THE CHANSON DE ROLAND, although contemporary with the development of chivalry, shows the value system of a highly aristocratic society of revenge, preserved in holy war. It exudes disdain for serfs, used as a foil for the “baron (ber)” and the “vassal,” and is not interested in the bulk of the army, largely consisting of “soudoyers.” It glorifies the heroic death of great warriors wishing to live up to their lineage and their ancestors, all Franks, and for this reason they are not afraid of dying or killing.
The Chanson d’Aspremont was composed shortly before 1190, either in southern Italy or in the French domains of the Plantagenets, or in both. Widely circulated during the Middle Ages, it lacks the poetic force of the Chanson de Roland. Perhaps nearer to a romance than an epic poem, it is two and a half times longer. The climate is changing and there is no unity of action. Martí de Riquer was even able to write that, “it had more than a little literary success, but the enormous mass of the chanson makes it tough to read.” The tensions and social diversity it reveals are also interesting for the historian: it may be that we can learn more from it than from Chanson de Roland, which Aspremont wishes to complete by recounting the “enfances” of Roland during one of Charlemagne's great battles in Calabria, on the slopes of Aspromonte. It was fought to defend Roma and the empire against the offensive of King Agoulant, preceded by his son Eaumont.
The Chanson d’Aspremont appears to borrow all its great values from the Song of Roland: its elegy of the great but terrible fight to the death in fair combat; its aristo cratic system; and a number of its formulas and narrative motifs. However, all this is transposed, shifted, and inserted into a more prosaic form, even diluted in a composite ensemble of interesting debates and combats, which are piquant rather than moving. Its composition is more like a game, and it juxtaposes various value systems. Most important, I think, is being able to read into it more truly chivalric elements. In fact, the succession of Frankish victories pushes sacrificial death somewhat into the background; instead, the stress placed on the actual ritual of knighting involves the theme of the promotion of the young, vavasours, and even serfs.