Trial by Combat: God, Feudalism, and the Crusades (part 1 of 2)

8 May

Though modern conceptions of religion in the Middle Ages focus almost exclusively on the violent fervor of the crusades, early in the sixth century St. Benedict’s rule for a disciplined monastic life set a starkly different lifestyle—seclusion and self-denial—as the standard for religious zeal.

Fleeing the temptations and indulgences of worldly society for a quiet existence of poverty, chastity, and obedience, medieval monks and nuns devoted their lives to prayer and charitable works—popularly thought, in doing so, to guarantee God’s blessings for the laity.

But transitioning from a culture in which cloistered clergy pray for the kingdom of God into one where warriors attempt to actively bring it about themselves required the emergence of a fundamentally different mindset.  The Song of Roland communicates this new “crusading mentality” as a radical redefinition of piety, which, by incorporating feudal values and superstitions, overthrows the traditional ideal of withdrawal and asceticism.

No individual more clearly illustrates this transition than the Archbishop Turpin, who expresses only contempt for the secluded life.

Stating that “in battle [a knight] should be strong and fierce, or else he is not worth four pence” and “ought rather be a monk in one of those monasteries praying all day long for our sins” (89), Turpin fuses religious service with the values of feudal warfare—valor and strength.

Throughout the epic, warfare and religious devotion continue to be inextricably tied in the person of Turpin, who not only demonstrates a commitment to the active life by being the first man to start the battle with King Marsile’s army, but by buoying up his own fellow men with the promise of heaven, a testimony to the origins of indulgence theology—“in one thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you.  You will take your seat amongst the Innocents” (77).  Equating death in battle against the Muslims with martyrdom, Turpin—in line with beliefs of the time—reveals the characteristic trait of medieval crusaders: absolute faith in a divinely-guided mission.

Throughout the Song of Roland, recurring imagery juxtaposing antitheses—good versus evil, right versus wrong—highlights this moral certainty of Charlemagne’s men, who consistently employ a strictly black and white evaluation of their work and enemies.

While Charlemagne fights for “the fair land of France,” the very country of Marsile’s warriors is described as “accursed,” outrageously depicted as a blackened desert where “some say that devils live” (60).  The Muslims also bear similarly impossible physical deformities, such as spines “as bristly as pigs” (131) or “skins as hard as iron” (132) – further stressing their hard-hearted rejection of Christianity and estrangement from the side of ‘right.’

Furthermore, the pagans engage in battle assailed by doubts, Marsile lamenting that “these gods of ours have abandoned the fight… they have allowed our men to be slain” (115) when Charlemagne’s rearguard refuses to be daunted by the superior numbers of the Muslims.

Roland, on the other hand, rallies his troops for the seemingly-impossible fight against the Saracens with unshakable assertions of the rightness of their cause.  He declares that “the pagans are wrong and the Christians are right” (61); he defends Charlemagne’s reputation against Marsile’s nephew with the words that “we are right, but these wretches are wrong” (67); and he avenges Duke Samson’s death with the cry that “On your side is both pride and wrong” (79).

Holding their enemy as impotent because the Muslim faith—wrongfully described throughout the poem as polytheistic—“is not worth a penny” (135), Roland suggests that fighting on the side of Christianity gives the Franks more than certain moral superiority: certain victory.

Rather than support notions of individualism and the primacy of human effort over divine, the crusading emphasis on and confidence in actively correcting the evils of the world reflects the complete opposite idea: successful action can be taken only because of God’s sovereignty.

The first stanza of the Song of Roland, for example, introduces King Marsile not only as a man “who does not love God,” but one who, for that rejection of Christianity, “cannot prevent disaster from overtaking him” (29).  Though mistaken and superficial depictions of Marsile and his men serve in part to dehumanize the Muslim enemy, the defining quality of their evil stems from their pagan faith.

In fact, while physical deformities are attributed to some of the Saracens, a number of Muslim leaders are described as either a “worthy baron” (129), a “good knight” (59), or even “very handsome… fierce and fair” (57)—the only caveat being that they are not Christians.

And as paganism creates, in the eyes of the crusaders, an insurmountable barrier to eternal salvation, so does it also make victory in battle impossible—even before the fight begins, the Muslims “all are doomed to die” (63).

Works cited at the end of part 2.

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