Summer Reading Reviews, Part 2:
La chanson de Roland

Note to the reader: This review is in three parts: the first is an exercise in writing an academic review (here to keep the punters happy), the second is a reaction to the text itself, and the third is a list of questions I’ve yet to fully ponder that arise from the text. If you’re interested in my reactions, skip to the part so labeled. -- Ed


Brault, Gerard. La Chanson de Roland: Oxford Text and English Translation. Student Edition. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1984. Pp. xxxiii; 245. $15.00.

A student edition of a larger work is often necessary, since we expect our students to be less interested in the sorts of minutiae that we tedious academics get lost in. Yet a student edition must be helpful and useful to the students’ understanding of the text, and that goal is in Gerard Brault’s 1984 edition of the Chanson de Roland, occasionally lacking. On the one hand, the introduction seems largely useful, helping to distinguish all the cultural and genere forms that produced this text. He moves quickly through the kinds of narrative poetry that France produced in the High Middle Ages to the “Historical Event” of Charlemagne’s disastrous campaign into Andalusia in the late eighth century. From there he discusses the development of the legend, then of the chanson itself, before analyzing its usefulness as an historical document. All this is done in a clear and concise prose style that would seem to work quite well for the general undergraduate reader.

There are, however, flaws in this introduction, as well as in the edition itself. These are in some places stylistic issues and in others questionable choices about what and how certain information is presented. He cites, for instance, Schliemann excavating at Troy as a reason to give some credence to the poem’s historical relevance (xix); not only is this an old chestnut, but it is not a very meaty one at that (Schliemann’s methods were not the best, nor was his poly-chronic reconstruction of “Troy” the Homeric city). Too, he occasionally lapses into strange idiom, such as the puzzling notion that “as in contemporary society, individuals in this epic are also bound together by feudal ties involving mutual obligations between lord and vassal” (xx). Unless Brault has been living in an alternative France, one can only assume he means “contemporary to the poem,” or perhaps to AD 778, something that in any case is not clear from the context. While later usage seems to indicate the former meaning, such imprecision in the introduction does not bode well for the translation ahead.

Perhaps most annoying is the lack of an apparatus criticus and footnotes, both crucial features for understanding a poem no matter what one’s academic standing. Taken in conjunction with his abbreviated bibliography of works largely in French, and his quasi-literal translation of the poem, one is not certain for what sort of “students” Brault expects this volume to be useful. French majors are presented with a ready-made trot; literature majors are not presented with a very literary rendition of the text; and the majority of today’s undergraduates, lacking a guide to the meaning of the text, will see the poem as just another incomprehensible relic of the middle ages.

Reactions to the text

The ideological machine that this text contains is centered largely on the dehumanization of the Saracen. I use “Saracen” deliberately here, since it contains the European idealization of the Muslim other. (Note: I’m almost certain I’m not the first person to say this, and if I’ve not given credit for this idea it’s because I can’t remember where I’ve read it). The Saracen in this text is dehumanized in a number of ways, some subtle, some less than that.

An example of the more subtle dehumanization occurs in brief moments such as this: Oliver, Roland’s companion, [1] looks out over the field of battle and says:

Jo ai veüt les Sarrazins d’Espaigne,
Cuverz en sunt li val e les muntaignes
E li lariz e trestutes les plaignes.
Granz sunt les oz de cele gent estrange (laisse 84)

I have seen the Saracens from Spain; the valleys and mountains are covered with them, the hillsides, too, and all the plains. The armies of that foreign people are huge.

The Saracen other becomes a blight on the land, like a plague of locusts.

In another sense, they are a blight since they are comprised of things that are always “almost knights,” people who ben resemblet barun (look a good deal like a true knight, laisse 229). They follow the same martial culture as Charles and his men, but they cannot be true knights, quite likely because they employ monsters:

De Micenes as chefs gros:
Sur les eschines qu’il unt en mi les dos
Cil sunt seiet sensement cume porc (laisse 232)

Of large-headed men from Misnes: on their spines, along their backs, they have bristles like pigs.

