Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences


Modern Languages and Literatures

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Elizabeth Emery

Committee Member

Lois Oppenheim

Committee Member

Kathleen Loysen


This work focuses on The Song of Roland, a twelfth-century French poem that recounts the exploits of Charlemagne’s armies during the battle of Roncesvalles in 778. Within the discussion we analyze how, by depicting a precocious national sentiment and forging the tale of a dominant royal power, Roland foretells a movement toward the vernacular historiography of thirteenth-century France.

Influenced by the work of Gabrielle Spiegel on the “social logic of the text” (“History” 85), we propose in this thesis that The Song of Roland is crucial for understanding the great political and social changes that led to the reign of Philip Augustus. Indeed, we believe that the poem mirrors the reality of a society where feudal barons were increasingly challenged by the revival of royal power. Through the tragic fate of its character, Roland, and his metonymic relation to all vassal lords, the author of The Song of Roland thus narrates the transformation of a French aristocracy whose political independence dwindled in the wake of the rising power of a Capetian monarchy demanding unwavering obedience.

In this work, we examine the impact of the socio-political background on the narrative of the Roland. We will see that the poem depicts, through the relationships of the dominant figure of Charlemagne to his barons, the nascent phases of a political struggle that took place in late twelfth-century and early thirteenth-century France between the aristocracy and Philip Augustus, and resulted in the latter’s final triumph at the battle of Bouvines in 1214. The thesis will explore how Roland's author articulates these changes in his verses and what literary devices he employs to express the disturbance rumbling through the ranks of the French nobility.

To answer those questions, our analysis will lead us to examine both the structure and the form of the poem in order to understand how its evolution reflects the reality of a society defined by a nascent nationalism and the centralization of power in the king’s hands. This will bring us to then look more closely at the character of Roland as the literary embodiment of an aristocracy forced to face the transformation of its values and challenged to redefine its role in a new era of supreme monarchial authority. We will then conclude that the death of Roland symbolizes the end of a political era dominated by the codes of conduct and ethical values of powerful vassals.

File Format