In The Song of Roland, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the text is the insight it gives into the lord-vassal relationship during the middle ages. In this time period, vassals were assigned to serve their lords with the utmost respect and dedication. The vassal loyally follows his lord into combat, protecting him to the best of his abilities, and in exchange he is given a fief, or a plot of land, from his lord. Ultimately the relationship between a lord and his vassal was extremely close. The lord would go to his vassal for advice or any problems he was having, and the vassal would do his best to help in whatever way possible. A good vassal that earned the respect of his lord was also shown a great deal of respect back, and oftentimes was seen as a valuable and trusted companion.
The Song of Roland details the lord-vassal relationship between Charlemagne and his vassals, Roland and Oliver, both described as “excellent vassals.” The epic poem recounts all of their feats of bravery in the name of Charlemagne. While charging into battle, Roland seems to remind himself of what it means to be a strong vassal. He yells: “For his lord a vassal must suffer great hardship. . . he must also part with flesh and blood” (64). He is already ready and willing to die for his lord, the ultimate sacrifice showing his utmost dedication. This can also be seen in the situation where the Franks are getting more and more overwhelmed on the battlefield. Oliver suggests to Roland that they blow the horn to let the other forces know what is to come, but Roland refuses to redirect from Charlemagne’s original orders. Roland says: “‘Do not speak of such outrage; A curse on the heart which cowers in the beast! We shall stand firm and hold our ground” (64). In his response, Roland further shows what it means to be the perfect vassal. Even if blowing the horn might have meant less casualties, Roland still wants to stay and fight for his lord no matter the odds because that is what he was told to do. Even when he knows he has a good chance of dying he is still unwavering in his dedication to his duties. Ultimately, Roland seemed to make the wrong decision strategically. It leads to his death and the casualties of many other Franks around him. Despite all of this, it is interesting that Roland is still seen in a good light. Even though his decision led to his death, he is still praised for his bravery and sticking to his lord’s wishes even if the odds are not in his favor. This just shows how much loyalty is valued in the lord-vassal relationship.
While he may want to serve his Charlemagne, It is also interesting how Christianity plays into a vassal’s motivations. After Roland refuses to blow the horn, Archbishop Turpin appears and gives a brief motivational speech. In it he tells the men: “For our king we must be prepared to die. Help us now to sustain the Christian faith. . . If you die, you will be blessed martyrs And take your place in paradise on high” (65). Not only is the vassal fighting for the respect of his lord, but also for Christianity and God himself. To make their seemingly inevitable deaths purposeful, Turpin uses religion as another source of motivation. Dying in the name of God to live the rest of eternity in heaven seems like a small price to pay to those who are believers. The Archbishop’s words also seem to work in rousing the men: “The Franks rise and get to their feet; They are fully absolved and freed of their sins” (65). This theme of simultaneously fighting for both the lord and Christianity also appears in the Geary text, which suggests that God gives his authority to those in power like Charlemagne, and it is through their actions that he is working. In turn, by serving lords like Charlemagne, you are serving God’s will as well. This could explain Roland’s and Oliver’s extreme bravery. Knowing you are going to heaven makes death seem a lot less scary to those who are about to die. In the relationship with Dhouda and her son, she gives him this exact reason for why vassals must follow their lords. When Roland himself dies he is directly taken to heaven by angels, skipping purgatory entirely. This further just shows the author’s bias towards Christianity.
Ultimately, the lord-vassal relationship was quite important during the middle ages. Without their vassals, lords like Charlemagne would have had no one to fight their battles for them. It is still quite interesting to think about the true motivations of the vassals to serve their lords so loyally. While land and wealth might have been a big factor, religion also seems to be one of the biggest elements in driving the vassals to fight. The guarantee of heaven seems quite weird when thinking about a priest doing something similar today, but it definitely seemed to work during the middle ages. In The Song of Roland specifically, it is hard to deny the author’s strong bias towards Christianity and Charlemagne. Detailing Roland as such a brave and noble warrior was an obvious example of showing Christianity in the best light. In the text there are also no bad descriptions of Charlemagne himself. Those are only reserved for the “pagans” they are fighting.