The Mythology of Charlemagne and Compostela
The Legends of Charlemagne and Roland and the Epic Poems of the Pilgrimage Roads to Santiago de Compostela
At the same time that the culture of pilgrimage was growing another, vernacular tradition developed. This was the oral storytelling known as the Chansons de Geste centered largely around the figure of Charlemagne and his twelve paladins.
The legends of Charlemagne and Pamplona resonated in medieval epic poetry. Pamplona was such a vital location, as well as being one of the first cities to be reconquered by the Christians from the Moors, that it was inevitable it should become the locus of legendary...
Roncevaux stood at a pivotal point on the pilgrimage road to Compostela both in spatial and also sacred terms. The story of the great battle which was fought there was told and retold.
The shadow of both the emperors Constantine and Charlemagne loomed large over the pilgrimage to Compostela. Along the pilgrimage roads to Santiago the sculpted image of a victorious rider recurs on the facades of churches. Invariably, beneath is a cowering figure being trampled upon. Who is this mysterious horseman?
Alfonso VI was the most successful of all medieval Christian rulers of Spain, uniting the the kingdoms of northern Iberia into a self-styled empire in the eleventh century. The parallels betweens Alfonso’s real-life military campaigns and those of Charlemagne, as recounted in epic myth are striking in their similarity.
The pilgrimage road passed through the Navarrese town of Nájera, where in the time of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition, Roland had vanquished the Saracen giant, Ferracutus.
The Historia Turpini, also know as the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi is the early twelfth century Latin manuscript which forms Book Four of the compilation known as the Jacobus, the hagiographical texts devoted to the cult of the Apostle James of Compostela.
The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as well as linking so many reliquary shrines along its highways and byways, was also the source of numerous legends of a mystical nature and the terrestrial road itself, was invested with an inherent and immanent sacred character. This is perfectly expressed in the legend of the Milky Way
The burial grounds of Roncevaux were important shrines for medieval pilgrims. Among the relics which pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela were able to venerate were the tombs of the fallen heroes of Charlemagne’s armies
The Cross of Charlemagne marked the first station of the Spanish pilgrimage road to Compostela. The Cize mountain over which pilgrims passed was believed to be the highest mountain in the whole of the Pyrenees. According to the Pilgrim’s Guide, from the summit one could see as far as the Atlantic ocean.
Charlemagne’s Spanish Campaign was a matter of both epic legend and historical fact. According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, as the Norman knights prepared to do battle at Hastings in 1066, a poet declaimed an epic tale of the death of the Frankish hero Roland at the battle of Roncevaux.
The façade of Santa Maria Matricolare, the twelfth century cathedral of Verona is remarkable for the two figures which appear as sentinels guarding the entrance to the church: the Frankish heroes of Roncevaux, Roland and his companion Olivier.
Charlemagne and the Compostelan pilgrimage were inextricably linked in the medieval imagination. It was an essential component of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela that pilgrims were journeying through a mythical landscape. This was a world through which the armies of Charlemagne had passed, where great battles had been fought and the tombs of the fallen heroes could be venerated as the shrines of martyrs.
The legend of Charlemagne and Monjardin and the martyred Frankish warriors was an important episode in the mythology of the emperor’s Spanish campaign.
Martyrdom was a repeated theme of the legends of Charlemagne’s Spanish campaign and the Miracle of the Lances at Sahagún was perhaps the most exemplary episode.
At Parthenay-le-Vieux, the facade of the church of Saint-Pierre features an impressive equestrian figure, the Parthenay Rider. The Tours Road to Compostela was especially redolent of the legend of Charlemagne and his Paladins.
The scenes of the porch of the abbey of San Zeno at Verona represent Roland’s duel with the Saracen Ferracutus which is described in the History of Charlemagne and Roland. Ferracutus is a giant who has challenged the assembled Frankish army to single combat outside the city walls of Nájera.
The mythology of the Franks as defenders of the faith against the Saracen threat had a long history. In 732 the new emir of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman, so it was written, led a massive Saracen army of between 30-50,000 men over the Pyrenees into France. His intention was to overrun France as his predecessors had done Spain, twenty years earlier.
Christ had named the Apostles James and his brother John, the Sons of Thunder and by the early medieval period James had acquired another name: Santiago Matamoros. Castor and Pollux were the sons of Jupiter, known as the Thunderer, thereby they also, were designated The Sons of Thunder. In ancient mythology Castor descended from heaven astride a white horse to become protector of man and slayer of his enemies in battle. Castor and Pollux were venerated in Roman Spain.