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Compare the expression of monotheistic faith in Sura 1, "The

Exordium," from the Koran (in your textbook) to the descriptions of

the pagan, idol worshipping infidels in Roland. Do you think the
Roland poet was genuinely ignorant of Muslim religion, or that he
had his own agenda and reasons for presenting the Saracens as
demonic heathens?

The Song of Roland is a medieval heroic epic, and as such, a bit of fanatical
militarism ought to be expected. Consider the state of the European
continent at the time of the ascension of Charlemagne. The Roman Empire,
that most orderly and efficient institution (a relative evaluation, of course—
but it must be said that the orderliness and efficiency of the Roman Empire
was relatively phenomenal compared to that of its fragmented successors on
the Continent and in the British Isles) lay several centuries in the past, and
the monarchs of the Continent battled fiercely for their pieces of the forests
primeval, far above the radars of their subjects, who struggled through their
brutish and short lives in the walled towns and muddy villages of medieval

Against this chaotic background arose that stultifying phenomenon from the
sands of the East—Islam. Born about 570 AD, Mohammad received the
revelation of the doctrine of “submission to the will of God” sometime around
610, and by the early 8th century his armies had conquered the lands of North
Africa and the Orient from Morocco to India. It was political stagnation and
accompanying social unrest within grand old institutions such as the Persian
Empire, as well as frustration with the oppressive rule of the Byzantine
overlords of the Levant area, that allowed the armies of Islam to sweep in,
annexing the conquered lands to their newly wrought but rapidly expanding
empire and effecting mass conversions as they went (famously granting
concessions to those they called dhimmi or Ahl-e Ketab, People of the Book; I
note this because political fragmentation was in abundant supply during the
Dark Ages of Western Europe). By 714, the forces of the governor of North
Africa, Musa ibn Nusair, had overrun nearly all of Spain, and had their sights
set on the heartland of Europe. So it is not difficult to understand that the
Europeans would have regarded Islamic/Moorish culture and religion—not to
mention their confidence in their manifest destiny--with outrage, fear and
suspicion. What will astonish the reader about the treatment that Mohammad
and his religion receive in the Song of Roland is the utter ignorance on the
part of the poet of the letter and spirit of Islam. What shall we make of such a
phenomenon? This essay will discuss possible explanations for the
misrepresentation of the Islamic religion in the Song of Roland, and, by
extension, the mediaeval popular consciousness.

First, what exactly does the Qur’an say, that the mediaeval Christians should
know it or not know it? Sura 1, the Exordium, expresses the primary tenet of

You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help.

