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Fulfill Your Role: the Song of Roland
Today we emphasize the idea that what is most important is to express what is within us and let that authentically shape the world. It was not always this way. There is an older, perhaps better way.
A while back I was reading Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and found myself gripped by the idea that if one was looking to peer into the moment when then west was born, one would have to immerse themselves in late Medieval works like the The Golden Legend. Spengler mentions this one specifically as one of the key works that reveals the shape of the melding of the Germanic with the Christian that gave birth to the west. To fill out my experience with the works of this era, read Jackson Crawford’s translation of the Poetic Edda which I enjoyed immensely. I also grabbed Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf from my local library as well as Helen Mustard’s translation of the The Nibelungenlied in the Modern Library series. I also read Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt’s translation of The Song of Roland. I think that I found the Poetic Edda and the The Song of Roland to be the most enjoyable. The Edda has a whole section of wisdom sayings with such obvious pieces of advice as “never leave your house without a weapon” and “as drunkenness increases, wisdom decreases.”
Remembering that these were preserved by society’s elites as songs for the entertainment of nobles, they provide a lot of insight into the values of the leadership class of the day. It is challenging to try to put one’s self into these pieces and see the world of the West just as it is beginning to emerge. I feel far more at home with the biblical stories, much more connected to them. Biblical stories feel familiar, as if they are my stories, that they belong to me. With these Late Medieval poems it never felt like one was seeing one’s self being reflected back, but in infancy form. It feels as if I have been severed from my own cultural origins.
At the same time, there is something wonderful in these stories, as if they explain something that has been lost to us. Spengler makes the point that the cultural energy that was contained in the “deeds” of old has, as the West has transitioned from Culture to Civilization, has become to us the thing we know as “work.” Looking at it that way, the way that the “Meritocracy” is valorized, you can see faint remnants of the heroic giving off echoes still today.
The world of that day was much more personal, direct. People did things. They did not get lost in “process,” “structure,” or “system.” This world of technique, system and the administrative, as Schmitt notes in his writing, tends to want to sidestep the question of personal agency. The system does things of its own volition. No one is in charge. No one is sovereign. But in these old Western stories, people act, they right wrongs, they do heroic things. It is direct. Personal. It feels alive in a way that our society does not.
Along the lines of that thought, the characters seem a lot less self-conscious. The world in which they live just “is.” They are not alienated and “critical” of their own culture. These stories are conveyed to reveal the order of things, why they are the way they are. Especially in the Edda, you could feel the similarities to Genesis 1-11. These were not so much stories of old to tell us about old things; they are stories of old to tell us about why things are the way they are today.
Also, people lived through the roles assigned to them by birth. In the Edda, there is a long section explaining the types of things it is appropriate for each class to do, activities in which to engage. This is the way the gods made each class. You got the same sense in Roland, that if one is a knight, then one is good by being a good knight. You are your class and to a large degree ethics and right and wrong are defined by the demands of class. Honor was a big thing throughout. It was a violent world as well.
So how did Christianity weave itself into this? It is most explicit in Roland. It was a violent time, but one of the things you could feel throughout these works was the longing for peace. There was also a nobility ascribed to the sacrifice of Christ. I got the sense that they would liken it to dying for a companion in battle. Honor culture and biblical morality, especially when combined with wisdom literature, helped meld the two together. When fighting the Saracens, it is an obvious good vs. evil battle. It is a clash between two gods. The winner of the fight would be the worshiper of the true God, and thus their cause would be judged righteous. There is in Roland a trial by combat to determine if Ganalon is or is not a traitor. I could see local wars being cast in this light. Disputes over honor being resolved in battle, the victor obviously having the hand of God with them.
They do not get deep into theology and something like the pacifist Anabaptists would be inconceivable to them. The Edda had three classes: Nobility, Freemen and Slaves. In the other epics you have Nobles, Monks, and Peasants. In Roland, one of the key figures explaining the “morality” of the conflict is the Archbishop. Roland has the most interesting passages in regards to this melding of Germanic and Christian.
Beginning at line 1514:
“Then the Archbishop told them what he was thinking:
‘My lords, barons, do not contemplate dishonor!
By God, I beg you, on no account think of fleeing,
So that no worthy man can sing of us in disdain.
It is far better that we should die fighting.
One thing is certain; we will soon meet our ends:
After today none of us will still be alive.
But there is one thing I can promise you.
You are assured of a warm welcome in heaven
You will visit alongside the Holy Innocents.’”
And at line 1876:
“The Archbishop said: ‘you excel yourself!
Valor such as this is befitting a knight,
Who bears arms and rides such a fine horse:
And he should be invincible and fierce in battle,
Otherwise he’s not worth tuppence-ha’penny;
He’d be better off as a monk, cloistered in a monastery,
Where he can spend his time praying for our sins.”
There are the passages that recount how the tip of the lance that pierced the side of Jesus became the pommel of Charlemagne’s hilt and how Charlemagne was visited by Gabriel urging him on to heroics, that this is all in God’s plan. And it is said as a compliment by the Muslim pagans that never before has there been such a warlike people. And in line 3367-8 God has appointed Charles as his hand of justice against the pagan race.
There is a kind of matter-of-factness to the violence of this world. Knights, warriors and nobility fought. That is who they are and what they did. Morality was not defined as them turning the other cheek or becoming pacifists, but rather by them becoming good nights. Things were resolved through trial by combat. Life was one big trial by combat. God was on the side of the victors. But in the Edda you could sense a longing for peace, for an end to the violence. But that meant a kind of negation, hence Ragnarök. At the same time, dying for a righteous cause was akin to martyrdom, as the passage above shows.
On the other hand, the pacifist, turn the other cheek portion of the gospel message was embodied in a different role, that of the monk. One person was not expected embody the whole of the gospel. The warrior fought and was the hand of justice. The monk was the minister of prayer and mercy. Each found redemption by embodying their role. This was also a world that was more superstitious and sacramental as well. You were not expected to be a theologian as a knight. What you knew was enough. You worshiped the true God and he was with you and you with him. You were a Christian warrior and nobleman and that was that.
This idea of the “calling” of the warrior has disappeared with the end of the warrior nobility. Soldiers remain, but they do so in service to a secular state. If we kill as soldiers, we no longer know how we are supposed to feel about it. There is that part of us culturally that still wishes to embrace the idea of the warrior elite and all that this embodies. Yet today, the secular administrative state has taken over the task of validating violence, and now we supposedly do it by “the rule of law” which means that “the system” gives credence to violence. Some may argue that this way is more civilized, but at the same time it does not root violence within a clear metaphysical framework the way in which it was when one could live out one’s Christian vocation as a “knight.”