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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001) 79-111
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"Pagans are wrong and Christians are right":
Alterity, Gender, and Nation in the Chanson de Roland
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California
To be a medievalist, Bernard Cerquiglini has written, is to take a stand on the Chanson de Roland. 1 In the song's long critical history, this has meant taking sides on questions such as Roland's heroism or his démesure, or on the poem's composition by a poet of genius or a singer of tales. Two things, at least, seemed beyond debate: first, that the poem casts the Saracens as a fierce and intractable Other, as epitomized in Roland's unforgettable rallying cry, "Paien unt tort e crestiens unt dreit" [Pagans are wrong and Christians are right] (1015); and second, that women have little place in this stark celebration of military valor, as evidenced in the scant thirty lines devoted to the death of Roland's fiancée Aude. 2
Recent metahistories of our discipline have uncovered how strongly the canonization of the Roland as the preeminent French epic is linked to the historical exigencies of the late nineteenth century. Prized as a precocious assertion of French national sentiment, it performed important cultural work as the Third Republic strove to overcome the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. At this foundational moment in the history of medieval French studies, epic was thus defined as the perfect expression of a feudal, Christian, nationalist ethos in which women had no part. In this essay I revisit this gendered construction of difference to suggest that the representational regime of the Roland is far less secure than it initially appears. In part one, I suggest that the poem is haunted by a crisis of nondifferentiation strongly at odds with the monological fixity usually ascribed to it. Disengaging its representation of the pagans from modern racialist and Orientalist paradigms reveals how strongly it exemplifies a concept of alterity markedly different from our own. The stark simplicity of Roland's pronouncement "Paien unt tort e crestiens unt dreit" conceals the instability unsettling each side of the confessional divide. The dualism it implies is [End Page 79] belied first by the parallelism that constructs the pagans as mirror images of the Christians, and second by the possibility of their conversion, which gestures toward the collapse of all difference. On the Christian side, the unity of Charlemagne's empire is disrupted by the historical layering linked to the process Robert Bartlett has memorably called the "europeanization of Europe" that resulted in, among other things, the emergence of "Frank" as a new collective identity.
In part two, I suggest that the Roland manages this instability through its strategic deployment of gender. Far from being marginal to this feudal Christian epic, Aude and Bramimonde are central to its construction of difference. Unsettled by the indeterminacy of the boundary between pagans and Christians, the Roland reinstates difference through the stock epic figure of the Saracen queen. As one of only two women in the text, Bramimonde is situated at the intersection of the medieval problematics of gender and culture. As the poem's lone Saracen woman, her brazenness secures the boundary between pagans and Christians even as it signals her availability for conversion. Part three turns to the Roland's conclusion. Brought from Saragossa to Aix, the heart of Charlemagne's empire, the Saracen queen is contrasted with Aude, the text's only other woman. Taciturn where Bramimonde is vociferous, intransigent where the pagan queen is mutable, Aude exemplifies the fixity of a feudal-Christian order heretofore threatened by instability and fragmentation. Her death and Bramimonde's conversion are not merely codas to the drama at Roncevaux; they instantiate and guarantee the truth of Roland's reassuringly simple pronouncement, "Paien unt tort e crestiens unt dreit."
The critical investment in the Chanson de Roland as an epic struggle between Christians and Saracens dates from the Franco-Prussian War...