Thursday, April 29, 2010
The Song of Roland: Medieval Lessons for Today
There is something magical and charming about the medieval age that just fascinates me to no end. Let me be clear though, I am not so naïve as to have illusions of grandeur about the gritty realism of this long ago world. It was no “Once upon a time” fairytale or biblical promised land flowing with milk and honey. Quite to the contrary, I know that life back then was short, brutal, and unforgiving and possessed none of the romantic glamour which many attribute to it. It is not some fanciful nostalgia for a golden age that never was that intrigues me about this world-- despite the visions described above-- so much as it is that world’s profound appreciation for human relationships that I find compellingly attractive.
The oaths of fealty that a vassal swore to his overlord were the foundation of the feudal state. It was this ritualistic allegiance that bound the one to the other in a complex interdependence rooted in the land. Nowadays, everything is so fluid and mobile that nothing really seems permanent, not a job, not a home, not even our most precious relationships. Everything is constantly on the move and tenuous at best. The medievals may have had their fair share of instability in the forms of warfare, sickness, and famine, but they didn’t suffer from the kind of existential vertigo that we do today in our postmodern, postindustrial society.
The medievals lived for their peers in arms as Roland does for Oliver and as they both do for their king, Charlemagne. Their world seems a lot simpler from where I am standing today, at least in terms of relationships. You gave your life for your overlord. Your will was his will and his will was the king’s will and the king’s will was God’s will (at least in theory). This simple and easy to understand system of interdependent governance worked reasonably well for hundreds of years. It wouldn’t work today, and we shouldn’t go back to it, but perhaps there are nuggets of value that can be mined from a study of this different socio-politico-economic way of life.
For one, I think the medievals had a better relationship with nature. They feared its awesome power and coveted its raw materials. We still covet natural resources, but our fear has been supplanted by an insatiable need to consume and to exploit everything, even our fellow man. We would do well to reinvest nature with its proper mystique and, if not fear it, then at least respect it.
Second, I think the medievals recognized the importance of religion as an adhesive glue that held together social classes that might otherwise be antagonistic; they also saw faith as a vital contributor to the public square encouraging a fecund and dynamic culture. The recent attacks on religion in our own world corrode the fragile peace between various economic classes, ethnicities, races, the two genders, and increasingly generations. Consequently, the internal coherence and value of our culture, not to mention any consensus about it, is threatened and divided along partisan lines.
Third, the medievals, like the ancients, never regarded history as a purely secular and objective affair as we do, but more like an epic poem with a biblical soundtrack. The Song of Roland is clearly a panegyric for all things French, including their language, history, culture, politics, and religion. This was a proud heritage not ashamed to own up to its vices (think of Ganelon’s treason and Roland’s hubris), but ultimately using these men’s hamartias as an admonition and rallying call to greatness behind the real hero of the poem, Charlemagne. We should recognize that history can never really be purely secular and objective. It must have a storytelling and propaganda dimension to it, and that’s okay, too.
Finally, there is a sense of mystery—some would say superstition—that permeates The Song of Roland. I think we need to cultivate this sense of mystery in our own lives. Personally, I think the best way to do this is in the promotion of a liturgical reform of the reform. If we can re-enchant our liturgical worship, our public offering to God, I think God will re-enchant our lives. We are mystical people after all, and the author of The Song of Roland understood this fundamental principle of Christianity, so why can’t we?
Ooops, I’m out of time. The next class is coming in now…back to work.