September 06, 2021

Article at DoubleViking

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The Paladins of Charlemagne

If you like King Arthur's knights, you should check out Charlemagne's paladins.

One advantage the Frankish king has over the British one is that he indisputably existed. He was crowned King of the Franks in 768 and became the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne's territory included all of France, a bit of Spain, the northern half of Italy, and most of Germany.

He really had paladins, too. Also called the Twelve Peers, these were knights personally assigned to Charlemagne, rather than being titled lords. Thus, Charlemagne could pick the best of the best, rather than favoring the families of nobles. They advised the king and fought in real, historical battles.

Unfortunately, that's where the reality ends. Their exploits were almost certainly fictional, embellished by bards and poets, most famously in The Song of Roland. Even their names aren't agreed upon, and different chroniclers mix and match the paladins to suit their story. Some versions say that paladin Roland was Charlemagne's nephew, a pretty important lineage, but the historical record isn't clear.

The Romantic and Victorian artists and writers fell in love with the Arthurian legends, leaving the paladins mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world. Here are some of their fun "facts" and adventures.

A few adventures of the paladins

Roland, the most famous paladin (see below), fought Ferragut, a Saracen giant—his fingers were the length of three hands—who was holding a Spanish city hostage. After Ferragut easily fended off and imprisoned 20 of Charlemagne's soldiers, Roland fought the giant for days. Eventually, he learned that Ferragut's only vulnerable spot was his navel. Roland thrust a spear into that spot, killed the giant, freed the defeated knights, and saved the city.

Ogier the Dane was originally a hostage of Charlemagne, but grew to love his king—until his son was killed by Charlemagne's son. The two men warred for seven years, finally making peace in time to fight the Saracens. Ogier also battled a giant, Brehus, killing him with his sword, Cortana. Legends say he still sleeps in Kronborg in Denmark, and will awaken when his country most needs him.

One of the warriors in the stories is a woman. Bradamante was the paladin Reinhold's sister. She had a magical lance that unseated anyone it touched. She fell in love with Ruggerio, a Saracen, but refused to marry him unless he converted to Christianity (you can tell the Crusades were brewing in the background of these tales). When Ruggerio was kidnapped by a sorceress named Alcina, Bradamante came to his rescue. In return, Ruggerio defeated a rival suitor, converted, and finally married his love.

Astolpho was an English knight in Charlemagne's court. He had all kinds of magical adventures, from being imprisoned in a tree by Alcina, to riding a flying horse named Rabicano, and blowing a magic horn that caused enemies to flee in terror. When Roland became distraught over the death of his lover and literally "lost his wits," Astolpho traveled to the moon(!) to retrieve them.

The Song of Roland

After laying siege to the Basques in Pamplona, Charlemagne's forces were returning to France through the Pyrenee Mountains. His paladin Roland was leading the rearguard, which included the army's baggage train. In the narrow, forested Roncevaux Pass, the Basques ambushed the rearguard and killed the entire unit. That's history.

The Song ventures into fiction by making Roland's stepfather Ganelon a traitor, who betrayed his family and his king to the Muslim Basques—though they were probably Christian. Ganelon is accused of treason but gets a trial by combat (yes, Game of Thrones didn't make that practice up). His friend Pinabel is killed by Roland's friend Thierry, sealing Ganelon's fate. He is drawn and quartered. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was Charlemagne's only defeat, and he wasn't even there.

Roland's last stand against an overwhelming foe became legend, similar to the Alamo or Pearl Harbor today. Roland became a model of chivalry (good), and the story became an example of Islamic treachery (bad). Roland's sword, Durendal, rivaled Excalibur, and it had Christian relics in its golden hilt: hair from St. Denis, a tooth from St. Peter, and the blood of St. Basil.

Want to read more about Charlemagne's paladins? The Penguin edition of Song of Roland is a great start. There's also an illustrated primer of all the adventures from Osprey.

Jason Ginsburg writes about history, mythology, and science fiction. He is the senior digital producer at Discovery Channel.