LA CHANSON DE ROLAND
These verses begin the "Roman du Mont-Saint-Michel," and if the
spelling is corrected, they still read almost as easily as Voltaire;
more easily than Verlaine; and much like a nursery rhyme; but as
tourists cannot stop to clear their path, or smooth away the
pebbles, they must be lifted over the rough spots, even when
roughness is beauty. Translation is an evil, chiefly because every
one who cares for mediaeval architecture cares for mediaeval French,
and ought to care still more for mediaeval English. The language of
this "Roman" was the literary language of England. William of Saint-
Pair was a subject of Henry II, King of England and Normandy; his
verses, like those of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, are monuments of
English literature. To this day their ballad measure is better
suited to English than to French; even the words and idioms are more
English than French. Any one who attacks them boldly will find that
the "vers romieus" run along like a ballad, singing their own
meaning, and troubling themselves very little whether the meaning is
exact or not. One's translation is sure to be full of gross
blunders, but the supreme blunder is that of translating at all when
one is trying to catch not a fact but a feeling. If translate one
must, we had best begin by trying to be literal, under protest that
it matters not a straw whether we succeed. Twelfth-century art was
not precise; still less "precieuse," like Moliere's famous
The verses of the young monk, William, who came from the little
Norman village of Saint-Pair, near Granville, within sight of the
Mount, were verses not meant to be brilliant. Simple human beings
like rhyme better than prose, though both may say the same thing, as
they like a curved line better than a straight one, or a blue better
than a grey; but, apart from the sensual appetite, they chose rhyme
in creating their literature for the practical reason that they
remembered it better than prose. Men had to carry their libraries in
These lines of William, beginning his story, are valuable because
for once they give a name and a date. Abbot Robert of Torigny ruled
at the Mount from 1154 to 1186. We have got to travel again and
again between Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres during these years, but
for the moment we must hurry to get back to William the Conqueror
and the "Chanson de Roland." William of Saint-Pair comes in here,
out of place, only on account of a pretty description he gave of the
annual pilgrimage to the Mount, which is commonly taken to be more
or less like what he saw every year on the Archangel's Day, and what
had existed ever since the Normans became Christian in 912:--
|Molz pelerins qui vunt al Munt
Enquierent molt e grant dreit unt
Comment l'igliese fut fundee
Premierement et estoree.
Cil qui lor dient de l'estoire
Que cil demandent en memoire
Ne l'unt pas bien ainz vunt faillant
En plusors leus e mespernant.
Por faire la apertement
Entendre a cels qui escient
N'unt de clerzie l'a tornee
De latin tote et ordenee
Pars veirs romieus novelement
Molt en segrei por son convent
Uns jovencels moine est del Munt
Deus en son reigne part li dunt.
Guillaume a non de Saint Paier
Cen vei escrit en cest quaier.
El tens Robeirt de Torignie
Fut cil romanz fait e trove.
|Most pilgrims who come to the Mount
Enquire much and are quite right,
How the church was founded
At first, and established.
Those who tell them the story
That they ask, in memory
Have it not well, but fall in error
In many places, and misapprehension.
In order to make it clearly
Intelligible to those who have
No knowledge of letters, it has been turned
From the Latin, and wholly rendered
In Romanesque verses, newly,
Much in secret, for his convent,
By a youth; a monk he is of the Mount.
God in his kingdom grant him part!
William is his name, of Saint Pair
As is seen written in this book.
In the time of Robert of Torigny
Was this roman made and invented.
If you are not satisfied with this translation, any scholar of
French will easily help to make a better, for we are not studying
grammar or archaeology, and would rather be inaccurate in such
matters than not, if, at that price, a freer feeling of the art
could be caught. Better still, you can turn to Chaucer, who wrote
his Canterbury Pilgrimage two hundred years afterwards:--
Whanne that April with his shoures sote
Li jorz iert clers e sanz grant vent.
Les meschines e les vallez
Chascuns d'els dist verz ou sonnez.
Neis li viellart revunt chantant
De leece funt tuit semblant.
Qui plus ne seit si chante outree
E Dex aie u Asusee.
Cil jugleor la u il vunt
Tuit lor vieles traites unt
Laiz et sonnez vunt vielant.
Li tens est beals la joie est grant.
Cil palefrei e cil destrier
E cil roncin e cil sommier
Qui errouent par le chemin
Que menouent cil pelerin
De totes parz henissant vunt
Por la grant joie que il unt.
Neis par les bois chantouent tuit
Li oiselet grant et petit.
Li buef les vaches vunt muant
Par les forez e repaissant.
Cors e boisines e fresteals
E fleutes e chalemeals
Sonnoent si que les montaignes
En retintoent et les pleignes.
Que esteit dont les plaiseiz
E des forez e des larriz.
En cels par a tel sonneiz
Com si ce fust cers acolliz.
Entor le mont el bois follu
Cil travetier unt tres tendu
Rues unt fait par les chemins.
Plentei i out de divers vins
Pain e pastez fruit e poissons
Oisels obleies veneisons
De totes parz aveit a vendre
Assez en out qui ad que tendre.
The day was clear, without much wind.|
The maidens and the varlets
Each of them said verse or song;
Even the old people go singing;
All have a look of joy.
Who knows no more sings HURRAH,
Or GOD HELP, or UP AND ON!
The minstrels there where they go
Have all brought their viols;
Lays and songs playing as they go.
The weather is fine; the joy is great;
The palfreys and the chargers,
And the hackneys and the packhorses
Which wander along the road
That the pilgrims follow,
On all sides neighing go,
For the great joy they feel.
Even in the woods sing all
The little birds, big and small.
The oxen and the cows go lowing
Through the forests as they feed.
Horns and trumpets and shepherd's pipes
And flutes and pipes of reed
Sound so that the mountains
Echo to them, and the plains.
How was it then with the glades
And with the forests and the pastures?
In these there was such sound
As though it were a stag at bay.
About the Mount, in the leafy wood,
The workmen have tents set up;
Streets have made along the roads.
Plenty there was of divers wines,
Bread and pasties, fruit and fish,
Birds, cakes, venison,
Everywhere there was for sale.
Enough he had who has the means to pay.
The droughte of March hath perced to the rote...
Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken strange strondes...
And especially, from every shires ende
Of Englelonde, to Canterbury they wende
The holy blisful martyr for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.
The passion for pilgrimages was universal among our ancestors as far
back as we can trace them. For at least a thousand years it was
their chief delight, and is not yet extinct. To feel the art of
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres we have got to become pilgrims again:
but, just now, the point of most interest is not the pilgrim so much
as the minstrel who sang to amuse him,--the jugleor or jongleur,--
who was at home in every abbey, castle or cottage, as well as at
every shrine. The jugleor became a jongleur and degenerated into the
street-juggler; the minstrel, or menestrier, became very early a
word of abuse, equivalent to blackguard; and from the beginning the
profession seems to have been socially decried, like that of a
music-hall singer or dancer in later times; but in the eleventh
century, or perhaps earlier still, the jongleur seems to have been a
poet, and to have composed the songs he sang. The immense mass of
poetry known as the "Chansons de Geste" seems to have been composed
as well as sung by the unnamed Homers of France, and of all spots in
the many provinces where the French language in its many dialects
prevailed, Mont-Saint-Michel should have been the favourite with the
jongleur, not only because the swarms of pilgrims assured him food
and an occasional small piece of silver, but also because Saint
Michael was the saint militant of all the warriors whose exploits in
war were the subject of the "Chansons de Geste." William of Saint-
Pair was a priest-poet; he was not a minstrel, and his "Roman" was
not a chanson; it was made to read, not to recite; but the "Chanson
de Roland" was a different affair.
So it was, too, with William's contemporaries and rivals or
predecessors, the monumental poets of Norman-English literature.
Wace, whose rhymed history of the Norman dukes, which he called the
"Roman de Rou," or "Rollo," is an English classic of the first rank,
was a canon of Bayeux when William of Saint-Pair was writing at
Mont-Saint-Michel. His rival Benoist, who wrote another famous
chronicle on the same subject, was also a historian, and not a
singer. In that day literature meant verse; elegance in French prose
did not yet exist; but the elegancies of poetry in the twelfth
century were as different, in kind, from the grand style of the
eleventh, as Virgil was different from Homer.
William of Saint-Pair introduces us to the pilgrimage and to the
jongleur, as they had existed at least two hundred years before his
time, and were to exist two hundred years after him. Of all our two
hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors who were going on
pilgrimages in the middle of the eleventh century, the two who would
probably most interest every one, after eight hundred years have
passed, would be William the Norman and Harold the Saxon. Through
William of Saint-Pair and Wace and Benoist, and the most charming
literary monument of all, the Bayeux tapestry of Queen Matilda, we
can build up the story of such a pilgrimage which shall be as
historically exact as the battle of Hastings, and as artistically
true as the Abbey Church.
According to Wace's "Roman de Rou," when Harold's father, Earl
Godwin, died, April 15, 1053, Harold wished to obtain the release of
certain hostages, a brother and a cousin, whom Godwin had given to
Edward the Confessor as security for his good behaviour, and whom
Edward had sent to Duke William for safe-keeping. Wace took the
story from other and older sources, and its accuracy is much
disputed, but the fact that Harold went to Normandy seems to be
certain, and you will see at Bayeux the picture of Harold asking
permission of King Edward to make the journey, and departing on
horseback, with his hawk and hounds and followers, to take ship at
Bosham, near Chichester and Portsmouth. The date alone is doubtful.
Common sense seems to suggest that the earliest possible date could
not be too early to explain the rash youth of the aspirant to a
throne who put himself in the power of a rival in the eleventh
century. When that rival chanced to be William the Bastard, not even
boyhood could excuse the folly; but Mr. Freeman, the chief authority
on this delicate subject, inclined to think that Harold was forty
years old when he committed his blunder, and that the year was about
1064. Between 1054 and 1064 the historian is free to choose what
year he likes, and the tourist is still freer. To save trouble for
the memory, the year 1058 will serve, since this is the date of the
triumphal arches of the Abbey Church on the Mount. Harold, in
sailing from the neighbourhood of Portsmouth, must have been bound
for Caen or Rouen, but the usual west winds drove him eastward till
he was thrown ashore on the coast of Ponthieu, between Abbeville and
Boulogne, where he fell into the hands of the Count of Ponthieu,
from whom he was rescued or ransomed by Duke William of Normandy and
taken to Rouen. According to Wace and the "Roman de Rou":--
Perhaps the allusion to rich tournaments belongs to the time of Wace
rather than to that of Harold a century earlier, before the first
crusade, but certainly Harold did go with William on at least one
raid into Brittany, and the charming tapestry of Bayeux, which
tradition calls by the name of Queen Matilda, shows William's men-
at-arms crossing the sands beneath Mont-Saint-Michel, with the Latin
legend:--"Et venerunt ad Montem Michaelis. Hic Harold dux trahebat
eos de arena. Venerunt ad flumen Cononis." They came to Mont-Saint-
Michel, and Harold dragged them out of the quicksands.
They came to the river Couesnon. Harold must have got great fame by
saving life on the sands, to be remembered and recorded by the
Normans themselves after they had killed him; but this is the affair
of historians. Tourists note only that Harold and William came to
the Mount:--"Venerunt ad Montem." They would never have dared to
pass it, on such an errand, without stopping to ask the help of
If William and Harold came to the Mount, they certainly dined or
supped in the old refectory, which is where we have lain in wait for
them. Where Duke William was, his jongleur--jugleor--was not far,
and Wace knew, as every one in Normandy seemed to know, who this
favourite was,--his name, his character, and his song. To him Wace
owed one of the most famous passages in his story of the assault at
Hastings, where Duke William and his battle began their advance
against the English lines:--
Guillaume tint Heraut maint jour
Si com il dut a grant enor.
A maint riche torneiement
Le fist aller mult noblement.
Chevals e armes li dona
Et en Bretaigne le mena
Ne sai de veir treiz faiz ou quatre
Quant as Bretons se dut combattre.
William kept Harold many a day,|
As was his due in great honour.
To many a rich tournament
Made him go very nobly.
Horses and arms gave him
And into Brittany led him
I know not truly whether three or four times
When he had to make war on the Bretons.
Of course, critics doubt the story, as they very properly doubt
everything. They maintain that the "Chanson de Roland" was not as
old as the battle of Hastings, and certainly Wace gave no sufficient
proof of it. Poetry was not usually written to prove facts. Wace
wrote a hundred years after the battle of Hastings. One is not
morally required to be pedantic to the point of knowing more than
Wace knew, but the feeling of scepticism, before so serious a
monument as Mont-Saint-Michel, is annoying. The "Chanson de Roland"
ought not to be trifled with, at least by tourists in search of art.
One is shocked at the possibility of being deceived about the
starting-point of American genealogy. Taillefer and the song rest on
the same evidence that Duke William and Harold and the battle itself
rest upon, and to doubt the "Chanson" is to call the very roll of
Battle Abbey in question. The whole fabric of society totters; the
British peerage turns pale.
Wace did not invent all his facts. William of Malmesbury is supposed
to have written his prose chronicle about 1120 when many of the men
who fought at Hastings must have been alive, and William expressly
said: "Tune cantilena Rollandi inchoata ut martium viri exemplum
pugnaturos accenderet, inclamatoque dei auxilio, praelium
consertum." Starting the "Chanson de Roland" to inflame the fighting
temper of the men, battle was joined. This seems enough proof to
satisfy any sceptic, yet critics still suggest that the "cantilena
Rollandi" must have been a Norman "Chanson de Rou," or "Rollo," or
at best an earlier version of the "Chanson de Roland"; but no Norman
chanson would have inflamed the martial spirit of William's army,
which was largely French; and as for the age of the version, it is
quite immaterial for Mont-Saint-Michel; the actual version is old
Taillefer himself is more vital to the interest of the dinner in the
refectory, and his name was not mentioned by William of Malmesbury.
