top of page

Western Literature 102: Oaths and Treachery

Foreword

The Western Literature series serves as a vital resource for English Language and Literature students aiming to deepen their understanding of Western literatures diverse and dynamic aspects. With a comprehensive exploration of literary works, this series offers a profound insight into the evolution and complexities of Western literary traditions. Beginning with Series 101, delving into the ancient literature from its origin in the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Aeneid of Virgil, which marks a critical juncture in the transition from earlier works to the concept of modernisation. By analysing the genre’s transformation, Western Literature 102 provides readers with a rich appreciation for Medieval literature. Through six captivating chapters, readers embark on an enlightening journey through the world of heroes, poets, and rebels, unravelling the intricacies of this mesmerising era and its profound impact on Western literature.


The 102 series is divided into six articles:

  1. Western Literature 102: A Tale of Heroism and Monsters

  2. Western Literature 102: Oaths and Treachery

  3. Western Literature 102: Love’s Illumination

  4. Western Literature 102: A Pilgrim’s Redemption

  5. Western Literature 102: Chivalric Trials, Blood and Honour

  6. Western Literature 102: Silent Stories Unveiled


Western Literature 102: Oaths and Treachery

The Song of Roland or La Chanson de Roland is an enduring masterpiece of medieval literature, captivating readers with its epic tale of valour, honour, and sacrifice. Composed in the 11th or 12th century, this chanson de geste (epic poem) chronicles the heroic deeds of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s most esteemed knights, as he confronts a formidable Muslim army in Spain. Set against the backdrop of the Frankish era, the poem examines the intricate tapestry of medieval society, exploring themes of chivalry, religious conflict, loyalty, and the complexities of heroism. Delving into the world of The Song of Roland, readers embark on a captivating journey through the medieval cultural landscape, unveiling profound insights into the values, beliefs, and social dynamics of the time.

Figure 1: Roland’s Song (11th – 12th century)
Frankish Era

The Frankish era, spanning from the fifth to the ninth century, occupies a significant position within European history due to its transformative nature, profoundly shaping the continent’s cultural, political, and social fabric. Originally comprising a confederation of Germanic tribes, the Franks gradually ascended to prominence under the leadership of influential rulers. Notably, Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, emerged as one of the era’s most renowned figures. His reign from 768 to 814 marked the zenith of Frankish power and territorial expansion. Through a series of military campaigns, Charlemagne successfully extended the borders of his empire, encompassing vast territories that comprise present-day France, Germany, Italy, and parts of Spain. Consequently, the Frankish Empire established itself as the largest and most influential political entity in Western Europe since the decline of the Western Roman Empire (Innes, 2005).


During the Frankish era, a distinctive blend of Roman, Germanic, and Christian influences emerged, shaping the time’s cultural, religious, and social landscape. The Franks, embracing Christianity, underwent a significant religious transformation. Under the reign of Charlemagne, there was a remarkable revival of religious and educational institutions, underscoring his commitment to strengthening the Christian faith and fostering intellectual pursuits. This period, often called the Carolingian Renaissance, witnessed a flourishing of culture and learning. Charlemagne’s court became a vibrant hub of intellectual activity, attracting scholars from various parts of Europe and serving as a catalyst for creating and preserving significant literary and historical works (McKitterick, 2005).


Figure 2: The lands controlled by the Franks in the early 8th century (De la Blache, 1912)

Feudalism, a socio-economic system, took root during the Frankish era, fundamentally organising society around land ownership and control. The Franks established a hierarchical structure, with Charlemagne assuming the position of king and a nobility comprising dukes, counts, and vassals. Central to this feudal society were loyalty, honour, and chivalry values. Knights, serving as the backbone of the military forces, adhered to a code of conduct known as chivalry. This code prescribed virtuous behaviours such as courage, loyalty, and courtesy, embodying the ideals of the knightly class. The chivalric ethos permeated the social fabric, guiding interactions and expectations within the Frankish society (Airlie, 2005).


