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

The Song of Roland

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*Roncesvalles (rahn-SEHS-val-yay). Pass in northern Spain’s Pyrenees mountain range where Roland, King Charlemagne’s nephew, is believed to have been ambushed and massacred by Basques while Charlemagne was leading his army back to France after his campaigns in Spain. According to The Song of Roland—which was written during the time of the First Crusades, approximately three hundred years after the events it describes took place—Roland’s forces fought the Muslims (Moors or Saracens), rather than the Basques (or Gascons). The unnamed author may have wished to elevate the battle at “Roncevaux” into a struggle between Christians and pagans as a result of the contemporary views of the struggles between the two groups at that time. In addition, Roland is presented as a Frank from France, not the Breton from Brittany that he actually was. Roncesvalles may also symbolize the border between destruction and death and honor and everlasting life.


*Saragossa. City in northeastern Spain located on the south bank of the Ebro River (now the capital of Aragon). One of its towns, Salduba, which is of Celtic and Iberian origin, was made a colony by the Romans during the first century b.c.e., and called “Caesaraugusta,” from which “Saragossa” is adapted. In this epic, Saragossa is the only Spanish city that is not yet under King Charlemagne’s control. Its pagan king Marsile is persuaded by Ganelon to kill Roland (Charlemagne’s nephew and Ganelon’s own stepson), because of the strength that the young man represents for Charlemagne. This locale signifies that which is foreign, pagan, or other; it is also symbolic of treachery and betrayal, especially in the case of Ganelon, one of Charlemagne’s own kinsmen.


*Aix-la-Chapelle (aks-lah-shah-pel). Now Aachen, Germany, a well-known town of historic importance, known especially as having become the permanent residence and burial place of King Charlemagne, In this poem, certain details are altered, such as the origin of those with whom Charlemagne and Roland do battle. For example, Aix-la-Chapelle is described as a place in France, when in fact it is a region in Germany. What is consistent with factual information, however, is that the king is described as living and supporting a chapel there. This setting represents the domain of Charlemagne: that which is Christian, and according to the text, that which is just, right, proper, and honorable.

Historical Context

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Authorship of The Song of RolandLittle is know about the anonymous author or authors of The Song of Roland. The oldest surviving manuscript, the Oxford Digby 23, is signed "Turoldus" and written in Anglo-Norman, a language predominant in England following the Norman invasion from France in 1066. Few people outside the clergy in medieval France and England were literate, so Turoldus may have been a monk. One school of thought argues that the tale shows signs of being composed orally, perhaps copied down by Turoldus and other scribes when the story was performed at a feast or celebration. The extent to which the text's first scribes might have added their own creative touches to the story is not known, but scribes are generally considered to be recorders of traditional tales, and not authors of original ones.

Another theory maintains that the legend, existing from the time of Charlemagne, was put into poetic form by a single individual in the late eleventh century. The debate over the authorship of The Song of Roland probably can never be resolved.

Charlemagne's Reign The historical Charlemagne was born in 742, about 300 years before The Song of Roland was first recorded in a manuscript. Descended from Germanic tribesmen, Charlemagne possessed...

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a remarkable love of learning for a ruler of his time. He learned to read and tried, without success, to learn to write. In addition to his local Germanic dialect, he spoke old Teutonic, literary Latin, and understood Greek. Charlemagne, like his literary image, fought to defend the Christian faith in foreign lands, including the regions that are now Spain, France, Germany, and Italy. His success on the battlefield unified the peoples of these countries, who had been torn apart by tribal conflict for centuries.

Charlemagne's administrative expertise provided a structure to his vast empire. He made military service codified and mandatory. To increase the sense of public participation in government, he fostered assemblies in which landowners came together and made suggestions to be brought before the king. Under his rule, the beginnings of the modern jury system were formed. The empire was divided into counties for administrative purposes, and local assemblies served as governing bodies and courts for the region. He shared his love of learning by bringing in foreign scholars to his realm and establishing schools. At his direction, monks began to make more accurate and legible copies of the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, and Latin classics. This renewal of learning, often termed the Carolingian Renaissance, helped reintroduce much of the literature of the Ancients to Europe.

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. This first coronation had for effect the subordination of temporal power to the Church, as the Emperor had to look to the Pope for justification of his power. On the other hand, this act greatly increased the power of the king, since his power was deemed to have come from God, thus establishing a precedent for rule by Divine Right. In 806, Charlemagne divided his empire among his sons. Charlemagne died in 814 at the age of 72, leaving a legacy that his son and only remaining heir, Louis, was unable to maintain.

Women's Lives under Charlemagne's Rule Marriage was a central question during the late eighth century. The Catholic Church had one set of rules while Carolingian society had others. During this period, the two models of marriage moved closer to each other. Charlemagne prohibited remarriage after divorce and declared that adultery could not be considered a cause for dissolution of a marriage. Wives were generally chosen by the husband's father. Among nobility, women had a degree of security because of the stricter marriage and divorce laws, but they also gained new responsibility. Charlemagne's queen had the power to rule in his absence. She also had Charlemagne's backing on any requests made of his judges and ministers. All women were concerned with child-bearing and rearing. Noble women provided religious instruction to boys until they left home at the age of seven to go to another lord's court, and they taught daughters until they married somewhere between twelve and fifteen. Because of a high incidence of death in childbirth, women lived only an average of thirty-six years, whereas men generally reached almost fifty. The peasant women of Charlemagne's realm owed services to their overlords, just as their husbands did. In an unusually thoughtful document for the period, Charlemagne decreed that these women had rights to a certain standard of living, including heat and security.

The Battle of Roncesvalles In 773 Charlemagne took on the role of protector of the Catholic Church. Charlemagne fought the enemies of the Church for most of his reign. At that time, the non-Christian threat included Muslims (called Saracens in The Song of Roland, Bavarians, and Saxons, among others. In 777, the Muslim governor of Barcelona, Ibn al-Arabi, asked Charles to aid him against the emir or caliph of Cordoba.

Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees into Spain, captured Pamplona and advanced on to Saragossa. En route, he treated the Christian Basques, living in Northern Spain, as enemies. His campaign into Spain, though somewhat successful, did not unseat the caliph of Cordoba, largely because the reinforcements expected from Ibn al-Arabi did not materialize. Realizing that he would never be able to take on the formidable caliph alone, Charlemagne began his return to France. Traveling back through the Pyrenees in 778, he was attacked by the Christian Basques whom he had mistreated on his entrance into Spain. The route through the Pyrenees was made of long, narrow passes through the high mountain range, and, in one of these passes, the Basques swooped down on Charlemagne's rear guard and annihilated it to the man. Within the ranks of the rear guard, historians tell us there was one "Hruodland," and it is believed that the heroic Roland is based on this historical person.

Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages The Muslim invasions of Spain and even France in the eighth century thrust Western Europeans into close contact with another culture and religion. Christians and Muslims remained enemies on the battlefield for another 700 years, but their rapport changed significantly during this period. Early fighting was focused mainly on stemming the seemingly endless flood of Muslim invaders into Christian lands. National boundaries were fairly firmly fixed, however, by 732, when Charles Martel drove advancing Muslim troops from established Frankish territories back into Spain, where they made their stronghold for many centuries to come. These lands were always coveted, but to those living in present-day France the threat of loss of further life and property had diminished. The dream of reconquest was ever-present, however, spurred by the Catholic Church, which promised martyrdom for those who died trying to recapture Christian lands. The Crusades— military actions against non-Christians with the dual purpose of winning converts and seizing land— were common from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. While this cultural contact was hostile by definition, other practical relationships had begun to form that would continue to flourish until the end of the Reconquest in 1492. Trading relationships, ambassadorial envoys, cross-cultural education, and even cohabitation exposed those north of the Pyrenees to a way of life quite different from their own. The Muslim culture had developed art and learning to a much higher degree than their counterparts in the West. Exquisite fabrics and spices were the envy of many a Christian who profited through commerce and trade with "the infidels." Christian noblemen sent their sons to learn in the courts of Muslim Spain, where the finest teachers could be found. Intermarriage became a theme in the literature of the high Middle Ages, suggesting that some such marriages between Christian and Muslim did indeed take place. While the differences in religion provided for an uneasy and sometimes tumultuous coexistence, even during the period of the Crusades, Christians and Muslims forged alliances that have not since been repeated.

Literary Style

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The Song of Roland comes to the present in many varied, hand-copied manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Each manuscript alters the story slightly and uses a somewhat different literary technique or style. Most modern editions of the epic are taken from the manuscript called Digby 23, housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England.

Poetic Form and RhymeThe Song of Roland is written in poetic form. The verse paragraphs are called laisses, and they are of varying length. The rhyming scheme is assonance, meaning that only the final stressed vowels are identical. Most lines have 10 syllables, with a break, or caesura, after the fourth syllable.

Language The author of the Digby 23 manuscript penned this epic in Anglo-Norman. This was a form of French spoken in the region that is now England about 100 years after the Norman invasion of 1066. The story existed in oral form long before this, and the original language of the epic is unknown.

