Holy War in The Song of Roland: The ‘Mythification’ of History

Holy War in The Song of Roland: The “Mythification” of History

By Mark Dominik

Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol.2 (2003)

The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460.

Abstract: In 778, Charlemagne and his army invaded Spain in an attempt to depose the Emir and replace him with a Muslim who would serve as a vassal to the Frankish king. Although the campaign achieved some measure of success, as the Frankish troops were returning to France over the Pyrenees, their rear-guard was attacked and massacred by an army of Basques. When Charles and the main body of the army returned, they found their companions dead, and found no sign of whither the Basques had fled. This campaign, over time, became firmly entrenched in the mentality of the French people. Around 1095, the year in which the First Crusade was launched, we find the first extant version of the great French epic, The Song of Roland, in which the campaign is rewritten. No longer is it a political maneuver, but it has become a holy war, waged against the Muslims of Spain, with Charlemagne returning victorious at the call of his rear guard to vanquish his foes. This paper was originally titled “Guerre sainte dans La Chanson de Roland: La ‘mythification’ de l’histoire.” It was translated by Mark Dominik for this publication.

Introduction: In The Song of Roland, the French epic written down in the last years of the 11th century, good and evil are clearly delineated and understood. On the battlefield that is the setting for much of the poem, super-mortal forces fight for control of the Earth, utilizing the bodies of the warring Christians and pagans as pawns in a game of cosmological significance. While there is truth at the base of The Song of Roland, much of the history behind the work was “edited” in the three centuries that transpired between the battle of Roncevaux and the recording of the poem. It is true, as the poem claims, that in 778 the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army was massacred at Roncevaux. But in reality — and in contrast to the claims of the song — the Basques, and not the Muslims, destroyed the rear guard of the Frankish forces. In actuality, the campaign the Franks were waging in Spain was not a holy war: the year before the massacre, Sulayman ibn al-Arabi came to Charles in revolt against the Emir, Abd ar-Rahman. They asked the chief of the Franks for aid. Charles granted it to them, and he prepared a great army to traverse the Pyrenees, to place Sulayman on the throne, and to receive Iberia as a fief. The re-writing of history we see in The Song of Roland is that which Paul Aebischer calls the “mythification” of events:

In the attempt of imperial censure to conceal the disaster of the Pyrenees, to minimize the consequences, to preserve the reputation of the king as invincible head of state… we are no longer in the realm of history, but in that of legend, in a mythic atmosphere.

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