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24.01.01 Irujo, Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees

24.01.01 Irujo, Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees

Rencesvals is the Old French name for the site of the much-commemorated battle that took place in the Pyrenees in 778 as Charlemagne’s army made its way back north from Muslim-held territory in Spain through the mountainous Basque region. The uncharacteristic military reversal involving personal losses for the Frankish king only began to appear in the official sources of the kingdom decades later. Einhard mentions the attack in his biography of the emperor, written sometime between 817 and 829, as does the author of the revised Royal Frankish Annals, produced sometime between 801 and 829. These semi-contemporary sources offer few details; in both cases the event is described as an ambush committed by treacherous local Basques. After the Carolingian era, outside of oral tradition for which we have only meager evidence, there was a long period of silence until a great burst of textual production began in the second half of the twelfth century. The revival of the story of Rencesvals included the frequent reproduction of the still authoritative Carolingian sources but also the elaboration of legendary versions in vernacular verse and prose. The new versions allowed Charlemagne to avenge his defeat and transformed his foes from Basques into wicked non-Christians clearly meant to be Muslims. This story is most famously found in the Oxford version of the Old French Song of Roland, which describes a successful large-scale battle of revenge led by Charlemagne, with God explicitly on the side of the Franks. This body of texts, including retellings of the Song of Roland in multiple languages, and many versions of the fictional, yet influential, Latin Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, has been the subject of no end of scholarly inquiry since the late nineteenth century. The Basque perspective, however, on the battle of Errozabal, as it is known in Basque, has been all but absent from the conversation, a lacuna that Xabier Irujo set out to fill.

In Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees: The Battle of Rencesvals, Irujo returns to the historical battle and to the terrain itself to argue that this was no mere skirmish but rather a real battle won by the Basques in a display of skilled military resistance to the powerful Frankish army under their increasingly powerful king. To make his argument, Irujo used his intimate knowledge of the area to carry out a decade-long geological survey, the first of its kind, which he combined with a survey of the written sources for the battle. While this is a promising and innovative approach, he chose not to avail himself of much of the secondary scholarship on the subject, including the wealth of material produced in the previous decade. There are few titles in the bibliography published after 2008 and none after 2012. Irujo makes a statement in the preface that suggests that his decision not to engage with the secondary literature was deliberate: “the present book is based entirely on original sources, contemporaneous with the events, many of which were published in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica collection and have been translated from Latin, Romance or Basque by the author” (13). In addition to failing to acknowledge recent scholarship, this approach addresses a body of sources deemed both “original” and “contemporaneous” that includes ninth-century annals written in Latin and vernacular sources based on legend from centuries later. The overall approach is therefore insufficiently critical and makes it unlikely that the book will find an audience with medieval scholars.

The book has an introduction and five chapters. The first addresses the precedents of the battle, the second the Frankish campaign of 778, and the third studies the battle itself as revealed in the Frankish sources. The fourth chapter studies the consequences of the battle, and finally, the fifth explores the afterlife of the battle in the medieval tradition. The most exciting and useful parts of this book come in the final section, where Irujo brings his specialized knowledge to bear and addresses the ongoing evolution of the memory of Errozabal in Basque culture. He reminds his readers in the introduction, “the Basques have lived with the legend of Rencesvals for over a millennium” (9). Basque oral tradition persists, as does a written tradition in Basque in works such as the poems of the twentieth-century poet Jean-Marie Diharce, who wrote verses about that day in August 778. There exist neglected narratives, the author explains, that counter the deeply negative portraits of the peoples of Vasconia found in the lore of the pilgrimage routes and preserved in the twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. To this day, the Basque people of the area remember Charlemagne and Roland as bringers of war, he claims, who were unaware of and unconcerned with the Basque way of life. Irujo gives the study a personal feel, speaking, for instance, of how Charlemagne would have begun his retreat near the port of Zize “near my parents’ house” (12) and of a spot where local people believe that Roland slipped on cow dung while preparing to launch a boulder that still stands there today. He also offers evidence of Basque perspectives on the memory of the event, such as that of the seventeenth-century historian Joseph Moret, who in his history of the kingdom of Navarre describes a pit of human remains known as “Charlemagne’s hollow.” He recounts how a priest at Orreaga (the village near the battle site) was fired for selling bones to pilgrims (101). This is the sort of afterlife of the battle that has been largely left out of the discussion of well-trod narratives and contributes to a fuller picture of the legend, but these are examples of the complex workings of cultural memory over time, and do not provide neglected historical evidence for the battle itself.

