1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Roland, Legend of
ROLAND, LEGEND OF. The legend of the French epic hero Roland (transferred to Italian romance as Orlando) is based on authentic history. Charlemagne invaded Spain in 778, and had captured Pampeluna, but failed before Saragossa, when the news of a Saxon revolt recalled him to the banks of the Rhine. On his retreat to France through the defiles of the Pyrenees, part of his army was cut off from the main body by the Basques, who had ambushed in a narrow defile, and now drove the rearguard into a valley where it was surrounded and entirely destroyed. The Basques, after plundering the baggage, made good their escape, favoured by the darkness and by their knowledge of the ground. The incident is related in the Annales (Pertz i. 159) commonly ascribed to Einhard, and with more detail in Einhard's Vita Karoli (cap. ix.; Pertz ii. 448), where the names of the leaders are given. “ In this battle were slain Eggihard, praepositus of the royal table; Anselm, count of the palace; and Hruodland, praefect of the Breton march .... ” The scene of the disaster is fixed by tradition at Roncevaux, on the road from Pampeluna to Saint Jean Pied de Port. There is no foundation in this story for the fiction of the twelve peers, which may possibly arise from a still earlier, tradition. In 636–37, according to the Chronicles of Fredegarius (ed. Krusch p. 159), twelve chiefs, whose names are given, were sent by Dagobert against the Basques. The expedition was successful, but in an engagement fought in the valley of Subola, or Robola, identified with Mauléon, which is not far from Roncevaux, the Duke Harembert, with other Frankish chiefs, was slain. Later fights in the same neighbourhood and under similar circumstances are related in 813 (Vita Hludowici; Pertz ii. 616), and especially in 824 (Einhard's Annales; Pertz i. 213). These incidents no doubt served to strengthen the tradition of the disaster to Charlemagne's rear-guard in 778, the importance of which was perhaps underrated by the Frankish historians and was certainly magnified in popular story. The author of the Vita Hludowici, writing sixty years after the battle of Roncevaux, thought it superfluous to give the names of the fallen chiefs, as being matter of common report.
Growth of the Legend.—The choice of Roland or Hruodland as the hero of the story probably points to the borders of French Brittany as the home of the legend. The exaggeration of a rear-guard action into a national defeat; the substitution of a vast army of Saracens, the enemies of the Frankish nation and the Christian faith, for the border tribe mentioned by Einhard; and the vengeance inflicted by Charlemagne, where in fact the enemy escaped with complete impunity-all are in keeping with the general laws of romance. Charlemagne himself appears as the ancient epic monarch, not as the young man he really was in 778. The earliest version of the legend which we possess dates no earlier than the 11th century, but there is abundant evidence of the existence of a continuous tradition dating from the original event, although its methods of transmission remain a vexed question. Roncevaux lay on the route to Compostella, and the many pilgrims who must have passed the site from the middle of the 9th century onwards may have helped to spread the story. Whether the actual cantilena Rollandi chanted by Taillefer at the battle of Hastings (William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum angl. iii. 242, and Wace, Brut. ii. 11, 8035 seq.) was any part of the existing Chanson de Roland cannot be stated, but the choice of the legend on this occasion by the trouvère is proof of its popularity.
The oldest extant forms of the legend are: (a) chapters xix.-xxx. of the Latin chronicle, known as the Pseudo-Turpin, which purports to be the work of Turpin, archbishop of Reims, who died about 800, but probably dates from the 12th century; (b) Carmen de proditione Guenonis, a poem in Latin distichs; and (c) the Chanson de Roland, a French chanson de geste of about 4000 lines, the oldest recension of which is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS. Digby 23). It is in assonance tirades, of unequal length, many of them terminated with the refrain Aoi. This MS. was written by an Anglo-Norman scribe about the end of the 12th century, and is a corrupt copy of a text by a French trouvére of the middle of the 11th century. It concludes with the words: “Ci falt la geste, que Turoldus declinet.” There was a Turold (d. 1098) who was abbot of Peterborough; another was tutor to William the Conqueror and died in 1035. Even if we could identify this personage, we cannot tell whether he was the poet, the minstrel or the scribe of the MS., but it seems likely that he was merely the scribe. The poem, which was first printed by Francisque Michel (Oxford, 1837), is the finest monument of the heroic age of French epic. In its fundamental features it evidently dates back to the reign of Charlemagne, who is not represented as the capricious despot of the later chansons de geste, but as governing in accordance with Frankish custom, accepting the counsel of his barons, and carrying out the curious procedure of Frankish law. Roland represents the monarchical idea, and was evidently, in its primitive form, written before the feudal revolts which weakened the power of Charlemagne's successors. Its unity of conception, the severity and conciseness of the language, the directness, vividness and sobriety of the narrative, place it far above the chansons of later trouvères, with their wordiness and their loose, episodic construction. With the exception of the small place allotted to Alde, women have practically no place in the story, and the romantic element is thus absent. Roland's master-passions are daring and an exaggerated conception of honour, the extravagance of which is the cause of the disaster. His address to Oliver before the battle is typical of the warlike spirit of the poem:-
"Notre empereur qui ses Francs nous laissa,
Tels vingt mille hommes a pour nous mis à part,
Qu'il sait très bien que pas un n'est couard.
Pour son seigneur grands maux on souffrira,
Terribles froids, grands chauds endurera,
Et de son sang, de sa chair on perdra!
Brandis ta lance; et moi, ma Durendal,
Ma bonne épée, que le Roi me donna.
Et si je meurs, peut dire qui l'aura
C'était l'épée d'un très noble vassal."
(tr. Petit de Julleville xi. 1114 seq.)
The Story as related in the Chanson de Roland.—Charlemagne, after fighting for seven years in Spain, had conquered the whole country with the exception of Saragossa, the seat of the Saracen king Marsile. He was encamped before Cordova when he received envoys from the Saracen king, sent to procure the evacuation of Spain by the Franks through false offers of submission. Charlemagne held a council of his barons, Naimes of Bavaria, Roland, Oliver, Turpin, Ogier, Ganelon and the rest. Roland, the emperor's nephew, was eager for war; the peace party was headed by Ganelon of Mayence. The Franks were weary of campaigning, and Ganelon's counsels won the day. At the suggestion of Roland, Ganelon, who was his stepfather, was entrusted with the embassy to Marsile—a sufficiently perilous errand, since two former envoys had been beheaded by the Saracens. Ganelon, inspired by hatred of Roland and Oliver, agreed with Marsile to betray Roland and his comrades for ten mule-loads of gold. He then returned to Charlemagne bearing Marsile's supposed assent to the Frankish terms. The retreat began. Roland, at Ganelon's instigation, was placed in command of the rear-guard. With him were the rest of the famous twelve peers, his companions-in-arms, Oliver, Gérin, Gérier, Oton, Bérengier, Samson, Anséis, Girard de Roussillon, Engelier the Gascon, Ivon and Ivoire, and the flower of the Frankish army. They had nearly reached the summit of the pass when Oliver, who had mounted a high rock, saw the advancing army of the Saracens, 400,000 strong. In vain Oliver begged Roland to sound his horn and summon Charlemagne to his aid. A description of the battle, a series of single combats, follows. Oliver, with his sword Hauteclère, rivalled Roland with Durendal. After the first fight, a second division of the pagan army appears, then a third. Roland's army was reduced to sixty men before he consented to sound his horn. Presently all were slain but Roland and Oliver, Turpin and another. Finally, when the Saracens, warned of the return of Charlemagne, had retreated, Roland alone survived on the field of battle. With a last effort he blew his horn once more, and heard before he died the sound of Charlemagne's battle cry of “ Montjoie." Charlemagne pursued the enemy, and destroyed their army. The raising of a second army by Baligant, the emir of Babylon, and its defeat by the emperor, who slays Baligant in single combat, is obviously an interpolation in the original narrative. The trouvère then relates the return of the Franks, the burial of the heroes of Roncevaux, and, at great length, the trial of Ganelon at Aix, his execution, and that of his thirty kinsmen, and the death of Alde, Roland's betrothed and Oliver's sister, when she heard the news of Roland's death. The trial of Ganelon is one of the most curious parts of the story, providing, as it does, a full account of the Frankish criminal procedure.
Relations between the Earlier Forms of the Legend.—The Pseudo-Turpin represents a different recension of the story, and is throughout clerical in tone. It was the trouvère of the Chanson de Roland who developed the characters into epic types; he invented the heroic friendship of Roland and Oliver, the motives of Ganelon's treachery, and many other details. The famous fight between Roland and the giant Ferragus appears in the Pseudo-Turpin (chapter xviii.), but not in the poem. The Chanson de Roland presupposes the existence of a whole cycle of epic poetry, probably in episodic form; it contains allusions to many events outside the narrative, some of which can be explained from other existing chansons, while others refer to narratives which are lost. In lines 590–603 of the poem Roland gives a list of the countries he has conquered for Charles, from Constantinople and Hungary on the east to Scotland on the west. Of most of these exploits no trace remains in extant poems, but his capture of Bordeaux, of Nobles, of Carcassonne, occur in various compilations. Roland was variously represented by the romancers as the son of Charlemagne's sister Gilles or Berte and the knight Milon d'Anglers. The romantic episode of the reconciliation of the pair with Charlemagne through Roland's childish prattle (Berte et Milon) is probably foreign to the original legend. In the Scandinavian versions Roland is the son of Charlemagne and his sister, a recital probably borrowed from mythology. His enfances, or youthful exploits, were, according to Aspremont, performed in Italy against the giant Eaumont, but in Girais de Viane his first taste of battle is under the walls of Vienne, where Oliver, at first his adversary, becomes his brother-in-arms.
