Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Roland: Roland’s death, guitar accompaniment

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About the scene and clip:
The performer sings about the death of Roland, to music she composed and with guitar accompaniment.

About the work:
La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is one of the great masterpieces of French medieval literature. The earliest surviving version of this anonymous epic dates apparently from the late 11th century and is preserved in a famous manuscript now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This classic version—there were numerous others—is composed in laisses (or stanzas) of variable length with ten-syllable lines in assonance (the final vowel is the same within each laisse). Epics like the Roland were originally sung by jongleurs, often with vielle accompaniment. The Roland tells of the Emperor Charlemagne’s great struggle to conquer Spain from the Muslim Infidels. It recounts the betrayal of the French by the traitor, Ganelon, resulting in a great battle at Roncevaux. There, the French rearguard, led by Roland, defeats the Moors, but all the great French knights—the twelve peers—die. Charlemagne avenges the peers in two great battles, and Ganelon is punished. At the end, Charlemagne is called by the angel Gabriel to a new mission.

About the genre:
The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

This story also belongs to the tale tradition. The tale, like the epic, is an ancient genre and one found everywhere in the world. Many tales are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are recited or told by amateur and professional storytellers and performers. Other tales are the work of literarily sophisticated authors and are often intended to be read aloud or silently from written texts. Some tales circulate separately, while others are part of collections, which may be set in complex frames (as in the case of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There are many sub-groups of tales with specific characteristics; see for example the “lai” and the “fabliau.”

About the edition/translation:
The Song of Roland, translated from the Old French by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin, 1957, 175-177, pp. 142-144. French: La Chanson de Roland, ed. Ian Short, Paris, Lettres gothiques, 1990. The performer sings about the death of Roland, to music she composed and with guitar accompaniment.

About the performer/ensemble:
Jenni Login a student at New York University (2004).

About the production:
This performance was created for the course “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz at New York University in fall 2004. It took place in an open class held at the Maison Française in, and was videoed by Jeff Spangler.