This is arguably all a new Muslim needs to know; to convert one simply has to
profess that “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is His prophet”. As
for Mohammad himself, during his life he was adamant that he was fully
human, a prophet only; he frequently alluded to the fact of his own mortality
to drive the point home. He was also very much a man of the world,
contrasting starkly to the figure of Jesus Christ; he was a successful business
man and a devoted family man; he was a military and political leader, as well
as the spiritual authority for the new Islamic state (whether, by sanctioning
this intertwining of mosque and state, Mohammad set a favorable precedent
for his people, is quite another story.) It is also instructive to compare this
rigid monotheism with that of mediaeval Catholicism. First of all, the Christian
doctrine of the Trinity (which, in Christian theology, is also a mystical Unity)
seemed suspect to Muslims; it is quite impossible to explain the doctrine in
non-metaphysical terms, and thus it appeared to them that Christians
worship three separate Gods. Islam does not parse the nature of Allah in this
way. A second issue is the propensity of Catholics to emphasize the role of
the Saints as intercessors with God; praying to the saints directly, as
Catholics do, seemed to impart to them a divine nature, thus implying a
latent polytheism. And there is arguably some truth to this criticism, since as
we will see, Christianity was frequently overlaid directly upon a pagan
culture; thus, for example, the primacy of Mary in Irish Catholicism is seen as
a remnant of devotion to the Celtic mother goddess; the Irish St. Bridget has
her direct parallel in a Celtic goddess of the same name. Along the same
lines, the Zoroastrian religion underwent a spiritual crisis in the time of the
Sassanian Empire, when what was seen as polytheistic leanings were
introduced to this earliest of monotheistic religions. Some suggest that this
internal upset was one of several weak spots that allowed the invading Arabs
to so easily conquer the Sassanian Empire. Mohammad himself considered
structuring Islamic theology to include “angels” who would be intercessors
with God and who would have been identified with the old Arabian deities
(the old pagan Arab religion was animistic, but also included a supreme god
called Al-Ilah, or The God, and numerous lesser deities). This notion was
quickly discarded, however, though it did make its way into the Qur’an, where
it is known as the Satanic Verses and dismissed as “uninspired”.
Let us first examine some of the fictions that the poet places in the mouths of
Roland and the others, including even the Saracen character in the poem
themselves. In line 1015 of Laisse 99, Roland states emphatically, “Pagans
are wrong and Christians are right!” This is perhaps the most artless and bold
expression of the Christian view of Islam; but it does not come as a surprise
to the reader, because the poet repeatedly mischaracterizes Islam as a pagan
religion, when Islam is, as we have seen, rigidly monotheistic. At several
junctures Mohammad is referred to as a deity (line 851 to 855, for example),
when in fact, Mohammad stressed that he was a “prophet” only, and not
deity, demigod, nor angel. The poet depicts the Saracen warriors as
frequently invoking the name of Mohammad for protection; perfunctory
exposure to Arab/Muslim culture indicates that Muslims only (albeit
frequently) invoke the name of God by way of supplication. But most
ridiculous of all to my mind is the notion that the Saracens not only worship
Mohammad, but the Greek god Apollo…and a completely non-existent entity
called “Tergevant”. If you will oblige the gratuitous pop culture reference,
consider that the only result to be had by Googling “Tergevant” is this short
passage in Italian: “I saraceni della Chanson de Roland, spesso chiamati
"pagani", non credono in Dio e adorano strani idoli chiamati Mahumet,
Tergevant e Apollin...” (The Saracens of Chanson de Roland, often called
pagans, do not believe in God and worship strange idols called Mahumet,
Tergevant and Apollo…) Tergevant exists only in the mind of the poet, as a
memorial to mediaeval European ignorance! There are other, more subtle
commentaries on the supposed nature of the Saracen; Marsilion reactively
brandishes a sword during a personal encounter with Ganelon, which I argue
could be read as an attempt to impute foolish pride and rashness to the
Muslim character; in line 21, however, Marsilion’s words read as passive and
cowardly, which would render displays of bravado depicted elsewhere false
and overcompensatory. Also, early in the poem, when Blancandrin proposes
the scheme to force the Carolingians out of Spain, he seems to be suggesting
that the Saracens can only defeat the Christian armies by trickery rather than
in a forthright confrontation.
The last three are judgements as opposed to outright falsehoods, and thus
probably not out of the ordinary—Western culture has a distinguished
tradition of applying labels with merry abandon to cultures of which we have
little knowledge. But as for the first three examples, so odd is the
representation of Arab Moors as pagan idolaters that it certainly warrants
further exploration. Firstly, it could be suggested that the poet (or the society
of which the original oral epic was a product) made an honest mistake—that
is, they were honestly ignorant of the tenets of the Islamic religion—they
were afforded absolutely no contact with Muslim peoples, or with the Qur’an,
or with Islamic scholarship of any sort. Thus they really would have had no
way of obtaining knowledge of Islamic philosophy and practice, and chose to
see the encroachment of the Islamic civilization as an invasion by a
malignant foreign horde. (Ironically, it was the Crusades themselves that
constituted the first European exposure to Middle Eastern culture—the
rediscovery of the classical scholarship as preserved within Islamic civilization
helped to engender the Renaissance.) I believe that a case could certainly be
made for this view, for the average European Christian was ignorant of
Christianity itself! That is to say, though they identified as Christians and
knew that they worshipped Jesus Christ, they had few cogent ideas beyond
that. In an age when books existed only in the odd musty monastic library,
they had never seen a Bible, and the mumbled Latin liturgies they regularly
endured served as little more than an incantation. In his book A World Lit
Only by Fire, William Manchester described mediaeval existence as being
governed by elaborate superstitions:

They believed in sorcery, witchcraft, hobgoblins, werewolves,

amulets, and black magic, and were thus indistinguishable from
Pagans. If a lady died, the instant her breath stopped servants
ran through the manor house, emptying every container of
water to prevent her soul from drowning; before her funeral the
corpse was carefully watched to prevent any dog or cat from
running across the coffin, thus changing the remains into a
vampire. (60-61)