Point of View The story is told by an omniscient, or "all-knowing," third-person narrator. The author is not involved in the story, but is very clearly on the side of the French. Authorial asides criticize the treachery of Ganelon or the frightfulness of the Saracens, for example, while praising the bravery of Roland and the wisdom of Olivier.

Foreshadowing From the beginning of the tale, the author lets the audience know the essential elements of the story. Ganelon is called a traitor long before he actually betrays Roland to the enemy. Roland and the Peers proclaim their own death and martyrdom before the battle even begins. Charlemagne cries when Roland is appointed to the rear guard, knowing somehow that he will not see this favorite knight alive again. The technique of foreshadowing points to the oral nature of the text: traditionally, in this kind of oral narrative, the audience hears the outcome, or importance of the story, then hears the story itself. Foreshadowing helps set the stage for the performance that most likely accompanied the reading or reciting of the story.

Symbolism As in most medieval texts, symbolism is an important part of The Song of Roland. Charlemagne's dreams are full of symbols, mainly animals. Medieval bestiaries, or animal dictionaries, attributed certain characteristics to each animal. These characteristics transfer to the animals in Charlemagne's dreams, each of which represents an important character in the story. Another example of symbolism: Ganelon drops the glove and baton ceremonially given to him as emissary from his ruler, Charlemagne. By dropping these tokens of trust, Ganelon's treachery is symbolically revealed even before it takes place.

Setting The setting of The Song of Roland serves as more symbolic than picturesque. Rarely is the landscape described. In a rare exception, the author notes that Charlemagne sits under a pine tree during one of his council meetings. The pine tree acts a symbol. The triangular shape of the pine was thought to represent the Holy Trinity, central to the Christians' system of belief. Tellingly, Roland drags himself beneath a pine tree to die. The skies themselves reflect the action of the epic. Charlemagne prays for help in defeating the fleeing Saracens, and God stops the sun in the sky so that the French will have the daylight they need to pursue their enemy. While nature is rarely described except for its symbolic importance, the author details the armor and outfitting of the troops with gusto. Each knight bests the next in the quality of his weaponry and the luxury of his gem-encrusted armor. For the medieval author, the setting of a text privileged the man-made world over nature.

Compare and Contrast

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700s: During this century Charlemagne expanded his empire to include all of present-day France and Germany, as well as parts of Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia. His seat of power was Aachen, in present-day Germany.

1000s: France was divided into small houses of power, ruled by local lords. Henry II's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine made the king of England the most powerful ruler in what is present-day France. The French king controlled the area around Paris, but his influence was slight outside the immediate area. The barons in the Chanson de Roland exert considerable influence over Charlemagne's actions.

Late twentieth century: France, though divided into departments for administrative purposes, has a highly-centralized government located in Paris. Attempts to spread power and influence throughout the country are underway in the late twentieth century, but Paris remains the political and cultural center of France.

700s: The Islamic empire expanded as conquests begun by Muhammad in 622 continued throughout this century. The Arabs met little organized resistance until they pushed well into France and were stopped and driven back by Charles Martel in 732.

1000s: The Islamic empire, like the Christian one, was divided into two parts; the Shiites with a capital in Cairo, and the Sunni caliphate centered in Baghdad. Baligant comes from Cairo to aid his vassal, Marsile.

Late twentieth century: The Muslim world, never reunited, is still divided among Sunnis and Shiites. No central power exists as each country in the Islamic world has its own spiritual and temporal rulers.

700s: In Europe, marriage laws based on Christian doctrine are passed, providing women with a degree of security and added responsibility.

1000s: Women, left behind as their husbands went on crusade, control lands and run households. Marsile's wife Bramimonde rules in her husband's absence.

Late twentieth century: Women enjoy equal protection under the law and hold positions of power in local and national governments in many countries, though some feel there is still progress to be made in the campaign for women's rights.

700s: The French language was emerging as a combination of Latin and the tongues of the Germanic tribes. No literary works in this tongue have been found.

1000s: Old French has evolved into an entirely separate language. The Song of Roland marks the beginning of a literary explosion in the vernacular.

Late twentieth century: France continues to cherish its literary heritage, encouraging young writers and making French literature a central element in its national curriculum. The Academie Francaise is charged with maintaining the purity of the French language. In the late 1990s laws and regulations have been put in place to restrict the use of non-French-language words in advertising, public interchange (such as television programming), and even the ratio of French to non-French language songs that can be broadcast on the radio.

