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

  Ganelon's Wrath

In the Song of Roland an ambassador of the Saracen king Marsilius comes to the court of Charlemagne to offer a peace treaty (without intention to keep it). Charlemagne calls his pairs and advisors. Roland, his nephew, wants to continue the war, since Marsilius had acted treacherously before. Roland's stepfather Ganelon calls Roland's advice foolish and suggests to accept Marsilius' offer, if Marsilius accepted baptizm and agreed to become Charlemagne's vassal, there would be guarantee that he stayed faithful to his oath. Naimes, Charles' favorite advisor, sides with Ganelon. Charlemagne agrees. But who is to be sent to Spain - a pretty dangerous job, nevertheless. One after the other wise Naimes, impulsive Roland, the more temperated Olivier, and finally the archbishop Turpin volunteer. But Charlemagne will accept none ot the twelve pairs of the realm. "Chose someone from the Marches(1)", he says. Roland suggests Ganelon, he is no pair and of moderate temper. Everyone agrees. The latter is upset; I am your stepfather (parastre) and, yet, you will sent me on this embassy? If I survive and come back you are going to pay for it. Roland laughs at this and offers to go in Ganelon's stead. Ganelon declines this, Roland is not his man ("Tu n'ies mes hom, ne jo ne sui tis sire") and accepts the embassy. He asks Charlemagne to protect his son Baudoin in case he will not return. The king answers that Ganelon has too tender a heart. Then Ganelon proclaims that he hates Roland, and that he will make the pairs regret all this. Ganelon receives the emperor's glove as a token, but drops it when he tries to take it from Charles.

Two points are interesting in this episode: first, it demonstrates that the king's power in the consilium is not absolute (more about this in a future post). He can refuse voluntary offers, but he cannot overrrule the decisions of the entire council. That represents more the difficult times of the late 12th century when the Song of Roland was written, rather than the times of Charlemagne.

Second, the scene shows a hartred between Roland and Ganelon that has puzzled several researchers. Jealousy has been suggested, problems of feudal heritage (2), and the underlying problem of Roland's incestual birth (3). According to his duty as a feudal lord Charlemagne ought to have had Roland reprimanded for his offensive behaviour towards Ganelon, he ought to have agreed to protect Ganelon's carnal son, since Ganelon is his vassal as is Roland. But he loves Roland too much and Ganelon too little - him being a living reproach to the king (4) and therefore he remains taciturn and lets them have their quarrel. And Ganelon knows only too well whose son Roland is, and that in the position of a stepfather he has no authority. Roland's incestual birth thus influences the story, albeit the legend of Egidius is never named in the Song of Roland. In the Song of Roland, Charlemagne has become the irreprochable king, nearly a saint. The blame had to fall upon Ganelon who is introduced as the traitor par excellence.

Those theses are not without some foundation (the psychological feelings have existed in humans before Freud invented the Tiefenpsychologie). But there is another story that has come to us in the Karlamagnús saga. According to this source Charlemagne's sister - Roland's mother - is married to Guenelun (=Ganelon) after the death of her first husband Milon d'Anglers of Brittany. It is said that

"Guenelun loved Rollant as his son, and Rollant loved Guenelun as a father, and they swore brotherhood." (brœðralag, a very important institution in Norse society) (ch. 54).

Some time later, the marriage is annulled because of consanguinity, Ganelon remarries one Geloise (=Geluviz). The next obviously happens during the siege of Saragossa. There is some minor revolt of one of the Slavic tribes, and Charlemagne sends Roland to deal with it. Ganelon asks him to give greeting to his wife on his way to Aachen. He arrives at Kastalandum

"... and he gave the lady Guenelun's greeting. Then, when Rollant and Geluviz sat together drinking, she said to him that Guenelun had ordered her to welcome him well: 'Now during the night I will send you a beautiful girl of excellent family who is with me; she cannot come until everyone is asleep, and you shall have a chance to play with her just as you please.' Rollant answered, 'I do not ask this of you, for I have sworn Adein (=Aude), Oliver's sister, that I shall have no woman but her. And if God wills that I come back from Spania safe, then I shall marry her.' But she said that she would certainly send her to him. He told her to do as she pleased. After the people went to sleep, and Roland was tired, and went to sleep at once. Then, when everyone was asleep, Geluviz arose and took her mantle and went to the bed in which Rollant was sleeping, and she touched him from his feet unto his knee, but he did not stir at all. Then she got into the bed and lay beside him, and began to embrace him and kiss him. He turend to her, and had relations with her twice. She spoke to him and said she loved him greatly, 'I shall do everything you want.' Rollant was uneasy because he had sworn to Adein; he thanked her for her good will, then asked her her name. She said it was Geluviz, Guenelun's wife 'and you may have all that you want from me'. He got up, repenting that he had been false to his comrade, and told her to go away.

"In the morning he got up early and went off, taking no leave; he went to Orliens, and from there into Spania, and came to Namlun (=Naimes) and told him all the news, and how the woman had deceived him. Namlun told him to conceal it well and to go to confession, saying that they must keep it from Guenelun. Rollant said that he would tell him himself, 'for I promised to tell him all the misdeeds done at his home, and there was none as great as this which I have committed.' Namlun thought ill of this. Later, Rollant told Guenelun all the matter, when they were alone. Guenelun asekd him to keep it secret, saying that he could not be angry with him about it since she had caused it herself. But thenceforth he bore ill will towards Rollant, it seemed to him that he would never be happy while he lived because of the disgrace he had brought upon him." (ch. 56) (5)

Why could Roland not keep his big mouth shut?

There is, of course, no proof that the author of the Song of Roland knew the story about Roland and Geloise, but I consider it probable because of the way those traditions are linked by several motives, fe. Roland's education in Brittany mentioned in the Norse version, and his title as margrave of Brittany named by Eginhard, moreover the title of margrave or duc de marche goes with both Ganelon and Roland in the tradition of the chansons de geste. I think that we here have another example of epic traditions which survived only in the still underestimated Old Norse translations.

(1) The outskirts of the empire of the Franks, governed by French nobles and intended as a buffer zones towards countries not conquered.
(2) Erich Köhler. Conseil des barons et jugement des barons: Epische Fatalität und Feudalrecht im altfranzösischen Rolandslied, in: H. Krauß (ed.) Altfranzösische Epik, Darmstadt 1978, S. 368-412
(3) Rita Lejeune. Le péché de Charlemagne et la Chanson de Roland. in: Studia Philologica, Homenaje ofrecido a Dámaso Alonso por sus amigos y discípulos con ocasión de su 60° aniversario, vol. II, Madrid 1961, pp 339-371 - more about this later
(4) In the Song of Roland a first marriage of Charlemagne's sister to Milon is not mentioned, that makes the relation between her and her royal brother more shady because a first husband who could have sired Roland is omitted.
(5) Translation by Constance B. Hieatt: Karlamagnús saga - The saga of Charlemagne and his Heroes, translated by C. B. Hieatt. The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, vol. 1, Toronto 1975 (quoted here under Fair Use).

  The Egidius-Legend

Egidius (also Aegidius, Gilles), a man of noble descent is a saint who is said to have lived as hermit in a forest near Nimes in France, where he spent many years in solitude, his sole companion being a hind. His refuge was discovered when the king hunted the hind and Egidius was wounded by an arrow. The king - who according to the legend was Wamba King of the Visigoths, but who must have been a Frank, since the Franks had expelled the Visigoths from the neighbourhood of Nimes almost a century and a half earlier - held Egidius in high esteem and would have heaped every honour upon him; but Egidius only consented to receive some disciples; and built a monastery in his valley, which he placed under the rule of St. Benedict. There he died in the early part of the eighth century, reputed for sanctity and miracles.