This detail, coming at the start of a list of the different nations that make the Saracen army, throws suspicion on all the “normal” people who follow in the list, not only those ki uncles ben ne volt (never wished to do good, laisse 232) but monstrous races as well. This highlights something about monsters that I’d not considered before: the Monstrous Races are always objectified. At no time does anyone expect a man to live, work, worship, or fight alongside monsters, for there is always the chance that you yourself will become one by proximity. Furthermore, no monster ever speaks nor has it own agency; those that speak at all, e.g. the Donestre, do so in the voices of others.

I’m reminded, too, of an essay by Greta Austin, in which she points out that the line between nation and race is paper-thin in the middle ages, and the line between race and monster is equally porous. [2] One could easily collapse the categories depending on polemical need, and thus it seems almost anticlimactic to discover that some of the members of the Saracen army aren’t human; after all, to the medieval European eye, nothing from the Orient was ever really human.

The Saracen is also marked by conspicuous wealth. From the start, they may not have a good army, but they can bribe Charlemagne with:

curs e leons e chens
set cenz camelz e mil hosturs muërs
d’or e d’argent iiiiC muls cargez
cinquant carre qu’en sent carier (laisse 3)

bears, lions, dogs, seven hundred camels laden with gold and silver, and fifty carts for a wagon train.

Ironicallly, Blancandrin, the speaker and “one of the most cunning pagans” (de plus saives paiens, laisse 3) next says that with such a bribe, Charlemagne “will be able to pay his soldiers well” (ben en purrat luër ses soldeiers, laisse 3). One wonders why King Marsile of Saragossa hasn’t bought his own army with such a treasure-hoard, or indeed why he should in effect become paymaster of the Christian army. The obvious answer—because God wills it—is not enough. Rather, I think it has much to do with the idea that Muslims are Orientals and therefore rich and stupid. Something in me also suspects that this is a post-Crusades mentality; while the Andalusian Caliphate was rich, I think, to borrow Professor Tolkien’s famous phrasing, “the tale grew in the telling.” After the mentality arose that one could go East and seek one’s fortune along with penance, I suspect it became much more common to assume that the Oriental would be a source of wealth for the Occidental. However, this is mere assumption, and I haven’t a thing to back it up with yet.

There is, however, this: the Saracens in this poem are an often indirect source of European wealth. Consider Roland’s “oliphant,” the elephant-tusk horn he carries with him. There being precious few oliphants in Europe since the last Ice Age, how else might he have gotten it but from Saracen traders? It is a surprisingly Oriental signifier in the midst of all this anti-Oriental luxuria.

Indeed, the portrait of the Franks is at times as disturbing as that of the Saracens. Their motives are typically rather thin; Ganelon, for instance, displaces the impetus for conquest off of Charlemagne and onto Roland: it is Roland who because “he holds sway over the Emepeor himself / will conquer for [Charlemagne] all the lands from here to the Orient” (l’emperere meïsmes ad tut a sun talent / cunquerrat li les teres d’ice qu’en Orient, laisse 30). No other reason is given for conquest—the famous “pagans are wrong and Christians are right” must wait until the battle begins, some 600 lines from this point—and one is led to assume, as Blancandrin says here, that “Roland is a maniac” (mult est pesmes Rollant, laisse 30).

The Franks also have curious rituals surrounding death: The cultural anthropologist in me is more interested in the death ritual that Roland performs (laisse 174) including the choice of a pine tree, placing his valuable weapons beneath him, turning his face to the enemy, and—most curious of all—pur ses pecchez, we are told, Deu en puroffrid lo guant (he offered his gauntlet to God for his sins), as if he is pledging his service to God in the afterlife. It all seems quaintly Germanic: dying under a tree, showing no fear, soldiering for God when you’re dead. I’m reminded most of all that I need to pick up James Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. To make matters stranger, after the Franks cut out Roland, Turpin, and Oliver’s hearts and set them in a casket while wrapping the bodies in stags’ skins (ritual!), the pagans arrive, and in a rather disturbing scene of re-arming, all the regions of the Carolingian empire are mentioned, as if this were a 12th-century rendition of Triumph of Will: each region is strong, proud, and unafraid of battle (laisses 218-225)

In the end, neither portrait really matters, since the end result of this conquest is rabid anti-Semitic fantasy, as “idols” are smashed in Saragossa:

A mil Franceis funt ben cercer la vile
Les signagoges e les mahumeries
A maliz de ser e a cuignes qu’il tindrent
Fruissent les ymagenes trestutes les ydles
N’i remendrat ne sorz ne falserie (laisse 266)

Orders are given for a thousand Frenchmen to search the city, the synagogues and the mosques; holding iron hammers and axes, they smash the statues and all the idols. No sorcery or false cult will remain there.

