Grady: Song of Roland

Throughout many great texts, there exists a sense of familiarity or connection to the current and outside world. These connections can exist in our minds based on actual historical occurrences, which a reasonable outcome due to the limitations of non-realistic ideas writers are forced to focus on. This often means that writers and other story tellers conceptualize settings different from our own modern society of the twenty-first century. Meaning there is a sense of isolationism from what we read and our own familiar U.S. society of our current moments. Such is the case of a text taking place during the society of the eleventh century, specifically during the reign of Charlemagne, “Song of Roland”. As a great  French epic, it can serve as a representation of the timeframe and beliefs of feudal values that emphasizes the relationship of the lord and vassal, as it illustrates the religious transformation of France into a Christian nation. Under the reign of Charlemagne, the Feudal system of France maintained a couple of principles that lasted beyond his rule, which can be understood as the protection and security of land by the means of warfare. Similarly, we have this same notion that we understand as American nationalism, as we believe our country is the land of the free and home of the brave, and will do anything to preserve our own protection and security, even if we have to go to war. However, for a country to have any kind of nationalistic identity, there must be loyal relationships formed within higher social structures of the nation’s government that provides a model from the top down, especially in a feudal system as landowners and tenants had similar relationship to lords and vassals as the landholders would provide land to tenants in exchange for their loyalty and service.

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. During the historic period being presented,  vassals were assigned to serve their lords with the utmost respect and dedication. 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 reflected back to him as well, 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.” 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 demonstrated the undie bond he has with his lord, as he was willing to stay and fight for his lord no matter the odds because that is what he was told to do. Ultimately, Roland seemed to make the wrong decision strategically. It leads to his death and the casualties of many other Franks around him, and yet  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.

The relation between the Song of Roland resonates with the feudal values that characterized Europe at the times of its composition. Roland the great warrior, is a perfect example of a great vassal to his lord, the emperor Charlemagne, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, responsible of defending and expanding Christianity at that time. When Ganelon is chosen to be an emissary to King Marsilion, which he will take this opportunity to betray the Franks forces and his stepsons, he drops the glove to Charlemagne’s hands him as an investment of his authority. Roland, however, upon his appointment as a rearguard, unwittingly stepping into the trap that Ganelon has treacherously placed before him, makes a show of not dropping the lance handed to him by Charlemagne. This proves their positions when it comes to the lord.In contrast, Ganelon fueled by personal hatred of Roland proves treacherous to his lord in return for the lord’s favor. Ganelon betrays Charlemagne, yet until his end, Roland maintained his absolute devotion.

In conclusion, the crusades, the relationship lord-vassal, and the old French poem are a representation of how important and deep the relationship with religion was a really important factor during this period of time. And how significant religion was, even violence was involved in it. The great religiosity of the time is reflected in all the characters in the work and especially in the figure of Charlemagne. 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.

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