The lord-vassal relationship is a prominent aspect of the ‘Song of Roland’ and it portrays parallelism between loyalty to Charlemagne and Christianity. This attribute is important for today’s understanding of how the hierarchy was in the middle ages and gives an insight into what this relationship entailed. It was a feudal system whereby the Lords were at the top and just under God and the vassals beneath them. The success of the Lords was highly dependent on their vassals’ loyalty and serving the Lord was seen as a way of serving God himself. This epic poem portrays numerous examples of lord-vassal relations which are helpful in understanding the context of people’s thoughts and actions at the time.
The lord-vassal relationship is not only amongst the earthly beings, but also is one with God himself. In the ‘Song of Roland’, Charlemagne’s eternal loyalty lies toward God, for whom Charlemagne is the vassal, and the others the vassals for Charlemagne. His thinking lies around the notion that God can make a decision towards punishing or rewarding someone on the basis of how loyal one is. At the time, being a loyal vassal to the Lord was seen as the most honorable way to lead life because it was coherent to serving God himself because they believed that the Lords were chosen by God. This idea is also reflected in ‘Dhuoda’s Handbook for her Son’, which are a series of letters written to her son, where Dhuoda emphasizes the importance and significance of the loyalty towards his king and how it exalts a person to become more virtuous. She says, “Many others who have been obedient to God and mindful of the commands of a devoted father have been honored and respected in the secular world have safely reached that heavenly reward for which they struggled.” (Geary 270) This idea is also reflected in the beliefs of Charlemagne and his vassals in the world of the ‘Song of Roland’.
The actions of the characters throughout the poem represent what the roles and duties of the vassals were and the extent to which they were reflected in their lives. In the book it says, “A good vassal will never cease to fight as long as he lives.” The expectation of a vassal was that he should not turn away from the will of the Lord and not give into the council of ill willed people, because defying the Lord was seen as defying God himself. Though this conceptualization seems highly religious, the concept of governing a City also comes into play. Without the loyalty of the vassals, the structure of the sovereign would have likely collapsed, and history would have turned out differently than what it is today. Charlemagne is seen feeling a high amount of gratitude for Roland and the other vassals that died for his cause and feels sad about them losing their lives, which further reflects the importance they had in his success. The lord-vassal relation created a system of authority, without which the notion of acting in accordance with the will of God and the medieval society overall would perish. Charlemagne would have been lost without the people under him and the society would have been disintegrated by people’s own motivations and desires. This supreme omnipotent power which people cannot grasp was seen as the underlying force which drove everyone’s actions and made them subject to God, an unfathomable being.
Roland is the perfect depiction of an unconditionally devoted vassal and this is portrayed through his actions and chain of thought in the face adversity. He says, “We must stand here for our king: One must suffer hardships for one’s lord; And endure great heat and great cold. One must also lose hide and hair.” (79.1009-12) Without even the slightest thought of backing out, Roland faces the battle with Marsile’s army with open hands as he views it as a way to perform his duty to Charlemagne with honor and dignity, which is the ideal nature of a Lord’s vassal. He is willing to put himself in harm’s way not just for Charlemagne but as a result of his devotion to God, which is similar to what Dhuoda desires for her son. She says to him, “I urge you to keep this loyalty as long as you live, in your body and in your mind.” (Geary 271) It is the same sort of inclination in Roland, that eventually leads him to sacrifice himself for the higher good and stay loyal until his last breath. For him, giving his life for this greatest cause is more honorable than baking out when things seem tough, which is why he refuses to blow the oliphant even when the odds were against them. He says, “may it not please God and his angels and saints to let France lost its glory because of me. The emperor loves us when we fight well.” This further shows how he gave a higher importance to God’s glory than glory of himself.
Roland is shown as a foil to Ganalon, who is depicted as having the opposite characteristics that an ideal vassal should have. This is represented by the dropping of Charlemagne’s glove and before how Roland responds to his cowardice by saying “I hear arrogant and foolish words; Everyone knows that I hear no threats. But it must be a wise man who delivers the message. If the king desires it, I am ready to perform this task for you.” (38.292-295) Roland does not have an ill intent towards Ganalon but being the disloyal and shady man that he is, views it as an act of anger towards him without seeing the honor that lies in serving Charlemagne, and thereby serving God. It is his ill will that corrupts him and eventually leads to him loosing favor in the eyes of God and other men. Because of the severe nature of his punishment, it could be assumed that the author, being Christian, represented such acts as devious and what one would face if one stepped out of this feudal structure. The ideal vassal should give his undying loyalty in exchange for vengeance and protection should he be killed while in service of the Lord. It could be thought that the author was biased in what was considered what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but the poem gives us a deep insight into the fundamental nature of the medieval society.
The strong relationships of the lords and vassals played a huge part in the history of the medieval system of sovereign ruling and history would not have been the same as it is today without this underlying structure that the hierarchy of the middle age was based on. This poem represents the significance of the lord-vassal relationship and how strong it is as it is represented as an unbreakable bond. The themes in the ‘Song of Roland’ reflect how the societal structure was back in the day and helps us understand the conceptualizations of the medieval people and their way of life.