McGoldrick: The Song of Roland

Brendan McGoldrick

Paul Evans

HIST 103

[Ext.] 9 October 2020

The Song of Roland and its Relationship to the Crusades

     The Song of Roland is a French epic poem written in the 11th-century, making it one of the oldest surviving works of French literature. The poem describes the battle of Roncevaux Pass in the year 778, in which Roland, the nephew of Frankish King Charlemagne (also known as King Charles), is slaughtered beside the majority of the Carolingian army. By this point, Charlemagne had already succeeded in claiming much of Spain and the Iberian peninsula for the Frankish kingdom, converting local populations to Christianity and further expanding the Catholic church’s reign. One city that had not yet fallen to Charlemagne’s sword was Saragossa in Spain, “held by [Islamic] King Marsile, who [did] not love God” (Burgess 29.7). Charlemagne’s attempt at the siege of Saragossa would bring upon the downfall of his army and the death of his nephew and vassal, Roland. During this time, Islam was widely perceived as Christianity’s most significant rival; its growth in Eastern Europe and the Middle East worried Western Christian officials, including Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. In order to combat this astounding development, Charlemagne, and other Western monarchs who followed the word of the Pope, fought for religious dominance but were met with nearly equal ferocity by the Islams. These campaigns to reclaim Christian Holy Lands and establish religious superiority came to be known as the Crusades. Different accounts of the Crusades, specifically those of the Fulcher of Chartres and Ibn Al-Athir, provide context and significance to Roland’s determination and consequent demise. 

     Many accounts of the Crusades can be seen throughout history, although many such descriptions tell different narratives. In the case of the Fulcher of Chartres, the Christian priest primarily emphasizes the leadership of Pope Urban II, including his speech at the Council of Clermont in which the Pope rallies his fellow clergymen and townsfolk to take action against the growing threat of the Islam religion. Considering the Fulcher resides under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and is a loyal compatriot to the Pope, there is an obvious bias towards the efforts of King Charles and the Christians fighting in the Crusades. In his recount of Urban’s speech, the Fulcher quotes the Pope in calling upon the people to “hasten to exterminate this vile race from our lands and to aid the Christian inhabitants in time… Oh what a disgrace if a race so despicable, degenerate, and enslaved by demons should thus overcome a people endowed with faith in Almighty God” (Geary 354). In calling his Islam opponents “a vile race… despicable and degenerate, and enslaved by demons”, Pope Urban II dehumanizes and debases the Islam religion and its disciples, quite literally claiming they are demonic worshippers. Without any tangible evidence of his wild claims, and with no other motive than promoting Christianity’s superiority complex, the Pope initiates the Crusades. Promised by the Pope of “remission of sin,” knights and townspeople from all around the kingdom “vowed to go with purified soul whither they had been ordered to go” (Geary 355). Hoping to get their shot at their guaranteed ‘free ticket’ into Heaven, thousands of militiamen ready to fight to reclaim the Holy Lands and to prove the supremacy of Christianity, rallied at the foot of Pope Urban II. The massacres that ensued, though, were anything but God’s will. The hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children slaughtered, their villages pillaged by the Catholics, indeed could not have been the righteous word of the Lord, as some of the most basic fundamentals of Catholicism (outlined in the ten commandments) are never to murder or steal, and to be kind to thy neighbor. This background of a brutal world in which officials will start wars to assert dominance provides context to Roland’s determination and, in the end, his ultimate sacrifice. Similarly, in the Fulcher of Chartres’s recount of the Crusades, the unknown author of The Song of Roland — and likely most people under King Charles’s dominion — writes with a bias towards Charlemagne that nearly approaches an obsession. In just the first few lines of the French poem, the author uses specific syntax and adjectives, which prove this bias. For example, in his/her use of “our great emperor,” “conquered that proud land,” and “fair land of France,” the author portrays Charlemagne as an omniscient, unconquerable, god-like figure (Burgess 29.1-29.16). While this bias is a little more explicit than that described by the Fulcher of Chartres, both texts go to show the high regard in which King Charles’s subordinates hold him. They are even willing to die for their king, as Roland and his fellow soldiers did. Throughout the Crusades, thousands sacrificed their lives for Christianity, manipulated by Pope Urban II into committing horrific atrocities, which would, in all other cases, be considered damnable sins. However, their sacrifice does not go unnoticed. Throughout history, and even in modern times, society has seen significant Christian influence as a result of the Crusaders’ determination over a millennia ago. 

     A second perspective on the Crusades from the Islamic point of view, written by Ibn Al-Athir, may offer more insight into the Crusades, especially without the Christian bias clouding such crucial details. Al-Athir provides a more comprehensive description of the Crusades, including a few of the many bloody battles between the Franks and Muslims. One notable battle was in the Franks’ siege of Antioch in which the Carolingians sacked the area and barricaded themselves within the confines of the city until they secured victory. After twelve days of biding their time without food, the Franks began leaving in small groups to avoid ambush by the Muslims. The leader of the Muslim army awaiting their retreat, Kerbuqa, “would not allow [his army] to attack the [Franks], and when some Muslims killed a group of Franks, he went himself to forbid such behavior and prevent its recurrence” (Geary 371). This restrain would end up a mistake, as the Franks, now reassembled, turned around and “killed [the Muslims] by the thousand and stripped their camp of food and possessions, equipment, horses and arms, with which they re-equipped themselves” (Geary 371). While the Islams had shown mercy to the Catholics in their time of weakness, such humanity was not repaid. Perhaps Pope Urban’s legends of Islamic cruelty were fictional after all, although now it was his Christian followers who were the “vile” and “despicable” ones (Geary 354). The massacre at Antioch would not be the last of the Christians’ rampage through Eastern Europe. Another battle at Ma’arrat an-Nu’man turned into a similar bloodbath. In just three days, “the Franks killed more than 100,000 men and took innumerable prisoners” (Geary 371). Many more innocent Islamic people faced a similar fate as the war carried on. This description again helps to provide context to the events in The Song of Roland since massive slaughters and ambushes were obviously not uncommon during the Middle Ages. While the author implies the Catholics were an innocent band of holy-men murdered by vicious Islamic demon-worshippers, such a description could not be farther from the truth. 

     Different accounts of the Crusades, specifically those of the Fulcher of Chartres and Ibn Al-Athir, help provide context and significance to Roland’s determination and consequent demise in The Song of Roland. In the account of the Fulcher of Chartres, the Catholics were fighting dutifully for Charlemagne and Pope Urban II against the vile Islams for the remission of their sins. In Ibn Al-Althir’s description, though, the Islamic people’s peacefulness was met with the slaughter of thousands by the Christians. While readers and historians must take both narratives with a grain-of-salt, taking into account implicit/explicit bias and the author’s ethos, the massacre of the Carolingian army in The Song of Roland is, evidently, not representative of the whole war, as battles leading to the extermination of entire Muslim populations were far more common. Using this one chapter of the Crusades (that of Roland’s demise) to generalize the whole war would not be an acceptable way to portray historical events. By examining different descriptions of such events, historians may be able to delve deeper into what really happened. 

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