The epilogue returns to the work of Moret, who in 1665 lamented the lack of study of the event by native authors, noting that the story was written by foreigners with motives for altering it. Irujo then moves to modern examples of the enduring influence of the invader’s perspective, such as the Nazi visit to the monument to Roland and Charlemagne in the Basque village of Orreaga in 1941. This part of the book could have been even more absorbing and productive had the author decided to develop it more fully, but the section lacks basic information and source citation. He writes about Arturo Campión, for instance, whom he describes as a Basque historian, offering no dates (he died in 1937) or discussion of Campión’s prolific career as a writer. In Campión’s story entitled Gartxot, Bard of Itzaltzu, (1917), the main character, Irujo tells us, is a custodian of Basque epic tradition, whose son sang in his native language about the Frankish destruction of Pamplona before the arrival of foreign monks to the local monastery (202). Likewise, in the preface, Irujo writes about local Basque lore surrounding Roland’s death as told by José María Satrústegi, also with no basic information or source citation (Satrústegi was a Basque ethnographer and scholar of Basque language and culture who died in 2003). In my own quest for basic facts about Campión, I learned that the story of Gartxot the medieval minstrel had been adapted into a musical in 1981 and into an animated film in 2011, both in Basque. Modern medieval studies, which includes a vibrant interest in the study of medievalisms such as these modern retellings of the story of Gartxot, would serve as a welcoming host to the kind of work on cultural memory that Irujo ventures into throughout the book but does not actually pursue.

The first four chapters of the book, in which the author seeks to reframe the history of the actual event, reveal a tendency to misunderstand and misuse the sources by taking them out of context or at face value. Ermoldus’s ninth-century panegyric epic poem in honor of Louis the Pious is described as a chronicle. The fifth-century Vegetius functions too uncritically as a source for understanding the Carolingian army, when even historians of the Late Roman army do not treat him as a transparent guide for Late Antiquity. The author also at times tries to deploy as evidence details from works that are firmly in the realm of legend or were written hundreds of years after the fact, although occasionally allowing that he knows they may be unreliable. In one case, he acknowledges that there is no actual data on the Frankish siege of Pamplona that preceded the battle, but then lists various details related to the siege as told in the fictional twelfth-century Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin and in works that it inspired. He then comes full circle to reiterate that the Chronicle is “fantasy” and that all we can really know is that the Franks took the city by force (59). When discussing literary evidence that diverges from the historical narrative (which is most of the time), Irujo speaks in terms of “distortion” on multiple occasions, as if there were a known historical truth that later poets chose to resist: “Like Oliver, many of the main characters, whether historical figures or not, appear distorted” (157). Discrepancies between the Song of Roland and the Frankish sources viewed as distortions cannot offer any new perspective on the historical event, only on the evolution of its memory.

It must be said that Irujo was not well served by Amsterdam University Press. Many of the numerous anachronisms, inconsistencies, and misattributions found throughout the book could and should have been noted during the peer review process, and certainly many of the errors should have been corrected during the copy-editing stage. For a book that appears in their medieval studies series and contains a long catalog of sources including heavy use of the MGH, there should have been an Abbreviations section, or, at a minimum, use of ibid or shortened titles. At one point, the full citation of Friedrich Kurze’s edition of the Royal Frankish Annals appears no less than thirty-two times in the space of four pages. At another point, the Song of Roland is described as “an epic poem of several hundred verses” (152). The poem is closer to 4,000 verses, an error that suggests inattention, one assumes, rather than lack of familiarity with this fundamental work, but is jarring, nonetheless.

A reframing of the memory of the Frankish campaign in the Pyrenees in the eighth century that accounts for the experiences of the Basques was certainly a project worth pursuing and I happen to agree that the literary afterlife of the battle in 778 points to a deeper wound to the Franks than has usually been argued. Yet it remains the case that there is no viable new evidence to bring to bear, only fresh perspectives on how it has been remembered over the centuries. Despite the serious concerns raised in this review, the book points to worthwhile new directions in the study of medieval Vasconia, and it reminds us to consider lost voices as we rethink our most deeply ingrained narratives.