“The battle is marvellous and grievous to be borne. Oliver and Roland both strike hard, and the archbishop delivers more than a thousand blows and the twelve peers are not behind him, and the French all fight as one man. The pagans die by thousands and by hundreds and he who does not flee has no protection from death; whether he wills or no, he must leave his life there.” – The Song of Roland, 110 (Translated by Jessie Crossland).

Political and partisan upheavals have abandoned many—perhaps providentially so—to look for history’s heroes rather than living incumbents. The past contains poems, songs, stories and epics that highlight larger-than-life figures and leaders.  Simply being included in the tomes of the past, however, is no blanket endorsement of actions and ethics. With this we turn to the passage quoted above: modern readers may be rightly disturbed by Archbishop Turpin in The Song of Roland, a cleric active on the battlefield, slaying non-Christian combatants with righteous indignation, apparently invoking temporal and spiritual judgement by his spear.

The Song of Roland is an eleventh-century epic poem written in Old French. It tells the story of the 778 Battle of Roncevaux Pass between the Franks and the Saracens in the Pyrenees mountain range near the border of France and Spain. The protagonist and hero of the epic is Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, who leads the rear guard of the French army and is slain during the battle after fighting bravely in the face of overwhelming odds.

It is difficult to learn how to learn from the past. In examining pedestalled protagonists like the Archbishop in Roland, it is easy to dismiss the actions themselves in an apologetic of “that’s just how things were back then,” while upholding the ultimately flawed spirit of the chaotic warrior-priest. Rightly we have regret for the various factors and social situations that ultimately led to such warfare. But violence was not simply an unfortunate “product of the time.” A deeper examination and critique is needed: though today we (correctly) would disagree with such vicious measures, we must also understand that our religious ancestors were motivated by higher goods and were not merely bloodthirsty.

Many interpret piety, defined in the Classical understanding as “a just relationship to others and the gods,” to be something of an intrinsic virtuous aspiration. Piety, not violence, must therefore be read into this type of literature, for without this pinpoint we are left with critiques of relevant but not fundamental material. This deeper interrogation allows for spiritually-deeper reading, allowing us to understand that truly Christian piety and that truly Christian virtue does not begin or end with Roland, nor does the typos of Christian character terminate in Archbishop Turpin. Rather, these are markers of a primordial sort of religious zeal that we must ultimately perfect—and some parts must be totally rejected.

Several great works on virtue preceded Roland, whose influence can be traced before and through this High Medieval work. In the spirit of Justin Martyr, virtuosity in a Classical sense is inherited through paganism. Aeneas might serve as the example here—the great Latin poet Virgil repeatedly describes the hero of the Aeneid as “pious.” Aeneas is a man dedicated to the mission of following the will of the gods, giving up love and comfort to fulfil his destiny, which ultimately ends with sacrifice and death. One cannot read the first book of Virgil’s great work, encounter the Hero of Troy’s gasping reverence, and not be struck by his piety: “Look! There is Priam!” Like Augustine, one can easily be moved to tears reading about his duty-driven self-wrenching from tragic Dido’s arms. However, we understand that his piety is not merely judged by ancestral recollection and the just cooperation of providential guidance. Rather, we must understand that his mission unfortunately included death, destruction, and a lack of peacemaking. In a sense, the pantheon’s justice required burning rage in Aeneas’ heart, and a vengeful spear in Turnus’, a wounded man who had already surrendered. In sum, piety is exhibited, and exhibited brightly, but colored over and over again by shedding the blood of enemies. Indeed, many more steps of purgation would be required to reach Christian piety.

