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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

Warrior Songs: Themes in the Chanson de Roland

Updated: May 1

Step into the world of medieval epic poetry as we explore one of the most celebrated works of the genre: The Song of Roland.

Charlemagne in a 14th Century Manuscript
Charlemagne mourns Roland's death 14th Century Manuscript

In this blog post, we'll journey through the plot, characters, and themes of the Chanson de Roland. We’ll learn more about poetry of the Central Middle Ages, (800-1100), where valor, honor, and sacrifice collide in the epic clash between Christian and Umayyad Spanish forces. Whether you're a seasoned scholar of medieval literature or simply curious about this classic tale, prepare to be captivated by the epic grandeur and timeless themes of The Song of Roland.

First let’s discuss the chanson as a genre. Then let’s explore the themes in the most famous chanson, The Song of Roland.

Medieval Scholars divide chansons de geste into three main cycles –

1)      Songs that celebrate the life and deeds of Charlemagne and his peers (more on this in a minute)

2)      Songs that detail the life of William of Orange: These chansons de geste recount William's military achievements and his successful defense of the city against the foreign invaders.

3)      Songs of the Rebel Baron cycle: These are poems about Simon de Montfort, King John, and William Marshal.

The different cycles share common themes ranging from betrayal, adventure, and, most commonly, warfare.

The Chanson de Geste was popular in the highly militaristic Central Middle Ages. We can explain that popularity by looking into the people and events that inspired them. The songs center on battles fought against foreign invaders and the triumph of Christianity.

Poets frequently focus their chansons on Charlemagne because listeners understood the king to be not only as the defender of the empire but also the champion of Christianity. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were also the period of the first crusade, an ideal that is seen in many of the 'chanson de geste.

The songs would no doubt have served as inspiration for the crusaders as well as entertainment, as the song's detail events that resembled their situation in a romanticized way. Indeed, the church's high opinion of the chanson de geste helped the genre to grow in popularity because of the importance placed on religion in the period.

Urban II preaches sermon for the First Crusade
Urban II Preaches for the First Crusade Bibliotheque Nationale FR Fr.5594, f.19r

Themes in the Chansons

Religion and war: These are the themes that made the chanson de geste popular during the Central Middle Ages. Minstrels, poets, and musicians entertained people by tales of feuds and wars. Christianity’s rise encouraged poets to incorporate the geste into their repertoire. It is because of this adaptability and the themes of war, religion and the historical heroes that made the genre so popular.

Song of Roland Manuscript Oxford University
Song of Roland Manuscript Bodleian Library, MS Digby 23

The Song of Roland was one of the most celebrated epic poems of the Middle Ages. It draws inspiration from historical events, religious fervor, and the cultural landscape of medieval Europe. Set against the backdrop of Charlemagne's reign and the Carolingian Empire, the poem recounts the heroic deeds of Roland, a noble knight and nephew of Charlemagne, and his valiant companions as they face the Umayyad army in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. Inspired by the ideal of chivalry and the Christian crusades, the poem embodies the ethos of medieval knighthood, glorifying honor, loyalty, and sacrifice in the face of adversity. Rooted in oral tradition, "The Song of Roland" captures the spirit of medieval Europe, reflecting its values, aspirations, and collective memory through the timeless artistry of epic poetry.


Main Themes in La Chanson de Roland

Good and Evil: The Song of Roland gives us Good vs. Evil, pure and simple, Star Wars style. The horrors of war are not intensified by ambiguous moral justifications, as in Homer’s Iliad, nor are heroes deterred by compassion for the enemy. War is great, even glamorous. The cost is heavy, but only for the heroes. Villains deserve neither compassion nor grief. The Franks represent pure Good; they are moved by the will of God. The Umayyad Spanish forces are evil, and on dying their souls are dragged down to hell by devils. Just like the Crusades, the war in The Song of Roland is seen as a holy mission.

Loyalty and Vassalage: Heroism in the poem is based on feudal ideas. Even the pagans in the poem can be considered heroic, when they are evaluated in terms of loyalty and vassalage. The feudal system linked lords and vassals with a series of obligations and loyalties. A vassal gave his total loyalty in exchange for protection and vengeance should the vassal be killed in service of his lord. In The Song of Roland, vassalage is depicted as parallel to Christianity. Roland's ultimate liege lord is God, and it is in serving Charlemagne that Roland fulfills his duties as a Christian.

The Benevolent God: God is all-powerful. God is all-good. These two statements are assumptions for the medieval mind. Characters in The Song of Roland assume that God will intervene in events; it seems perfectly reasonable to believe, for example, that deciding the verdict at Ganelon's trial should be done by combat, because God will supposedly aid the man in the right.

The Will of God and Man's Place: God commands, and Man acts. Although humans sometimes need divine aid to carry out God's plans, much of the hard work is left to men like Charlemagne. Faith in an all-powerful and benevolent God does not mean that we can be complacent. Part of God's plan is to have men carry out his wishes for him. God provides help, but it is in fighting for good that man achieves new heights of greatness.

Duty: Closely connected to the themes of vassalage and the will of God and man's place, duty is one of the key values of the poem. It is for duty, not love of war that Charlemagne continues to battle against the forces of Islam. It is out of a sense of duty that Roland fights to the death at Roncesvalles. Duty causes Charlemagne to avenge Roland's death. In the poem, duty is often linked to love. The bonds between Charlemagne and Roland, or between Roland and his men, are marked by deep respect and affection.  

The Song of Roland fifteenth century manuscript
The Battle at Roncesvalles St. Petersburg, Ms. Erm. fr. 88

As we conclude our exploration of the themes in "The Song of Roland," we are reminded of the enduring legacy of this epic poem. Through its portrayal of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice, the poem continues to captivate audiences and resonate across centuries.  



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