231. The Song of Roland (late 11th century)

“My Lords of France, God give you strength at need!

Save you stand fast, this field we cannot keep.”

The French all stay: “Foul shame it were to flee!

We’re yours till death; no man of us will yield.”        verse 82, page 92

Some weeks ago I read Two Lives of Charlemagne. One particular episode told of Charlemagne leading his army into Spain to fight the Saracens and extend his empire and Christianity. He won some, lost some, and during his retreat to France, his rearguard was attacked and massacred by Basques in the Ronceveux Pass. Two hundred years later, this historical footnote had become propaganda to encourage patriotic French soldiers to enlist in the First Crusade.

A grand knightly epic poem with Sir Roland, his best friend Oliver, the fighting Archbishop Turpin, his twelve peers and twenty thousand soldiers facing one hundred thousand Paynims (Saracens). Roland has been betrayed by his uncle Ganelon but is too proud to blow his horn to call back Charlemagne and the main French forces. Finally forced into calling them back, the effort is too much for him, and the returning army is left to seek revenge, besieging the town of Saragossa.

“Thronging about him are twenty thousand men

who with one voice their faith and honour pledge

Never to fail him for torment or for death.

With lance and spear there’s none but does his best;

Then they draw sword and show more prowess yet.

Fierce is the battle and marvellous and dread.”             verse 246, page 181.

My copy was the Penguin classic, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, better known to me for her detective stories. Her introduction to this poem was extremely useful and informative, answering questions about the text before they arose and allowing me to move quickly into the story.

From the title, I was naively expecting a courtly tale of knightly deeds by brave noble warriors, with fair maidens waving handkerchiefs from pennant-laden pavilions. While there is plenty of noble knightly speeches and sacrifices, this is more like Custer’s Last Stand set in medieval Spain, with plenty of violence and gore – sword blows cause graphic wounds and soldiers and knights die like flies. The Muslim citizens of the besieged city are converted to Christianity at pain of death. As for the few women in this story they are kept well in the background; with Roland’s frail fiance dropping dead when she hears the news of the massacre, and the Sultan’s wife taken back to France to become Charlemagne’s wife as part of the spoils of war.

Personal rating: A quick read. At least you get to boo the traitorous Ganelon before the horror of the whole mess overtakes you. 5/10.

Kimmy’s rating: Let slip the dogs of war! Kimmy was feeling very warlike after scaring the neighbour’s cat away from our old kitty. Grrrrrrr!

In the years 1050-1100:

  • Edward the Confessor wills the throne of England to Normandy based William, 1051, leading to the power tussle that ends with the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
  • Seljuk Turks capture Baghdad and invade Anatolia (1035), Syria and Palestine (1075), Antioch (1084)
  • Pope Gregory VII insists on extensive papal powers, setting off a tit-for-tat series of deposements, antipopes and excommunications between Popes and Emperors 1075-1123
  • Cuzco, the future capital of the Inca Empire is founded c.1080
  • Domesday Book records English land ownership, 1086
  • Pope Urban goes on a road tour of France, preaching the recovery of Jerusalem and the Christian Church in the east (1095), sparking the First Crusade (1096-1099) which culminates in the sack of Jerusalem (1099)

Other reads:

The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly. This YA new release answers that question that has plagued your mind in the small hours : how would privileged rich kids survive in an apocalypse? I was hoping this would be the first book in a series, but no doubt it will be turned into TV by Netflix.  4/5

The Complete Peanuts Volume 1, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz. Every cartoon strip published in the first three years of Peanuts. Sheer gold. 5/5

And it’s Goodnight from Him … The Autobiography of the Two Ronnies, by Ronnie Corbett. A love song to Mr Ronnie Barker by his friend and colleague RC. If you are a fan (and you should be) of either or both of these comedy giants, you will enjoy these gentle reminiscences.  5/5







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