In the poem The Song of Roland, the Battle of Roncesvalles appears to have been fought strictly between Christians and Muslims in an attempt to convert and to conquer. Special emphasis is placed on the religiosity of figures on both sides of the battle to heighten the reader’s awareness of this fact. Charlemagne is a prime example. In stanza XI of the poem we are told that Charlemagne “rises in the morning, [and] hears mass and matins” (The Song of Roland 7). The endnotes in the book explain that “for a secular man to hear both mass and matins would be unusual” (The Song of Roland 125-126). Charlemagne is also connected in the poem to several biblical figures because he has visions and dreams. In stanza LVI for example, he has a dream which foreshadows Ganaleon’s betrayal (The Song of Roland 24). Charlemagne also employs Archbishop Turpin as one of the knights in his inner circle (Wikipedia contributors, “The Song of Roland”).
The author of the poem places equal emphasis on the religiosity of the Saracens, but in an extremely inaccurate way, reflective of the time period that the piece was written in and the Christian writer. We are told that King Marsiliun, the leader of the Saracens, “serves Mahomet and prays to Appolin” (The Song of Roland 3). Though the poem accurately associates the Prophet Mohammad with Islam, worshipping Appolin goes directly against the first pillar of Islam which declares that Muslims serve only Allah, the God identified in the Old Testament (Wikipedia contributors, “The Five Pillars of Islam”). The Saracen’s religiosity is, however, strongly emphasized, establishing their fervor for their faith over and over again as the antithesis of the Christian religiosity of the French.
The reality of the Battle of Roncesvalles was less religiously-driven and more complex. The French actually allied themselves with “the Abbissad governor of Barcelona, Suleiman” after he came to court to gain their assistance in a power struggle with a rival Muslim ruler (Heer 106). Charlemagne was offered land for his assistance and accepted. Charlemagne did, however, certainly support “enforced religious conversion,” and it may have been a factor in his decision (Lewis 242). When he approached Pampelona as he was working his way into Spain, he “found it held against him, although it was a Christian city, and had to take the place by storm” (Heers 107). This certainly conflicts with the glorious Christian unity expressed in the poem. What is more, many of the Basques in Pampelona enjoyed Muslim rule because “Muslims were on the whole much more tolerant of other religions than the Christians were” which again, conflicts with the negative portrayal of Muslim rule in the poem (Lewis 107).
Heer, Friedrich. Charlemagne and his World. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1975. Print.
Lewis, David Levering. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 – 1215. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 2008. Print.
The Song of Roland. Trans. W.S. Merwin. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Wikipedia contributors. “Five Pillars of Islam.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.
Wikipedia contributors. “The Song of Roland.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.