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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


Two of the earliest literary undertakings from continental Europe are the medieval epics, The Song of Roland (France, c. 1100) and The Poem of the Cid (Spain, 1207). These "songs of great deeds"--as they were referred to in their respective languages--not only reflected the organizational structure and basic preoccupations of the societies in which they were composed, but also fulfilled a need of both Frenchmen and Spaniards, who eagerly sought information about their past and their national heroes. Since most historical chronicles of the day were written in Latin, a language that was becoming less and less understood by those privileged few who were able to read, the medieval epic, written in the vernacular spoken languages of the emerging nations, assumed the role of history books. Although the poets of these epics did "rearrange" history to some extent for reasons of art and politics, they nevertheless imparted a sense of national identity and cohesiveness, helping to create patriotic feelings. The epic heroes, Roland and the Cid, became legends. Attaining the proportions of myth, the two heroic warriors served as models of ideal medieval behavior.

Like the great classical epic poems, the medieval epic is typically a narrative poem of some extended length that deals with heroic and imposing events set against a backdrop of war and plunder. Amid such strife and military activity, Roland and the Cid struggled unceasingly to attain some balance between the imposed feudalistic socio-political values and their notions about themselves as individuals. In short, the medieval epic is about self and society as seen through the eyes of a militarized feudal Christianity. Guided by faith and honor, both Roland and the Cid are brave crusaders--supermen--who embody the medieval ideals of feudal loyalty, love of the homeland, and a deep religious conviction.

While epic poetry may be somewhat didactic, the poems were written primarily as an entertainment, and were meant to be chanted by traveling singers, known as jongleurs in France and juglares in Spain, to the accompaniment of some string-like instrument. That these poems were destined to be heard and not read like the more "literary" epic poems of Virgil's Aeneid and John Milton's Paradise Lost, had much to do with their language and structure. As a result, medieval epics tend to be direct, dramatic, coherent and forthrightly composed, thereby creating direct and immediate contact with the audience.

The Song of Roland

Hardly a work of French literature more eloquently defines the people of France and their national characteristics than The Song of Roland, a sort of pep song that rallied people and troops into battle. Various chronicles of the Middle Ages report that in 1066 a certain jongleur, Tallefour, was heard singing parts of the epic at the Battle of Hastings in which the Norman French successfully invaded England. Further, the date of the composition of The Song of Roland is contemporaneous with the Council of Clermont, summoned by Pope Urban II to urge France to take up arms against the Islamic Empire.

The material of The Song of Roland deals with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, who having had a series of successful military campaigns in Spain, is now in complete control of the country except for the Kingdom of Saragossa, ruled by the Saracen King Marsile. Marsile sends an offer of a false peace to Charlemagne, who accepts the olive branch, and with advice and consent of his council, charges Roland's step-father Ganelon to negotiate with the Saracens.

Outraged at being sent on such a dangerous mission, and with undying hatred toward Roland, Ganelon resolves to retaliate. He commits treason by allowing the enemy army to attack the undermanned rear-guard led by Roland. Although Roland is the bravest and fiercest of all warriors, and therefore would traditionally be in the front-guard, Ganelon's vengeful plan keeps Charlemagne at the rear-guard where he and his men will be woefully outnumbered.

When the Saracens attack, Roland does not sound his horn (olifant) for help, for fear of seeming to be a coward and disturbing Charlemagne. Only after being mortally wounded does he sound the olifant; but the warning comes too late and all the warriors perish. Because of the prayers of the dying Roland, Marsile's army is miraculously repelled and finally vanquished; Ganelon and his relatives are sentenced to death and executed. The poem ends with a visitation by the angel Gabriel, who prescribes the undertaking of yet another crusade to Charlemagne.

All of the action in The Song of Roland directly relates to one single plot and to the heroism and bravery of the protagonist; no secondary or irrelevant action occurs in the poem. Roland is too proud and brave to call for help when he first senses danger. In this regard he is blind and démesure, or immoderate and extravagant. The structure of this highly dramatic poem, in short, resembles that of classical drama, with its clearly marked exposition, development, and denouement. The exposition consists of the plotting and vengeance of Ganelon; the development traces the travails and death of Roland; and the denouement details the trial and execution of Ganelon.

The Poem of the Cid

Written at the beginning of the thirteenth century about a hundred years after The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid is the national epic and first major literary masterpiece of Spain. The Poem of the Cid and The Song of Roland are similar in tone, literary techniques, epic concerns, and even length; in fact, so many similarities suggest that the Cid poet may actually have been familiar with the French epic.

