of the dead. Before their performance, however, the weary Franks take their rest and sleep for the night. Charles lies down as well, but does not sleep immediately:

Carles se gist, mais doel ad de Rollant
E d'Oliver li peseit mult forment,
Des.XII. pers e de la franceise gent
Qu'en Rencesvals ad laiset morz sanglenz.
Ne poet muer n'en plurt e nes dement
E priet Deu qu'as anmes seit guarent.

(vv. 2513-18)

As at the moment of Roland's death, when he surrenders his glove to God as a sign of final and ultimate fealty, so here as well the relation of the individual to his God is figured by the feudal Metaphor, the divine assumption of dead souls and hope for their salvation being figured by the relationship of feudal protection […]

When Charles, wearied by grief, does fall asleep, it is to encounter annunciatory dreams that parallel those of the first part. In terms of the twentieth-century reader, these proleptic dreams “make sense,” that is, carry specific meaning, only on the basis of a retrospective reading: one must have read the Chanson to the end at least once before in order to understand that these two successive dreams refer first to the impending battle with Baligant, and secondly to the trial scene at Aix, with an allegorical representation or pro-presentation of Ganelon, his thirty relatives, and both Thierry and Pinabel. Reading, for us, is a punctual, datable event, whose cognitive function is clearly delimitable. But the cognitive conditions of the medieval audience were quite different from ours. For the medieval audience, there is likely never to have been a “first” time: the Chanson de Roland, from what we know of it, was a popular text, and is likely to have been performed by jongleurs repeatedly, albeit in different forms. As a result, the events of the poem have an identity under the specific variations characteristic of any individual performance: they exist in some field of permanence external to the particular performance. Functionally speaking, they exist in a sphere that is analogous to the neo-Platonism typical of medieval aesthetics descending from Philo and St. Augustine. As a result, the meaning of these proleptic dreams, definable for the modern reader only on a linear dimension of temporality, are extra-temporal for the medieval audience of the oral performance and immediately accessible. That audience, even illiterate, will always already have known the story and its outcome: even though this was obviously not true in any one particular case (even a medieval individual biography had to contain a “first” time hearing of the text), it is nevertheless an ontological condition of the oral medieval text that its basic narrative pattern has to be construed as always already known.

Thus it is that the proleptic dreams that come to Charles, ambiguous as they are if taken in a unidirectional successive temporal sequence that permits them to be semantically informed only by a retrospective look upon the narrative, must be considered as endowed with the semantic content that, for the modern interpretant, devolves from a forward look to the later narrative events. The first dream sets Charles in a battle accompanied by multiple “natural” signs of terror—thunder, winds, and ice, storms and tempests, fires and flames falling upon his army; lances and shield take fire, weapons and armor twist, and the army is in great distress. It is attacked by bears, leopards, serpents, vipers, dragons, and demons—a plethora of the supernatural, to which are added thirty million griffins! The battle is general, until Charles himself is attacked by a great lion filled with rage, pride, and courage. There is little reason to hesitate in identifying the proleptic narrative referent of this laisse as the later battle between the Frankish army, led by Charles, and the troops of Baligant, a battle that will find its conclusion in the individual combat between the two emperors. The second dream, localized at Aix, sets into the dream scene one chained bear, thirty more claiming to be his relatives and demanding that he be returned to them. At this point, a hunting dog arrives, a greyhound to be exact, who attacks the largest of the thirty bears. The emperor witnesses a miraculous combat, but, as in the preceding dream, does not know in his dream who wins. Again, there is little reason to hesitate in juxtaposing this dream with the combat between Pinabel, representing the thirty relatives of Ganelon at his trial who are also his hostages, and Thierry, the lean and unheroic knight who will, in fact, win against Pinabel.

The structural import of these dream syntagms is not their allegorical significance, which is so patent as not to require “interpretation” in any serious sense at all, but rather their function within a narrative structure. They occur at the hinge point between two larger syntagms: the narrative of the funereal rituals of the survivors, and the beginning of the Baligant episode. Whether they are to be considered a part of the former or of the latter is not an issue for the present reading, which accepts the presence of the Baligant material in spite of a conviction of its later and additive nature. For these proleptic dreams, and the meaning they bear and which is demonstrated to Charles by the angel Gabriel who brings him the dreams themselves (senefiance l' en demustrat mult gref, v. 2531), those dreams rejoin a general semantic level of the text. They demonstrate the connection of the present narrative moment with a later one, by “re-telling” the later and narratively “real” event ahead of time, before its actual place in the outplay of the narrative. The establishment of the semantic connection produces the meaning that both the funereal rituals and the Baligant episode have to be seen in relation to the later syntagms they announce. In particular, the funereal rituals and the reintegration they operate, lead to the ultimate narrative sequence of Ganelon's trial. They lead to it, in that they perform a function that is prerequisite to the later narrative syntagm. The reintegration of the living must be performed before the final judgment of the cause and responsibility for the dead can be passed. Ganelon's trial could not occur unless its actors retrieve their full standing as Subjects within the social group.

