We returned to Spain via the much better known and more frequently traveled pass of Roncesvalles. Much of the modern traffic through the pass, much like in the Middle Ages, seemed to be thoroughly centered on the Camino de Santiago, and the place was full of pilgrims. Today, the pilgrimage seems a tad bit different than what I imagine it looked like centuries ago. Most of the travelers seemed much more focused on the journey than on the destination, and much more interested in tourism than spiritual reflection. I don’t mean to sound disapproving; in fact, I hope I get to make a tourism-pilgrimage from France to Santiago sometime soon.
Roncesvalles was, for historical purposes, a very interesting place to visit. This is, of course, the setting for one of the most famous battles of the entire European Middle Ages. In 778 the Frankish king, Charlemagne, led an army through the Pyrenees in an attempt to seize Zaragoza. The Muslim governor of the city, who was in rebellion against the emirate of Cordoba, had indicated to Charles that he would surrender his city to him. When the Franks arrived, the Muslim governor and its garrison apparently thought better of this crummy plan. Charles and the Franks retreated in disappointment.
On their way back north, Charlemagne apparently decided to stop and dismantle the defenses of the city of Pamplona. The town and region had long been in a liminal space between Hispanic and Frankish suzerainty, and the Basques had famously asserted their independence against all would-be conquerors, be they Roman, Gothic, Frankish, or Arab, for centuries. In 778 the town was independent, and the regional politics seemed to be based on alliances between powerful Basque factions and rebellious Muslims looking to escape Cordoba’s control. Who ever was in charge at that moment in the late summer of 778, apparently the Frankish King was not confident about the loyalty or reliability of Pamplona, and decided that he could not leave it fortified. Bad decision, as it turned out.
A few days after razing the city, the Frankish army began its slow ascent up the mountains through Roncesvalles. At some point, as the army stretched thin along the Roman road that traversed the narrow pass, the Basques attacked. Using guerilla tactics, and their superior knowledge of the terrain to attack from above, the angry locals inflicted considerable damage on the Frankish army. Reportedly the rear-guard was annihilated, the baggage plundered, and several important Frankish nobles, including the famous Roland, were slain.
In time, of course, this minor skirmish would become the stuff of legends. The ambush became and epic battle, the Basques guerillas became a massive Muslim army, and the death of the hero, Roland, became epic. The legend is told in the Chason de Roland, the first French vernacular epic, and one of the most important pieces of medieval literature. The Chason is an eleventh or twelfth century version of events, and is interesting principally because it shows just how thoroughly the process of myth making can be. The events of epic bear little resemblance to whatever took place in this mountain pass in the eighth century.
Where exactly the battle took place is another question. The marker for Roland stands at the top of the pass, in an open meadow. The place does not seem ideal for an ambush. On the other hand, as one proceeds north through the pass, the valley narrows into a canyon, and the potential for a devastating attack from above on an army in the valley floor is apparent. This part of the pass, called Valcarlos, seems to be the preferred candidate for the battlefield.