Legend and stories for hundred years

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne in Rome in Christmas Day, 800, making him the first Western Roman emperor in more than 300 years. As head of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne became a figure of legend and stories for hundreds of years.


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Note: Charles = Charlemagne; Franks = French


August 15, 778 Battle of Roncevaux


What really happened according to French and Arab Chroniclers of the time:


Charlemagne went into Spain “at the request of the …Saracen governor of Saragossa…who was in revolt against his master, the…emir of Cordova. …Charlemagne appeared at Saragossa, where he thought the gates would open [but]…The city resisted, the siege dragged on; bad news from Saxony necessitated a hasty return…. On the way they encountered a city that refused them passage although it was Christian: Pamplona. The emperor razed it without mercy, then fell into the fatal ambush in which he came to know the “treachery of the Basques.” But it is possible that the Basques were given considerable assistance by the Arabs.” (Le Gentil, 14-15)




To twelfth century Europeans, “The Arab world was…a civilization apparently superior to their own in most if not all aspects of daily living, one whose trade goods were coveted and depended on [and] whose luxury was astounding….


“By Christian standards, the Arabs were heretics, and what they had done to merit such a marvelous destiny was a mystery and a source of some concern. And…the orthodox establishment was appalled….in Europe in the Middle Ages the foreign devil was an Arab.”


Europeans thought that Islam was “either a pagan religion or a Christian heresy…characterized by moral licentiousness, permissiveness, self-gratification and cultural decadence.” (Menocal, 40-45)




The “peace of god” movement was essentially a response of the church to the breakdown of the royal Carolingian authority in France. The church tried to establish a peace which declared that it was immoral to harm unarmed churchmen or unarmed peasants, or to harm churches and their possessions. One effect of this peace was the development and codification of a Christian warrior ethic… which became associated with “building of the kingdom of God” as a soldier. (Duby, 86-87; 169)


“During the late eleventh century the Eastern Empire was being raided by new enemies, Turkish tribesmen from central Asia, and in 1091 the Emperor Alexius I requested the help of Pope Urban II….what he got, in 1096, was the First Crusade. From that time onward, throughout the whole of the twelfth and until well into the thirteenth century, successive waves of crusading armies continued to arrive from the West.”


By 1096 the idea of “`fighting for Christ’ could be interpreted as militant knight-service….The knight set forth under the banner of Christ, war-leader and king, to wrest the “land of His birthright from the infidels; if he fell, he had his reward in Heaven; if he conquered he won renown, an estate on earth and the Kingdom of Heaven besides.” (Heer, 126, 127)


“The eleventh-century crusaders were certain that they had God’s support against the infidels; each of them felt, at some decisive moment, that he was part of a celestial army.” (Gentil, 123)




There is currently a great deal of controversy over what exactly feudalism was, or even if it ever existed. However, the concept is useful for understanding the roles in Roland, especially the relationships of Roland to Charlemagne and of Roland to God.


A vassal was a “free man who put himself under the protection of someone more rich and powerful…The vassal had the obligation of rendering his lord “aid and counsel”…[which] meant…supporting the lord in all his business and in his numerous lawsuits and disputes” and providing military service. (Heer, 35-37)


“In return for his service, the vassal was granted…a gift…” of land, office or position at court. Ideally a fief. This was a two-way contract; but the obligation was to the death of the lord, but no further. (Harrison, 23) There was also a religious model of the concept of feudalism, which is expressed in Roland, as when he offers his glove to God.


The duties of a loyal vassal to his lord are clearly expressed in Roland:


“A man must bear some hardships for his lord,

stand everything, the great heat, the great cold,

lose the hide and hair on him for his good lord.

Now let each man make sure to strike hard here…”


(all English quotes of Roland are from Goldin’s translation in Norton)




“In the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, [French] heroic epics known as chansons de geste (songs of great deeds) were enormously popular… warlike and heroic in mood, they often consisted of exaggerated accounts of events in the reign of Charlemagne…. Like old-fashioned Westerns, the chansons de geste were packed with action, and their heroes tended to steer clear of sentimental entanglements with women. Warlike prowess, courage, and loyalty to one’s lord and fellows-in-arms were the virtues stressed in these heroic epics. The battle descriptions, often characterized by gory realism, tell of Christian knights fighting with almost superhuman strength against fantastic odds. ” (Hollister 262-3)


The chansons de geste “all went back to the French Chanson de Roland and celebrated the noble Franks as invincible warriors in their fight against “infidel gods….” (Heer, 166)  More than eighty of the chansons de geste survive, in whole, or partially. (Pepin, 113)


Gaston Paris’ theory of epic fermentation is based on the notion that people react to contemporary events by composing “short songs, fragmentary and impassioned, called cantilenes. When united and organized around a central theme or character so as to form long, continuous narratives, they became the chansons de geste.”   (Gentil, 55)


An interesting idea about the origins of the Chansons de Geste is the pilgrim route theory of epic origins. “Bedier believes that in the eleventh century there were pilgrimage routes; on these routes, sanctuaries; and in these sanctuaries, monks. Local and religious legends, linked either with the monuments or with regional disputes and organized to varying degrees, grew up along these routes. They were preserved in the sanctuaries and maintained by the monks for propaganda purposes…. Thanks to such favorable conditions as the Crusades or the eleventh-century cultural renewal, the jongleurs and the monks revived them.” (Gentil, 58)


However, Ramon Menendez Pidal “believes that the origins of romance literature go much farther back than the existing texts and can only be explained if a long and rich tradition of lost works is supposed.” he has much excellent scholarship to support this. (Gentil, 66)




The chansons were sung or chanted by singers called jongleurs; we do not know what the melodies were like. The poems were divided into stanzas called “laisses” of irregular length. They used assonance, not rhyme to tie each laisse together– e.g. all the lines in a laisse used the same final vowel. The following example is a part of laisse 176 showing assonance. (from Le Gentil, p. 152)


Li quens Rollant se jut desuz un pin;

Envers Espaigne en ad turnet sun vis.

De plusurs choses a remembrer li prist,

De tantes teres cum li bers conquist,

De dulce France, des humes de son lign,

De Carlemagne, sun seignor, kil nurrit;


Note how each line uses the same final vowel, in this case, “i,” and also note the pause at the end of each line. The English translation of the same section echoes the repetition of final vowels, but not to the extent of the original French:


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