Roland’s Olifant, the ivory horned trumpet he had sounded at Roncevaux was the most precious relic kept at the shrine of Saint-Seurin. According to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, there were two “hallowed and venerable cemeteries”. One was the Alyscans at Arles and the other was the necropolis of the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux. The abbey was presided over by canons of the Rule of Saint Augustine.
These cemeteries had been consecrated by the seven evangelisers of Gaul; Maximin of Aix, Trophimus of Arles, Paul of Narbonne, Saturninus of Toulouse, Front of Périgeux, Martial of Limoges and Eutropius of Saintes. It was to these burial grounds that Charlemagne took his fallen warriors to be entombed after the battle of Roncevaux.
The cemetery at Saint Seurin had developed around the tomb of Saint Severinus in the fourth century and by the middle ages it was a vast necropolis. Seurin was the patron of the city of Bordeaux, since 1058 the most important ecclesiastical centre in Aquitaine when it became the Metropolitan see.
Five thousand dead Frankish warriors were brought there in the aftermath of Roncevaux. Among them were several of the highest members of the Carolingian court. Gaifier King of Bordeaux, the historic Visigothic ruler of Aquitaine, Lambert King of Bourges, Begon of Belin who was brother to Garin de Lorraine, Gaultier of Termes, Renaut of Aubespin, Guielin.
There was Duke Engelerus of Aquitaine who had led four thousand troops at the battle of Pamplona. The number of martyrs also included two of the twelve peers, Garin and Gerier.
Also taken to Bordeaux for burial were some of those who had died mysteriously and miraculously at the battle of Monjardin.
Despite the sanctity conferred on the necropolis by the existence of so many Christian warrior martyrs at Saint Seurin, the Pilgrim’s Guide drew attention to one remarkable relic, the Olifant of Roland.
According to the Song of Roland, it was Charlemagne himself who had placed, on the altar of the abbey church, “the olifant, full of gold and mangions. Pilgrims who visit the place still see it”.
This was the ivory horn which Roland had sounded too late to prevent his own death. Reaching Charlemagne and the main body of the Frankish army which lay encamped in the valley of Valcarlos below the Cize Pass, the force of Roland’s call had caused the Olifant to split apart.
In doing so he sustained his mortal injuries, bursting the veins in his neck and temple. The Olifant was both the instrument of Roland’s martyrdom and with its Old Testament connotations, the symbolic voice of God.
The sounding of the horn had led ultimately to Charlemagne’s vengeance and the taking of Saragossa.
At the time of the writing of the Song of Roland, Saragossa was the great prize sought by the Crusaders of Spain who came to venerate the relic of the Olifant as they embarked on their succesful expedition to recover the city in 1118.
The relic of Roland’s horn formed a vital part of the Carolingian legacy on the Tours Road to Compostela, along with those relics at Blaye and Belin. The Olifant on view at the altar of the abbey of Saint-Seurin bore the unmistakable sign of its authenticity, as the Pilgrims’ Guide pointedly informs us: “His ivory horn parted thus in the middle is found in the basilica of the Blessed Seurin”.
Biblio: History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. Les sépultures des Français morts à Roncevaux, André Moisan, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1981 Volume 24 pp. 129-145. Autour de Saint-Seurin: lieu, mémoire, pouvouir. Des Premiers temps chrétiens à la fin du Moyen Âge – Actes du colloque de Bordeaux (12-14 octobre 2006) ed. Isabelle Cartron, Dany Barraud, Patrick Henriet, Anne Michel Bordeaux 2009 Ausonius Editions – Mémoires 21