The Poem of the Cid chronicles the events of the last decades of the eleventh century, a hundred years before the poem's composition, a time when Spain was engaged in an unceasing war with the Moors from North Africa who had invaded in 711. Catholic Spain was kept busy as the country assumed the enormous task of the Reconquest or the reclaiming of lands overrun by the Muslim enemy. At the same time, however, other political and military events complicated the overall situation. Christian noblemen and regional sovereigns were vying for power and often formed uneasy alliances with their neighboring Moorish "enemies," who willingly paid tribute to them for protection. These constantly shifting alliances caused frequent skirmishes and battles, which led to a general sense of chaos. As a result, a fearless and loyal knight capable of waging successful and frequent wars became a legend in his own lifetime. Thus, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar earned for himself the title of the Cid (Lord).

Born in 1043, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar was celebrated in both historical chronicles and epic poetry. Like Roland, he embodies such medieval virtues as courage, fealty, and religious faith. The Poem of the Cid, part history, part propaganda and fiction, praises the triumph of his rationality and unwavering virility in the face of overwhelming adverse forces. Unlike the immoderate Roland, the Cid knows how to balance wisdom and courage so that his actions always remain moderate and admirable, and as a result, his epic poem will end happily. However great the odds against him are, however mistreated and slandered he may be, the Cid tenaciously obeys and reveres his king by remaining a loyal and industrious vassal, thereby upholding the basic feudal values.

A major difference between The Song of Roland and The Poem of the Cid lies in the structure of the plot. Much of the Spanish epic focuses on the private problems and dilemmas of a most public figure. While there is an ample amount of "epic material" including military adventures, victories, and plunderings in the poem, the story also conveys the emotional side of the Cid. His exile and farewell to his family and his reaction to his daughter's disgrace in the last part of the poem are most memorable. In this sense, The Song of Roland resembles Homer's battle-drenched Iliad, and The Poem of the Cid his more lyrical and humanized Odyssey.

The Shah-nama

As The Song of Roland and The Poem of the Cid commemorate Western Europe's martial response to the spread of Islam, Shah-nama (The Book of Kings) by the Persian poet Ferdowsi (c. 932-1020/5) represents the response of a great Eastern culture to the same phenomenon. One of the first of the countries to be conquered by Muslim armies after the death of Mohammed, Persia underwent a long transition from its ancient Zoroastrian religion to Muslim rites. During the tenth century, a time of political turmoil in the Islamic Empire, a sort of nationalist Persian revival devoted to preserving the glories of its pre-Islamic past gathered force.

Although he was himself a Muslim, the writer celebrated by the poetic name "Ferdowsi" (compare the English word paradise, borrowed from the same Persian root) capped this revival by versifying the oral myths of creation and the early legendary history of Persia lest they be forgotten in the new culture fostered by the Koran. Considered the foremost of Persian poets, Ferdowsi may be compared to Shakespeare in his historical relation to his native tongue, giving the language a literary shape at the critical moment when it achieved its modern vocabulary.(1)

Of much vaster scope than the Western medieval epics we have mentioned, Shah-nama more closely resembles the episodic Sanskrit Mahabharata and Ramayana, or the medieval romance, in its wide range of incident and place. With its chronological sweep, the poem has no single epic hero; instead, many major characters live extraordinarily long lives, up to 400 years apiece. Notable figures are Rostam, the poem's greatest warrior, whose most memorable act is the tragic slaying of his own son, Sohrab, and Sekander, better known as Alexander the Great.(2)

Encompassing love stories, comic interludes, and battle scenes, and gods, spirits, and demons as well as human beings, the Shah-nama quickly acquired a special place in the hierarchy of Persian culture. Born of Ferdowsi's desire to preserve an oral tradition built up over thousands of years, the Shah-nama soon became one of the most treasured of its writings. Like the Koran itself, the epic attracted the attention of so many expert calligraphers and painters that among the most precious art works of medieval Persia are the illuminated manuscripts of its central sacred and secular texts. Abounding with narrative variety, the Shah-nama provided the most talented illustrators of medieval Persia with a storehouse of subject matter.

Once again, we see how the visual and the verbal arts reinforce each other. Indeed, the transition from orality to literacy in medieval times may be read in the art of the book. In the era directly preceding the invention of movable type, noblemen in the East and in the West commissioned lavishly decorated and illustrated manuscripts of the texts most cherished by their societies. When simply possessing a book conferred status on its owner, a beautiful book brought dignity and reputation. The ultimate honor, of course, accrued to the aristocratic few for whom the books were created. By the end of the medieval period, the relatively crude oral poems which were the stuff of epic reached unparalleled heights of elegance when produced between two covers.


1. As Modern English amalgamates Germanic and Latinate roots, with a good representation of Greek and other sources, too, Modern Persian amalgamates Pahavi (Middle Persian), Arabic, and other Middle Eastern linguistic sources.

2. One lasting consequence of Alexander's conquest of the East, it should be noted here, was a new mythology that transformed the Macedonian hero into a native of Persia whose fantastic adventures were described in a group of romances, including the Persian Iskandarnamah, or Book of Alexander.