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Category Archives: Legends of the Road

Roncevaux-11-WPPamplona was such a vital location, as well as being one of the first cities to be reconquered by the Christians from the Moors, that it was inevitable it should become the locus of legendary material.

In the epic poem known as l’Entrée en Espagne, Pamplona is described thus: “From one side it views the way to Gascony, from the other gate one sees towards Aragon, another guards the way towards Spain and the fourth faces the Ocean”.

Pilgrims to Compostela were directed to cross the Pyrenees using the Cize Pass and the first major station after the mountains was Pamplona.

The Royal Frankish Annals of 805 and 829 tell us that the Navarrese and Basques had allied themselves with the Saracens to form an enclave in the city.

Having been repulsed at Saragossa, Charlemagne and his army razed Pamplona, destroying “the walls of this city down to its foundations so that it might not rebel”.

As the Chronicle of Turpin has it, Pamplona was the first city which Charlemagne besieged in Spain after he had been admonished by the Apostle James to free his shrine in Galicia.

Chartres-Charl-Pyrenees-WPLike Joshua at the siege of Jericho, it was the impregnable strength of the walls which prevented him from taking the city.

So it was with Charlemagne before the city of Pamplona, “The first city Charlemagne besieged was Pamplona, he invested it for three months, but was not able to take it, through the invincible strength of its walls.”

Like Joshua, Charlemagne enlisted divine aid to bring down the walls. Where Joshua blew his horn, Charlemagne invoked the intercession of Saint James who, ”hearkening to his petition, the walls utterly fell to the ground of themselves”.

According to Archbishop Turpin’s account, such was the vital importance of the city, that once captured, the rest of Moorish Spain surrendered totally and the emperor proceeded unhindered to Compostela and then to Padrón, where he dipped his lance in the ocean in a symbolic gesture of dominion over the whole of the Hispanic peninsula.

Chartres-Franks-Pamplona-WPAfter the military reversals which followed the arrival in Spain of the African Saracen leader Aigoland, battle was once more joined in the field outside Pamplona where one hundred and thirty-four thousand Franks faced a hundred thousand Saracens.

The second battle of Pamplona now assumed not merely Biblical, but Apocalyptic proportions.

“So great indeed was the effusion of blood that the Christians waded in it to their knees”, declared the History of Charlemagne and Roland, of the slaughter of the Saracens at Pamplona.

This description echoed the chronicles of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. The Gesta Francorum told of “such a slaughter that our men were wading up to their ankles in blood”. The other medieval descriptions by Fulcher of Chartres and Guibert de Nogent repeated the same, almost identical, trope to emphasise the brutality of the carnage.

Jacobus064All these writers, whether describing the capture of Jerusalem or Pamplona, were making a calculated reference to the Book of Revelation, which in chapter fourteen tells of the winepress of the wrath of God, whose wine would be reserved for those who worship the Beast.

“And the wine press was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the wine press even unto the horse bridles”.

The Apocalyptic signification attributed by the chroniclers of the First Crusade to the capture of Jerusalem and of the authors of the Turpin manuscript in describing the taking of Pamplona, were made with the same intention. It was to incorporate the twelfth century conflict against the Saracens into an eschatological mythology.

After his victory at Pamplona, the emperor made his way towards Puente la Reina, “Charlemagne then regrouped his armies, greatly rejoiced at this victory and marched forward, and came to the bridge of Arge on the Compostela road”.

Sources and Biblio: Jean Passini, Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques, Cahiers de Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, XXX 2000 pp. 75-83

Thomas F Madden Saint Louis University, Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales Número 1 enero-junio 2012, 25-37, Rivers of Blood: An analysis of one aspect of the crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099

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

At the same time that the culture of pilgrimage was growing another, vernacular tradition developed. This was the oral storytelling known as the Chansons de Geste or epic tales of heroic knightly deeds. These centered largely around the figure of Charlemagne and his twelve paladins.

The tales of these Christian heroes wove in and around the hagiographies of the saints and the pilgrimage. These fed upon the Crusading ideals of the day as they harked back to the glory days of olden times when Charlemagne had liberated the road to Compostela from the Saracens and Roland had died the martyr’s death at the great battle of the Roncevaux Pass.

The cycle of Chansons revolving around the person of Saint Guilhem of the abbey of Gellone in Provence was especially popular in the twelfth century. In particular the poems Charroi de Nîmes and Alyscans relate tales of battles against Saracens at the site of the legendary Roman necropolis at Arles which is mentioned at length in the Pilgrim’s Guide and recognised as the start of the Toulouse Road.

The Chanson of Girart de Roussillon features an extended account of how the relics of Mary Magdalene where transported from Provence to Vézelay.

Throughout the Pilgrim’s Guide there are allusions to the epic tales related in the Chansons such as the burial places of the Paladins of Charlemagne and the passage of the Emperor’s army towards Compostela.

The Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi constitutes Book Five of the Codex Calixtinus in a version ascribed to Charlemagne’s Archbishop of Rheims, Tilpinus and is designated as the Historia Turpini. This is a Latin version of the Chanson de Roland

Roncevalles-19It was an essential component of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela that pilgrims were journeying through a mythical landscape. This was a world where the armies of Charlemagne had passed, where great battles had been fought and the tombs of the fallen heroes could be venerated as the shrines of martyrs.

This legendary aspect was part of an eschatological narrative which was continuing and ongoing and in which pilgrims themselves were taking part. History and legend were merged, without distinction. The transcendent distant past was mirrored in events in the recent past and then into the present day, thereby confirming the transcendence of each. This was reaffirmed by geography. To visit the place where a transcendent event had occurred was again corroborated by attending the shrine of a martyr associated with that site. Thus the world itself was invested with a numinous quality whose meaning lay in a divine plan.

Verona-Roland-1The narrative of Roland’s martyrdom at the battle of Roncevaux was the fulcrum on which all of this was balanced.

Three texts from the period describe the event. From the middle of the twelfth century two Latin accounts, the History of Turpin and the Pilgrim’s Guide, which together form books four and five of the Book of Saint James. Finally, a vernacular version in the form of an epic poem, the Song of Roland whose earliest known copy dates from the end of the eleventh century.

Roland-Angouleme-1-WPThe version in the Pilgrim’s Guide was focussed on directing attention to the sites. The account in Turpin’s History was written from a purportedly contemporaneous perspective and emphasised the connection between Roncevaux and the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. It recounted events concerning Charlemagne’s fourteen year Spanish expedition whose climax was the battle at Roncevaux. The Song of Roland deals exclusively with the battle itself.

All three versions presuppose a knowledge of each other and of a legendary tradition which preceded them.

Chartres-Roland-Ferragut-WPThe events recounted in these legends were based on recorded events which took place in the summer of 778, when Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees with the intention of besieging the Muslim held city of Saragossa.

This plan was abandoned and the retreating Franks then devastated the town of Pamplona before being attacked in a Pyrenean pass. These events were recorded albeit briefly but almost contemporaneously in various Frankish annals.

The legend of Charlemagne and Roland captured the medieval imagination and is expressed in one of the most famous stained glass narratives at Chartres cathedral. By the end of the eleventh century, what had apparently been a relatively minor affair had grown into a full blown epic and the question of what had occurred in the intervening centuries to warrant this development was naturally asked.

roland-4

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the theory put forward by the French philologist Joseph Bedier was that the Song of Roland as well as the numerous other epic poems of that era originated in accounts no earlier than the eleventh century. These would have been recounted by monks to visitors to the shrines which claimed to hold the relics of the fallen heroes.

In turn the legends were taken up by traveling performers who entertained pilgrims along the road to Santiago de Compostela. That theory was later abandoned.

San-Zeno-Roland-2-WP

The Turpin’s History, also known as the History of Charlemagne and Roland, interpolated into the legendary material an important thread related to the shrine of Compostela. Essentially, this was that Charlemagne’s mission in Spain was to liberate Saint James’ shrine from Saracen control.

This rendition suffers from serious anachronistic issues, most notably that the expedition of Charlemagne occurred in 778 but the discovery of the relics of Saint James occurred over thirty years later in an area which was already Christian controlled.

Furthermore, early accounts of Roncevaux mention a skirmish with Basque irregulars rather than forty thousand Saracens.

However, it could be that this analysis misunderstands the nature of the ongoing accretions in oral traditions and their mythological function. Invented legend and actual historical fact may have combined in other ways.

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 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 Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques Tallandier 2003 The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela Melczer Italica Press New York 1993 Romanesque Signs Early MedievalNarrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University Liber Sancti Jacobi Codex Calixtinus Ed K Herbers M Santos Noia Xunta de Galicia 1998

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”.

 

The medieval mind made no difference between legend and historical fact – such a distinction was alien. The popular retelling of the oral tradition where subsequent versions added to the old, met the learned, written tradition of the elite. It has been observed that because of the rupture in classical culture caused by the collapse of the Latin Western Empire in the sixth century, a process took place whereby each was contaminated by the other. Monasteries were deliberately located in rustic areas where pagan traditions thrived. Correspondingly, the vast body of the illiterate imbued the written Latin word with magical properties and undeniable truth.

historia-turpini-1Out of this came the simultaneous perpetuation of legendary traditions in both clerical texts and oral tales. And so the legend of Roland has its written Latin version – the Historia Rotholandi et Karoli Magni which was included in the five books of the Codex of Calixtus which set down the tradition of Santiago in manuscript. The historia was purportedly written by Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin.

In this latter version we find the Apostle James appearing to the Emperor Charlemagne in a vision calling him to liberate his forgotten tomb from the Saracens and the expedition which was then undertaken to do his bidding. Charlemagne not only liberated the shrine of Galicia but also built the first church there and made the road safe for pilgrims to follow. It was when returning victorious but exhausted to France, that the misfortune at Roncevaux took place.

Of the two versions, it is not possible for us to know which came first, but heroic knightly tales and pious lives of saints coexisted comfortably in the age of Pilgrimage and Crusade