Jackson: Song of Roland

Jacob Jackson

Medieval History Paper 3

The concept of being a good vassal was of significant importance to the lives of Medieval Romans. There are different interpretations of what it meant to be a good vassal depending on which texts you refer to, yet they all seem to have common threads between them. In The Song of Roland we see two interpretations of the ideal vassal through the portrayal of Roland and Oliver, while in Dhuoda’s letter to her son we see another depiction of what it means to be the ideal vassal. Based on these two texts, it seems that the hallmark of a good lord-vassal relationship rests on the subservience that a vassal offers to their lord; it is important to highlight that subservience to a lord implies loyalty as if a vassal provides unquakering service to a lord, a vassal proves that they are loyal to their lord. Additionally, both of these texts identify the importance of a strong lord-vassal relationship to oneself as well as to the people they represent. 

The Song of Roland revolves around Charlamagne’s brave nephew Roland leading his men into battle against the Saracens. In this, we are presented with two different explanations of what it means to be a good vassal; one definition comes from Roland himself while the other definition comes from Roland’s closest companion Oliver. Roland’s and Oliver’s definitions both rest on the concept that the ideal vassal should be subservient, yet they describe this form of loyalty from two different perspectives. Prior to leading his men into battle against the Saracen’s, Roland describes that for a vassal to show subservience, he must, “suffer great hardship and endure both great heat and great cold; he must also part with flesh and blood” (The Song of Roland, 88, lines 1117-1119). During the battle, however, Oliver claims that the ideal vassal is subservient when they act “in its wisdom, avoids folly; caution is better than great zeal. Franks are dead because of your [Roland’s] recklessness; Charles will never again receive our service” (The Song of Roland, 131, lines 1723-1727). As the text describes, “Roland is brave and Oliver is wise. Both are marvellous vassals” (The Song of Roland, 87, 1093-1094) and these two personality traits are embedded in each of the men’s ideas of vassalship. Roland’s bravery is clear when he describes that a vassal must be subservient to the point of suffering and dying for their lord, while Oliver’s wisdom shines through when he explains that without caution, the two of them will die and no longer be able to serve Charlamagne. Though Roland and Oliver have different ideas of how it is best to serve their lord, both of them agree that subservience is the most important characteristic of the ideal vassal. 

As we eventually learn from The Song of Roland, Roland did perish to the Saracens and despondency of his death spread across the Roman empire. The influence of Roland’s life and death had a significant impact on the people of Rome. This influence is quite evident in Dhuoda’s handbook for her son William which was written in 841 AD, approximately sixty-three years after the passing of Roland. In Dhuoda’s letter to her son, she clearly outlines what it means to be a good vassal to a father as well as what it means to be a good vassal to a lord. Dhuoda, influenced by Roland and Oliver, emphasizes the need to be subservient above all things. Dhuoda states that her son should, “be obedient to your father’s interest and heed his judgment” (Geary 20, Chapter 1 of Dhuoda’s Handbook for Her Son). Furthermore, Dhuoda emphasizes the importance of loyalty in vassalship to one’s father when she says, “I caution you to render first to him that whose son you are special, faithful, steadfast loyalty as long as you shall live” (Geary 20, Chapter 2 of Dhuoda’s Handbook for Her Son). Transitioning now to the lord-vassal relationship, Dhuoda explains to her son the importance of subservience to his lord when she states, “we should serve our lords faithfully, without ill will, without reluctance, and without sluggishness” (Geary 20, Chapter 4 of Dhuoda’s Handbook for Her Son). Dhuoda expands on this when she implores her son to “keep this loyalty [loyalty to one’s lord] as long as you live, in your body and in your mind” (Geary 20, Chapter 4 of Dhuoda’s Handbook for Her Son). Through both of these quotes, it is easy to identify that Dhuoda believes that a vassal should remain subservient to their lord no matter what the circumstances. 

Now that we have identified subservience as being a Roman necessity to a good lord-vassal relationship, we can explore why medieval Romans strove to be good vassals. Roland believes that he should be a good vassal because it will bring honor to his country. This is implied during Roland’s last breaths, “towards the pagan host he turned his head, because it was his earnest wish that Charles and all his men should say that he, the noble count, had died victoriously” (The Song of Roland, Chapter 174, lines 2360-2363). Previously, Roland stated that in order to be a good vassal to Charlemagne he must be willing to die for him. In turning his head towards the pagan Saracens he has proven to Charlemagne that he was of service until the end and subsequently brought honor to the Romans through his soon to be victory over the Saracens. As for Oliver, I take us back to his previous statement that a good vassal should be cautious and wise. With this, we see that Oliver interprets the longevity of his vassalship to Lord Charlemagne to be of significant importance. According to Oliver, if he dies then he will no longer be able to provide service to Charlemagne and the Romans. As for Dhuoda and her reasoning for the importance of good vassalship, she is more concerned with the personal gain one may receive through vassalship. Dhuoda states that, “For the advancement that it [loyalty to a lord] brings you will be of great value” (Geary 20, Chapter 4 of Dhuoda’s Handbook for Her Son). Here we can see that Dhuoda believes that vassalship is important for her son William because he will receive personal gains if he fulfills such a role. 

From just two texts alone the importance of a lord-vassal relationship is highlighted in different ways. Roland, Oliver, and Dhuoda all have different reasons as to why vassalship is important yet all of them are in accord that subservience is at the foundation of every good lord-vassal relationship. This provides significant insight into Roman society at this time as we have identified that vassalship was more than just a role, but instead is a principle of subservience and therefore loyalty. With this, we gain an understanding of some of the moral principles of which the Medieval Roman empire was founded on, subservience and loyalty.

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