1902 Encyclopedia > The Legend of Roland

The Legend of Roland

LEGEND OF ROLAND. The main incident of this legend is founded upon an undoubted historical event, —the Spanish expedition of Charlemagne (778). The Frankish king, having crossed the Pyrenees and captured Pamplona, was beaten back from the walls of Saragossa. On his return the " Gascons " (Basques) surprised his rear-guard, and, according to the testimony of Eginhard, cut it off to a man (Vit. Gar., c. i.),—"In which battle were slain Eggihard, provost of the royal table . . . and Hruod-landus, prefect of the Britannic march." This account is supported by other evidence more or less contemporary, as, for example, the Vita Hludowici? From this work we gather that at the time of its composition (c. 840) the Boncesvalles disaster was already the subject of popular tradition; for its author, speaking of the Frankish chiefs slain in this battle, says, " quorum, quia vulgata sunt, nomina dicere supersedi." Yet in its earliest extant form the legend has already worked in the names and traditions of a later age, e.g., the traitor Ganelon, who probably, as Leibnitz has suggested, represents Wenelon, archbishop of Sens, accused of treason towards Charles the Bald in 859. It is interesting to note that during the last few years Dummler (Romania, ii. 146-148) has discovered what appears to be the epitaph of the above-mentioned Eggihard. This, as G. Paris remarks, renders it highly probable that the similar elegiac verses quoted in the Pseudo-Turpin (cc. 24, 25), which make Boland thirty-eight years old at the time of his death, are also genuine survivals from the Carolingian era. According to Dummler's discovery, the battle of Boncesvalles was fought on 15th August.


d'Espagne, i. 376-380. 2 Ap. Pertz, ii. 608.


Earliest Extant Forms.—The legend of Boland makes its first appearance in (a) the so-called History of Archbishop Turpin and (b) the Chanson de Roland. The former, according to Paris, may be divided into two parts ; of these the first (cc. 1-5), written about 1050, deals with Charle-magne's conquest of Spain, but contains no allusion to Roland. The latter section, written by a monk of Yienne between 1109 and 1119, gives the main outlines of the familiar legend: Marsilius and Baligant appear (c. 21); Roland fights with the giant Ferracute, Ariosto's Ferraii (Orl. Fur., c. 1); then follow the narrative of Ganelon's treachery (c. 21) and punishment (c. 26), the episode of Roland's horn, Roland's address to his sword (c. 22), his last prayer, his death (c. 23), and Charles's vengeance on the Saracens (c. 26). The Chanson de Roland, in its extant version probably composed in England between 1066 and 1095, looks like the expansion of an earlier poem written towards the beginning of the same century.

It gives the legend in much the same form as the Pseudo-Turpin, but with far more detail and poetic fire. There are, however, a few striking differences between the two accounts. Such deal with the causes and method of Ganelon's treachery, the personality of Baldwin, and the fate of Archbishop Turpin. Above all, the Latin prose-writer has no second hero in Oliver and knows nothing of Roland's love for Aude.

Additions to the Early Legend.—The name of Roland was soon transplanted from its native soil in the gestes of Roncesvalles into almost the whole cycle of later Charlemagne romance ; and by weaving these notices of him together we may construct the legendary story of his life. Thus the Enfanees Roland (c. 1200) tells of his parents' disgrace and his infant valour ; in the Chanson d'Aspremont (late 12th century) we read how he became possessed of" his famous sword Durendal ; Girars de Viane (c. 1200) recounts his great fight with Oliver and his love for that hero's sister Aude. Roland plays scarce less prominent a part in Renaud de Montauban (13th century) and figures in Fierabras (12th century), Otinel (c. 1250), and the Voyage à Jerusalem (c. 1130). Nicholas of Padua's. Entrée en Espagne (c. 1320) makes Roland quarrel with Charles and fly to Persia, whence he only returns to aid in the siege of Pamplona and to perish at Roncesvalles.

Diffusion of the Roland Legend in Literature.—The immense-popularity of the Chanson de Roland and the Pseudo-Turpin may be measured by the influence they have exercised on the literature-of nearly every country of western Europe. To the original Chanson de Roland a poet of perhaps the reign of Philip Augustus-added a new ending of some 2000 lines. From this full version, are descended the Revianiemeuts or Roneevaux, of which so many French MSS. remain. During the 12th century a Swabian priest, Conrad, translated the Chanson into rhymed German verse. This Rolandslied forms the basis of the Strieker's Karl (c. 1230), in its-turn the foundation for the Roncesvalles section of the so-called. Karl Meinet (early 14th century). In England Taillefer's singing-of a "cantilena Rollandi" prefaced the first Norman charge at Hastings _/' but, curiously enough, the English Roland of the 14th century in some places seems to look back for its original to the-Pseudo-Turpin rather than to the Chanson de Roland, which received its final shape in England. It was probably from that country that the Eoland legend passed to Scandinavia and Iceland. There the battle of Roncesvalles forms the eighth section of the great Karlamagnus Saga (13th century), which is of critical import-ance, as it preserves some details not to be found in the Chanson, de Roland as we now have it. Translated into Danish, this work took the form of the Kejser Karl Magnus (15th century), to this-day a popular book in Denmark. The legend penetrated eastward into Hungary and Bohemia ; while in the west Eoland appears in the Welsh Mabinogion and the tales of Ireland. M. Bormans has published Flemish fragments of the Roncesvalles story ; and these, which belong to the 13th and the 14th century, are based on the-Chanson. In the 16th century the same legend circulated through-out the Low Countries in one of the most popular books of the day. In the 13th century the Spanish "fabuke histrionum," of which Roderic of Toledo speaks (d. 1247), and which may, on one hypo-thesis, have been the sources whence the Pseudo-Turpin drew his. materials, gave way to a new and more patriotic legend, in which Bernard del Carpio takes the leading place ; but three centuries later (1528) Nicolas di Piamonte revived the purer Frankish tradition in the still popular Karlo Magno.