Other Versions.—Most closely allied to the Oxford Roland are (a) a version in Italianized French preserved in a 13th or 14th century MS. in the library of St Mark, Venice (MS. Fr. iv.); (b) the Ruolantes Liet (ed. W. Grimm, Göttingen, 1838) of the Swabian priest Konrad (fl. 1130), who gave, however, a pious tone to the whole; (c) the 8th branch of the Karlamagnus-saga (ed. C. Unger, Christiania, 1860), and the Danish version of that compilation.
In the 12th century the Chanson de Roland was modernized by replacing the assonance by rhyme, and by amplifications and additions. Several MSS. of this rhymed recension, sometimes known as Roncevaux, are preserved. In the prose compilations of Galien and in David Aubert's Conquêtes de Charlemagne (1458) the story kept its popularity for many centuries. In England the story was understood in the original French, and the English romances of Charlemagne (q.v.) are mostly derived from late and inferior sources. In Spain the legend underwent a curious transformation. Spanish patriotism created a Spanish ally of Marsile, Bernard del Carpio, to be the rival and victor of Roland. It was in Italy that the Roland legend had its greatest fortune: Charlemagne and Roland appear in the Paradiso (canto xviii.) of Dante; the statues of Roland and Oliver appear on the doorway of the cathedral of Verona; and the French chansons de geste regularly appeared in a corrupt ltalianized French. The Roland legend passed through a succession of revisions, and, as the Spagna, forming the 8th book of the great compilation of Carolingian romance, the Reali di Francia, kept its popularity down to the Renaissance. The story of Roland (Orlando) in a greatly modified form is the subject of the poems of Luigi Pulci (Morgante Maggiore, 1481), of Matteo Boiardo (Orlando innamorato, 1486), of Ariosto (Orlando furioso, 1516), and of Francesco Berni (Orlando, 1541).
Authorities. For a complete bibliography of the editions of the various MSS. of the Chanson de Roland, of the foreign versions, and of the enormous literature of the subject, see Léon Gautier, Les Epopées françaises (2nd ed., vol. iii., 1880), and the same author's Bibliographie des chansons de geste (1897). Among critical editions of the Chanson are those by Wendelin Foerster in the Altfranz. Bibliotek, vols. vi. and vii. (Heilbronn, 1883–86), and by E. Stengel, Das altfranzösische Rolandslied (Leipzig, 1900, &c.). The most popular edition is La Chanson de Roland (Tours, 1872, and numerous subsequent editions). by Léon Gautier, with text, translation, introduction, notes, variants and glossary. L. Petit de Julleville published in 1878 an edition with the old French text, an a modern French translation in assonance verse. There are various other translations in French; in English prose by I. Butler (Boston, Mass., 1904); and a partial English verse translation by A. Way and F. Spencer (London, 1895). Consult further G. Paris, Hist. poét. de Charlemagne (reprint, 1905), and De Pseudo Turpino (Paris, 1865); P. Rajna, Le Origini dell' epopea francese (Florence, 1884) and Le Fonti dell' Orlando Furioso (2nd ed., Florence, 1900); F. Picco, Rolando nella storia e nella poesia (Turin, 1901); G. Paris, “ Roncevaux," in Légendes du moyen âge (1903), on the topography of the battlefield.
- It is noteworthy, however, that an Arab historian, Ibn-al-Athir, states that Charles's assailants were the Arabs of Saragossa, by whom he had been originally invited to interfere in Spain.
- Ganelon may perhaps be identified with Wenilo, archbishop of Sens, whose treason against Charles the Bald is related in the Annales Bertiniani (anno 859).
- The lists vary in different texts.
- A proof of the popularity of the legend in Germany is supplied by the so-called Roland statues, of which perhaps the most famous example is that of Bremen. Mention of a statua Rolandi is made in a privilegium granted by Henry V. to the town of Bremen in 1111. The Rolands-säule were probably symbolic of the judicial rights possessed by the towns where they are found, and it has been suggested that the word arises from false etymology with Rothland-säule, red-land-pillar, the symbol of the possession of the power of life and death.