The French epic poem entitled La Chanson de Roland or The Song of Roland offers a glimpse of the socio-economic forces that shaped medieval Europe. The epic poem from an anonymous author is an appropriate source of information because it was based on a famous battle that occurred in the 8th century (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). However, it was written in the 12th century. Using these dates, one can argue that the epic poem was written in the context of a feudal society. In a book about political science, the authors defined feudalism as a medieval form of social, economic, and political organization characterized by a pyramidal structure, wherein at its head was the king, followed by the nobles, and lords of individual manors (Dooley and Patten 8).
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The Encyclopaedia Britannica on the other hand specified that this concept was derived from two Roman concepts: “feudum” meaning fief or property and “feodalitas” meaning the services linked to the “feudum” (Brown). An in-depth study of The Song of Roland reveals that the epic poem portrayed feudalism in three ways: as a form of government and a social structure that brings people together to accomplish shared goals and aspirations; as a mechanism for mobilizing ordinary people to become a military force; and as a conceptual framework that help define the moral duties and obligations of the people under a feudal society.
Social Structure: People Coming Together and Working Together
Heralded as one of the best artistic outputs of French classical literature, The Song of Roland opens with a description of King Charlemagne’s military might, the superiority of his forces over his enemies, and the level of fear and admiration that Charlemagne forced upon both admirers and foes. However, it is interesting to note that when his archenemy, the Muslim king named Marsilion was about to surrender and proposed a lavish display of submission to Charlemagne, the Frankish king ordered a meeting of his closest advisers. Charlemagne proclaimed in the presence of his favorite barons that King Marsilio sent messengers offering “a great mass of his wealth” (The Song of Roland Stanza No. 12).
He did something surprising for a man of his stature, he admitted to the people gathered around him that he was not sure how to consider Marsilion’s offer. Charlemagne expressed his misgivings. However, the most important aspect of his speech was the expressed idea that he needed his council to make a critical decision that could affect his kingdom and his beloved France. This idea supports the assertion made in Kathleen Davis’ masterful work entitled Periodization and Sovereignty, wherein the author stated that at the heart of feudalism is a means system of governance organized to control the state’s economy (20). Davis’ statement holds when it comes to the day-to-day activities of a feudal society. Nevertheless, the manifestation of the governmental aspect of feudalism could also surface in times of war.
The idea that feudalism is an example of a system of governance is supported through the text of the epic poem and the intellectual discourse of contemporary political thinkers. Immediately after Charlemagne discussed Marsilion’s surrender feelers, Roland stood up and spoke against the proposal to accept the enemy’s offer (The Song of Roland Stanza No. 14). In this passage and subsequent discourses, Charlemagne allowed his subordinates to reason out, and in the end, a plan was made based on the suggestions of his vassals. This is proof of governance because this is a clear manifestation of the attempt to manage resources to gain something substantial. These men were discussing the best use of human resources. Davis’ remarks were made in the context of ordinary business transactions, but just the same, she was discussing a form of government that allowed for the enforcement of laws.
A Mechanism for Mobilizing Ordinary People To Become a Military Force
The idea that feudalism was a political framework that provided a way to rapidly create an army from recruits coming from different sectors of society is supported by the close reading of the text and the contemporary discourse of the true purpose of a feudal society. An overview of the battles and the interactions within the battle scenes lead to the assumption that at that time France had no standing professional army. This assertion is strengthened by the non-usage of professional army designations. For example, Roland was never called a general. Charlemagne addressed his advisers as barons and lords (The Song of Roland Stanza No. 13). In the book Medieval Military Technology, the authors remarked that the primary function of feudalism was to mobilize an army (DeVries and Smith 101). Without a doubt, Charlemagne used his government to create an army that he needed to crush his enemies and to defend his kingdom. Also, his army was made up of ordinary people, because in Roland’s last stance he was fighting not only with peasants, he was also supported by members of the clergy. Thus, one can argue that during a time when an army is needed, the head of the feudal state had the power to create one.
A Conceptual Framework Defining Moral Duties and Obligations
At the core of feudalism is the use of the terms lords, fief, vassals, and benefice, because these elements form part of the framework that makes a feudal society function most efficiently. The terms fief and benefice were adopted from the Roman Empire and described a process of managing or holding real estate (Brown). However, DeVries and Smith argued that most of the ideas that were used to develop the feudal system of government did not come from the Romans, but from the barbarian societies that the Romans conquered and transformed into Christian civilizations (101).
Thus, one can make the argument that the creation of the vassals was part of ancient traditions that were practiced in Europe long before it was under the control of Holy Roman Emperors. There is a passage in the poem that reflected this tradition when Charlemagne gave his glove to the traitor Ganelon (The Song of Roland Stanza No. 25). This act is not just mere lending of the property but symbolized the spirit of feudalism, wherein the king or lord lends property to someone lower in rank expecting something in return.
The heroic stance of Roland in the final battle that cost his life is an example of how the feudal system inspires and dictates certain types of behavior. It does not require an expert in social science to understand how a man of lower rank can become beholden to a superior leader or a man of great power and wealth. Dooley and Patten described a hierarchy that also reflected how the members of the different social classes were expected to behave by their respective privileges. However, the actions of Roland in the battlefield transcend the typical obligation and the threat of punishment that is enshrined in the agreement when lords became vassals and when peasants agreed to work under a lord’s manor.
Consider the passage: “We know our duty; to stand here for our king” (The Song of Roland Stanza No. 79). Roland had the chance to escape, but he went beyond the call of duty.
The epic poem portrayed three facets of feudalism. First, it portrayed that feudalism is a form of government. Second, it portrayed that feudalism is a mechanism that the king utilizes to mobilize an army. Finally, feudalism was portrayed as a framework that dictates or inspires certain behavior. Roland’s heroism magnifies the power of the agreement under a feudal state to command fidelity and sacrifice to the king, baron, or lord.
Brown, Elizabeth. “Feudalism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Web.
DeVries, Kelly and Robert Smith. Medieval Military Technology. University of Toronto Press, 2012.
Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
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Dooley, Kevin and Joseph Patten. Why Politics Matters. Cengage, 2013.
The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “La Chanson de Roland.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Web.
The Song of Roland. 9th ed., The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. W.W. Norton, 2014.