Another milestone in the evolution of perfected virtue involves pagan and Christian elements, warfare and vengeance, but perhaps in a more improved balance. In Beowulf (recorded sometime around 1000 AD), providential credit is given to the Triune God. Biblical demonology and cosmology play a role in the epic, and allusions to the effects of sin are apparent throughout. However, there are still elements of vengeance, and the role of the battle-driven warrior is central to the narrative. Though “spiritual warfare” involves “warfare,” the battles of Beowulf are still against flesh and blood (to borrow St. Paul’s phrasing), though the analogical fighting is much more obvious than in many earlier works. Yet, “blessed are the peacemakers” is still somewhat far off.

In some ways, The Song of Roland in the 11th century takes a few moral steps backwards. Within the theme of piety and virtue, the glorification of vengeance is still apparent, and it is carried out not against mythological monsters, but against other human beings—the Franks versus the Saracens. Again, moral questions about religious warfare are perhaps worth hashing out—much has been made about similar situations during the Crusades—but the rhetoric here concerns an unfortunate misappropriation of piety among two groups of warring people. The religious violence in this chanson de geste reads much like the Homeric epics, with graphic, glorified details about bloody wounds and amputated limbs. Scandalously, a cleric charges into battle, slaying infidels himself and promising a martyr’s entrance into heaven for any Christian knight who falls. Piety and duty are not absent from this story, and while a historical analysis might reveal justifications for these battles, it would be rash for a Christian to desire such calls-to-arms today. While piety and duty do take center stage in the poem, these are types of piety and duty that lack the kind of subversion that sacrificial, “turn the other cheek” Christianity fully provides.

In the next stage of development of the concept of piety in literature, we come to Chrétien’s Perceval. Violence comes early on in the poem, but it is not wholly glorified when the young knight murders another with an almost-awkward level of unceremonial remorselessness. Even though he ascends to King Arthur’s table, Perceval is challenged and admonished, in one way or another, by other characters throughout the poem for his negligence, headstrong nature, and impiety. Yes, impiety—though he had all the trappings of all the previously invoked great warriors, with his arms, armor, courtly connections, and constant adventures, the story makes his lack quite clear. After a period of wandering and carrying out chivalric exploits, the reader is told that these things caused him to forget God. Eventually, he stumbles across a pilgrim who chastises him for wearing the garb of a man of war on a day of penitence—it happened to be Good Friday. Immediately, Perceval “remembered” God, then he encounters a hermit, who further draws Perceval into repentance and a changed life. The knight is transformed: chainmail is traded for sackcloth and piety is achieved.

The culmination of this heroic piety is seen in the lives of several saints, such as St. Ignatius and St. Francis. Both initially sought glory in the schema of Aeneas and Roland through the path of the warrior and chivalry. Both were humbled and transformed, eventually turning their swords into plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. In the case of Francis, Heaven itself verified the true “knighthood” of this saint through seraphic confirmation, dubbed not by a sword’s tap on the shoulder, but by the inauguration of the stigmata. The blood curdling battle cry was replaced by a strained “Laudato Si’.” Rather than a cavalry charge against invaders from the Middle East, Francis took discalced (shoeless) steps towards a Sultan, for the sake of either a willing martyrdom or a providential opportunity to preach the Gospel.

It is not wrong for us, in our turbulent times, to reach out for any seemingly heroic figure in which we might find stability and assurance—this may even be a pious reaction. But we must evaluate the understanding of piety that these figures attain: the ultimately anemic pagan variety, or the kind mirrored by an instrument of God’s eschatological peace? Unless Grendel is on our doorstep, our call is not to pick up the plate armor that St. Ignatius laid down in penitence; it is rather towards a defense of the inviolability and dignity of others, founded upon the cosmos-reshaping sacrifice of Christ.

Image: By Marie Therese Ross, CC BY-SA 2.0 uk, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9978126

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Will Sipling works at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and is an independent scholar who researches and writes about social theory, theology, and ministry. He earned an MA in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and was a Student Fellow of the Department of Catholic Studies and the Thomas J. Murphy Center for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy. Before this, he was Assistant Director of Digital Content and Marketing at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he earned a master’s degree in biblical and theological studies.

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