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«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»

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The medieval conception of sin’s disastrous consequences did not involve a world wherein there are human and sub-humans (physical monstrosities), “normal beings” alongside of monsters. For medieval theology and philosophy, the crucial difference between beings lay elsewhere. It was rather the case that the multiplicity of the distinct degrees of form (and forming), of goodness (being good or bad), and beauty (cultivating beauty by adhering to the principle of Beauty, or by way of a turn away from such a principle in the adoration of ugliness) A piteous state, if one judges by Anselm’s prolonged lamentations : “But alas! Wretched that I am, one of the sons of Eve, far removed from God! What have I undertaken? What have I accomplished? Wither was I striving?

How far have I come? To what did I aspire? Amid what thoughts am I sighing? I sought blessings, and lo, confusion. I strove toward God, and I stumbled on myself. I sought calm in privacy, and I found tribulation and grief, in my inmost thoughts. I wished to smile in the joy of my mind, and I am compelled to frown by the sorrow of my heart”. Anselm, ‘Proslogion’, The Major Works. 1998, p. 86.

were interpreted as diverse paths and means whereby God could be understood, resembled, and imitated. It is in this respect that a human being can be said to be beautiful or ugly, saintly, or

monstrous. From this two important points follow:

1) Initially, individual differences between elements were less significant than the fundamental difference between elements in the chain of being and God Himself.

Augustine certainly proposed that an understanding of the cosmos implied that the differences between individual elements could be harmonized in such a way as to retain an appreciation both for the order of the whole and the individual components themselves (even the disagreeable ones) in their relation to the whole86.

2) Given this previous point, the key turning point in an understanding of how differences could become instruments of terror, those which allow for the kind of dichotomizing, and demonizing, that one finds in the “Chanson de Roland” and other medieval accounts of Saracens or of alterity, is to be given when stress is put on the notion of the differentiation of these particular modes of “striving” as living embodiments of an understanding, imitation, and resemblance to God.

This latter point is particularly emphasized in the “Chanson de Roland”. Saracens, or at least some of them, are monstrous in appearance, however, their true monstrosity lies in the manner in which they conduct themselves and live out their lives. Their monstrosity is embodied “God forbid now, that I should ever say, These things ought not to be; for should I see nothing but these, verily I should want the better, yet even only for these ought I to praise thee; for that thou art to be praised, these things of the earth do shew: dragons, and all deeps, fire, hail, snow, ice, and stormy wind, which fulfill thy word; mountains, and all hills, fruitful trees, and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; creeping things and flying fowls; kings of the earth and all people; princes and all judges of the land; young men and maidens; old men and children, let them praise thee, praise thee O our God, in the heights, thine angels and all thy hosts, sun and moon, all the stars and light, the heaven of heavens, and the waters that be above the heavens, seeing that these praise thy name, I did not now desire better, because I had now thought upon them all: and that those superior things were better than these inferior things, but yet all things together better than those superior by themselves, I resolved upon in my bettered judgment”.

Augustine, Confessions Vol. I, 1950, p. 379. The emphasis is mine.

in their sinful idolatry that opposes them to the One True God87, in their wrathful and mad opposition to the champions of that God 88. These are the acts and modes of being that make the Saracens into monsters.

Consequently, if the differences between elements are rather unimportant in and of themselves, as is suggested in Augustine’s cosmology, where all of the parts, no matter how beautiful or misshapen, participate in a harmonious totality, then there arose within medieval speculation a need to explain the appearance and existence of differences by way of a theological divide. One in which these different elements would be judged by the manner in which they strove towards their ultimate destination or telos. For this striving, as an adherence to something essential, could explain the appearance of evil in terms of human being’s “second nature”. In order to understand this, we must ask ourselves how does one turn away from God?

An answer to this question is given in the works of Tertullian. Tertullian postulates that God is to be considered as the superrational being (and man is drawn to Him), and the goodness in the world, as such, is itself rational because it emanates from God, it therefore follows as a consequence that evil must be considered as posterior to goodness, much as irrationality is posterior to rationality, to Creation, and human nature. The turning away from God, if it is to be explicated, finds its source in the biblical narrative of the Fall, whereby human beings have let themselves be seduced by the temptations, the illusions, and the deceits of the devil. It is therefore the diabolic and the demonic, as turns away from the Truth, which are precisely those elements which “engineer” the appearance of evil and moral deformity.





This, of course, is exactly what one finds in the opening lay, wherein two kings (Charlemagne and Marsile), and two religious ideologies are set up against one another. To partake of the one (idol worship) is to refuse and reject participation in the other (religious “orthodoxy”): “Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet/ Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet”. Verses 7-8.

« Plus valt Mahumet que seint Perre de Rume/ Se lui servez, l’onur del camp ert nostre. / En Rencesvals a Rollant irai juindre/ De mort n’avrat guarantisun pur hume ». Verses 921-924.

Now, the “Chanson de Roland” is quite explicit in its attempt to portray the Saracens as adherents to a demonic theology. Not only are the Saracens “evil” because they have turned away from the True God, they augment and increase their level of “evilness” by transforming this turning away into a turning towards agencies of evil. Their damned mode of being is further solidified by their having theologized such a mode of being. Spiritual abandonment has become ritualized. Such a portrayal of Saracen evil is given in the very first laisse when Marsile, the Saracen king, and therefore the very embodiment and incarnation of the entire Saracen way of life or worldview, is represented as being a devotee of pagan idols, most notably Mahomet, the false prophet89 who compels and convinces the unwise to turn away from the True, Incarnate God, and Apollyon90. Unfortunately, this is not the only manifestation of the Saracens demonic congress. Saracen nobles and warriors ride in and out of battle, sally back and forth from this world to the next accompanied by evil agencies. The demonic is extent to the Saracen world,

and would seem to underpin their understanding of the world:

Siglorel, L’encanteür ki ja fut en enfer Par artimal l’i cundoist Jupiter.91 This pre-Dantesque, non-Christian trip to the underworld is more than mere demonization. It must be understood as a means, on behalf of the Christian community 92, of typifying the cultural expressions of the opposed community. Within the logic of the “Chanson de Roland”, the Turpin/Siglorel opposition is meant to signify that Siglorel, the magician (which already stands as a red flag indicating his evil ways), does not stand alone. The Jupiter that See the introductory chapter to John Tolan’s Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. Columbia University Press, New York, 2002.

Apollyon being, in the book of Revelations (9, 11) a demonic agent of destruction.

Verses 1390-1392.

It is not without interest to note Siglorel, the Saracen magician, is killed by the archbishop Turpin, the embodiment of Christian spiritual-martial prowess.

accompanies him in fact symbolizes an entire worldview. Siglorel belongs to a society and a culture in the sense that, having gone down into the underworld, he has unquestioningly interiorized the norms and mores of his society. Norms, and mores, that he eventually reactualizes in his own practices as a magician. The disapproval of magic and magicians stems not only from an imagined congress between the human and demonic spheres, but also from the fact that a magician is a practitioner. Through Siglorel, magic is used, it is known, as such, when it functions in his world. His descent into the underworld, accompanied and guided by Jupiter, reveals the extent to which he is deeply rooted with this demonic “otherness”. It reveals the moral imperatives that guide his observations of that underworld, as well as his actions in this world. Siglorel’s actions, his struggling against the Christian foe, are an acting and a struggling for something. Something that is made significant by the tacit and explicit concourse he has with the demonic, pagan, and non-Christian. His visit and congress with Jupiter count, or are important and relevant, within the particular mode of inquiry of his theological context.

Consequently, given the logic deployed by the narrative of the “Chanson de Roland”, it is not surprising if, when struck by death, Saracen warriors as members of a demonic community

return to the underworld with which they have already been in congress:

–  –  –

Perhaps this is a means of expressing a type of hermeneutic, or theological, circle. If yours is a hellish pre-understanding, then inevitably you end up right back in hell. Before the ultimate and final destiny of the soul can be expressed, it has already been predisposed to end up in a certain place. As poetic or apologetic subjects, the Saracens can only set forth from where they already happen to be.

Verses 1267-1268.

I believe that it is safe to say that the world of the “Chanson de Roland” is one in which the opposing forces of Truth and the demonic are at play against one another. It is a world where there is one truth, that of the True God, and two radically opposed modes of reacting to that truth94. Since these differences are at play, I would suggest that in choosing to be rational and moral, by adhering to the truth of the One True God, as opposed to being irrational and immoral, different ways of life, differing answers, vocations, and philosophies or theologies are also brought into play.

Consequently, if faithfulness to one’s essence implies an adherence to becoming subject to God, then the moving away from Him allows for the appearance of a second nature in man. A second nature facilitated by the devil himself. What needs to be retained when reading the “Chanson de Roland” against the backdrop of medieval theology and philosophy is that it posits the existence of moral differences, as well as the existence of differing natures, in terms of moral choices and ways of life. One either lives rationally/morally, by adhering to God through deeds and faith, or one lives irrationally/immorally by wallowing in the deceptions and illusions of a demonic congress.

I would contend that this latter option also includes deeds and its own brand of “faith”.

Clearly, inasmuch as the “Chanson de Roland” is concerned, the apostles of the demonic have a very different way of approaching situations, of living, acting, and of course, adoring a "deity".

Naturally, in keeping with the apologetic tenor of the poem, these differences are roundly denounced as false and pernicious. For it is a trope within the Christian tradition that the devil, idols, or pagan deities, are falsifiers, both of Holy Scripture, and of human nature.

Leaving aside the question of the devil’s origins, we can see that the medieval need to explain the existence of moral differences (pertaining to the question of the origin of evil) gives We will be exploring these modes of reaction in greater detail in chapters 8 through 14..

rise to a dichotomous world where opposing “forces”, “logics” (rationality versus irrationality), truths (the real versus the illusory), and cultures (as modes of life dedicated to the above criteria) are at war and conflict with one another. Sides have been drawn. Henceforth, righteousness is linked to that nature which adheres to that which derives from God as the rational ordering of reality. The forces of evil, on the other hand, derive from the demonic that has facilitated the introduction of a second, fallen, nature, which, since it no longer coincides with the original nature for which it was intended, is irrational and morally evil.

As we can see, it was this striving impulse, this adherence or non-adherence towards God that, by turn, became highly significant, and indicative of a correcting, or a coarsening of the elements within Creation. If difference, in-itself, is not important, we can at least suggest that the manner in which these differences manifest themselves for-others, or for-themselves, is important. These modes of manifestation, these different forms of striving, or turning towards and turning away, would truly distinguish beings as they would stand in their natural relationship to God. This, I would dare say, becomes one of the crucial points for our understanding of the “Chanson de Roland” since these differences figure so significantly in the poem’s narrative.



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