Media Adaptations

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The mystere de Roncevaux is a stage adaptation written by Adolphe, Baron d'Avril, and published in 1893 in Paris. The play was republished in 1993 by Troyes.

Peter Racine Flicker wrote three fragments from the Song of Roland for unaccompanied chorus in London, published by Schott in 1955.

Edward MacDowell, 1860-1908, wrote The Symphonic Poems which include two fragments from the Chanson de Roland, one called "The Saracens," and the other called "The Lovely Alda."

A full-length feature movie directed by Frank Cassenti, La Chanson de Roland, appeared in France in 1978 from Z productions.

Greg Roach created the award-winning multimedia interactive book CD-ROM called The Madness of Roland from HyperBole.

A World-Wide Web site containing an electronic edition of the Song of Roland (1995) was produced, edited, and prepared by Douglas B. Killings. It can be found at URL

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources for Further Study Auerbach, Erich. "Roland against Ganelon," in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, pp. 96-122, Princeton University Press, 1953. Examines and discusses the technical composition of The Song of Roland, focusing on the work's representation of reality.

Burgess, Glyn. Introduction to The Song of Roland, translated by Glyn Burgess, pp. 7-25, Penguin, 1990. Provides information about the provenance of the manuscript, the historical background of the poem, a plot synopsis, and a technical analysis of the verse and language of the poet.

Cook, Robert Francis. The Sense of the Song of Roland Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1987. General reading with detailed analysis of key episodes.

Duby, Georges, and Perrot. Michelle. A History of Women, Vol. II: Silences of the Middle Ages, Belknap Press, 1992. Essay collection treating the different roles for women during the Middle Ages.

Duggan, Joseph J. "The Epic,'' in A New History of French Literature, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 18-23. Study of the relationship between history and epic that examines the popularity of the epic form in the twelfth century.

Durant. Will The Age of Faith, Simon and Schuster, 1950. Provides historical background for the period in which The Song of Roland is set and was written

Emden, Wolfgang van. La Chanson de Roland, London: Grant & Cutler, 1995 Critical guide.

Enders, Jody. "The Logic of the Debates in the Chanson de Roland," in Oliphant, Vol 14, No 2, pp. 83-100. Looks at the use of rhetoric—the art of effective or persuasive speech—as practiced by major characters in The Song of Roland.

Jenkins, T. Atkinson, Introduction to La Chanson de Roland, edited by D C. Atkinson, pp. 175-78, Heath and Company, 1924. Discusses the characters, style and themes of the poem, and concludes that the character of Roland is a hero in the traditional sense of the word.

Mickel, Emanuel J Ganelon. Treason and the Chanson de Roland, University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1984. Examines the medieval legal system in France with application to the trail of Ganelon in The Song of Roland.

Renoir, Alain. "Roland's Lament: Its Meaning and Function in the 'Chanson de Roland,'" in Speculum, Vol. 35, No. 4, 1960, pp. 572-83. Bases an interpretation of The Song of Roland as an essentially Christian work on an explication of Roland's lament for the fallen French knights.

Uitti, Karl D. '"Co dit la geste': Reflections on the Poetic Restoration of History in the Song of Roland" Studies in Honor of Hans Erich Keller, edited by Rupert T Pickens, Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1993, pp. 1-27. Examines the historical sources of The Song of Roland.

Vance, Eugene. Reading the Song of Roland, Prentice-Hall, 1970. Provides a detailed reading and interpretation of the epic that includes analysis of characters and the work's historical context.


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Duggan, Joseph J. A Guide to Studies on the “Chanson de Roland.” London: Grant and Cutler, 1976. A useful bibliographic source.

Haidu, Peter. The Subject of Violence: The “Song of Roland” and the Birth of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Analyzes The Song of Roland as a “beginning moment” in the genealogy of Western culture, a time when Western subjectivity arose alongside a new image of the social body. Haidu combines narrative semiotics and sociocultural history to explain how this change is reflected in the Roland text.

Reed, J. “The Passage of Time in La Chanson de Roland.” The Modern Language Review 87, no. 3 (July, 1992): 555-567. Analyzes the obvious and submerged references to the passage of time in The Story of Roland and concludes that the poem spans a period of thirteen days.

Short, Ian. “La Chanson de Roland.” In the New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, edited by Peter France. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. A thorough discussion and interpretation of the epic. Discusses the historical context for the work, as well as describing variations among the extant sources.

Vance, Eugene. Reading the “Song of Roland.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Analyzes Roland as a legendary character and discusses the work in the context of French epic poetry. Includes bibliography.


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