The Frankish era is a pivotal period in the formation of medieval Europe, leaving a lasting imprint on various aspects of its development. Politically, the era witnessed the establishment of systems that laid the groundwork for future governance structures. Moreover, the spread of Christianity became a defining characteristic of the Frankish realm, leaving an indelible mark on the religious landscape of Europe. Concurrently, the era witnessed the emergence of distinct regional identities, each shaped by a unique blend of local customs and Frankish influences (Innes, 2005).


Within this dynamic cultural milieu, the Frankish era provided fertile ground for creating legendary tales and epic poems that celebrated the exploits of Frankish knights. Among these literary treasures, The Song of Roland occupies a prominent position. Composed during the Frankish era, this epic poem serves as a window into society’s prevailing values and ethos. Through its narrative, the poem highlights themes of honour, loyalty, and religious zeal, offering insight into the ideals and conflicts that shaped the Frankish world. The Song of Roland is a captivating literary work that, alongside other historical sources, provides invaluable glimpses into the complex tapestry of the Frankish era. Through its portrayal of heroic deeds and moral dilemmas, the poem unravels the layers of social and cultural dynamics that characterised the period. By engaging with these literary and historical sources, we can gain a more in-depth understanding of the Frankish era and its lasting impact on the trajectory of European history (Vance, 1970).

Figure 3: Depiction of different Franks, AD 400–600 (Kretschmer, 19th century)

Cultural Context for the Song of Roland

The Song of Roland is deeply rooted in the cultural context of the medieval Frankish era, providing profound insights into the prevailing values, beliefs, and social structures of medieval Europe. Central to this context is the pervasive influence of Christianity, particularly in its Catholic form, which permeated all aspects of medieval life, including politics, social norms, and cultural expressions. Within the poem, the fervent Christian faith of the Frankish society takes centre stage, as it chronicles Charlemagne and his knights engaging in a holy war against the Muslims in Spain, exemplifying the religious zeal and the perceived significance of defending and propagating the Christian faith. The backdrop of the conflict between Christianity and Islam serves as a critical element within the narrative, underscoring the deep-rooted religious fervour and the unwavering belief in the righteousness of the Christian cause. The epic poem not only celebrates the heroism and sacrifices of the Frankish knights but also emphasises their role as staunch defenders of Christianity against the perceived threat posed by Islam. This religious dimension of the poem resonates with the broader cultural and historical context of the Frankish era, wherein religious beliefs and the resulting conflicts held immense sway in shaping the social and political dynamics of the time (Warren, 2014).


As a remarkable cultural artefact, The Song of Roland portrays the medieval period’s religious beliefs, fervour, and broader cultural context. Scholars exploring the poem gain valuable insights into the complexities of medieval society, the intricate interplay between religion and warfare, and the cultural values that influenced the perspectives and actions of individuals within the Frankish era. By looking into this epic poem, researchers can uncover the intricate tapestry of medieval European society, gaining a more in-depth understanding of the religious, social, and political forces that shaped the worldview of that time (Warren, 2014).

Figure 4: Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne (Kaulbach, 1861)

Chivalry and the ideals associated with knighthood held a significant position within the cultural milieu of the Frankish era. The nobility, particularly the knights, adhered to a code of conduct known as chivalry, encompassing a set of virtues and expectations governing their behaviour. Central to the chivalric code were values such as honour, loyalty, courage, and courtesy, which shaped the conduct of knights and their relationships with lords and vassals. These ideals played a pivotal role in defining the Frankish society’s cultural norms and social structures. The Song of Roland serves as a poignant exploration of these chivalric ideals. The epic poem vividly portrays the heroic deeds of Roland and his companions, highlighting their unwavering loyalty to Charlemagne, the Frankish king. The knights’ commitment to their Lord, even in the face of overwhelming adversity, becomes a testament to their embodiment of the principles of chivalry. The poem further accentuates their willingness to make selfless sacrifices in the pursuit of honour and duty, underscoring the importance of upholding the chivalric ideals within the Frankish society (Taylor, 2001).


