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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

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as well as linking so many reliquary shrines along its highways and byways, was also the source of numerous legends of a mystical nature and the terrestrial road itself, was invested with an inherent and immanent sacred character. This is perfectly expressed in the legend of the Milky Way, wherein the road to Compostela could be traced by following the course of the stars of that galaxy across Europe to its furthest edge in northwestern Spain.lsj-milky-way-1

The legend of the shrine of Saint James at Compostela familiar to medieval pilgrims is most likely the one described in the History of Charlemagne and Roland which originally was included in the Codex of Calixtus, the twelfth century manuscript devoted to the cult of the Apostle.

According to this story, Charlemagne was visited in a dream by Saint James who urged him to liberate his forgotten tomb from the Saracens who then occupied the land. Follow the course of the stars of the Milky Way, the emperor was counselled by the apparition of the Apostle, to its end in Galicia and there he would there find the abandoned burial ground containing the saint’s body.

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The pilgrim road mirrored the heavens on earth. The stars of the night sky representing the saints ascended to the celestial realm, were reflected on earth by their shrines where the remains of their physical bodies were kept as relics. Conduits between Heaven and Earth. The myriad numbers of reliquary shrines along the pilgrim roads corresponded to the Milky Way, which Charlemagne was ordained to follow so that it might lead him to the lost tomb of one of the mightiest saints of the heavenly firmament, James the Apostle.

charlemagnes-dreamHeeding the call of the Saint, Charlemagne set forth for Spain. The Holy Roman Emperor’s army took the road over the Pyrenees and besieged the Saracen town of Pamplona. Echoing the feats of the Israelites  at Jericho, the thunder of the Frankish trumpets caused the walls of the city to crumble to dust.

Charlemagne, his twelve Paladins and his army of Frankish warriors, liberated the road to Compostela and took possession of Saint James’ tomb at Compostela, the emperor constructing the first church above it.

Conques and Compostela formed an alliance early on. There has been much debate among medieval historians regarding the influence held by the great Burgundian abbey of Cluny over the political and religious life of Christian Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, particularly regarding the development of the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela.

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Less often mentioned is that of the southern French abbey of Sainte Foy at Conques.

Both Cluny and the independent Benedictine abbey of Conques were sponsors of the Reconquista and as towns fell to the Christians it was their monks who rose to occupy the new episcopal sees and found priories on the newly conquered lands.

When the taifa city of Barbastro finally fell in 1100 to the forces led by the Aragonese king Pedro Ist, he appointed Pons, an erstwhile monk of Conques to the newly created bishopric.

Conques-Cloister-WP-1The northern Hispanic kings benefitted from Cluny’s closeness to Rome and its ability to send out its monks to reform monastic communities. Cluny also benefitted from the relationship in the form of the massive financial contribution it received from Alfonso VI for the building of its great abbey church.

What was of equal or possibly greater interest to the authorities in Galicia, however, was that Conques was a monastic centre in a remote location and the cult of its miracle working relic had been spectacularly transformed into a pan-European phenomenon.

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As a result, Conques’ influence on the Galcian shrine was more cultural, expressed largely in the fields of architecture and sculpture.

It’s abbey church was the prototype for the four other great pilgrimage churches which all began construction in the last quarter of the eleventh century, including the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

These churches featured side aisles along the nave and transept with an ambulatory around the apse allowing pilgrims to process continuously without interrupting the liturgical programme.

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When construction began at Compostela on the new cathedral in 1077, builders and sculptors from Conques were called upon.

Of all the evidence of a connection between Conques and Compostela the most obvious is the striking similarity between the figures carved on the great stone porch sculptures at the two shrines.

Although, separated by almost seven hundred and fifty miles, it is scarcely believable that the same hand was not responsible for both the twin tympana over the Puerta de las Platerías and the great west porch at Conques.

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Most probably the Conques master accomplished his work in Galicia before returning to France, as the monumental sculpture at Compostela dates from the years 1101-3, in other words, at the very birth of the large scale sculptural ensembles which were to come later.

The influence of Conques on Santiago was experienced in another way. This was in the development and transmission of legendary material which enhanced the prestige of the shrine as a pilgrimage destination.

Conques-Manuscript-WP-1A key figure in this process was Pierre d’Andouque, occasionally referred to as Pedro de Roda. Originally a novice at Conques, Pierre had subsequently been a monk  at the Languedocian abbey of Saint Pons de Thomières. He was was elected to the see of Pamplona in 1082.

Conques claimed its foundation from Charlemagne. Its treasury contained a reliquary known as the A of Charlemagne. According to legend the emperor had given each of his monastic foundations a similar reliquary in the form of a letter of the alphabet. Conques-Charlemagne's-A-WPConques had received the gold and gem encrusted reliquary, allegedly shaped in the form of an A and intended as a symbolic reference to the preeminent position the abbey held in Charlemagne’s esteem.

In 1101  Pierre d’Andouque, along with Pons of Barbastro obtained a donation of a church, almshouse and estate at Roncevaux, just below the Cize Pass over the Pyrenees on the Spanish side. These were then transferred to Conques which established a dependent priory and hospital overseen by the monks of Sainte Foy.

Roncesvalles-WP-3How and when this site was determined to be the location of the climactic scene of the Roland legend will remain difficult to confirm with any certainty.

This route would become the most popular pilgrim road over the mountains and references to the passage of Charlemagne’s armies are scattered throughout the text of the Pilgrims’ Guide.

A chapel was built over the only attribute of the legend which remained in situ, the rock on which Roland had attempted to break his sword Durendal.

Roland and Roncevaux were integral components in the Charlemagne mythology. They became the decisive element in that narrative which claimed the emperor as liberator and founder of the shrine of Compostela.

It was a fusion of history and geography which transformed the pilgrimage road from a simple terrestrial highway into a hallowed space.

historia-turpini-1This legend found its fullest expression in the fourth volume of the Book of Saint James, the History of Charlemagne and Roland, a manuscript composed under the pseudonym of Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin, but which commentators believe can be attributed to an author from Navarre within the French circle of Pierre d’Andouque during his time as bishop of Pamplona.

Pierre d’Andouque was present at Compostela when the absidial chapels were consecrated in 1105 and one, dedicated to Sainte Foy, he consecrated himself.

Sources and Biblio: Les Origines Méridionales de la Chanson de Roland, Frédéric de Gournay, Cahiers de St-Michel de Cuxa, XXXII, 2001

Une Abbaye de Pelerinage: Sainte-Foy de Conques et ses rapports avec Saint-Jacques. Georges Gaillard Compostellanum Sección des Estudios Jacobeos, 1965

 Etude sur les sculptures de Sainte-Foy de Conques et de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse et leurs relations avec celles de Saint-Isidore de Léon et de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. Paul Deschamps

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. 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 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.

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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

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