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Category Archives: Pilgrimage

Sahagun-Cea-Bridge-3Sahagún lies on the banks of the Cea river on the Castilian meseta between Fromistá and León. The rather empty and desolate place today belies its medieval status as one of the most important monastic centres in twelfth century Spain. The town took its name from the abbey of San Facundo e Primitivo.

According to the History of Charlemange and Roland, “a castle stands in the meadows, in the best part of the whole plain, where afterwards a church was built in honour of the blessed martyrs Facundus and Primitivus, where likewise their bodies rest and an abbey was founded and a city built”.

The Guide counts Sahagún as major halt on the road, the end of the seventh day’s journey from Fromistá and mentions it by name several times.

Sahagun-San-Tirso-2The Benedictine monastery adhered to the Cluniac order and Sahagún was the centre of Cluny’s power in northern Spain, presiding over more than fifty dependent priories.

Its links with the king emperors of León-Castile and the court were exceptionally close and it was especially favoured by Alfonso VI who chose to be buried there rather than in the royal pantheon at León.

Sahagún was an important part of Alfonso’s plan to develop the Compostelan pilgrimage infrastructure and the monastery benefitted from an annual donation of 2,000 bushels of wheat which went towards feeding pilgrims in the hospital of sixty beds.

San-Pedro-de-las-Dueñas-4The abbey’s church was an immense construction and housed the relics of the two saints.

In the cursory account of Spanish saints included in the Pilgrims’ Guide, the relics of Facundus and Primitivus are among only two others apart from Santiago, that pilgrims are ordained to visit.

The two saints were martyrs of third century Roman persecutions, decapitated by the banks of the Cea river. The Guide repeats the legend that their church was erected by Charlemagne. In fact Alfonso III of Asturias had first settled a community of monks from Cordobá at Sahagún in the 870’s.

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Turpin’s account of Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain presents us with a seemingly arbitrary succession of victories and defeats.

After winning Pamplona, the whole of the peninsula is opened up and liberated by Charlemagne.

The emperor then travels to Compostela where he orders the construction of a new basilica.

However, with total dominion seemingly assured, a new Saracen leader, Aigolandus emerges from North Africa and proceeds to recover the lands Charlemagne had previously conquered.

In 1085, the Christian armies of Spain finally broke the seven year long siege of Toledo and took back the ancient Visigothic capital from the Saracens.

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This appeared to be the decisive turning point in the centuries old reconquest of Spain, which had begun with Pelayo’s first victory at Covadonga in 722.

Buoyed by this success, Alfonso VI endowed the church of Saint James at Compostela with the funds to build the great Romanesque cathedral, which still stands there today.

However, the Moorish principalities turned for aid to North Africa and appealing to the Berber fundamentalist tribes of the Almoravids, invited them to invade the peninsula. In 1086, the Berbers landed in Spain and led by Yusuf-Ibn-Tashfin, reversed Alfonso’s victory by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Christian forces at Sagrajas.

The tide of Christian advance had been checked and a stalemate remained for a generation.

alfonsovi_of_castileThis is the most obvious and striking of the numerous parallels to be found in Turpin’s History between the account of Charlemagne’s campaign and the actual historical conflict between the Christians and Moors in eleventh century Spain.

From 1077, after a period of intense conflict with his two brothers, Alfonso VI emerged as the sole ruler of Christian Spain and was dubbed emperor. On his death in 1109, he was buried at the Cluniac monastery at Sahagún.

It seems to have been the intention of the authors of the History, a text compiled a short time after Alfonso’s death to conflate the personalities of the two emperors.

Just like the Charlemagne of Turpin’s History, Alfonso was an assiduous promoter of the pilgrimage to Compostela, contributing greatly to its infrastructure by means of numerous charters for the improvement of bridges, the establishment of hostelries, hospices and monastic endowments for the benefit of pilgrims.

Rio-PisuergaIn 1085 Alfonso had famously dreamt of the Milky Way and the narrative of Turpin’s History begins with Charlemagne’s own dream of that same celestial phenomenon, followed by a visitation from Saint James the Apostle who explains its significance. The dream was an injuction to the emperor not only to liberate the shrine at Compostela but also to establish the road leading to it.

The similarities continued. Following his victory at Toledo, Alfonso had descended to Gibraltar and symbolically dipped his lance in the sea to signify his complete dominion over the Hispanic peninsula.

Rio-CeaTurpin’s account records that Charlemagne after liberating Compostela had journeyed the short distance to the ocean at Padrón and placed his lance in the water in similarly symbolic gesture.

Finally, the conflation of the two emperors is confirmed by the long and detailed list of Charlemagne’s conquests and victories, a list almost identical to the one Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo had provided for Alfonso’s campaigns.