The point here being that of course this did not happen: Saragossa was steadfastly Muslim until well into El Cid’s day.

I’m leaving out a lot, I know—battle scenes, the quick and surprising conversion of Bramimonde—but these are some of the weird images I’ll take away from the text, along with a general idea that, although we are supposed to believe the Christians are right, neither side comes out very well in the telling.


[1] I have an idea that “companion” here might have something to do with Alan Bray’s notion of the “friend” (see The Friend), but swive me if I can see anywhere to run with this idea.

[2] Greta Austin "Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races? Race and the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East.” Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger, eds. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Kalamazoo: U of Michigan Press, 2002. 25–51.

  • How demonized were the “Saracens” in heroic literature before the Crusades?
  • What else—besides the ambiguous wascones in the Carolingian chronicles—did the “universal enemy” of Saracen replace?
  • Is the choice of “Saracen” as enemy a deliberate (or “accidental”) internationalizing of the story from something only locals would know to something all who read it would understand as “other”?
  • Is Roland more of a hero fighting Saracens than if he were fighting “Wascones”?
  • How did later ages in France treat the Carolingians?
  • Is it even worth being surprised anymore that the luxurious and effeminate Saracens also use as soldiers monsters from farthest Ethiopia (laisse 143 ffl)?
  • What’s with the beard fetishism in medieval heroic texts? El Cid grows his out, Charles exposes his beard to show he’s unafraid (so does the pagan king)—what gives? Weird masculinity signifiers?


Steve Muhlberger said...

Nation, race, monster: Englishmen have tails!

You have a word missing in your first para.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Interesting post. Regarding the Olifant, you don't have to have the Saracens as intermediaries in bringing that to the West -- notice in Roland's paean to Durendal, he'd already conquered Constantinople (likely meaning all Byzantium). Also, by the early 12th century, the legend of Charlemagne's journey to the Holy Land had wide circulation. I have an article in Nottingham Medieval Studies about Charlemagne in the Oxford Roland that deals with some of this.

Also, it's a shame that this student editition is kind of poor, since Brault's other critical edition (2 vols.) is quite good.

theswain said...

Some interesting thoughts.....

I wonder though about the "Post-Crusade"....texts such as Wonders of the East and Alexander's Letter to Aristotle were certainly popular reading, and folks from NW Europe had been steadily travelling to Byzantium and the Holy Land long before the Crusades, much less seen and experienced first hand the wealth of Arab Spain, esp. on the pilgrim road to Compostela. So certainly there is something "eastern" in the depiction, but I don't think we need to look to the "post-Crusade" era to explain it.

Still a quite interesting post on the edition and on Roland, a too little studied text these days.

Jacob said...

Steve: Thanks--I fixed it (see how often I read the blog?)

Matthew: Thanks for the tips. I still think the Olifant is meant to tie Roland to the Saracens, if nothing else as a conquerer of them. I'll see if I can scare up a copy of your article, too! As for Brault's two volume edition, its quality is high enough that I'm disappointed its translation into a "student text" didn't work. Notes are my big thing, and this one just doesn't have any.

theswain: I'm more interested in the idea that after the Crusades, the Saracen became a stand-in for any sort of generalized enemy--the key here being the substitution of Saracens for the chronicle's "Wascones." Is this part of a (eugh) "globalization" of local narrative, or just coincidence?

Matthew Gabriele said...

I'm more interested in the idea that after the Crusades, the Saracen became a stand-in for any sort of generalized enemy--the key here being the substitution of Saracens for the chronicle's "Wascones." Is this part of a (eugh) "globalization" of local narrative, or just coincidence?

I think this is actually happening earlier than 1095 -- likely beginning in the early 11th c. or even late 10th -- meaning that all of Christianity's enemies are progressively collapsed into a generic "enemies of Christ." Jews, Muslims, heretics, pagans all start to lose their distinctiveness and start to be "in cahoots" with each other.