Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Rhymed Roland: Aude prays, then dies in Charlemagne’s arms

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About the scene and clip:
The solo performer does one of the scenes that show how different the Rhymed Roland is from the most famous version of the Roland story, The Song of Roland. She enacts Aude’s final prayer and her death in Charlemagne’s arms, and tells of the great public lamentation over Aude’s death: the “greatest for any woman ever born.”

About the work:
The story of Roland was famous throughout the Middle Ages. The earliest surviving version, generally titled La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is one of the great masterpieces of French medieval literature; it dates apparently from the late 11th century and is preserved in a famous manuscript now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This classic version 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.

Such are the classic plot of this work, and the traditional French epic form. But there were many other, somewhat different, versions of the Roland story, some of which survive. One of them is the so-called Roland rimé, or Rhymed Roland. This poem (in two surviving manuscripts) apparently dates from the second half of the 12th century. It is composed in rhymed laisses, rather than in assonanced lines. One of the great innovations of this poem is the vastly amplified and dramatic role it gives to Aude, Roland’s fiancée, who barely appeared in the Song of Roland.

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).

About the edition/translation:
La Chanson de Roland/The Song of Roland: The French Corpus, gen. ed. Joseph J. Duggan, Turnhout, Belgium, Brepols Publishers, 2005; vol. II: The Châteauroux-Venice 7 Version, ed. Joseph J. Duggan, ll. 7384ff; pp. 422ff. The English translation is by Timmie (E.B.) Vitz.

About the performer/ensemble:
Catesby Bernstein is a Drama student in the Stella Adler Studio of Acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2005).

About the production:
This performance was created for “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz, in fall 2005. Nitzan Rotschild was the videographer.