Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  From History to Legend and Literature

The Battle at Roncesvals in contemporary sources

1) The Historical Facts

Charlemagne's grandfather Charles Martell had sucessfully fought the Muslim Moors in Spain, and his grandson wanted to build a Spanish Mark, a buffer zone, to secure the frontier to France. Making use of the quarrels among the Moorish emirs, Charlemagne sent an army to France in 778. One wing went straight to Barcelona where they did not meet with any resistance, while Charlemagne himself crossed the Pyrenées towards Pamplona and Saragossa. But the latter closed the doors before him, and Charlemagne broke off the siege after a few days. He destroyed Pamplona on his way back to France. It seems that some Moors joined with the Vascones (Basques or Gascons, or both) in the Pyrenees to ambush the Frankish army. The sources aren't clear about the details. The terrain in the mountains proved a disadvantage for the heavy mounted cavalry of king Charlemagne because they had to move slowly. The Moors and allies attacked the rearguard and the train, and a large number (which never has been convincingly specified) of the Franks fell. The attackers just vanished into the mountains.

2) The Contemporary Sources

Annales Regni Francorum (778): "They went back through the mountains of the Pyrenées. Upon their summits the Vascones had laid a trap, they attacked the rearguard and caused great disorder in the army. Albeit the Franks were better equipped and more courageous they sufffered defeat because of the disadvantage of the terrain and the different ways of fighting. Many of his court who Charlemagne had put in the lead of the troops were killed in the skirmish, the luggage plundered, but the enemy vanished into the mountains because of his knowledge of the surroundings. This loss clouded the victories of the emperor in Spain."

Einhardt: Vita Caroli Magni (Eginhard, 770? - 840; written about 830). Einhardt lived at the court of king Charlemagne and his Vita is of first hand experience, nevertheless partially biased. The work is an outstanding example of literature of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, modeled after Classical Latin examples like Suetonius.

Einhardt writes a bit more detailed about the disastrous expedition to Spain, also excusing the defeat by the terrain and the bad character of the enemies. Most interesting is the mention of some names of fallen nobles: "In this battle fell Eginhard the chamberlain, the Count palatine Anselm and Hruodland, the prefect of the Mark of Brittany (Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus), and many others." The Vita Karoli Magni has come to us in several manuscript families and this ominous Hroudlandus (=Roland) is only mentioned in group A and its 'descendant' C, not in group B. The other two names are proven to have been historical persons, but the existence of Roland is still discussed. There is a thesis (Aebischer) that he has been introduced into some manuscripts because the legends about him spread as early as 850.

Since it was a manuscript of the B-familiy that was given to Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, there is a possibility that this one was the best redigated, and thus the mention of only two names of persons having died at Roncesvals is the correct one. Einhardt may have introduced the name of Hruodlandus in his second version of the Vita Karoli Magni that is represented by the A-family of mss. This somewhat obscure mention of Roland in Einhardt's biography is the only one we have from a contemporary source, and therefore his historical existence remains doubtful.

In addition, the March of Brittany is first mentioned for the year 799, when Charlemagne conquered this Celtic-settled part of France (he had fought the Bretons before but not conquered them entirely). It is written in the Annales Regni Francorum "Wido comes, qui in marcam Brittaniae praesidebat ..." (Count Wido, who had the command in the March of Brittany...). So another doubt arises whether there has been a March of Brittany as early as 778. Things don't get easier by the fact that annals are often interpolatend, mixed together with other annals and rewritten in manuscripts much younger than the time when the events mentioned actually happened.

The Annales Regni Francorum are exactly such a piece of work; the version Einhardt used for his Vita Karoli Magni had already been interpolated. So it might have been him who introduced the link between a mysterious Roland and the March of Brittany, but that cannot be proven. In the Song of Roland no connection between Brittany and the hero is made, but there is one in the Old Norse Karlamagnús saga I. The version told there is a legendary one that has a parallel in a Latin version (the so-called Egidius-Legend).

Vita Hludowici (a biography of Charlemagne's son Louis; written shortly after his death in 840; the author, one Astronomus, used the Annales and the Vita), about Roncesvals: "But when that had been done they had gone to Spain for, and they were happily on their way home, the accident (lat. infortunio) happened that the last ones of the royal train were killed in the mountains. I shall not mention their names since they are well known." Accident instead of the historical more correct disaster, and the names are well know. Which names? Obviously the ones mentioned in the Vita Caroli Magni, that is: Eginhard, Anselm - and Roland? The version in Louis' possesion was the one without the mention of Roland, but the author might have had access to other copies.

Annales Mettenses priores (they go as far as about 950, thus I can't say for sure in which year the actual entry was made, but it surely was copied from older sources): "victor in patriam reversus est" (he returned home as the victor). That's no longer historiography in modern sense, that's legend.

Of course, the attitude towards historiography in the Middle Ages was very different. For instance, old texts were regarded as authoritative, so when a legendary version of the battle of Roncesvals crept into the annals and vitae it was regarded as truth.

What might have happened is that besides the historically existent and well-known nobles another warrior distinguished himself at the battle of Roncesvals and lived in the memory of te surviving witnesses, and tales were told about him. Since authors of annals and vitae had to rely not only upon written sources but on eye-witnesses if they could find any (and remember, Einhardt wrote in the lifetime of Charlemagne) these tales could have influenced Einhardt or a later copyist to introduce the name of this Roland into the text. And thus he became real.