Through its depiction of the chivalric ethos, the poem provides valuable insights into the cultural values and expectations that governed the behaviour of knights during the Frankish era. Furthermore, the poem captures the essence of chivalry as a cornerstone of the knightly identity, demonstrating how these ideals permeated their actions, relationships, and aspirations. By studying this literary work, scholars gain a more in-depth understanding of the significance of chivalry and its role in shaping the cultural landscape of Frankish society, shedding light on the complex interplay between knightly ideals and the social fabric of the time (Taylor, 2001).


Feudalism, a central feature of the Frankish era, is intricately woven into the poem. The hierarchical structure of society, characterised by kings, lords, and vassals, represents the relationships between the poem’s characters. The theme of loyalty between vassals and their lord and the reciprocal obligations and responsibilities that bind lords and vassals assumes prominence in the narrative. The feudal system, focusing on land ownership, military service performance, and obligations fulfilment, significantly influenced the Frankish era’s social dynamics and power structures. Furthermore, The Song of Roland is rooted in the rich oral storytelling tradition that flourished during the medieval period. The poem emerged as part of this tradition, composed to be recited or sung by troubadours and minstrels who traversed different regions, captivating audiences with their tales of heroism and adventure. The reliance on oral transmission contributed to the popularity and longevity of the poem, enabling it to be passed down through generations. As a result, the poem not only entertained audiences but also served to preserve the cultural and historical narratives associated with the Frankish era (Taylor, 2001; Warren, 2014).

Figure 5: Carolingian Family Tree (Von Aura, 12th century)

The Song of Roland Analysis

The Song of Roland is a remarkable epic poem that profoundly explores and emphasises the themes of chivalry, honour, and sacrifice, presenting a vivid portrayal of the medieval values and ideals prevalent during the Frankish era.


Chivalry occupies a central and pervasive position within the poem, as a prominent theme that permeates its narrative. The work extols the virtues and principles associated with chivalry, outlining the idealised code of conduct for knights. Courage, loyalty, and fidelity to one’s lord and comrades emerge as primary elements of this chivalric ethos. Roland, the heroic protagonist, embodies the epitome of chivalry, exemplifying unwavering dedication to his king, Charlemagne, and his fellow warriors. His unwavering commitment and valiant struggle against overwhelming odds testify to the noble qualities expected of knights in their pursuit of martial glory. The poem accentuates the profound significance of chivalric honour, emphasising the lofty ideals and moral obligations that knights are expected to uphold in their quest for valour and distinction (Taylor, 2001).

XCIV

His nephew dead he’s seen with grief enough,

Comes through the press and wildly forth he runs,

Aloud he shouts their cry the pagans use;

And to the Franks is right contrarious:

"Honour of France the Douce shall fall to us!"

(The Song of Roland, 1996)

Figure 6: Eight stages of The Song of Roland in one picture (Marmion, 15th century)

Honour emerges as another key theme in The Song of Roland. The poem portrays honour as an integral aspect of the knightly identity, intricately linked to one's reputation and personal integrity, thus emphasizing its significance in defining the character and actions of the knights. The characters within the poem attach immense importance to upholding their honour and demonstrate a willingness to go to great lengths, even at the cost of their lives, to defend it. Roland’s resolute refusal to sound his horn, opting to shoulder the burden of battle alone, serves as a striking exemplification of his unwavering commitment to preserving his honour. The poem continually reinforces the notion that the preservation of honour is both a sacred duty and a defining characteristic of noble knights (Vance, 1970).


Sacrifice emerges as a recurring motif within the poem, illustrating the characters’ unwavering commitment to selfless acts for the greater good. The defining moment in the poem revolves around Roland’s sacrifice, along with that of the Twelve Peers or Paladins. Despite their imminent peril, they engage in valiant combat, ultimately sacrificing their lives to defend their faith, king, and homeland. Their profound sacrifice embodies the cherished ideal of selflessness and resonates with the deeply ingrained medieval belief in the glory of martyrdom. The poem underscores the immense significance of sacrificing personal desires and life for a higher cause, epitomising the height of noble virtue. Additionally, The Song of Roland delves into the intricate tensions between individual heroism and collective responsibility. Roland’s pride and yearning for personal glory initially clouded his judgment, leading to dire consequences for the Frankish army. Nevertheless, the poem also accentuates the vital importance of collective loyalty and duty, as exemplified by Oliver, Roland’s loyal comrade. Oliver advises Roland to sound the horn, urging him to summon reinforcements for the sake of the collective. This intricate interplay between individual heroism and the imperative of fulfilling one’s duty to the collective offers a nuanced exploration of the complexities inherent in the ideals of chivalry and honour. It highlights the delicate balance between individual valour and the shared responsibilities that underpin the knightly ethos (Miles, 1958; Divanna-2011).