After the Baligant episode stages the encounter of Baligant's messengers and Marsile, and then between Baligant himself and his vassal, the text shifts back to Charles at Roncevaux. The third Moment of the funereal syntagm is the essential one. It is constituted by a compound of verbal and narrative subsections. In a battlefield covered by the twenty thousand bodies of the rear-guard, the problem is that of finding the one body Charles wants above all, Roland's. He finds it by a speech that recalls and re-presentifies the extraordinarily moving moments of Roland's death. At a solemn festival observance at Aix, Roland had once boasted that he would not die in a foreign land unless he had gone farther forward than his men and his peers; he would have his head turned toward the foreigners' land, and the hero would end as a victor. In order to find his nephew, Charles restates that aspect of him that led to his death, the combination of heroic virtue and boastful supererogation of knightly prowess that we “mean” by the name “Roland.” Charles recalls the traits that made the subordinate knightly group so problematical for their lords and for the society at large.

In other words, the mere recall of the actor's words, at a party sometime before the current war, also implies, because of the earlier narrative context, the political isotopy, which is doubled, here, by the identification of the familial bond between Charles and Roland (v. 2859, 2870, 2876). The political isotopy is reiterated. Finding the body of his nephew among the red flowers and green grass, under the two trees, near the marks of the blows Roland struck on the rocks in trying to destroy Durendal his sword before dying, Charles faints dead away. Coming to, he begins to “regret” Roland, that is, to mourn him in lamentation. At this level the verbal syntagm is identical with the earlier plainte in the ubi sunt form. But in looking more specifically at the content of this particular lament, a major difference is found. If the ubi sunt theme looks backward and stresses the absence of the dead, Charles's lamentation now does quite the opposite. The absence of the dead is presented in a proleptic framework, looking forward to a future point in time and presentifying the effects that Roland's death and absence will have then. Recommending Roland to God's mercy, Charles touches on his uniqueness as a warrior and concludes the first brief speech:

“La meie honor est turnet en declin.”

(v. 2890)

Literally: my “Honor” is turned toward its decline. But “honor” is a strange word. What is restricted to the valorial field for us moderns—“honor” for us is strictly a matter of opinion, either internal or that which others hold of an individual—is simultaneously material in the medieval language. “Honor” can indeed have the same meaning it has for us, the credit or esteem in which a given individual is held by his fellows; but it also has the meaning of the complex of land and social organization that produces wealth and power and that often takes the specific form of a fief. Indeed, the ambiguity of the word (an ambiguity that is apparent only to us, since we—unlike the medievals—separate the material base from its ideological value) suggests the interdependence of the two semantic components: one is not “honorable” unless one has a certain material base of power and wealth; and possessing such a base produces the credit and esteem of one's fellows, unless one acts in such a way as to lose that respect. In certain ways, the Middle Ages were far more materialistic than we are; or perhaps their materialism was simply more self-evident. Charles's honor is then both his reputation and that complex of geographical territory and socio-political organization upon which that reputation is based: his fief, his kingdom, his empire. All three are profoundly weakened by Roland's death […]

The necessary dualism of funereal ritual—“letting go” and reaffirming the unity of the social group, assertions of absence and presence as simulaneities—is thus laid over, by Charles's own complaint, with the specifically political form that is the ultimate isotopy of the chanson de geste in general. That dualism is restated in the most primitive moment of the ritual, in the burial of the great majority of the dead, the extraction of the hearts of the heroes—Roland, Oliver, and Turpin—and their enclosure in marble sarcophagi, well washed with spices and wine. The hearts are to retain for the survivors the strength of the dead, even as their (ultimate) burial is to recognize their departure. Presence and absence both, the anthropological ritual has a complexity that the political does not. Where the funereal ritualization of loss affirms a duality against the brutal fact of death, the political isotopy allies itself with that brutality. There is nothing in this plainte about the inspirational value of the legend and chanson to be told and sung about Roland and his peers. In Charles's political evaluation of the meaning of Roland's loss, there is room only for loss, for the resulting political and military weakness of his reign. His personal grief is doubled by a political issue that overrides the personal. Indeed, the personal must be expressed, indulged in perhaps, in order to allow for the movement toward the political. For the personal loss is not resolved, but met, by the funerary rituals of the text; the political loss, and its implications, must yet be met and resolved, more directly and more brutally.

Finally, the syntagm of funereal ritual has as narrative function the (re)statement of this dual valorization of the loss of the hero, the personal and the political. It does so with an internal organization of closure. I have pointed out that the first Roncevaux syntagm is verbal, the Ebre syntagm is narrative, and that the second Roncevaux syntagm is both verbal and narrative. That second Roncevaux syntagm, however, is internally organized in a pattern that is recursive of the overall organization of the ritual syntagm. Its first “move” is to discover Roland: as we have seen, that takes a predominantly verbal form as Charles recounts Roland's earlier boast at Aix. That is followed by another verbal syntagm, Charles's long lamentation. These two verbal syntagms are followed by the concluding syntagm, narrative in nature, in which the dead are buried, the heroes have their hearts extracted and are both shrouded and encased in sarcophagi. This recursivity, recapitulating in the final narrative subsection the pattern of the whole, thereby gives closure to the whole. That sense of closure marks the fact that one moment of the narrative has ended, another begins.

The major burden of most of the text after the conclusion of the Baligant episode is to deal finally with the issue of culpability for Roland's death, as well as the socio-political development of a way to prevent the recurrence of what led to the disaster at Roncevaux. In the Oxford Roland, the syntagm concerned with these issues—Ganelon's trial—is preceded by a brief, two-laisse passage that returns to the isotopy of the funereal rituals. It also initiates another isotopy, that of exchange: the brief episode is a narrative isotopic connector between the funereal rites and the trial.

The emperor has returned to Aix. Aude, Roland's betrothed, comes to the court to ask for her man. She asks, and the manner in which she asks, and the manner in which her demand is received, indicate that what she asks for is her right. Charles acknowledges Roland's death; he offers instead his son Louis as substitute. The text asserts the advantageous character of this offer: Louis would inherit Charles's reign. Nevertheless, Aude rejects the offer, and does so radically: she dies on the spot. Her corpse is turned over to nuns in a convent, who bury her properly, alongside an altar:

Mult grant honur i ad li reis dunee.

(v. 3733)

The syntax suggests what the text does not specify, that the “honor” is financial value.

The syntagm is framed by two lines that seem to announce something else. The two laisses of the Aude syntagm are laisses 268 and 269. The last line of laisse 267—preceding the Aude syntagm—announces a different topic:

Des ore cumencet le plait de Guenelun.

(v. 3704)

Then, in laisse 270, the theme of the return to Aix is restated (v. 3734) and developed, and in the following laisse, the beginning of Ganelon's trial is announced once again:

Des ore cumencet le plait et les noveles
De Guenelen, ki traïsun ad faite.

(v. 3747 f.)

Thus, both before and after the Aude syntagm, Ganelon's trial is announced. On the one hand, it is patent that the Aude syntagm is not Ganelon's trial, or any part thereof. Nevertheless, the repeated assertion of the text suggests a connection between Aude's death and Ganelon's trial.

The likeliest explanation, for both the discrepancy between the topic announced in v. 3704 and the succeeding syntagm, and the isotopic continuity between the earlier section dealing with the funeral rituals of the dead of Roncevaux and the Aude scene at Aix, is fairly obvious. In an earlier stage of the Chanson de Roland, the episode of funereal ritual and the death of Aude were two subsidiary parts of the same narrative syntagm, whose topic was the collective and individual griefs, and the rituals of reintegration and exclusion that follow upon the death of the culture-hero, the icon of the warrior society. It is a syntagm whose topic is the reconstitution of the collectivity after a disaster that calls its very values into question. The present state of the evolution of the oral epic contains an additional syntagm, inserted between two subsidiary parts of the earlier stage, in which an outsider and his troops come and interrupt the collective ritual of grief and reconstitution. The Baligant episode, in other words, interrupts a narrative unit that had a unified production of meaning dealing with social emotions after a great disaster, intervening between the narration of the great defeat itself and the legal and political fall-out that succeeds it. The new episode interrupts the sequence: (loss) + (mourning) + (adjustment), each of these terms occurring on both the individual and the collective isotopies. The present syntagm adds new elements to the textual production of signification; it also introduces a new cultural and valorial logic of coherence into the world of textuality. Insofar as social contracts determine the exchange of social value, Charles does more than merely discharge his responsibility as a social agent: his offer contains a valorial supplement, a surplus value that might have been expected to determine, even to overdetermine, an acceptance by the Recipient of the communicative exchange. The surplus value here is the difference between the value of a great noble, even a culture hero, and the king's son. More determining than cultural values, the political value and the implicit territorial and financial values are expected to assuage the damage to her own value that Aude has undergone in her grief and the loss of her betrothed. Aude's refusal is all the more striking then, since it not only rejects the proposed exchange and the supplementary surplus value it contains: in her death, she also refuses any further social intercourse and verbal exchange with the Destinator.

