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The Song of Roland: A text for the First Crusade.


The year 778. Charlemagne’s army is returning to France through the Pyrenees after a failed Frankish/Muslim campaign to replace the Emir, Abd ar-Rahman with Sulayman ibn al-Arabi who had come to Charles for help in 777 as he was in revolt against the Emir. This had given the Franks a chance to put a “Pro-Frankish” Muslim on the throne and in effect make Iberia a fief. So in 778 they gathered a large Muslim/Frankish army and gave it a go. It didn’t work. Returning to France, on August 15th the rear guard of Charles army was overwhelmed at the pass of Roncevaux by an army of Basques. In this battle the Count of Palatine and Roland the Breton, who was Prefect of that land, were killed with many others. The (Christian) Basques (we will not get into the whole Arian heresy here) who had come to the battle being lightly armed and in their home territory quickly scattered after the battle and the Frankish army could not find anyone to fight when the main body came back. It was not a good year for the “infallible” Charlemagne and so the narrative quickly changed, the last accurate account of it being written about 60 years later, Charlemagne having been crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800. He died in 814, but after 840 his legend grew and with it, among others, the Roland legends.

Fast forward to 1095. It is The End of Time and Pope Urban II knows it. All the signs are there, just like they are today if you listen to the right people. The Church, to its credit although it is obviously unsuccessful, is moving more and more to ban the killing of Christians by Christians, in an effort to prepare for God’s Peace. At the same time Christians are becoming more and more amenable to the idea of killing Pagans. Earlier in the century, a previous Pope, Gregory VII, had actually called for a “crusade” due to Muslim advances against the Byzantine Empire, but European matters intervened and it remained only a fore shadowing of the First Crusade. So to a crowd of Franks, who by now are “true” Frenchmen, the split coming after the death of Charlemagne, on a field in the town of Clermont, he urges them to go to the Holy Land as warriors of Christ, and to purge the Levant of the pagans who infested it, in order to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God, for that Kingdom would not be established until all subscribed to the true faith. Again the Pope is answering a plea for help from Byzantium, this time Emperor Alexios Komnenos, who requested that western volunteers come to his aid and help to repel the invading Seljuk Turks from Anatolia, but he has much more in mind.

Enter the Song of Roland, the now perfect “Chanson” (which is just French for song) for the movement. What has two hundred years wrought? According to the historian Robert Lafont clerics began to re-write the history of the Campaign some 51 years after the battle and by 1095, Charlemagne is now 200 years old ( he was in his mid-30s in realty), white hair and beard and has been fighting in Spain for 7 years. Roland is his nephew and is trapped at the pass of Roncevaux by the treachery of the Frankish Baron Ganelon who wants him dead for political reasons. Roland has now become the embodiment of Chivalry, and refuses to blow his horn to get help until it is too late, dying a true hero’s death. Charlemagne does come back, defeats the Muslims and their big boss referred to as The Admiral, and all is right in the world.

Charlemagne has become the Christian king par excellence, waging war for the Holy Church. Roland, a hero of the faith who died for his God and his king and has become a true Christian knight, crusader and martyr. The assumption of Roncevaux into the Christian system gave the Kings of France a heritage with a moral power and also gave the crusades a tradition of victory and an epic poem to inspire the armies. It is certain that The Song of Roland was not born in 1095, Roland was a celebrated individual before the first crusade. But the song was written down at this moment because clerks and the king were searching for a fitting form of propaganda. The history of the campaign in Spain, rewritten across the centuries, furnished them propaganda of the best sort: that which gives divine righteousness to its possessors. Using the Song of another time as the symbol of just war the French army marched from France to the Holy Land to prepare the world for the reign of God. The Arabs have a word for this, jihad, and it is indeed a jihad confrontation. Charlemagne’s eventful reign had created many things, what became modern Europe for one, and the forced conversion to the “true” faith for another, and now those weapons were to be used to regain and purge the Holy Lands, for a while anyway.

Arguable the most popular books of the time of the Crusades, the Song of Roland set the standard for the Us vs. Them religious fratricides of the middle ages, and remains the Museum’s favorite of the French Chansons. To find how the legend continues after 1095 one need only refer to the Orlando Furioso, the great Italian epic of Ariosto from the 1500s, another interesting read.

Next Month, the “Muslim” expansion in the six hundreds.



Uncle Willie loves to have feedback from both readers who appreciate his point of view as well as from missguided souls who disagree.