"Souls of the Paladins, say, do your ghosts still haunt us?" - The Battle of Roncevaux Pass, Roland and chansons de geste

15 August 778, the Battle of Roncevaux (Roncesvalles) Pass was fought in the Pyrenees 40 miles North of Pamplona, inspiring the medieval chanson de geste, "The Song of Roland" and Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”.

“Souls of the Paladins, say, do your ghosts still haunt us?
Is it you who speak to us still in the blare of the horn?
Roncevaux! Roncevaux! deep in thy somber valley
The shade of the noble Roland is still forlorn!“ (Alfred de Vigny, “Le Cor”)

Louis-Félix Guesnet's (1843–1907) imagination of
"Roland at the Battle of Roncesvalles",
beset by bloodthirsty moors, riding his horse Veillantif
and blowing his horn Olifant.

Charlemagne was well-nigh literally led down to the garden path to the gates of Zaragoza. A year before, in the summer of the year 777, while the mighty Frankish king was still campaigning in Saxony, the pro-Abbasid Walis of Barcelona and Girona, Zaragoza and Huesca sent their ambassadors to Paderborn to propose an alliance against Abd ar-Rahman, the pro-Ummayad Emir of Córdoba. Securing his marches in Septimania, roughly what is now Languedoc and Provence in southern France, against the Arab principalities in Spain was a tempting target, especially if the King could further weaken the Lords of al-Andalus. His grandfather Charles Martel had repulsed the last major Arab incursion into Gaul just 45 years earlier at Poitiers and the Umayyads still were a threat at least to Frankish territories near the Pyrenees. Thus, Charles’ army marched into Arab Spain in the spring of 778, was welcomed in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia, but when he reached Zaragoza, Wali Husayn went back on his word and slammed the city gates in his face. The Franks laid siege to the city, but with precarious lines of supply and Abd ar-Rahman’s armies on the march, Charlemagne decided to quit the place and withdraw north into Navarre and finally towards unruly Aquitaine. If he wanted to deny strategically important Pamplona to Abd ar-Rahman or was just royally pissed, he destroyed the Basque city en route when the locals did not open their city gates to him and the Basques were hellbent on vengeance when the Frankish army marched into the passes of the Pyrenees.

Carolingian light and heavy cavalry on the march, as imagined in the Codex Sangallensis during the 9th century

The Basques, probably the oldest indigenous people of Europe, were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea anyway, stuck between the expanding Muslim emirates after the end of the Visigoths in Spain and the stabilisation of Frankish rule in formerly semi-independent Aquitaine. Charlemagne, like his father and grandfather, did not exactly endear himself to the Basques, of Vascones as they were known since Roman times, when he disowned their leaders and bishops in present-day Gascony and replaced them with trusted Frankish nobles, but the destruction of Pamplona really did it for them. Unseen by the Franks, they pursued the army into the mountains where the heavily armoured Franks often enough had to march in single lines and found and ideal spot at Roncevaux Pass to make a dead set at Charlemagne’s rearguard. The King’s biographer Einhard wrote about 50 years later: “For while his army was marching in a long line, suiting their formation to the character of the ground and the defiles, the Gascons placed an ambuscade on the top of the mountain—where the density and extent of the woods in the neighbourhood rendered it highly suitable for such a purpose—and then rushing down into the valley beneath threw into disorder the last part of the baggage train and also the rearguard which acted as a protection to those in advance. In the battle which followed the Gascons slew their opponents to the last man. Then they seized upon the baggage, and under cover of the night, which was already falling, they scattered with the utmost rapidity in different directions. The Gascons were assisted in this feat by the lightness of their armour and the character of the ground where the affair took place. In this battle Eggihard, the surveyor of the royal table; Anselm, the Count of the Palace; and Roland, Præfect of the Breton frontier, were killed along with very many others. Nor could this assault be punished at once, for when the deed had been done the enemy so completely disappeared that they left behind them not so much as a rumour of their whereabouts.“ It was the only battle Charlemagne had ever lost.

Roland's horn Olifant on display at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (or so the story goes...)

Centuries later, Hruotland or Roland, Frankish lord of the Breton Marches, who might or might not have been a son of Charlemagne by his beloved sister Gisela as contemporary rumour has it, had become a Christian hero in something of an early crusade, the Vascones, Gascons or Basques were replaced with Moors and the battle had become the centrepiece of the earliest chanson de geste, "The Song of Roland". Charlemagne has a group of heroes around him, the famous Paladins, much like King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. The most famous of them is Roland, attributed with the sword Durandal and the magic horn Olifant. While fighting the Saracens in Spain, Roland's stepfather Ganelorn betrays the Franks to the enemy and offers the rearguard to be taken, hoping his hated stepson is killed. The small Frankish contingent is set upon by 40,000 Saracens and the paladins begin a heroic defence against the vast superiority. His friend Oliver beseeches Roland to sound his horn Olifant to call Charlemagne's main force, alas, the hero first tries to settle things on his own. But then things get too much even for the heroic Paladins. Two times he sounds Olifant and Ganelorn persuades Charlemagne twice that it doesn't mean anything serious. Then Roland blows the horn for the third time:

The count Rollanz has nobly fought and well,
  But he is hot, and all his body sweats;
  Great pain he has, and trouble in his head,
  His temples burst when he the horn sounded;
  But he would know if Charles will come to them,
  Takes the olifant, and feebly sounds again.
  That Emperour stood still and listened then:
  "My lords," said he, "Right evilly we fare!
  This day Rollanz, my nephew shall be dead:
  I hear his horn, with scarcely any breath.
  Nimbly canter, whoever would be there!
  Your trumpets sound, as many as ye bear!"
  Sixty thousand so loud together blare,
  The mountains ring, the valleys answer them.
  The pagans hear, they think it not a jest;
  Says each to each: "Carlum doth us bestead."
("The Song of Roland", Laisses CLVI)

Charlemagne's main battle arrives at the field, routs what remains of the Saracens only to find the Frankish heroes dead. Legend has it that Olifant still echoes in the mountain passes around Roncesvalles. The tale was, naturally, immensely popular during the crusades, but when High Medieval tastes turned towards Romances and the Arthurian cycle, it was almost forgotten, only to resurface in Italy in 1516, as Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” with a very own immense reception history especially in the arts of the Romance countries, from painting to classical music.

Eugène Delacroix's imagination of Orlando and "Marphise" from Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso"

And more about the Battle of Roncevaux Pass on: