Poetry of the Crusades

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Poetry of the Crusades

Excerpt from The Song of Roland (c. 1100)
Originally written by Anonymous; Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers; Published in 1957

Excerpt from " Ahi! Amours! Com dure departie / Alas, Love, What Hard Leave," (1219)
Originally written by Conon de Béthune; Reprinted in Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères; Edited by Frederick Goldin; Published in 1973

Literature also helped promote the Crusades. However, with so many people unable to read in the Middle Ages, such literature serving the needs of propaganda had to be able to reach more than simply the small educated class. Much of medieval literature was made up of chronicles, or histories, kept by clerks of the church and written in Latin. These histories were not accessible enough or easy enough to understand to be used to promote the Crusades. Instead, more popular entertainment, such as songs and long poems, had the power to move the people, for they were not only written but also performed by traveling singers and poets and by court musicians called minstrels.

One early form of literature about the Crusades was provided in long epic poems that became popular in the twelfth century. Such poems of heroic deeds were fashionable in France and Germany. In France they were called chansons de geste, meaning "songs of great or heroic actions." The most famous of these chansons is The Song of Roland, written between about 1098 and 1100 by an unknown poet or poets. This poem tells of an actual historical event involving the famous soldier-king Charlemagne, who was coming back from a military campaign in Spain in 778. Those protecting the last of the long line of Charlemagne's soldiers were killed in an ambush, slaughtered in the Roncesvalles (or in old French, Rencesvals) pass of the Pyrenees mountains by Basques, the natives of a portion of northern Spain. The poem, however, changes this enemy to Muslims, also called Saracens or Paynims.

A tale of betrayal and loyalty, The Song of Roland features the heroic knight Roland and his friend Oliver, who die, along with their fellow soldiers, as they protect the king's rearguard. Ganelon, Roland's stepfather, turns traitor to the Muslim leader Marsile and brings about the death of these French knights. Attacked, the courageous Roland refuses to blow his battle horn for help and thus bring the king back into an ambush. Finally, though, after fighting bravely and as he is about to die, Roland blows his horn powerfully, and the king comes too late to help but not too late to avenge Roland's death. The scenes excerpted here recount the battle, while the rest of the poem finds the king getting back at the Muslims and at Ganelon for this sad deed, finally conquering all of Muslim Spain and forcing the infidels, or non-believers, to convert to Christianity.

Thus, in the poem, Charlemagne becomes the great protector in Europe against the invasion of Islam. In fact, Muslim Spain was one of the most powerful and cultured lands in the eighth century, at a time when the Christian powers of Europe were still unorganized, and it remained so into the time of the Crusades. The conquest of Spain as represented in The Song of Roland is a long way from the historical truth. Yet at the time the poem was written the preparation for and events of the First Crusade (1095–99) were fresh in the minds of Europeans. Although the events of The Song of Roland took place several hundred years before the Crusades, the topic of Christians fighting against Muslims, or Saracens, was the same one that church leaders were preaching to the faithful at the end of the eleventh century. Many scholars therefore consider The Song of Roland to be an early form of propaganda to incite and encourage Christians to answer the call to arms against the Muslims in the Holy Land. Throughout the long poem, Muslims, or Saracens, are shown to be evil monsters. This was the picture Pope Urban II hoped to paint of the enemy when he spoke in favor of a Crusade.

Songs also played a part in selling the Crusader message. These became part of the troubadour tradition, the aristocratic or noble poets, singers, and musicians of southern France, who wrote from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. They wrote in praise of love and great loss and were often veterans of the Crusades, spinning tales of battles against the Saracens. Their writings frequently were performed by lower-class entertainers known as jongleurs, who sang and played musical instruments and sometimes even helped compose the poems and songs. Written in the dialect of southern France, the favorite themes of such songs were love, war, and nature. Northern France later developed a similar tradition. There the troubadours were known as trouvères. In the German tradition they were known as Minnesängers.

Conon de Béthune (1160–1219) was one of many powerful nobles who took up the troubadour tradition, and as with many other troubadours and trouvères, he was an important Crusader. He took part in the Third Crusade (1189–92) as well as the Fourth Crusade (1202–04). He distinguished himself during the Fourth Crusade and stayed on in the new Crusader state created in Constantinople by the Byzantine Empire. He was known for an intense strength and a military spirit that sets his work apart from other such poets. The excerpt provided here is one of his best-known poems and blends the themes of love, loss, and war in one call to arms.

Things to Remember While Reading Excerpts about Crusader Poetry:

  • The Song of Roland consists of about four thousand lines of poetry or verse. These lines are further divided into almost three hundred units of irregular length calledlaisses. Each line has about ten syllables and ends with a sound similar to that of the previous line, but it does not necessarily exactly rhyme with the preceding line.
  • Chansons de geste, such as The Song of Roland, were meant to be performed, accompanied with music, for special social gatherings.
  • The poems and songs of the troubadours were written in old Provençal, a dialect of southern France, while the trouvères poems were written in old French.
  • The poems of the troubadour and trouvères traditions did not have a typical or patterned rhyme scheme or structure. Novelty and creativity were the most important elements in their form.
  • Such poems usually consisted of three to ten stanzas, or poetical paragraphs, and then usually ended with an envoy, a verbal send-off of some sort, saying good-bye and wishing to be remembered.

Excerpts from The Song of Roland


Oliver's climbed a hill above the plain,Whence   he can look on all the land of Spain,And see how vast the Saracen array  ;All those bright helms with gold and jewels gay,And all those shields, those coats of burnished mail  ;And all those lances from which the pennons   wave;Even their squadrons defy all estimate,He cannot count them, their numbers are so great;Stout   as he is, he's mightily dismayed.He hastens down as swiftly as he may,Comes to the French and tells them all his tale.


Quoth   Oliver: "The Paynim   strength I've seen;Never on earth has such a hosting been:A hundred thousand in van   ride under shieldTheir helmets laced, their hauberks   all agleamTheir spears upright, with heads of shining steel.You'll have such battle as ne'er   was fought on field.My lords of France, God give you strength at need!Save you stand fast, this field we cannot keep."The French all say, "Foul shame it were to flee!We're yours till death; no man of us will yield." …


"Companion Roland, your Olifant   now blow;Charles in the passes will hear it as he goes,Trust me, the French will all return right so.""Now God forbid," Roland makes answer wroth,"That living man should say he saw me goBlowing of horns for any Paynim foe!Ne'er shall my kindred   be put to such reproach  .When I shall stand in this great clash of hosts  I'll strike a thousand and then sev'n hundred strokes,Blood-red the steel of Durendal   shall flow.Stout are the French, they will do battle bold,These men of Spain shall die and have no hope." …


When Roland sees that battle there must beLeopard nor lion ne'er grew so fierce as he.He calls the French, bids Oliver give heed:"Sir friend and comrade, such words you shall not speak!When the King gave us the French to serve this need
These twenty thousand he chose to do the deed;And well he knew not one would flinch   or flee.Men must endure much hardship for their liege  ,And bear for him great cold and burning heat,Suffer sharp wounds and let their bodies bleed.Smite   with your lance and I with my good steel,My Durendal the emperor gave to me:And if I die, who gets it may agreeThat he who bore it, a right good knight was he." …


The French rise up and on their feet stand close;All of their sins are shriven   and made whole,And the Archbishop   God's blessing has bestowed  .Then on swift steeds   they leap to saddlebow.Armed with the arms prescribed by knightly code;All are now ready into the field to go.Count Roland said to Oliver right so:"Sir my companion, too true the word you spoke,That all of us by Ganelon were sold.He's ta'en his wage of wealth and goods and gold.The Emperor's vengeance I think will not be slow!Marsile the King has bargained for our bones:He'll need the sword to fetch his purchase home." …


From a far land he came, from Barbary;The Saracens he calls, and thus he speaks:"Well are we placed this field of arms to keep;For of these Franks the number is but weak,And we may well despise the few we see.Charles cannot come to help them in their need,
This is the day their deaths are all decreed  !"Archbishop Turpin has listened to his speech,And hates him worse than any man that breathes.His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,And rides against him, right valiant   for the deed.He breaks the buckler  , he's split the hauberk's steel.Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,He spits him through, on high his body heaves,And hurls him dead a spear's length o'er the lea  .…


Samson   the Duke on the Almanzor runs:Through gilded shield and painted flowers he thrusts;Not for defence avails the hauberk tough,He splits his heart, his liver, and his lung,And strikes him dead, weep any or weep none.Cries the Archbishop: "This feat   was knightly done!" …


And Engelier   the Gascon of BordeauxSpurs his good steed, slacks rein and lets him go;With Escrimiz, Valterna's lord, he's closed,Off from his neck the splintered buckler broke.The hauberk's ventail   he's shattered with the stroke.He splits his throat between the collar-bones,A full spear's length dead from the saddle throws;Then says to him, "The devil take thy   soul.…"


Fierce is the battle and wondrous grim the fight.Both Oliver and Roland boldly smite  ,Thousands of strokes the stout Archbishop strikes,The whole Twelve Peers are not a whit [a bit] behind,And the French ranks lay on with all their might.
Heaped by the hundred thousands of Paynims lie,None can escape unless he turns and flies,Will he or nill [unwillingly] he, there must he leave his life.There France must lose the noblest of her knights,They'll see no more their kindred and their sires  ,
Nor Charles, who scans the pass with anxious eyes.Throughout all France terrific tempests   rise,Thunder is heard, the stormy winds blow high,Unmeasured rain and hail fall from the sky,While thick and fast flashes the levin   bright.And true it is the earth quakes far and wide.Far as from Saintes to Michael-of-the-Tide,From Besançon to Wissant Port, you'd findThere's not a house but the walls crack and rive  .Right at high noon a darkness falls like night,Save for the lightning there's not a gleam of light;None that beholds   it but is dismayed for fright,And many say: "This is the latter time,The world is ending, and the Great Doom   is nigh  ."They speak not true, they cannot read the signs:'Tis Roland's death calls forth this mighty cry.…


Now can the French count up the Paynim mightThey see it filling the plains from side to side.They urge on Roland and Oliver likewiseAnd the Twelve Peers to flee for all their lives;To whom straightway the Prelate   speaks his mind:"Barons, my lords, these shameful thoughts put by;By God I charge you, hold fast and do not fly,Lest brave men sing ill songs in your despite.Better it were to perish in the fight.Soon, very soon we all are marked to die,None of us here will see tomorrow's light;One thing there is I promise you outright:To you stand open the gates of Paradise,There with the holy sweet Innocents to bide  .…"


Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;The French fight on with rage and fury fell  ,They lop off   wrists, hew   ribs and spines to shreds,They cleave   the harness through to the living flesh;On the green ground the blood runs clear and red.[The Paynims say,] "We cannot stand the stress,French Fatherland, be cursed of Mahomet  !Your sons are bravest of all the sons of men."There's none of them but cries "Marsile to help!Ride, ride, O King, for we are hard bested  .…"


Count Roland's mouth with running blood is red;He's burst asunder   the temples of his head;He sounds his horn in anguish and distress.King Carlon hears, and so do all the French.Then said the King: "This horn is long of breath.""'Tis blown," quoth Naimon, "with all a brave man's strength.Battle there is, and that I know full well.He that would stay you is but a traitor fell.To arms! let sound your battle-cry to heav'n!Make haste to bring your gallant household help!You hear how Roland makes desperate lament!"


Straightway to horse the warrior lords have got;Swift through the passes they spur and never stop.Each unto other they speak and make response:"Might we reach Roland ere   he were dead and gone,We'ld strike good strokes beside him in the throng  ."What use is that? They have delayed too long.…


The Paynims say, "Why were we ever born?Woe   worth the while! our day of doom has dawned.Now have we lost our peerage   and our lords,The mighty Carlon comes on with all his force,Of those of France we hear the shrilling horns.The cry 'Mountjoy' sounds fearfully abroad.So grim of mood is Roland in his wrath  No man alive can put him to the sword.Let fly at him, and then give up the war."So they let fly; spears, lances they outpour,Darts and jereeds   and feathered shafts galore.The shield of Roland is pierced and split and scored  ,The mail rings riven, and all his hauberk torn,Yet in his body he is not touched at all.Though under him, with thirty wounds and more,His Veillantif   is stricken dead and falls.The Paynims flee, abandoning the war;Count Roland's left amid the field, unhorsed.…


Now Roland feels that he is at death's door;Out of his ears the brain is running forth.Now for his peers he prays God call them all,And for himself St. Gabriel  's aid implores;Then in each hand he takes, lest   shame befall,His Olifant and Durendal his sword.…


The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;To land of Spain he's turned him as he lies,And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,And fairest France, and the men of his line,And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;He cannot help but weep   for them and sigh.…His right-hand glove he's tendered   unto Christ,And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.Straightway his head upon his arm declines;With folded hands he makes an end and dies.God sent to him His Angel Cherubine  ,And great St. Michael   of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St. Gabriel too was with them at his side;The County's soul they bear to Paradise.

Excerpt: " Ahi! Amours! Com dure departie/Alas, Love, What Hard Leave"

What happened next…

The epic poems of the chansons de geste and the poems and songs of the troubadours led directly to the creation of longer works of fiction that became known as stories and novels. Such an advance can be seen in the Decameron (1348–53) of the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio and the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1387), both of which led to later poetry and true novels and both of which tell stories from the Crusades.

With the coming of the novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a larger part of the public was able to read, and more views were shared. No longer could literature serve only propaganda. By the twentieth century great anti-war novels appeared, such as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Literature was now able to service both sides of an argument.

