According to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, once the Emperor had avenged the loss of his beloved nephew Roland at the battle of Roncevaux, his first task was to arrange suitable burials for the fallen heroes.
Both the Pilgrims’ Guide and Turpin’s History tell us that a number of the martyred Paladins were buried in a single grave by the side of the old Roman road south of Bordeaux at a place called Belin.
Pilgrims were ordained to visit this grave where the Frankish warriors “lie together in a single grave from which emanates an extremely soft scent that heals the sick.”
At Belin an old Roman bridge carried travellers across the River Eyre. Nearby stood a castle, later to be the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine and a hospital set among a number of ancient burial tumuli. It was in one of these that the Paladins were buried. By the eleventh century a church, Saint Pierre de Mons, was erected over the site.
The History tells us, “Joyful is the town of Belin adorned by so many barons who were buried there together.”
The most illustrious paladin to be buried at Belin, was Olivier the companion of Roland. Although later versions, including the Chanson de Roland place his tomb next to Roland’s at Blaye, it seems that there was a prior tradition of Olivier’s burial at Belin.
Count of Gennes, Olivier played an important role in Turpin’s history which records that he led three thousand of his men into battle at Pamplona. In the Song of Roland, as the close companion of the protagonist, Olivier is a vital figure. The central part of the narrative concerns a protracted debate about whether or not Roland should sound his horn, the Olifant to recall Charlemagne’s army to their aid.
Olivier earns the epithet, the “wise one” as he urges Roland to do the reasonable thing and not hesitate. Significantly, the specific manner of his death is recorded in the poem. He is flayed alive.
Although the History tells us that a large number of unidentified warriors were buried in the single grave, four paladins are singled out and mentioned by name. Despite the modest site of Belin they were figures of great renown in the Carolingian world: Gondebaud, Ogier, Arestain and Garin.
Three of them are mentioned in the description of Charlemagne’s army at the beginning of the History which listed the number of troops led by each paladin. Gondebaud King of Frisia led seven thousand, Arestain King of Brittany seven thousand and Garin Duke of Lorraine, four thousand.
All of the named heroes of the Belin burial site were known through other legendary epics. Ogier, King of Dacia sometimes referred to as King of Denmark was perhaps the most notable of these. The character of Ogier features in the cycle of the Geste de Doon de Mayence which deals largely with barons who rebelled against Charlemagne and eventually were reconciled. Ogier was very likely derived from a real life Autcherius and rather than being of Denmark would have been a lord of the Ardennes. Autcherius had been an ally of Charlemagne’s brother Carloman. In later legends Ogier became heroic Frankish warrior in the wars against the Saracens.
Olivier featured in many of the epic tales and is the central character in the poem Fierabras. This was another version of the epic of Charlemagne’s war against the Saracens based around a Moorish giant named Fierabras, similar to Ferracutus in Turpin’s History. In this account it is Olivier rather than Roland who defeats him in single combat and then converts the giant to Christianity. In another poem the Chanson de Girart de Roussillon, he is ordered to fight his friend Roland in order to settle a dispute between Charlemagne and Girart.
The town of Belin was known through a cycle of epic legends which related the wars between Lorraine and Gascony which had taken place in the ninth century. It was Garin’s brother Begon, Lord of the castle of Belin who had caused a war between Lorraine and Gascony in the years before the reign of Charlemagne.
According to Turpin’s History the brothers became martyrs of Roncevaux, Begon buried at Saint Seurin and Garin at Belin.
The Pilgrim’s Guide describes the sandy wasteland south of Bordeaux as “a desolate region, deprived of all good”. While great care was made, according to the legends, to bury the warriors killed at Roncevaux in hallowed burial grounds such as the necropolises at Saint Seurin and the Alyscans, the interment at Belin suggests a hasty mass burial in unconsecrated ground.
How and when a legend arose that a tumulus at Belin contained the bodies of martyrs of Roncevaux remains lost in the developing oral accounts which preceded their setting down in text. By the time of the compilation of the Jacobus in the twelfth century, the ancient burial grounds and the legendary traditions concerning them were, it seems already established.
The heroes buried at Belin were based on historical prototypes who had played significant roles during the Carolingian past and gone on to become figures of legend. By the eleventh century they had been assumed into the mythos of Roncevaux.
Biblio: Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145. Les légendes épiques : recherches sur la formation des chansons de geste. Bédier, Joseph, 1914. The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela Melczer Italica Press New York 1993