Like every good French student, I dragged my way through the verses of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), trying to keep track of all the chivalrous knights that battle from one end of the epic poem to the other. As the earliest surviving “chanson de geste,” it is basically a celebration of the heroic Roland of Blaye, nephew of Charlemagne. There is much dramatization of the sinister Saracens of Spain and much uncontrolled weeping over each fallen friend in the war against them, especially when Roland sounds the olifant horn with enough violence to rupture his temples.
While I was living in France, I visited a friend in Bordeaux and we took the bus to Blaye to see the citadel. After walking around its walls overlooking the Gironde, we were wandering back into town when we saw a sign in a parking lot that said “Saint Roman’s Basilica: Site of the Tombs of Roland, the Merovingian Kings, and Saint Roman,” with an arrow pointing back to the citadel. I knew that Roland was based on a real person, but was still surprised to see an unambiguous sign for an 8th century grave of a mostly mythical character. Since my friend and I had taken the same pre-1800s French literature class, we had to try to find it. So we walked to the citadel again, only to find nothing except grass and ruins. No more signs for graves or basilicas. We went back into town, going into a Saint-Romain church that seemed to have nothing to do with the basilica, and asking many locals who had no idea what we were talking about. We went back to the sign, followed its arrow again into the green grass, and decided that some unmarked ruins outside the citadel must be the basilica. But there were no tombs that we could see, even with some unauthorized exploring.
I did some research after our trip, and found that the details on Roland’s tomb are fuzzy. There was an Église Saint-Romain that had a group of nameless early Christian tombs, one of which was popularly attributed to Roland, although the church never confirmed it. It was a part of an early pilgrim trail, which passed by tombs and questionable relics conveniently spaced through France like modern day rest stops. However, Blaye and the tombs were on pilgrimages before La Chanson de Roland was even written. Many clues indicate that the ruins we saw outside the citadel were the church, although apparently the Église Saint-Romain was built on top of the remains of the Basilique Saint-Romain, which just makes things even more confusing. Even worse, I keep finding those ruins attributed to the Château des Rudel. In any case, why would such a significant place be unmarked, and barely protected from curious travelers like us?
While this research made my brain feel like it was going to explode like Roland’s, I did find out that there are some real Rolands standing around Europe. His legend made him a popular symbol of freedom in the Middle Ages, and statues of the knight with sword were erected in many town plazas. There is even one already here on Atlas Obsura: Orlando’s Column in Dubrovnik, Croatia. However, I’m still left wondering about that tomb, and hope that the Blaye citadel’s 2008 listing as an UNESCO World Heritage Site will bring some more research to the site’s literary history.