At the heart of the Song of Roland lies a battle that took place #onthisday, August 15th, 778 near Roncesvalles in the Pyrenes. Roland, Paladin of Charlemagne and allegedly 8 foot tall giant fights valiantly and dies on the field of battle.
In the chivalric romance, the army of Charlemagne is returning from a successful campaign against the Muslims in Spain. Ganelon, a duplicitous general, conspires with the Islamic ruler of Saragossa to attack the rear guard commanded by Roland. When the army of the emir appears the soldiers plead with Roland to call the main army using his great war horn, Oliphant. Roland is too proud to call for help until it is too late. The Saracens outnumber Roland’s troops 10 to 1 and they all die. Roland is the last to go, blowing his horn whilst mortally wounded, which drives the Saracens to flight. Finally, Charlemagne arrives, routs the Muslim army comprehensively and punishes Ganelon.
The reality was much less heroic. Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain had been ultimately unsuccessful. He failed in his main objective, capturing Saragossa. On his return the emperor allowed his soldiers to sack and plunder the Christian city of Pamplona in the Basque country in lieu of payment. Not exactly Charlemagne’s finest hour. The Basques swore revenge and followed the army of Charlemagne. When they saw the rear-guard losing touch with the main army, they attacked and routed them. Hruotland (=Roland), march lord of Brittany died as did many others.
The story is retold and embellished over and over again, most famously in the 1516 epic “Orlando Furioso” by Ludovico Ariosto, one of the most influential works of European Literature.
Roland became a symbol of city rights and freedoms in medieval Germany. Cities erect statues like the one in Bremen from 1404 standing over 6 metres tall. The inscription on the shield reads: “Freedom I do manifest to you / which Karl and many noblemen indeed / have given to this place. / Thank God for this is my advice.”