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Historical fiction is a genre in which fiction is based on and fleshes out a backbone of historical fact. Occasionally, though, the partnership goes both ways, and fiction can affect history.

The current economic calamity in Spain that arose from austerity responses to the financial crisis is having some knock-on effects. One of these is that the Autonomous Community of Catalonia is once again calling for independence, a condition it has long sought for but achieved for only a couple of centuries a millennium ago. The history here is in fact relevant to one of the oldest works of Western literature written in the vernacular, The Song of Roland.

La Chanson de Roland, or in English The Song of Roland, is a chanson de geste, or "song of deeds", describing heroic failure followed by redemption: the massacre of the rearguard of Charlemagne's Frankish army in the Pyrenean pass of Roncesvalles (or Roncevaux, depending on whether you prefer the Spanish or the French) by the Saracens as it returned from a campaign in Spain back to the Frankish homeland, avenged by the main body of the Franks hurrying back too late to save the rearguard -- and too late to save the hero of the poem, who dies before the midpoint of the work. This led to an epic clash between the Frankish army and a Saracen relief army, which in the poem is really the Christians versus the Muslims, won by the Christians thanks to divine intervention.

The Song of Roland is one of the earliest and generally considered to be the greatest of the chansons de gestes. It is also one of the most influential works in Medieval European literature, both from a literary and from a political perspective, rapidly translated into numerous languages, including various German, Italian, and Dutch languages, Latin, even Old Norse. Today, 1000 years later, the poem sounds dated, with its simplistic Christian vs Saracen storyline and its lavish descriptions of violence, yet as a song about courage and honor while paying the ultimate price against impossible odds it struck a chord that resonates even to the present day. Roland's great sword Durendal might be the best known named sword behind Arthur's Excalibur (there is, inevitably, a modern weapon -- an airport busting bomb -- named after it). His great horn Olifant might be even better known. The poem itself almost certainly contributed to the sense of Holy War that would over the centuries filter in from across the Pyrenees into Spain and ultimately end with the Spanish Inquisition and the fall of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492.

The earliest complete version dates from the middle 12th century and currently resides in the Bodleian Library. The poem itself was likely written by a certain Turoldus in the late 11th century, perhaps a little earlier, possibly as late as the middle 12th, and describes an event that took place in 778, 300 years before the poem. That said, the basic storyline and variations of the epic were extant in Northern France (probably originally Brittany) in the oral tradition well before the version we have come to know and quickly became popular throughout Northern Europe. It is significant that Northern Europe does not include Spain, where the events described take place.

But what was the poem about, why was it so influential, and what actually happened at Roncesvalles? Some thoughts over the break.

When the poem opens, Charlemagne and his Franks have been fighting the Moors in Spain for seven long years and have conquered everyone except the wily King Marsile of Zaragoza. Charlemagne's an old man, 200 years old and white of hair, and is tired of the constant campaigning and bloodshed (in fact, Charlemagne was 36 when he invaded Spain and wasn't in Spain 7 months, let alone 7 years, but we're going with the story here). Clearly he doesn't fight unless he must, but when he does, he's still got it. He gathers his 12 Peers and other important personages to discuss a message from Marsile. Marsile had called together his 12 "Peers" (not really called that, but symmetry is important in this poem) and they decided that Marsile should offer to convert to Christianity and become Charlemagne's faithful vassal if Charlemagne would leave Spain. He also offers securities including the heirs of prominent Moors as well as treasure. (Of course, the Moors intend to do nothing of the sort and are willing to sacrifice the hostages). The Franks are clearly the side of Right, the Moors the side of Wrong, yet even Turoldus allows that the Franks really do not belong in Spain, and that the Moors are just trying to get rid of the invaders.

At any rate, the Peers span quite a range of ages, and one of the youngest is Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, who speaks first. He's something of an arrogant hothead and objects to any treaty vehemently, saying that Marsile made this offer in desperation and reminding the Franks that Marsile had already offered to do so twice, and both times the Frankish ambassadors sent to accept the terms were returned beheaded. Ganelon, a baron and Roland's stepfather, speaks next, saying they should accept the offer (translations from the Online Medieval and Classical Library): "Counsel of pride is wrong, we've fought enough/Leave we the fools, and with the wise be one". Ganelon is followed by the Duke of Neimes, Charlemagne's most trusted adviser, who backs Ganelon, pointing out that Marsile is already beaten and adding "Him who entreats your pity do not spurn/Sinners are they that would to war return/With hostages his [Marsile's] faith would secure/Let this great war no longer endure."

That settles it, and the next question is whom to send as ambassador. Neimes, Roland, and the Archbishop Turpin all offer, but are rejected as too valuable (Neimes), too hotheaded (Roland), and without reason (Turpin). Roland then volunteers Ganelon, who flies into a rage, thinking his stepson wants him dead. Roland laughs at him, and Ganelon in fury accepts the task. Ganelon travels to Zaragoza with two main objectives: keeping his head on his shoulders and getting back at Roland. He will ensure that Roland will lead the rearguard of the Frankish army and comes up with a scheme to wipe out the rearguard as the Franks leave. At the Moorish camp he convinces Marsile that the force behind Frankish aggression is really Roland and the peers, and "Could one achieve that Rollant's life be lost/Charles' right arm were from his body torn/Though there remained his marvelous great [Frankish] host/He'd not again assemble in such force." The die is now cast.

