In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Song of Roland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Approaches
  • Versions
  • Facsimiles
  • Editions
  • Concordances
  • Bibliographies
  • Historical Event
  • Origins and Authorship
  • Oral-Formulaic Language
  • Structure and Style
  • Language and Themes
  • Pseudo-Turpin
  • Literary Life and Afterlife
  • Artistic Representation
  • Film, Drama, and Recording

Medieval Studies The Song of Roland
David Raybin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0207


The Song of Roland is one of the most studied works in French literature. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 23 preserves the oldest extant secular narrative in a modern European language, in this case Anglo-Norman French. The name Song of Roland was assigned to the Oxford text in the early 19th century. This earliest version of the poem is generally accepted as the finest and most important example not only of the Roland story, but of a chanson de geste, a major genre of 12th- and 13th-century French literature. Indeed, the Oxford Roland is one of the great texts of the European Middle Ages, a masterpiece of structure, style, narrative, and poetic expression. Originally studied largely for its historical interest as a beacon of the cultural and political origins of a French national spirit, in the early 20th century the poem began a lengthy existence as a scholarly battleground between “traditionalists,” who saw the poem as a product of centuries of anonymous oral composition, and “originalists,” who judged the Oxford text to be the composition of a single brilliant poet (with perhaps some later additions by a less-talented clerically minded writer). Recent critics have generally accepted some combination of oral tradition and written composition, and have focused their attention on the poem’s structure, style, and ideology, along with study of the versions in other, later manuscripts.

General Overviews

The first major reading of Roland as a carefully constructed literary masterpiece is Bédier 1926–1929 (cited under Origins and Authorship). Faral 1934 explores the poem’s structure. Vance 1970 provides a lucid introduction for the general reader, focusing on textual analysis rather than scholarly debate. Van Emden 1995 provides a basic overview for students. Jones 1963 offers a comprehensive scholarly reading of Roland’s language as evincing a Germanic feudal cultural ideal, and Cook 1987 builds on this perspective to posit a feudally inspired ethos that projects Roland as an ideal vassal. Keller 1989 reads the poem in a cross-national context. Haidu 1993 challenges conventional views in a dense, theory-grounded reading that treats Roland in relation to contemporary socioeconomic and political structures. Auerbach 1953 (cited under Structure and Style) offers a superb brief introduction for a first-time reader.

  • Cook, Robert F. The Sense of the Song of Roland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

    Roland is an ideal vassal. The book’s first part offers a laisse-by-laisse reading of the poem in the context of contemporary feudal ideals and practices. The second part shows that in this context Roland’s speech is not prideful but reasonable and measured, consistent with his obligation to king and God.

  • van Emden, Wolfgang. La Chanson de Roland. Critical Guides to French Texts 113. London: Grant & Cutler, 1995.

    This brief introduction to Roland treats the poem sequentially. Intended for advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students, the volume includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Faral, Edmond. La Chanson de Roland: Étude et analyse. Paris: Mellotée, 1934.

    Faral treats (1) the origins of the Roland legend and poem; (2) the poem’s four-part structure (Treason, Death of Roland, Victory over Baligant, Punishment of Ganelon); (3) traditional elements (French, classical/biblical, clerical), conception, and composition: and (4) reception.

  • Haidu, Peter. The Subject of Violence: The Song of Roland and the Birth of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

    Haidu provides a comprehensive, theoretically dense, contentious, and often scintillating reading of the poem as a political text in the context of 11th- and 12th-century socioeconomic and political structures. Not for beginners, but an exceptionally original and exciting study.

  • Jones, George Fenwick. The Ethos of the Song of Roland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.

    The attitudes evinced in Roland reflect a “shame culture” that has a deep grounding in early Germanic ethical values.

  • Keller, Hans-Erich. Autour de Roland: Recherches sur la chanson de geste. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1989.

    Keller treats the composition and dating of the Oxford and other early texts, the origins of the Roland-Oliver companionship, the appearance of Roland material in a 15th-century prose version, and the reception of Roland and other chansons de geste in continental literatures.

  • Vance, Eugene. Reading the Song of Roland. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1970.

    Vance’s brief, lucid introduction to Roland’s literary qualities is suitable for students and general readers. The poem’s continuing interest resides in its gripping portrayal of “those images of loyalty, courage, and dignity in suffering which are the constant concerns of all epic” (p. 93).

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