The Song of Roland is a heavily fictionalized poetic account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, a conflict between French and Spanish forces at Roncevaux, France in 778. As such, one of the poem’s most noticeable characteristics is the stark distinction between Christian and “pagan” (archaically, “paynim” in Sayers’s translation). To grasp the anonymous poet’s outlook, it is vital to understand that, at the time The Song of Roland was written (in the late 1000s or early 1100s), few in a French context would have had religious categories other than “Christian” and “pagan.” For instance, there was little understanding of Islam (the dominant religion in Spain at the time) as a distinct religion; thus, it would most often have been categorized as simply non-Christian, or pagan. Accordingly, the poet doesn’t seem to have an accurate awareness of Islam (or any other religion), instead portraying it as an inarticulate blend of “pagan” elements. By presenting Spain’s religion as a mix of unsophisticated, ineffectual, and threatening beliefs, the poet argues that Christianity, by contrast, is a civilized and rightfully victorious force.
The Islam of Spain is portrayed as a vaguely understood, unsophisticated, yet nevertheless threatening “pagan” religion. First of all, it is portrayed as an idol-worshipping religion. When the army of King Marsile (the Muslim king of Saragossa, Spain) rides out toward France from Spain, they pause to worship first: “Mahound their idol high on the tower they raise, / And every Paynim adores and gives it praise.” “Mahound” is a medieval variant of the name of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad; here, the use of the name also inaccurately characterizes Muhammad as a god, conflating Spanish Muslims with other so-called pagan religions. The “paynim” army even contains sorcerers. France’s Archbishop Turpin engages in combat with “Siglorel, / The sorcerer, who’d once been down to Hell, / With Jupiter for guide, by magic spells.” This unintelligible mix of religious elements—blending Islam with dark sorcery and ancient Roman myth (Jupiter was king of the Roman gods)—further classifies the people of Spain as belonging to an undifferentiated religious “other,” which is portrayed as diabolical and threatening to Christians. After King Marsile is felled in battle, his followers back in Spain turn on their god(s) in rage: “By twenty thousand [Marsile’s] followers stand around; / […] With ugly insults they threaten […] and shout: / ‘Aha! vile god, why must thou shame us now?’ / […] Into a ditch they boot away Mahound / For pigs and dogs to mangle and befoul.” Again, Islam is associated with a vague, unsophisticated paganism, whose deity is here suggested to be useless and worthy only of disgrace (and whose followers are quick to reject their god).
Christianity, by contrast, is portrayed as the pinnacle of civilization and as rightfully dominant over “pagan” Spain. For example, truly civilized knighthood is considered to be inherently Christian. The poet describes a noble and famously courageous emir (a Muslim ruler) as follows: “And for his courage he’s famous far and near; / Were he but Christian, right knightly he’d appear.” And, later, when a different emir, the fearsome Baligant, rides out to fight Charlemayn (King of the Franks and Lombards), the poet concludes several lines of praise by saying, “His valour proved in battle o’er and o’er; / Were he but Christian, God! what a warrior!” In other words, these emirs possess many of the best qualities of a medieval warrior, yet their lack of Christianity makes them deficient knights.
The French cause is also characterized as inherently Christian. When the French are preparing to face the Spanish in battle, Archbishop Turpin addresses the troops in a sermon: “Christendom needs you, / so help us to preserve it. / […] Here come the Paynims – your own eyes have observed them. / Now beat your breasts and ask God for His mercy: / I will absolve you and set your souls in surety. / If you should die, blest martyrdom’s your guerdon; / You’ll sit on high in Paradise eternal.” That is, the war against the pagans is an effort to preserve Christendom, and participating in that effort—especially dying in it—is worthy of absolution from sins and reward in heaven. Charlemayn, as Emperor of the Franks, embodies not just France but Christendom, which is portrayed as justly dominant. When Charlemayn and King Marsile’s successor, Emir Baligant, meet in a climactic showdown, the poet makes clear that “Nothing at all can ever end their strife / Till one confess he’s wrong, the other right.” He means that the French and Spanish war is a zero-sum encounter: it can only end when one side is religiously dominant. Further, Charlemayn tells Baligant that he must “confess the Faith by God revealed, / Take Christendom, and thy fast friend I’ll be.” Thus, the price of survival is renunciation of Baligant’s pagan faith and embrace of the Christendom that Charlemayn represents.
