Realism in “Chansons de Geste” – Magic & Myth in the Legends of “Charlemagne” & “Roland the Valiant”
In my quest to paint a perfect image of medieval times for myself, I, with wide eyes, enter such chansons de geste, or “poems of courage,” as that of The Song of Roland and can’t help myself from identifying a few misconceptions about life in the Middle Ages.
Though they may be filled with fantastical magic and myths, these chansons de geste, taking place in the 9th century, portray a much more realistic picture of medieval times compared to the majority of today’s medieval fantasy fiction. In the epic poems of Charlemagne, you’ll find small groups of courageous knights valiantly defending breaches in their towers with their shields against hordes of javelin-throwing Saracens. Sieges last for months, and knights are careful to arm themselves rightly in real, historical armor. But despite all this awesome realism, authors love to boon their storytelling with another sort of awesomeness–the fantasy trope. Aye, the trope, a cliché or misconception added for entertainment’s sake, is even highly abundant in the French medieval epic poems of Charlemagne!
Here, after having studied Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France by Rev. A.J. Church, MA (Steeley & Co. 1902), the reference for this discussion, I’ll be examining 2 historical tropes that are misconceptions and 1 fascinating highly realistic thing Charlemagne’s knights did in epic romance that doesn’t appear often in today’s fantasy fiction.
Keep in mind I’ll be drawing my information from an English translation of medieval French poems. The author himself, A.J. Church, at the beginning of his preface, tells us, “I have endeavoured to tell in this volume the story of Charlemagne, the Charlemagne, it must be understood, not of history, but of Romance.”
But before we begin…
A bonus misconception to debunk!
Here is the cover of our aforementioned book of reference, Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France, printed in 1902:
Our book of Roland the Valiant boasts, “Many a blow did he deal to the enemy with his mighty spear, and when the spear was shivered in his hand, … he seized his good sword Durendal, and smote man after man to the ground (p. 266).”
Indeed, Charlemagne’s knights are often described as having spear, sword and shield, which makes sense considering those golden knights above, who are wearing 14th century armor, should realistically look similar to this 9th century illustration because, you know, Charlemagne died in the 9th century. Just look at that handsome Frenchman!
From this point on, the images I’ve used to illustrate my discoveries may lead to the same misconception shown above, so it’s a good thing you’re paying attention. Now let us begin!
Medieval Trope Misconception 1:
“SWORDS THAT CAN CUT THROUGH ANYTHING!”
Durendal, the trusty sword of Roland the Valiant, is the slayer of countless men, and let us not forget about Oliver, his companion, who wields the sword Hautclere. Aye, Hautclere must be made of the same Valyrian steel from A Game of Thrones, because, as our book says, “he (Oliver) drew the good sword from its scabbard, and smote a heathen knight, Justin of the Iron Valley. A mighty blow it was, cleaving the man in twain down to his saddle–aye, and the saddle itself with its adorning of gold and jewels, and the very backbone also of the steed whereon he rode, so that horse and man fell dead together on the plains. ‘Well done!’ cried Roland; ‘you are a true brother of mine. ‘Tis such strokes as this that makes the Emperor love us (p. 267).'”
Aye, the burnished sword of these courageous French warriors, often gilded, baring jewels and holy relics in their pommels, are not to be underestimated. Even Charlemagne himself bears such a sword, as described when “… he dismounted in great wrath, and ran at the giant, and smote him with Joyous so rudely that he fell to the ground nigh cut in twain (p. 219).” Though in some strange context cutting a giant nigh in twain may be plausible, this next quote, I insist, could never on this dear earth come close to being so: “As for the Admiral he escaped most narrowly; for as he leapt from a window Roland dealt a great blow at him with his sword, and the sword made a hole of a foot deep in the marble stone of the window (p. 184).”
In other occasions arms and armor are described quite realistically, as helmets are damaged and brains are left unharmed. However, for the sake of drama, of exaggerating the great strength of these valiant knights, this trope of inexorable sword blades for the most part still stands strong throughout The Song of Roland and other chansons, as countless helmets are cut in twain. This trope can be directly compared to much 20th century fantasy fiction, where heroes give their swords legendary names and cut through everything with ease.
No armor, even hardened steel breastplates, can possibly stop the hefty strikes of these fantastical swords. In reality, though, a sword could never slice a helmet in twain, could never stab through a breastplate; ’tis exactly why such weapons as the war hammer and mace became popular.
Another noteworthy trope from the chansons that commonly appears in today’s fantasy fiction is that of the hero slaying scores of men effortlessly: “Thereupon he (Roland) charged at them (Saracens) with such fierceness that the hardiest of them turned to fly; yet they fled not so fast but that Roland killed twenty out of the thirty (p. 195).”
Medieval Trope Misconception 2:
“WHEN IN DOUBT, SWOON!”
There are numerous accounts of people swooning throughout the chansons. I’ll say that each swoon occurs for a respectable reason, like finding your son dead, and it’s possible that anyone can swoon unexpectedly at any time for swooning is a natural phenomenon, but with all that said it’s still impossible to ignore how exaggerated the swoons can be in the chansons, as the amount at which they occur would be hard to find in today’s fantasy fiction.
