In the History of Archbishop Turpin, Roland, the hero and martyr of the climactic battle of Roncevaux is presented early in the narrative as a Christian knight in his role of defender of the faith. This is not only by force of arms but also by force of words, so that Roland earned the status of both confessor saint and military martyr.
This episode is commemorated on a twelfth century capital situated on the pilgrimage road and located on the exterior of the Royal Navarrese palace at Estella.
Echoing the Biblical Old Testament story of David and Goliath, Roland is pitted against the Saracen giant who has been sent by the Emir of Babylon along with a force of twenty thousand, to wreak havoc in the region of Nájera.
Ferracutus challenges the champions of Charlemagne’s army to single combat. One by one the great warriors of the Franks are summarily despatched by the giant: Ogier, Renaud d’Aubespin, Constantine of Rome and Hoel. Finally, Roland puts himself forward. More successful in fighting Ferracutus than his predecessors, Roland nevertheless fails to kill the giant who appears to be invincible. Their combat lasts all day and into the next, when the giant becoming tired is given a stone by Roland to act as a pillow.
Echoing Jacob in Genesis who has a theophanic vision when he sleeps with a stone beneath his head, Ferracutus receives a similar revelation on waking when he engages Roland in a discourse on the Christian faith.
Significantly, Jacob’s vision concerns his destiny and that of his descendants as God’s Chosen people, a sense of national identity which was reprised by the Spanish Christians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and notably in the legendary accounts of the Franks of the Chansons de Geste. It is a theme which runs through the whole of the History of Charlemagne and Roland.
First, Ferracutus reveals the secret of his invulnerability: he can be killed only by a wound to his navel.
The form of the discourse between Ferracutus and Roland is a reiteration of Christ’s Conversation with Nicodemus in chapter three of John’s Gospel. The narrative of the history of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens is interrupted while Roland answers the giant’s doubts over the Christian faith and the doctrines of the Trinity, the Passion and the Resurrection are treated by Roland using allegorical references.
The giant, however cannot submit himself to the faith and demands that a fight to the death will determine the truth of the matter. Invoking the aid of the Son of the Holy Virgin, Roland strikes Ferracutus through the navel. His victory over the giant, a reiteration of David’s over Goliath which itself was a prefiguration of Christ’s victory over death on the Cross and by extension of Roland’s own martyrdom at Roncevaux at the climactic point of the History of Charlemagne and Roland.
Sources and 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. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. SG Nichols Romanesque Signs Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University