The anonymous Song of Roland is the most famous Old French epic, or chanson de geste. It was composed c. 1090 but was not committed to writing until nearly 100 years later. The oldest written copy, discovered by Francisque Michel in 1835, survives in Oxford Bodleian MS Digby 23. As all chansons de geste, the Song of Roland was performed aloud in front of an audience by a minstrel (or jongleur). It is unlikely the whole poem was recited in one sitting: It consists in some 4,000 decasyllabic lines, assembled into 291 laisses or verses.
Why is this song so important ?
The Song of Roland is loosely based on historical events narrated by Einhard in his ninth century Vita Karoli. Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded Spain in 778 to free the country from the impending Muslim threat. A stained-glass window in Chartres cathedral suggests the emperor had a vision of St. James, whose body is buried at Compostela in western Spain James asked Charlemagne to liberate his home from the pagans. Returning from battle, the Frankish army marched through the Pyrenees. Without warning, the Basques attacked the rear guard at Roncevaux and brutally killed everyone. The author of the Song of Roland substitutes the Saracens for the Basques, making the epic about the religious war between the Christians and the infidels.
Contents of the valuable source
The Song of Roland is divided into two distinct parts. The first recounts the death of Roland and his men. The second describes the revenge of Charlemagne. When the poem begins, the emperor has been fighting in Spain for seven years. The Frankish army has conquered the whole country with the exception of one city: Saragossa, ruled by King Marsile and Queen Bramimonde. Following the advice of the Saracen lord Blancadrin, Marsile sends a message to Charlemagne announcing his intent to become the emperor’s vassal and to convert to Christianity. Charlemagne accepts the offer and must choose an envoy to send to Marsile’s court. Roland— Charlemagne’s best knight—nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Erroneously believing Roland has selected him for this dangerous mission out of spite, Ganelon conspires against Charlemagne with the pagans. He tells Marsile that Charlemagne will not continue fighting if the Saracens kill Roland, who will probably lead the rear guard as the Franks march over the Pyrenees. He and his men will be the most vulnerable in the narrow and treacherous pass at Roncevaux. Ganelon returns to Charlemagne and falsely attests to Marsile’s good intentions. As predicted Roland volunteers to lead the rear guard, and Charlemagne’s strongest vassals, the “twelve peers,” go with him, including Olivier (Roland’s best friend) and the archbishop Turpin. At Roncevaux, they are attacked by the Saracens, who vastly outnumber them. Olivier (characterized as wise) advises Roland to sound his horn and call Charlemagne back to fight. But Roland (characterized as proud, brave, and dutiful) refuses; to do so would demonstrate weakness and might place the life of the emperor in jeopardy. The rear guard fights bravely and kills a great number of the enemy. Eventually Olivier, Turpin, and all of the Frankish soldiers lie dead. Roland blows his horn (or oliphant) until his temples burst, signaling to Charlemagne his defeat. Before dying he attempts to break his sword, Durendal, on the surrounding black rock so that it does not fall into the hands of the pagans (a gap in the rock along the border between France and Spain is known as the Brèche de Roland). Roland dies a hero’s death: He lies down facing the enemy’s land and angels and saints escort his soul into heaven. Charlemagne arrives with the rest of the Frankish army. Overwhelmed with grief, he resolves to avenge the death of his men. God miraculously ensures the sun remains high in the sky so that the enemy cannot flee under the cover of night. The Franks kill the remaining Saracens by forcing them into the river Ebro; thousands drown. King Marsile escapes to discover that Baligant, the emir of Babylon, has arrived to help the Saracens in the war. Baligant rides with his men to Roncevaux, where the Franks are burying the dead. A great battle ensues. When Charlemagne slays Baligant, the remaining Saracens fl ee; the Franks march on Saragossa and finally take the city. Angry with the Saracen god for abandoning her people, Queen Bramimonde accompanies Charlemagne back to France. By the end of the poem she converts to Christianity of her own free will.
When the Frankish army arrives in Aix (Charlemagne’s capital), the emperor informs Roland’s fiancée, Aude, of the deaths of Olivier and Roland. Charlemagne offers to her his son as a substitute. Out of grief for Roland, Aude swoons and falls dead and is buried in great honor. Meanwhile Ganelon awaits trial for treason. His kinsman, Pinabel, defends his honor during a duel with Roland’s friend, Thierry. Thierry, who is by far the weaker knight, overcomes his formidable adversary. The Franks interpret this as a sign that God has revealed the guilt of Ganelon. They sentence Ganelon to death by dismemberment. For good measure, they also condemn 30 of his relatives to be hanged. The war is finally over and the Franks prepare to rest. But that night as he sleeps, Charlemagne has a vision of the angel Gabriel, revealing that the Franks must depart on a new crusade. Weary from battle Charlemagne nonetheless obediently vows to do God’s will.
A testimony to the virtuous courage of Western Christendom
The Song of Roland was composed around the same time as the Council of Clermont (1095), at which Pope Urban II exhorted all Christians to fight in the Crusades in order to recapture the Holy Land. The poem became a testimony to the virtuous courage of Western Christendom in the fight against the pagans. It is also an intensely nationalistic work. In the De gestis Anglorum (1125), William of Malmesbury writes that Roland’s tale is sung before the Battle of Hastings to give strength to the French soldiers who are about to fight.