Image courtesy Patrick Mayon
The Song of Roland, circa 1100 ce, is one of the most important of the numerous medieval French epics and reflects the mythology that grew up around the figure of Charlemagne.
So, what really happened?
Charlemagne invaded Spain in 778 with the intention of seizing the city of Saragossa (Zaragoza) in northern Spain. On his way there, he had traveled through Basque lands, plundering, looting and pillaging as he passed. On Charlemagne's return to France, on the afternoon of 15 August 778, Basques attacked his rear guard and slaughtered it to a man at Roncesvals (Roncesvalles, Roncevaux) somewhere in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain--the exact location remains in dispute. Einhard (775?-840), in his Life of Charlemagne, described the incident briefly in his notes on the Spanish expedition. According to Einhard, a few nobles were killed, including "Hrudoland, lord of the Marches of Brittany."
It is unclear what impact the disaster had on Charlemagne's plans. Because it merited few words from Einhard, one is tempted to conclude that it was minor and did not really hinder Charlemagne's military campaigns, but it did delay his establishment of a Spanish March by almost a decade, and it did allow Saragossa to remain an independent emirate. In addition, the Basques remained an independent force (as a result of succeeding battles also).
This "minor" military ambush, between French and Basque, in which Hrudoland died, served as the historical kernel which, over centuries, morphed into the Song of Roland that we know today. Along the way, the facts changed dramatically. At first, Roland's story circulated in a short oral form in the mid-ninth century, and later, by the time of the Norman Invasion of England, "a 'song about Roland' was sung to the Norman troops before they joined battle at Hastings." (wiki) By the latter part of the eleventh century, when the form of the Song which we possess today was probably finally composed and written down, the historical essence of the story had pretty much disappeared. It was no longer a tale of Basque treachery and Roland's simple death; it had become a saga of Muslim-Christian enmity and French loyalty to the cause of France and Church. (BTW, the earliest version of the epic, dating to the twelfth century, is in a manuscript known as "Digby 23" in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.)
Points to consider:
Note that I have not seen the movie (French, 1978)! Please let me know how good or bad it is.
Some recommended online lectures and websites:
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