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L'Isle-5-WPThe city of Bordeaux was a major halt on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. It was on the Tours Road, which led through western France via, Tours, Poitiers and Saintes.

Bordeaux was the metropolitan see of Aquitaine, a domain which at the time stretched from the Loire all the way to the Pyrenees.

The abbey of Saint Seurin held numerous important relics for pilgrims to venerate. In addition to the Olifant of Roland and the Frankish warrior martyrs of Roncevaux there was the tomb of the city’s illustrious saint which was located in an imposing setting in the crypt.

Saint-Seurin-3-WPThe saint’s sarcophagous was elevated high off the ground on a series of columns. It was said that the candles that burned there, miraculously lit themselves without human agency.

The relics were guarded by a chapter of canons of the Rule of Saint Augustine. It was this same monastic order, which presided over the other notable reliquary sites on this road, which perpetuated the legacy of the Roncevaux legend at Saint Romain de Blaye and Notre Dame de Roncevaux.

Severinus had been a holy man in the early years of the fifth century.

St-Seurin-19-WPAccording to his legend there was, at that time a bishop of Bordeaux named Amandus. In a vision Christ appeared to him and ordained Amandus to go out of the city and he would meet a holy man on the road who came from the East. Amandus duly went out and met Severinius.

Immediately, Amandus recognised the sanctity of the stranger, and brought him into the city in great ceremony. Soon after he relinquished his position as bishop and placed Severinus in his stead, deeming him more worthy.

St-Seurin-10-WPAfter his death Severinus was buried in an oratory outside the city walls in Bordeaux’s Late Antique necropolis. A cult developed around the relics and Severinus was said to have performed numerous posthumous miracles. He came to be regarded as the patron and protector of Bordeaux.

A church was built over the tomb where the inhabitants would gather whenever their city was threatened by natural or manmade disaster, offering prayers to Severinus.

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The saint of Bordeaux’s miracles were celebrated and in the sixth century both Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours wrote of them.

According to Gregory, the citizens “knew that whenever their city was either invaded by an illness or besieged by some enemy or disrupted by some feud, they would immediately be delivered.”

When the region was attacked by Goths a few years after Severinus’ death, the saint caused a miraculous fog to descend, which protected the people from attack.

The saint protected Bordeaux at various times from flooding caused by a torrential rain, plague and drought.

The Pilgrim’s Guide admonished that, “In the city of Bordeaux one should visit the remains of the Blessed Seurin, bishop and confessor”.

Biblio: Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Confessors, Trans R. Vandam, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1990. 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

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 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.

Verona-Olivier-1-WP

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

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 whose martyrdom at the battle of Roncevaux 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 event as though it were a historical event.

At that time, San Millán, was an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.

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.

Charlemagne-Angouleme-1-WP

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

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