To the modern reader, the notion of the substitution Charles proposes seems absurd: how shall one man be accepted as the substitute for another in a romantic relationship that consists precisely in the election of one individual as the unique cathexis of certain emotions? Here again, twentieth-century codes are inappropriate. Marriage, far from an expression of the romantic election of another person as the primary cathexis of the individual and the announcement to the collectivity of the couple's desire to make their union permanent (perhaps, at this point in 1989, already a somewhat old-fashioned view of marriage!), marriage in the Middle Ages, at the social level with which we are concerned, is a dynastic and diplomatic affair generally more concerned with the aggrandizement of dominion over lands and other forms of property than with tender emotions. Not that tender emotions do not exist in this text, or in the epic in general: they do, and this particular syntagm is only one example of such emotions in the Chanson de Roland. Others are the not infrequent references to wives and women who wait for the warriors in dulce France, to whom they are eager to return; the equivalent is stated of the Saracen warriors. The text recognizes such attachments as normative and refers to them without hesitation. But the text is a warrior epic, and such topics are not the topics that are developed within its frame; in this respect, the Old French epic is poorer than the Greek. On the other hand, while the Greek epic may be more inclusive, the French is both more intense, and perhaps accomplishes social transformations that remain unthought of in the Iliad. While the tender emotions do exist at the edges of the Roland, however, they are not the basis of the politics of marriage, nor are they a major concern of the text. The theme of individual fidelity is touchingly deployed, here, but it masks another operation that is of more moment to the achievement of this text.

The two laisses that deal with Aude are more than a romantic interlude (the way they have most frequently been taken by traditional criticism), and more than a textual supplement incorporated into the text itself. They have a function; they perform a transformation. First of all, the narrative syntagm provides an isotopic connector, incorporating the theme of death, and of Roland's death in particular, within a textual space that also places the action at Aix, where the trial takes place. It does more than merely state these two themes of death and the trial simultaneously, however. The funerary theme, as we saw, was meant to achieve the reintegration of society as a whole after a crucial loss, and in particular the reintegration of the primary grievant, Charles. That reintegration is not achieved yet, however. Charles's effort to set things right, as feudal overlord, as monarch, as uncle, is unsuccessful: the issue of compensation for Roland's death is still unsettled.

That issue is as foreign to the modern reader as that of the values actually involved in noble marriage. Whether because of a religious heritage that can be taken to assert the sanctity of human life, or because of a tradition of individual subjectivity that represents each person as a unique phenomenon, our ideology does not allow for the principle of compensation to be recognized overtly in cases of death. Both the Judaic tradition and the Germanic are more sensible. Acknowledging that perhaps there are emotional components in such a loss for which compensation is literally unimaginable, both traditions recognize that the dead person was also a social value, and that compensation for that aspect of the person can be arranged. That is to say that a system of exchange, in which the social being of the individual is recognized as a social value for which other forms of social value can be exchanged, is elaborated in both traditions. It is probably the Germanic tradition that was most determinative in shaping medieval attitudes. The tradition of a fixed tariff of equivalencies—the wergeld—of compensation even in the case of the unemendable morth (murder), was a characteristic of archaic German law that continued into the period of the Chanson de Roland. Such legal compensation is an extension of the principle of exchange into the domain of law, even as law governs the most extreme disruptions of social relations. The principle of exchange is at work, then, in Charles's offer, which is neither unfeeling nor crude: it is a recognition both of the reality of loss and of the limited nature of the compensation that society, as an entity, is capable of providing its members. The offer is an entirely appropriate enactment of social and conventional codes and bears with it a surplus of valorial supplementation that signifies generosity or, in medieval terms, largesse.

