The Song of Roland Essay
The Song of Roland
Count Roland was the epitome of everything a Carolingian knight should be. He was virtuous in every possible way. Bravery, piety, modesty, strength, and ability are all adjectives that aptly describe Sir Roland. In the work The Song of Roland a portrayal of 8th Century warfare and practices are given to the reader.
We see a world were values such as loyalty, friendship, and piety co-exist with values such as ferocity in combat, eagerness to kill infidels, and lionizing of the sacking of cities and looting of the dead. What could bring about such opposing values into one moral code? Perhaps the system of values existing in 8th Century Frankish society is a combination of moral systems. Frankish knights of the Carolingian Era adhered to a strict moral code that drew many values from Christian doctrine, but also drew heavily from the moral system of a warlike barbarian people; such as the early Frankish tribes as portrayed in History of the Franks by Gregory the Bishop of Tours.
During the time of Clovis I Christianity was just beginning as the state religion of the Franks. In Gregory’s depiction of the Frankish people following the death of Clovis I, he shows a society were murder, incest and the killing of one’s own son is perfectly acceptable. Treachery and ambush are expunged as virtues befitting a great ruler. The only mentions of Christianity in the text seem to be purposely placed there by Gregory. While the Franks claim to be Christian at this time they clearly do not understand the moral code that goes along with their Christian faith. Understanding of that Christian faith comes at a later time.
Loyalty in particular seems to be a central virtue of Carolingian knights. Roland says once, “It is fitting we should stay here for our king; a man should suffer hardships for his lord, and persevere in heat and cold; a man should lose if need be, hide and hair” (Roland 83). This attitude of sacrifice for your lord, and loyalty unto death is very different from the attitude of the early Franks. In Gregory’s account Frankish warriors care more for booty than loyalty. “Theodoric knew that the men of Clermont-Ferrand were ready to betray him. “Follow me,” said he to his people, “and I will lead you to a land where you will be able to lay your hands on so much gold and silver than even your desire for loot will be satisfied” (Gregory 6). Roland and his twelve companions were ready to die for the honor of their king, while the men of Clermont-Ferrand fought only for the promise of booty. This ideal of loyalty and faithfulness can only have come from the influence of the Catholic Church.
Piety is clearly very important to the Carolingian knight. Before their deaths many of the twelve companions seek penance and absolution so that they may enter Heaven. Roland begs God’s mercy as he dies saying, “True Father, who hath never told a lie, Who resurrected Lazarus from the dead, and Who protected Daniel from the lions, protect the soul in me from every peril brought on by wrongs I’ve done throughout my life!” (Roland 124). This statement shows Roland’s understanding of Christian doctrine.
He comprehends the need for absolution in order to attain paradise, and he clearly has a thorough understanding and knowledge of scripture, as he quotes from the Bible in numerous places. During and following the time of Clovis I the Franks understanding of piety was simple. If you were pious, you won battles, if you weren’t, you lost. Gregory said in regard to successes, “they have come to Christians who confess the blessed Trinity and ruin has come to heretics who have tried the same.” (Gregory 1) So on the battlefield is were you proved your piousness, not in your life or during prayer. This is clearly a gross misunderstanding of Christian doctrine by the early Franks.
Ferocity in combat is perhaps one of the most important characteristics of a Frankish knight. It co-exists with loyalty, friendship and piety, all Christian virtues. Roland who is the epitome of the Carolingian knight is the fiercest warrior of them all. His ability is thus described, “the baron goes ands strikes with all his force upon the jewel-studded golden casque, cuts downward through the head, the trunk and the byrnie, the well-made saddle set with gems and gold, and deep into the backbone of the horse” (Roland 100).
This cleaving of a man in two is not deemed tragic or saddening as one would expect from a Christian society, instead it is raised up as an example of a good Christian activity. Killing infidels is never sinful. Indeed even the Archbishop himself engages in such activity, “But Turpin strikes …He spits his body (the Spaniards) through from side to side and throws him dead upon an open spot.” (Roland 98) Even though many Christian ideals have sunk into Frankish society, the warlike nature of the Franks still endures during the Carolingian age.
Sacking towns and acquiring plunder are not the chief motivation for warfare, as they were during early Frankish history, but these activities are still very central to warfare in the Carolingian age. Following the retreat of the Spanish Charles’ knights loot the bodies of the dead enemy knights even before pursuing the retreating enemy (Roland 126). Many mentions are made of the numerous towns that Roland had sacked prior to this story. The fact that Roland had killed thousands of innocents and burned hundreds of homes is not used to criticize Roland, instead it is used as an example of his prowess as a warrior. This attitude toward random slaughter and plunder is clearly not inline with Christian morals. Its origins must instead be from early Frankish society.
When Christianity first entered Frankish society it was merely a new version of paganism for the Franks who practiced it. They viewed the Christian god as more powerful than other pagan deities, and so they converted to Christianity. At no point though did they embrace the moral code of Catholicism. However, later under Charlemagne the missionaries had mostly finished their work of educating the Franks. The knights portrayed in The Song of Roland clearly understand the morals of piety, honesty, loyalty and friendship. They also demonstrated a thorough knowledge of Christian doctrine and scripture.
Even though the Carolingian knights were more Christian, certainly than the Franks of the 6th Century, they were still not totally inline with true Christian morals. Slaughter, plundering and mortal combat were still held in high esteem during the Carolingian era. These barbaric ideals still existed in Frankish society, despite the efforts of Christian missionaries. Clearly the moral code of the Carolingian knight was a combination of Christian values, and the value system of the early Frankish tribes.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 13 September 2017
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