CCXXIII

And the eighth column hath Naimes made ready;

Tis of Flamengs, and barons out of Frise;

Forty thousand and more good knights are these,

Nor lost by them has any battle been.

And the King says: "These shall do my service."

Between Rembalt and Hamon of Galice

Shall they be led, for all their chivalry.

(The Song of Roland, 1996)

Figure 7: The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux (Fouquet, 1455-60)

The Song of Roland’s Significance

The epic poem holds a position of paramount importance within the literature, exerting a profound and enduring influence on subsequent medieval and modern works. As one of the most outstanding examples of chansons de geste, this epic poem established a benchmark for the genre, influencing the narrative structure, themes, and linguistic style of future compositions that celebrated heroic deeds and chivalric values. Its lasting popularity ensured its preservation and transmission through the ages, serving as a touchstone for literary endeavours. Moreover, The Song of Roland emerged as a catalyst in shaping cultural identity during the medieval period, reinforcing the concept of knighthood, chivalry, and the code of honour. It influenced the collective consciousness of knights and nobility, guiding their conduct and aspirations. Its portrayal of heroism and noble virtues continues to resonate, making it a subject of scholarly study and interpretation that enriches our understanding of medieval literature, culture, and society. The poem’s impact extends beyond its artistic merit, leaving an indelible mark on subsequent generations and permeating various forms of media, perpetuating its influence on modern-day cultural narratives (Fenwick, 1963).


Moreover, the poem has had a lasting and profound influence on the portrayal of heroism in both medieval and modern works. The poem establishes an surviving prototype of the selfless, loyal, and courageous knight by depicting the character Roland. This archetype of heroism subsequently permeated and influenced numerous literary works, including the renowned Arthurian legends and romances, where the heroic knight became a central figure. The ideals of honour, sacrifice, and unwavering loyalty exemplified in The Song of Roland continued to shape the portrayal of heroes in literature for centuries to come, leaving an indelible mark on the literary tradition (Fenwick, 1963).


Furthermore, the impact of The Song of Roland extends beyond its influence on medieval literature. The poem’s themes, characters, and narrative elements have resonated with later writers, inspiring adaptations and references in various art forms. It has been adapted into theatrical plays, and operas, and has served as a source of inspiration for modern novels and films. The poem’s enduring popularity and cultural significance attest to its continued relevance and permanent impact on the literary landscape. Its timeless exploration of heroism, honour, and loyalty continues to captivate audiences. It provides a rich source of inspiration for contemporary creators, further cementing its position as a seminal work of literature (Warren, 2014).

Figure 8: Cover illustration for the popular edition of La Chanson de Roland by Léon Gautier (Merson, 1881)

The Song of Roland vs Guido Guinizelli and Dante Alighieri

The influence of the chivalric ideals and courtly love, as depicted in The Song of Roland, can be observed in the works of Guido Guinizelli, an Italian poet from the late 13th century associated with the Dolce Stil Novo movement. Guinizelli’s poetry, notably his work Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore, explores the theme of love through refined language and emphasises the idealised and spiritual aspects of romantic relationships. Echoing the Frankish epic, Guinizelli’s poetic vision aligns with the ideals of chivalry and courtly love, as he portrays noble sentiments, unwavering devotion, and the relentless pursuit of the beloved’s favour. This connection highlights the enduring impact of The Song of Roland on subsequent literary works, showcasing how its themes and motifs became a source of inspiration for poets like Guinizelli, shaping the portrayal of love and influencing the evolution of poetic traditions (Vance, 1970; Genesini, 2022).