To put things in perspective, Manchester reminds us that so unaware were

citizens of mediaeval Europe of their surroundings that they would not have
been cognizant of the current century, nor would they likely have had any
conception of a historical context in which to place it (22). During this, the
heart of the mediaeval period (The Song of Roland is a twelfth-century
manuscript based on eleventh-century material which concerns eighth-
century events), the extent to which the rationality and pragmatic worldview
of the Greeks and Romans was subverted is truly astonishing.
Unfortunately, we cannot let the mediaeval Christians off (at least, not those
who did not live under a rock, so to speak) so easily, for history does not
attest to our theory. First of all, the Muslim governor of Barcelona had
initiated contact with Charlemagne in 777, enlisting his military assistance
against the caliph at Cordoba (the presence of the caliph at Cordoba as well
as the caliph in Baghdad was the product of a schism caused by the Abbasid
revolt of 750-760). Charlemagne himself led his troops through the Pyrenees
to challenge Cordoba; it was on the return march after the failed attempt that
Basque guerillas fell upon the Carolingian rear guard, killing, among others,
the governor of the Breton March, Hruodlandus (Roland). So Charlemagne,
although he had previously fought to defend parts of France and Italy against
Moorish incursions, did recognize Muslim government in Spain as legitimate.
Secondly, Charlemagne did in fact enjoy cordial relations with the
Commander of the Faithful, the Fourth Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who
presided over the golden age of Islamic civilization from Baghdad.
Charlemagne, after having been crowned Roman Emperor in 800, foresaw
resistance to his coronation as such from the Byzantines (to whom the title
arguably rightly belonged), opened a dialogue with and secured cooperation
from Harun al-Rashid, lord of the powerful Abbasid caliphate. No love was lost
between Harun and the Byzantine rulers, as demonstrated by a communiqué
from the former to the latter which has been preserve for posterity, and
which begins “The Commander of the Faithful sends his regards to the dog of
the Greeks.” Harun, to demonstrate his good faith, sent Charlemagne copious
gifts, including gems, gold, luxurious robes, ivory chess pieces, water clocks,
and an albino elephant (!) whom Charlemagne kept as a beloved pet. Note
also that Charlemagne, depicted in the poem as wise and deliberate, never
utters the sort of rhetoric that flows steadily from Roland; it is also evident
that the Saracens revere his name nearly as the Franks do.

So if we cannot cite simple ignorance as cause of such misguided rhetoric,

what can we conclude? I would contend that the Song of Roland is a sort of
propaganda which originates with a psychological phenomenon that resulted
when the pagan tribes of Northern Europe were forcibly converted
(Charlemagne himself, for all of his admirable character traits, was a zealous
proselytizer: his right-hand man Eginhard wrote in his biography of the
Frankish king that Charlemagne waged eighteen campaigns against the
Saxons on the eastern frontier of his kingdom; finally, “Charles gave the
conquered Saxons a choice between baptism and death, and had 4500 Saxon
rebels beheaded in one day; after which he proceeded to Thionville to
celebrate the nativity of Christ.” (Durant). Recall that Roland is a twelfth-
century work by a Norman French poet, based upon an eleventh-century oral
poem, which describes events of the eighth-century; consider also that,
although Roland is frequently referred to as the first extant work of French
literature, the Norman Franks, whose culture produced the work, were not
actually Franks at all, but Norsemen—Vikings--who had settled in the region
of France subsequently called Normandy in the tenth century. In her essay
“Song of Roland: Apocalypse Palimpsest”, Julia Holloway compares the
assimilation of the Norsemen into European (European meaning the old
Roman sphere of influence, now united by the Catholic church) culture to a
palimpsest: in the Middle Ages, it was common practice to obtain a blank
piece of parchment by scraping the existing manuscript from an old piece
and transcribing the new over top, creating a palimpsest. It was usually not
an entirely successful enterprise; frequently the words of the original
manuscript were still visible beneath those of the new. In a like manner was a
Christian identity (and Christianity being the religion of that most pacifistic of
all historical personages, Jesus Christ) superimposed upon the stark lifeways
of the Pagan North, the Christian ethos forced into a framework forged by
barren landscape and icy seascape, generations of a rough-and-tumble
militaristic existence, a culture in which might made right and transgressions
were repaid with blood.

In the year 1000, the Norman Otto was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He
made the journey to Aix-la-Chapelle, hometown and favorite capital of
Charlemagne; there he stood in the old palace chapel and meditated upon
the sarcophagus that contained the remains of the legendary Frankish king.
As we have established, at this historical juncture, the Norsemen had only
recently injected themselves into the European milieu; their sense of self was
lost in this new society, which in large part had shared an identity for
centuries, defined first by the banner of the Roman Empire and then by
Christendom—and they were acutely aware of their status of “Other”, that
their pagan beliefs and “barbaric” ways were the binary against which
Christian Europe measured their own perceived superiority. Thus the Normans
invented a Christian mythology for themselves around the person of
Charlemagne and his legacy; rather than acknowledging or attempting to
justify their pagan heritage, they dealt with the gap between it and the
Christian ethos which they theoretically had to embrace in order to thrive in
the new order by projecting their ambivalent feelings about their old
collective consciousness onto a relatively unknown entity—the obvious target
for such an honor being the Saracens, since it merged nicely with the
European fears concerning Spanish Muslim political and military ambitions.
So they projected what Holloway calls their “shadow of death” onto the
Saracens, and they did it with “conversion fervor” (11); this conversion fervor
well sums up the nearly deliriously militant character of Roland (in Laisse 15,
Ganelon—a villain—characterizes him as such).

As an adjunct to the foregoing “palimpsest” theory, there is a case to be

made that the Europeans—invaders and natives alike—realized the obligation
to present a united front to the Saracen invaders; Christendom was the only
banner under which they could unite, living as they did amid constant
political instability and originating from disparate cultures. The Arab invaders
were adroit at exploiting political and religious differences among their
conquered peoples; they were thus able, as I mentioned, to drive the
Byzantines out of their Eastern provinces and obliterate the Sassanian
Empire. By coalescing about the Christian front, they were able to obscure
the political and cultural anguish which otherwise characterized the Middle
Ages, and to present a preemptively victorious mindset to the Saracens.
Interestingly, Holloway mentions that the Pyrenees mountain pass where
Hruodlandus met his reward at the hands of the “treacherous” Basques
greatly intrigued the Normans (I place the word treacherous in quotes
because the truth is that the Basques had been repressed and hemmed in on
both sides; they saw the advent of the Arabs as liberation from their Spanish
overlords, which is just the sort of Achilles’ heel, so to speak, in a country’s
political system that the Arabs excelled at exploiting); they saw it as a
“liminal pass, a boundary, a margin”, which was “thus used for a magnified
psycho-drama of a culture in a looking glass war” (11).
It is ironic and interesting to note the profound effect that Islamic ethics and
practices had on the culture of European Christendom, whether or not the
denizens thereof realized it at the time. Consider that what became known as
chivalry during the Feudal Period is a reflection of the ancient Bedouin Arab
system, which when woven together with the influences from Judaism,
Christianity, and Zoroastrianism as well as Mohammad’s revelations, became
the Islamic religion. A famous example involves the First Crusade, which
pitted the “English” king Richard the Lion-Hearted against the Kurdish
Ayubbid caliph Saladin; well-matched in bravery and military genius, the two
came to respect one another greatly. It is said that during a certain battle,
Saladin provided Richard with two new horses when his own became a
casualty of the war--so anathema was the idea of using an opponent’s
disadvantage to one’s own advantage in the time-honored desert code of
honor. Saladin’s life verily defines chivalry. In addition to this appropriation of
aspects of the Islamic moral code, it is said that the Christian institution of
the pilgrimage had been inspired by the Islamic hajj in part (and in part by
the Greek practice of penitential exile). In his essay on Charlemagne from
The Story of Civilization, Will Durant writes that Charlemage was in the habit
of dressing in typical Frankish manner when he was first crowned King of the
Franks; that all changed when he was crowned Roman Emperor. Apparently,
he was then advised that he ought to adopt the ornate manner of royal dress
more typical of the Byzantine rulers, and which they, says Durant, originally
learned from the Sassanian Persian rulers at Ctesiphon. He also realized that
as Emperor he was entitled to have his subjects kiss his foot. Finally, the
Crusades themselves were ostensibly a reaction to the Islamic jihad, the term
used to characterize the Muslim offensive in the name of winning converts
and lands in pursuit of a global ummah united under Allah; both crusade and
jihad infamously translate as Holy War.

The Chanson de Roland provides a wide-ranging commentary on the

sociopolitical landscape of the late mediaeval Continent. It also tells a tale of
which we would have little objective knowledge, were we not able to detect
these themes in Roland and in other works of mediaeval literature; namely
the psychological implications of the forced mass conversions that remain a
poignant legacy of the Middle Ages, and of the consequences of the chaotic
cultural interaction, which, when the dust settled, revealed modern Europe.
At the same time, we notice the presence of a universal of human nature, the
objectifying the “other” in an attempt to escape our own perceived
shortcomings. It occurs to me that those works which seem the most foreign
to us upon the first reading frequently offer the most compelling insights into
human nature on the second, third, and fourth, which in my opinion renders a
work literature in the truest sense of the word.


Durant, Will. “Charlemagne The King”. 18 May 2003. The Knighthood,

Chivalry and Tournament Resource Library. 9 September 2004.

Holloway, Julia B. “Song of Roland: Apocalypse Palimpsest.” Florin. 8

September 2004.
Manchester, William. A World Lit Only By Fire. Boston: Little, Brown and
Company, 1992.

Selection from The Koran. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume
B. Ed. Peter J. Simon. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002. 1566-

“The Song of Roland”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume B.

Ed. Peter J. Simon. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002. 1706-1767.