«RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES: SUBJECTIVITY AND ALTERITY IN THE CHANSON DE ROLAND by Normand Raymond Bachelor of Arts, Laurentian University, 2001 Master of ...»
If it is the case that the world is divided, and that Creation has been somehow altered or perverted, we must attempt to explain just how this brokenness originates, and is perpetuated, by man's turning away from God. Theologically, early Christians understood that men create differences, since men are the origin of the fragmentation and corruption of Creation. Such an idea is a central tenet of early and medieval Christian thought. The idea that individual choices made by created beings influences the very fabric of Creation was defended by one of the early Church fathers, Cosmas Indicopleustes, when, speaking of the War in Heaven and of the Fall, he
Ceci affligea beaucoup les anges; ils s’étaient attristés pour ceux d’entre eux qui avaient transgressé la loi, mais plus encore pour l’homme, car toute la creation est liée en lui et qu’il est le gage de l’amitié de l’univers entire; en effet, le lien une fois détruit, tout est nécessairement détruit. Les anges pleuraient donc sur eux-mêmes et sur la destruction
Given the ideological stance of the poem, it will come as no surprise that Saracen characters will embody this continual striving away from God that furthers the brokenness of the Cosmas Indicopleustès, Topographie chrétienne. Tome 1, (livres I-IV), introduction, texte critique, illustration, traduction et notes par Wanda Wolska-Conus, preface par Paul Lemerle, collection “Sources chrétiennes”, No. 141, les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1968.
world. There is something rotten in the state of the world. That rottenness is evil. Not content to merely state a "fact", the "Chanson de Roland" will suggest a remedy to this state of affairs, and the poem’s diegetic thrust will be to cleanse its world of just such an evil. Echoing some of the ideology from the early Crusader period4, the “Chanson de Roland” envisions a world in which the Christian knight must dedicate himself to gloriously ridding the world of the presence of the impious infidels. A struggle against impiety and idolatry that, within the poem, as in the medieval world of Crusader ideology put forth by Urban II, was expressed in eschatological terms as an all-out struggle against the forces of evil led by a well-defined (and demonized) religious enemy.
Car il est certain que l’Antéchrist ne fera la guerre ni aux Juifs ni aux Gentils, mais, selon l’étymologie de son nom, aux Chrétiens. Et s’il ne trouve pas là un plus grand nombre de chrétiens qu’il n’en existe aujourd’hui, il ne rencontrera personne pour lui opposer de résistance ni de quoi attaquer. La venue de l’Antéchrist exige comme une autre, et préalable, christianisation de la terre5.
I believe that it is fair to state that the historical narrative surrounding the creation of the “Chanson de Roland” finds an echo in the poem’s merciless slaughtering of political/religious enemies. The cleansing of the Holy Places, their re-christianization was implicit in Urban’s call to arms for European chivalry. Their task, that of a great cleansing of the Christian holy places,
was set against the profanation that had been brought about by the Saracens:
The “evilness” of the Saracens was “obvious” inasmuch as they, belonging to another religious tradition, could be said to be irreligious, or they could be accused of having turned away from worship of the One True God. Speaking of the “Persians” who had conquered the Holy Places, Pope Urban II is reported to have described them in the following terms : “The Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and not entrusted its spirit to God”. Excerpt from the ‘Historia Hierosolymitan’, in Chronicles of the First Crusade, edited with an introduction by Christopher Tyerman, Penguin Books, New York, 2004, p. 2.
Summary of Urban II Clermont speech in Paul Alphandéry, La chrétienté et l’idée de croisade: les premières croisades, tome I, collection “L’évolution de l’humanité”, vol. XXXVIII, texte établi par Alphonse Dupront, Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1954, p. 40. The emphasis is mine.
Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements;
the glory and greatness of King Charles the Great, and of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the pagans, and have extended in these lands the territory of the Holy Church. Let the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the Holy Places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness6.
In order to justify this division of the world, and its consequent “cleansing”, the “Chanson de Roland”, and its reader, must recognize that human beings are parceled out, split into various groupings and orders, some of which are positive (the positive nature of such characters will be highlighted, among other ways, by their metaphysical status in the hereafter), others of which are negative, “downturned” (the negativity associated with such characters will be made manifest in their eventually being confined to Hell) and deformed.
But we must ask ourselves if the narrative division that is so central to the “Chanson de Roland” can be justified? For instance, is the “Chanson de Roland’s” worldview supported by
intellectual/theological credence? Are the cultural divisions highlighted in the poem (divisions made manifest by the fact that Christians and Saracens act and respond differently to various situations) also existential ones? Do the poem’s Saracens represent a different race of human beings? In other words, is the text’s split between Christian and Saracen indicative of a split in being between better and “lesser”, or monstrous beings? How is it possible for the world to be so neatly divided between two irreconcilable differences? Where do such differences originate?
I would suggest that the importance of knowing how the origins of differences were explained religiously is crucial to our study of the “Chanson de Roland” given the poem’s specific use of a Christian context. The poem clearly argues that Christians are right and pagans are wrong. This difference needs to be explained and grounded in some kind of theological justification. The pretensions of superiority that are claimed need to be argued and defended. The values associated with being Christian or pagan are inherent to the Christian world, and must be understood within the context of the Christian worldview. They could, after all, be meaningless elsewhere. George Boas has argued that pre-Christian societies had no problem reconciling the appearance of differences between peoples or races given the cosmological myths inherent to their worldviews. However, the same cannot be said of the Judeo-Christian cosmological myth.