But legendary saints tend to develop an amazingly long life, and in the Vita sancti Aegidii, he meets Charlemangne (who was crowned Emperor in 800). This is what the legend tells:

The king of the Franks, Charles, had heard so much about the holy hermit that he wanted to meet him. Egidius agreed and went on his way where he accomplished one of his miracles near Orléans and arrived at the royal court one day. Charlemagne became very close with Egidius, and he asked the hermit to pray a special prayer for him on account of a dishonest sin he had committed and which he could never confess, not even to Egidius. Next Sunday, when the hermit celebrated the Holy Mass and prayed for the king, an angel descended and delivered a parchment on the altar in wich the sin the king had committed was specified in detial, and which said that according to the prayers of St.Egidius the sin was forgiven if Charlemagne would regret it sincerely and never do it again. After the mass Egidius showed the parchment to Charlemagne who, after having read it, fell upon his knees and asked Egidius to be his advocate in front of divine justice. The holy man prayed again and was promised that Charlemagne's sin was forgiven if he did not continue it. (my retelling after the Latin source)

In this text, dating from the 10th century, the sin committed by Charlemagne is never specified. There is a version in the Old Norse Karlamagnús saga telling the story somewhat differently:

"King Charlemagne went to Eiss (=Aachen, or Aix-en-Chapelle), and there he found Gilem, his sister. He led her into his sleeping hall, and slept next to her, so that he felt love for her, and they lay together. Afterwards he went to church, and confessed Egidius all his sins except this one; Egidius blessed him and went to Mass. And as he sang low Mass, Gabriel, God's angel, came, and laid a letter on the paten. On it was written that king Charlemagne had not confessed all his sins: 'He has lain with his sister and she shall give birth to a son who shall be named Roland. And he shall give her in marriage to Milon d'Anglers; she shall be delivered seven months after they shared a bed; and he shall know that he is both his son and his nephew, and he should see that the boy is well looked after, for he has need of him.' Egidius took the letter from the paten and at once went, in his vestments, to king Charlemagne and read it before him. He confessed, and fell before his feet begging forgiveness, promising that he would never again commit that sin. He was shriven and did all that the letter had ordered: he gave his sister to Milon, and made him duke of Brittany. The boy was born seven months later." (1)

In Mediaeval ways of thinking, great sins were a way to Heaven if properly regretted and punished. Incestual birth did not keep St.Gregor from becoming pope, and the legend can therefore be considered rather as a sign of the special status of Roland.

Historically, the incest did never happen (Roland's very existence is doubtful, as shown) but the court of Charlemagne was not exactly a pillar of moral. He himself was married eight times and had a number of inofficial and morganate wives. He never allowed his daughters to marry but he did allow them lovers. His only sister became a nun, though.

Two different versions of the Egidius Legend are distributed in the Middle Ages, one without mention of the sin and one stating that Roland is Charlemagne's carnal son:

In the so-called Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle (an extremely popular Latin prose chronicle from ca 1175 including the retelling of a number of chansons de geste, that was translated into French as early as 1206) Milon d'Anglers is named as Roland's father (dux Milo, Rotolandi genitor) without any mention about a doubtful birth record. He was the comrade-at-arms of Charlemagne and fell in the battle against Aigolant long before the desaster at Roncesvals (according to epic tradition). No mention of the Egidius Legend.

In the Song of Roland, St.Gilles is mentioned several times as patron saint and author of a - probably inexistant - book about the history of the Franks (this sort of quoting phony written sources to give a text a greater authenticity was common in the Middle Ages). Nothing of the legend is mentioned, and nothing about a too close relation between Charlemagne and his beloved nephew except maybe between the lines. The only point at something fishy is the ommittance of Milon, the first husband of Roland's mother (see also this post).

The later chronicles, Aubri de Trois-Fontaines (Latin, ca 1250), Vita Sancti Karoli composed by order of Frederic Barbarossa (Latin, 1165), Chronique rimée de Philippe Mousket, (French, ca 1250) tell the legend but don't specify the sin. The same goes for the German version of the Ruolantslied (ca 1170).

