Roland and Charlemagne on the Camino de Santiago
Posted by Charlotte Cooper
The Camino de Santiago is in the midst of a staggering revival. In 2018, I was one of almost 33,000 pilgrims to set off from Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, nearly all of whom will have passed through Roncesvalles on the first day on the Camino, the site of Charlemagne’s historical battle against the Basques, immortalised in the Chanson de Roland. My own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was almost as much a pilgrimage to Roncesvalles as I had keenly hoped to find some trace of Roland and Charlemagne on this part of the walk. To my great delight, they were memorialised in place names and landmarks along the route, and monuments marked the locations of events in which they had been involved all along the trail. Here, I explore the significance of three of the monuments located between Saint-Jean and Roncesvalles, and their connections to the Roland legends.
The Valcarlos mural
It is easy to miss this first sign of Roland and Charlemagne on the trail. This mural, painted in the centre of the small village of Valcarlos (which etymologists will immediately recognise as meaning ‘Charlemagne’s valley’: this is the place where Charlemagne and his troops supposedly stayed on their retreat back to France) depicts many things related to Valcarlos including a pilgrim passing through the village and the cross of Saint James, a man in traditional Basque dress, the trail of the Camino leading to summit a mountain pass, and the village’s church and pilgrim hostel. It also contains a tree – a reference to the yew tree forest on the other side of Roncesvalles where several women were burned at the stake for witchcraft in the sixteenth century. At first glance, this scene does not appear to be connected with Roland or Charlemagne, but it actually contains two references to them: the Roland stone, my second monument, is depicted to the left of the image, and it is surrounded here by several crossed lances fleuries. There are several theories as to why these lances are there. One is that traditionally, pilgrims coming across from France would place small crosses made out of twigs in the ground at this point, as a marker of the fact that they had crossed into Spain and were now in the land of Saint James. Another explanation is that, according to a local Charlemagne legend, these lances were planted in the ground by pacifist French maidens who had come to the Emperor’s aid, where they turned to plants. It is also reminiscent of a description in the Chronique du Pseudo-Turpin of Charlemagne’s warrior’s lances bursting into flower overnight after they had planted them in the ground (a legend that is echoed further along the Camino, just outside Sahagun, where a copse of plane trees by the river is similarly said to have been formed by the planting of lances by Charlemagne’s army). What this mural shows then is that the Charlemagne and Roland legends are part of the cultural backdrop of Valcarlos itself: these stories are just one of the many local narratives that include stories of miracles, witchcraft, and pilgrimage.
The Roland Stone
The next monument lies deep within the Pyrenees in the dramatic setting of the Roncesvalles pass (the Alto de Ibañeta, at 1,057 metres above sea level). Here, the landscape and Spain opens up ahead. This monument to the fallen hero was erected in 1967 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Chanson de Roland. Although the battle actually took place in Roncesvalles itself, around two kilometers further on, it is commemorated in this much more spectacular location. ‘Halt sunt li pui e li val tenebrus’, so the Chanson tells us – a fact that is hard to forget from this location. From Valcarlos, the summit is accessed after a 720 metre climb, and the pass acts as a kind of funnel for the wind rolling off the surrounding mountains. It is a naturally arduous place, and one can only imagine how difficult it must have been to pass through it bearing the weight of full military garb! As Dominique Boutet points out, few chansons de geste actually take place in mountainous environments such as this. The fact that the events on which the story is based took place in such a harsh landscape might partly account for its appeal, as pilgrims hearing the story of the Chanson de Roland in this setting for the first time would only too well have appreciated how the difficulty of the terrain is mirrored in the intensity of the combat taking place within it. The landscape around Roncesvalles and its geographical setting create horizontal tensions between Spain and France and vertical stresses between the tops of the mountain peaks and the depths of the valleys.
Roncesvalles Reliefs and Statues
Roncesvalles itself lies in a more sheltered environment, at the bottom of a slope and on the other side of a beech tree wood. It is a small hamlet comprised almost solely of a monastery, that owes its entire existence to the Roland legends and to the Camino de Santiago. Over time, it has been home to a cluster of monuments to Roland and Charlemagne, although currently, there are only two.
The first is a statue placed on the Camino route in 2018 or 2019 that represents a dying Roland resting next to his horse. The second is a depiction of a battle scene outside the monastery in Roncesvalles showing Roland slaying the giant Ferragut. It may seem surprising that the battle represented should be one unconnected with Roncesvalles itself, but given that we are in a very proudly Basque territory here, the two current monuments have managed to avoid the awkwardness of depicting a (French) hero who is also a (Basque) enemy by playing down the conflict between Basques and Christians, and focusing instead on others of Roland’s epic feats. In previous centuries, the current Capilla del Espiritu Sanctu was known as the Capella Caroli (also known as Charlemagne’s Silo) and housed a large rock that was broken in two, supposedly the rock that Roland broke with Durendal, and a mural depicting the Roland legend – still extant in the seventeenth century but now sadly disappeared. A pilgrim’s hostel called Hospitale Rotolandi has since also disappeared from the hamlet. It seems the monastery at Roncesvalles, who have long managed the site, have continually gone to a great effort to ensure the legends would not be forgotten, perhaps even going so far as to use them as a kind of attraction with which to draw pilgrims in.
Joseph Bédier concludes his description of the origins of the Chanson de Roland by saying that it was thanks to the Church’s efforts that what was effectively a local legend was rendered into a well-known story, and its involvement in spreading the Roland legend has long been known. But the role of pilgrims in spreading this story should also not be understated. It is largely thanks to the existence of the Camino de Santiago that the Roland legend was able to grow out of the Church at Roncesvalles and into the popular mindset by being recounted to passing pilgrims, but it is also thanks to generations of those storytelling pilgrims that he was elevated to the status of epic hero. As I walked along the Camino, I too found myself telling fellow pilgrims about Roland and the events at Roncesvalles, and I couldn’t help but delight in being part of that tradition.
Joseph Bédier, La Chanson de Roland (Paris: L’Édition d’art, H. Piazza, 1927)
Dominique Boutet, ‘La Montagne dans la chanson de geste: Topique, rhétorique et fonction épique’, in La Montagne dans le texte médiéval: Entre mythe et réalité, ed. Claude Thomasset and Danièle James-Raoul (Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2000), pp. 227-241