Tucked against a front corner of the Quedlinburg Rathaus stands a statue of Roland. The figure is small compared to the massive Roland statue in Bremen. Our tour guide told us that Statues of Roland were the sign of a free market town and a symbol of strength. (She also mentioned that Roland used to stand in the center of the Market Place, but got moved out of the way, apparently it was in danger of being taken out by trucks.) I started to wonder. How many towns have Roland Statues? What do they stand for? And how did the nephew of Charlemagne, who was killed by the Basque in 778 AD, become such an important symbol in Germany? The answer is not so clear.
Who IS Roland?
Let’s start at the almost beginning. (This information may seem “extra”, but it helps explain a bit about WHY Roland was chosen as a symbol)
Charlemagne, or Charles I was the king of the Franks from 748 to 814 AD. The land ruled by the Franks at the time covered Gaul/modern France, but also much of central Europe, so much of modern Germany. Their reach went as far East as Thuringia, where they butted up against the Saxons. (In fact, the Frankish language evolved into Dutch and High German… and probably Platt, not French, as you might expect). Charlemagne in an effort to expand his rule and spread Christianity, kicked off the Saxon Wars (a 33 year war from 772 to 804). His nephew Roland, the military governor of Breton, fought as a Frankish military commander in the wars.
While spreading Christianity into Spain (remember, at the time the Iberian Peninsula was Muslim), Charlemagne’s army crossed the Pyrenees, where they were welcomed in Barcelona, but not so much in the Basque city of Pamplona, so naturally, they destroyed it. On their way back out of Spain, the Basque army retaliated. The rearguard of Charlemagne’s army was caught in an ambush on a narrow mountain trail. Roland and hundreds of others were killed by the Basque army. This could be the end of the story, but an epic poem hit the top of the Medieval charts, spread Roland’s legend across the continent.
The Song of Roland
Beginning in the 11th century Troubadours wrote and performed songs and epic poems based on romanticized heroic deeds. (Think Charlemagne, Tristian, Siegfried, King Arthur). Among these was La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland), an epic poem describing the Battle of Roncevaux Pass on August 15, 778. It is the oldest major work of French Literature and goes on for over 4000 lines describing the battle, and holding up Roland as the perfect example of knighthood and chivalry. (For you D&D players, he was the model for Paladins)
The Song of Roland- public domain
In the poem, Roland and his men stand their ground against the Basque army (referred to as Muslims in the poem). Wielding his mighty sword Durandal, Roland slew thousands! (Originally the sword belonged to Charlemagne, who received it from an Angel, and legend claims that it contains the tooth of St Peter, and is the sharpest sword ever forged!) Despite his military might, Roland and his men were overrun, but he refused to call for help. With his final breath, Roland blew on horn carved from an elephant’s tusk to call back Charlemagne, not for help, but to seek revenge. (He blew so HARD that his temples burst!). Charlemagne arrives at the battlefield to find his army wiped out.
Henry X, Duke of Bavaria had this powerful epic was translated to German by Bavarian Priest Konrad in the 12th century. And here is where we start seeing connections. Not only was Henry the Duke of Bavaria, he was also Henry II, the Duke of Saxony (in fact, he is buried in Quedlinburg). When the poem was translated to German, a few bits were added to emphasize chivalry and imperialism. The Poem appealed to those who supported the Empire, and became rallying cry for the Crusades.
And with that, Roland morphed into a German hero.
Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Statues of Roland
Starting in the mid -1300s, and over a period of 200 years, Statues of Roland were erected in northern Germany, especially in the Mark Brandenburg/Margraviate of Brandenburg (today the area covers the states of Brandenburg and Berlin, part of Saxony, and reaches into Poland). Many Roland statues started out as wooden structures, and were later replaced by stone (Although there are a few wooden Rolands still around). Historians logged 42 Statues in all. Some, like the Bremen Roland, are still standing in their Market square, others like a Berlin Roland, were destroyed (well, THAT Roland got thrown in the Spree by Elector Fredrick II aka Iron Tooth, because he didn’t want Berlin to be a Free City). And several Rolands (or pieces of Roland) have found their way into museums.