By associating Alfonso with the most revered of all medieval figures, those who worked on the production of the manuscript were not merely performing a simple exercise in aggrandising the reputation of a recently deceased monarch. They were placing the recent past in a mythological and legendary context.

San-Zeno-Roland-2-WPIn the same way that Biblical exegesis determined that narratives from the Old Testament were precedents and prefigurations of those, which were recounted in the New Testament, so the wars of Alfonso against the Saracens were by inference, assumed into an ongoing teleological process, which had originated in the time of Charlemagne.

This notion is encapsulated in chapter four of the History, which is devoted to a description of what was presumably the antique statue of Hercules which still stood in those times at Cadiz and held a key in one hand.

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Turpin attributes the statue to Muhammad. To the Saracens, Turpin also attributes the prophecy that the “certain key, so the Saracens themselves say, would fall from his hand in the year that a future king would be born in Gaul who would subjugate the whole land of Spain to the laws of the Christians in the end times”.

This is a clear invocation of the Apocalyptic thrust of the Reconquistá and evocation of the legend of the Last Roman Emperor who was to defeat the forces of the Antichrist before depositing his imperial crown on the Mount of Olives, an act which would herald the Apocalypse.

Saragossa had been the goal of Charlemagne’s campaign of 778 when he crossed the Pyrenees in his failed bid to take the city.

Three centuries later, Saragossa also successfully resisted the armies of Alfonso VI. The city was eventually captured in 1122 by a combined Crusader force led by one of Alfonso’s successors, Alfonso el Batallador, who also dubbed himself “imperator”.

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. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. Barton Sholod. Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncevalles, Geneva Droz 1966

historia-turpini-1The History of Turpin is the early twelfth century Latin manuscript which forms Book Four of the compilation known as the Jacobus, the hagiographical texts devoted to the cult of the Apostle James of Compostela.

The narrative, occasionally interrupted by homiletic passages, is an account of the emperor Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition. Each episode contains a miraculous dimension and the whole text is in ultimate service of the Galician shrine.

Written in epistolary form, the text is purportedly written by Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin of Rheims and addressed to a dean of Aix-la-Chapelle. It claims to be a first hand report.

For this reason most historians refer to it as the Pseudo-Turpin although it is also commonly known as the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi or History of Charlemagne and Roland.

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It was an exteremely popular text during the medieval period with numerous manuscripts being copied. Using an episodic structure and divided into approximately thirty chapters, the History is an account of the Franks’ fourteen year campaign, climaxing with the battle of Roncevaux. Although some of the names are different the essential components of the Roncevaux episode are identical to those recounted in the vernacular Song of Roland.

LSJ-KaroliMagni-1-WPThe narrative begins with a vision of Charlemagne’s in which he receives a visitation from Saint James who urges him to free Spain and his tomb in Galicia from the Saracens.

The emperor assembles a Frankish army and after taking the city of Pamplona, the Saracens of Spain surrender the whole of the peninsula.

Victorious, Charlemagne then visits the shrine at Santiago de Compostela to fulfil the demand imposed on him by Saint James.

Converting the Saracens to Christianity, they remain for three years receiving tribute from the Moors which they use to build a series of magnificent churches including a new cathedral at Compostela.

Turpin-Illum-1-WPThe emperor’s campaign appears victorious and he returns to France, however a new Saracen leader, Aigoland emerges from Africa and retakes Spain.

Charlemagne, obliged to return then defeats the Saracens once more on the plain outside Sahagún before departing once more for France where the focus of the campaign enters a new stage as Aigoland seizes the town of Agen. After a seven month siege, Aigoland escapes up the river Garonne and the process is repeated at Saintes.

Charlemagne then follows the fleeing Aigoland to Pamplona with an even greater army. Again, Charlemagne defeats the Saracens in a battle outside Pamplona and this time Aigoland himself is killed.

At Mont Garzim in Navarre a battle is fought with that Saracen king of Navarre named Furra.

Saracens-2-WPThe war enters a new phase with the arrival at Nájera of a giant leading an army of twenty thousands Turks of Babylon. The giant challenges the Franks to single combat, defeating allcomers until challenged by the paladin Roland, who kills him with a sword thrust to the navel, his only vulnerable spot.

Following this the Franks capture Nájera.

The war now moves south to Cordoba where six thousand Franks are confronted with ten thousand Saracens assembled from the principalities of Andalusia. The Saracen soldiers wearing demonic masks, and beating loud drums terrify the horses of the Frankish cavalry who are forced to beat a retreat. The problem is solved by blindfolding the horses and blocking their ears.

LSJ-Paladins-WPVictorious again, Charlemagne generously divides Spain among his people and holds a council at Compostela, decreeing it to be the Metropolitan See.

