The Song of Roland and Ywain:
A Changing Society as Viewed Through Its Literature
When comparing the epic poem of The Song of Roland to the romantic literature of Ywain, the differences between the early medieval period and the high medieval period become evident. Both The Song of Roland and Ywain depicts the societies from which each story derives its fundamental characteristics. Through close observation, one is able to see the shifts in customs and mentality that make the move from the epic to the romance possible. In his chapter 'From Epic to Romance', R.W. Southern shows how this transformation manifests itself through changing ecclesiastical and secular thoughts and feelings.
The Song of Roland is typical of the epic poems coming out of the early middle ages. Roland shows very clearly the warrior-based society of the period. It is through, not only the battle scenes that are quite vivid, but also the way the accouterments of battle receive high mention within the poem that this is accomplished. At the start of a battle the author gives the number of forces on each side, while during the individual fights amongst the peers, he gives detailed blow-for-blow descriptions of what occurred. Also, throughout the body of the work the warriors, no matter which side they are on, have significant names for their weapons and war-horses. This holds to the ancient custom that honored weapons with special names as having magical powers that could help its bearer. The battles and heroism of the main characters, as well as the names and details given about their war-horses and weapons, were important to a society that was constantly in a state-of-battle readiness, such as Roland's was.
Beyond the battle scenes, Roland is true to the era in its portrayal of vassalage between a lord and his liegeman. In her introduction, Dorothy L. Sayers defines vassalage as "a personal bond of mutual service and protection between a lord (seigneur) and his dependant, and was affirmed by an oath and the rite of "homage"." The Song of Roland undeniably represents the bond between lord and vassal. For instance, when Roland agrees to lead the rearguard, although his place is usually with the vanguard, he does because of his bond of fealty to his Uncle Charlemagne. When Charlemagne offers him half the army, Roland refuses because it is more appropriate, for the greater good of the community, that the army guards the emperor. Likewise, at the death of his nephew, Charlemagne is bound to avenge Roland's death. It is the responsibility of both the vassal and the lord to provide, among other things, this defense and revenge for one another.
Loyalty and love play a definitive role in this early medieval period. It is important to give these to one's friends, lord, and community. However, the love of a woman is not significant here. The romantic love between man and woman is not a trait of the early medieval society; that is to come later. Roland...