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Enrolled by Roland: A look at the Role The Song Of Roland played in the Feudal System

Written by me sometime in 2000 for my Medieval European History class

The Song Of Roland is an epic poem centering on Charlemayne and his nephew, one of his strongest and most loyal vassals, Roland. It follows the tragic end of Roland’s life, and Charlemayne’s bloody vengeance over his murderers. In the feudalistic Europe of the middle ages, tales such as The Song Of Roland played many integral roles. It showed how the knights were supposed to behave, the brotherhood that men of the warrior class shared, and it also built up a strength and belief in Christianity.

In the epic, the knights were always focused on honor, whether it was for themselves, their liege, nation, family or their brethren. The majority of this honor was found on the battlefields, and kept in duels. Roland follows this to the fullest, after deciding not to call for help, even though his army was greatly outnumbered, he said “May never God allow // That I should cast dishonour on my house // Or on fair France bring any ill renown!” . Roland follows with, “God and His angels forbid it now, I pray, // That e’er by me fair France should be disfamed! // I’d rather die than thus be put to shame; // If the king loves us it’s for valour’s sake.” . Through his words, Roland acts as a good military leader. He manages to build morale and rally his troops even though one of his good friends is questioning his decision. Roland also shows that he is the best knight through not only his physical prowess on the battlefield, but also by upholding the names of who he cares for, his liege, his homeland, his religion, and his fellow knights. Even something that modern people have become numb to, such as a simple insult, does not go unnoticed by Roland, who, upon hearing a Paynim insult Charlemayne, charges forthright and smites the Paynim with a gory blow. However, Roland's killing spree's are not the only example of honor in the poem. Even his enemies, the Paynims, spoke of how well they would honor their liege by slaying Roland. Yet the author portrays the Paynims as looking for personal glory, more than honor, through the death of Roland,

“First blow at Roland is the reward I want;
With my sharp sword I’ll split him through the sconce!
Yea, if I find good favour with Mahond,
I’ll set Spain free, unloosing of her bonds
From Gate of Spain to Durstant and beyond.
Charles will lose heart, the French will yield anon,
you shall be quit of wars your whole life long.”

Roland showed very little selfishness throughout the poem. He never fought for his own glory, and was always to the aid of his brethren.

The Song Of Roland had three main knights under Charlemayne’s control, Roland, Olivere, and the Archbishop Turpin. These three knights expressed a bond with each other that most people cannot even comprehend. It was more than the positive banter after one had slain a foe, “Cries the Archbishop: ‘This feat was knightly done!’” . Through the battle they fought, and together they fought,

Dan Oliver has drawn his goodly brand,
As his friend Roland so urgently demands;
Now will he prove him a stout knight of his hands
! … “I’ll call you brother,” quoth Roland, “After that!
‘Tis for such strokes our emperor loves a man.” .

The bonds between the knights trapped in that ambush seemed so strong that Charlemayne’s force became even more powerful when one of their own fell, “Archbishop Turpin hails the Paynim: ‘God send the worst to thee! // Thou hast slain one for whom my whole heart grieves.’ // into a gallop he urges his good steed, // He strikes him hard on his Toledo shield, and lays him dead upon the grassy green.” . The fight carries on, and soon Roland’s forces are few and far between. Still, in the heat of battle Roland has enough sense to realize his friend is in need and is able to talk and pray for him as Olivere is taking his last few breaths. No man would drop what he’s doing to help or be with a friend unless there was a strong bond between the two. Even when Roland’s force is down to just Roland and the Archbishop, Roland shows the true strength in brotherhood,

“’Sir, you’re on foot, I’m on my horse’s back;
For love of you here will I make my stand,
And side by side we’ll take both good and bad.
I’ll not desert you for any mortal man.
Go together these Paynims to attack”

Roland cares so much about his fellow comrades that he willingly would dismount to fight alongside the Archbishop, than to stay on his horse and maybe have a better chance at survival.

Whether the intent of the war was one of land, or of vengeance, the religions of the two warring parties quickly became tied in. Both sides of the struggle prayed near constantly to their respective God or Gods for favor in the battles. The Paynims would curse the Christian forces of Charlemayne at almost every duel, trying to incite the wrath of Muhoud or Apollo upon them. Whereas Charlemayne and his forces would remain close in touch with the Christian God, sending their prayers and grievances to him. Charlemayne often had visions of angels in his dreams, guiding him and helping him, similar to the Gods of the ancient Roman epics. The Song Of Roland was also written with a pro-Christian mindset. When describing the Emir who took the place of the wounded King Marsalis, the author wrote “His valour proved in battle o’er and o’er, // Were he but Christian, God! What a warrior!”

One could consider The Song Of Roland as a form of the proper rules of conduct for a knight in Medieval Europe. Roland is pious, honorable, brotherly and almost undefeatable. He builds off of the fight in his allies and his belief in his God. Roland shows the utmost respect when respect is due, and the vilest of hatred towards his enemies. The Song Of Roland shows how a just and fair knight should be treated, in life and after his untimely death. It takes into account all of the major aspects of knighthood, wraps them into a character which the reader can rally behind and cheer for. Throughout this glimpse of Roland’s life, much can be learned easily by reading his actions, and the actions of those around him, and those who care for him. In Roland’s life, a better knight could not be found, and in his death, a better story cannot be told.

The Song of Roland

Epic French poem attributed to Turold, a Norman poet and master of chanson de gueste. The song deals with the Battle of Roncesvalles, where it claims Charlesmange was betrayed by Saracens and tricked into leaving his vanguard captained by Roland to be slaughtered by the Moors.

The actual details of the battle were quite different, according to some archaelogical evidence. It appears that on his march in to Spain, Charlemagne's baggage porters (mostly unarmed boys) were slaughtered by Basque rebels who also destroyed most of his provisions. Charlesmagne was forced to cut short his Spanish campaign and return to France.

The Song of Roland details wave after wave of infidel onslaught, each beaten back by a dwindling cadre of Roland's loyal men. Finally as the dusk approaches, Roland realizes he cannot hold out any longer, and he sounds the call to Charlesmagne on his splendid horn, Oliphant. However he is too late, and the last wave of Saracens overwhelm his men. In an attempt to save the holy relic of the knuckle-bone of Joseph of Arimethea that is imbeded in the hilt of his sword from falling into muslim hands, he repeatedly pounds the blade against a rock but to no avail. His sword will not break. Roland finally succumbs to the wounds sustained to his temples from sounding the call to the Emperor.

Charlesmagne arrives just a moment too late, and sees the devastation wrought on his nephew. After much grief, he resumes his conquest of Spain, and either kills or baptises every last infidel.

This is an essay I wrote for Dr Marianne Ailes of Wadham College, Oxford. I do assume that the reader has some knowledge of the text, although not too much, I hope. Quotations in Old French are pipelinked to my English translations.

Roland n'a rien à se reprocher.

The very title of La Chanson De Roland (although addeded at a later date than the text itself) suggests how the poem glorifies its hero. Yet despite the positive presentation of Roland, it is difficult not to find much in his actions to criticise. It is clear that his decision not to blow his oliphant horn and call for help, even though an ambush looks likely, leads to his own death and that of his companions. There are however certain allowances which have to be made, which prevent us from condemning Roland as an utterly foolish warmonger.

Had Roland decided to call for help when the attack on the rear-guard began, he could almost certainly have avoided the carnage which followed. Charlemagne and his reinforcements fighting alongside Roland and his men would have ensured victory. Yet, for a number of reasons, the hero chooses not to sound his horn. He does not know his own limits, and possesses a pride which leads to his own downfall. Roland has a thirst for battle which results in a blindness to the consequences of his actions. It is possible to dismiss his refusal to call for help as simple pride, but I believe the elements are more complex than this.

Firstly, we must remember that Roland lived in the eighth century. His world was very different from ours. The values of heroism, chivalry, vassalage, and courage were among the most highly regarded virtues a man could possess. Roland is presented as such an admirable character because he lacks none of these. In the eyes of the poet, and most probably in the eyes of his audience, Roland represents the model knight. His bravery, even when faced with death, is astounding. While we may see his determination in the face of such bad odds as foolish, his contemporaries and those who came shortly after him would have admired him for such courage.

We know that it mattered a great deal to those living in medieval times what others thought of them. The society relied upon people doing good because they wished to be seen to be doing good. The concept of personal morality (despite the preachings of Christianity) was not yet fully developed. Instead, a man's desire to be respected by his peers was what motivated him to behave well in society. This social situation was one of the key reasons behind Roland's decision to fight on with no help. He did not want to be seen to be a weak failure. When he attempts to destroy his sword, Durendal, once he knows he will not survive, it is to prevent the shame that would come to him should his sword fall into the hands of the enemy, rather than to prevent it being used to kill Christians:

"Pur ceste espee ai dulor e pesance: Mielz voeill murir qu'entre paiens remaigne; Damnesdeus perre, n'en laiser hunir France!"

It seems that he cares more for public opinion than the Christian cause. This fear of others' scorn extends beyond his own personal reputation to that of his family, and of his nation as a whole. He says, "Deus me cunfunde, si la geste en desmet". The desire for posthumous fame drives Roland forward - he confesses to Oliver his determination that people shall not sing unflattering songs about him after his death. He declares, "Malvaise essample n'en serat ja de mei".

Crucial also in the function of this medieval society was its feudalism. Vassalage was an institution which held great sway. Roland is Charles's homme, and the King in turn is his nephew's seigneur. This relationship was a very close and binding one. Roland's part in their agreement consists of him, along with an army of his kinsmen, promising to serve Charles in battle whenever required. Roland prides himself on being a true vassel worthy of his position as his uncle's right hand man. Even in his dying moments he reminds us of all the victories he has had - cataloguing them lest we forget. In his final laisse, he remembers his reason for fighting:

"De Carlemagne, sun seignor, ki l' nurrit; Ne poet müer n'en plurt e ne suspirt"

This fidelity until the last confirms how much his responsibility to Charles means to the knight, and explains why he is so ready to die for his cause.

What made Roland's actions all the more commendable was that they were taken in the name of Christianity. The view of the age was that the Christian cause was to be furthered by whatever means necessary. George Fenwick Jones describes the Christianity of the era of the crusades as "primitive and warped". By the Christian standards of today, Roland's behaviour would be viewed as excessively violent. But, threatened as the religion was by the spread of Islam in the medieval period, its stance had to adapt. Now, if there is one authority to whom Roland can turn for a judgement on his moral innocence or guilt, it is his God. It is made clear that God does not disapprove of Roland's actions when the hero is escorted up to heaven by the angels Michael and Gabriel. It seems that, whatever we may think of them, his actions have not angered God. In this respect, it appears that, on this moral level, Roland has nothing to reproach himself for.

Roland does, several times during the action, appear to regret his decision to fight, or at least regret that so many of his comrades have died. He surveys the scene before him, and sees how many of his men have died, and it moves him to tears. The Chanson de Roland is littered with grown men weeping and swooning. This is not viewed as a sign of weakness, but rather of nobility and laudable emotion. Roland weeps "cum chevalier gentill". His sadness for the lost men is deep. His words "Barons franceis, pur mei vos vei murir" are ambiguous. Is he showing penitence, and confessing his guilt for having led these men to their deaths? Or is he simply saddened that they have died for his sake, that is to say whilst fighting under his leadership. We cannot be certain. At other times, however, the poem's hero appears oblivious to what he has done. When Oliver repremands him, he asks why his companion is so angry with him.

It is interesting to examine the view of Oliver. He is the nearest we get to seeing a peer of Roland, and his opinion differs from that of his companion. The lines which best summarise his opinion are: "vasselage par sens n'en est folie: / Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie". At the first horn scene, he makes it clear that he thinks Roland should call back Charles and his men. When at last, many hundreds of deaths later, Roland says that he will sound the oliphant, Oliver is cross with him. He believes it is too late, and says, "Se vos cornez, n'ert mie hardement". He even goes so far as to deny Roland any right to his (Oliver's) sister, Aude. These two men, although not very far detached in standing, have very different personalities. Oliver is temperate and wise, whereas Roland is rash, bold and brave. Yet it seems to me that the argument Oliver has with his companion in the second horn scene has to do with more than a clash of personalities. We know that the pair are very close friends. Surely a man would have to be extremely enraged in order to deny his good friend the love of his sister. This suggests that Oliver believes Roland's actions to be seriously flawed. Since we are told of Oliver's wise character, it would be difficult to dismiss his views.

The question of how much Roland has to reproach himself for is not a straightforward one. It cannot be denied that the massacre could have been avoided, had he acted differently. Yet - without wishing to find excuses for a mortal mistake - there are certain elements, such as the different society in which he lived, which do have to be taken into account when casting judgement.

Secondary and Tertiary Sources:
Eugene Vance - "Style and Value: From Soldier To Pilgrim in the Song Of Roland" Yale French Studies 1991, pp75-96.
George Fenwick Jones - The Ethos of The Song of Roland
Robert Francis Cook - The Sense of The Song of Roland

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