Dante Alighieri, the esteemed Italian poet of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, is widely recognised for his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy. This monumental work explores profound theological and philosophical themes. Yet, it also exhibits traces of influence from chivalric literature and courtly love, which can be linked to earlier works such as The Song of Roland. Within La Commedia, Dante encounters a plethora of characters drawn from both classical and medieval literature, including various knights and figures associated with chivalry. These encounters vividly illustrate the enduring impact of chivalric ideals and themes on Dante’s imaginative realm. Furthermore, Dante’s portrayal of love, particularly his ardent devotion to Beatrice, echoes the courtly love tradition that finds its roots in both The Song of Roland and the poetry of Guido Guinizelli. Dante’s love for Beatrice transcends the realm of mundane affection, ascending to a spiritual and transformative force, akin to the idealised love celebrated within the chivalric tradition (Vance, 1970; Genesini, 2022).


The interconnection between The Song of Roland, Guido Guinizelli, and Dante Alighieri resides in their shared exploration of themes such as chivalry, courtly love, and the portrayal of noble sentiments. These recurring motifs substantially influenced later poets, contributing to the shaping of the literary atmosphere during the medieval and Renaissance periods in Italy.

Figure 9: A knight being armed by his lady (Von Limpurg, 1305-15)

In conclusion, The Song of Roland is a remarkable testament to the abiding power and influence of medieval literature. Its portrayal of chivalry, honour, sacrifice, and religious conflict has left an indelible mark on subsequent works and continues to captivate audiences today. Through its exploration of the Frankish era and the ideals that shaped its society, the poem provides invaluable insights into the time’s cultural, religious, and social dynamics. When reflecting upon the heroic deeds and complex characters within The Song of Roland, one is reminded of the timeless themes and enduring legacy that this epic poem has contributed to the rich tapestry of literary history.




Bibliographical References

Airlie, S. (2005). Charlemagne and the aristocracy: captains and kings. In Story, J. (2005). Charlemagne: empire and society (pp-90-103). Manchester University Press. https://archive.org/details/charlemagneempir0000unse/page/n7/mode/2up


DiVanna, I.N. (2011). Politicizing national literature: the scholarly debate around La chanson de Roland in the nineteenth century*. Historical Research, 84(223). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2009.00540.x


Genesini, P. (2022). Letteratura italiana 123. [Lectures notes retrieved at: http://www.letteratura-italiana.com/pdf/letteratura%20italiana/01%20GENESINI%20Letteratura%20123.pdf]


Innes, M. (2005). Charlemagne’s government. In Story, J. (2005). Charlemagne: empire and society (pp-22-38). Manchester University Press. https://archive.org/details/charlemagneempir0000unse/page/n7/mode/2up


Jones, G.F. (1963). The ethos of the Song of Roland. Johns Hopkins Press. https://archive.org/details/ethosofsongof00geor/page/n5/mode/2up


McKitterick, R. (2005). The Carolingian renaissance of culture and learning. In Story, J. (2005). Charlemagne: empire and society (pp-151-167). Manchester University Press. https://archive.org/details/charlemagneempir0000unse/page/n7/mode/2up


Miles, J. (1958). The Heroic Style of the “Song of Roland”. Romance Philology, 11(4), PERCIVAL B. FAY TESTIMONIAL: Part II, pp. 356-362. Brepols; University of California Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44939822


Taylor, A. (2001). Was There a Song of Roland? Speculum, 76(1), pp. 28-65. The University of Chicago Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2903705


The Song of Roland. (1996). The Project Gutenberg eBook. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/391


Vance, E. (1970). Reading the Song of Roland. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. https://archive.org/details/readingsongofrol0000vanc/page/n11/mode/2up


Warren, M.R. (2014). The Song of Roland: How the Middle Ages aren’t old. The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, 1(2), pp. 281 – 291. doi:10.1017/pli.2014.11. http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S2052261414000117

Visual Sources

Comments


Author Photo

Deborah Zaccai

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page