It stresses the absence of difference, and the fundamental unity of all human beings. It is only within the confines of the early Church that diversity and difference become real philosophical
and/or theological problems. As George Boas has stated:
The existence of non-Hebraic peoples furnished a problem to the early Christians, whereas to the Pagans ethnic diversity was, in general, simply a fact. For the Pagan had no sacred text which led him to believe that all human beings were members of one family with a common ancestor. The separation of the world into Greeks and Barbarians required no explanation and no one thought of a catholic religion until the time of the Roman Stoics when the world as a whole was brought under one system of law. The Christian, however, had to reconcile ethnic diversity with the story of the First Man 7.
This leads us to question the premises of the poem's division of the world. When we compare and contrast the biblical account of Creation, and its existential unity, with the “Chanson de Roland’s” fractured image of the world, we are faced with a very specific problem.
The problem, in this case, is that the division implied by the poem’s worldview does not conform to traditional Christian cosmogony. The Biblical account of Creation makes no mention of “monster-men” with exaggerated or grotesque figures 8. The hideous creatures presented in the “Chanson de Roland” are absent from the biblical account. The Book of Genesis only presents one story of creation: that of the human race. It is not the case, in the exegetical tradition, that God created man and monsters separately. So where does this division come from?
Unlike the pre-Christian or pagan worlds, the Judeo-Christian tradition needed to explain, and justify, substantive differences as they pertained to the unity of being suggested in the book of Genesis. In fact, the two different accounts of Creation given in the book of Genesis, regardless of their ordering of the different elements of Creation, both agree that human beings nonetheless share a very basic commonality: all of human history, all human beings are descended from the same basic pair. The many are inevitably traced back to the one original coupling.
George Boas, Essays on Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages. Octagon Books Inc., New York, 1966, p. 129.
I am excluding the angelo-genetic episode mentioned in Genesis 6, 1-4, which does mention the appearance on the earth of “monstrous” or giant beings. However these beings, related textually to God’s anger at the prominence of evil on the earth (Gn 6, 5), are not directly related to Creation itself.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.9 And the Lord God formed a man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. … And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. … Therefore shall man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be
As we can see, these differing biblical accounts do converge on a few fundamental points. Firstly, there is a shared belief that the created human element is not sufficient or signified in and of itself, since its meaning comes from the author of Creation, and furthermore (if the account of the Fall as an example of what is to be avoided is to be believed), that this meaning is furthered, broadened, or achieved by continually orienting creation towards the Creator11. That human life should be dedicated to the divinity in such a fashion is indicated by Genesis’s insistence on the need, for those in Eden, to keep God’s law 12. Already, the book of Genesis is suggesting that being, or becoming a proper subject of God, involves recognizing God's sovereignty, his existence as Law and Truth, while remaining faithful to this Truth.
Gn 1, 27-28.
Gn 2, 7; 2, 21-23; 2, 24.
“The story of the creation of human beings in Gen 2 makes quite clear the essential components of human existence. Human beings are created by God, and so from the very beginning they stand in a relationship to their creator. A human being as a complete person is a living being because God has breathed life into him”. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11. A commentary, translated by John, J. Scullion s.j., Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1976, p. 220.
Gn 3, 1.
Recognizing the Truth means recognizing the Truth as essential to oneself: it is one's telos, one's end. Beings are made by God, for God, to live in harmonious union with God. Therefore, blissful existence, as a continued existence in Paradise or Eden, involves possibilizing one's essence by being faithful to this end. Union to God, proper human behavior as willed by God, implies, if we are to believe the “genetic code” offered to us in the biblical narratives, that humans intend their actions and their behaviour to some will that is outside and transcendent to themselves13. In other words, one recognizes the Truth of God's existence as our Creator, and one remains faithful to this Truth by continually being subject to It. The continued mirroring of God in man, that imaging suggested in Genesis, is achieved in man’s faithful service to a God’s will.14 Man is called upon to divest himself of himself, to forego his continued investment in himself, in order to achieve his end: (re)union with God. In this way, Creation is continued inasmuch as man participates in God’s perfecting plan for man. In fact, as the Biblical exegete André LaCocque has argued, when God says that the world he has created is “good”, this statement is not to be understood in esthetic terms, or as simple expression of satisfaction at a job well done. The word utilized to express God’s opinion of His own Creation is Tob. This word denotes God’s satisfaction not of His creation, but of the world’s (and its creatures) ability to satisfy God’s plan for Creation. God’s satisfaction, his deeming Creation as “good” implies His
intention for Man, among other creatures, to participate in God’s will:
This “genetic” or anthropological conception is to be found in the works of Ambrose: “Our soul, therefore, is made to the image of God. In this is man’s entire essence, because without it man is nothing but earth and into earth shall return”. Ambrose, Hexameron, Paradise and Cain and Abel, translated by John J. Savage, Fathers of the Church Inc., New York, 1961, p. 256.