Read this quote from the story of Reynaud and tell me it does not remind you of so many romantic plays in premodern theater: “When the Lady Clare saw him (Reynaud) go she fell again into a swoon, and this so sore that her gentlewomen deemed that she was dead. When she revived she said, ‘O Reynaud, my lord, there was never husband so good as you (p. 105).'”
There could be a whole paper written on trying to prove if medieval people really swooned more frequently than us postmodern-ers, but it’s more likely that we’re dealing with an authentic medieval trope here. Sometimes in medieval stories the theatrical dramatization of emotions becomes so intense, people literally die of broken hearts, like when Queen Branimonde says, “… ‘O Sire, our people are vanquished, and the Emir is dead.’ When King Marsilas heard these words he turned him to the wall, and covered his face and wept. So great was his grief that his heart was broken in his breast, and he died (p. 312).”
In other occasions throughout the chansons, characters fall into swooning fits that last for hours, with intervals of brief consciousness, and it’s not uncommon to find a knight swooning on his horse, held in place only by the stirrups around his feet. For instance, our book says of Roland, “And again he swooned where he sat on his horse. But the stirrup held him up that he did not fall to the ground (p. 284).” For a dramatic performance during a certain epic scene of intense emotion, I, while writing my own medieval fantasy, might try to remember this historical trope.
Awesome Realism 1:
“THE POWER OF GOD, GLORY, HONOR & KING!”
Concerning the year 1098, during the Christian defense of Antioch in the First Crusade, when the Franks were hard-pressed under the leadership of Bohemond, Zoé Oldenbourg’s The Crusades describes, “When Peter Bartholomew emerged from the hole in the ground clutching the spearhead (Holy Lance) in his arms, all doubts were forgotten and everyone present, beginning with Raymond of Aguilers, … fell upon the poor relic, still caked with earth, and smothered it with tears and kisses (p. 109).”
Having extreme faith in a god, in upholding honor, plays more of role in many medieval wars than gold itself. It’s extremely difficult for postmodern people to understand how the belief in God and saints can effect your actions on a medieval battlefield. Zoé Oldenbourg continues, “The discovery of this dubious relic (Holy Lance) probably aroused more enthusiasm among the rank and file of the Crusaders than the invention of a new nuclear device … would cause in our own day (p. 109).”
I’ve been slowly watching History’s new TV series Knightfall and though I laugh at its unrealistic sword-fighting choreography I appreciate its insight into piety among Crusading knights. The love for serving a god has just as much to do with war in medieval times as the making of arms and armor. This stark realism is rarely portrayed in today’s fantasy fiction because it’s hard for us to comprehend. However, the medieval poets of France understood it all too well, which is why in The Song of Roland you can try to understand what a knight fighting for God and the honor of his king might look like.
While bleeding to death as the last man alive after a brutal battle in Spain against the heathen, Roland “… made a loud confession of his sins, stretching his hand to the heaven. ‘Forgive me, Lord,’ he cried, ‘my sins, little and great, all that I have committed since the day of my birth to this hour in which I am stricken to death.’ So he prayed; and, as he lay, he thought of many things, of the countries which he had conquered, and of his dear Fatherland France, and of his kinsfolk, and of the good King Charles (p. 296).”
If believing in a god won’t have power over you on the battlefield, than fearing the scrutiny of your overlord certainly will, as vassals and knights go to war merely to uphold their honor by fulfilling an oath of allegiance. This is another concept so hard for today’s writers to understand, the relationship between a vassal and an overlord, as bloody wars suddenly end because one man swore allegiance to another. A realistic example of this is shown in the story of Reynaud.
When Charlemagne wished to end a conflict, he said to his messenger, “Go now to Reynaud and say to him, ‘The King gives you peace on these conditions. You shall go in pilgrim’s garb to the Holy Land, and on foot, begging your bread. You shall leave me your horse Bayard. On the other hand, I will restore your brothers all their lands (p.104).'” The conditions are accepted and Reynaud goes on to fulfill his oath with much honor, for the love of his brothers who will be saved.
For some men, having given a pledge of service to another man means a lifetime of bondage, and they do it right willingly because the greatest shame in all the world would be to lose all honor, because there is glory in honor, glory in serving your lord for the victory of your armies. But this honor dwells in the relationships between nobles, between vassals and overlords, not your typical men, and we must always remember that honor doesn’t dwell in every noble or knight. Sometimes swearing an oath of allegiance is merely a way to save one’s own life only to wreak vengeance on a later date. Clearly, while reading of deception and betrayal throughout the Middle Ages, remembering the honorless use of the longbow, we should never rely on honor alone to keep a man loyal, unless, of course, the man in question is a true man of ideal chivalry like our friend Roland the Valiant, whom so many other knights in later centuries looked up to as a model of perfection.
And there we have it. Please thank Manuscript Miniatures for supplying so many medieval images to the public!
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