Visual History of the World
The Middle Ages
5th - 15th century
The upheaval that
accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity
shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire
political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome,
the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to
have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the
developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad
in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense
political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time,
great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the
Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba,
Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.
The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century
in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the
location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.
The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio
The Kingdom of the Franks
Map showing Charlemagne's additions (in blue)
to the Frankish Kingdom.
Charlemagne enlarged the Frankish kingdom by annexing
Pepin III's son, Carloman, died just three years after his father, in
His elder brother, 1 Charlemagne, took Car-loman's territories for
himself and ignored the custom whereby the lands would be divided
between the sons.
Carloman's sons then fled to seek refuge in the court
of the Lombards, who were at this time threatening the Papal State.
When, in 772, 5 Pope Hadrian I reminded Charlemagne of his duty as
protector of Rome, Charlemagne came to his defense in 773-774.
Lombards were comprehensively defeated, and Charlemagne proclaimed
himself their new king. Most of northern Italy was thereby incorporated
into the Frankish kingdom.
Since 772 Charlemagne had also been attempting to conquer the Saxons.
Initial military successes, attempts at Christianization and even
collaboration with the Saxon nobility were not enough to subjugate the
free Saxon peasants, who fought against the Franks under
3 the leadership of Wittekind.
3 Wittekind bows before Charlemagne,
painting, 19th century
After they annihilated a Frankish army in 782, Charlemagne ordered a vengeful massacre. Thousands of captured Saxons
were murdered at Verden an der Aller. In 785 Wittekind made peace with
Charlemagne and was baptized. It still took a long time, however, until
all the Saxons submitted to Charlemagne and were baptized as Christians.
The Bavarians were particularly reticent and refused to pay taxes to the
Church. In the course of his campaign of Christianization, Charlemagne
established many new 2 bishoprics among the Saxons.
2 St. Peter's Dome in Minden,
seat of the bishopric founded ca. 800
In Bavaria, which
Charles Martel had already conquered, Duke Tassilo III threatened to
allv himself with
the Avars and secede from the kingdom. He was deposed for this
disloyalty at the Diet of Ingelheim in 788.
Charlemagne then began to secure his borders by setting up margravates
in which the royal administrators also held military authority. In 796,
the Avarian margravate was founded after the Avars in present-day
Hungary had been subdued. Further north, treaties with the Bohemians and
the Slavic Sorbs regulated the flow of tribute payments, and in 811
Charlemagne made peace with the Danes on the northern border.
defeats came against the Basques and 6 the Arabs—the latter
triumphing in 4 the 778 Battle of Roncesvalles, which is described in
the medieval "Song of Roland."
6 Arabs dress as devils to frighten Charlegmagne's army,
illustration, 14th century
4 Battle of Roncesvalles, stone relief,
Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne
in an illustration taken from a manuscript
of a chanson de geste
Einhard wrote the famous biography of Charlemagne called the Vita Caroli
He entered Charlemagne's palace school around 794 at the age of
25 and was soon employed in diplomatic work.
Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious in his church policies and was the
abbot of Seligenstadt monastery until his death in 840.
Einhard writing the life of Charlemagne,
manuscript, 14 ń
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael , circa
Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad, by
The Empire of Charlemagne
8 Bust of Charlemagne,
silver with gold-plating, 14th century
Charlemagne modernized the administration and culture of his empire.
Under his successors, however, the Frankish empire fell to ruin.
this, the reign of Charlemagne had a major bearing on the course
history in the Middle Ages.
By the turn of the ninth century 8 Charlemagne's empire encompassed
major portions of West and South Europe.
The papacy wanted to secure
the support of the powerful Frankish king for good, and so Pope Leo III
crowned Charlemagne 10 emperor in 800 during the Christmas Mass at St.
Peter's Basilica in Rome.
10 Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne,
illustrated manuscript, 15th century
The emperor of Byzantium, who considered
himself to be the true heir of the Roman Empire, initially refused to
Only when Charlemagne relinquished territories on the Adriatic, under
the Treaty of Aachen in 812, did Byzantium recognize the new empire.
Charlemagne ruled his empire from Aachen and wanted to turn the city,
his main residence, into a "new Rome."
He had an imperial cathedral,
with an 7,
9 octagonal chapel built.