If the song was started by the Duke's order, it was certainly
started by the Duke's jongleur, and the name of this jongleur
happens to be known on still better authority than that of William
of Malmesbury. Guy of Amiens went to England in 1068 as almoner of
Queen Matilda, and there wrote a Latin poem on the battle of
Hastings which must have been complete within ten years after the
battle was fought, for Guy died in 1076. Taillefer, he said, led the
Incisor-ferri mimus cognomine dictus.
"Taillefer, a jongleur known by that name." A mime was a singer, but
Taillefer was also an actor:--
Histrio cor audax nimium quem nobilitabat.
"A jongleur whom a very brave heart ennobled." The jongleur was not
noble by birth, but was ennobled by his bravery.
Hortatur Gallos verbis et territat Anglos
Alte projiciens ludit et ense suo.
Like a drum-major with his staff, he threw his sword high in the air
and caught it, while he chanted his song to the French, and
terrified the English. The rhymed chronicle of Geoffrey Gaimer who
wrote about 1150, and that of Benoist who was Wace's rival, added
the story that Taillefer died in the melee.
The most unlikely part of the tale was, after all, not the singing
of the "Chanson," but the prayer of Taillefer to the Duke:--
"Otreiez mei que io ni faille
Taillefer qui mult bien chantout
Sor un cheval qui tost alout
Devant le duc alout chantant
De Karlemaigne e de Rollant
E d'Oliver e des vassals
Qui morurent en Rencevals.
Quant il orent chevalchie tant
Qu'as Engleis vindrent apreismant:
"Sire," dist Taillefer, "merci!
Io vos ai longuement servi.
Tot mon servise me devez.
Hui se vos plaist le me rendez.
Por tot guerredon vos require
E si vos veil forment preier
Otreiez mei que io ni faille
Le premier colp de la bataille."
Li dus respondi: "Io l'otrei."
Taillefer who was famed for song,|
Mounted on a charger strong,
Rode on before the Duke, and sang
Of Roland and of Charlemagne,
Oliver and the vassals all
Who fell in fight at Roncesvals.
When they had ridden till they saw
The English battle close before:
"Sire," said Taillefer, "a grace!
I have served you long and well;
All reward you owe me still;
To-day repay me if you please.
For all guerdon I require,
And ask of you in formal prayer,
Grant to me as mine of right
The first blow struck in the fight."
The Duke answered: "I grant."
Le premier colp de la bataille."
Legally translated, Taillefer asked to be ennobled, and offered to
pay for it with his life. The request of a jongleur to lead the
Duke's battle seems incredible. In early French "bataille" meant
battalion,--the column of attack. The Duke's grant: "Io l'otrei!"
seems still more fanciful. Yet Guy of Amiens distinctly confirmed
the story: "Histrio cor audax nimium quem nobilitabat"; a stage-
player--a juggler--the Duke's singer--whose bravery ennobled him.
The Duke granted him--octroya--his patent of nobility on the field.
All this preamble leads only to unite the "Chanson" with the
architecture of the Mount, by means of Duke William and his Breton
campaign of 1058. The poem and the church are akin; they go
together, and explain each other. Their common trait is their
military character, peculiar to the eleventh century. The round arch
is masculine. The "Chanson" is so masculine that, in all its four
thousand lines, the only Christian woman so much as mentioned was
Alda, the sister of Oliver and the betrothed of Roland, to whom one
stanza, exceedingly like a later insertion, was given, toward the
end. Never after the first crusade did any great poem rise to such
heroism as to sustain itself without a heroine. Even Dante attempted
no such feat.
Duke William's party, then, is to be considered as assembled at
supper in the old refectory, in the year 1058, while the triumphal
piers of the church above are rising. The Abbot, Ralph of Beaumont,
is host; Duke William sits with him on a dais; Harold is by his side
"a grant enor"; the Duke's brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, with the
other chief vassals, are present; and the Duke's jongleur Taillefer
is at his elbow. The room is crowded with soldiers and monks, but
all are equally anxious to hear Taillefer sing. As soon as dinner is
over, at a nod from the Duke, Taillefer begins:--
The "Chanson" opened with these lines, which had such a direct and
personal bearing on every one who heard them as to sound like
prophecy. Within ten years William was to stand in England where
Charlemagne stood in Spain. His mind was full of it, and of the
means to attain it; and Harold was even more absorbed than he by the
anxiety of the position. Harold had been obliged to take oath that
he would support William's claim to the English throne, but he was
still undecided, and William knew men too well to feel much
confidence in an oath. As Taillefer sang on, he reached the part of
Ganelon, the typical traitor, the invariable figure of mediaeval
society. No feudal lord was without a Ganelon. Duke William saw them
all about him.
