"Ronsasvals" and the Origins of "The Song of Roland"

Date of Completion

January 2009


Literature, Comparative|Literature, Medieval




With the discovery in 1912 of a poem about Roland, written in Occitan, a new element was added to the corpus of Rolandian literature. However, the poem was copied on a manuscript dated 1398, making it more than 250 years older than the Digby 23 version of the The Song of Roland. Its late date relegated it the second tier of literary study. It is not considered significant enough to warrant a great deal of attention; no English translation has yet been published, for example. ^ The earliest known written telling of the Roland story is the Digby manuscript. Some claim that it was composed as early as 1095, and that it was intended to stir the emotions of potential “recruits” for the First Crusade. Others claim that it was composed as late as 1150. Whatever its date of creation might be, there has been great speculation about its distance—in time and space—from the seemingly minor historical detail that inspired it. Roland, who is known from a few scant sentences in Eginhard's Vita Karoli Magni, was killed in 778 in the mountains around Roncevaux, in the Pyrenees. Why is the first epic poem telling of this defeat written three centuries later and 900 kilometers away? ^ There has been interest concerning the absence of any trace of this story in Occitan sources: how is it that the south of France, with its rich history of poetic activity, has no tales of the hero that would inspire so much artistic endeavor elsewhere? The purpose of this study will be to see if Ronsasvals belongs to an earlier time period. Elements of this poem suggest that this is so. ^ This study proposes to investigate the elements of this poem in detail in order to determine if the 1398 date of the manuscript is merely the date of the sole surviving copy of a much earlier work. The study will offer a variety of proofs that the original Ronsasvals could well be old enough to be a contemporary—or perhaps even a predecessor—of The Song of Roland. ^