7 Cupola of the Imperial Cathedral
in Aachen, built 788-805
9 Charlemagne's throne in the Octagonal chape of Aachen Cathedral,
marble, late 8th century
Charlemagne sent missi dominici—
agents—11 to control the counts in whose hands the provinces were placed.
As long as the laws of the subjugated peoples did not
contradict those of Charlemagne, they were allowed to retain them.
When he died in 814, Charlemagne left his whole empire to his youngest
son, Louis the Pious.
Louis's sons, however - Louis the German, Charles II (the Bald), amd
Lothair I - later fought for the succession and ended up dividing the
empire in the 12 Treaty of
Verdun of 843.
This division roughly established the future frontier
between France and Germany. The border territory was named Lotharingia
(later Lorraine) after Lothair II. Further divisions and disputes among
the successors, as well as attacks by the Normans and
Magyars, saw the empire decline. The Carolingian line died out
in the Fast Frankish empire— today's Germany—with the death of Louis III
(''the Child") in 911. In the West Frankish territories—today's France—
they ruled until 987.
11 Charlemagne dispatches messengers to the provinces of his empire,
illustrated manuscript, 15th century
12 The signing of the Treaty of Verdun,
wood engraving, 19th century
The "Carolingian Renaissance"
The "Carolingian Renaissance" of Charlemagne, who probably could not
read or write himself but sought the restoration of the Roman Empire,
aimed to fuse Christian, ancient, and Germanic cultures.
leadership of the Anglo-Saxon scholar and priest Alcuin, an educational
campaign was set in motion and scholars were summoned from all over
Europe. The centrally established palace school was emulated throughout
the empire in the form of cathedral and monastery schools.
monks functioned as the leading disseminators of medieval culture. The
Carolingian minuscule' script forms the basis of today's Roman, or
a monogram written in Carolingian Minuscule script,
this became the standard across most of Europe.
Sample of Carolingian minuscule,
one of the products of the Carolingian Renaissance.
The Song of Roland
see also text
The Song of Roland
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest
surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various
different manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and
enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these
versions is the one in the Oxford manuscript, which contains a text of
some 4,004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern
editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century
(between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and most outstanding
example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between
the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds
of a hero.
The story told in the poem is based on a relatively minor historical
incident, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass on August 15, 778, in which the
rearguard of Charlemagne's retreating Franks, escorting a rich
collection of booty gathered during a failed campaign in Spain, was
attacked by Basques. In this engagement, recorded by historian and
biographer Einhard (Eginhard) in his Life of Charlemagne (written around
830), the trapped soldiers were slaughtered to a man; among them was "Hruodland,
Prefect of the Marches of Brittany" (Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis
The first indication that popular legends were developing about this
incident comes in an historical chronicle compiled about 840, which
mentions that the names of the Frankish leaders caught in the ambush,
including Roland, were "common knowledge" (vulgata sunt). A second
indication, potentially much closer to the date of the first written
version of the epic, is that (according to somewhat later historical
sources) during William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 a
"song about Roland" was sung to the Norman troops before they joined
battle at Hastings:
Then a song of Roland was begun, so that the man’s warlike
example would arouse the fighters.
Calling on God for aid, they joined battle.
Taillefer, who sang very well, rode on a swift horse before the Duke
singing of Charlemagne and Roland
and Oliver and the knights who died at Roncevaux.
This cannot be treated as evidence that Taillefer, William's jongleur,
was the "author of the Song of Roland", as used to be argued, but it is
evidence that he was one of the many poets who shared in the tradition.
We cannot even be sure that the "song" sung by Taillefer was the same
as, or drew from, the particular "Song of Roland" that we have in the
manuscripts. Some traditional relationship is, however, likely,
especially as the best manuscript is written in Anglo-Norman French and
the Latinized name of its author or transcriber, called "Turoldus," is
evidently of Norman origin ("Turold," a variant of Old Norse "Thorvald)."
In view of the long period of oral tradition during which the ambush
at Roncevaux was transformed into the Song of Roland, there can be no
surprise that even the earliest surviving version of the poem does not
represent an accurate account of history. Roland becomes, in the poem,
the nephew of Charlemagne, the Christian Basques become Muslim Saracens,
and Charlemagne, rather than marching north to subdue the Saxons,
returns to Spain and avenges the deaths of his knights. The Song of
Roland marks a nascent French identity and sense of collective history
traced back to the legendary Charlemagne. As remarked above, the dating
of the earliest version is uncertain, as is its authorship. Some believe
that Turoldus, who is named in the final line, is the author; however,
nothing is known about him besides his name. The dialect of the
manuscript is Anglo-Norman, which suggests an origin in northern France.
However, some critics, notably the influential Joseph Bédier, have held
that the real origin of this version of the epic lies much further
There are nine extant manuscripts of the Song of Roland in Old French.
The oldest of these manuscripts is held at the Bodleian Library at
Oxford. This copy dates between 1140 and 1170 and was written in
Scholars estimate that the poem was written, more or less, between
1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098.
Some favor an earlier dating, because it allows one to say that the poem
was inspired by the Castilian campaigns of the 1030s, and that the poem
went on to be a major influence in the First Crusade. Those who prefer a
later dating do so on grounds of the brief references made in the poem
to events of the First Crusade. In one section, Palestine is named
Outremer, its Crusader name – but is presented as a Muslim land where
there are no Christians.
For seven years, the valiant Christian king Charlemagne has made war
against the Saracens in Spain. Only one Muslim stronghold remains, the
city of Saragossa, under the rule of King Marsile (or Marsilius) and
Queen Bramimonde. Marsile, certain that defeat is inevitable, hatches a
plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne. He will promise to be Charlemagne's
vassal and a Christian convert in exchange for Charlemagne's departure.
But once Charlemagne is back in France, Marsile will renege on his
promises. Charlemagne and his vassals, weary of the long war, receive
Marsile's messengers and try to choose an envoy to negotiate at
Marsile's court on Charlemagne's behalf.
Roland, a courageous knight and Charlemagne's right-hand man,
nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged, thinking that
Roland has nominated him for this dangerous mission in an attempt to be
rid of him for good. Ganelon has long been jealous of Roland, and on his
diplomatic mission he plots with the Saracens, telling them that they
could ambush Charlemagne's rearguard as Charlemagne leaves Spain. Roland
will undoubtedly lead the rearguard, and Ganelon promises that with
Roland dead Charlemagne will lose the will to fight.
After Ganelon returns with assurances of Marsile's good faith,
Roland, as he predicted, ends up leading the rearguard. The twelve
peers, later known as the Paladins, Charlemagne's greatest and most
beloved vassals, go with him. Among them is Oliver, a wise and prudent
man and Roland's best friend. Also in the rearguard is the fiery
Archbishop Turin, a clergyman who also is a great warrior. At the pass
of Roncevaux, the twenty thousand Christians of the rearguard are
ambushed by a vastly superior force, numbering four hundred thousand.
Oliver counsels Roland to blow his olifant horn, to call back
Charlemagne's main force, but Roland refuses. The Franks fight
valiantly, but in the end they are killed to the man. Roland blows his
olifant so that Charlemagne will return and avenge them. His temples
burst from the force required, and he dies soon afterward. He dies
facing the enemy's land, and his soul is escorted to heaven by saints
Charlemagne arrives, and he and his men are overwhelmed with grief at
the sight of the massacre. He pursues the pagan force, aided by a
miracle of God: the sun is held in place in the sky, so that the enemy
will not have cover of night. The Franks push the Saracens into the
river Ebro, where those who are not chopped to pieces are drowned.
Marsile has escaped and returned to Saragossa, where the remaining
Saracens are plunged into despair by their losses. But Baligant, the
incredibly powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived to help his vassal. The
emir goes to Rencesvals, where the Franks are mourning and burying their
dead. There is a terrible battle, climaxing with a one-on-one clash
between Baligant and Charlemagne. With a touch of divine aid,
Charlemagne slays Baligant, and the Saracens retreat. The Franks take
Saragossa, where they destroy all Jewish and Moslem religious items and
force the conversion of everyone in the city, with the exception of
Queen Bramimonde. Charlemagne wants her to come to Christ of her own
accord. With her captive, the Franks return to their capitol, Aix.