  Karlamagnús saga - The Translations

Found an English abstract about a lecture I held (in German) at a conference in 1998. I hope I don't scare people off my blog with that stuff. But maybe I'd get back into my PhD if I post some of my research here.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

The Chansons de geste represented in the Old Norse Karlamagnús saga: Translations or Adaptations?

The Karlamagnús saga is a compilation of texts about the life of Charlemagne and his heroes, deriving mostly from Old French and Latin originals. Most of them were written during the reign of Håkon Håkonarson (1217-1263) at the Norwegian Court though some parts might have been translated in Iceland at an earlier date. The texts compiled in the KMS are of special interest because some of them represent older versions of French chansons de geste than those that are still left in manuscripts, among them a version of Ogier li Danois and one of the Saxon War older than that of Jehan Bodel. But only three of the texts in the KMS allow a close comparison with the French originals because the existing mss. are very close to the ones used by the authors of the Norse versions. These texts are: Otvels þáttr (Chanson d'Otinel), Jórsalaferð (Voyage de Charlemagne en Orient) and Runzivals þáttr (Chanson de Roland).

These texts are commonly regarded as translations, the estimation ranging from 'very faithful albeit somewhat shortened' (e.g. Koschwitz, Treutler) to 'really bad, the translator not even knowing enough Old French to do his task properly' (Aebischer, with whom I disagree). The problem is that some of the academics use a linguistic translation model that does not suit Mediaeval translation. In recent years scientists have become more aware of the transfer problems of translations and realised deliberate cultural (Halvorsen) and structural (Clover) changes to make the texts more easily accessible to an audience with a different cultural background and different literary conventions.

I will pick up some chosen examples from the different levels where changes vis-à-vis the originals do occur: the problem of style (the Old Norse versions are in prose), of verbal equivalence (literal translations don't always work), and formal aspects as the shortening and omitting of similair laisses (especially in the Runzivals þáttr) and aligning the scenes of the French texts to the tripartite scene scheme shown by C. Clover. Most important are the cultural changes, e.g. the tuning down of the sexual monemt (in the famous gab of Oliver to sleep with the emperor's daughter a hundred times in one night in the Voyage de Charlemagne), or the difficulties the authors had to describe fighting on horseback with the lance which was unknown in the North; the shortening of emotional passages and elaborate descriptions, both of which are still left to a considerable degree in the Old Norse versions contrary to what is usually said about this point.

While the three French texts are rather different in their structure within the range of the structure of the chansons de geste itself, the authors of the Old Norse versions had to make different degrees of changes. It is commonly assumed that the Jórsalaferð is the best translation of the three but that is because the French original is closer to the Norse conventions than the other texts. Most uncommmon is the elaborate structure of the Chanson de Roland with ist intertwined and similair laisses that forced the author to make considerable changes. But the ways of adapting the cultural aspects are nearly the same in all three texts.

With regard to the widespread range of Mediaeval translation I decide to call these three texts for translations rather than adaptations although they are adapted to the background of the Norse audience. When comparing the Norse versions of no longer existing French chansons de geste we will have to bear in mind that they are no 'close' or 'faithful' translations but rather 'adaptated' translations, fortunately following a pattern that makes the changes predictable to a certain extent.

  The Tragedy of Afghanistan - A Poem

A poem by Theodor Fontane, translated by me. And one of these days I'll figure out what battle Fontane meant - I only know it involved the British army.

Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan

Snow like powder from the sky softly falls,
When before Djelalabad a rider halts.
"Who's there" - "A caval'rist from Britains army
A message from Afghanistan I carry."

Afghanistan. So weakly he'd said.
Half the town around him had met;
The British commander, Sir Robert Sale,
Helped to dismount the man who's face was so pale.

Into a guard-house they guided him
And made him sit at the fire's brim;
How warm was the fire, how bright was its shine,
He takes a deep breath, and begins to explain.

"Thirteen thousand men we had been,
When our outset from Kabul was seen -
Now soldiers, leaders, women and bairn
They are betrayed, and frozen and slain.

"Dispersed is the entire host,
Who is alive, in the darkness is lost.
A God to me salvation has sent -
To save the rest you may make an attempt."

Sir Robert ascends the castle wall,
And soldiers and officers follow him all,
Sir Robert speaks "How dense the snow falls,
How hard they may seek, they'll never see the walls.

"Like blindfold they'll err and yet are so near,
The way to their safety, now let it them hear,
Play songs of old, of the homeland so bright;
Bugler, let thy tune carry far in the night."

And they played and sang, and time passed by,
Song over song through the night they let fly,
The songs of their home so far and so dear,
And old Highland laments so mournful to hear.

They played all night and the following day,
They played like only love made them play;
The songs were still heard, but darkness did fall.
In vain is your watch, in vain is your call.

Those who should hear, they'll hear nevermore,
Destroyed, dispersed is the proud host of yore;
With thirteen thousand their trail they began.
Only one man returned from Afghanistan.

A link to the German original can be found here.

The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)