CHAPTER II

LA CHANSON DE ROLAND

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.

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 seventeenth-century prudes.

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 their heads.

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:--

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.

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
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":--

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.

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 Saint Michael.

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:--

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."

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 enough.

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 Duke's battle:--

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
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:--

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.

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:--

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."

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 consciousness:--

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.

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--

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."

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
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 Roland's conquests.

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:--

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.

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 rights:-

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.

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,
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 granite:--

Guaris de mei l'anme de tuz perils
Pur les pecchiez que en ma vie fisi

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:-- p>

Desur sun braz teneit Ie chief enclin Juintes ses mains est alez a sa fin.
Upon their shoulders have their heads inclined, Folded their hands, and sunken to their rest.

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

NEXT