The culminating drama now unfolds, the ambush at Roncevaux and the martyrdom of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew and most illustrious warrior. With the Franks finally returning to France, Roland is placed in command of the rearguard as it crosses over the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, the treacherous paladin Ganelon has plotted with the Saracens, Marsile and Beligant. After the main Frankish army has gone over the Cize Pass, they ambush the rearguard. Roland, wounded and dying becomes a martyr.

Distraught, Charlemagne rushes back too late and then destroys the Saracen force near Saragossa. Ganelon is executed by being torn limb from limb by four wild horses. The returning Franks bury their dead at various hallowed sites

Finally at Saint Denis, Charlemagne is absolved of his sins in a dream on his deathbed and receives the crown of martyrdom.

The last chapter of the book consists of a letter by Pope Calixtus II which is a call to arms for a crusade in Spain.

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. La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Bernard Gicquel, 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

St-Seurin-6-WPAccording to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, there were two “hallowed and venerable cemeteries”. One was the Alyscans at Arles and the other was the necropolis of the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux. The abbey was presided over by canons of the Rule of Saint Augustine.

These cemeteries had been consecrated by the seven evangelisers of Gaul; Maximin of Aix, Trophimus of Arles, Paul of Narbonne, Saturninus of Toulouse, Front of Périgeux, Martial of Limoges and Eutropius of Saintes. It was to these burial grounds that Charlemagne took his fallen warriors to be entombed after the battle of Roncevaux.

St-Seurin-12-WPThe cemetery at Saint Seurin had developed around the tomb of Saint Severinus in the fourth century and by the middle ages it was a vast necropolis. Seurin was the patron of the city of Bordeaux, since 1058 the most important ecclesiastical centre in Aquitaine when it became the Metropolitan see.

Five thousand dead Frankish warriors were brought there in the aftermath of Roncevaux. Among them were several of the highest members of the Carolingian court.  Gaifier King of Bordeaux, the historic Visigothic ruler of Aquitaine, Lambert King of Bourges, Begon of Belin who was brother to Garin de Lorraine, Gaultier of Termes, Renaut of Aubespin, Guielin.

There was Duke Engelerus of Aquitaine who had led four thousand troops at the battle of Pamplona. The number of martyrs also included two of the twelve peers, Garin and Gerier.

Also taken to Bordeaux for burial were some of those who had died mysteriously and miraculously at the battle of Monjardin.

St-Seurin-22-WPDespite the sanctity conferred on the necropolis by the existence of so many Christian warrior martyrs at Saint Seurin, the Pilgrim’s Guide drew attention to one remarkable relic, the Olifant of Roland.

According to the Song of Roland, it was Charlemagne himself who had placed, on the altar of the abbey church, “the olifant, full of gold and mangions. Pilgrims who visit the place still see it”.

This was the ivory horn which Roland had sounded too late to prevent his own death. Reaching Charlemagne and the main body of the Frankish army which lay encamped in the valley of Valcarlos below the Cize Pass, the force of Roland’s call had caused the Olifant to split apart.

In doing so he sustained his mortal injuries, bursting the veins in his neck and temple. The Olifant was both the instrument of Roland’s martyrdom and with its Old Testament connotations, the symbolic voice of God.

The sounding of the horn had led ultimately to Charlemagne’s vengeance and the taking of Saragossa.

St-Seurin-13-WPAt the time of the writing of the Song of Roland, Saragossa was the great prize sought by the Crusaders of Spain who came to venerate the relic of the Olifant as they embarked on their succesful expedition to recover the city in 1118.

The relic of Roland’s horn formed a vital part of the Carolingian legacy on the Tours Road to Compostela, along with those relics at Blaye and Belin. The Olifant on view at the altar of the abbey of Saint-Seurin bore the unmistakable sign of its authenticity, as the Pilgrims’ Guide pointedly informs us: “His ivory horn parted thus in the middle is found in the basilica of the Blessed Seurin”.

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. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145. Autour de Saint-Seurin: lieu, mémoire, pouvouir. Des Premiers temps chrétiens à la fin du Moyen Âge – Actes du colloque de Bordeaux (12-14 octobre 2006) ed. Isabelle Cartron, Dany Barraud, Patrick Henriet, Anne Michel Bordeaux 2009 Ausonius Editions – Mémoires 21

The History of Charlemagne and Roland tells us that the Alyscans necropolis at Arles was the burial site for ten thousand Frankish warriors killed at Roncevaux. Alyscans WP 008In addition to these ten thousand, the list includes thirteen paladins mentioned by name: Estout of Langres, Salomon, Sanson of Burgundy, Arnaud de Beaulande, Auberi le Bourgoin, Esturmi, Aton, Yvorius, Naimes of Bavaria, Berenger, Thierry, Guinardus and Bérart of Nubles.


