In the “Song of Roland,” the first premise is that Charlemagne has spent seven years campaigning across Spanish Andalusia, taking back territory from the perfidious Saracens. The famous battle in which Roland loses his life takes place in the mountain pass between Spain and France, near the city of Pamplona. In the legend, the attack happens because Roland’s stepfather wants to get rid of him, so makes a deal with the Muslim ruler of Zaragoza to attack when only Roland and a rear guard are exposed at the end of a long, thin line over the pass.
First, the premise: completely false. We know that it took several more centuries for the Christian kingdoms of the north to take back Spain; it’s called the Reconquista and wasn’t finished until Ferdinand and Isabella took Granada in 1492. In 778, when Roland’s battle took place, Muslim Spain was still expanding under Abd al-Rahman I.
Additionally, Charlemagne’s major war effort was against the pagan Saxons bordering his northern territory. Slaughtering–I mean “pacifying”–the Saxons was his chief occupation. He had a campaign against the Lombards, like his father Pippin–and became King of the Lombards. While it’s true that at one point he attacked Muslim Spain, it was not a long, sustained war as depicted in the epic. It certainly didn’t take back acres of territory, nor did Roland’s death provoke a second victorious battle. This was all pure fiction. In a time that was only beginning to use written history, a minstrel could count on most of his audience being pretty credulous about the past. They were willing to believe anything that sounded good, so the bard only had to figure out what they wanted to hear.
Roland was a knight from Brittany, the region where refugee Celtic Britons had settled after the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 600s. We don’t know anything about him, otherwise. Bretagne mother and Frankish father? Very likely.
Abd al-Rahman’s power grab is central to the story of the real Roland. In 778, he was still al-Dakhil, the Carpetbagger, to the “established” Muslim oligarchy of Sevilla, Barcelona, and so on. His power was centered in the south, where he had entered at Gibraltar. He was inviting surviving Umayyad cousins to join him in Spain and appointing them as city governors to help consolidate his power. In cities closer to the Christian kingdoms, some Muslim rulers wanted to block his takeover. They made a plan of rebellion which began with alliances with Christians. Charlemagne, the growing power to the north, was invited to take part.
Charlemagne led an army across the pass at Roncesvalles to join the rebels. However, once he was there, he found that the rebellion had scattered. Abd al-Rahman was moving quickly to snuff out such things; some of the plotters may already have lost their heads. There was nothing to do, and Charlemagne heard that the Saxons were taking advantage of his absence to rebel. He turned toward home, but he needed provisions.
The Christian Basque city of Pamplona was asked to open its gates and provide for the Franks, and it refused. So Charlemagne besieged and took the city, plundering it. That’s the “baggage train” that Roland was guarding: plunder from Basque Pamplona. The main army was well to the north, going as quickly as possible through the pass toward home. Roland’s rear guard, with wagons full of Pamplona plunger, was an inviting revenge target.
The attackers were Basques, possibly still allied with some local Muslims. Along the frontier, alliances were based on power advantage, not on religion, and intermarriage was common. So a force of Basques and Muslims fell on Roland and took back the wagonloads of plunder. On hearing of it, Charlemagne cursed in Old French and kept going. The Saxons were much more important than this southern distraction.
Why was this obscure Bretagne Count made into a hero for the ages? By 950, Muslim power in Spain was secure and the Umayyad dynasty still firmly in power. But it had been 80 years since the last Carolingian had ruled a united Aquitaine-France-Germany-Lombard Empire. Each time an Emperor had died, his kingdoms had been divided among his sons, but in each generation, one of the sons had managed to reunite it all, until at last his great-grandson Charles the Fat had only an illegitimate son and no unified support. Aquitaine, West Francia, East Francia and Lombardia/Italy broke apart into smaller kingdoms. In 911, Viking attacks on Paris had become so severe that Charles III offered land for peace, creating Normandy.
Charles III’s son was forced to grow up in England because rebellious nobles deposed the Carolingians for a time. This son, Louis IV, was probably king in Paris around the time when the “Song of Roland” was composed by Turoldus (or somebody). The new legend depicted a time when the Franks had been truly unified and so strong that they could have driven out Abd al-Rahman except that they just didn’t bother—they went home based on a promise of conversion. The only reason the Muslims were still in control of Spain, according to the legend, was that they were deceitful and treacherous. The House of Charlemagne, on the other hand, had once been invincible. The Song was popular among Normans; they were joining the winning team, obviously. Newly Catholic and half Frankish, they wanted to believe that “they” had once held all of Spain in their grasp. Of course, once the Crusades got rolling in the next centuries, Roland was more popular than ever. He turned out to have been the first Crusader martyr, the one who was cool before it went mainstream.
We can snicker at the bards of Louis IV inventing all this history to help unify a desperately disunited people. But if you look at the history of film remaking, you’ll see that of course we still do this. We borrow some skeleton facts from the past and invent stories based on what we want to hear in our time. Why are pirates now heroic figures played by Johnny Depp? If they remade “Casablanca” now, does anyone doubt it would have some kind of Wikileaks twist? Every story-telling art about the past is really about the present, then as now.