Review of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)

What was it about?

The Franks under Charlemagne (King Charles) have conquered all of Spain except Saragosse. Saragosse is still under Saracen rule. The Saracen King Marsile, realizing that Charlemagne’ army is so much more powerful than his own, decides to defeat the Franks through deception. Marsile informs Charlemagne that he would like to get baptized. He claims that he is interested in becoming Christian and will give all of Spain to the Franks. After consulting his knights, Charlemagne decides to accept Marsile’s offer. Charles’ nephew, Roland, is a brave and loyal warrior. But, he is also prideful. His pride has resulted in many wars between the Christians and the Muslims. Roland nominates his godfather Ganelon to convey Charlemagne’s response to Marsile. Ganelon accepts the baton and the glove from Charlemagne, but he comes up with a plan to kill Roland. He betrays the Franks by allying with Marsile. He tells Marsile that if Roland is killed, the Franks will no longer fight the Saracens because Charlemagne is powerless without his nephew. Marsile sends word to Charlemagne that he will follow Charles to Aix where he will become Christian. Charles leaves behind Roland, the twelve pairs, and thousands of other knights to protect his Spanish territories. Without warning, Charlemagne’s rearguard is attacked by the Saracens.

What did I think about it?

How can one claim to know anything about the Crusades without having read The Song of Roland? True, it is fictional. But, the story was written in the 12th century, during the First Crusade. It served as war propaganda. If only for that reason, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) should be read for its historical relevance. Roland is the ideal knight. He is willing to die for his God and his king.

The Song of Roland rewards a reader who understands and can identify Christian imagery. Charlemagne is a very wise and saintly figure. This 200 year old man with a long white beard is definitely an impressive character. Roland, Ganelon, ad Olivier are not one-dimensional. This is difficult to accomplish in a poem but the author succeeded in creating complex characters. However, the battles drag on for 50-100 pages each. Although I know that the repetitions in the poem serve to underline tension in the story, these repetitions (especially in the battle scenes) can be irritating at times. Because of the extremely boring final battle scene , I give the book 4 stars. But this rating should not dissuade you from reading this epic poem. Anyone interested in Medieval Europe should read The Song of Roland. It is comparable in fame to Homer’s Odyssey.

Review of Sacred Violence

From Wikipedia. The Eastern Mediterranean after the Third Crusade (c. 1200)

From Wikipedia. The Eastern Mediterranean after the Third Crusade (c. 1200)

Early this month, I went on another of my book hunts at the university library. I found a history book on the Crusades, and after making sure that the Amazon reviews were mostly positive, I checked out Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East 1095-1396 by Jill N. Claster, professor emerita at New York University. Sacred Violence (2009) mostly covers the six crusades but ends with a discussion of other European wars that are frequently considered crusades by Medieval scholars. After reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe last month, I naturally became interested in the crusades. In particular, I wanted to know more about King Richard I of England (also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lionhearted).

About King Richard I

Here is a summary of what Sacred Violence has to say about the life and legacy of King Richard I:

Richard I was crowned king of England in September 1189, during the Third Crusades. After the death of his father, Henry II, the newly crowned King Richard left England and set off for the Holy Land with the French King Philip II Augustus. Financing all the crusades was a costly undertaking. Henry II and Philip II had imposed crusade taxes on all their people, save knights and the clergy. After building a navy and touring Europe, King Richard finally left for the East. Along the way, the English king got into a shipwreck and had his supplies stolen by the Cypriots. So, Richard conquered Cyprus. Acquiring Cyprus helped the crusaders send supplies easily to the Holy Land. Richard and Philip then sailed to Acre and besieged it. The Ayyubid Emperor Saladin agreed to give Acre to the two European kings under certain conditions which Philip and Richard accepted. But, when Saladin did not fulfill his end of the deal, Richard hanged 2700 Turks.

Richard next set off for Jerusalem. He wanted to take it but because his supplies were limited, he did not. Richard I and Saladin signed a treaty whereby Christians could travel and live in Jerusalem for almost 3.5 years.  All coastal cities were given to the Franks, but Ascalon was under Muslim rule. Without Ascalon, the Christian capital was now at Acre. The Third Crusades came to an end.

Richard returned home in October 1192, but was captured and made prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Once he was released, Richard fought against Philip II . He was shot by an arrow and died on April 6, 1199. Richard the Lionhearted became a legendary figure in England. A statue was erected in his honor in the nineteenth century. Although Richard killed thousands of Turks, he has gone down in history as a man of great courage and determination.

What did I think about it?

Sacred Violence is a very balanced account of the crusades. It is well-written and beautiful. The many photos of Medieval artwork enhance the text. Dr. Claster refers to and quotes a few important medieval chroniclers, including Fulcher of Chartres and William of Tyre. Claster shows how crusading ideology changed over time from a purely religious endeavor to one that was more politically motivated. It is interesting to note that, after the end of the sixth crusade, many Templars were burned at the stake for their sins. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a great preacher of the crusades. He formed the Templars, influenced papal decrees, and inspired Church councils. I plan to read his book, In Praise of the New Knighthood in April or May. Reading Sacred Violence is at once enjoyable and disturbing. Written for undergraduates, it is not pedantic. It is a fantastic contribution to medieval and crusade scholarship.

Favorite Quote

[Taken from Volume III of Sir Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades]: “The triumphs of the crusades were triumphs of faith. But faith without wisdom is a dangerous thing…There was so much courage and so little honor, so much devotion and so little understanding.”