Fabled Sword From Medieval French Folklore Disappears

Known as the “French Excalibur,” the blade is said to have hung from a rock face in the village of Rocamadour for 1,300 years

The blade, known as Durandal, was embedded in rock more than 30 feet above the ground. Patrick Clenet via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Medieval folklore has immortalized the story of Roland, the Frankish hero who fought under Charlemagne, and Durandal, his indestructible sword.

When the eighth-century paladin, or knight, was dying, he tried in vain to destroy the blade to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Defeated, he hurled the sword as far as he could: Durandal supposedly flew through the air for more than 100 miles before reaching the French village of Rocamadour, where it hit a rock more than 30 feet off the ground.

As the story goes, the blade remained in the rock face for 1,300 years.

Indeed, 21st-century visitors to Rocamadour may remember a sword rumored to be Roland’s embedded high up in the rock. It was a fixture in the town for many years—until June 21, when it mysteriously vanished.

“This sword belongs to this place,” Dominique Lenfant, Rocamadour’s mayor, tells the New York Times’ Hank Sanders and William Lamb. “When I started telling people what had happened, they told me, ‘It’s a joke, it’s not possible.’ No one could believe that such a thing could happen.”

Lenfant couldn’t believe it either. After the theft, she adds, “I had the impression that someone had cut a piece of Rocamadour, as if it were a living being and someone had just cut off an arm.”

The sword’s disappearance was first reported by the French newspaper La Dépêche du Midi’s Laetitia Bertoni. Lenfant told the publication that while Durandal’s story is a legend, its fate feels linked to the town’s, adding that tour guides have long stopped at the site to tell the story.

Sword in wall close-up
Tour groups frequently gathered below the sword to hear the legend. Traumrune via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The blade is sometimes called the “French ​​Excalibur,” referring to the sword associated with Arthurian legend that’s more well known to American audiences. In France, Durandal’s legacy comes in part from The Song of Roland, an 11th- or 12th-century French epic poem that recounts the military leader’s heroic escapades during the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778.

In the text, the fabled sword—forged with relics such as “St. Peter’s tooth” and “St. Basil’s blood”—often comes in handy. But when Roland is mortally wounded, he despairs over Durandal’s fate, according to Dorothy Sayers’ 1957 translation:

Now Roland feels his sight grow dim and weak;

With his last strength he struggles to his feet;

All the red blood has faded from his cheeks.

A grey stone stands before him at his knee:

Ten strokes thereon he strikes, with rage and grief;

It grides, but yet nor breaks nor chips the steel.

“Ah!” cries the count, “St. Mary succor me!

Alack the day, Durandal, good and keen!

Now I am dying, I cannot fend for thee.”

In The Song of Roland, the dying hero hides the sword under his body, rather than throwing it to Rocamadour. Still, the latter version of the legend has persisted, though many historians and local officials don’t believe the blade stolen from the rock face is 1,300 years old.

Instead, it is likely “a copy of a copy of a copy,” Lenfant tells the Times, adding that the sword’s true origins don’t diminish its value: “The important thing to understand is that it is an emblem of our heritage in Rocamadour, and that it is no longer there.”

The thief’s motive remains unclear, though some scholars wonder whether political forces could be at play. In the past, French nationalists have interpreted The Song of Roland, which describes battles against a Muslim army, to suit their own extremist anti-Muslim or anti-immigration beliefs.

“The far right would code the sword as a signature piece of French national identity,” Helen Solterer, a scholar of romance studies at Duke University, tells the Times.

Many other questions remain unanswered, such as how the thief managed to retrieve the sword, which was dangling more than 30 feet from the ground near a historic sanctuary. A local shopkeeper tells La Dépêche du Midi’s Manon Adoue that the perpetrator would have needed a tall ladder or professional mountaineering equipment. (There are admittedly a lot of climbers in the area.) Others wonder if someone reached the blade via the sanctuary’s roof.

The police investigation is ongoing. But even if Durandal never returns, its legacy will live on: Town officials have already received offers from several blacksmiths willing to forge a replica.

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