History of the poem

On the 15th of August, 778, in a little Pyrenean Valley, still known in our days by the name of Ronceval, a terrible event took place. Charlemagne, returning from his expedition to Spain, crossed that valley and the Pyrenees, leaving his rear-guard in command of Roland, Prefect of the Marches of Brittany. His main army had passed unmolested; but at the moment when the rear-guard advanced into the defiles of the mountain, thousands of Gascons rushed from their ambush, fell upon the French army and slaughtered the whole guard to the last man. So perished Roland.

Eginhard, the historian of Charlemagne, terminates his narrative with these words: "The House-intendant, (Regiæ mensæ præpositus), Eggihard, Anselm, Count of the Palace, Roland, Prefect of the Marches of Brittany (Hruolandus britannici limitis præfectus), with many more, perished in the fight. It was not possible to take revenge on the spot. The treacherous attempt once perpetrated, the enemy dispersed and left no trace." (Eginhard's Life of Charlemagne, Vol. I., p. 31; edition of the Société de l'histoire de France.)

From the moment of the defeat of Ronceval, legend commenced its labor upon this truly epic event which, in its origin, is absolutely French, but has found its echoes throughout Europe, from Iceland to Eastern regions.

The commentators generally agree in dating the composition of the Poem before the first crusade in the year 1096. The author, it is ascertained, was Norman, the dialect used by him being Norman throughout. Whether this author was really Turoldus, named in the last line of the Poem, is a point which Léon Gautier refuses to affirm. We refer the reader to the very interesting preface of Genin, and to the learned introductions of Léon Gautier, for more complete information.

The word "Aoi," which is placed at the end of every stanza, and found in no other ancient French poems, is interpreted differently by the commentators. M. Francisque Michel assimilated it at first to the termination of an ecclesiastical chant—Preface, xxvii.—and later to the Saxon Abeg, or the English Away, as a sort of refrain which the "jongleur" repeated at the end of the couplets. M. Génin explains it by ad viam, a vei, avoie, away! it is done, let us go on!

M. Gautier, with his skeptical honesty, declares the word unexplained. See Note 9, p. 4, of his seventh edition.

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