Coherence and communication in medieval French literature cover

Narrating nationalism in the oldest surviving major piece of French literature

La Chanson de Roland (circa 1100)is the most famous example of the chansons de geste (literally: songs of deeds), which are epic verse romances from the 12th to 15th centuries. Roland narrates the Battle of Roncevaux Pass between Charlemagne’s forces and the Saracens (although historically it was against the Basques) on 15 August 778. As Ian Short explains in his introduction to the text (cited below), there was a duke named Roland at the real battle, yet the author of the poem overstates his importance so that he, despite his flaws, embodies French contemporary heroism. Initially, he fears being marked as a coward in France for sounding the oliphant and thus requesting support for his outnumbered rear-guard, yet he is eventually convinced that this is necessary and does so before dying from his temples bursting after blowing the horn.

The author crafts an emblematic depiction of the values of the Crusades, involving a valiantly fought battle and divine intervention. The reality of this battle was entirely different. In fact, it was an insignificant skirmish over the Frankish forces’ possessions. In the collective French memory of the events at Roncevaux, however, the fictional version narrated in La Chanson de Roland has entirely displaced historic fact. The author therefore succeeded greatly in their mission to exaggerate the glory of France, not only to contemporary audiences in the 12th century, but also today. The primary reason that this text is essential reading in any study of medieval concepts of the homeland is not only in terms of content but also because this is one of the oldest existing pieces of literature in French. It bridges the gap between inaccessible contemporary texts in Latin, and other, but later, texts written in the vernacular French.

a painted lanscape, a small man in golden armour is dying in the foreground, illustrating la chanson de roland.
The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux (manuscript illustration c. 1455–1460). via Wikimedia Commons.

The medieval perception of the homeland is more strongly linked to its socioreligious ideology than geography, given contemporary border instabilities. As a result, the chansons de geste worship a seemingly immortal, almost abstract notion of homeland, which will last far beyond the lives of the characters and uphold its values for centuries to come. The popularity of La Chanson de Roland today lies largely in the glorification of a timeless France which is familiar to French readers throughout the centuries.

There is naturally opposition to any nationalistic readings of medieval literature: ascribing an 18th century term to a text written six centuries before certainly appears anachronistic. The late 20th century saw increasing research, however, into medieval conceptions of nationhood and nationalism. This was largely carried out by Adrian Hastings, whose work remains controversial since he claims that the birth of nationalism was more related to language and literature than politics. Hastings argued that the two principal reasons for the birth of nations were the diversity of languages and the spread of Christianity, since these combined in a need for the Bible to be translated into many languages, which in turn increased the sentiment of division between peoples. Both of these topics are of high importance in La Chanson de Roland, since it is one of the oldest surviving pieces of French literature, which gives its use of language significant status to historians. The poem is intensely focused on the spread of Christianity, as exemplified by line 3987, which closes the poem with the conversion of the fictional Queen Bramimonde of Zaragoza to Christianity, newly baptised as Juliane:

“Chrestïene est par veire conoisance”

“The truth is that she was henceforth a Christian”

Regardless of one’s view over the existence of premodern nationhood, I believe it is possible to infer a protonationalistic tone in medieval texts, such as in other chansons de geste. Another example is Raoul de Cambrai (circa 1180), in which France is mostly studied internally through feudal tensions, unlike the exclusively external conflict in La Chanson de Roland. Even if the reader is reluctant to consider any other term than ‘kingdom’, they may see a medieval equivalent of nationalistic thought running through both the narration and dialogue of La Chanson de Roland. Not only is this evident through the exaltation of France as a seemingly eternal, divine and immutable power but also through the application of Hasting’s theory to the text. Focalisation on differences in language and religion marks the divide between France and the Other.

Furthermore, Frank Turner’s view that nationalist thought often depends on two factors, “opposition to some allegedly potential ‘other’ or threatening group” and “a fine line between history and mythology” aligns with the themes of Roland. The exaggeration of Roland’s role in the battle reveals the near-mythological treatment of his character, whilst the text’s preoccupation with racial and religious divide is clear evidence of otherness. The narrator includes the audience or reader in the French side, since they assume the audience is French in lines 2871-2:

Oxford manuscript of Chanson de Roland
The Oxford manuscript of the Chanson de Roland is available digitally here.

“De tantes herbes el pré truvat les flors,

Ki sunt vermeilles del sanc de noz barons!”

“he found many flowers in the grass of the field,

Vermilion like the blood of our barons!”

The possessive adjective “noz” (“our”) clearly indicates that the narrator associates both themself and the audience (and by extension, all future readers and audiences) with the French barons mentioned. La Chanson de Roland therefore not only contains protonationalistic ideas within the text but also imposes them onto both the French contemporary audience and international modern readership, who may read the text in translation. This association between the assumed French reader and patriotism has played a fundamental role in the popularity of the text within France and its promotion in school curriculums, since it connects the modern reader and the otherwise inaccessible heroes of medieval France.

The final area of study within protonationalism in the text is religion. Turner contrasts the medieval universalism of Christian Europe with the modern divisions between nations caused by religious differences, explaining that nationalism “challenges all universalistic visions of humankind […] Whereas in the predominantly Christian centuries, the faith, the Church, and the truths of God were regarded as eternal, for nationalists the various nations somehow had existed for all time and constituted in their view eternally existing entities […] which must ultimately prevail”. There is undoubtedly an argument against the existence of protonationalism in the Middle Ages given the religious and therefore ideological and political universalism across much of Europe. Turner’s view, however, that modern nations took on the divine and eternal role of the Church in the Middle Ages can in fact be read as an argument in favour of the existence of protonationalistic ideas in La Chanson de Roland. The reason for this lies in the inseparable tie between religion and kingdom in the text. Labels such as “the Franks” are used interchangeably with “the Christians”. If the narrator does not distinguish between the success of Christianity and France in the battle and, more generally, in the Crusades, then it must follow that the “eternal” entity Turner describes as being nations in nationalistic thought is not only Christianity but also France. This, according to Turner’s explanation of nationalism, can only entail a degree of protonationalism in La Chanson de Roland.

It could be argued that protonationalism is, then, a key part of the narrative tone in the poem, since the narrator aims to praise the role of French heroes and subsequently villainise foreigners. The chansons de geste exaggerate elements of a conflict and its resolution, before allowing plenty of quasi-historical material of a similar nature to inspire future works of the same genre. It is precisely this threat of the Other on which the protonationalist stance in Roland relies. Paradoxically, France is dependent on its rivals prevailing in order to assert, by comparison, the superiority of the eternal homeland.


La Chanson de Roland. (1990). Paris: Librairie Générale Française.

Hastings, A. (1997). The construction of nationhood: ethnicity, religion, and nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, F. M. (2015). Nationalism. In F. M. Turner, European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche (pp. 155-74). London: Yale University Press.

You can read the first instalment of Isobel’s column, Coherence and Communication in Medieval French Literature, here.