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Roland (Italian: Orlando or Rolando, Frankish: Hruodland, Dutch: Roeland, Spanish: Roldán or Rolando, Basque: Errolan, Portuguese: Roldão or Rolando, Occitan: Rotland, Catalan: Rotllant or Rotllà) is a character in medieval and Renaissance literature, the chief paladin of Charlemagne and a central figure in the Matter of France. It is thought that the title character of the early 12th-century Song of Roland, which recounts his final stand against the Vascones during the Battle of Roncevaux Passmarker, is based on a real person who died in that battle, but the authors of most later chansons de geste and the Renaissance epics Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso made little attempt to establish historical accuracy. Roland is traditionally associated with his sword Durendal and his horse Veillantif.


There exists only one historical mention of a French Roland, found in the section of Vita Karoli Magni on Roncevaux Pass, written by Charlemagne's courtier and biographer Einhard. Here is the relevant passage, in the 9th of 33 chapters (plus a lengthy postscript):

:Dutton, Paul Edward, ed. and trans. Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard, pp. 21-22. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1998.

The original Latin text refers to "Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus". The battle took place on 15 August, AD 778.

Roland was the first official appointed to direct Frankish policy in Breton affairs, as local Franks under the Merovingian dynasty had not previously pursued any specific relationship with the Bretons. Their frontier castle districts such as Vitré, Ille-et-Vilaine) south of Mont Saint-Michelmarker are now divided between Normandy and Brittany. The distinctive culture of this region preserves the present-day Gallo language and legends of local heroes such as Roland. Roland's successor in Brittania Nova was Guy of the Breton March, who like Roland, was unable to exert French expansion over Brittany and merely sustained a Breton presence in the Carolingian Empire.

According to legend, Roland was laid to rest in Blayemarker, near Bordeauxmarker. However, this grave was destroyed during the French Revolution in the late 1700s.


Roland was a popular legendary figure in medieval Europe. Over the next several centuries, Roland became a "pop icon" in medieval minstrel culture. According to many legends, he was a nephew of Charlemagne (whether or not this was true we do not know), turned his life into an epic tale of the noble Christian killed by Islamic forces, which forms part of the medieval Matter of France.

The tale of Roland's death is retold in the eleventh century poem The Song of Roland, where he is equipped with the Olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword, enchanted by various Christian relics, named Durendal. The Song of Roland was adapted and modified throughout the Middle Ages, including an influential latin prose version Historia Caroli Magni (sometimes known as the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle), which also includes Roland's battle with a Saracen giant named Ferracutus who is only vulnerable at his navel (the story was later adapted in the anonymous Franco-Venetian epic L'Entrée d'Espagne (c.1320) and in the 14th century Italian epic La Spagna (attributed to the Florentine Sostegno di Zanobi and likely composed between 1350-1360).

Roland's friendship with Olivier and his engagement with Olivier's sister Aude are told in Girart de Vienne by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube. Roland's youth and the acquisition of his horse Veillantif and sword are described in Aspremont. Roland also appears in Quatre Fils Aymon where he is contrasted with Renaud de Montauban against whom he occasionally fights.

In Norwaymarker, the tales of Roland are part of the 13th century Karlamagnús saga.

In Italymarker, Roland, as Orlando, is the hero of Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo. After Boiardo's death, the epic was continued as Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (See below for his later history in Italian verse). In the Divine Comedy Dante sees Roland's spirit in the Heaven of Mars together with others who fought for the faith.

In Germanymarker, Roland gradually became a symbol of the independence of the growing cities from the local nobility. In the late Middle Ages many cities sported the display of a defiant Roland statue on their marketplace. The Roland in Wedelmarker was erected in 1450 as symbol of market justice, and the Roland statuemarker in front of the town hall of Bremenmarker (1404) is listed together with the town hallmarker on the List of World Heritage Site from the UNESCOmarker since 2004.

In Cataloniamarker Roland (or Rotllà, as it is rendered in Catalan) became a legendary giant. Numerous places in Catalonia (both North and South) have a name related to Rotllà. In step with the trace left by the character in the whole Pyrenean area, Basque Errolan turns up in numerous legends and place-names associated with a mighty giant, usually a heathen, capable of launching huge stones. Interestingly, Basque word erraldoi ("giant") stems from Errolan.

More recently Roland's tale has been exploited by historians exploring the development of the early-modern Christian understanding of Islamic culture. In 1972 P. M. Holt used Roland's words to begin an essay about Henry Stubbe: "Paien ont tort e crestiien ont dreit" — "Pagans are wrong and Christians are right."


Illustration to Orlando Furioso: Orlando saving Olimpia
Orlando is the Italian equivalent of the French Roland (but also the variation Rolando does exist). The name Orlando/Roland goes back to a Germanic origin, and is said to mean "One who is famous throughout the land". It is also said to be derived from hroth, meaning "glory" and nantha, meaning "audacity".

Italian Renaissance romances

He appeared as a central character in a sequence of verse romances from the fifteenth century onwards, including Morgante by Luigi Pulci, Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo, and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. The Orlandino of Pietro Aretino then waxed satirical about the "cult of personality" of Orlando the hero.

The Orlando narrative inspired several composers, amongst whom were Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel, who composed an Italian-language opera with Orlando.


Adriana Kremenjas-Danicic (Ed.): Roland's European Paths. Europski dom Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik 2006 (ISBN 953-95338-0-5).

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