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The Role Of Women In The Song

Of Roland Essay, Research Paper

The Role of Women in the Song of Roland

Women are not mentioned often in the Song of Roland. They appear in only seventeen

of almost three hundred laisses. It is because they are included so rarely, however, that the

women stand out amidst the throng of male characters and call attention to the areas of the text

in which they appear. One of the principle woman characters is Queen Bramimionde, wife of the

pagan King Marsile. She plays an important role at the end of the text, becoming by association

the whole of pagandom, and it is only through her that the French emperor Charlemagne can

achieve a true victory over the Saracens.

The first mention of women in the Song of Roland comes in laisse 23, when Ganelon

speaks to Charles: ?I well know that I must go to Saragossa;/Whoever goes there cannot hope to

return./Moreover, I have your sister as my wife….? In these lines, Ganelon uses kinship as a

means to link himself to Charlemagne, via the woman. He is in effect communicating his ?last

words? to the emperor and, being reluctant to perform the dangerous task set before him, is

attempting to evoke guilt in Charles. A suitable paraphrase of the lines would be: ?Remember

that I am married to your sister, whom you are now effectively making a widow.? Laisse 23 is

not only significant because it makes first mention of a woman, but also because it is tied directly

to the introduction of Bramimonde.

The pagan Queen first appears in laisse 50: ?Then Queen Bramimonde came forward:/?I

love you dearly, lord,?she said to [Ganelon],/?For my lord and his men hold you in very high

esteem./I shall send your wife two necklaces….? In this passage two women are mentioned; the

Queen promising rich gifts to the wife in exchange for the husband?s treachery. This passage

immediately stands out from those before it because it tells of a gift that is from woman to

woman rather than a gift from one of the many pagan dukes to Ganelon. Additionally, laisse 50

acts as the mirror image of laisse 23–the same idea, just backwards. Note how the mention of

Ganelon?s wife is employed in distinctly opposite ways: in laisse 23 Ganelon is attempting to

avoid a task and in laisse 50 the Queen is providing him with extra incentive to accomplish a

task. Bramimonde, in her very first appearance, completes one of the trademark symmetries

employed so frequently in the Song of Roland.

The Queen serves repeatedly to emphasize the failure of the pagans versus the success of

the Franks. In laisses 187 and 188 Bramimonde laments the first decimation of the Saracens and

curses the pagan gods: ?She tears at her hair and bewails her fate;/Thereupon she cries out at the

top of her voice:/?O, Saragossa, how you have been deprived this day/Of the noble king who

held you in his power!/Our gods committed a grave crime/In failing him this morning in

battle.? In laisse 195, when an emissary from the pagan emir greets her with a praise of

Tervagant and Apollo, she replies: ?Now I hear great foolishness,/These gods of ours have

abandoned the fight;?.

Often in the same breath as these complaints she will praise Charlemagne and the

Franks: ?…these bold men/Who are so fierce that they disregard their own lives./The emperor

with the hoary-white beard/Is full of valour and great daring.?(Laisse 188) As well as: ?Charles

will have the whole of Spain in his power,? in laisse 195. She describes the wound received by

her husband in the same passage: ?He has lost his right hand, he no longer has it;/Count Roland

the powerful cut it off.? Bramimonde manages to insult the pagan gods, tell of the injury

inflicted upon Marsile–and by association pagandom as a whole, and praise Charles–and by

association Christianity.

At first her identity to the reader is essentially a pagan woman. She does not participate

in combat, so perhaps instead of filling the text up with the women, elderly and all other pagan

people who are not warriors, one supplied the readers with Bramimonde. But perhaps she is

more than that. The text tells of many male pagan warriors who enter into the story only to fall

in battle; she is the sole constant pagan character. In laisse 195 she laments: ?What will become

of me, miserable wretch?/O, woe is me that I have no one to kill me.? It is easy to interpret this

statement as: ?me? a.k.a. : The Pagan, a.k.a.: a ?miserable wretch? who is better off dead.

Her attitude changes abruptly when the pagan emir and his army arrive on the scene.

It is Bramimonde who brings the emir to her husband to plan the second attack. It is

Bramimonde who directs the whole of pagandom to the Franks: ?He need not go so far!/You

will find the Franks closer to where we are;?(laisse 196). Even when she learns that the Arabs

have been defeated, she offers up one last prayer to her gods in laisse 270: ??Help us

Muhammad!/O, noble king, now our men are vanquished;/the emir is slain with such great

shame.?? Although the words ?Muhammad,? ?vanquished,? ?slain? and ?great shame? are

grouped together, Bramimonde appears to be sincere in her request, as though she will attempt

one more show of loyalty to the deities that ?God never loved? that is in effect a last resort to

stave off the ?great shame.? The lie of her religion is made evident abruptly, however; no sooner

does the prayer to Muhammad leave her lips than the last significant male pagan figure, her

husband King Marsile, dies.

With the emir and Marsile gone, Bramimonde is paganism by laisse 271. All of

Bramimonde?s behavioral transitions can be seen as representative of the pagan behavioral

transitions as a whole. By associating the pagans with frequent mood swings, at one moment

crying and cursing their gods, the next moment reassured and planning the destruction of the

Franks, paganism as a whole is effeminized. And so, being defeated once again, Bramimonde

surrenders in laisse 271–i.e. the pagans surrender to the Christians. ?Fierce is the king with the

hoary-white beard [Charles and the Christians]/And Bramimonde [the pagans] surrendered the

towers to him.?

The fact that her role does not end with that of her male counterparts says much about

her significance in this text. The King is dead. The emir is dead. Yet, Bramimonde lives on.

Who is the real pagan figurehead in this text? It continues as: ?More than a hundred thousand

[Saracens] are baptized/True Christians, with the exception of the queen./She will be taken as a

captive to fair France;/The king wishes her to be a convert through love.? It is not enough for

Charlemagne to have vanquished Saragossa, the Queen must now be delivered to France and

converted to Christianity. In this, the role of Bramimonde completes another of the Song of

Roland?s token symmetries. Before the Queen is actually converted, the text describes the

punishment of Ganelon, who had ?converted? in the opposite direction. After the traitor is put

to a violent, painful death in the streets of the town, Bramimonde becomes the star of another

important public ceremony: ?There they baptize the Queen of Spain./They found for her the

name of Juliana;/She is a Christian, convinced of the truth.? The victory at Saragossa was

incomplete until now. Remember that at this point Bramimonde is ?the pagans,? and Ganelon,

Bramimonde?s foil, who sold his soul in betraying his country and the Christian God, is now

dead. ?When the emperor has completed his justice/And appeased his great anger,/He has

Bramimonde Christened.? Thus, both Bramimonde?s first and last appearances complete vital

symmetries in the text.

At one point, I believed that Bramimonde was the strongest of the woman characters

because she seemed to be independent from the men. This in contrast to Aude, Roland?s fiancee

and the second principle female figure in the Song of Roland, who was entirely dependent upon

her betrothed. With Roland gone from the text, Aude was gone from the text: she died

immediately upon hearing that he had not survived the battle at Roncesvalles. But I have since

come to understand that the significance of Bramimonde?s character is not that she is

independent from her male counterparts, but just that she, unlike Aude, is able to more easily

substitute one man for another–the emir for King Marsile, Charles for the emir; just as she does

with switching religions–Christianity for paganism.

Queen Bramimonde plays a vital role in the Song of Roland. She participates

indispensably in the intricacies of symmetry within the tale itself. Additionally, the fact that

she survives all of the leading male pagans suggests that she is the true pagan figurehead, and it

is only through her that Charlemagne can achieve a true victory.