Tag Archives: French

La Chanson de Roland

Roland a Roncevaux. It would be a stain on my escutcheon to poke fun at the war dead—even from 1300 years back—but I reckon it within bounds to lampoon a guy who didn’t call for help until all was clearly lost anyway.

The Song of Roland takes place during Charlemagne’s reign. Roland is Charles’ most trusted officer and the perfect embodiment of chivalry—pure in heart, doer of mighty deeds. In the story there’s a lot of diplomacy, intrigue, and military battles between Charles’ Franks and the wily Saracens in Spain (remember Spain and other big chunks of Europe were under Muslim control throughout the Middle Ages). Charles relies too heavily on his negotiator, the treacherous Ganelon. After a decisive battle a truce is reached and Charles agrees to withdraw his army with Roland commanding the rearguard. However, Ganelon has betrayed them and set a trap. Roland and his army must squeeze through a pass in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. It’s there that the Saracens cut off the Frankish rearguard with their army that’s 20 times bigger. The Franks gallantly fight against hopeless odds. Roland has an elephant-tusk trumpet to summon help but he’s too proud to sound the alarm until the battle’s already lost. When he finally does, Roland bursts a blood vessel blowing that horn and dies. Charlemagne hears the call, rides to the rescue with more troops but when he arrives everybody is dead. Roland’s ghost is whisked up to Heaven by a bevy of angels.

The battle in the narrow mountain pass where Roland met his doom is ‘…loosely based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. However, the combatants in that skirmish were the Franks and the Christian Basques of Spain…’ If history teaches us anything, it’s this: never put all your Basques in one exit.

In Sicily, Roland’s story morphed into Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland) and is performed with rod puppets. They used to do this show in New York City’s Little Italy, too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwtwFK9dHfs
Santé vache! There’s a Roland movie with young Klaus Kinski in the lead—https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077317/

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The Norman Conquest and all that

My ham-fisted rendition of Edmund Blair Leighton’s 1900 painting ‘God Speed!’ A lady ties a ‘favor’ (an item of her clothing) on the arm of her paramour as he leaves to do battle.

Thanks to the Norman Conquest in ad 1066, French was introduced in the British Isles. French is another one of those Romance languages developed from Latin. The British natives had been speaking Old English/Anglo-Saxon which had Germanic roots (as we heard in Beowulf). The two cultures influenced each other. People were zipping back and forth across the English Channel (my British pal John W tells me on clear days he can see France from where he lives). English and French speakers swapped words (like lamb meat is mutton from French mouton). They influenced each other’s written language, too. Soon after 1066, church hymnals and psalters in England were written in French.

Later on mediæval England’s nobility became fascinated with chivalry, the knightly code of honor, and courtly love. They created a demand for literature that featured those themes. The nobility spoke French and Latin, so poetry was written in those languages. As time went on, French became the preferred language.*

* Courtly love is where a gentleman adored a lady from afar and performed brave, glorious deeds in her name. Often the ladies were other people’s wives. The romance between Queen Guinevere and Sir Launcelot is a famous example of courtly love. In theory the lady’s and gentleman’s code of honor forbade any monkey business—it was a strictly chaste relationship. Chivalry’s ideal man was a ‘verray parfit gentil knight.’ Even so, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee observed, “Well, it was touching to see the queen blush and smile, and look embarrassed and happy, and fling furtive glances at Sir Launcelot that would have got him shot in Arkansas, to a dead certainty.”


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.