Skip navigation

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”.

In 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”

San-Zeno-Warriors-WP-1Charlemagne 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 defeat 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

Roncevaux stood at a pivotal point on the pilgrimage road to Compostela both in spatial and also sacred terms. The story of the great battle which was fought there was told and retold.

Roncevalles-19

Located adjacent to the highest mountain in the Pyrenees as it was then believed, it was the first significant point on the Spanish side of the mountains. The mountains had marked the frontier between Christendom and Islam which in the early middle ages, carried the weight of momentous Apocalyptic import.

When the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi stated that Ephesus was on the right hand of Christ’s earthly kingdom and Compostela on the left, it was Roncevaux and Roland’s sacrifice which had made pilgrimage there possible. It was the Vale of Thorns, the site of the necessary sacrifice.

According to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, the story begins when the Franks having succesfully conquered Moorish Spain, stop at Pamplona en route to their homeland.

Roncevaux-22-WPThe nearby city of Saragossa was ruled by two Saracen kings, Marsilius and Beligrand who are nominally Charlemagne’s subjects, although their loyalty is feigned.

The Frankish count, Ganelon acting as Charlemagne’s emissary presents an ultimatum to the two rulers: convert to Christianity or pay tribute. Ganelon then hatches a treacherous plot. Between them, they arrange that Marsilius will pretend to agree to rejoin Charlemagne in France in order to be baptised but he will betray his promise and attack the Frankish rearguard after the main body of the army has gone on ahead.

roncesvalles-1

Ganelon persuades Charlemagne to leave Roland and his close companion Olivier in charge of the rearguard where they will be prey to the planned Saracen ambush.

Dividing their force in two, the Saracens attack first with twenty thousand men. Battle rages all night before the Franks have defeated their enemy. Exhausted, the Christian warriors cannot withstand a second onslaught of thirty thousand Saracens which now comes down on them.

Olivier is flayed alive and only a small handful of Franks remain standing. Among them, Roland who captures a Saracen and forces him to identify Marsilius who he then kills.

Beligrand and the other Saracens now retreat.

Walking to the foot of the Cize Pass, Roland tries to smash his sword Durendal against a boulder in order to prevent the mighty weapon falling into the hands of the enemy. The sword is too strong and cannot be broken and only the rock is split apart.

Roncevaux-11-WP

Now in an attempt to recall Charlemagne and the body of the Frankish army, Roland sounds his horn, the elephant ivory Olifant but the ferocity with which he blows the trumpet forces it to split in half and for the veins and nerves in his head to burst leaving him mortally wounded.

Hearing the sound of the Olifant in the valley below, Charlemagne is prevented from going to his aid by further treachery from Ganelon who insists that Roland is merely out hunting.

Dying, Roland prays and confesses before his soul is carried by angels to heaven.

Chartres-Roland-horn-WP

Knowledge of Roland’s plight finally reaches the Emperor when Baudoin arrives with the news. Charlemagne immediately sets out for Roncevaux but arrives too late.

Grief stricken, the Emperor now takes his revenge and takes off in pursuit of the Saracens. The sun stands still for three days until the Franks reach the remaining Saracens, destroying them on the banks of the Ebro river near Saragossa.

When rumours of Ganelon’s treachery are heard a duel is arranged in order to ascertain his guilt. Theoderic acting as Charlemagne’s champion kills Pinabel who stands in for Ganelon, who is now quartered and dragged to his death by horses.

The Franks now take their fallen comrades back to France to bury them in sacred sites.

Conques-Angel-Trumpet

The account of the battle of Roncevaux forms one chapter, albeit a vital one in Turpin’s History. The Song of Roland devotes its whole narrative to the legend, rendering its Apocalyptic dimension with greater emphasis.

This is most evident in the episode of the Olifant.

Despite Olivier’s pleas, Roland refuses to blow his horn to summon Charlemagne to his aid until it is too late.

When he does, it can be heard thirty leagues away but now it is merely to recall Charlemagne so that their bodies will be buried according to Christian rite and that the Franks will avenge the deaths of the warriors of the rearguard.

Platerias-Angel-Trumpeter

From the Old Testament Book of Exodus, when it was the prelude to Moses’ vision of God on Mount Sinai up to Revelation, when the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse unleash retribution on those who have failed to heed the Word of God, the trumpet was associated with the voice of God.

When Roland sounds his trumpet it is to unleash the retribution of Charlemagne on the Saracens. The force of his trumpet call causes his blood vessels to burst. It has become an act of submission on the part of the Frankish hero to the Divine power and so the cause of his death and martyrdom

Moissac-Hornblower001

In the final battle against the forces of Baligant, the Olifant is carried as a standard at the head of Charlemagne’s Christian army.

On the crenellations of the fortified belltower of the abbey of Moissac, above the great tympanum of the Apocalypse, a stone carved representation of a lone warrior stands facing the Pyrenees. He is sounding an elephant ivory horn.