He might have felt that Harold would play the part, but if Harold
should choose rather to be Roland, Duke William could have foretold
that his own brother, Bishop Odo, after gorging himself on the
plunder of half England, would turn into a Ganelon so dangerous as
to require a prison for life. When Taillefer reached the battle-
scenes, there was no further need of imagination to realize them.
They were scenes of yesterday and to-morrow. For that matter,
Charlemagne or his successor was still at Aix, and the Moors were
still in Spain. Archbishop Turpin of Rheims had fought with sword
and mace in Spain, while Bishop Odo of Bayeux was to marshal his men
at Hastings, like a modern general, with a staff, but both were
equally at home on the field of battle. Verse by verse, the song was
a literal mirror of the Mount. The battle of Hastings was to be
fought on the Archangel's Day. What happened to Roland at
Roncesvalles was to happen to Harold at Hastings, and Harold, as he
was dying like Roland, was to see his brother Gyrth die like Oliver.
Even Taillefer was to be a part, and a distinguished part, of his
chanson. Sooner or later, all were to die in the large and simple
way of the eleventh century. Duke William himself, twenty years
later, was to meet a violent death at Mantes in the same spirit, and
if Bishop Odo did not die in battle, he died, at least, like an
eleventh-century hero, on the first crusade. First or last, the
whole company died in fight, or in prison, or on crusade, while the
monks shrived them and prayed.
Then Taillefer certainly sang the great death-scenes. Even to this
day every French school-boy, if he knows no other poetry, knows
these verses by heart. In the eleventh century they wrung the heart
of every man-at-arms in Europe, whose school was the field of battle
and the hand-to-hand fight. No modern singer ever enjoys such power
over an audience as Taillefer exercised over these men who were
actors as well as listeners. In the melee at Roncesvalles, overborne
by innumerable Saracens, Oliver at last calls for help:--
Carles li reis nostre emperere magnes
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne
Cunquist la tere tresque en la mer altaigne
Ni ad castel ki devant lui remaigne
Murs ne citez ni est remes a fraindre.
Charles the king, our emperor, the great,|
Seven years complete has been in Spain,
Conquered the land as far as the high seas,
Nor is there castle that holds against him,
Nor wall or city left to capture.
Of course the full value of the verse cannot be regained. One knows
neither how it was sung nor even how it was pronounced. The
assonances are beyond recovering; the "laisse" or leash of verses or
assonances with the concluding cry, "Aoi," has long ago vanished
from verse or song. The sense is as simple as the "Ballad of Chevy
Chase," but one must imagine the voice and acting. Doubtless
Taillefer acted each motive; when Oliver called loud and clear,
Taillefer's voice rose; when Roland spoke "doulcement et suef," the
singer must have sung gently and soft; and when the two friends,
with the singular courtesy of knighthood and dignity of soldiers,
bowed to each other in parting and turned to face their deaths,
Taillefer may have indicated the movement as he sang. The verses
gave room for great acting. Hearing Oliver's cry for help, Roland
rode up, and at sight of the desperate field, lost for a moment his
Munjoie escriet e haltement e cler.|
Rollant apelet sun ami e sun per;
"Sire compainz a mei kar vus justez.
A grant dulur ermes hoi deserveret." Aoi.
"Montjoie!" he cries, loud and clear,|
Roland he calls, his friend and peer;
"Sir Friend! ride now to help me here!
Parted today, great pity were."
No one should try to render this into English--or, indeed, into
modern French--verse, but any one who will take the trouble to catch
the metre and will remember that each verse in the "leash" ends in
the same sound,--aimer, parler, cler, mortel, damnede, mel, deu,
suef, nasel,--however the terminal syllables may be spelled, can
follow the feeling of the poetry as well as though it were Greek
hexameter. He will feel the simple force of the words and action, as
he feels Homer. It is the grand style,--the eleventh century:--
Ferut vus ai! Kar le me pardunez!
Not a syllable is lost, and always the strongest syllable is chosen.
Even the sentiment is monosyllabic and curt:--
Ja est co Rollanz ki tant vus soelt amer!