Did you know…

  • While troubadours and trouvères were generally aristocrats at first, in the later tradition they were people who wanted somehow to gain noble status, perhaps through a noble sponsor or through marriage. The jongleurs, or minstrels, on the other hand, continued to be mere entertainers, singing but also juggling and playing musical instruments. They often had to tour to earn an income and ultimately, in the late Middle Ages, joined together in guilds, or unions, to protect their status.
  • Only about eleven troubadour songs are known from the First and Second Crusades. However, after 1160 the number of such songs and poems hugely increased, and hundreds of them were written down.
  • So common was the theme of love in medieval songs that the name for German troubadours, Minnesängers, means "those who sing of love."
  • Both the songs and epic poems of the Middle Ages that deal with the Crusades often compare the Muslims, or Saracens, to "dogs" or other animals and use the color "black" to describe them. Muslims are also portrayed as sneaky in such poems, and not to be trusted, while the Christian knights are typically pure of heart and heroic.

Consider the following…

  • How is Roland described in The Song of Roland? How is the Muslim leader Marsile described? How could such descriptions help promote bad feelings between the West and the Muslim world?
  • Discuss how the author of "Ahi! Amours! Com dure departie" feels about those who do not join in the Crusade.

The First Troubadour

William IX of the French province of Aquitaine is considered by many to be the first troubadour, or performing poet and singer. A veteran of the First Crusade, he brought back with him songs he had heard in the Middle East. In fact, his artistic recordings were more successful than his deeds on the battlefield, for William was more a lover than a fighter. He pioneered songs about the loss of love as well as adventures with ladies, and he turned Aquitaine into a center for European culture, attracting other poets and singers. He also lived what he wrote: often married, when he grew tired of his wives, he would put them in a convent (religious institution for women) and take up with a new love.

His poetry and songs began a tradition of wandering poets and minstrels that lasted for almost two centuries, but he was better with words than he was managing rebellious nobles and governing his rich territories. William is perhaps best known to history, however, as the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became the ruler of the province, the queen of France, and the queen of England. She also kept the troubadour tradition alive in Aquitaine, and the idea of courtly love, or dignified and polite relations between men and women, grew out of her court, or royal household.

  • If you were a writer of propaganda, what message would you use to persuade people to go to war? What medium (newspaper, television, film, word of mouth) and what sort of content ("news," movies, documentaries, novels, poetry, music) would you employ?

Whence: From where.

Saracen: Muslim.

Array: Gather.

Burnished: Polished.

Mail: Armor.

Pennons: Flags.

Stout: In this context, strong.

Quoth: Said.

Paynim: Heathen or Muslim.

Van: Vanguard; the troops moving at the front of an army.

Hauberks: A long protective shirt or armor.

Ne'er: Never.

Olifant: Roland's horn.

Kindred: Relatives.

Reproach: Strong disapproval.

Hosts: Armies.

Durendal: Roland's unbreakable sword.

Flinch: Jerk from fear.

Liege: Lord or superior.

Smite: Strike.

Shriven: Absolved, gotten rid of.

Archbishop: Archbishop Turin, one of the main characters in The Song of Roland, a warrior and priest.

Bestowed: Been placed.

Steeds: Horses.

Decreed: Officially announced.

Valiant: Heroic.

Buckler: A round shield.

Lea: Meadow.

Samson: One of the twelve peers, or knights, who fight along with Roland and Oliver.

Feat: Accomplishment.

Engelier: Another of the twelve peers.

Ventail: A flap of mail or armor protecting the lower face during battle.

Thy: Your.

Smite: To kill by a heavy blow.

Sires: Fathers.

Tempests: Storms.

Levin: Lightning.

Rive: Tear apart.

Beholds: Sees.

Doom: Terrible fate.

Nigh: Near.

Prelate: Church officer, in this case, Archbishop Turin.

Bide: To stay with.

Fell: Fierce, cruel.

Lop Off: Cut or chop off.

Hew: Chop.

Cleave: Cut, split.

Mahomet: Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

Bested: Defeated.

Asunder: Into pieces.

Ere: Before.

Throng: Crowd.

Woe: Great sadness.

Peerage: Title or rank.

Wrath: Anger.

Jereeds: Wooden javelins or spears.

Scored: Scratched; slashed.

Veillantif: Roland's horse.

St. Gabriel: An archangel, one of the major biblical angels, who blows his trumpet to announce the Second Coming of Christ.

Lest: To avoid the risk that something happens.

For More Information


Golden, Frederick, ed. Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères. New York: Doubleday, 1978.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

The Song of Roland. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin, 1957.

Web Sites

Cyrus, Cynthia J. "Introduction to Medieval Music." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies.http://the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/music/orbmusic.html (accessed on August 4, 2004).

Moncrieff, Charles Scott, trans. "The Song Roland." Online Medieval and Classical Library.http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Roland/ (accessed on August 4, 2004).