Biblio: SG Nichols Romanesque Signs Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University. 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.  Les Crenellages du Clocher-Porche de Moissac et leur restauration par Viollet-le-Duc, M Durliat 1966 Annales du Midi 78 pp 433-447

The façade of Santa Maria Matricolare, the twelfth century cathedral of Verona, is remarkable for the two figures which appear as sentinels guarding the entrance to the church: the Frankish heroes of Roncevaux, Roland and his companion Olivier. They are placed below a tympanum which depicts the Virgin and Child, with mounted Magi to one side and the Annunciation to the Shepherds on the other. Columnar figures adorning the jambs on either side of the doorway are the prophets holding scrolls containing passages from a sermon which in the middle ages, was ascribed to Saint Augustine.

Verona-Roland-5-WP

The fame of Roland in the twelfth century was a Europe wide phenomenon of the Crusading era but there are very few depictions of the hero in Romanesque sculptural art. At Verona, there are two: one at Santa Maria and the other at the basilica of San Zeno.

Located on the northern flanks of the Po valley where it met the Adige river, Verona was a strategically vital intersection of three great roads.

Verona-Roland-WP-2

The Via Claudia Augusta which led from the Adriatic over the Alps and the Via Postumia, which connected the Mediterranean at Genoa with Aquileia. At Verona they met the Via Gallica which led northwest towards the Alps and France.

Crucial events in the legend of the Roman Empire were played out at Verona. It was there, in 489 that the Ostrogoth king Theoderic defeated the Roman puppet ruler Odoacer, an event which was perhaps the defining moment in the end of the Western Empire.

At Verona almost three hundred years later in 774, the Lombards made their last stand against the future Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne who had been requested by Pope Hadrian to come to his aid. Lombardy was thereafter assumed into the Frankish domains and Charlemagne’s son Pepin was crowned king of Italy.

Verona-Olivier-4-WPOne of the more obscure chapters in the History of Charlemagne and Roland is an addendum which mentions Roland besieging the city of Grenoble. In the tenth century that city had been captured by the Saracens who were based in Provence at Fraxinet and who used Grenoble as a base to control the Alpine passes connecting France and Italy.

The Grenoble episode of the History is set at a time which antedates the main narrative of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition.

The siege of Grenoble is broken when the city walls crumble after Roland has prayed for intercession in a way which is reminiscent of Pamplona and of course Jericho. This episode presumably derives from other legendary material concerning exploits of Roland away from Spain from sources which also fed into the epic poem l’Entrée en Espagne which deals with Roland in Persia and elsewhere.

Verona-Olivier-5-WPIn 1127 lay monks were replaced in Verona by Augustinian Canons. Saint Zeno, the eighth bishop and patron of Verona was known for two important legacies. One of these was his encouragement of the canonical life among the clergy.

In the early twelfth century the Order of Augustinian Canons Regular was a promoter of the cult of all things Carolingian, especially that of Roland. His burial site at Blaye, the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux which held his Olifant and the church at Roncevaux were all maintained by Augustinians.

Saint Zeno’s other legacy was converting the local people away from the Arian heresy which had been prevalent in the area, athough this may be more of an anachronistic consequence of the memory of the Arianism of Theoderic’s Lombard rule

Verona-Prophets-1-WPThe sermon attributed to Augustine which is displayed by the sculpted prophets on either side of the doorway was largely an apology for the Trinity. This was what was denied by the Arians. In the twelfth century, Islam was seen as a heresy not dissimilar to Arianism in that it did not recognise the divinity of Christ but regarded him merely as a prophet.

Through his debate with the Saracen giant Ferracutus in the History of Charlemagne and Roland, Roland was not only a crusading knight but also a recognised defender of the Trinitarian concept.

Verona-Durindarda-WPAt Verona, the Franks’ historical role as secular defenders of the faith is given a powerful visual interpretation as Charlemagne’s two most illustrious paladins guard the way to the church. As heroes of an epic battle against the Saracens, the force of the Church militant is exemplified by Roland and Olivier and the sword which bares the inscription “Durindarda”. This was the sword Roland wielded at Roncevaux, Durendal and the precious relics contained within its hilt, which he strove to destroy lest it fall into the hands of the infidel. Three times he smashed it against a boulder, only for the boulder to break apart instead. At Verona, the tip rests against a palm frond, symbol of martyrdom and a potent image in the Crusading era.

Sources and Biblio: La Chanson de Roland dans le décor des églises du XIIe siècle, Deborah Kahn, Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 1997 Volume 40

Vénétie Romane, Gianna Suitner-Nicolini, La Nuit des Temps Zodiaque 1991

Sermon Against Jews, Pagans and Arians, Concerning the Creed, Trans EN Stone Inviersity of Washington Publications in Language and Literature Vol. 4 No. 3 pp. 195-214 March 1928

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 has 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-WP-3The 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. 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 is focussed on directing attention to the sites. The account in Turpin’s History is written from a purportedly contemporaneous perspective and emphasises the connection between Roncevaux and the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. It recounts events concerning Charlemagne’s fourteen year Spanish expedition whose climax is 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 Saragossa.

This 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 such interpretations and objections misunderstand 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

Italica Press, who have previously published translations of the Pilgrim’s Guide and the Miracles of Saint James have recently announced a new translation of Book IV of the Book of Saint James, the Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin by Yale University Assistant Professor of Spanish and Medieval Studies, Kevin R. Poole. This is the account of the legend of Saint James and Charlemagne.

http://www.italicapress.com/index463.html

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers