The Song of Roland

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss an early masterpiece of French epic poetry, from the 12th Century. It is a reimagining of Charlemagne’s wars in Spain in the 8th Century in which Roland, his most valiant knight, chooses death before dishonour, guarding the army’s rear from a pagan ambush as it heads back through the Roncesvalles Pass in the Pyrenees. If he wanted to, Roland could blow on his oliphant, his elephant tusk horn, to summon help by calling back Charlemagne’s army, but according to his values that would bring shame both on him and on France, and he would rather keep killing pagans until he is the last man standing and the last to die.

The image above is taken from an illustration of Charlemagne finding Roland after the Battle of Roncevaux/Roncesvalles, from ‘Les Grandes Chroniques de France’, c.1460 by Jean Fouquet, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Ms Fr 6465 f.113

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  • Laura Ashe 11 episodes
    Professor of English Literature and Fellow in English at Worcester College, University of Oxford
  • Miranda Griffin 2 episodes
    Assistant Professor of Medieval French at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Murray Edwards College
  • Luke Sunderland No other episodes
    Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University

Reading list

  • The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350
    Robert Bartlett (Penguin, 1994) Google Books →
  • The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature
    Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay (eds.) (Cambridge University Press, 2008) Google Books →
  • The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne
    Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt (trans.) (Oxford University Press, 2016) Google Books →
  • The Chanson de Geste in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions
    Sarah Kay (Clarendon, 1995) Google Books →
  • The Ornament Of The World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
    Maria Rosa Menocal (Little Brown, 2002) Google Books →
  • King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne
    Janet L. Nelson (Penguin, 2020) Google Books →
  • Rethinking Heritage: Cultures and Politics in Europe
    Robert Shannan Peckham (ed.) (London, 2003) Google Books →
  • Theorizing Medieval Race: Saracen Representations in Old French Literature
    Victoria Turner (Legenda, paperback 2021) Google Books →

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Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello. The Song of Roland from the 12th century is an early masterpiece of French poetry.