Monday, January 27, 2014

Homer and The Song of Roland

Bust of Homer

The following is a brief look at some of the anachronisms and errors in the Epic The Song of Roland. I have in previous postings mentioned that Homer’s Iliad is not a valid guide to the social, much less historical aspects of Mycenaean society. It is extremely unlikely that given that we know that the epic is a very poor guide to Mycenaean social realities that it is a better guide to Mycenaean history.1 We know about the social reality of Mycenaean society through the decipherment of Linear B. The tablets contain no historical data or literature but they provide a clear glimpse of Mycenaean society and that society is not the society of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In fact the society is very different from the society described in Homer’s epics, to such an extent has to be qualitatively different.2

The bottom line is that epics written / composed centuries later are unlikely to be in any sense reliable guides to the periods they are placed in. the bottom line is that the poet will get it “wrong”. Why?

Firstly the Poet’s aim is to entertain his audience, not to provide an accurate rendition of an historical event or accurately recreate for his / her audience a vanished society. Such a society must make sense to the audience in terms of their norms and expectations. In other words the heroes must behave in a manner comprehensible to them. Thus the society must be like their own, or close enough to make sense to them. Thus the society cannot have norms, practices and things that make no sense to them.

Of course epics if they are situated in the distant past may have features that place it into the distant past. Thus the Iliad has bronze weapons and chariots, even if the society is very little like Mycenaean Greece. However the Poet seems to have had little idea about how wars were fought in the Bronze Age and his description of the use of chariots in war, as taxi cabs, is simply wrong. One thing the Poet cannot have is social norms, and relations that are much different from the ones the society he is composing for have. The studied use of deliberate anachronisms does not in the least create any reality that the Poet is in fact describing Mycenaean Greece socially at all.3

Thus the Poet places the Greek High King at Mycenae, but then places important Kings at places like Sparta which were of little account at this time, but of far greater count in his own time.

The Poet must please his audience and even assuming he had the knowledge to accurately recreate the Mycenaean Palace cultures almost certainly his audience would reject it as unbelievable. Such a world to them would lack verisimilitude; it would make no sense to them.

The second point flows from the first. The Poet had enormous freedom to play with his material. It was not just the fact that there were so many different legends and stories many of which blatantly contradicted each other that he could fashion into a cohesive whole in his own fashion, but that he had the freedom to manipulate and change material just so long as the verisimilitude that the audience demanded was not violated.

This freedom applied to all parts of poem, from the conversations of the Gods and their doings to the doings of men and the details of the siege, in other words it included so called “historical” material. The Poet and his audience made no distinction in terms of veracity between the “historical” material and the “mythological” material. Each was equally subject to invention and concoction. To the Poet and his audience the ten year siege of Troy was as real as Apollo shooting arrows of plague into the Greek camp. Whatever historical reality lies behind the epics is beyond recovery unless we can find some contemporary or near contemporary source describing the events. Perhaps the Hittite archives will yield such evidence as it is it has not so far.4

Thus it is likely that Homer’s account of the siege of Troy makes a complete hash of the actual event. That perhaps we get a glimpse of the actual events from such things as Helen in the 9th year of the war pointing out the important Greeks to King Priam of Troy. After 9 years of war you would think that would be – well- pointless. Perhaps it indicates in an earlier – more accurate? – version of the story Troy was attacked and stormed much more quickly perhaps events were only a few months or days? Of course without a real historical source this is rank speculation and there is basically no way to parse the text to get the “real” history.5

We can gauge just how accurate Homer’s epics are historically by comparing it to an Epic about an event for which we do in fact have contemporary historical sources. In this case it is The Song of Roland. 6

The Song of Roland was written in the early to mid. 11th century C.E, apparently in northern France by an unknown author; it is the first important work of literature in French, and is supposed to recount the ambush and destruction of Charlemagne’s rear guard by Muslims in the Roncesvalles pass in the year 778 C.E. In this case we have the epic and we have historical sources describing the actual event. Just how well does the epic compare to actual history? Not very well at all. To list some of what the poem gets wrong.

1. Yes it was an ambush of Charlemagne’s rearguard. However the most beautiful irony is that the ambushers were not Muslims at all but Christian Basques! They were infuriated by the rather brutal plundering of the town of Pamplona.

2. Somehow a Christian ambush by a group of pissed off Christian Basques, who suffered very few casualties in a completely successful ambush of Charlemagne’s rearguard got turned into huge ambush by a huge Muslim army during which the heroic rearguard led by Roland decimated the Muslims. That is the fantasy in the epic.

3. Now Charlemagne did in fact war against Muslim Spain and did in fact besiege Saragossa. But the crap about Charlemagne conquering all of Spain but Saragossa is total bollocks.

4, The poem makes Charlemagne 100 years old. Thus Charlemagne joins the ranks of ancient sage kings and is given a slight supernatural touch.

