Jun 5, 2020

Fall 1979: A Roland for an Oliver: Gay Medieval Lovers

The old expression "A Roland for an Oliver" means that you're equally matched (for instance, these brothers can both bench press exactly 320 pounds each).

It's derived from the Medieval gay lovers that I first read about in The Young Folks' Shelf of Books during my early childhood.

I heard about them again in college, when my French Literature class was assigned a modern version of the 12th century Song of Roland, the national epic of France.

During the siege of Viana, Emperor Charlemagne agreed to let the outcome rest on single combat between two champions.  He sent his nephew, the bold, heavily-muscled Roland, the Prince Valiant of France.  Count Gerard of Viana sent his grandson, the handsome, quick-witted Oliver (or Olivier).  Their talents were complementary; they were perfectly matched.

As they fought, an angel appeared, separated them, and bade them become friends (the same thing happened to Simon and Milo a few generations later).

They spent the rest of their lives together, fighting side by side, and their love, with its divine mandate, was acclaimed in every corner of Charlemagne's Empire.

Then the Saracens began wending their way through Basque country,  If they entered France through the pass at Roncevaux, they would take all of Europe.  Charlemagne and his troops tried to stop them.  In the heat of battle, Oliver was killed, and the distraught Roland cried:

So many days and years gone by
We lived together.
Since thou art dead, to live is pain.

Then he died as well.

I didn't bother to point out the homoromance to my French professor, who no doubt would have insisted that Roland, like Aschenbach in Death in Venice wasn't Wearing a Sign.  He was betrothed to Oliver's sister, after all, and in the Italian epic Orlando Furioso, he falls in love with a woman (and flies to the moon).

The 1978 movie version of La Chanson de Roland gives Roland (Klaus Kinski) an overwhelming hetero-passion.  Oliver (Pierre Clementi, left) looks on with an unacknowledged, unrequited love.


  1. Of course, I would suspect premodern male lovers didn't much think they had to exclude women. Especially since most likely, the entire reason a man and woman got married was "our dads know each other", though they were expected to have kids.

  2. I had never heard of this story before and yes it does sound very gay


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