The Alyscans was the Antique necropolis by the banks of the River Rhône at Arles. In the early middle ages it had a reputation as being one of the most hallowed of all Christian burial sites, equal in prestige to the cemetery of the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux to which another large number of dead of Roncevaux had been similarly transported for burial.

Alyscans WP 007In the same way that the Pyrenean passes had historic cause to be identified with the Saracen threat to the Franks, so did Provence. This would help to account for the legend of the burials of the fallen warriors of Roncevaux at the Alyscans, despite the great distance of four hundred kilometres which separated Arles from the battle ground beneath the Cize Pass. These legends were deeply rooted and grew right through the middle ages.

The Saracens had established a number of strongholds in Provence, notably in the coastal mountains at a place called Fraxinetum. They ravaged a wide area throughout the tenth century, along the coast and up towards the Alps.

Alyscans WP 010It was not until they had captured the abbot of Cluny, Mayeul in 972 that vigorous offensive action was eventually taken under Guillaume Ist of Provence who led several expeditions against them. These culminated in the decisive victory of the battle of Tourtour.

The capture of the abbot of Cluny by the Moors of Provence pitted them against the Benedictine monastic order who waged a polemical war which cast the Saracens in an Apocalyptic context, which then fed into legendary traditions.

Guillaume was one of several historical prototypes for the personage of Guillaume d’Orange the hero of the most important cycle of Chansons de Geste. This poetic tradition presented him as a great warrior leading Frankish armies against the Saracens in the time of Charlemagne’s immediate successor, Louis the Pious.

In epic poems such as Le Charroi de Nîmes, La Prise d’Orange and La Chevalerie de Vivien, Guillaume fought against massive Saracen armies who had invaded the region. In one poem, Alyscans, battle is waged on the very site of the necropolis itself.

Alyscans WP 009Archbishop Turpin’s History of Charlemagne and Roland tells us that it was at Arles that Charlemagne rejoined the Burgundian army in the aftermath of Roncevaux. Charlemagne had gone first to Blaye to entomb Roland.

The History recounts that, “the Burgundians had seperated from us at Ostabat and had arrived by way of Morlaas and Toulouse with their dead and wounded who they had transported on horseback, litters and carts to bury them in the cemetery of the Alyscans”.

Burgundy had been a separate realm in the Frankish domains from the fifth century, reaching from Troyes in the north as far as the Mediterranean. For a period in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, Arles had been assumed into the kingdom. Therein must lie an explanation for why the Burgundians might choose to bury their dead at Arles. The Alyscans would be the nearest important consecrated site within their own lands.

The confusion inherent in identifiying the heroes of early French epic legend precludes much solid conviction in distinguishing which paladins were of Burgundian origin.

Alyscans WP 002

Of those mentioned by name two, Sanson de Bourgogne and Auberi le Bourgouin bear the epithet of Burgundy. A third, Estout de Langres was a lord of the Burgundian domain.

Some were of the tradition represented by the cycle of the Chansons de Geste of Guillaume d’Orange set in Provence, such as Esturmi and Arnaud de Beaulande who, in Turpin’s account had killed the Saracen king Aigolandus at the battle of Pamplona.

These named paladins were illustrious figures in the early medieval imagination. According to the History, both Sanson de Bourgogne and Naimes of Bavaria led ten thousand men each into battle under Charlemagne. Yvorius was killed by the Saracen king of Saragossa, Marsilius.

The Tours Road to Santiago de Compostela was most redolent of the Roncevaux mythology, with its shrines at Saint Seurin, Blaye and Belin. With the tradition of the burials at the Alyscans, the Toulouse Road was also availed of its own martyrs who sprang from the same legendary source.

As the author of the Pilgrim’s Guide writes of the Alyscans, “In effect, the remains of numerous holy martyrs are resting there, while their souls rejoice already in the paradisiacal realm”.

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. 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. The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela Melczer Italica Press New York 1993. An abbot between two cultures: Maiolus of Cluny considers the Muslims of La Garde-Freinet. Scott G. Bruce, Early Medieval Europe Volume 15, Issue 4, pages 426–440, November 2007


The town of Belin was a natural way passage on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being as it was, on the Tours Road between Bordeaux and the Cize Pass over the Pyrenees.

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.

Mons-9-WPBoth 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.

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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.

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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.

Landes-River-Eyre-1-WPAll 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.

Mons-1-WPThe 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.

Landes-Mist-6-WPThat Belin would be chosen for such a momentous site, with no seeming poetic or propagandist premise seems unaccountable unless there were some historical basis.

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

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.

Blaye-5-WP

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