5. The poem says that Muslims worship idols. Thus Muslims become idolaters and worshippers of Satan and the demonic. The simple fact Muslims had an absolute prohibition of idol worshippers and in fact executed such people was ignored.

6. The poem claims that they worshipped a trinity which includes Mohammad. Since the Christians had a trinity, it was “obvious” that the Muslims must have one too to the Christian audience and of course it would be a Satanic trinity including Satan and Mohammad. That this is totally bogus is painfully obvious.

7. Not one of the Muslim characters in the poem ever existed in real life. The poet made them all up, every last one.

8. The Muslim character's in the poem all have made up French / German names, which is just wrong! The author had no idea about actual names in Arabic or Berber.

9. The Christian traitor Ganelon appears to be entirely mythical. In fact Ganelon is obviously modelled after the great arch type of the traitor to Christians Judas Iscariot. Like Judas Ganelon betrays Roland, who is the Christ figure in the poem, over to the forces of evil.

10. The society Charlemagne governs is socially early 11th century France, with all of the aspects of Feudalism. The poet did this because the bureaucratic un-feudal actual world of Charlemagne’s empire would make no sense to his audience. They quite simply could not relate to it.

11. As mentioned above the actual political organization of Charlemagne’s empire is absent. The state is a Feudal kingdom in The Song of Roland. I suspect that the author of the poem did not have a clue of understanding of Charlemagne’s empire or its actual social organization. To him and his audience 11th century feudalism was simply how the world made sense and how it should be anything else was outlandish / un-natural.

12. The battle described in The Song of Roland is a long list of Knightly duels and what are in effect jousts. Nothing like an actual late 8th early 9th century battle. In fact it belongs squarely and securely in the ideology of Knighthood and Knightly honour and duty in a feudal context.

13. In the poem exists the full corpus of the myths and conventions of when they were almost entirely absent during the actual age of Charlemagne. Again the notion of “Knightly” honour is omnipresent in the work unlike the decidedly unknightly actual ethos of warriors during the actual age of Charlemagne.

14. In the poem the society of the Muslims is a copy of the Christian society, complete with Knighthood, Feudalism etc. Which is totally wrong. In fact it is very much like the fact that the Trojans in Homer’s epics are basically Greeks. The poet seems to have no sense whatsoever about the conventions and mores of Muslim Spanish society. The only society he and his audience can conceive of is a Feudal Knightly one.

15. At the end of the poem the Christians go on to conquer all Spain, which is total fantasy. Charlemagne only annexed a portion of Muslim Spain. This was the area up to the Ebro river, much of which was subsequently recovered by the Muslims. Of course anyone at the time reasonably knowledgeable of international affairs would have known that in the mid-11th century the Muslims still controlled most of Spain, but the Poet’s audience wanted to hear stories of Christian victories, even non-existent ones because that was the way reality “should” be.7

Thus a comparison of the Iliad and Odyssey to The Song of Roland reveal that epic poems get it wrong and wrong spectacularly. If we didn’t have the contemporary historical documents just how would we find “history” in The Song of Roland? Despite the fact that the Poet had incomparably greater valid historical sources available to him than Homer had that would have enabled him to create a historically accurate epic, he did not. Why? Well because that was not what his audience wanted. They wanted to be entertained by story that made sense to them. And bluntly a historically accurate tale would not have made sense to them. So we get this epic concoction. It is virtually certain that the Iliad and Odyssey is a similar concoction.

In The Song of Roland we see how history is mangled to fit then current ideas and norms. We see how characters and situations are freely manipulated / invented and changed to entertain an audience. We see how social reality is described so has to largely mirror the experience and expectations of the audience regardless of the actual reality in which events are placed.

Given that the break between the age of Charlemagne and the age of the poet who wrote The Song of Roland is far less traumatic and dramatic than the break between the Mycenaean age and Homer it is likely that gulf between the Iliad and Odyssey and Mycenaean Greece is greater than the gulf between The Song of Roland and Charlemagne’s world.

There is very little real history in The Song of Roland. When people ask me why I don't take the Iliad and Odyssey as  historical sources I simply bring up The Song of Roland.

Stained glass image of scene from
The Song of Roland Chartres Cathedral, France

1. See Here, Here.

2. See Findley, M.I., Economics and Society in Ancient Greece, Penguin Books, London, 1983, pp. 199-245, Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 31-42, The World of Odysseus, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp.142-177.

3. IBID, Finley, 1978, pp. 15-50.

4. IBID, Finley, 1977.

5.  IBID, Finley, 1978, pp. 159-177.

6. For a translation of The Song of Roland see The Song of Roland, Fordham University Here.

7. Finley, 1978, pp. 31, 47-48, 145, 1977,pp. 42, 1983, pp. xx, 215, 221.

Pierre Cloutier

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