Who was Roland? And why are there so many statues of him across the towns and cities of northern Germany?
Visit Bremen and you can’t but notice the statue of a medieval knight called Roland standing in the city’s main square, brandishing a sword and shield. The six-hundred year-old stone figure is over ten metres high, and is an important symbol of the city. It has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.1
Who was Roland?
Roland was an eighth-century knight, and believed to have been a nephew of Charlemagne. His legend is best known from the French epic poem, Chanson de Roland, written around the eleventh century. The poem recounts the Battle of Roncevaux Pass of 778 AD. It tells the story of Charlemagne’s retreat across the Pyrenees from the Basque armies in Spain. During the battle, Roland, who was a military governor in Charlemagne’s army, was killed.2
The Chanson de Roland was translated from French into German in the middle of the twelfth century by a Bavarian priest called Konrad. Konrad’s translation, known as the Rolandslied, was probably commissioned by Konrad’s patron, Henry the Proud, and believed to have been produced around 1131.3 In his Rolandslied Konrad placed greater emphasis than the French poem had done on the medieval chivalric ethos, and on imperial and crusading themes. Through Konrad’s poem Roland became a heroic figure throughout much of Germany.4
The first Roland statues
Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a growing number of towns and cities in the Holy Roman Empire sought greater autonomy from their local nobility. With this came a greater freedom of administrative and judicial rule. The Roland statue became a symbol of this independence. The original Roland statues were built in wood, but most were replaced with versions carved in stone. Although there are records of Roland statues being erected in thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the oldest original Roland statue today is in Halberstadt, and dates from 1433.
Scores of Roland statues survive to the present day across Germany.5 Most date from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, but there are plenty of more recent origin. For example, Berlin has no less than six Roland statues, four of which date from the twentieth century.
Many of the most recent Roland statues are not to be found in Germany at all. In Rolândia in Brazil, a town established by German immigrants in the 1930s and named after the medieval knight, there stands a replica of the Bremen Roland, erected in 1957. Rolands can also be found in Quito, Ecuador (1978) and Obihiro, Japan (1970).
- ‘Roland Statue’, Bremen Touristik-Zentrale, https://www.bremen-tourism.de/roland-statue, accessed 1 May 2018.
- ‘Roland, Legend of’, Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), https://archive.org/stream/encyclopaediabri23chisrich#page/464/mode/2up, accessed 1 May 2018.
- ‘Konrad’, Catholic Encyclopaedia, https://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=6699, accessed 1 May 2018.
- Ashcroft, Jeffrey, ‘“Si waren aines muotes”: Unanimity in Konrad’s Rolandslied and Otto’s and Rahewin’s Gesta Frederici’, in Christopher Harper-Bill & Ruth Harvey, eds., Medieval Knighthood IV: Papers from the Fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbridge, 1992), 42.
- A comprehensive list of Roland statues (in German) can be found on Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_der_Rolandstatuen.