Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: July 2014

The History of Charlemagne and Roland recounts how the emperor and his Frankish army, returning after their victorious campaign to liberate Spain and the shrine of Compostela, were challenged by Furra, king of Navarre at a place called Monjardin.

Monjardin-WP-1The pilgrimage road between Estella and Najera near Los Arcos passes between the Sierra Montejurra to the south and the steep eminence of mount Monjardin immediately to the north. Monjardin dominates the road and the countryside for miles around. At its crown is the old castle of San Esteban de Deio which played a vital role in the Reconquest of Navarre in the very early tenth century.

Captured from the Saracens by Sancho Garcia Ist in 908, the Navarrese Christians were then able to use it as a base to control the valley of the Rio Ega and then advance south of the Ebro. Monjardin-WP-3When the Moors returned in force under Abderrahman III and razed Pamlona in 924, only the defensive position of Monjardin was able to resist.

The survival of Monjardin was attributed to a legendary cross which miraculously appeared during battle. The cross came to be venerated by the local populace who covered it in silver and can be seen to this day in the church of Villamayor de Monjardin.

When Charlemagne accepted the king of Navarre’s challenge at Monjardin, he prayed on the eve of battle to know which of his men were to be slain the next day. “Charlemagne therefore prepared for battle, but desiring to know who should perish in it, he entreated the Lord to show him”. In the morning these were miraculously designated by ”a red cross which appeared on their shoulders behind”.

The emperor ordered that these men should be confined to a chapel and the fight should take place without them. Monjardin-WP-2Furra and three thousand of his army were killed, “these were all Saracens of Navarre”. Although victorious,  Charlemagne was dismayed to find on his return to the chapel that all those held inside were now dead, their status as martyrs was not to be denied. “Christian warriors” declared the emperor, ”though the sword slew you not, yet did you not lose the palm of victory or the prize of martyrdom”.

The castle of San Esteban de Deio was renamed Monte Gargiani in memory of Sancho Garcia Ist, who was buried in the chapel of the castle. When in 1090 the town of Estella was founded by Sancho Ramirez king of Aragon and the French bishop of Pamplona, Pierre d’Andouque, Monjardin’s defensive role was revived, this time as a bastion between the competing interests of Aragon and Navarre and the strategic role of the pilgrimage road. Monte Gargiani was renamed Monjardin.

Biblio:  Dom L-M Lojendio, Navarre Romane ed. Zodiaque

Rio-CeaSahagún stood firmly on the pilgrimage road which traversed bridges on either side of the town.

It was here that, according to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, the Frankish army fought a pivotal battle in its campaign to liberate Spain and Compostela from the Saracens.

On the banks of the Rio Cea, Charlemagne faced the army of Aigolando in a lengthy contest. As at Monjardin and ultimately, Roncevaux, the battle of Sahagún developed the theme of the martyrdom of the Christian warrior which runs through the whole epic narrative.

Sahagun-Chartres-WP-1“Then did this miracle happen. Certain of the Christians who carefully had been furbishing their arms against the day of battle, fixed their spears in the evening erect in the ground before the castle in the meadow, near the river and found them early in the morning covered with bark and branches”.

The spears, dead wood returning to living wood were alluding to the afterlife in Paradise and Christ as the Vine, a common image in Romanesque sculpture. The miracle of the spears was also part of the continuing process of denoting the Franks as God’s chosen people, taking its source from the story of Aaron’s rod in the Book of Numbers.

In that Old Testament account, the overnight flowering of the rod signified the preeminence of the House of Levi among the twelve tribes of Israel, marking them out as being the only ones to be elected to the priesthood.

Espalion-Rider-1In the crusading era the epic legend of Charlemagne and Roland exalted the role of the Christian warrior to a privileged position whose death in battle would guarantee election to Paradise, where they might join that other caste in the tripartite division of medieval society, the priests and monks. An equation was thus made between the priestly caste of the Old Testament House of Levi and the medieval warrior martyr.

The Frankish warriors cut their spears to the ground, but the vine continued to flourish. They eventually grew into tall trees which, the legend assures us, could still be seen by pilgrims in twelfth century.

In the ensuing battle forty thousand Christians were slain including the general Milo, father of Roland. Reinforcements of soldiers from Italy, caused Aigolando to retreat to León and Charlemagne then returned towards France.

The Pilgrims Guide informs us also of Sahagún that, “Next to the town there are wooded meadows in which, as one is told, the planted poles of the warrior’s lances bloom”.