The Old Norse text mentions the sin. So does a text from the 14th century (Myreur des Histors de Jean d'Outremeuse). In the Franco-Provençalian chansons de geste Roncasvals and Roland a Saragosse it is said that Roland is the nephew and son of Charlemagne, but St.Gilles is not mentioned. The same goes for the rhymed Italian versions of the 13th century (Fatti di Spagna).

Obviously, the authors did model their account according to the taste of the public.

(1) That is the point where the connection between the legendary hero and the county of Brittany comes in. Later in the text it is mentioned that Roland has learned how to fight in Brittany ("Rollant hafdi numit j Brettania at skylmaz").
Translation by Constance B. Hieatt: Karlamagnús saga - The saga of Charlemagne and his Heroes, translated by C. B. Hieatt. The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, vol. 1, Toronto 1975 (quoted here under Fair Use).

Trier Cathedral, detail from the choir wall outside
(since I don't have a good pic of Aachen)

  A Siege and a Misplaced Queen

In Gaetano Donizetti's opera L'assedio di Calais.

It all started with Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy (1727-1775), esteemed member of the Académie Française, and his play Le Siège de Calais. It was written after the Seven Years' War and benefitted from a strong patriotic current, though some critics, like Voltaire, pointed out using a defeat was not the best way to glorify France. Though it was realistic in the historical context since the Seven Year's War bereft France of much of its former glory - and its colonies in America.

Half a century later a certain Hubert wrote Eustache de Saint-Pierre, which was based upon Belloy's play, but with stronger revolutionary undertones. Eustache is the major of the unfortunate Calais. The play then came to Italy via an adaptation of a Hubert's play, on which Salvatore Cammarano based his libretto. There was also a ballet about the subject that was pretty popular at the time.

The opera had its first performance in Naples in 1836.

Historical context is the siege of Calais in 1346 which started the Hundred Years' War. What has me curious here is the fact that in the opera the name of Edward III's wife is Isabella, not Philippa. I admit I didn't bother to get my hands on the various plays so I don't have an idea at which stage our dear She Wolf crept in and replaced her daughter-in-law, but I thought it was a fun little detail.

Before I launch into a retelling of the intriguing and probably very unhistorical plot of the opera, I'd like to ask the Edwardians on my blog if they have any information about the real siege of Calais. Yes, I'm lazy.

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais / Victoria Tower Gardens, London, 1911
(photo common license)

1347 - the siege of Calais has lasted for some months already and the inhabitants of the town starve. The first act starts with a chorus of the English chasing Aurelio (Aurèle? if he's historical), son of the major, who had sneaked into the camp of the besiegers in order to find some food for his starving wife and child. Eustachio (Eustache, he is historical) the major of Calais, and Aurelio's wife think he has perished in the attempt. Giovanni d'Aire (Jehan d'Aire) enters and tells them Aurelio escaped.

Aurelio asks his father what hope is left to them. None but surrender, Eustachio replies. There's a rumour outside, citizens blaming Eustachio for the mess. He goes out to meet them; some men try to kill him. Aurelio and others stop them but Eustachio bares his chest and demands the assassins stab him. Moved by so much courage, they step back. It turns out a stranger had pushed the citzens, the man is now unveiled as English spy.

Second act, night: Aurelio's wife Eleanora (a standard opera name) prays to God to save Calais. Aurelio awakes from a nightmare and sings about the death and blood he has seen.

Next day, meeting in the town hall. A messenger from King Edward has arrived: the king will accept the surrender of Calais, but six borghers of noble birth shall be executed as example for the other rebellious cities in France. Aurelio tells the messenger the citizens of Calais would rather die in battle than suffer such an ignominity, but Eustachio silences him. 'The king's conditions will be accepted,' he tells the messenger.

Eustachio then explains to the crowd that the prize of six lives will not be too much to save the city and the women and children, and enters his name on top of the list. Aurelio wants to join him, Eustachio tries to keep him back, others enter their names under the admiring murmur of the crowd, among them Giovanni d'Aire. Aurelio tears himself out of his father's embrace and signs the list, 'morremo insieme' (we'll die together). Eustachio asks the hostages to kneel and pray. The crowd joins in the prayer.

