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  • Cain as Convict and Convert? Cross-cultural Logic in the Song of Roland
  • Brewster E. Fitz (bio)


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Figure 1.

Marsilie’s Ambassadors before Charlemagne. Ink drawing from the Ruolandesliet, Cod. Pal. Germ. 112, fol. 8 verso. Courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

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Figure 2.

Ganelon’s Threats as He Leaves Charlemagne’s Court with Marsilie’s Ambassadors. Ink drawing from Cod. Pal. Germ. 112, fol. 21 verso. Courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

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Figure 3.

Ganelon Holds Council with the Pagans. Ink drawing from Cod. Pal. Germ. 112, fol. 26 recto. Courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

In the Oxford Chanson de Roland Muslims and Jews are designated as “pagans” and differentiated only from Christians but not from one another. Indeed, after having defeated Baligant and taken Saragossa, Charlemagne has the “idols” smashed in synagogue and mosque alike, and converts the “pagans” who remain alive—except Bramimunde—to Christianity at sword’s point (O, 3660–70). This apparently “naive” indifferentiation among Muslim, Jew and pagan may stem from an intentional erasure of difference between the exterior Muslim enemy and the interior Jewish enemy, who owing to a God-given sign, had lived in relative peace among Muslims and Christians up until the time of the First Crusade.

It is my hypothesis that the narrative of the Song of Roland projects a new order of Christianity, which stands in relation to the pre-crusading order as the New Testament era to the Old Testament era. Such a narrative is guilt-driven. Its telos is to judge, convict, slay or convert all forms of the Other, whether within or without, while sacrificially absolving radical guilt.

Gerard Brault has speculated that the olive haute under which Ganelon begins his conversation with Blancandrin on their way to Saragossa may serve to link Ganelon to the Jewish nation, to the treason of Judas in the Garden of Olives, and to the despair of Judas, who according to tradition, hanged himself in an olive grove (69). It can hardly be denied that Ganelon is a Judas figure. Indeed, Conrad’s [End Page 812] Ruolandesliet not only explicitly compares Ganelon to Judas (Conrad, 1925Conrad, 1936–1939, 6102–04), but hyperbolically suggests that Ganelon’s treason is even greater. The Heidelberg manuscript of Conrad’s text also contains three illustrations in which a person, whom Rita Lejeune has identified as Ganelon (124), is wearing a curious bonnet. Professor Lejeune has called this headgear “une sorte de bonnet catalan” (124). She suggests that the illustrator may have coiffed Ganelon with this “Spanish” headgear in order to distinguish him from the Franks. That the bonnet does distinguish Ganelon from the Franks is undeniable. It also distinguishes him from the Saracens. The distinction made, however, may be somewhat different from the one Professor Lejeune had in mind, for this bonnet resembles one of the kinds of headwear frequently used in the Middle Ages to designate the wearer as a Jew. Cain, Abraham, Aaron, Noah, the doctors disputing with Christ in the temple, the mockers of Christ, Caiphas, and occasionally even Judas are often depicted wearing this or other forms of Judenhut in medieval illustrations. 1

Given the increase in violent anti-semitic incidents linked to recruitment for the First Crusade—some historians like Riley-Smith even refer to this period as the “first Holocaust”(34, 50–51)—it would not be entirely unreasonable to speculate that the illustrator of the Heidelberg manuscript may have depicted Ganelon wearing a Judenhut not just to distinguish him from the Franks, but also to underline his felonious relation to Judas, Cain and Jewry, and vice versa, to underline the Jews’ relation to Ganelon.

Whatever might have been the intention of the illustrator of Conrad’s text, Ganelon starts as a Christian in all versions of the Song of Roland. I will argue, though, in a reading of three episodes from the Oxford text, that Ganelon’s attitude toward Roland, toward caritas, and toward the Muslims, is figuratively, i.e. typologically, Jewish.

1. The bricun and the branches d’olive

After seven years of...

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