Roland (Frankish: Hruodland, Dutch: Roeland, Italian: Orlando) is a character in medieval and Renaissance literature, the chief paladin of Charlemagne and a central figure in the Matter of France. It is thought the title character of the 12th century Song of Roland, which recounts his final stand against the Muslims during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, is based on a real person who died in that battle (under different circumstances), but the authors of most later chansons de geste and the Renaissance epics Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso made little attempt to establish historical accuracy.
The Roland of history
There exists only one historical mention of a French Roland, found in the section of Vita Karoli Magni on Roncevaux Pass, written by Charlemagne's courtier and biographer Einhard. Here is the relevant passage, in the 9th of 33 chapters (plus a lengthy postscript):
While he was vigorously pursuing the Saxon war, almost without a break, and after he had placed garrisons at selected points along the border, [Charles] marched into Spain [in 778] with as large a force as he could mount. His army passed through the Pyrenees and [Charles] received the surrender of all the towns and fortified places he encountered. He was returning [to Francia] with his army safe and intact, but high in the Pyrenees on that return trip he briefly experienced the treachery of the Basques. That place is so thoroughly covered with thick forest that it is the perfect spot for an ambush. [Charles's] army was forced by the narrow terrain to proceed in a long line and [it was at that spot], high on the mountain, that the Basques set their ambush. [...] The Basques had the advantage in this skirmish because of the lightness of their weapons and the nature of the terrain, whereas the Franks were disadvantaged by the heaviness of their arms and the unevenness of the land. Eggihard, the overseer of the king's table, Anselm, the count of the palace, and Roland, the lord of the Breton March, along with many others died in that skirmish. But this deed could not be avenged at that time, because the enemy had so dispersed after the attack that there was no indication as to where they could be found.
- Dutton, Paul Edward, ed. and trans. Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard, pp. 21-22. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1998.)
Roland was the first official appointed to direct Frankish policy in Breton affairs, as local Franks under the Merovingian dynasty did not pursue any specific relationship beforehand, more passive-aggressive than anything. What is now divided between Normandy and Brittany, their frontier castle districts (e.g. Vitré, Ille-et-Vilaine) south of Mont Saint-Michel, was the source of present-day Gallo language and culture that emerged in the likeness of those such as Roland. Roland's successor in Brittania Nova was Guy of the Breton March, who like Roland, was unable to exert French expansion over Brittany and merely sustained a Breton presence in the Carolingian-era Holy Roman Empire.
Creating a legend
Roland is also a legend: Over the next several centuries, Roland became a "pop icon" in medieval minstrel culture. The legend growing around him, which made him a nephew to Charlemagne (whether or not this was true we do not know), turned his life into an epic tale of the noble Christian killed by Islamic forces, which forms part of the medieval Matter of France. Roland's tale is retold in the eleventh century poem The Song of Roland, where he is equipped with the Olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword enchanted by Christian relics and named Durendal. See Orlando for his later history in Italian verse, leading to the epic Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. In the Divine Comedy Dante sees Roland's spirit in the Heaven of Mars together with others who fought for the faith.
In Germany, Roland gradually became a symbol of the independence of the growing cities from the local nobility, and in the late middle ages many a city sported the display of a defiant Roland statue on their market place. The Roland in front of the town hall of Bremen (1404) is listed together with the town hall on the List of World Heritage Site from the UNESCO since 2004.
In Catalonia Roland (or Rotllà as Catalan people say) became a mythical powerful giant. Numerous places in Catalonia (both North and South) have a name related to Rotllà.
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