Nevertheless, the offer is absurd, even in Charles's own terms. Charles's offer refers to Roland as an hume mort. In a line already quoted, he says:

Jo t'en durai mult esforcet eschange.

(v. 3714)

Aude's response, by its very rhyme within an assonanced text, stresses that it is the notion of exchange she is rejecting:

Alde respunt: “Cest mot mei est estrange”

(v. 3717)

What is estrange (L. extraneum; foreign; the term belongs to the same semantic family as the Greek barbaroi) is exchange. Aude takes the position that no exchange is possible for Roland: it is an anomalous position in the codes of her society. It is also a costly position to take: it costs her her life. The beloved's death implies an absolute cathexis on one individual. What may strike the post-romantic reader as a literary cliché is, in the textual and cultural context of the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century, quite remarkable. That anomalous character, rather than the romantic associations, is what is textually most functional.

Oddly enough, Aude's refusal of the principle of exchange in connection with Roland had been prefigured in our text, and prefigured by none other than Charles himself. It was Charles who, speaking of Roland to Naimes, said earlier:

“Deus! se jol pert, ja n'en avrai escange.”

(v. 840)

It was Charles himself, then, who established the principle of nonsubstitutability in Roland's case, well before he offered a substitute for Roland to Aude. Aude's refusal is merely a reiteration to Charles of Charles's own understanding: it is his own cognition that comes back to haunt him. No man can be a substitute for Roland. Roland was unique, but as soon as that is said, it is crucial to specify what that adjective comports, lest our conceptions of the uniqueness of the individual flood into the receptacle of the waiting signifier.

Roland's uniqueness, at the actorial level, is specified so frequently that it is hardly necessary to cite those bits of the text in question. It is military, and hence political. Not only is there no trace of a unique interiority in Roland—one might make a better argument for Oliver, Charles, or Ganelon in this regard—his uniqueness is entirely constituted by the social qualities that are those of his social class carried to extremes: both his warring abilities, and their characterological implications, are those of the knight as a social type. Simply, he has a far greater allotment of the more specific traits than the ordinary knight. In terms of the inner-outer dichotomy, Roland's uniqueness, like his individualism, is entirely “external.” What counts is not some hidden and unique subjectivity, but the fact that, as a Subject, Roland is capable of undertaking narrative programs—and carrying them out successfully—that no one else can.

Aude's refusal of Charles's offer and the implication of Roland's uniqueness that it bears have as their meaning a reassertion of the momentous loss that is Roland's death. It reasserts that the issues implicit in that death, and in the narrative syntagms that lead up to it, have not yet been resolved, especially as they attach themselves to Charles's person. Not only is the sequence of funerary rituals undergone ineffective in reintegrating Charles as survivor into the social group: insofar as Aude is in her rights in demanding of Charles her betrothed, his inability to produce Roland causes her death. […]

Not only is the ideal hero of the society dead […]: the basic principle of social organization—that of exchange—has been at least interrupted and suspended. This is the ultimate significance of Aude's refusal. If the normal pattern of exchanges encoded in the laws and conventions of the society no longer hold, if the damage to the social fabric is so grievous that its system of compensatory awards is refused by those whom it should benefit, then the very principle of sociality has been suspended. What is at stake is not a romantic attachment, nor even the justice to be accorded heroism, betrayal, and contractual responsibility: because of the characteristics of the textual actors involved, what is at stake is the continuation of society. […] The stakes that are set into play by the Chanson de Roland—as by any great work, from the Iliad and the Greek tragedians to Samuel Beckett—are the ultimate values of the society in which it is embedded. That “setting into play” is also a “setting at risk”: each time textuality “plays” with the values of its social structure, it not only takes the risks of an aesthetic adventure, it also risks the survival of the social text, the social fabric, the social body.


  1. Major excisions from my longer essay are indicated by ellipsis marks within square brackets.

  2. All citations are from Joseph Bédier's edition of the Chanson de Roland (Paris: Piazza, 1921).

The present text, excerpted from a longer discussion of the Chanson de Roland, seems apt in honoring the memory of a colleague who was unique in his particular combination of respect for the concrete text, attention to an inherited tradition of medievalism, and attentiveness to the paradigms of contemporary theory.


Essays and Criticism