O sacra polve, o suol natìo.
È giunta l'ora... per sempre addio.
Onde salvarti ne andiamo a morte,
Benedicendo la nostra sorte.
E quando accolti nel ciel saremo,
Del sangue in premio domanderemo
Che volga il ciglio sul franco regno
In sua pietade il re dei re.

"Oh holy ground, oh homeland. The hour has arrived ... farewell forever. To save you we'll go to our death, blessing our fate. And when we have been permitted into Heaven, we will ask the price for our blood: that His eye to the French realm in pity shall turn the King of Kings." (my translation)

The third act: King Edward III is happy. Finally, the three crowns of England, Scotland and France will be his.

L'avvenir per me fia tutto
Un trionfo, una vittoria.
Francia, Scozia ed Albione
Un sol freno reggerà.
Il balen di tre corone
Sul mio capo splenderà.

"The future will all be a triumph, a victory for me. France, Scotland and Albion will be reined by one bridle. The splendour of three crowns will will gleam on my head." (my translation).

I can't help wondering where he'll put three crowns? One on the head and two dangling from the ears?

Fanfares and choirs announce the arrival of the queen who obviously single-handedly has conquered Scotland (e sia la vinta Scozia), something the misplaced Isabella surely didn't achieve, and I doubt Philippa did. There's a glint of the true Isabella when she says, 'I thought we'd meet inside Calais.' - 'Soon,' Edward replies.

The hostages arrive, accompanied by relatives. Eustachio delivers the keys of Calais and cofirms the victims are ready to pay for the love of their country on the scaffold. In vain, the relatives plead with the king. Eustachio tells them not to beg. Aurelio sings a farewell to his wife and infant son. At that point, most of the people are in tears already.

Finally, the hostages tear themselves off. 'Al supplizio ne traete' (take us to the torture). The English are moved by so much courage, and the queen herself pleads with her husband to spare the unfortunate victims. Edward accedes and is hailed for his clemency.

Note: The role of Aurelio is sung by a so called musico, a female singer in a male role. It was a habit after the castrates came out of fashion, albeit the use of musici began to decline in Donizetti's time. Since composers wrote for certain opera houses and had to deal with what singers were avaliable for the time, they often had to make concessions to the voice ranges. Donizetti intended to rewrite the role of Aurelio for tenor, but never got to it. In a way, it's a pity because the sextett would have much more impact with male voices only.

  And it was no Exaggeration

One finds frequent statments about the Roman sources elaborating on the severity of the weather, because it was for one a good excuse, and also a topic in Roman literature; Germania was supposed to be a land of woods and rainstorms. Especially Cassius Dio took the blame for writing fiction.

Meanwhile a violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion. (Roman History, book 56,20; translation found here)

After the storm on Thursday, it's clear that it was no overstatement. There are a lot of fallen and broken trees in the woods of Germania right now. Tree tops can indeed come crashing down.

Of course, dark and dangerous Germania remains a topos in Roman literature, but there is a foundation in reality, I think. A severe storm makes for better stories than sunshine, and those who survived weather like that, will have remembered it. A storm may well have raged during the Varus battle, in addition to the rain that was - and is - not unusual for autumn, and memories traded down for generations (Dio wrote about 190 AD) met with the topos to form an account that is not mere fiction. One proof in favour of this assumption is that Tacitus' account of the battle of the Long Bridges in 14 AD has the rain plus the dense woods and bogs, a ghost appearance of Varus, but no storm. So storms were more unusual than rain.

BTW, I found some branches from neighbour's maple tree in my garden.

  Moments of Peace

Another backdated post of assorted pictures, showing cloisters of Mediaeval churches and abbeys in Germany.

Trier Cathedral

Trier Cathedral, again

Liebfrauen-Church, Magdeburg

Two shots of the cloister of Osnabrück Cathedral


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.

My Photo
Location: Germany

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. :-)