Mythology of Charlemagne and Compostela

The mythology of Charlemagne and his Spanish expedition grew out of the mythology of Saint James. The medieval mind made no difference between legend and historical fact – such a distinction was alien. The popular retelling of the oral tradition where subsequent versions added to the old, met the learned, written tradition of the elite. It has been observed that because of the rupture in classical culture caused by the collapse of the Latin Western Empire in the sixth century, a process of cross contamination took place whereby the learned textual traditions and the popular oral culture were each transformed by the other. Monasteries were deliberately located in rustic areas where pagan traditions thrived. Correspondingly, the vast body of the illiterate imbued the written Latin word with magical properties and undeniable truth.

historia-turpini-1Out of this came the simultaneous perpetuation of legendary traditions in both clerical texts and oral tales. And so the legend of Roland has its written Latin version – the Historia Rotholandi et Karoli Magni, purportedly written by Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin and included in the five books of the Codex of Calixtus which set down the tradition of Santiago in manuscript.

Meanwhile, the oral tradition culminated in the vernacular Chanson de Roland, set down in text at the end of the eleventh century, the first written in the French language.

In the former version we find the Apostle James appearing to the Emperor Charlemagne in a vision calling him to liberate his forgotten tomb from the Saracens and the expedition which was then undertaken to do his bidding. Charlemagne not only liberated the shrine of Galicia but also built the first church there and made the road safe for pilgrims to follow. It was when returning victorious but exhausted to France, that the misfortune at Roncevaux took place.

Of the two versions, it is not possible for us to know which came first, but heroic knightly tales and pious lives of saints coexisted comfortably in the age of Pilgrimage and Crusade