Archimatth, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons in Metz
But why build them at all?
It’s clear that Roland was a hero to Germans, but it’s not entirely clear WHY the Roland statues were erected.
The most common and accepted explanation is that Roland Statues were a sign of autonomy or market rights. The citizens of these Free Cities could hold Markets and uphold the laws without interference from above. They answered only to the Emperor… and not a local Prince, and not necessarily to the Church.
But why Roland? The Two-Sword Doctrine goes like this… God left two swords on earth to protect Christianity. They Pope got one to protect the spiritual, and the Emperor Charlemagne was in charge of the secular. Charlemagne passed his sword to Roland, who now holds Durandal (the God Given sword) as a symbol of Imperial law. THIS explains why many Roland statues face the church. A reminder of secular power.
Roland Statue in Riga- dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The strange part, is that there is no written historical explanation for the installation of the Roland Statues. Historians have been searching for the last 150 years for absolute proof of WHY the Statues of Roland were installed. (I‘ve been reading some of their papers, and you can practically feel the frustration oozing out). In a time when EVERYTHING was recorded, it seems odd that something this big doesn’t have some sort of regulation. (Honestly, it’s easier to find a grocery list from 1547 than to figure out how towns were assigned a Roland Statue). Some historians even go so far as calling it a “fad” based on the cult of Charles IV (Lejunne/Stiennon). And a few citations even claim that Roland Statues held the Market signs! (which makes Roland seem like nothing more than one of those corner sign spinners who want you to buy a cell phone or a sandwich).
In the end, perhaps spending time worrying about the details isn’t really important, not everything needs an explanation. (Granted, this is a bit frustrating for people like me who spend a lot of time asking “why”). The representation of Freedom… of Strength… is enough to make Roland a worthy protector of any city.
Roland Statue in Nordhausen
Time for a Roland Road Trip!
Roland Statues Today
Bremen’s Roland statue is the most famous. At 10 meters tall, you really can’t miss it. (Fun Fact! The distance between the two kneecaps on the statue is 55.372 cm, and is an official measurement called the Bremen Ell… which may actually reinforce the theory that Roland Statues relate to being a Free City, because they had their own measurement). Legend says that as long as Roland stands, the city will be Free. In 2004, this protector of Bremen was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Take a close look next time you go, because this statue is covered in symbolism. On his belt buckle is a small figure, there are roses at his waist, and he stands over a dwarf-like figure who peers up from his feet.
And there is a much smaller (and more rudimentary) statue of Roland in Quedlinburg (he’s one of the oldest as well). As much as I loved the story my tour guide shared about him standing in the middle of the market where he was in danger of being struck by farm trucks… it looks like he’s been standing in front of the Rathaus since 1869. Before that he spent 400 years in pieces stored in the Ratskellerhof (maybe that’s where the story of him getting hit by a truck started). Today he is surrounded by a secure fence, overlooking a mosaic of the town seal.
photo by Karen Lodder
Halle’s Roland is the oldest Roland Statue, dating back to the mid 13th century. Originally made from wood, he was recreated in Sandstone (alike in every detail) in the 1700s. This 4 meter tall Roland has been locked away, moved, and restored a few times (more often than any other Roland). Most recently he was saved from WWII bombing by being bunkered behind a concrete slab. What makes this Roland unusual is his outfit… he’s dressed as a pilgrim, complete with alms bag at his waist.
Hallische Roland- Hallenser143, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
But there are MORE!
Including statues in –
Magdeburg (well, the head…)
Potzlow (there is an old wooden one still up)
Prenzlau (just parts, in the local museum)
Stendal (in the museum)
Frond (the BIGGEST Roland)
Dubrovnik (the Southernmost Roland)
Riga (in a museum)
Sadly, the Rolands in Freiberg, Hamburg, Koenigsberg, Magdeburg Schwedt and Ziesar are only left in historical records.
Dubrovnik Roland Statue- Hajotthu, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Learn More about Roland
Read the Song of Roland in Poem form or Prose