By Bernard S. Bachrach
Paper given at the Early Medieval Warfare session at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2011)
Professor Bachrach examined the famous 12th century poem The Song of Roland. The oldest surviving manuscript of this work is Digby 23 at the Bodleian Library, which is likely copied from an early 12th century manuscript (perhaps dating to the reign of Henry I). The 4000 line poem is written in Norman French, and Bachrach notes that the audience for this piece would have been nobles living in England and Normandy. They would have listened to the Song through a series of sessions, and would have been familiar with many of the scenes, such as the judicial matters.
Some scholars have suggested that the Song of Roland would have had an educational value for the young knights listening in – issues such as tactics and strategy are discussed, but Bachrach points out that in the poem the characters are often doing the wrong thing, a fact that would not have gone unnoticed by the more experienced soldiers who were part of the audience.
For example, in one scene from the Song of Roland the knights make a charge where the ride as fast as they can – this is not the proper way charges were done in warfare during the High Middle Ages. The author of the text even pointedly asks at this point, “What else could they do?” as if he was inviting his audience to note how charges and attacks should be done.
The Song of Roland also describes the Muslim army as dressed in heavy armour and riding large warhorses, while any knight who had taken part in the crusades whould have been well aware that Muslim soldiers were lightly armoured. The descriptions of Muslim being killed were also absurdly exaggerated, including the ones who were sliced in half by swords. Bachrach asks was the author of the Song simply ignorant, or was he giving cues to his audience to have them treat this story as being more of a comedy than a serious account?
Most telling for Bachrach is that the poem portrays Roland as a failure, who because of his recklessness was defeated and killed at Roncevaux. He was heroic in killing many of the Muslims in this battle, but Bachrach explains that the goal of warfare was not to kill as many enemies as possible, but to win.
For Bachrach, the Song of Roland reads more like a satire, where the heroes cannot fight properly and make crucial mistakes ending in their deaths. He adds that these main characters were French, and that the Norman audience would have seen these people as their enemies – so it might not be unsurprising that the work may actually have been a satire meant to poke fun at the bumbling French, much to the amusement of the Normans.