[NB: I wrote this shortly after 9-11. Here it is again, lightly revised, primarily for clarity.]
I reread the Song of Roland with my medieval history class last week, for maybe the tenth time. After 9-11, it had a new resonance. From my first reading in graduate school I had noted the simplistic religiosity it expressed, but had not realized how much a close reading can help us understand the world of religious terrorists.
The Song, one of the earliest poems composed in (Old) French sometime around 1100, recounts the tale [non-fictions in italic] of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew whom 400,000 Muslims (a band of Basques) attacked through the treacherous machinations of his step-father, Ganelon, in the passes of the Pyrenees while he commanded the rear guard (baggage train) of Charlemagne’s withdrawing army. Instead of blowing his horn to warn Charlemagne and the main body of the army to come help him, he preferred to take on the enemy with his band of 20,000 men, among whom were the “twelve peers”, the greatest fighting men in the kingdom. Although he succeeded in routing the enemy, his entire band of lusty Frankish warriors, including the noble archbishop Turpio, all died in the process.
Roland, too great to fall even to a massive barrage of spears and arrows, died from bursting his veins in blowing the horn too loud when he finally realized all was lost. Charlemagne, upon learning of this terrible loss, returned and, with the help of God who stops the sun to enable his pursuit, wiped out the enemy, taking their main city and converting the surviving population to Christianity.
Roland and his men, and the story tellers and their audiences show no interest in their enemies (except perhaps as valiant warriors whose greatness serves to enhance the glory of the Christian victory) and know virtually nothing about them. Muslims worship Apollo and Mohammed and idols. (This, of course, stands in striking contrast with the reality that the Christians faced a culture that was considerably more monotheistic and aniconic than the dominant religiosity in Latin Christendom, with its trinitarian and dualist debates, and its relic-stuffed statues to which both masses and elites bowed down.) The Muslims of Spain, in the composer’s view, had the same primitive political structures as the West, a rural monarchy whose army derived from a system of mini-kings (lords) and their vassals exercising direct control over commoner populations (peasantry). These Franks, apparently had neither knowledge of, nor interest in Muslims: for them this cultural “other” was pure and crude projection, a shadow self – everything bad, degraded, abominable. As a child might put it, they are “stupid and bad.”
But such simple vision works well with a world in which those who fight evil are, by definition good. Roland’s Christianity in the song is prominent and simple. “The pagans are wrong, the Christians are right,” he shouts as they enter battle with Muslims (1015). The archbishop, who kills as lustily as the rest, assures the warriors, “One thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you; you will take your seat amongst the Innocents (1521-3).” When the enemy dies “His soul is carried off by Satan (1268).” Roland and his band die “martyrs” surrounded by the hundreds of corpses of his slain enemies. “Since the apostles had there was never such a prophet [as Roland] for maintaining the faith and winning men over (2255-6).”
How aware is the composer of the irony he presents? Does he show any awareness of the incongruity of Jesus and his disciples, martyred without resistance because they turned the other cheek, alongside this zealot, dead from excess pride and love of glory, surrounded by a final body count that puts Sylvester Stallone to shame? Almost none.
We may see a glimmer of it in the victory scene, when Charlemagne gives the conquered population its choice between conversion or death, and many die and still more convert, “true Christians all.” To this scene of crude power-politics, the composer adds that the major babe of the story, the wife of the conquered king, will be brought to Aachen so that she can convert “out of love.” (Women so often do bring out the anomalies.) One might read this as a highly sarcastic discourse about Christianity, one that despises the crude barbarity of these thick-skulled warriors (they wear helmets) with their ludicrous idea that true Christianity spreads by such violence; that martyrs die drenched in the blood of their victims, dead because they are not “the last man standing.”
But whatever the ironic layers a literate composer might fold into this tale, the audience for this blockbuster action-flick overwhelming saw no problem here. The aristocracy of the 12th century relished this tale, the first full epic text in French. They resonated effortlessly with the world of plundering elites, who annually go to war for booty and dominion, a world where the unquestioned rule of interaction is the dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled.” In their world, might makes right: “Strike barons, do not delay. Charles is in the right against these men… God has allowed us to administer His judgment” (3366-8). Even Ganelon, the evil traitor, can escape if he can prevail in trial by combat.
Nor should we see this belief in God as “mere ornament.” God’s role, so prominent in both their angel-inspired and divinely-assisted battle, is to chose sides. The Christian invocations in the text are passionate. These men really believe that God is Christian and on our side – “Gott mit uns.” Indeed, the epic makes most sense as the crusader tale told countless times on the way to Jerusalem between 1096-99, a paroxysm of sacred violence, murderous suicide martyrdoms, and religious massacres. Through the Crusade, whose cry was “God wants it!”, a religion of peace had sanctified violence, making crusading at once an act of salvific destruction and love – Destroying the world to save it.
No matter how powerful, if grossly crude, the religion of the text, something else moves these warriors and their audience far more pervasively than even this violent piety – honor. For honor Roland will not blow his horn: “God forbid that any man alive should say that pagans made me blow the horn (1073-5)” And this honor shows the same egotistical orientation as the religion. Oliver speaks of the honor that feels obliged to others – it is not honorable but foolish to fail one’s lord – but he cannot sway Roland whose overwhelming concern is his name.
And behind such narcissistic honor lies an equally powerful fear of shame. Facing impossible odds with reckless abandon Roland cries “My desire becomes all the greater [to enter the fray without calling for help]. May it never please the Lord God and his angels that France should ever lose its fame because of me. I prefer to die than to suffer such shame (1088-91).” As we listen to the conversations these action-heroes have with each other, we listen in on a world where all is shame and honor, where passionate “loves” vie with equally powerful hatreds, where anger and ferocity serve the [divine] cause of vengeance. Wounded fatally, Oliver realizes that “never will he have his fill of vengeance now (1966).” For these warriors, the greatest act – one that will bring you straight to heaven – is taking people down to the grave with you… the more, the better.
As for more “reasoned,” positive-sum sentiments, they carry no weight in the calculus of action. The possibility that Roland will bring calamity on his own men by his pride, carries no weight with him. Everyone and everything exists to bring him and his fellow warriors greater glory. Even in his final death scene, Roland thinks only of glory. He does not for a moment say even a word about his fiancée. She, in turn, dies at the news of his death, claiming “May it not please God or his saints or his angels that I live on after Roland’s death (3718-9).”
This utterly narcissistic obsession with honor, with its accompanying patriarchal beliefs in which women should die for the honor of their men, illuminates the accompanying religiosity. These men live in a world of violent dominion, revenge, and overweening pride; they have hijacked Christianity, whose basic spirituality they cannot even begin to glimpse. As Clovis allegedly said, when hearing of the crucifixion of Jesus: “If me and my men had been there, we’d have avenged his death.”
The obvious parallels to Bin-Laden’s warriors are painful and suggestive:
- The notion that in killing as many enemies as possible before dying one is guaranteed a place in heaven, while the enemies go straight to hell.
- The incapacity to see the cultural “other” in any but the crudest projections of one’s own shadow.
- The accompanying absence of self criticism.
- The utter self-centeredness of the “hero” for whom the lives of his own, much less his enemies, mean little.
- The idea that violence can best serve to spread one’s “true” religion, that an orgy of violence can be salvific.
- The terrible importance of honor, the unbearable nature of shame.
- The total subordination of women to the demands of men’s honor.