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Roland and the Concept of Lordship

The Song of Roland is considered as probably the first significant work in the world of French literature. The narrative of The Song of Roland is based upon historical basis, meaning that the characters in the story were based upon real characters. That fact made the character of Roland somewhat an icon in world literature. Many were fascinated by the feats that he did in the story for he was such an amazing and almost unstoppable warrior, much like the Greeks’ hero warrior Achilles.

But even though The Song of Roland was one of the first major works in French literature, it is just admirable that he is not just a one-dimensional warrior type character who is just all about hacking and slashing enemies, the characterization of his character was quite profound and complex. Even though he is a formidable warrior that can achieve personal glory whenever he wants it, he is under the control of his lord Charlemagne. His loyalty is seemingly unshakable even if it could lead to his own death.

The concept of lordship is quite popular during the medieval and renaissance period, wherein Roland is believed to have existed. Roland’s loyalty to Charlemagne is based upon the concept of lordship that is viewed during their time as one of the noblest thing a person could ever achieve. Loyalty is after all considered a virtue then and even up to this day. There is a term that was prevalently used throughout the course of The Song of Roland, the word “vassal”. It was a very notable term since it was the word that was used to pertain to Roland and his peers of the same stature.

A vassal is basically a man who is not a slave but offers oneself as a loyal servant to a certain “lord,” a person of high status and powerful in the society, just like Charlemagne in the context of The Song of Roland. The job of a vassal would range from being a servant, counsel, and military service. A vassal is also obliged to obey his lord no matter what, even if his lord’s act could be considered unethical. A vassal’s “contract” of loyalty to his lord would last until the death, of either the vassal or the lord he serves (Heer 35-36).

A vassal’s loyalty could go to the extent that one becomes so dependent to their respective lords. In this excerpt we can see Roland is even asking permission to take revenge for his fallen comrades “…lord, give me the permission to go, all our beloved comrades are dead and we can’t leave them there dying…” (Crosland 45). Roland’s loyalty had climbed the extent that he can’t make his own decision anymore. It was as if his anger was not enough to send him fully confident in battle. It seemed that the only words that could make him win the battle are the words of permission of his lord.

A vassal would basically kill and die if his lord tells him to. It is just understandable that the people during the time of Roland aspire to be a vassal. People during that time consider being a vassal as something of the highest honor. After all, vassals are virtually ranked next to their lords in terms of social status. It is also understandable that people wanted to be vassals because it is part of their culture. Lordship has been one of the main concepts that governed the medieval and renaissance period. The concept of Lordship can’t simply exist without the vassals.

To betray one’s lord is probably the greatest crime a vassal could ever imagine doing. This notion could have been one of the driving force of Roland’s loyalty to his lord. In Roland’s mind, betraying his lord is considered an unthinkable act that would cost him not only his life, but also his honor. Honor and reputation is what Roland and many people during his time had considered as something to die for. The breach of lordship was displayed in the text thorugh the character of Roland’s crude stepfather Ganelon.

Ganelon had committed treachery to his lordship by conniving with the enemy to kill his stepson Roland and his comrades. Ganelon had accepted an amount or a bribe from the enemy for doing such crime. In the end Ganelon alongside his peers was put into trial and was then executed and punished with ultimate shame even though his very death. The text tells us how Roland’s time detested traitors of lordship like Ganelon the traitor “Ganelon has deserved no better treatment… in great distress he shall wait for his trial” (Crossland 76)

Since Roland is categorized as a vassal in the story, it is just logical that he would think and function according to the stereotypes surround the concept of lordship. Roland had said something about his loyalty in the text “a vassal should endure many hardships for his lord, bear everything even the intense heat and intense cold…now let all man [vassal] be sure to strike hard here…” (Crossland 21) Roland almost completely had no interest in pursuing any glory but of his lord Charlemagne.

It seems that through Roland’s own words, he wanted to say that his bravery is fueled by his loyalty to his lord. Of course, a vassal’s kind of loyalty is depending upon what type of person is the lord he serves. That is just logical as what a vassal does is solely dependent on what his lord tells him to do. And of course, the vassal’s lord is most probably the person who has the biggest influence in the vassal’s life. Charlemagne was fortunately an honorable man that is revered by many as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

Aside from being a great leader, he is also described as a fantastic warrior. It is also important that Charlemagne was a devout Christian so Roland will also be Christian. All in all, Roland had subordinated himself to Charlemagne because he believes he has to.

Work Cited

Crossland, Jessie. The Song of Roland. In Parentheses Publications: Ontario. 1999 Heer, Frederich. The Medieval World. New York: New American Library. 1962.

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