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Today, I am glad to welcome Tinney Sue Heath, author of A Thing Done, published recently by Fireship Press. Here, she discusses how Dante interpreted the legend of Roland, more than four centuries after the attack at the Pass of Roncevaux.—Kim

By Tinney Sue Heath

Tinney Sue Heath

Tinney Sue Heath

“Thus for Charlemagne and Roland my attentive gaze followed them both, as one’s eye follows his falcon in its flight.” So Dante in his Divine Comedy describes his vision of the two French heroes in the Heaven of Mars (Paradiso 18.43-45; my translation, all others in this post by Robert Durling).



By this point in the Comedy, Dante has already worked his way downward through the depths of the Inferno, where he sees the soul of Ganelon, the betrayer of Charlemagne and Roland, then up again through the Purgatorio, and having traded his pagan guide Virgil for the heaven-dwelling soul of his beloved Beatrice, is now progressing through the Paradiso itself.

Heroes in Paradise

The king and his knight (Carlo Magno and Orlando, to Dante) are in august company. The soul of Dante’s ancestor, the knight Cacciaguida, has directed Dante’s gaze toward the arms of the Cross, where the poet will gaze on the blessed souls of great heroes.

Two, Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus, are Old Testament figures. The others were defenders of Christendom in their lifetimes and have thus earned their exalted position in Paradise: Charlemagne and Roland share that honor with their contemporaries William, count of Orange and the giant Rainouart (Dante believed the giant was a historical figure and that he was converted to Christianity by William); with Duke Godfrey of Boulogne, leader of the first Crusade; and with Robert Guiscard, the Norman commander who fought against the Muslims to establish the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

A 14th century manuscript depict the "Chanson de Roland."

A 14th century manuscript depicts the Chanson de Roland.

An earlier reference to Roland occurs in the Inferno, when Dante hears “the sound of a horn so loud that it would make any thunder feeble… After the dolorous rout, where Charlemagne lost the holy company, Roland did not sound his horn so terribly.” (Inferno 31.11-13, 16-18.)

Dante and his fellow Italians of the 13th century were very familiar with the characters of La Chanson de Roland. The story in brief, as Dante knew it, was this: Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew and a great paladin, was leading the king’s rear guard when they met with an ambush in the pass of Roncesvalles, due to the perfidy of the treacherous Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather and Charlemagne’s brother-in-law. Roland delayed too long in blowing his ivory horn to alert Charlemagne to what was happening, and the company was slaughtered. When Ganelon’s betrayal came to light, he was punished by being pulled apart by four horses.

The Villain’s Fate

But what of Ganelon, considered (with Judas) the archetypal traitor by Dante and his contemporaries? It will come as no surprise that he is to be found in the frozen lowest part of hell (at the point where it really has frozen over), encased in ice, only a short distance from where Satan is eternally gnawing on the greatest traitors of all: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.

19th century illustration of the Inferno by Gustave Dure

A 19th century illustration of the Inferno by Gustave Dure

It is in Antenora, the second zone of Cocytus (the ninth circle of Hell) that we find the political traitors. Dante, a member of the Guelf faction, has a harsh and violent encounter with one of these, Bocca degli Abati, who in Dante’s eyes was the traitor who cost the Florentine Guelfs the battle of Montaperti and caused the River Arbia to run red with blood. Bocca, of a Ghibelline family, feigned Guelf sympathies and pretended to fight with the Guelfs, but at a decisive moment in the battle, he cut off the hand of the Guelf standard-bearer, plunging the Guelf army into fatal confusion.

It is Bocca who points out Ganelon to Dante. The Florentine and French traitors and other notorious betrayers dwell forever “down there where the sinners keep cool” (Inferno 32.116-117). The Italian, “là dove i peccatori stanno freschi,” as Ronald Martinez points out, includes the expression “star fresco,” which means “to be cool” but also “to be in for it.” It may have been a saying known to Dante, but whether he quoted it or coined it, the phrase is still in use today.

Tinney Sue Heath is the author of A Thing Done, which is about a jester who gets caught up in a prank that leads to a vendetta among the ruling families in Florence. For more about Tinney and her work, visit her website, tinneyheath.com, or her blog, Historical Fiction Research.

Next: Medieval Florence’s claim to Charlemagne’s legend.

Previously: The lasting power of legends related to Roland.

You might also like: What really happened at the Pass of Roncevaux.

Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons. Tinney’s author photo by W. Clinton Hotaling.