Taillefer had, in such a libretto, the means of producing dramatic
effects that the French comedy or the grand opera never approached,
and such as made Bayreuth seem thin and feeble. Duke William's
barons must have clung to his voice and action as though they were
in the very melee, striking at the helmets of gemmed gold. They had
all been there, and were to be there again. As the climax
approached, they saw the scene itself; probably they had seen it
every year, more or less, since they could swing a sword. Taillefer
chanted the death of Oliver and of Archbishop Turpin and all the
other barons of the rear guard, except Roland, who was left for dead
by the Saracens when they fled on hearing the horns of Charlemagne's
returning host. Roland came back to consciousness on feeling a
Saracen marauder tugging at his sword Durendal. With a blow of his
ivory horn--oliphant--he killed the pagan; then feeling death near,
he prepared for it. His first thought was for Durendal, his sword,
which he could not leave to infidels. In the singular triple
repetition which gives more of the same solidity and architectural
weight to the verse, he made three attempts to break the sword, with
a lament--a plaint--for each. Three times he struck with all his
force against the rock; each time the sword rebounded without
breaking. The third time--
As vus Rollant sur sun cheval pasmet
E Olivier ki est a mort nafrez!
Tant ad sainiet li oil li sunt trublet
Ne luinz ne pres ne poet veeir si cler
Que reconuisset nisun hume mortel.
Sun cumpaignun cum il l'ad encuntret
Sil fiert amunt sur l'elme a or gemmet
Tut li detrenchet d'ici que al nasel
Mais en la teste ne l'ad mie adeset.
A icel colp l'ad Rollanz reguardet
Si li demandet dulcement et suef
"Sire cumpainz, faites le vus de gred?
Ja est co Rollanz ki tant vus soelt amer.
Par nule guise ne m'aviez desfiet,"
Dist Oliviers: "Or vus oi jo parler
Io ne vus vei. Veied vus damnedeus!
Ferut vus ai. Kar le me pardunez!"
Rollanz respunt: "Jo n'ai nient de mel.
Jol vus parduins ici e devant deu."
A icel mot l'uns al altre ad clinet.
Par tel amur as les vus desevrez!
There Roland sits unconscious on his horse,|
And Oliver who wounded is to death,
So much has bled, his eyes grow dark to him,
Nor far nor near can see so clear
As to recognize any mortal man.
His friend, when he has encountered him,
He strikes upon the helmet of gemmed gold,
splits it from the crown to the nose-piece,
But to the head he has not reached at all.
At this blow Roland looks at him,
Asks him gently and softly:
"Sir Friend, do you it in earnest?
You know 't is Roland who has so loved you.
In no way have you sent to me defiance."
Says Oliver: "Indeed I hear you speak,
I do not see you. May God see and save you!
Strike you I did. I pray you pardon me."
Roland replies: "I have no harm at all.
I pardon you here and before God!"
At this word, one to the other bends himself.
With such affection, there they separate.
This "laisse" is even more eleventh-century than the other, but it
appealed no longer to the warriors; it spoke rather to the monks. To
the warriors, the sword itself was the religion, and the relics were
details of ornament or strength. To the priest, the list of relics
was more eloquent than the Regent diamond on the hilt and the
Kohinoor on the scabbard. Even to us it is interesting if it is
understood. Roland had gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He had
stopped at Rome and won the friendship of Saint Peter, as the tooth
proved; he had passed through Constantinople and secured the help of
Saint Basil; he had reached Jerusalem and gained the affection of
the Virgin; he had come home to France and secured the support of
his "seigneur" Saint Denis; for Roland, like Hugh Capet, was a
liege-man of Saint Denis and French to the heart. France, to him,
was Saint Denis, and at most the Ile de France, but not Anjou or
even Maine. These were countries he had conquered with Durendal:--
Jo l'en cunquis e Anjou e Bretaigne
Rollanz ferit en une pierre bise
Plus en abat que jo ne vus sai dire.
L'espee cruist ne fruisset ne ne briset
Cuntre le ciel amunt est resortie.
Quant veit li quens que ne la fraindrat mie
Mult dulcement la plainst a sei meisme.
"E! Durendal cum ies bele e saintisme!
En l'oret punt asez i ad reliques.
La dent saint Pierre e del sanc seint Basilie
E des chevels mun seignur seint Denisie
Del vestment i ad seinte Marie.
Il nen est dreiz que paien te baillisent.
De chrestiens devez estre servie
Ne vus ait hum ki facet cuardie!
Mult larges terres de vus averai cunquises
Que Carles tient ki la barbe ad flurie.
E li emperere en est e ber e riches."
Roland strikes on a grey stone,|
More of it cuts off than I can tell you.
The sword grinds, but shatters not nor breaks,
Upward against the sky it rebounds.
When the Count sees that he can never break it,
Very gently he mourns it to himself:
"Ah, Durendal, how fair you are and sacred!
In your golden guard are many relics,
The tooth of Saint Peter and blood of Saint Basil,
And hair of my seigneur Saint-Denis,
Of the garment too of Saint Mary.
It is not right that pagans should own you.
By Christians you should be served,
Nor should man have you who does cowardice.
Many wide lands by you I have conquered
That Charles holds, who has the white beard,
And emperor of them is noble and rich."
Si l'en cunquis e Peitou e le Maine
Jo l'en cunquis Normendie la franche
Si l'en cunquis Provence e Equitaigne.
He had conquered these for his emperor Charlemagne with the help of
his immediate spiritual lord or seigneur Saint Denis, but the monks
knew that he could never have done these feats without the help of
Saint Peter, Saint Basil, and Saint Mary the Blessed Virgin, whose
relics, in the hilt of his sword, were worth more than any king's
ransom. To this day a tunic of the Virgin is the most precious
property of the cathedral at Chartres. Either one of Roland's relics
would have made the glory of any shrine in Europe, and every monk
knew their enormous value and power better than he knew the value of
Yet even the religion is martial, as though it were meant for the
fighting Archangel and Odo of Bayeux. The relics serve the sword;
the sword is not in service of the relics. As the death-scene
approaches, the song becomes even more military:--
Thus far, not a thought or a word strays from the field of war. With
a childlike intensity, every syllable bends toward the single idea--
Li gentils quens quil fut morz cunqueranz.
Only then the singer allowed the Church to assert some of its
Co sent Rollanz que la mort le tresprent
Devers la teste sur le quer li descent.
Desuz un pin i est alez curanz
Sur l'erbe verte si est culchiez adenz
Desuz lui met s'espee e l'olifant
Turnat sa teste vers la paiene gent.
Pur co l'ad fait que il voelt veirement
Que Carles diet et trestute sa gent
Li gentils quens quil fut morz cunqueranz.
Then Roland feels that death is taking him;|
Down from the head upon the heart it falls.
Beneath a pine he hastens running;
On the green grass he throws himself down;
Beneath him puts his sword and oliphant,
Turns his face toward the pagan army.
For this he does it, that he wishes greatly
That Charles should say and all his men,
The gentle Count has died a conqueror.
Our age has lost much of its ear for poetry, as it has its eye for
colour and line, and its taste for war and worship, wine and women.
Not one man in a hundred thousand could now feel what the eleventh
century felt in these verses of the "Chanson," and there is no
reason for trying to do so, but there is a certain use in trying for
once to understand not so much the feeling as the meaning. The
naivete of the poetry is that of the society. God the Father was the
feudal seigneur, who raised Lazarus--his baron or vassal--from the
grave, and freed Daniel, as an evidence of his power and loyalty; a
seigneur who never lied, or was false to his word. God the Father,
as feudal seigneur, absorbs the Trinity, and, what is more
significant, absorbs or excludes also the Virgin, who is not
mentioned in the prayer. To this seigneur, Roland in dying,
proffered (puroffrit) his right-hand gauntlet. Death was an act of
homage. God sent down his Archangel Gabriel as his representative to
accept the homage and receive the glove. To Duke William and his
barons nothing could seem more natural and correct. God was not
farther away than Charlemagne.
Correct as the law may have been, the religion even at that time
must have seemed to the monks to need professional advice. Roland's
life was not exemplary. The "Chanson" had taken pains to show that
the disaster at Roncesvalles was due to Roland's headstrong folly
and temper. In dying, Roland had not once thought of these faults,
or repented of his worldly ambitions, or mentioned the name of Alda,
his betrothed. He had clung to the memory of his wars and conquests,
his lineage, his earthly seigneur Charlemagne, and of "douce
France." He had forgotten to give so much as an allusion to Christ.
The poet regarded all these matters as the affair of the Church; all
the warrior cared for was courage, loyalty, and prowess.
The interest of these details lies not in the scholarship or the
historical truth or even the local colour, so much as in the art.
The naivete of the thought is repeated by the simplicity of the
verse. Word and thought are equally monosyllabic. Nothing ever
matched it. The words bubble like a stream in the woods:--
Co sent Rollanz de sun tens ni ad plus.
Try and put them into modern French, and see what will happen:--
Que jo ai fait des l'ure que nez fui.
The words may remain exactly the same, but the poetry will have gone
out of them. Five hundred years later, even the English critics had
so far lost their sense for military poetry that they professed to
be shocked by Milton's monosyllables:--
Whereat he inly raged, and, as they talked,
Co sent Rollanz de sun tens ni ad plus
Devers Espaigne gist en un pui agut
A l'une main si ad sun piz batut.
"Deus meie culpe vers les tues vertuz
De mes pecchiez des granz e des menuz
Que jo ai fait des l'ure que nez fui
Tresqu'a cest jur que ci sui consouz."
Sun destre guant en ad vers deu tendut
Angle del ciel i descendent a lui. Aoi.
Angels from heaven descend on him. Aoi.|
Li quens Rollanz se jut desuz un pin
Envers Espaigne en ad turnet sun vis
De plusurs choses a remembrer li prist
De tantes terres cume li bers cunquist
De dulce France des humes de sun lign
De Carlemagne sun seignur kil nurrit
Ne poet muer men plurt e ne suspirt
Mais lui meisme ne voelt metre en ubli
Claimet sa culpe si priet deu mercit.
"Veire paterne ki unkes ne mentis
Seint Lazarun de mort resurrexis
E Daniel des liuns guaresis
Guaris de mei l'anme de tuz perils
Pur les pecchiez que en ma vie fis."
Sun destre guant a deu en puroffrit
E de sa main seinz Gabriel lad pris
Desur sun braz teneit le chief enclin
Juintes ses mains est alez a sa fin.
Deus li tramist sun angle cherubin
E Seint Michiel de la mer del peril
Ensemble od els Seinz Gabriels i vint
L' anme del cunte portent en pareis.
Then Roland feels that his last hour has come|
Facing toward Spain he lies on a steep hill,
While with one hand he beats upon his breast:
"Mea culpa, God! through force of thy miracles
Pardon my sins, the great as well as small,
That I have done from the hour I was born
Down to this day that I have now attained."
His right glove toward God he lifted up.
Count Roland throws himself beneath a pine
And toward Spain has turned his face away.
Of many things he called the memory back,
Of many lands that he, the brave, had conquered,
Of gentle France, the men of his lineage,
Of Charlemagne his lord, who nurtured him;
He cannot help but weep and sigh for these,
But for himself will not forget to care;
He cries his Culpe, he prays to God for grace.
"O God the Father who has never lied,
Who raised up Saint Lazarus from death,
And Daniel from the lions saved,
Save my soul from all the perils
For the sins that in my life I did!"
His right-hand glove to God he proffered;
Saint Gabriel from his hand took it;
Upon his arm he held his head inclined,
Folding his hands he passed to his end.
God sent to him his angel cherubim
And Saint Michael of the Sea in Peril,
Together with them came Saint Gabriel.
The soul of the Count they bear to Paradise.
Smote him into the midriff with a stone
That beat out life.
Milton's language was indeed more or less archaic and Biblical; it
was a Puritan affectation; but the "Chanson" in the refectory
actually reflected, repeated, echoed, the piers and arches of the
Abbey Church just rising above. The verse is built up. The qualities
of the architecture reproduce themselves in the song: the same
directness, simplicity, absence of self-consciousness; the same
intensity of purpose; even the same material; the prayer is
Guaris de mei l'anme de tuz perils
Pur les pecchiez que en ma vie
The action of dying is felt, like the dropping of a keystone into
the vault, and if the Romanesque arches in the church, which are
within hearing, could speak, they would describe what they are doing
in the precise words of the poem:--
Many thousands of times these verses must have been sung at the
Mount and echoed in every castle and on every battle-field from the
Welsh Marches to the shores of the Dead Sea. No modern opera or play
ever approached the popularity of the "Chanson." None has ever
expressed with anything like the same completeness the society that
produced it. Chanted by every minstrel,--known by heart, from
beginning to end, by every man and woman and child, lay or
clerical,--translated into every tongue,--more intensely felt, if
possible, in Italy and Spain than in Normandy and England,--perhaps
most effective, as a work of art, when sung by the Templars in their
great castles in the Holy Land,--it is now best felt at Mont-Saint-
Michel, and from the first must have been there at home. The proof
is the line, evidently inserted for the sake of its local effect,
which invoked Saint Michael in Peril of the Sea at the climax of
Roland's death, and one needs no original documents or contemporary
authorities to prove that, when Taillefer came to this invocation,
not only Duke William and his barons, but still more Abbot Ranulf
and his monks, broke into a frenzy of sympathy which expressed the
masculine and military passions of the Archangel better than it
accorded with the rule
Desur sun braz teneit Ie chief enclin Juintes ses mains est alez a
Upon their shoulders have their heads inclined,
Folded their hands, and sunken to their rest.