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The Song of Roland

Cultural Perspectives

By Tim Hazell

Roland, or Hruodland in the original Old Franconian, was a celebrated Frankish military leader under Charlemagne who is mentioned historically as military governor of the Breton March, responsible for defending Francia’s frontier. He was killed in a stunning military defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass on August 15, 778, and immortalized in one of the greatest examples of Old French literature, The Song of Roland. The original epic poem, composed between 1040 and 1115, is the oldest surviving manuscript of its genre and a memorable example of “chanson de geste,” an oral and written form that became immensely popular during the tenth to fifteenth centuries, when troubadours celebrated the deeds of legendary heroes. To recapture the flavor of the original Anglo-French text, here is a sample from 1070:

Carles li reis, nostre emper(er) e magnes
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu’en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.
N’i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;
Mur ne citet n’i est remes a fraindre,
Fors Sarraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.
Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet;
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l’i ateignet.

By the eighth century, the Muslims had gained a strong foothold in Europe on the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain), with their Umayyad capital at Córdoba. The anti-Umayyad governor of Barcelona and Girona, Sulayman al-Arabi, requested military help from Charlemagne in 777 in return for his own submission to the Franks and surrender of his holdings, as well as those of the governors of Zaragoza and Huesca. Frankish King Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 742–814) saw a chance to expand his power and Christendom into Spain and marched across the Pyrenees with a formidable army, one division going south through Catalonia and another going north through Gascony and the Basque country.

After a number of escapades and on the homeward journey, the Franks entered the Pyrenees Mountains for a second time, proceeding through the narrow and heavily wooded Roncevaux Pass. It was here, on the evening of August 15, 778, that Charlemagne’s army was attacked from behind by a force composed mainly of Basques. The Franks’ heavy weapons and armor put them at a disadvantage. Roland was among the important military commanders killed in the ambush.

Intensive use of spices and herbs was characteristic of medieval gastronomy. The European elite consumed a great variety for dietary reasons and for the sake of social status. Here is an unusual white wine infusion from the 13th century manuscript Ut Vinum Salviatum.

White Wine with Honey and Sage
1 bottle dry white wine of choice
1/2 cup honey
8 to 11 fresh sage leaves (and/or rosemary)

Heat a small amount of wine with the honey and sage leaves. Cover and allow to infuse 10–15 minutes. Mix with the rest of the wine and let stand overnight in a cool place, or refrigerate. Strain and serve decanted.

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