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

8 May

The belief that God will necessarily lead the righteous to conquest reflects the superstitious mentality of feudal judicial practices, only now on a much wider scale.

Where trial by ordeal or combat once applied the principle to feuds or disagreements between individuals, the crusades incorporated this feudal institution into the realm of international politics.  But emphasis on more admirable values of feudalism than superstition also crossed over into the “crusading mentality” to fuse with religious sentiment­—in particular, the importance of personal loyalty to one’s lord.

For instance, loyalty to God’s cause is demonstrated by devotion to Charlemagne, characterized through the epic as a pious king who receives visions from God and is guarded by St. Gabriel.

Moreover, the swords of both Roland and Charlemagne symbolize more concretely the connection between feudal service and religion; while Roland’s Durendal contains relics from various saints and the Virgin Mary, Charlemagne’s Jouise holds the point of “the lance with which our Lord was wounded on the cross” (108), providing a direct connection between Christ the heavenly king and Charles the earthly emperor.

But this synthesis of religious ardor and feudal values ultimately creates a conflict of interest within the vassal-crusader.  While combining the fervor of supposed divine sanction with a belief in infallibility makes Charlemagne’s army a formidable force– described by the enemy as “fierce” men with “no thought of failing” (129)—Roland’s interpretation of war as holy encourages zeal over caution.

Roland’s courage and pride, bolstered and supported by certainty of moral rightness, approaches recklessness when he refuses to blow his horn for help.  In this way, religious zeal comes into conflict with the traditional qualities of a good vassal—prudence, common sense, and cooperation.

In the Song of Roland, this war of values finds symbolic expression in the inadvertent battle between Roland and a blinded Oliver—Roland, described as “brave,” represents the crusader, valiant to the point of recklessness and proud nearly to the point of sin; Oliver, “wise” (64), reflects the caution and discretion of the feudal vassal.

Rejecting the established Benedictine standards of piety, which held secluded monks and nuns as the holy men and women who ensured God’s blessings on earth, crusading warriors instead emphasized the active life, dashing headlong into the world to “administer His judgment” (136) themselves.

Filled with confidence in both their rightness and the divine support of God in their mission, these crusaders—as depicted in the Song of Roland—carried feudal values with them, in the head and hilt, into an atmosphere of religious fervor.

But ironically, while feudal standards and superstitions help to create the “crusading mentality” of moral certainty and certain victory, it is this same fusion which, by contributing to the pride and reckless confidence of the crusader, ultimately leads to the rejection of a number of core feudal values in the Song of Roland.  Though “Roland never loved a coward, nor arrogant man” (97), the title warrior demonstrates that—in an arena of religious zeal—avoiding the one may create the other.

A/N: After re-reading this paper (written about a year and a half ago for a University of Alabama history course), I had another couple ideas about The Song of Roland—in light of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation course I took from the same professor this semester—

The idea of God’s sovereignty and divine will in the crusading mentality makes for an interesting example of the Catholic theology early Protestant reformers so vehemently opposed.  Traditional Catholic theology of justification holds that divine will cooperates with human will in a person achieving salvation; Protestants, on the other hand, hold that justification and receipt of grace is a strictly passive process (human works are worthless).

In Roland, the message is absolutely orthodox: faith in God’s will makes the crusaders certain of their moral superiority—but also of a very temporal victory.  The knights, after all, are the ones who initiate battle, in the belief that they are the ones carrying out God’s work.  Thus, cooperation between heaven and earth.  How lovely.

Just thought that was interesting; it’s a pretty good example, too, of the original justification for indulgences (something else the Protestants abhorred).  Indulgences were original created as an incentive for potential crusaders, or rather, an assuagement of their fear—otherwise, why would a man fight without being able to receive Extreme Unction and confess before he died (die with a mortal sin on you, and it’s straight to hell, buddy).  The theology behind the practice paralleled the crusading spirit itself: You do this for God, and he’ll reward you.  Again, cooperation.

And please remember to cite your sources, if you don’t want to end up in the eternal torment of the Saracens (because, naturally, they’re all going to hell, the heathens):

The Song of Roland. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

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