It is, however, on the literature of Italy that the Roland legend' has exercised its widest influence. Here the songs, chanted by the early French jongleurs, towards the end of the 12th century made place for the Italianized Remaniements, till the epoch of N icholas of Padua (c. 1320), whose gigantic Entrée en Espagne (with its sup-plement the Prise de Pampelune), though but a mosaic of earlier materials, formed the groundwork of the Tuscan poem, the Spagtia (1350-1380), on which the Rotta di Roneisvalle in its turn is founded. Somewhat later than the verse Spagna came the Spagna in prose ; and the extraordinary popularity of the legend in its new guise made the names of Charlemagne's paladins familiar down to the age of the Renaissance. We have now reached the era of the great Italian poets Pulci (Morgante Maggiore, 1481), Boiardo (Orlando-Innamorato, 1486), Ariosto (Orlando Furioso, 1516), and Berni (1541), whose poems, however, with the exception of Pulei's, are indebted to those of their predecessors for little more than the names of their chief characters and their general plan.

5 Will, of Malmes., Gest. Reg. Angl., iii. 242 ; Wace, ed. Andresen, ii. 11. 8035-40.

Roland seems to be the 12th-century statue in the church of Sau Zeno at Verona. The whole history of Roncesvalles is blazoned in the 13th-century window in Chartres cathedral. A similar window existed formerly in the abbey church of St Denis. M. Vétault (Hist, de Ch., p. 496) has also figured a Carolingian coin which bears the names of both Roland and Charles. The so-called Roland statues of Germany are most probably symbolical of the judicial and other rights once possessed by the people of those towns where they are to be found. In some cases at least the name seems to have been transferred to what were originally meant to be representations of the first Othos (10th century). The earliest known allusion to a " statua Rolandi " under this name occurs in a Privilegium granted by Henry V. to the town of Bremen (1111). The word "Rolandssäule" is perhaps a piece of folk-etymology for an earlier "Rothland-säule " or red-land-pillar, i.e., the before-mentioned figure or pillar, which signified that the state in which it stood had the power of life and death,—in other words, was a Blutgerichtstätte. Grimm suspects a connexion between the Roland statues and those old Teutonic pillars of which the Irminsul de-stroyed by Charlemagne is the best-known example. These Roland statues are sometimes in the open air, as at Bremen and Magdeburg ; or against the town-house, as at Halberstadt ; or in the church, as formerly at Göttingen. Sometimes they ride on horseback, as at Haldensleben near Magdeburg ; but more generally they are to be found standing upright. They always bear a sword in their right hand and very frequently a shield in their left. They are usually armoured, as at Magdeburg, but are occasionally dressed in more peaceful robes, as at Halle (on the Saale), or both cloaked and armoured, as at Wedel in Holstein and at Bremen. Sometimes they are crowned, as at Wedel and Nordhausen. The heads of the statues differ extremely,—being long-bearded at Erfurt, short-bearded at Wedel, and absolutely smooth-faced at Bremen. At Brandenburg the Roland was ornamented with silver and perhaps with gold. The statues are often of colossal height, that of Belgern (Merseburg) being over 9 ells high, exclusive of its pedestal. Perhaps the most famous Roland pillar still remaining is that of Bremen.

For further information on this subject see Leibnitz, Annales Imperii, i. 478, &c. ; the treatises of Gryphiander (ed. 1666) Eggelingius (1700), B. Carpzov (1742), J. H. Hartmann (1735), and Nicholas Meyer, De WicUldis (1739); and Zoepfl's exhaustive account in vol. iii. of his Altertliiimer des deutschen Reichs. For the Roland legend generally consult Léon Gautier's Epopées Françaises, iii., and Chanson de Roland, edd. 1S70 and 1881. Besides these, see the various romances of the Charlemagne cycle edited for the series of Anciens Poètes de France, the various volumes of Romania, and the late editions of the several poems alluded to in the foregoing article. For the relationship of the Roland legend to the Italian poets see the works of P. Rajna. (T. A. A.)

The above article was written by: T. A. Archer.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries