The theme of lord and vassal relationships is prominent in “The Song of Roland“ (Anonymous, translated by Robert Harrison). This aspect of the medieval epic tale, “Song of Roland” is important because it signifies ways of understanding the hierarchy of the middle ages, at least as it’s presented in “Song of Roland”. There is a feudal system, with God at the top, Charlemagne just under him (as his vassal) and the succeeding “levels” of vassals below the king, who was seen as a direct representative of Christ. In this hierarchy, all ultimate authority lies within God and the actions of the mortals beneath Him serve as manifestations of divine will. That said, it is also important to point out that the success of the vassals is dependent on their loyalty. In the case of Charlemagne in “Song of Roland”, his loyalty to his Lord, Christ, determines his ultimate success whereas down the “chain of command” the success of the vassals under their earthly king, Charlemagne, is dependent on their loyalty to him. While are rewards and punishments, especially for those closer to top of the triangle (Roland and other military leaders) the ultimate fate of all mankind is dependent on all mortals being vassals to those higher than them and of course, God. The text holds several examples of different levels of vassal/lord relationships and through exploring these select few, the reader will gain a better understanding of the nature of these relationships as they function both within and outside of the tale.
Much of the medieval text “Song of Roland” is given to exploring the relationships between lord and vassal and while this feudal concept may seem to apply to only the human characters, God is directly involved as well. As the ultimate Lord over his earthly vassals—Charlemagne included—God can make the decision to reward and punish on the basis of mere loyalty above all else. Perhaps the best example of this is when Roland is dying and the angels come to take his soul to heaven. Even though Roland has made a very arrogant decision in not choosing to blow the horn to signal Charlemagne’s troops to his aid, God overlooks this sin of pride and he dies a martyr as his soul is taken directly to heaven. This honorable and high death is the result of his loyalty to his lord, not God, but Charlemagne. In a society so based on feudal notions of justice, this hardly seems out of place in the text, especially considering that the Saracens, who were not loyal to the Lord (in the case of this text, meaning the Christian lord, not their own “pagan” one) eventually lost their war and were punished, presumably in part for not devoting themselves to the Christian god.
Throughout the medieval epic, The Song of Roland the narrator would have the reader believe that the Christians have the upper hand as a result of their favor with God. This favor from the Lord is a result of fealty and allegiance to His will and all the main characters, aside from the devious Ganelon, are said to be noble “vassals” not only of Charlemagne, but ultimately of God himself. In the world this text presents, the most honorable role for any man was to be a vassal and serve a worthy lord and since one would get the impression that Charlemagne was chosen by God, that means these vassals were serving both tiers of the hierarchy. This lord and vassal system seems to be the one unifying aspect between the Christians and Muslims in the text and there is the sense that without this reliance on a system of authority, this medieval warrior-based society would crumble. Furthermore, without this chain of command, the whole system of God’s favor would also disintegrate. Without those serving under him, Christ might become angry and vengeful and likewise the direct descendent (or better, “chosen”) among God’s people, Charlemagne, would be equally lost without his people under him. In one of the important quotes from Song of Roland “If someone were to cause the death of Roland, / then Charles would lose the right arm from his body” (45.596-597). In sum, the whole of the society depicted in The Song of Roland is based on the adherence to these lord and vassal relationships. Without such a feudal structure, the idea might be that everyone would become carried away by his own motivations. For example, in breaking the unwritten code of this lord/vassal relationship, Ganelon is cast out from his society, thus loses favor in the eyes of God as well as his men. Although not explicitly stated, it seems that this is the presentation of the “option” that exists outside of such a feudal system. Since Ganelon met such a bad end, one can assume that the Christian narrator was remarking on the ills that are caused when someone steps outside of the bounds of this societal structure.
On the one hand, the Saracens are viewed as existing outside of the normal bounds of God, but this is simply a result of their disbelief in Christian notion of God. The Christian author of this text obviously painted a negative picture of them based only on their system of belief (which was considered disloyalty since they didn’t worship the Western gods). By pledging allegiance to a different, “pagan” God, they are represented as being out of the Lord’s favor (thus in the Christian sense, disobedient to their master). Still, even though these Muslims don’t believe in same god as their Christian counterparts, much of their feudal system of lords and vassals is the same—with same system of rewards and punishments for obedience to the ultimate authority. For example, one of the Saracens states this idea as, “Mohammed’s worth far more than Rome’s Saint Peter/ Serve him, and honors of the field are ours” (74.921-922). By this statement, the idea of gaining and maintaining divine favor (in a lord/vassal relationship) is the same as in the Christian sense that Charlemagne and his vassals posses, the only difference being that it is a different god. Even though their end is tragic and can certainly be seen as them functioning outside of the Lord’s wishes (at least in the view of our Christian narrator) the fact remains that there seems to be no alternative in this text to the feudal system presented in both societies.
As the thesis statement for The Song of Roland makes clear, the author’s bias against the Muslims is obvious and can be seen not just as a result in religious differences (especially at the time this was likely transcribed) but also as a matter of which group was best upholding the notions of vassalage. Since the Muslims were not loyal to their (read as the Christian) god, then they had no right, not reason to have any of the divine rewards saved for those “good” vassals who were at least, if not vassals of a particular ruler or country, then the same god. The favor of the lord is thus seen through the eyes of the narrator as falling upon the Christians and the direct connection between Charlemagne and the Lord can be seen in many of the decisions made by this king and his army. Throughout the text there are several examples of this connection between the ultimate Lord and the lord of the country—Charlemagne, thus disobeying the lower would be like rejecting God. The lines, “King Charles is in the right against these pagans, / and God has left his verdict up to us” (242.3367-3368) is proof of what seems to be this direct link of lordship and vassalage. Since Charlemagne has direct favor with his lord, as long as he continues to obey His divine will, more and more power will be invested in him to carry out the will of his lord. This is also seen on a smaller level in that there are always so many troops willing to give their lives over to the cause of their lord, thus putting personal concerns beliefs aside for the good of the greater will (either Charlemagne or God).
In The Song of Roland the emphasis of the lord and vassal relationships seems to rely on the presence and the pleasing of God. While with the lesser-class (thus more removed from God) vassals, the object of loyalty is the King, the King himself is the direct connection with god, thus all he does is to please him and maintain his grace and good will through loyalty. There doesn’t seem to be an option anywhere throughout this work for anything outside of the feudal system and thus, in some sense, the text offers a very limited chance for freewill. Still, in the end, the good are rewarded for their adherence to this feudal code and the bad (the Muslims) as a result of their “infidelity” to the Christian god are punished accordingly.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Book of Margery Kempe and The Role of Women in Medieval Society • Representations of Women in Medieval Literature • The Role of Women in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede