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Monthly Archives: April 2015

The church of Saint Etienne de Tauriac is situated a short distance from the Tours Road. It lies near the right bank of the Dordogne River midway between the major Compostelan halts of Blaye and Bordeaux.

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The sculptural ensemble of its west facade is especially enigmatic and original.
The structure of the existing church features elements from several  campaigns suggestive of rebuilding necessitated by the violent history of the Gironde region. Some elements date from the Paleo-Christian era and could originate from a very early church existing at the site.
The remarkable west facade dates from the late eleventh century or early twelfth.

Tauriac-Rider-2-WPThe style of the facade is in the arcaded style of churches of the Saintonge region and it bears some similarity with the church at Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Poitou, further north on the Tours Road. Notably in the two blinds arcades on either side of the main doorway. Each of the arcades features a sculpted tympanum.

The left hand tympanum features an equestrian figure, such as we have seen elsewhere on the Tours Road in an identical placement, as at Airvault and Parthenay. In the case of the rider at Tauriac, he holds a lance horizontally indicating the attitude of a charge. The tip of the lance features a pennant. The poor condition of the relief maybe the reason we see no crouching figure beneath the rider, as at Parthenay, Oloron and other sites where such an image is widely taken to represent the triumph over paganism, most often identified with the Emperor Constantine.
Tauriac-Rider1-WPHowever, taken together with the pointed lance, this absence of the figure of the pagan, draws us away from the Constantinian identification. Given the proximity of Tauriac to the burial sites of the fallen heroes of Roncevaux at Blaye, Saint Seurin of Bordeaux and Belin it seems eminently plausible to suggest that the equestrian figure actually represents a scene from the battle of Roncevaux, possibly even Roland himself.
Whereas at Parthenay the horseman is paired, on it’s opposing tympanum with Samson prising apart the jaws of a lion, at Tauriac the right hand tympanum features the Lamb of God.
Tauriac-Lamb-3Presented within a circular mandorla held by a pair of doves. The attitude of Lamb of Tauriac is contorted so that although facing right its head is turned round towards the left where a crucifix surmounts a standard. The Latin inscription on the mandorla and scroll beneath are from the Agnus Dei liturgy of the Eucharist.
Beneath a false lintel, two lions with scrolls emerging from their tails and jaws echo the twelve leafy scrolls surrounding the tympanum, symbolic of Christ as the Vine.
Tauriac-Lamb-1-WPThese clear Eucharistic references should not preclude wider signification, particularly with reference to other similar facades and not ignoring the location on the western end of the church.
The Lamb of Tauriac performs a similar function to the Samson at Parthenay, which is to symbolise Christ’s victory over Death.
In both cases, the emplacement of secular horseman indicates the military aspect of the Christian church during the Crusading era.
Biblio: Guyenne Romane, P Dubourg-Noves, Vol. 31 1969 La Nuit des Temps, Zodiaque

Blaye-4-WPPilgrims to Santiago de Compostela who traveled along the Tours Road were enjoined to venerate the relics of the fourth century Saint Romanus at Blaye. There is no other mention of the saint in the Pilgrim’s Guide since his tomb was overshadowed by that of Roland.

Nevertheless, well before Roland’s legendary interment at Blaye, the town and abbey were important in their own right and it was with reason that Charlemagne chose to have his preferred paladin taken there after his martyrdom.

Blaye-26Because of its location on a rocky promontory on the Gironde estuary, Blaye had served as an important defensive emplacement for the protection of Bordeaux further along the estuary.

The Romans had favoured Blavia as an important station on the road which linked Bordeaux with the capital of Aquitania, Saintes and in the late third century an important fortress was erected there.

Blaye-29-WPLocated close by the border of Aquitaine and Gascony during an extended period of conflict between the Franks and the Gascons, Blaye’s strategic importance continued throughout the Carolingian period. It was occupied by Charles Martel when he reconquered the region.

Romanus was important to the Merovingians and later the Carolingians also. It was Martin of Tours, the patron of the Franks who had ordained Romanus as a priest and on his death, arranged his entombment at Blaye.

The burial site overlooked the Gironde and Romanus’ miracles protected those at sea on that busy waterway. Gregory of Tours declared that “Often through the display of his power he rescues people who are about to die from being shipwrecked in the river”. Gregory personally attested to one such occasion when trying to cross the estuary himself, he was held back by “overpowering mountains of water that were tossed up causing great terror among the onlookers”. When Romanus was petitioned to intercede, the storm abated.

