‘The Song of Roland’: Concerning the Vanquishing Moors of Abbysinia (Abisme), Morocco and the Niger

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From ‘The Song of Roland’
(Anonymous Old French epic
middle of the 11th century)


Their martyrdom, his men’s, Marsile has seen,
So he bids sound his horns and his buccines;
Then canters forth with all his great army.
Canters before a Sarrazin, Abisme,
More felon none was in that company;
Cankered with guile and every felony,
He fears not God, the Son of Saint Mary;
Black is that man as molten pitch that seethes;
Better he loves murder and treachery
Than to have all the gold of Galicie;
Never has man beheld him sport for glee;
Yet vassalage he’s shown, and great folly,
So is he dear to th’ felon king Marsile;
Dragon he bears, to which his tribe rally.
That Archbishop could never love him, he;
Seeing him there, to strike he’s very keen,
Within himself he says all quietly:
“This Sarrazin great heretick meseems,
Rather I’ld die, than not slay him clean,
Neer did I love coward nor cowardice.”


But what avail? Though fled be Marsilies,
He’s left behind his uncle, the alcaliph
Who holds Alferne, Kartagene, Garmalie,
And Ethiope, a cursed land indeed;
The blackamoors from there are in his keep,
Broad in the nose they are and flat in the ear,
Fifty thousand and more in company.
These canter forth with arrogance and heat,
Then they cry out the pagans’ rallying-cheer;
And Rollant says: “Martyrdom we’ll receive;
Not long to live, I know it well, have we;
Felon he’s named that sells his body cheap!
Strike on, my lords, with burnished swords and keen;
Contest each inch your life and death between,
That neer by us Douce France in shame be steeped.
When Charles my lord shall come into this field,
Such discipline of Sarrazins he’ll see,
For one of ours he’ll find them dead fifteen;
He will not fail, but bless us all in peace.”


When Rollant sees those misbegotten men,
Who are more black than ink is on the pen
With no part white, only their teeth except,
Then says that count: “I know now very well
That here to die we’re bound, as I can tell.
Strike on, the Franks! For so I recommend.”
Says Oliver: “Who holds back, is condemned!”
Upon those words, the Franks to strike again.

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