Ganelon returns with rich gifts from Marsile to the Franks, saying that Marsile agreed and would send hostages along and himself come to Aix (Charlemagne's capital at Aix La Chappelle -- in fact at the time he was using Paderborn but we're going with the story here) to do homage and convert to Christianity. The Franks leave Spain, with Roland and the Peers overseeing a rearguard of twenty thousand. Needless to say the main body of the Franksih army is far ahead when the much larger Moorish army attacks, led by their own 12 "Peers". Roland's best buddy Oliver, one of the 12, counsels that Roland use Olifant to summon the main body of the army. Roland refuses: "Never by God I say! ... With Durendal stout blows I'll lay/With my good sword that by my side doth sway/'Til bloodied over you shall behold the blade./Felon pagans are gathered to their shame/I pledge you now, to death they're doomed today." Oliver twice more counsels Roland to call the Frankish army, Roland refuses each time. Turoldus perhaps sums up Frankish values: "Oliver was wise, but Roland was brave".

And stupid. The Frankish Peers defeat their Moorish counterparts, at grievous cost to their own, but the weight of numbers tells and soon only a handful are left. Peer after Peer falls valiantly, after killing many times their own number. The poet dwells lovingly on scenes of gore: variants of "The shield he [one Peer or another, Frank or Moor] breaks, the hauberk's seams unsew/Slices the heart and shatters up the bones/All of the spine he severs with that blow/And with his spear the soul from body throws" make up the bulk of this section. Oliver  berates Roland's folly "Prudence is more worth than stupidity/Here are Franks dead for your trickery/No more service to [Charles] may we yield/My lord [Charles] were here now, had you trusted me/And fought and won this battle then had we". Finally Roland blows Oliphant, bursting blood vessels in his head that would eventually kill him. Oliver is slain and only Gualter del Hum, Turpin, and Roland remain. Gualter dies with eight lances in him, Turpin (after killing many) with four, when the Saracens, seeing the return of Charlemagne, flee the scene of battle. Roland tries to honor the dead but eventually succumbs to his blood loss.

The Frankish army hears the great horn and rushes back, only to find all dead. They give chase to the Moors, Charlemagne going hand to hand against Marsile and striking off his hand. The Franks get their first divine intervention when the sun stays high in the sky, giving the Franks time to reach the Moorish army before nightfall. But the Moors gain Zaragoza, which the Franks besiege. Marsile abdicates, his queen Bramamonte rejects him in disgust and swears to convert to Christianity, but his place is taken by Baligant, an admiral from "Babylon" who leads an enormous relief army.

The Franks meet the new army and this time it's a close thing, the battle ultimately decided in (again) personal combat between Baligant and Charlemagne. Of course chivalrous conventions must be maintained before they bash each others' brains out, and Baligant offers Charlemagne wealth, honor, and fiefs if he submits. Charles offers to "love him well" if Baligant submits and accepts Christianity. Neither, of course, accepts the offer. Baligant gets the first strike, but here again the divine intervenes, preventing the blow from being a killing one.
    "[Baligant] strikes Carlun on his steel helm so brown,
     Has broken it and rent, above his brow,
     Through his thick hair the sword goes glancing round,
     A great palm's breadth and more of flesh cuts out,
     So that all bare the bone is, in that wound.
     Charles tottereth, falls nearly to the ground;
     God wills not he be slain or overpow'red."
Charlemagne is stunned but with the angel Gabriel's help recovers to kill Baligant instead. Note the symmetry here: this section marks the second (though shorter) half of the poem, and like the end of the first half, involves a fight between Frank and Saracen. Both fights involve divine intervention on the side of the Franks, first to engage the army of Marsile, then the decisive event against Baligant. Both involve hand to hand combat between the principals: Charlemagne gets the best of Marsile in the first, Baligant would have gotten the best of Charlemagne in the second but for an act of God. With that act -- and only with that act -- the Saracen cause is lost, the Franks win the field and the city, but they do so only because God is on their side and will not let them lose. In any case, all that is left is to go home and mete out justice to the guy who started this all, Ganelon. Once again note the symmetry: Ganelon's treachery caused the destruction of the rearguard (but also ultimate victory over the Moors); Ganelon's treachery must now be addressed.

This is accomplished by trial by combat, each side choosing a champion. Charlemagne's champion prevails (of course) and Ganelon is quartered by horses (torn limb from limb). Bramamonde has arrived to accept Christianity, and Charlemagne can finally put this all behind him and get a good night's sleep. He is 200 years old, after all. But no such luck: the poem ends with a summons in a dream, "Summon the hosts, Charles, of thine Empire/Go forth with force into the land of Bire/King Vivien you will succour there at Imphe/In the city which the pagans have besieged." Charlemagne wakes up, tearing his beard in frustration.

The Franks led by Charlemagne did indeed invade Spain and besiege Zaragoza, their rearguard was indeed annihilated in the pass of Roncesvalles, and said rearguard was apparently led by a Hruodland or Hrodland, Count of the Marches of Brittany, who lost his life in that action. There was an Archbishop Turpin of Reims, who almost certainly had no involvement in Charlemagne's Spanish adventure. Everything beyond that is made up.

It is a little hard to understand what really happened without some context, especially in a history as rich and complicated as that of Spain's. So let's back up a bit, starting with a map.

Europe with locations of interest ca 1000 (modern boundaries in light blue for reference). Battles are marked with a red x, places important to the Song are in dark red , Moorish cities are in green in the main map, Christian in black. Barcelona in 1000 was Christian, in Charlemagne's time Muslim. Regions are marked in ALL CAPS. Neither Castile nor Aragon existed in 778, by 1000 Castile was the rising power in the North, although it was still a duchy of Leon, which in 1000 encompassed Galicia and Asturias as well. Castile would become an independent kingdom in 1037. Aragon in 1000 was a county of the Kingdom of Pamplona (Navarre), it declared itself a kingdom in 1035. It captured Zaragoza (which became its capital) in 1118.
All years are in the so-called "Common Era".

Ceuta, 711.
In late Roman times, several Germanic tribes settled (at least in part) in the Iberian peninsula, most notably the Vandals in the South, who likely gave their name to the Arab name for their Spanish holdings, al-Andalus, and to the modern state of Andalusia. They were conquered by the Visigoths, who controlled all of the peninsula and made their capital in the city of Toledo, but who never managed deep seated support, remaining an exclusive elite who constantly bickered among themselves.

The 7th century saw the birth of Islam, a new religion that burst out of Arabia with stunning force. It was a militant religion and quickly spread out over the Middle East and North Africa. By the year 711 the Arabs had swept all before them across North Africa (though not without resistance, one of the toughest being a mysterious Jewish(?) leader known as the Queen of the Aures) and found themselves at Ceuta, staring across the Straits to the Iberian peninsula. There they took advantage of a spat between the Visigothic governor and his King in Toledo to cross the water and invade Iberia. King Roderic met them in a series of battles culminating in (traditionally-- in fact no one really knows) the Battle of Guadelete, presumably on the Guadalete River south of Sevilla. The Visigoths were defeated and Roderic lost his life, perhaps abandoned by at least some of his forces, who wanted to see him fail. In any case, the brittle Visigothic rule shattered and the Arabs quickly overran most of the peninsula, establishing power centers in Cordoba, Badajos, Malaga, Barcelona, and Zaragoza, among others.

Covadonga, 722
The Arabs and their Berber allies (collectively aka Moors) did not stop there, and before conquering all of Spain swept over the Pyrenees, raiding Septimania (Southwestern France, now Languedoc-Rousillon, more or less). What was likely a small mopping up force chased a remnant native Iberian force led by a certain Pelayo into the Cantabrian mountains in the Asturias where the Moors suffered a defeat at Covadonga in 722. To the natives, it was a victory of existential proportions, and later Spaniards would date the beginning of the Reconquista to this battle. To the Arabs, it was a minor setback, and they could come back and deal with Pelayo at their leisure. No doubt that was true; it was also true that they never did (one other effort saw Pelayo victorious again), and the Moors never conquered all of Spain. Instead they kept after the much bigger and richer prize that was the Merovingian Frankish kingdom, even after a stinging defeat at Toulouse in 721. But in 732 they were stopped for good near Poitiers by Charles Martel ("Charles the Hammer"), among whose descendants would be a certain Charlemagne.

The Moors would continue to raid what is now France for decades to come, sometimes quite deeply, but the threat of jihad in the sense of converting dar al Harb to dar al Islam was stopped at Poitiers. With the impetus spent, the Moors consolidated their holdings, and by the mid 8th century occupied the southern (and richest) 70% of the Iberian peninsula, but including Barcelona and Zaragoza in the Northeast. The native Christians held perhaps 20%  in a narrow and mountainous strip along the Northern coast, from Galicia in the west to Asturias in the middle to Navarre in the east, with the remaining land in a sparsely populated buffer zone in between.

Damascus, 750
The scene now shifts to the other end of the Mediterranean, namely Damascus, the capital city of the Umayyad Caliphate. With few exceptions, the Umayyad Caliphs were considered to be a greedy, decadent, and corrupt lot pretty much from the beginning. Moreover, to many they had legitimacy issues, as they were not related to the Prophet Muhammad. Accordingly the banner of revolt was raised in what is now Iran under a descendant of Muhammad's uncle, Abbas, and by the year 750 the black banners of the Abbasids were marching on Damascus. This they took, and moved the capital to a new city they were building on the Tigris, Baghdad. But not before killing every Umayyad male they could get their hands on.

One escaped, though, and made his way to Cordoba. Evidently he was a man of great charisma as well as ability, and soon he was preeminent in Cordoba, under the name Abd ar Rahman. Soon Cordoba was the preeminent city in al-Andalus, with the other great power centers of the south under its sway. By the 770s, the walis (governors) of Barcelona, Zaragoza, and the smaller towns of Huesca and Girona saw the writing on the wall and understood that if they didn't do something drastic they too would soon be under the Cordoban thumb.

So ensued one of the most remarkable events in Medieval Europe: the walis of the four cities sent an embassy to Paderborn, where Charlemagne was making his capital (he used several cities for that purpose), to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. They would offer to do him homage for his assistance in defeating the Syrian usurper. They would divvy up al-Andalus amongst themselves while the Franks would get the Christian kingdoms of Spain (those weren't theirs to give of course, but no matter). They convinced him that Abd ar Rahman was deeply unpopular and the cities of al-Andalus would throw open their gates to the Franks. Furthermore, the Abbasids of Baghdad were still interested in the head of the Umayyad fugitive and committed to sending an army and fleet to help. Gone were the great ideals, of jihad, that propelled the Arabs from their homeland across an entire sea; gone the idea of unity among Arabs, among coreligionists: those ideals a victim of the realpolitik of the day.

Zaragoza, 778
Charlemagne accepted, and in 778 led his army across the Pyrenees. At the Navarrese capital of Pamplona he asked for access to the markets so he could reprovision, access which the Basques gave reluctantly. This didn't sit well with Charlemagne, who realized that whatever the embassy might have said, the Christian kingdoms of the North (or at least Navarre) did not in fact welcome the Franks. Worse was yet to come.

The Frankish army was duly joined by Barcelona, who would go on through the centuries to have issues with authority, be it Ummayad Cordoba, Capetian Paris, Aragonese Zaragoza or Castilian Madrid, but Zaragoza (not yet Aragonese) got cold feet and decided to sit this one out (not much is said about Huesca and Girona, which were probably too small to send much help anyway). A major power like Zaragoza could not be allowed to threaten the rear of the army, especially not such a demonstrably unreliable power, so Charlemagne had little choice but to invest the city. The Franks had no siege equipment with them, as they were assured that cities would welcome them with open arms, and besides, in the event they did need equipment, surely their Moorish allies who had far less distance to travel would provide that (said allies did not, needless to say). They certainly did not expect to have to besiege an ally who had pleaded with them to come. But the Franks were professionals, and having successfully reduced Pavia in Lombardy 4 years earlier, settled down to the business of siege. In the meantime Cordoba was sending Zaragoza threats, blandishments, and massive bribes to keep them at the very least neutral, bribes that the wali passed on to the Franks in an attempt to buy them off. The Abbasid fleet operation was half-hearted in the extreme and came to naught. But this was likely the origin of the admiral Baligant of Babylon in the story, even though the "Babylonians" and the Franks were supposed to be on the same side (Baghdad was built very near the ancient city of Babylon, and most Europeans of the day would recognize the name Babylon but not Baghdad).

Worse was yet to come. Shortly after the Franks settled into siege news came that a huge Saxon revolt under a certain Widukind arose across the Rhine. This threatened the Frankish homeland and could not be ignored, so a frustrated Charlemagne called off the siege and took his army home. Apparently he was hoping to renew the campaign the following year as he asked Pamplona for winter quarters for some of his troops. The Basques refused, and a furious Charlemagne tore down the city walls and by some accounts sacked the city. Then he left over the pass of Roncesvalles. The Basques could not hope to meet the Franks in an open fight, so they set an ambush in the pass, letting the main body through before falling on the rearguard (which had the baggage wagons carrying all the loot from the siege) and destroying it utterly. The commander of the rearguard, Hrodland or Hruodland of Brittany, was slain in the action. The Franks had no time to go chasing the Basques through the mountains and did not avenge the loss.

So the Franks were in Spain at the invitation of the Moors and the only city they sacked was a Christian one. The Battle of Roncesvalles was not Christian vs Muslim, it was Christian vs Christian, or more accurately, Basque vs Frank. At the time the whole affair was an embarrassment best forgotten quickly.

Barcelona, 801
There is a sequel. It would take Charlemagne nearly 25 years to subdue the Saxons. Abd ar Rahman's son and successor Hisham took advantage of the Saxon rising to call for jihad against the Franks in Septimania. Actually it was really a raid in force (razzia) in that no attempt was made to hold or convert the land, only an excuse to return with loot, women, slaves, and highborn hostages for ransom -- the usual. This turned out to be a bad mistake. Charlemagne could not let the provocation go without reply, and slowly the Franks took territories along the border -- the Spanish March -- but it was only in 801 that he felt himself free of the Saxon problem (finally resolved in 804). Then he sent an army across the Pyrenees again. This time they took Barcelona and the region surrounding the city (now Catalonia, more or less) and Barcelona was lost to al-Andalus for good. The Counts of Barcelona considered themselves vassals of the Frankish emperor (Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800) until the end of the Carolingian line in 987, declaring themselves an independent County with the rise of the Capetians. Even then their ties were closer to the south of France and their corner of the Mediterranean -- the old Roman littoral -- than to the Christian or Moorish kingdoms of Spain. They would only slowly come within the Spanish ambit, first by marrying the Princess of Aragon in the 12th century, then expulsion by the Capetians from Southern France in the Albigensian Crusades in the 13th century, and marriage with the House of Castile in the 15th. By this time the Counts-cum-Kings had become more and more Aragonese. Catalonia chafed under the rule of Aragon, and Ferdinand's father John II spent a decade beating down a Catalan insurrection. Later they attempted to revolt during the Thirty Year's War, sided against Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession, and against Franco in the Civil War. Even now Catalonians insist on their autonomy, their laws, their language and today may be triggering a Constitutional crisis with the referendum on self determination.

Given that there are only a few wisps of fact in the poem, why did it become so popular, and why did it become popular so long after the fact and so far away from the battle? We'll never know for sure, of course, but we can gain some insight all the same. Location is easiest: the song was known in Northern France and probably originated in Brittany. Quite plausibly someone dug up a fallen hero of the past -- the old Count Hruodland -- and spun a story around him. Facts were thin on the ground here, in part because Frankish historians glossed quickly over this rather embarrassing event. It didn't take root or become popular in Spain, where they knew the facts and where the Franks were never welcome in the first place, by either Christian or Muslim -- except by Muslim Barcelona, whose governor lost his head for that.

Europe in the Middle Ages was a dynamic place, where kingdoms and principalities were establishing themselves and carving out territories. By the 11th century kingdoms had more or less settled along borders more or less recognizable in modern nations, which meant that the warrior class had fewer external enemies to fight, and so took to fighting among themselves. A power vacuum in the dying days of the Carolingians and early days of the Capetians contributed to the chaos. The violence got completely out of hand, to the point that the Church tried to put a limit on it, issuing the Peace and Truce of God, where the Peace attempted to put noncombatants out of bounds (that is, knights could bash each other to bits if they really had to, but they weren't allowed to drag commoners into it) and the Truce set aside specific days where no fighting was allowed. Those were pretty much a complete failure, so the Church then landed on the idea of channeling that aggression outwards, and the 11th century marked the beginning of the Age of Crusade.

There are many reasons for the rise of the Crusades, and the channeling of aggression was only one. But once the call was made, European Christians took to it with enthusiasm, some out of real conviction, some for remission of criminal penalties, some for the sanctioned prospect of loot and bashing heads in. Of course the best known and most prestigious Crusades were to the Holy Land, but there were Crusades called in other theaters, which were popular as they were far cheaper and much less dangerous to undertake than heading off to Jerusalem. One of these alternate theaters was Spain, which was not just ruled mostly by the infidel, it was right next door.

At this time in Spain, the Reconquista had been slowly progressing for some 300 years. But the Reconquista did not have the Holy War sense of Crusade and would not get it for another 2 centuries or more: Reconquista at this time was political, not religious, and Jewish and Muslim communities in cities retaken by the Christians were considered integral members of society and subject to their own customs and laws -- it was still some centuries before the closing of the Spanish mind and the horrors of the Inquisition. Spanish kingdoms (primarily Castile) welcomed the Crusaders as military allies but did not understand their attitude of Holy War, of treating the Moor as the treacherous worthless infidel. Crusaders were mystified and bit outraged by their host's attitude of treating the Moors as political rivals rather than existential foes.

There was one other event that likely helped trigger the epic, the depredations of Almanzor at the end of the 10th century. By the beginning of the 10th century, Cordoba had reached the peak of its power, easily the greatest city in Western Europe and quite likely the greatest west of Byzantium. It was said that its Great Library (one of several in the city) had perhaps as many as 400000 volumes, this in a time when a monastery with a few hundred was considered a beacon of learning. The palace of Madinat al Zahra was one of the wonders of its age; the Mezquita of Cordoba remains one of the wonders of world architecture today. The ruler, Abd ar Rahman III, declared himself Caliph, pitting Cordoba against Abbasid Baghdad and Fatimid Cairo for primacy in dar al Islam. Abd ar Rahman III was succeeded by his son, al Hakam II, a highly learned man who was quite late in producing an heir, and when he died in 976, the Caliph al Hisham II was only eleven years old. Power resided in a regency which ultimately lay in the vizier Muhammad ibn Abi 'Amir al Ma'afari, who took the name Almanzor (al-Mansur in the modern Westernization, it means "the Victor"). Almanzor kept Hisham II locked up in the harem and took power ostensibly in the Caliph's name. This was clear usurpation, and in the 980s he undertook a series of massive attacks against all of the Christian principalities, from Barcelona in the east to the great Christian pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela in the west. There would be over 50 in all, all of them successful. These raids served several purposes, first as distraction against the charge of usurpation by providing loot, women, hostages, and especially slaves. Also to gain and maintain power he had to bring in Berber auxiliaries from North Africa, and these needed to be paid. But to the Christian kingdoms this was a shocking blow, once they realized the scope of his campaign (initially they rejoiced at their neighbor's misfortune and frequently provided mercenaries -- until their turn came). For over 200 years Moor and Christian lived in relative peace as neighbors, and frequently one would hire mercenaries from the other in their spats with other neighbors. Christians had to pay tribute to Cordoba but even when things came to blows there was no sense of one side trying to destroy the other. They were rivals, not mortal foes. Almanzor's campaigns were something they hadn't seen since the existential crisis of the 8th century. They appealed for help across the Pyrenees which rang warning bells all over Europe: Islam, it seemed, was waging Holy War against the Christians. And so the ideals of Crusade slowly filtered into Iberia, ideals that eventually would turn an open Spanish society into an intolerantly narrow one, ideals that would see the end of Moorish Spain in 1492. Almanzor himself was apparently devout, carrying a Koran with him at all times, but it turned out that he had no interest in converting dar al Harb to dar al Islam: he was interested only in the wealth and power made possible by the raids. But the Christians at the time only understood that he was systematically going after the Christian kingdoms of the North.

What if Almanzor had been less grasping and proved to be a good regent instead? The attacks had short term and long term implications. In the short term, it would mean the end of the Caliphate and of al-Andalus as a unified power. In the long term, it meant the end of the Moorish presence in Spain. His systematic and successful attacks on Christian Spain would prove to be the beginning of the end for al-Andalus. But what did he care? He'd gotten his, and he died in wealth and glory, not long before everyone else had to pay the piper. And did they ever.

Cordoba would come crashing down at the height of its glory, in a conflagration that would see the destruction of its libraries and palaces, the end of both Caliphate and Vizierate. Almanzor died on campaign in 1002 and was succeeded by his son Abd al-Malik, who lasted barely 6 years before his untimely end, probably at the hands of his half brother, Sanchuelo, who took over. Weakness in the Vizierate led a grandson of Abd ar Rahman III (and cousin to the sitting Caliph) to claim the Caliphate. Civil war erupted, and both sides lost control of the Berber mercenaries, who went on a rampage. Cordoba was only one of many cities sacked; others were subjected to extortion. The Vizierate was extinguished, the Caliphate hung on for a few more years as an increasingly pointless symbol. In the end only the Christian kingdoms (particularly Castile) benefited, as Moorish Spain fell apart into a bunch of petty "taifa" kingdoms. Now it was the taifa kings who paid tribute to the Christians.

This was the historical context of The Song of Roland. From the trans-Pyrenean Christian perspective, the Moors were unreliable and treacherous, liable to strike with terrifying ferocity even after decades or even centuries of good relations, who might maintain a facade of neighbors and rivals before suddenly turning into mortal enemies. Christians in Spain understood the situation better (after the initial panic), but the epic did not really take hold there. But to Northern Europeans, al-Andalus was now fragmented, and now was the time to strike, while the Moors were weak, before they could reunite (they would in fact be briefly united in reduced territorial form by two waves of fundamentalist Muslims from North Africa, first the Almoravids, then the Almohads. But the momentum had already shifted to Castile by then). Calling up Western Europe's greatest king, Charlemagne, in a campaign against the Moors in Spain had a kernel of historical truth, and where facts were missing stories were made up. Even if the facts had been known, of course, they would have had to have been "rearranged" to make the battle one of Christian vs Saracen, Good vs Evil, Right vs Wrong, Us vs Them, because The Song is, among other things, a political screed. A fallen local hero (if the story did indeed arise in Brittany), flawed but brave, was an ideal figure to rally around. In a time when Crusade was in the air, it is hardly surprising that The Song of Roland struck so resonant a note among the people. Its popularity, as a song in the vernacular, fed back into building popular support for Crusade.

If you are interested in the rich and complex history of Medieval Spain, these might get you started:
David Levering Lewis, God's Crucible
Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain
Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (taifa Spain)

Originally posted to alefnot on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 04:23 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, Readers and Book Lovers, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the great story! (19+ / 0-)

    I had an obsession phase with the Chanson de Roland as a kid, a subset of a longer medieval warfare obsession. Never did get why Roland didn't blow his horn right away.

    I really enjoyed the historic context - the contrast of the heroic myth with the less honorable reality reminds me of the Crusades...

  •  I am republishing you to Readers & Book (15+ / 0-)

    Lovers and adding tags...great diary!!!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 05:01:54 PM PDT

    •  Thanks! (11+ / 0-)

      I've a few other books in mind, some a bit of a stretch. But I'm a very slow writer ...

      •  sent me down the link hole! (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        714day, cfk, alefnot

        and that's not easy to do, Almanzor/Almanzor doesn't come off to well, especially after reading the 'Historical Evidence of the Libraries  of Muslim Spain..  
             geez, those people were so advanced, the combination of technology and will and vision...yet Almanzor was said to have burned his predecessors books..the wiki for him says :

        Following Al-Hakam II's death, Al-Mansur had Hakam's library of "ancient science" books destroyed.[1]
        and that essay kinda skips over that part.

        A giant diary series could be done just on the history of books and libraries vis a vis Muslim/Christian worlds..fascinating. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what has been kept safe in the Vatican archives?
          And what might happen in Timbuktu with all controls gone...not good.

        Thanks for 'splaining Roland so well, I can't remember where I read it, maybe a b/w Classics Comic Book or somesuch, I remember him sprawled out on a hill, all big muscles and armor..and long girly man hair..a distinct impression on a tidy whiteyboy.

        Thanks for the context and analysis, very well written and much appreciated balm for my Bain cells.

        This machine kills Fascists.

        by KenBee on Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 01:49:34 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Almanzor (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Was rather a piece of work. The regency was actually originally set up under Hisham II's mother Subh and Hakam II's vizier al-Mushafi (the title used in the west was actually hajib, but it's the same office) who brought in Cordoba's top general, Ghalib. Subh favored an up and coming civil servant (and possible lover) who would later take the title Almanzor and who married Ghalib's daughter. Neither Ghalib nor Almanzor liked al-Mushafi and al-Mushafi was disgraced and assassinated. Ghalib and his son-in-law soon fell out, it came to blows, and the elderly Ghalib was killed falling off his horse. With a track record like that it was no wonder he had to resort to sustained and systematic attacks to stay in power.

          A few other notes:
          al-Mushafi was most unusually a Berber (one of the reasons he was disliked). Much is made of convivencia, and while usually it's a bit overstated, nonetheless Moorish (and Christian, who may have gotten that from the Moors) Spain was much more religiously tolerant than the rest of Europe, provided you remembered that Arabs were at the top. Nonetheless, Jews and Christians could and often did reach high office. But there was a deep ethnic divide in Moorish Spain, between the Arabs and the Berbers, who were decidedly third-class citizens yet who provided the muscle for their exploits (the Berber explosion in the civil war was partly fuelled by this). It was very unusual to have a Berber in high office. Hakam II was quite progressive and open-minded.

          Hakam II was also gay. That wouldn't have been an issue if he were an ordinary citizen, but it was an issue as a dynast (supposedly Abd ar Rahman III's favorite concubine was male but he fathered Hakam II in a timely manner). Eventually he did what he had to, but if he had done so earlier Hisham II might have been of age when Hakam II died, there might have been no need for a regency, and history might have been very different.

          About those 400000 volumes. There are those who think that number is grossly inflated, by a factor of 2 or more -- which still leaves a lot of volumes. Many were probably fragmentary, but that's still a lot of volumes. One of those volumes -- a gift from Byzantium -- was a copy of Dioscorides de Materia Medica (as it was known in Latin), which would form the basis for Western medicine for the next 6 centuries. Many if not most of those volumes were acquired by trade from Byzantium, Damascus, Alexandria, etc. Further afield, China had been making comprehensive encyclopedias since Han Dynasty days (3rd century). Western Europe it seems was the benighted odd one out here.

        •  "long girly man hair" (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          That's a Frankish thing. Clovis and his successors (the Merovingians) were known as the long-haired Kings of France.

          Actually, if it came down to a bashing brains out with blunt (or sharp) instruments fight, might not be a bad idea to have one of those long-haired dudes in your corner.

  •  Loved "The Song of Roland" as a teenager (14+ / 0-)

    As you may surmise, I led a sheltered, bookish life.

    Thanks for a really enjoyable diary--loved it!  You certainly know a lot about medieval history--many thanks for sharing your knowledge.  This is a nice change of pace from current politics.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 05:12:04 PM PDT

    •  Re: current politics (12+ / 0-)

      I find Spanish history fascinating, and today's world can learn a lot from it, even (or especially) from the dismal days of the 17th and 18th centuries. Such as what happens when rent extraction becomes the highest and most noble ambition, when production is a dirty word, and when the commons become increasingly privatized ...

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      •  alefnot, can you recommend a good source (9+ / 0-)

        on life in present-day Spain?  I want to write a short story for my granddaughter's birthday (starring her, of course).  She mentioned going to summer school in Madrid to improve her Spanish, but I'd put her in a smaller Spanish city (for story purposes).

        I read that the Spaniards have gone to a barter system, with paid jobs so hard to come by and money so tight. They're having a lot of trouble of there, the poor things.  

        "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

        by Diana in NoVa on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 07:34:01 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Do you read Spanish? (7+ / 0-)

          Things are moving so quickly in present day Spain that the newspapers will likely be your best bet, but few are available in English (El Pais, eg). Here's a list of many Spanish papers and their online addresses. You can get an idea which is from where by the headquarter city (eg, Oviedo or Santander would be Asturias, Seville or Malaga would be Andalusia, etc).

          Keep in mind that there are strong regional identities, even beyond the obvious Catalan and Basque issues. There are also "families" of differences, so Asturias and Galicia will be more like each other than Madrid. Same for San Sebastian and Bilbao. In Valencia signs are in both Valencian and Castilian, where Valencian is closer to Catalan (both are closer to old Occitan) than to Castilian. Etc, etc. I'll probably get into trouble for this, but IMO Basque country and Catalonia are similar in that both were unhappy with Castilian rule and were to a degree accorded not so favorable a status by the ruling class. Having given Madrid the finger too often, they kind of had to shift for themselves at times, so they couldn't afford to look down on production and industry as much, and consequently were the most advanced regions coming into the Civil War.

          Summer school in Madrid is a fantastic idea. Exploring the regional differences in Spain and their histories is immensely rewarding.

          •  Thanks, alefnot, appreciate the list! (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Limelite, alefnot, KenBee

            No, alas, I don't read Spanish. I want to put her in a situation where she has to ride a bike or walk as opposed to taking an overcrowded bus, and live with a real Spanish family as opposed to living in a dorm. For the story I have in mind she has to be living the life of the city rather than an isolated, "everything is on the campus" situation.

            "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

            by Diana in NoVa on Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 04:34:42 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Unless she's out in the boonies (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              KenBee, Diana in NoVa

              which might include way out in the suburbs, everything is easily walkable or train-able. Even out in the sticks the bus service is pretty good (or was when I was in Valencia a year ago) and certainly it's bikable. Just don't let her become a Real Madrid fan!

    •  I read about Roland in 6th Grade ... (10+ / 0-)

      ... albeit in truncated, but brightly illustrated form.

      Hey! Here's the cover:

      ... my income falls because you’re spending less, and your income falls because I’m spending less. And, as our incomes plunge, our debt problem gets worse, not better. -- P. Krugman

      by MT Spaces on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 08:23:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The Song Of Roland (14+ / 0-)

    influenced Stephen King to write his Dark Tower series. Not only did he name his Gunslinger after the hero but he gave him a horn which is quite important to the story.

    Great diary. Thanks!

    Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

    by Purple Priestess on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 06:47:20 PM PDT

  •  great story (7+ / 0-)

    had no idea about the connection of Charlemagne with the Sunni Shi'ite thing

  •  And I thought he was a (8+ / 0-)

    White-collar conservatives flashing down the street, pointing their plastic finger at me..

    by BOHICA on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 07:22:45 PM PDT

  •  Merci beaucoup pour l'histoire... (7+ / 0-)

    I have a well-worn copy of Le Chanson with Old French on one side and modern French on the other.  Worked back and forth doggedly to get the story and poetry...

    I really appreciate the extensive context you researched and provided.  To me, the Roland/Charlemagne cycle is France's version of England's Arthur/Lancelot cycle (which circulated for ages before Malory's version).  These historical fictions/fairy tales/poetry/stories of derring-do were highly popular on both sides of the Channel.  We can only guess at the true variety of the oral tradition for such cycles that lay behind the written texts.

    These secular performances, highly stylized, with stock characters and well-known stories, found their religious parallels in the mystery plays (with a genesis in familiar Bible stories).  In a largely illiterate society, oral tradition ensured the passage of key cultural touchstones and guideposts from generation to generation.

    While we look now at a relatively unitary textual version of, say, the Song of Roland, or the stories of the Canterbury Tales or the Decameron, undoubtedly these were but single versions among many which circulated with fairly common cultural knowledge and great variety.

    I would also propose that historicity, as we understand it today - an attempt at impartial and precise recitation of names, dates, and places - was entirely foreign to the medieval mind, for whom surely all "history" was an interpretation and as Eco so brilliantly fictionalizes, every action and even word had a multiplicity of meanings, made exponential by variance in time, place, person, and perspective.

    Thanks again for a great diary.

    •  de rien (9+ / 0-)

      Good points both about the Roland/Charlemagne cycle and historicity. And it's certainly true that a written version of something with an oral tradition leads to severe "sampling bias" a few hundred years down the line. The Song of Roland, with its symmetry and frequently formulaic or ritualized constructions was certainly originally oral. It's also true that the actual facts (even if they were known to the public, which they probably weren't) were secondary to the story. But what was myth and rollicking good stories to a medieval Frenchman or Englishman or German was something entirely different that a medieval Spaniard was living through.

    •  very nice..I was trying to say something like this (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      714day, alefnot

      and fell well short :>

      Another take on it is that texts were copied by laborious hand..a Bible took 100+ sheep to give their skins ..

      Now think of a scribe somewhere saying..'hmm, that part seems a little clunky to me, I think I'll jazz it up a bit...'

      then when we see parsed and bisected version of the Bible, where people were really serious, dog knows how literature was altered by that process.

      another thing I was wondering is about Roland as a icon or model for subsequent storytelling, even today.

      Sancho was the name of Almanzor's eventual successor and did that get into Don Quixote as some riff on that name?..and Roland as well?

      This machine kills Fascists.

      by KenBee on Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 02:15:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sancho ... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Sanchuelo (the eventual successor) was named after his grandfather, Sancho II of Navarre (Christians had to pay tribute to Cordoba, and part of that was in women. Baramamonte's conversion to Christianity in The Song is one of the least implausible parts of it -- female "royals" were often originally Christian. Abd Ar Rahman III's mother was Christian and he was actually a half-blood nephew of the Queen of Navarre). Sancho was a common name in Spain well before Sanchuelo's time. But Cervantes might have had Sanchuelo in mind, who knows ...

  •  What a fine diary this is! (8+ / 0-)

    It's a genuine work of scholarship and investigation which I am pleased that you have shared.
    Your analysis and a comment or two in the thread regarding oral histories and their permutations, particularly those that were widely disseminated during medieval times when few were literate in the populace and therefor dependent on the telling of stories rather than reading, reminds me of the first book I read that really opened a broad view of that time to me. It was Terry Jones Chaucer's Knight.
    The conventional interpretation of the Knight's Tale was appropriately shattered by Mr. Jones, at least in part by referencing the specific crusades mentioned by Chaucer which would've announced to the listener that these were the most ignoble of all of these dubious enterprises.
    Listeners could not read but they flocked to the telling of tales; they knew this stuff. Word traveled.
    Makes me wonder what contemporaneous populations in the ages nearest to the origin of the Song of Roland knew about the Spaniards.

    •  Re: contemporaneous populations (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KenBee, 714day

      Interesting question. Probably depends on whether you're talking Brittany or Bavaria, Narbonne or Toulouse, Pamplona or Burgos.

      Glad you enjoyed it.

    •  Chaucer's Knight (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Terry Jones is a gifted writer as well as comedian, but I am not sure that I would go as far as to claim that he shattered the way "The Knight's Tale" is read.  Even if he did call into question the character of the knight, the tale is not much influenced by the "author."

      •  I respectfully disagree. (0+ / 0-)

        In the early 80's when this book was published, there was a rather blind (even in academic circles) acceptance of the knight as the lone heroic figure in an otherwise comedic vernacular tale. Terry more than substantiates a contrary claim that the Knight is a risible character, or at least worthy of more than a snigger or two. Many current medieval scholars have had altered perceptions because of Terry's very reasoned presentation. Many of the notions for possible supporting evidence he put forward at the time of initial publication that could not be substantiated (as for example, the illuminated illustration of the knight in the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales at the Huntington museum as evidence for what seemed like outrageous speculation) have since been revealed to be accurate because of advances in digital photography and the like.
        He is a well respected Chaucerian scholar who is frequently a featured speaker at Medieval conferences around the world, including the United States.
        His most recent collaboration with other scholars with a Chaucerian tilt, is (perhaps predictably)  even more agitating, and, to my mind a much weaker work, Who Murdered Chaucer. That isn't to say that it doesn't have a great deal to recommend it and that it isn't a dandy view of the political atmosphere of the day, as well as possibly even mostly correct. It raises interesting questions.

        •  Terry Jones (0+ / 0-)

          I agree with you on essentially all of your comments.  I have listened to his presntations and met him at one of the medieval conferences you mentioned, so I understand his credentials.  My point was not about the knight, but about the "Knights Tale." Jones' work did not substantially change the way the work is seen.  

          I happen to like Who Murdered Chaucer, for even if it is speculative non-fiction, it challenges many conventional ideas, and isn't that what scholars are supposed to do?

          •  A misunderstanding then of what I meant (0+ / 0-)

            by the previous conventional interpretation of the knight's tale; ironically so in academic forums. Canterbury Tales was material in a class I took at Rutgers in the 70's and the noble knight was the fellow the class met.
            Re Who Murdered Chaucer, I personally accept much of what is speculated. I believe the proffered notions are reasonably well substantiated, too. Glad you have met Terry (nice fellow) and seen one of his presentations. I saw one at UCLA. He certainly delivers with enthusiasm and wit.
            And, indeed, scholars are supposed to question standard pap. There are many academics who do not, as the Texas school board has taught us. Though there is pushback, it isn't the tidal wave one would hope for. That's another story, though, isn't it?

  •  Thanks! (8+ / 0-)

    I was about to go to Wiki to read about Roland, when I saw your diary. How's that for serendipity? The novel I'm reading has Charles of France calling Galeazzo di Sanseverino a new Roland, and I thought I ought to refresh my recollection of the character and deeds of said paladin. Your diary was SO much better than any Wiki page, ever!

    If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

    by pimutant on Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 12:04:41 AM PDT

  •  Your context is fascinating, thanks.. (5+ / 0-)

    Song of Roland was required reading in my freshman year of college - world literature, if I recall.

    I recall finding it tedious and repetitive. No match for the Homeric Epics. My dorm mate used it to cure insomnia. Now, in light of current events, I am actually tempted to reread it. Seriously.

  •  Flannery O'Connor! Dang, I missed it. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ahianne, Limelite, alefnot, 714day

    Ruby Turpin, main character of "A Revelation," has a name that has always resolved as "turnip."

    I had forgotten 7th grade and my bewildered reading of Roland. (As for the values, the Franco-Norman values were a bit... brutish. Compare the various Havelok stories -- much love in the killing. My suspicion is that these are the Michael Bey films of their day.

    If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

    by The Geogre on Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 03:16:06 AM PDT

  •  "La" Chanson de Roland (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, alefnot, 714day

    Not "le". There's a typo in your text.

    Great diary. Thanks.

  •  Superb diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Monsieur Georges, alefnot, 714day

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and putting so much effort into the diary.  It is much appreciated!

  •  A footnote (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, alefnot, JanetT in MD, 714day, KenBee

    a) Thanks for a real tour de force(s).
    b) May I point to a favorite site, the Intenet Medieval Sourcebook:

    For instance, here you can find links to Saracen and Christian sources about the Battle of Tours:

    Apologies if you already linked to this—I have to confess that I did not click on every single link in the diary.

  •  Very interesting post. Thanks for putting this up. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    714day, KenBee, alefnot

    My wife and I were fortunate to visit Barcelona in April 2011, and we both really enjoyed it (also a few days in Cadaques a bit further up the coast).  Your post really has me wanting to go back and see more, especially Cordoba.

    Will also try to find some of your additional reading recommendations.

    As I said, very cool!

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