Hetherington: Song of Roland

The Song of Roland is a centuries old epic depicting an emotional, dramatized tale of war, betrayal, and pride. Like many other wars, Roland’s was one justified by divine faith. Around the same era, another war, the First Crusades, was also waged in the name of their respectful gods. Between the stories The Song of Roland, Fulcher’s account and Al-Athir’s account of the First Crusade we see common themes of faith encouraging death, ambition, and ‘martyrdom’.

The Song of Roland and First Crusade wars both were incredibly bloody and ruthless. Roland is about to face a great army, one of 100,000 men— which is still large for todays numbers— and he does not quake. He steels his heart and turns to his companion to say, “I should act like a madman! I should lose my renown… the blade will be stained with blood right up to the golden hilt. To their misfortune the felon heathen came to the passes; I warrant you that they are all appointed to death” (83, The Song of Roland). By looking at all those men and declares he will be able to valiantly slay them and survive showed a brutality that juxtaposes our modern understanding of Christian faith. However, Roland believed that serving King Charlemagne was a sacred duty spurred by God. Similarly, the First Crusade recounts Pope Urban declares that God commands all men of military to “exterminate this vile race [the Turks] from our lands and to aid the Christian inhabitants” (354, Readings in Medieval History). The Pope continues to describe the Turks most villainously, saying they are “enslaved by demons”. Lastly, he states that all those who aid in this war will be instantly repented of all sins when they die. So just as in The Song of Roland, soldiers serve another man because they believe their holiness will be shared with them. The cruelty of death inflected on the many encourages the reader to wonder: perhaps less value for human life was just a sign of the times, but perhaps being at liberty to commit sin in the name of a righteous cause was a common desire at the time. Whether they were in the right or wrong is irrelevant, as one most also wonder if abusing a position of holy power for personal goals was also a common theme of the era.

Pope Urban and the King Charlemagne and their abuse of a position of power might be a link between the two tales, but it is undeniable they are ambitious men. The Pope was described as a man who “strove prudently and vigorously to raise the status of the Holy Church” (352, Readings in Medieval History). He stirred men into action to free Jerusalem from Islamic grip, trying to bring his people closer to their sacred land. The Pope also supported the military and aided in filling the Franks’ ranks. While there were ambitious men on the Turks’ side as well, not one Count managed to completely stand out. Likewise, Roland was also successfully  ambitious. In a desire to prove himself, he volunteered to lead part of the King’s Army. His pride is strong, and “when Roland sees that the battle will take place he becomes fiercer than a lion or a leopard” (16, The Song of Roland. He puts his life on the line, leads it, to prove himself to his country and emperor. However, Roland is too ambitious, and believes that he does not need aid. Eventually, this leads to his downfall.

Roland’s pride cost his life and the lives of his 20,000 brave men. Oliver, Roland’s brother, insisted on the horn to be blown before it would be shameful to do so. Oliver understood the army’s limits, but his brother did not. Roland’s inflated sense of self— “you need fear no man as long as I’m alive” (17, The Song of Roland)— lead to his ‘martyrdom’. Before battle began, the archbishop Turpin declared “if you die you will be holy martyrs” (24, The Song of Roland), thus encouraging many. And while the greater portion of the army were fighting in the name of God and for their sins, Roland had different goals. He stated during battle how “for such blows (we’ve dealt) the emperor loves us” (29, The Song of Roland). Roland was not thinking about his perception to God, but rather to the King. Ultimately, Roland’s pride and motivations lead to the invalidity of his martyrdom, despite archbishop Turpin’s statement. Death is also over-glorified within the First Crusade, particularly in the mass ‘sacrifice’ when the Jews are cornered in Jerusalem. While there were some real martyrs that day— like Rabbi Isaac, for example, who was the first to accept what he believed to be Heaven’s judgement— they were others who let fear consume them. Once seeing the tragedy that befell the saints in the courtyard, they started killing their own children, shouting “there is none like our God unto whom it would be better to offer our lives” (368, Readings in Medieval History). Fulcher likened this to one of Father Abraham’s trials and stated that they were brave for submitting their children and themselves to the unknown of heaven, but it is grossly glorified. The people in the temple started killing their children out of fear, which was unlike Abraham who only attempted to do so because God commanded him. And once the children were dead, the people inside started killing themselves and each other because they didn’t want to die by the hands of the army. Fulcher goes on to call it a “mass sacrificial offering”, which implies martyrdom (368, Readings in Medieval History). But this was not death in defense of their belief in God— it was the cowardly sin of suicide. Neither of these instances of ‘martyrdom’ were true, and in likeliness they were written to help justify the war, advocate for their side, and not to let a mockery be made of those who died in disgrace.

While those in the background of these stories were men of strong faith, the ones focused on lead to questioning on how many use the divine to justify their own actions and those of others. With a skeptical eye, much of the recounted valor is lost. Wars are never completely noble, ambition is rarely driven by a pure heart, and the way every death of a Christian is heroic leads to excessive amounts of ‘martyrdom’. Wars started by religion are equivocal in nature, and should thus be examined outside of how history presents it.

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