‘Let no bad song be sung of us’
in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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La Chanson de Roland was both a solitary masterpiece and a medieval bestseller: a solitary masterpiece in the sense that the text we today know as the Song of Roland survives in a single manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian MS Digby 23; but a ‘bestseller’ in the sense that the story it tells – of Roland’s death fighting the Saracens in Spain – was well known throughout the Middle Ages, as attested not only in the variant versions collectively known as Roncevaux but in a range of literary allusions, translations, visual representations and even onomastic evidence. No work from the French Middle Ages is better known, nor has been more argued about: it is one of the texts most likely to figure in school curricula and, since the nineteenth century, has been used to exemplify the precociousness of both medieval French literature and of French national identity. This chapter explores some of the discrepancies between the Roland’s political and literary significance in the modern era and the precariousness of its textual tradition. This includes a consideration of its history as a lieu de mémoire – beginning from the text itself, which encodes at least two distinct modalities of memory, both oral and written.

Bestsellers and masterpieces

The changing medieval canon

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