The concepts of “love” and “duty” changed in Europe during the medieval era. Literary works such as The Song of Roland and The Romance of Tristan and Iseult reflect that change by revealing to us how ‘Love’ and ‘Betrayal’ fit into society during the times they were written. Roland reflects the importance of loyalty to one’s lord and the sacrifice of self for the good of the Lord and his kingdom. The Romance marks a shift in the priorities of duty, romanticized an individual’s need to fulfill their own desires, and created a circumstance for which betrayal of one’s lord could be justified.
In early and mid medieval Europe, the concept of one’s “country” was still vaguely defined. A vassal was loyal only to their lord, a distinct concept in Roland, where treason was a personal betrayal of one’s lord, a political betrayal of one’s kingdom, and a societal betrayal of a system which had sustained the needs of the upper class for centuries. The Christian characters in Roland are people defined by their vassalage to their lord, King Charles. Their every thought and action is in service to Charles, and indirectly to God.
Close to death, main characters such as Archbishop Turpin profess their sorrow for failing to defend the king’s divine principles and losing their place as his servants: “My own death causes me great pain, for I shall see the mighty emperor no more” (Roland 118). Not once did a lament occur for a child, wife, or parent back home which they would never see again. Charles had intimate relationships with Roland and many of the peers that died at the Battle of Roncesvals, these were people with whom he won wars, survived battles, and celebrated prosperous times.
He must grieve not only for them, but for the memories and experiences which were lost with them. The greatest dishonor to the vassals of Roland was to betray their lord, which the heroes never do. A betrayal comes from Ganelon, who through his jealousy and anger toward Roland commits an act of treason upon King Charles and his kingdom. Ganelon conspires with Marsilla, king of the Muslims to assassinate Roland, quenching Ganelon’s thrist for revenge and Marsilla’s thrist for power.
As a vassal to King Charles, Ganelon has aided his lord’s enemy, and though a most contemptible form of treason, he is still entitled to trial before his peers. Ganelon not only betrayed his lord, but he betrayed the entire Frankish army and the Frankish Empire by causing the deaths of thousands of faithful men. By the time Roland was written, Europe’s society was maintained by the feudal lordship system. Maintaining the obligations made between a lord and his vassal was essential to keeping order in a land of territorial disputes, civil war, and unpredictable outside influence.
The system allowed the people in power to have the resources they needed to stay there, while giving otherwise landless and jobless men a place, a purpose, and protection. For a vassal to betray his lord would be to put his life and position at stake – and in a time where such things were difficult to come by, the idea of upsetting the balance of service was unimaginable. Works such as The Song of Roland reflect the importance of the lord-vassal bond, and Ganelon’s ultimate betrayal – the betrayal of his lord – caused the gory deaths of thousands of good men, and eventually his own nasty demise.
As a story heard far and wide by the vassals of the time, it stressed even more in their minds the importance of their oaths to serve their lords. Literature in the twelfth century began to introduce the concept of romantic love, however the idea of it occurring between a husband and wife was rarely utilized in stories. Marriage and love became separate entities; Marriage was an institution of duty, restriction, and convention. Love, in contradiction to Marriage, is idealized as chivalric, adventurous, and unfortunately for most lovers, very dangerous.
In The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, romantic love occurs not between Iseult and her betrothed husband King Mark, but with his most trusted vassal, Tristan. As in Roland, betrayal in this story is also connected to personal relationships, political bonds, and societal expectations. After Tristan served King Mark for three years, “a mutual love grew up in their hearts”(Roland 10). Their love was of affinity and loyalty, and it evolved and strengthened when they realized they were kin.
The fact that his own nephew was in love with his wife was a personal blow; a misuse of trust that had been built over many years of friendship and service. The marriage between King Mark and Iseult was partly an attempt to reconcile their respective kingdoms of Cornwall and Ireland. Word of the Queen’s affair could have had immense political repercussions; Cornwall would feel insulted by the actions of a sinful and destructive Irish Queen, and Ireland equally insulted if she were to be judged prematurely or punished unfairly.
War could have broken out between the two kingdoms, the townsfolk could have evoked a rebellion in support for the lovers, King MarK may have lost respect from fellow rulers for his failure to keep his wife in line. Society’s perception of marriage was deeply rooted in the practice of forming marriages for political reasons, and also in the Christian faith. Both created a place for a woman as a servant of a man, his family, and his intentions. It was acceptable for the king to have concubines, but the queen was expected to save her sexual desires for her husband only.
A romantic love developed with Tristan where only a dutiful love had existed with the King. In the real world, romantic love was for stories, not real life, and society continued to sequester female sexuality and exhibit nonsensical double standards. Romances like Tristan and Iseult nearly always ended in tragedy. The concept of romantic love was popular in fiction and was idealized as the ultimate satisfaction of the self, but these stories make death the eventual outcome of such love. This tells us that at the time of these stories, duty to your family and lord still took the highest precedence.
Fulfilling your duty as a wife or a vassal would get you a satisfying physical life, you would be taken care of, respected and die honourably. Carrying out individual desires in hopes of emotional fulfillment would bring about misery, shame and unhonourable death. Romance stories gave people a fantasy to live out in their minds, while at the same time giving an explicit warning that such fantasy was never to become reality. Both betrayals in Roland and The Romance had personal, political and societal implications, but the way that characters deal with betrayal are fairly different in each story.
The betrayal of Ganelon is unforgivable by Charles, but the feudal system under which they are both obliged requires Ganelon is tried by a jury of fellow vassals. He is almost acquitted by the jury, and only through a trial by combat is he proved to be unfavored by god, and therefore guilty. Charles was able to withhold his anger and desire for vengeance in order to fulfill his obligation as a lord. Mark was so hurt by Tristan’s actions that he refused a trial and insisted he be executed immediately.
Tristan was lucky enough to get away, and after many attempts by Mark to keep them apart, it seemed Tristan and Iseult had some sort of divine favour. The people of the kingdom and Tristan’s loyal friends adored the couple and believed their union was meant to be. Mark eventually acknowledged the legitimacy of their love and realized after their deaths that he had lost his closest friend and his wife. The two worlds of The Song and Roland and The Romance of Tristan and Iseult parallel the reality of the medieval era.
Both emphasize the system of lordship which had then sustained the hierarchies of society. But even the most powerful lords are not immune to betrayal. The betrayal of Roland exemplifies the political importance of the oaths made between lords and vassals. The betrayal of King Mark illustrates the changing concept of love and a shift of priority to the individual. However, these sorts of betrayal were rare in the real world – the adventure, risk, and danger were more suitable for fictional characters who had nothing real to lose.