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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.

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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.

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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 corroborated by attending the shrine of a martyr. 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.

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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.

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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

 

The History of Charlemagne and Roland recounts how the emperor and his Frankish army, returning after their victorious campaign to liberate Spain and the shrine of Compostela, were challenged by Furra, king of Navarre at a place called Monjardin.

Monjardin-WP-1The pilgrimage road between Estella and Najera near Los Arcos passes between the Sierra Montejurra to the south and the steep eminence of mount Monjardin immediately to the north. Monjardin dominates the road and the countryside for miles around. At its crown is the old castle of San Esteban de Deio which played a vital role in the Reconquest of Navarre in the very early tenth century.

Captured from the Saracens by Sancho Garcia Ist in 908, the Navarrese Christians were then able to use it as a base to control the valley of the Rio Ega and then advance south of the Ebro. Monjardin-WP-3When the Moors returned in force under Abderrahman III and razed Pamlona in 924, only the defensive position of Monjardin was able to resist.

The survival of Monjardin was attributed to a legendary cross which miraculously appeared during battle. The cross came to be venerated by the local populace who covered it in silver and can be seen to this day in the church of Villamayor de Monjardin.

When Charlemagne accepted the king of Navarre’s challenge at Monjardin, he prayed on the eve of battle to know which of his men were to be slain the next day. “Charlemagne therefore prepared for battle, but desiring to know who should perish in it, he entreated the Lord to show him”. In the morning these were miraculously designated by ”a red cross which appeared on their shoulders behind”.

The emperor ordered that these men should be confined to a chapel and the fight should take place without them. Monjardin-WP-2Furra and three thousand of his army were killed, “these were all Saracens of Navarre”. Although victorious,  Charlemagne was dismayed to find on his return to the chapel that all those held inside were now dead, their status as martyrs was not to be denied. “Christian warriors” declared the emperor, ”though the sword slew you not, yet did you not lose the palm of victory or the prize of martyrdom”.

The castle of San Esteban de Deio was renamed Monte Gargiani in memory of Sancho Garcia Ist, who was buried in the chapel of the castle. When in 1090 the town of Estella was founded by Sancho Ramirez king of Aragon and the French bishop of Pamplona, Pierre d’Andouque, Monjardin’s defensive role was revived, this time as a bastion between the competing interests of Aragon and Navarre and the strategic role of the pilgrimage road. Monte Gargiani was renamed Monjardin.

Biblio:  Dom L-M Lojendio, Navarre Romane ed. Zodiaque

Rio-CeaSahagún stood firmly on the pilgrimage road which traversed bridges on either side of the town.

It was here that, according to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, the Frankish army fought a pivotal battle in its campaign to liberate Spain.

On the banks of the Cea, Charlemagne faced the Saracen army of Aigolando in a lengthy contest. As at Monjardin and ultimately, Roncevaux, the battle of Sahagún developed the theme of the martyrdom of the Christian warrior which runs through the whole narrative.

Sahagun-Chartres-WP-1“Then did this miracle happen. Certain of the Christians who carefully had been furbishing their arms against the day of battle, fixed their spears in the evening erect in the ground before the castle in the meadow, near the river and found them early in the morning covered with bark and branches”.

The spears, dead wood returning to living wood were alluding to the afterlife in Paradise and Christ as the Vine, a common image in Romanesque sculpture. The miracle of the spears was also part of the continuing process of denoting the Franks as God’s chosen people, taking its source from the story of Aaron’s rod in the Book of Numbers.

In that Old Testament account, the overnight flowering of the rod signified the preeminence of the House of Levi among the twelve tribes of Israel, marking them out as being the only ones to be elected to the priesthood.

Espalion-Rider-1In the crusading era the epic legend of Charlemagne and Roland exalted the role of the Christian warrior to a privileged position whose death in battle would guarantee election to Paradise, where they might join that other caste in the tripartite division of medieval society, the priests and monks. An equation was thus made between the priestly caste of the Old Testament House of Levi and the medieval warrior martyr.

The Frankish warriors cut their spears to the ground, but the vine continued to flourish. They eventually grew into tall trees which, the legend assures us, could still be seen by pilgrims in twelfth century.

In the ensuing battle forty thousand Christians were slain including the general Milo, father of Roland. Reinforcements of soldiers from Italy, caused Aigolando to retreat to León and Charlemagne then returned towards France.

The Pilgrims Guide informs us also of Sahagún that, “Next to the town there are wooded meadows in which, as one is told, the planted poles of the warrior’s lances bloom”.

 

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