Blaye-24-WPThe importance of the abbey of Saint Romanus is further attested to by the burial there of Charibert II, son of the Merovingian King Clotaire II in 632. Charibert had ruled as King of Aquitaine.

These lands extended over a large area which included the cities of Saintes, Périgeux, Cahors, Toulouse and Agen. His subjugation of Gascony fed into the later legend of the Basques at Roncevaux. The ruins of the Merovingian crypt can still be seen at Blaye.

By the time pilgrims came to Blaye in the twelfth century, an immense romanesque church had been erected over the original Merovingian edifice.

Biblio:  Blaye à grands traits – Du promontoire à la citadelle: 7000 ans d’histoire, Marie-Ange Landais, Les Cahiers du Vitrezais, Revue Archéologique, Historique et Littéraire des Hauts de Gironde No.92. Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Confessors, Trans R. Vandam, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1990

With thanks to Marie-Ange Landais

On the pilgrimage road to Compostela, the greatest relic of the Carolingian past was to be found on the Gironde estuary at the abbey church of Saint Romanus of Blaye on the Tours Road.

There, pilgrims were able to venerate the mortal remains of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew who was martyred at the battle of Roncevaux. This event was the narrative climax for the both, the Chanson de Roland and the History of Charlemagne and Roland, which was included in the Book of Saint James.

During the Carolingian period, the abbey of Blaye was the first significant monastic establishment to be reached on Frankish territory after traversing Gascony. This explains why it was deemed that Charlemagne would have deferred the burial of his most important paladin until he had crossed the estuary.

Blaye-3-WPTurpin’s History relates that, after the battle Charlemagne himself had arranged for Roland’s body to be swathed in a tapestry of gold and transported on two mules to Blaye.

Blaye was an Augustinian abbey dedicated to Romanus, a saint who had been entombed there by none other than Martin of Tours, the original patron of the Frankish monarchy.

Hugh of Fleury in 1109 attests to the existence of the tomb of Roland at Blaye and we can presume that pilgrims, who preferred passage over the Gironde by boat rather than negotiate the separate crossings of the great rivers downstream, would have made the tomb of Roland an important pilgrimage site.

The Chanson de Roland, held that Roland was entombed there with his companion Olivier. Charlemagne, the poem relates “Crosses the Gironde in the great ships found there and brought his nephew as far as Blaye, and Olivier too. In white coffins he has the lords placed.”

Blaye-2-WPThe History of Charlemagne tells us that “His sword was placed above his head, and his ivory horn at his feet.” The hero of Roncevaux was buried with the emblems of his martyrdom, the sword Durendal and the ivory horn, the Olifant.

Subsequently, the Olifant was to be ceremoniously translated to Saint-Seurin at Bordeaux.

Others of the Paladins were entombed at Blaye; Garin of Lorraine, Ogier of Denmark, Aristagnus of Brittany and Galdebode of Frisia.

According to Turpin’s History the emperor endowed the town with twelve thousand pieces of silver for the poor of the region as well as the liturgical rituals which were now to be devoted entirely to the memory of Roland and the Paladins.

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Blaye was a “Joyful town, graced with the sepulchres of so many heroes”.

The abbey of Saint Romanus was razed in the seventeenth century to make way for new defensive fortifications. Today the foundations of the church are still visible, revealing the original Merovingian crypt where Roland was supposed to have been entombed. These remains are evidence of a church of vast proportions.

Biblio: Blaye à grands traits – Du promontoire à la citadelle: 7000 ans d’histoire, Marie-Ange Landais, Les Cahiers du Vitrezais, Revue Archéologique, Historique et Littéraire des Hauts de Gironde No.92. The Interaction of Life and Literature in the peregrinaciones ad loca sancta and the Chansons de Geste, SG Nichols Speculum 44 1969 51-77. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145

With thanks to Marie-Ange Landais of the Musée de Blaye

San-Zeno-Warriors-WP-1Among the relics which pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela were able to venerate were the tombs of the fallen heroes of Charlemagne’s armies who had lost their lives at the battle of Roncevaux and other military engagements against the Saracens.

The Pilgrims’ Guide and the History of Charlemagne and Roland as well as the epic legends of the Chansons de Geste cycles, notably the Chanson de Roland, were specific as to where they had been taken for burial. There were some differences in the accounts concerning the location of the burial sites due to the variations arising from oral traditions, nevertheless these texts paid keen attention to identifying the tombs.

Roland-Charging-AngoulemeThis was because they were considered martyrs. As  saints who had already ascended to Paradise before the Day of Judgment, they were worthy of veneration and capable of intercession. They were also exemplars of the Crusading spirit and their memory was an effective incentive in the eleventh and twelfth century crusading mentality.

Conques-cloister-soldierWith Cluny and the Papacy encouraging military aid to fight against the Saracens of Spain the idea of the Holy Warrior took root in the notion of the knight who died in defence of the faith.

Ultimately, this became explicit in Pope Urban’s call for the first Crusade to the Holy Land in 1095 but such a view of violence in the just cause had been gestating for some time. In the early tenth century Odo, abbot of Cluny had written a hagiography of the knight Gerard d’Aurillac. In 1064 Pope Alexander II called for the first official Spanish crusade against the Saracen held city of Barbastro. The epilogue of Turpin’s History is in fact a letter from another pope, Pope Calixtus II, which is itself another call to crusade in the Iberian peninsula. These ideas of militant Christianity found their greatest expression in the order of the Knights Templar

The History of Charlemagne and Roland makes evident the idea that those who had died in battle against the Saracens were martyrs and therefore the proper burial of these knights was a matter of some importance. “They now embalmed the dead bodies of their friends, some with myrrh and balsam, some with salt, taking out the bowels and filling the bodies with aromatic drugs”.

alyscamps-1The necropolis of the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux received numerous of the corpses as did the Alyscans at Arles. A common grave at Belin was the resting place for others. Roland himself according to the Pilgrims’ Guide was entombed at the abbey of Saint Romanus at Blaye.

Also, secondary relics were available to pilgrims for veneration. Roland’s horn the Oliphant was displayed at Saint Seurin. At Blaye, Roland was placed with his sword Durendal.

Biblio: History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014. André de Mandach Naissance et Origines de la chanson de geste en Europe Vol. 1 La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland Genève, Droz, 1961. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145

Roncevaux-19-WPThe Cize mountain over which pilgrims passed was believed to be the highest mountain in the whole of the Pyrenees. According to the Pilgrim’s Guide, from the summit one could see as far as the Atlantic ocean.

The Guide tells us that on the summit there was a cross which had been placed there by Charlemagne when he entered Spain on his way to liberate the shrine of Saint James at Compostela. Eyment-Bridge-1A papal bull of Paschal II in 1106 decreed that this cross designated the boundary between the dioceses of Bayonne and Navarre, thereby making it a de facto marker between French and Spanish territory.

The custom grew that pilgrims having made the ascent would erect their own crosses so that, as the Guide puts it, “one can find there up to a thousand crosses”, affirming that it was the first station of prayer on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Angoumois-Road-1The Cross of Charlemagne was one of a number of sites on the pilgrimage road associated with the legend of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition and which are indicated in the Pilgrim’s Guide.

On the northern slopes of the mountains was Valcarlos “where Charlemagne encamped with his armies” while the battle was raging in the heights above at Roncevaux.

After descending from the pass, there was a hospice and a church built over the rock “that Roland, the great hero, split with his sword in the middle from top to bottom with three strikes of his sword.”

Landes-Road-1Following this, the pilgrim reached Roncevaux, “the place where for sure, the great battle took place in which were slain King Marsile, Roland and Olivier and others together with forty thousand Christians and Saracens”.

It was a part of the intention of the Pilgrim’s Guide to direct pilgrims towards the reliquary sites that were considered essential on the road to Compostela.

Among the list of the tombs of saints advocated by the Pilgrims Guide were those of the fallen heroes of Roncevaux. “Next to Blaye on the seashore one must ask for the protection of the Blessed Romanus in whose basilica” the Guide informs us, “the remains of the Blesses Roland the martyr rest”. We are told that the Olifant was held at the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux.

Saintonge-Road-1A paragraph in the Guide is dedicated to providing a list of those paladins martyred at Roncevaux who were buried near the town of Belin. Among these was Roland’s companion, Olivier.

The passage of Charlemagne’s armies in Spain is again evoked when the Guide describes the Cluniac abbey of Sahagún in Castile. Pilgrims were directed to visit the remains of its saints, Facundus and Primitivo, and that their tombs were contained in a church built by Charlemagne. St-Jean-Pied-de-Port“Next to their town,” the Guide continued, “there are wooded fields where it is related, the lances of the warriors which were planted in the ground, grew leaves again”. This was a reference to the miracle of the lances recounted in Turpin’s History.

The great events of the historic past which themselves were reiterations of sacred events from the Biblical past were authenticated by these hallowed places that pilgrims visited on their way to Compostela. Visible and tangible evidence directly linked to the goal of their journey and the legendary material which surrounded it, was an integral part of medieval pilgrimage.


Biblio: Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003, The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela, Melczer, Italica Press New York 1993,  The Interaction of Life and Literature in the peregrinaciones ad loca sancta and the Chansons de Geste, SG Nichols Speculum 44 1969 51-77

According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, as the Norman knights prepared to do battle at Hastings in 1066, a poet declaimed an epic tale of the death of the Frankish hero Roland at the battle of Roncevaux.

Einhard

At about the same time, monks of the Spanish monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla in Navarre wrote down a record of the same legend as though it were a historical event.

San Millán was then an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.

In modern times the historic account of the battle of Roncevaux which has tended to prevail derives from the mention in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne which was composed some time between 817 and 836. In Book Two of Einhard’s biography entitled “The Wars and Political Affairs of Charlemagne” which is a summary catalogue of Carolingian foreign affairs during the emperor’s reign, there is an entry which details the Spanish expedition.

This was within seventy years of the Arab conquest of the Iberian peninsula.

According to Einhard, although preoccupied at that time with his war against the Saxons, Charlemagne, for reasons unexplained, amassed “the largest force he could muster to invade Spain”.

Having forced the surrender of every town and castle he could attack, the Frankish rearguard was ambushed in the Pyrenees as the army returned to France.

Roncevaux-20-WPThis attack is ascribed to “treacherous Basques” and among the many killed, three names are mentioned, Eggihard, Anselm and Roland, Lord of the Breton March. The actual site, Roncevaux is not mentioned by Einhard.

From other sources we learn that in 777 a Moslem embassy came to Paderborn in Saxony, requesting Charlemagne’s aid in an internal division between competing interests in the Cordoban caliphate. They would combine their forces to defeat this enemy by taking the city of Saragossa

Other accounts from the same period suggest that Roncevaux and Charlemagne’s campaign in Iberia were rather more important and the impression is that Einhard wished to gloss over a painful memory. Some documents exist which present a different picture of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition suggesting that it was in reality, a proto Crusade.

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According to the Frankish Annals of Metz of 805, Charlemagne had long been beseeched by the Christians of Spain to come to their aid. As it is recorded in the Annals of 805 a mere twenty-seven years after the events which it relates, “Charlemagne, driven by the demands and pleas of the Christians oppressed in Spain under the yoke of the cruel Saracens, led his army into that country. Faced with these legions without number, the whole of Spain trembled”.

The Annals of 805 and 829 also tell us that the Navarrese and Basques had formed an alliance with the Saracens. It was in order to keep these forces in check that Charlemagne chose to destroy the city walls of their stronghold, Pamplona.

Writing to Elipandus, Archbishop of Toledo in 794 during the Adoptionist heresy dispute, the King of the Franks wrote:”We have prayed for you throughout our whole kingdoms and we have always remembered you, with the desire to deliver you from your temporal servitude with the grace of God’s help and following the opportunity afforded by circumstance according to your exhortations”.

Charlemagne-Espalion-2In 840 the Limousin monk Astronome wrote in his life of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious that “Charles prepares to cross the rugged Pyrenees and enter Spain to bring succour with the aid of Christ to the church crushed beneath the cruel Saracen yoke”

Charlemagne himself wrote to Pope Hadrian in 778 the year of his expedition to Spain. Although his letter has been lost, the Pope’s reply in May gives an indication of the tenor of their exchange. Deploring the danger posed by the “Hagarenes” he promises to pray that “The angel of the all-powerful Lord march before the king and causes him to return victorious to his kingdom as well as his army safe and sound of Franks, beloved of God”.

All of these historical documents point strongly to the notion that Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition was not a minor affair but had all the hallmarks of a Crusade before the term was invented. Roncevaux was the location of not just the famous battle of 778 but a series of subsequent defeats which were suffered there by Charlemagne’s successors in the century to come.

Biblio:  André de Mandach Naissance et Origines de la chanson de geste en Europe Vol. 1 La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland Genève, Droz, 1961. Barton Sholod. Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncevalles, Geneva Droz 1966

Roncevaux stood at a pivotal point on the pilgrimage road to Compostela both in spatial and also sacred terms. The story of the great battle which was fought there was told and retold.

Roncevalles-19

Located adjacent to the highest mountain in the Pyrenees as it was then believed, it was the first significant point on the Spanish side of the mountains. The mountains had marked the frontier between Christendom and Islam which in the early middle ages, carried the weight of momentous Apocalyptic import.

When the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi stated that Ephesus was on the right hand of Christ’s earthly kingdom and Compostela on the left, it was Roncevaux and Roland’s sacrifice which had made pilgrimage there possible. It was the Vale of Thorns, the site of the necessary sacrifice.

According to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, the story begins when the Franks having succesfully conquered Moorish Spain, stop at Pamplona en route to their homeland.

Roncevaux-22-WPThe nearby city of Saragossa was ruled by two Saracen kings, Marsilius and Beligrand, nominally Charlemagne’s subjects, their loyalty is feigned.

The Frankish count, Ganelon acting as Charlemagne’s emissary presents an ultimatum to the two rulers: convert to Christianity or pay tribute. Ganelon then hatches a treacherous plot. Between them, they arrange that Marsilius will pretend to agree to rejoin Charlemagne in France in order to be baptised but he will betray his promise and attack the Frankish rearguard after the main body of the army has gone on ahead.

roncesvalles-1

Ganelon persuades Charlemagne to leave Roland and his close companion Olivier in charge of the rearguard where they will be prey to the planned Saracen ambush.

Dividing their force in two, the Saracens attack first with twenty thousand men. Battle rages all night before the Franks have defeated their enemy. Exhausted, the Christian warriors cannot withstand a second onslaught of thirty thousand Saracens which now comes down on them.

Olivier is flayed alive and only a small handful of Franks remain standing. Among them, Roland who captures a Saracen and forces him to identify Marsilius who he then kills.

Beligrand and the other Saracens now retreat.

Walking to the foot of the Cize Pass, Roland tries to smash his sword Durendal against a boulder in order to prevent the mighty weapon falling into the hands of the enemy. The sword is too strong and cannot be broken and only the rock is split apart.

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Now in an attempt to recall Charlemagne and the body of the Frankish army, Roland sounds his horn, the elephant ivory Olifant but the ferocity with which he blows the trumpet forces it to split in half and for the veins and nerves in his head to burst leaving him mortally wounded.

Hearing the sound of the Olifant in the valley below, Charlemagne is prevented from going to his aid by further treachery from Ganelon who insists that Roland is merely out hunting.

Dying, Roland prays and confesses before his soul is carried by angels to heaven.

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Knowledge of Roland’s plight finally reaches the Emperor when Baudoin arrives with the news. Charlemagne immediately sets out for Roncevaux but arrives too late.

Grief stricken, the Emperor now takes his revenge and takes off in pursuit of the Saracens. The sun stands still for three days until the Franks reach the remaining Saracens, destroying them on the banks of the Ebro river near Saragossa.

When rumours of Ganelon’s treachery are heard a duel is arranged in order to ascertain his guilt. Theoderic acting as Charlemagne’s champion kills Pinabel who stands in for Ganelon, who is now quartered and dragged to his death by horses.

The Franks now take their fallen comrades back to France to bury them in sacred sites.

Conques-Angel-Trumpet

The account of the battle of Roncevaux forms one chapter, albeit a vital one in Turpin’s History. The Song of Roland devotes its whole narrative to the legend, rendering its Apocalyptic dimension with greater emphasis.

This is most evident in the episode of the Olifant.

Despite Olivier’s pleas, Roland refuses to blow his horn to summon Charlemagne to his aid until it is too late.

When he does, it can be heard thirty leagues away but now it is merely to recall Charlemagne so that their bodies will be buried according to Christian rite and that the Franks will avenge the deaths of the warriors of the rearguard.

Platerias-Angel-Trumpeter

From the Old Testament Book of Exodus, when it was the prelude to Moses’ vision of God on Mount Sinai up to Revelation, when the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse unleash retribution on those who have failed to heed the Word of God, the trumpet was associated with the voice of God.

When Roland sounds his trumpet it is to unleash the retribution of Charlemagne on the Saracens. The force of his trumpet call causes his blood vessels to burst. It has become an act of submission on the part of the Frankish hero to the Divine power and so the cause of his death and martyrdom

Moissac-Hornblower001

In the final battle against the forces of Baligant, the Olifant is carried as a standard at the head of Charlemagne’s Christian army.

On the crenellations of the fortified belltower of the abbey of Moissac, above the great tympanum of the Apocalypse, a stone carved representation of a lone warrior stands facing the Pyrenees. He is sounding an elephant ivory horn.

Biblio: SG Nichols Romanesque Signs Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University. History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014.  Les Crenellages du Clocher-Porche de Moissac et leur restauration par Viollet-le-Duc, M Durliat 1966 Annales du Midi 78 pp 433-447