Virtue and Vengeance: Ronceval and the 47 Ronin
a display in the MEMS Reading Room, April-May 2004
text and display by Judy Shoaf
 The Akô Incident....
The Ronceval Incident....

In the year 778, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), beginning to renew the idea of a Roman Empire which would be Germanic and Christian, passed north through Ronceval (Rencesvals, Roncevaux, Roncesvalles), in the Pyrenees Basque country, after taking part in a war between some of its Moslem rulers, in the course of which he seized the city of Saragossa. As his army returned through the pass, they were attacked, most likely by the Basques or an alliance of Basques and Arabs. Not until 795 did Charlemagne securely incorporate part of Spain in his Empire. In the year 800 he was formally crowned by Pope Leo III.

In 842,Charlemagne's grandsons spoke the first recorded words in a Romance language, the Oaths of Strassbourg. Though Latin was still the language of record, Louis and Charles swore the oaths in the common languages of the time so that their men could stand witness.

Pro deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro commun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvaraeio cist meon fradre Karlo et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradre salvar dist, in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid numquam prindrai, qui meon vol cist meon fradre Karle in damno sit.

Si Lodhuuigs sagrament, que son fradre Karlo iurat, conservat, et Karlus meos sendra de suo part non los tanit, si io returnar non l'int pois: no io no neuls, cui co returnar int pois, in nulla aiudha contra Lodhuuuig nun li iv er.

By this time, the names of Roland (Hruotlandus) and his friend Olivier were probably already known, though we do not in fact know whether these were historical persons. However, the earliest surviving version of the story of Roland at Ronceval-the earliest great French literary work-probably dates from a little before 1100. This poem is recorded in the Digby Manuscript and is known as the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland).

The story of Ronceval is this: Charlemagne has a favorite nephew, Roland, who is one of his Twelve Peers or Paladins; another is Roland's best friend, Olivier, to whose sister Roland is betrothed. Among his important possessions, Roland owns a great horn, an Olifant, and a mighty sword, Durendal. After capturing Saragossa, Charlemagne makes a treaty in which the Spanish Moslem lord promises to be baptized; Charles plans to leave Spain to return to his capital, Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen). However, Roland's stepfather Ganelon, jealous of the younger man, plots with the Moslem lord to ambush Charlemagne's men as they pass through the Pyrenees. The plan is to let the main body of the army pass through into France, and to attack only the rearguard, where Roland and the other Peers will be. This plan succeeds, at least in part. Roland refuses to blow the Olifant to summon Charles until he himself has been mortally wounded, but at that point he does sound it, so loudly that it cracks. Famously, he attempts to break his sword so that the enemy cannot use it; he dies in the presence of three angels, acknowledging God as his ultimate sovereign. Nearly half the poem remains, though! Charles returns to find Roland and the other peers dead or wounded. The heathen enemy (the author does not seem to be aware of the Basques) are of course pursued and attacked; Roland is avenged; finally, after a complex trial, Ganelon is executed for his treachery.

The story was widely known and continued to be told and retold in new French works in different styles, and also in German, Italian, and Old Norse. Other stories about Roland and Charlemagne's other great champions became the subjects of the genre of the chansons de geste ("Songs about deeds"). These were highly fictionalized and entertaining, often addressing anxieties or hopes of the period (in particular, anxieties about relations with the Moslem world). By the mid-twelfth century here was a competitive genre, the chivalric romance, set in the court of King Arthur instead of Charlemagne, and-ironically, since Arthur is supposed to have lived ca. 500-featuring a company of knights under a king, far more contemporary than the Emperor and his Peers. But the two styles continued to feed off each other, so that Roland became more like a medieval knight while the values of the chanson de geste-empire, loyalty, courage, and wisdom-influenced the Arthurian story too.

After the invention of printing, Roland's adventures got even wilder, and went into the realm of fantasy adventures with Matteo Maria Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato (Roland in Love) and especially Ludovico Ariosto's poem Orlando Furioso (When Roland Went Crazy), an international best-seller, so to speak, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Roland now associated with beautiful seductive women, wizards, giants, monsters, and dragons; a trip to the moon was not out of the question.

Song of Roland (Moncrieff translation)

Song of Roland (John O'Hagan translation)

Chanson de Roland (French text online at Biblioteca Augustana)

Rolandslied, a German version of the story, online at Biblioteca Augustana

The Sicilian Puppet Theater: Opera dei Pupi

In the 19th century, a puppet theater in Sicily developed, and gradually found its material in the Italian Roland traditions. Brightly armored Christian knights of old battled even more brightly dressed Saracen villains, re-enacting the story of Ronceval, the friendship of Roland and Olivier, the triumphs of Charlemagne, and love stories involving Saracen maidens or women in armor. To these were added the Italian literary stories about Rinaldo, Angelica, Astolfo, and Ruggiero. UNESCO declared the "Pupi Siciliani" or Sicilian puppet theater a "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."

The puppet tradition is continued by the Fratelli Pasqualino, but with a modern twist in which the stories of triumph in war become satires or elegies condemning war: Pinocchio at the Court of Charlemagne, The Paladin of Assisi (St. Francis, of course), The Sword of Roland, Angelica among the Paladins, and the Triumph, Passion and Death of the Knight of La Mancha.

Fratelli Pasqualini website with pictures and history of Sicilian puppets

An Italian website about the Pupi Siciliani

Another website in Italian, with some great behind-the-scenes images

The Fratelli Napoli company page--more great images.

The Akô Incident....

The most obvious comparison between Japanese heroes and the French Roland would be Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a historical general of the 13th century who was the most romantic figure in the terrible wars which ended the peaceful "classical" period of imperial rule from the city of Heian. He was young and, like Roland, eventually betrayed by a relative (his brother, who, seeing him as a threat, made him an outlaw). Also, like Roland, he became the focus of many legends and literary works through the centuries. Yoshitsune's education among the Tengu (bird-spirits), his meeting with and friendship with the gigantic warrior monk Benkei, his romances with lovely women who mourned his loss, his daring escapes from natural and human disaster, are not much like the chansons de geste but they do resemble the later Italian fantasies about Orlando and Charlemagne's other Paladins.

Instead, however, I have selected a much later story, the story of the 47 Ronin, which does not have a single central hero. Nor does it, like the story of Ronceval, involve the forging of nations and the exercise of political power through armies. On the other hand, like Roland's story, it involves loyalty to one's lord, a brotherhood of heroes bound by that loyalty, suicidal courage, and the duty of vengeance. Also like Roland's story, it became a puppet play.

The historical event began in 1701, with an impulsive action protecting personal honor. The young lord of Akô, Asano Naganori, was so deeply insulted by a more experienced Edo (Tokyo) courtier that he drew a sword in the Shogun's palace and struck at him. The punishment for so drawing a sword was death, and Lord Asano committed judicial suicide (seppuku). Lord Kira, who had provoked him, was only slightly wounded. Because of their legal situation, the family at Akô and Asano's 300 samurai could not attempt vengeance; instead, the samurai left the family service and became ronin ("masterless men"), whose actions would not be the family's responsibility. For about 18 months they lived varied lives, then 47 of them joined in a group for an attack on Kira's house. Their leader was Oishi Kuranosuke, whose son Chikara was now, at 16, old enough to join the group. They slew Kira and placed his head on Lord Asano's grave. Eventually they were condemned for this crime and performed seppuku as a group.

The story impressed the people of Edo, and Japan in general, with its vivid display of personal honor and loyalty in conflict with the institutional rules and values which protected the Shogun's power. Soon a novel appeared in which the story was disguised with some changes of name and place, and new characters-love interests for the young men, helpers and subsidiary villains, and so on. In 1748 the joruri (puppet or Bunraku) play Kanadehon Chûshingura ("Treasury of Loyal Retainers"), in 11 acts, was written, again disguising the story under fictional names. The "live action" kabuki theater also began performing the play, and the story and its characters were known both under their historical names and under those they have in Chushingura. Through the rapid modernization of Japan in the later 19th century, the rise of the Japanese empire, war, and peace the story has continued to be popular, with for example many film and TV versions.

Some good websites on Chushingura:

Introduction to Kanadehon Chûshingura, by Paul Kennelly, from University of Virginia e-texts

Prof. Henry Smith's  East Asian V3925 students' site on Chushingura and the Samurai Tradition at Columbia University

Nancy Leek's website on Chushingura, with especially nice character portaits

University of Kansas website with summaries of the play and prints, including a Hiroshige print similar to the doll

Abstracts of a Session on the Akô Incident at the 1997 meeting of the Association for Asian Studies:

Daily Yomiuri Onlin

And a site with a picture of the play as performed by joruri, or Bunraku puppets:

A picture and more information about the Chushingura doll on display.