Throughout Western Europe, the relationship between the lord and his vassal has been widely influential and impactful in contributing to the political system of Feudalism. By serving as a vassal, this position entailed that the individual gave the lord or king support through unwavering loyalty or through protection via arms / militia support. As a result of these vassal duties, individuals who took up this title received fief. Fief is heritable property rewarded to vassals by lords because of their relationship / allegiance. Owning property as a primary form of capital was a great accomplishment within the feudal system. This reflected that the individual had a level of power and esteem which could be passed down to future generations and could ensure the success of a lineage. Additionally, this allowed individuals to thrive and have a decent status within the feudal system. Vassals could also take part in this as well. By doing so, the vassal could make a profit off of this property to increase in status or keep the land so that it may be passed down to future generations in their lineage. It is important to recognize the impact the relationship between vassal and lord had on the economic status’ and political structures of Western Europe at the time. This relationship was not only advantageous to the upper class members of the feudal system but also acted as a link for the other classes. This provided benefits to many members as the king could utilize the vassals to their advantage which subsequently allowed vassals to form various connections with knights and serfs all the way down the feudal system. This relationship between a vassal and a lord is best shown in The Song of Roland.
Throughout this French Epic, which was written in the 1100s, the reader is witnesses several moments when Roland and Oliver encounter dangerous and strenuous situations as vassals for the sake of serving King Charlemagne. As the epic unfolds, it details moments when King Charlemagne and the Franks were constantly in opposition of King Masile and the Saracens of Saragossa. During the Battle of Roncevaux which is one of the most gruesome and brutal battles, this question arises that connects to a lasting theme throughout the epic. This question is, “What qualifies/ constitutes being a good vassal?”. As Roland, Oliver, and the Frankish fleet are in immediate danger as a result of being entrapped by Ganelon they soon realize the odds are against them. It is in this moment of the epic where the reader gets to recognize the stark contrasts between Oliver and Roland, who are both exemplary vassals. Roland is recognized for his bravery and stubbornness regarding the way he approaches life. He faces everything head-on without stopping to consider long term consequences. He believes that it is more honorable to take on a challenge in the moment and show no mercy despite the odds in order to appease King Charlemagne as a vassal. He makes this belief evident by stating, “For his lord a vassal must suffer great hardship And endure both great heat and great cold; He must also part with the flesh and blood.” (64.88) On the opposite end, Oliver displays a striking contrast through his thought process. He is wiser and takes time to evaluate the situation in order to decide what needs to be done before moving forward with a decision. He is thoughtful and not rash, unlike Roland. Because of these differences, it is evident that Roland leads himself to his own downfall. Oliver had warned Roland to use the oliphant as a warning signal for Charlemagne to indicate that the Franks were in danger. However, Roland simply refused stating that it would be an indication of cowardice. Because of this misdoing many men died unnecessarily. It is evident that Roland and Oliver are great examples of what it means to be a vassal even if they have different ways of showing it. They displayed steadfast loyalty and allegiance to serve King Charlemagne, the Franks, and Christianity simply because it was their responsibility to do so. Despite having wavering opinions on how to properly assist the king their allegiance never wavered.
It is important to point out and recognize that The Song of Roland is not the only literary piece that expands on the concept of lord and vassal relationship. Specifically in Patrick J. Geary’s, Readings in Medieval History, there is a section that introduces the Liber Manualis. This literary piece contains twenty-seven chapters and contains all sorts of moral declarations and standards of living. Essentially, Dhuoda wrote the Liber Manualis, literally meaning “handbook” in Latin, as a guide / handbook for her son during the time of King Charlemagne. Throughout this literary work, Dhuoda writes to her son, William, about showing respect towards his father and loyalty to King Charlemagne and other higher class nobles. Since the beginning section of the Liber Manualis, it is evident that Dhuoda focuses on these qualities by stating, “On the reverence, you should show your father throughout your life.” (1.257) This statement directly reflects what is significant in Dhuoda’s life and what she believes will keep her son safe. She continuously emphasizes to William the importance of being faithful and loving towards his father. This is evident when she states, “Now I must do my best to guide you in how you should fear, love, and be faithful to your lord and father, Bernard…” (1.268) She then reflects on a specific event in which Elia’s sons who were disobedient towards their father then tragically passed away. It is important for her that William recognize the consequences of acting and being disobedient. She warns him that if he is to prosper or simply withstand Charlemagne’s court that he needs to display a sense of duty, respect, love, and admiration towards his father as well. Additionally, Dhuoda emphasizes the importance of loyalty and faithfulness towards the king in the Liber Manualis. “Be steadfastly and completely loyal to him in all things.” (4.270) This statement reflects the beliefs that are also shown throughout The Song of Roland. Without loyalty, how could one be a good vassal to their king?
Overall, the correlation between the Liber Manualis and The Song of Roland is unique because they offer differing perspectives about what it means to be a vassal and how it is to be loyal to a king. Simply put, the Liber Manualis allows the reader to dwell on the notion of the importance of loyalty and servitude to the king in the contexts of a handbook while The Song of Roland exposes the reader to recognizing how the vassal can also be equally impactful and important in regard to an epic of battle stories.