Pine trees and DEATH

Strand of Scots Pine

Strand of Scots Pine photographed by Gwen and James Anderson and licensed under CC-AT-SA. This photo is missing DEATH.

Species: ‘pin’, usually thought to be (Pinus sylvestris) but could be yew (Taxus Baccata) or generic term for conifers.

Source: The ‘Song of Roland’, a piece of Crusades propaganda.

Date: Most probably c.1098-1100 A.D.

Highlights: If you believe the ‘Song of Roland’, every soldier rushes to the nearest pine tree whenever they are either (i) meeting a rich person or (ii) about to die. Pretty cool, eh?

The only trouble is, pine trees are supposed to have been extinct in England and northern France when the text was written…

THE SONG OF ROLAND

The ‘Song of Roland’ is an Anglo-Norman (English dialect of French) poem, which was written around the time of the Norman Conquest of England (1066). The text functioned as a strong piece of pro-Crusades propaganda (Burgess, 1990, 8-9).

It is written in the form of an epic poem following Roland, a general in the army of Emperor Charlemagne of France. The poem starts with Roland’s army murdering its way across most of Muslim Spain except for a single region.

I use the term ‘murdering’ advisedly. In the poem, the French campaign was a brutal religious genocide. All of Spain was forced under pain of death to convert from Islam to Christianity (see e.g. verse 8). But in the text, this was seen as a glorious victory. The narrator portrayed the war as the Christian deity’s own work: Whilst the Muslims worship Apollo, Termagant along with Mohammed (#195), Roland is actually given his sword by a Christian archangel (#172).

Presumably the author considered marketing the ‘Song of Roland’ honestly as a bloodthirsty vendetta against a fellow Religion of the Book. Sadly for us, they decided against this. The ‘Song of Roland’ later helped inspire the Crusades and the general attitude of religious bigotry which prevailed throughout the rest of the medieval period. It makes very uncomfortable teaching for medieval literature tutors, but can at least be taken as a warning that Europe is not immune to violent religious extremism (Sinnreich-Levi, 2006, 193).

The main part of the story describes how the last king of Spain, Marsilla, makes a truce with Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne then withdraws to France, leaving behind Roland &co as a rear guard. At this point, Marsilla reneges on the treaty, probably because Muslims are shifty and untrustworthy (totes subtle medieval bigotry there). Roland is then killed with his entire rear-guard. At the end he finally decides to ask for some help and the emperor comes back. The Christian deity stops time so that Charlemagne’s troops can commit atrocities in revenge (inspiration: Joshua 10). They kill everyone except King Marsilla’s daughter. She is a beautiful, rich and completely innocent sexual object so can’t possibly be responsible for the sins of her family and friends and subjects.

What could this propaganda possibly have to interest us?

PINE TREES

Strangely the answer is in its description of pine trees.

There are actually nine references to pine trees in the poem; one every 32 verses. That’s not enough to draw much attention from previous scholars, but it is enough to make the pine trees a reoccurring motif of the poem.

So what? Today, we have hundreds of types of conifer (fir trees) all around us. There are so many varieties that the best-selling guidebook on the subject (Hessayon, 1983) actually divides into three sections: shrubs, trees and conifer trees. But only two conifer species could be found in medieval Britain. There is the yew (Taxus baccata), which you often find in churchyards, and the juniper (Junnipera communis) which had medicinally and gastronomically significant berries (later used to make gin) (see: Milner, 2011: 98,120,164). The Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is usually considered to be confined to have been confined to the Scottish Highlands throughout the medieval period (Bennett, 1984). Black pine (Pinus nigra), stone pine (Pinus pinea) and Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) are all found in Spain, but no pine species was found in Normandy or southern Britain in the medieval period.

So what are pine trees doing in this text?

Medieval painting shows Roland dying surrounded by pine trees

Morte de Roland by Jean Fouquet, c.1455-60.

PINE TREES FOR THE DYING

Within the text, the trees actually have two strange functions. The most important pine tree in the text is the one which Roland dies underneath:

Roland feels that death holds him fast, for it has travelled down from his head to his heart. He has hastened to get beneath a pine-tree; there on the green grass he lays himself down on his face…(Crosland, 1999, #174)

In his dying moments, Roland hurried over to a ‘pin’ tree to die there. This extract makes it seem like being under a pine tree when he dies is important to Roland somehow. He is not the only one.

At these words the twelve peers gather together and they will take with them a hundred thousand Saracens such as will rush forward in their zeal for battle. They go to arm themselves beneath a pine grove. (Crosland, 1999, #78)

This extract comes after most of Roland’s army has been defeated. Only his captains survive, because rich people are better than poor people (medieval classism). They are being attacked on all sides and are doomed to die. Knowing this, the twelve peers decide to take 100,000 enemy soldiers with them. They gather together and… go into a grove of pine trees.

So pine trees seem to be popular trees to be underneath before you die. I can think of two possible reasons for this: they could be popular places to die, or they could be sacred places where (further) violence is forbidden to both religions.

Once we understand this association though, certain other parts of the text start to make sense. A major plot point in the ‘Song of Roland’ is when a character called Ganelon betrays Charlemagne to the Spanish king. This must have provoked outrage in medieval audiences. Honestly, it’s like the man has some kind of conscientious objection to racially-motivated genocide or something.

Sadly for Ganelon, after he has decided to betray Charlemagne, his new friends decide to betray him instead (shifty and untrustworthy remember). Ganelon’s reaction is immediate

When Ganelon heard this he brandished his sword and he went and leaned against the stem of the pine tree. (Crosland, 1999, #37)

This is ludicrous if we don’t understand the importance of pine trees. Ganelon is in the middle of taking council when he is threatened and therefore walks away and finds a pine tree to stand under. It makes much more sense if pine trees have some importance in the landscape. If pine trees are sacred, he could be fleeing to take sanctuary. Alternatively, if going under a pine tree means getting ready to die, perhaps this just shows he is ready to fight to the death. If the audience of the text understood the significance of pine trees, the line signals a dramatic moment in the text. If the situation is not resolved, Ganelon is ready to kill or die.

Including these ones, five of the nine (56%) references to pine trees in the ‘Song of Roland’ describe people moving underneath them before they expect to die.

PINE TREES FOR ROYAL COURTS

But there is yet another, separate function of pine trees. When it is necessary for the Emperor Charlemagne to stop the murder train for a night and hold a council, he tends to do this under a pine tree:

The emperor arose early and listened to both mass and matins. Then he betook himself beneath a pine tree and summoned his barons to take counsel, for he wishes to act in everything according to their will.(Crosland, 1999, #11)

In this scene the location under the pine tree must be important because it is repeated at the beginning of the very next verse.

At another point, Charlemagne even manages to find a pine tree when he is in an urban area. When he conquers the city of Cordova his first priority is to dispense with his most important duties (‘not a heathen has remained within the city unless he be dead or become a Christian’, (Crosland, 1999, #8)). His second duty is to encamp his army in an orchard and set up his throne under a pine tree:

Beneath a pine tree, beside a bush of eglantine [roses], they have placed a throne made all of pure gold and thereon is seated the king who holds sweet France. (Crosland, 1999, #8)

Gold, check. Roses, check. Pine tree, check. Charlemagne is seated in absolute glory. This isn’t just a Christian thing either. Even heathen Muslims follow the pine tree rule in the ‘Song of Roland’.

They rode along the main roads and the by-paths until they dismounted beneath a yew tree in Saragossa. There was a throne placed there beneath the shadow of a pine: it was enveloped in silken cloth of Alexandria, and upon it was seated the king who held all of Spain. (Crosland, 1999, #31)

In all, four of the nine (44%) references to pine trees in the ‘Song of Roland’ refer to them as places where royal courts stop to take council. Why the trees should have this significance is difficult to speculate. Coniferous trees are colourful all year around and are taller than average trees (Scots pine trees grow to a maximum height of 36m) but other common trees like beech and oak (42m) are taller (Milner, 2012, 204-5). In the eighteenth century pine trees were planted at prominent points along drove-roads, perhaps as route or waystation markers (ibid, 123), so perhaps they had the same significance in the world of the ‘Song of Roland’.

SO WHAT?

In the ‘Song of Roland’ pine trees are a reoccurring motif. They serve two main functions. They serve as places where people go before they die, but also places where courts meet to take council.

The easiest way to reconcile these two functions is (i) to view the area under a pine tree as a kind of sanctified sacred ground. In this space, important gatherings like counsels and parleys can take place in safety, and people can die in a holy place.

This scenario unfortunately remains speculative and vague. Other possible scenarios are:

(ii) The space under a pine tree was an inviolate sanctuary against violent, meaning dying people fled to pine trees to die in peace.

Or, (iii) the space under a pine tree was purely associated with death, and the constant meeting of courts under these trees in the ‘Song of Roland’ was supposed to either reflect the morbid tendencies of the ruling class, or to be an ill omen to build up dramatic tension. The evidence could support any of these readings.

But why are pine trees being mentioned at all if they were extinct in medieval Britain? There are two possible explanations:

  1. The last reference we looked at (#31) seems to confuse a pine tree (=’pin’) with a yew tree (=’if’) (see Anglo Norman original in Burgess, 1990). As we saw earlier, unlike pine trees, yew trees have always been common in Britain and Normandy. Yew trees are also especially associated with graveyards in Britain. Yew trees were often planted in graveyards, but in some cases yew trees growing in churchyards are older than the churches themselves (Milner, 2011, 164). Could the Norman French term ‘pin’ (pine) actually refer generically to all conifers? If so, perhaps we have been talking about yew trees this whole time.
  2. There are some historical and archaeological suggestions that Scots pine trees may not have been completely extinct in southern Britain in the historical period, and the biological evidence suggests a survival is feasible (Manning et al., 2010). We have previously seen evidence of the importance of pine trees in Welsh texts. If the trees were still found, and just rare in medieval Britain, perhaps this would help explain their sacred connotations.
Ashbrittle yew

The 3000 year old yew tree in Ashbrittle churchyard, Somerset, actually pre-dates Christianity. Picture © Martin Allen, 2012.

REFERENCES

Bennett K (1984) The Post-Glacial History of Pinus Sylvestris in the British Isles, Quaternary Science Reviews 3:133-55.

Burgess G 1990 The Song of Roland. Penguin Books, London.

Crosland J (1999) The Song of Roland. In Parenthesis, Cambridge.

Hessayon DG (1983) The Tree and Shrub Expert. 2002 ed. Expert Books.

Manning A; Kesteven J; Stein J; Lunn A; Xu T; & Rayner B (2010) Could native Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) still persist in northern England and southern Scotland? Plant Ecology & Diversity, 3:187-201.

Milner (2011) Trees of Britain and Ireland. Natural History Museum, London.

Sinnreich-Levi DM (2006) French Medieval Literature in Modern English Translation. Kibler WW & Morgan LZ Approaches to Teaching the Song of Roland. MLA, New York: 188–93

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