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  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.
Comments from the main blog:

Liam said...
Very interesting. I'm afraid I've only read excerpts of Einhard -- does he specify that the attack was perpetrated by Moors and Vascones? I had heard that it was only Basques.
May 15, 2006

crystal said...
I knew you two would hit it off :-)
May 15, 2006

Gabriele C. said...
Einhardt has only Wasconicam perfidiam (the treacherous Basques / or Gascons, according to some translations) but I remember to have read about a Moorish/Basque connection in some translated Arab source quoted by Aebischer. Have to check that one.

The interesting aspect, imho, is the fact that Roland is a later interpolation into the manuscript. And I have an interesting Old Norse source for his link to Brittany which is not mentioned in the Chanson de Roland. I'll post about it some time, but I don't want to scare the other readers off by posting only about my research. ;)
May 15, 2006

Liam said...
I wonder what a Basque/Gascon-Muslim joint operation would mean. Just plundering buddies, or would their be political connections?
May 15, 2006

Carla said...
This is fascinating. Is it known whether there were different words in use for Basques and Gascons, or whether 'Wasconicam' was used for both groups? I'm wondering if it's a similar situation with the variants of 'Walas' that turn up in Wales, Valais and Wallonia and essentially all mean just 'foreigners' or 'strangers'.

Also fascinating that the most famous figure is the one who is least well attested historically. Perhaps because there were few (no?) inconvenient facts to get in the way of the development of the legend :-) I'm thinking of the way King Arthur dominates the legends of post-Roman Britain at the expense of figures like Ambrosius and Vortigern. Or is that pushing a parallel too far?
May 16, 2006

Gabriele C. said...
language history is a bit tricky here. The Roman Vascones refered to both Basques and Gascons. It can have been a rendering of an indigenous gwas- > vas- which later changed into a > bas-. The Vascones were divided into different tribes which doesn't make things any easier. I'm still researching the Vardulli (cavalry which served at the Stanegate forts in Britain) who lived in an area now part Gascony, part Spain and may have been of Basque culture. They also may or may not have been a tribe of the Vascones, or an independent people.

In case of Einhardt, most translaters decide for Basques and considering the location, it probably were Basques. But since the Gascons never have been excluded for sure, I prefer to leave the question open.

It's rather Charlemagne who dominates the chansons de geste; he become a figurehead like Arthur in many of these but not in all; there are chansons who paint him in an unfavourable light, and there are some who have his son as king. Charlemagne's development into an epic character seems to have undergone other stages than the Arthur-image from Geoffrey de Monmouth to Chretien de Troyes. I'll get back to that.

KMS Translation

Comments made on the post in the main blog:

Alex Bordessa said...
Hope you finish your PhD soon :-)
May 08, 2006

Gabriele C. said...
I hope so, too. But I'm even better at procrastinating when it comes to working on the PhD than on my fiction, and my procrastination level there is bad enough already. ;)
May 08, 2006

M. G. Tarquini said...
Wanted to let you know that I came over here, saw the thesis, checked out your blog links instead (after admiring the photo) and discovered that Chaucer has a blog.
I am eternally grateful.
May 09, 2006

Gabriele C. said...
Ouch, seems that academic stuff really chases poeple off.

But link hopping is fun, isn't it?
May 09, 2006

Bernita said...
Some of us just can't think of anything intelligent to add, Gabriele, and you can't see us nodding our heads in agreement.
May 09, 2006

Sandra Ruttan said...
Great photo, and wow, the research. I'm in awe of the dedication, Gabriele.
May 11, 2006

Gabriele C. said...
Thank you, Bernita and Sandra.

Though I'm afraid I started with a too complicated matter. I tend to forget most people don't have a clear idea what chansons de geste are, or that lots of manuscripts got translated into Old Norse. I think I better post some basic essays first. :)
May 11, 2006

Liam said...
This sounds fascinating and I'm shamed to say I had no idea there were Old Norse versions of the Chansons de geste. Of course, I work on Spain and I know how material outside the England-France-Empire-Papacy block can get ingnored. As you know, I have no problems with posting PhD stuff on one's blog.
May 15, 2006

Gabriele C. said...
There is not only the Karlamagnús saga, compilation of several chansons de geste, among them versions today lost in the original, there is also and older version of the Chanson de Floovant (that one was subject of my MA so I might blog about it) a Bueve de Hantone and more.
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, 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. :-)