Ganelon is put on trial for treason. Pinabel, Ganelon's kinsman and a
gifted speaker, nearly sways the jury to let Ganelon go. But Thierry, a
brave but physically unimposing knight, says that Ganelon's revenge
should not have been taken against a man in Charlemagne's serve: that
constitutes treason. To decide the matter, Pinabel and Thierry fight.
Though Pinabel is by far the stronger man, God intervenes and Thierry
triumphs. The Franks draw and quarter Ganelon (tie each limb and head to
one of five horses running in opposite directions, which tears the
victim to pieces). They also hang thirty of his kinsmen.
Charlemagne announces to all that Bramimonde has decided to become a
Christian. Her baptism is celebrated, and all seems well.
But that night, the angel Gabriel comes to Charlemagne in a dream,
and tells him that he must depart for a new war against the pagans.
Weary and weeping, but fully obedient to God, Charlemagne prepares for
yet another bloody war.
The poem is written in stanzas of irregular length known as laisses. The
lines are decasyllabic (containing ten syllables), and each is divided
by a strong caesura, which generally falls after the fourth syllable.
The last stressed syllable of each line in a laisse has the same vowel
sound as every other end-syllable in that laisse. The laisse is
therefore an assonal, not a rhyming stanza.
On a narrative level, the Song of Roland features extensive use of
repetition, parallelism, and thesis-antithesis pairs. Unlike later
Renaissance and Romantic literature, the poem focuses on action rather
The author gives few explanations for characters' behavior.
Characters are stereotypes defined by a few salient traits: for example,
Roland is proud and courageous while Ganelon is traitorous and cowardly.
The story moves at a fast pace, occasionally slowing down and
recounting the same scene up to three times but focusing on different
details or taking a different perspective each time. The effect is
similar to a film sequence shot at different angles so that new and more
important details come to light with each shot.
Modern readers should bear in mind that the Song of Roland, like
Shakespeare's plays, was intended to be performed aloud, not read
silently. Traveling jongleurs performed (usually sections of) the Song
of Roland to various audiences, perhaps interspersing spoken narration
with musical interludes
La Chanson de Roland
French epic poem
English The Song of Roland
Old French epic poem that is probably the earliest (c. 1100) chanson
de geste and is considered the masterpiece of the genre. The poem’s
probable author was a Norman poet, Turold, whose name is introduced in
its last line.
The poem takes the historical Battle of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) in
778 as its subject. Though this encounter was actually an insignificant
skirmish between Charlemagne’s army and Basque forces, the poem
transforms Roncesvalles into a battle against Saracens and magnifies it
to the heroic stature of the Greek defense of Thermopylae against the
Persians in the 5th century bc.
The poem opens as Charlemagne, having conquered all of Spain except
Saragossa, receives overtures from the Saracen king and sends the knight
Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather, to negotiate peace terms. Angry because
Roland proposed him for the dangerous task, Ganelon plots with the
Saracens to achieve his stepson’s destruction and, on his return,
ensures that Roland will command the rear guard of the army when it
withdraws from Spain. As the army crosses the Pyrenees, the rear guard
is surrounded at the pass of Roncesvalles by an overwhelming Saracen
force. Trapped against crushing odds, the headstrong hero Roland is the
paragon of the unyielding warrior victorious in defeat.
The composition of the poem is firm and coherent, the style direct,
sober, and, on occasion, stark. Placed in the foreground is the
personality clash between the recklessly courageous Roland and his more
prudent friend Oliver (Olivier), which is also a conflict between
divergent conceptions of feudal loyalty. Roland, whose judgment is
clouded by his personal preoccupation with renown, rejects Oliver’s
advice to blow his horn and summon help from Charlemagne. On Roland’s
refusal, the hopeless battle is joined, and the flower of Frankish
knighthood is reduced to a handful of men. The horn is finally sounded,
too late to save Oliver, Turpin, or Roland, who has been struck in error
by the blinded Oliver, but in time for Charlemagne to avenge his heroic
vassals. Returning to France, the emperor breaks the news to Aude,
Roland’s betrothed and the sister of Oliver, who falls dead at his feet.
The poem ends with the trial and execution of Ganelon.
Eight phases of The Song of Roland in one picture.
Illustration to Song of Roland
Roland in the Valley of Ronceval.
Illustration to Song of Roland by Odilon Redon
Illustration to Song of Roland
The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux,
from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460.