Mythical Sword’s Disappearance Brings Mystery to French Village

As legend has it, a sword from God given to Roland, an 8th century military leader under Charlemagne, was so powerful that Roland’s last mission was to destroy it.

When the blade, called Durandal, proved indestructible, Roland threw it as far as he could, and it sailed over 100 miles before slicing through the side of a rock face in the medieval French village of Rocamadour.

That sword, as the story goes, sat wedged in the stone for nearly 1,300 years, and it became a landmark and tourist attraction in Rocamadour, a small village in southwestern France, about 110 miles east of Bordeaux. So residents and officials there were stunned to discover late last month that the blade had vanished, according to La Dépêche du Midi, a French newspaper.

An officer with France’s national police force in Cahors, a town 30 miles southwest of Rocamadour, said that the sword disappeared sometime after nightfall on June 21, and that the authorities opened an investigation after a passerby reported the next morning that it was missing.

The officer, who declined to give his name, emphasized that the sword is “a copy,” but acknowledged that it had symbolic significance.

He referred further questions to the office of the prosecutor of the republic in Cahors, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The mayor of Rocamadour, Dominique Lenfant, said the sword had been an obligatory stop for tourists and a point of pride for residents, all of whom learn the legend by studying the famous 11th- or 12th-century French poem “The Song of Roland.”

When a resident called on June 22 to report that the sword had vanished, she recalled in an interview on Saturday, “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.”

“This sword belongs to this place,” Ms. Lenfant added, “since the legend says that it was thrown from the Pyrenees and landed here. 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.”

For most Americans, King Arthur’s Excalibur is a more recognizable example of a sword stuck in stone. But the myths of Durandal are popular across France because of “The Song of Roland.”

The poem is partly set during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D., during which Charlemagne’s men who had fought against Muslims in Spain, led by Roland, found themselves severely outnumbered by enemy forces. According to the poem’s fictional account, Roland and his sword battled valiantly, but he was badly wounded and tried unsuccessfully before his death to destroy the blade.

According to “The Song of Roland,” Roland hid the blade under his dying body.

But tour guides in Rocamadour have encouraged visitors to come to the town — a postcard-worthy cluster of castles carved out of a steep mountainside — and see the blade for themselves: jutting out of a crack in the rock face, some 30 feet up in the air.

The story of how Durandal ended up in Rocamadour — 150 miles northeast of where Roland died — has its skeptics.

A British historian, Richard Barber, wrote in 2020 that the replica sword was placed in Rocamadour by an official looking to boost tourism in the 1780s. And others, including Helen Solterer, a professor of romance studies at Duke University, called the sword “a copy.”

Ms. Lenfant went a step further, describing it as “a copy of a copy of a copy.”

“The important thing to understand,” she said, “is that it is an emblem of our heritage in Rocamadour, and that it is no longer there.”

Others agreed that, copy or no, Durandal was a fixture of Rocamadour, and its absence has resonated throughout the area.

“I can certainly imagine this will be a huge loss for Rocamadour as it was one of the medieval village’s most legendary attractions,” said Paola Westbeek, a travel journalist who has visited Rocamadour several times.

“The far right would code the sword as a signature piece of French national identity,” Ms. Solterer said.

“The Song of Roland” has been referenced by nationalist groups for its message that Muslims are an enemy and Muslim immigrants are overtaking France, said Ada Maria Kuskowski, an assistant professor of history with a specialization in medieval history at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The sword, which Roland struggled so hard to keep away from Muslim hands to preserve honor, Christianity and Frenchness,” she said, “is now gone.”

But the theory that this sword may have been stolen to send a political message is just conjecture. This may turn out to be a simple prank, Ms. Solterer said.

Ms. Lenfant said that the sword was removed for a few months in 2011, when it was displayed at the Musée de Cluny, the French national museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. A copy was made at that time, though officials lost track of which one was the original.

In any event, she said, four blacksmiths have offered to use the one that has been stored at the village hall since then to create a new Durandal for free. So it seems its legend will live on no matter how the police investigation pans out.

“These are incredible offers,” Ms. Lenfant said. “We didn’t ask, but everyone is talking about this story and has found that something is missing. You have to put it back.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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