In the end, however, Baligant and Spain are defeated, and Spain’s capital, Saragossa, is Christianized: “Some thousand French search the whole town, to spy / Synagogues out and mosques and heathen shrines […] / The Bishops next the water sanctify; / Then to the font the Paynim folk they drive.” In other words, anything categorized as “paynim”—whether it is practiced in a synagogue, mosque, or shrine—is searched out for destruction, and its practitioners forcibly baptized. Notably, forced baptism was actually forbidden by the Catholic Church at this time; but these events, even if not historically accurate, reflect the poet’s perception that there are only two religious categories—Christian and pagan—and that only Christianity can ultimately prevail.
Christianity vs. Paganism ThemeTracker
Christianity vs. Paganism Quotes in The Song of Roland
Fair was the ev’ning and clearly the sun shone;
The ten white mules Charles sends to stall anon;
In the great orchard he bids men spread aloft
For the ten envoys a tent where they may lodge,
With sergeants twelve to wait on all their wants.
They pass the night there till the bright day draws on.
Early from bed the Emperor now is got;
At mass and matins he makes his orison.
Beneath a pine straightway the King is gone,
And calls his barons to council thereupon;
By French advice whate’er he does is done.
The Paynim said: “I marvel in my mind
At Charlemayn whose head is old and white.
Two hundred years, I know, have passed him by.
In lands so many he’s conquered far and wide,
Lance-thrusts so many he’s taken in the strife,
Rich kings so many brought to a beggar’s plight—
When will he weary of going forth to fight?”
“Never”, said Guènes, “while Roland sees the light;
’Twixt east and west his valour has no like,
Oliver too, his friend, is a brave knight;
And the twelve Peers, in whom the King delights,
With twenty thousand Frenchmen to vanward ride:
Charles is secure, he fears no man alive.”
“Companion Roland, your Olifant now blow;
Charles in the passes will hear it as he goes,
Trust me, the French will all return right so.”
“Now God forbid”, Roland makes answer wroth,
“That living man should say he saw me go
Blowing of horns for any Paynim foe!
Ne’er shall my kindred be put to such reproach.
When I shall stand in this great clash of hosts
I’ll strike a thousand and then sev’n hundred strokes,
Blood-red the steel of Durendal shall flow.
Stout are the French, they will do battle bold,
These men of Spain shall die and have no hope.”
Then to their side comes the Archbishop Turpin,
Riding his horse and up the hillside spurring.
He calls the French and preaches them a sermon:
“Barons, my lords, Charles picked us for this purpose;
We must be ready to die in our King’s service.
Christendom needs you, so help us to preserve it.
Battle you’ll have, of that you may be certain,
Here comes the Paynims—your own eyes have observed them.
Now beat your breasts and ask God for His mercy:
I will absolve you and set your souls in surety.
If you should die, blest martyrdom’s your guerdon;
You’ll sit on high in Paradise eternal.”
The French alight and all kneel down in worship;
God’s shrift and blessing the Archbishop conferreth,
And for their penance he bids them all strike firmly.
Beyond his comrades, upon the grass-green plain,
There he beholds the noble baron laid,
The great Archbishop, vice-gerent of God’s name.
He beats his breast with eyes devoutly raised,
With folded hands lifted to Heaven he prays
That God will give him in Paradise a place.
Turpin is dead that fought for Charlemayn;
In mighty battles, and in preaching right brave,
Still against Paynims a champion of the Faith;
Blest mote he be, the Lord God give him grace!
“Ah, Durendal, fair, hallowed, and devote,
What store of relics lie in thy hilt of gold!
St Peter’s tooth, St Basil’s blood, it holds,
Hair of my lord St Denis, there enclosed,
Likewise a piece of Blessed Mary’s robe;
To Paynim hands ’twere sin to let you go;
You should be served by Christian men alone,
Ne’er may you fall to any coward soul!
Many wide lands I conquered by your strokes
For Charles to keep whose beard is white as snow
Whereby right rich and mighty is his throne.”
Some thousand French search the whole town, to spy
Synagogues out and mosques and heathen shrines.
With heavy hammers and with mallets of iron
They smash the idols, the images they smite,
Make a clean sweep of mummeries and lies,
For Charles fears God and still to serve him strives.
The Bishops next the water sanctify;
Then to the font the Paynim folk they drive.
Should Carlon’s orders by any be defied
The man is hanged or slain or burned with fire.
“Lodged captive here I have a noble dame.
Sermon and story on her heart have prevailed
God to believe and Christendom to take;
Therefore baptize her that her soul may be saved.” […]
Great the assembly about the Baths at Aix;
There they baptize Bramimond, Queen of Spain,
And Juliana they’ve chosen for her name;
Christian is she, informed in the True Way.