Over the past couple of decades, the English Charlemagne narratives have attracted increasing scholarly attention, typically in the context of larger thematic studies focusing on issues of race, nationhood, gender, and, more recently, on the historical discourses, ideologies, and practices of crusading; yet a full-length study of the insular corpus was hitherto lacking. The Legend of Charlemagne in Medieval England is thus a timely and most welcome contribution to the field. Hardman and Ailes concentrate on the textual and manuscript history of these narratives, and on their exploitation and reception during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries in light of various cultural, political, and religious preoccupations. The Matter of France in England consists mainly of multifarious creative renderings of three stories—those of Roland, Fierabras, and Otinel—which the authors discuss first in terms of the shared thematic and cultural concerns of the Anglo-Norman and Middle English corpora (Chapters 2 and 3), and then as individual narrative traditions (Chapters 4, 5, and 6). The book’s combined thematic and narrative-based structure results in a certain amount of overlap between the different chapters; but this is perhaps a relatively low price to pay for the benefits readers will derive from such an exhaustive treatment of the material. Ailes and Hardman’s key contributions are threefold: a quasi-encyclopedic coverage of the material evidence and the textual, formal, and manuscript relations between the different texts and literary strands; a vast wealth of detail showcasing the creative independence and vigorous engagement of the authors, adaptors, and translators working within this tradition; and a broad-ranging exploration of the thematic foci and possible cultural concerns underlying Charlemagne’s insular appropriation. Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for what follows with a consideration of the insular literary context in which the French-language Charlemagne narratives were received and disseminated, and in which the Middle English tradition subsequently emerged and developed. Through a detailed survey of the chansons de geste and chronicles that circulated in England, Hardman and Ailes demonstrate a gradual contraction of the insular corpus, with a growing interest on the part of English copyists, adaptors, and translators with narratives concerned with Christian–Saracen conflict—an interest which the authors conclusively show to be the result of choice rather than, as was previously assumed, limited availability. A rationale for this focus on religious warfare is offered: the Anglo-Norman texts, with their emphasis on the ‘recovery of the relics’ theme, resonate with thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century desires to reconquer the Holy Land, whereas the Middle English versions, in magnifying the motif of Saracen threat to Christendom, reflect fourteenth- and fifteenth-century fears of Turkish invasion of Christian homelands. Some readers may find this contextual division somewhat rigid, particularly when considering the fourteenth-century Middle English verse romances (versus the fifteenth-century prose ones), which are likely to have evoked both the Ottoman threat and the Eastern recovery crusade. Indeed, the rhetoric of ‘Christendom in danger’, so prominent in these narratives, was conventional in historical exhortations for, and narrative accounts of, both defensive and offensive crusading. Moreover, at the time in which these texts were being composed, treatises for the recovery of the Holy Land—such as Roger Stanegrave’s Li charboclois (1332), Marino Sanudo’s Liber secretorum (c. 1307–1321), and Philippe de Mézière’s Epistre au roi Richart (1395), amongst others—repeatedly refer to Charlemagne and his peers as models for emulation, not because of the Carolingian king’s legendary connection to the Holy Land, but rather because he stood more generally within the collective consciousness as a protocrusading representative of the universal conflict between Christians and Muslims. Other issues, which are further developed throughout the book, are also introduced in Chapter 1, including the intertextual coherence of the selection of texts that made their way into Middle English, and the complex position of these narratives celebrating Frankish heroes in relation to nationalistic literary agendas during the Hundred Years War. Chapters 2 and 3 outline the principal literary tendencies, themes, and concerns of the Anglo-Norman and Middle English corpora, respectively, and present the manuscript contexts in which they survive. Within the adaptive or compositional framework of the Anglo-Norman texts, the authors identify three major narrative sites of interest: Christian–Saracen warfare, often ‘represented by a kind of judicial duel’ (p. 113); the significance of the relics and sacred places; and the role of the monarchy, with a general tendency to idealize the image of the king. The malleability of these narratives is even more pronounced in the Middle English tradition. These texts, according to the authors, further sharpen the confrontation between Christians and Saracens, expand upon the combined concerns of religious conversion and doctrinal instruction, and enhance the figure of Charlemagne, variously portrayed as ‘powerful emperor, defender of Christendom, unbeaten conqueror, pattern of knighthood, warrior-hero, peace-maker, or saint’ (p. 176). These and other cognate themes/concerns are further elucidated, fleshed out, and contextualized in Chapters 4, 5, and 6, which provide detailed analyses of each individual text of the Roland, Fierabras, and Otinel traditions. Chapter 4 offers extensive evidence of the remarkable degree of interpretive freedom with which the Chanson de Roland story—most likely better known through the prose account of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle than through the Roland itself—was adapted but also restructured by insular writers through novel connections made between source materials, with particular emphases on Roland’s heroism and Ganelon’s treachery. In Chapter 5, the Fierabras tradition is introduced as overall less open to major reconfiguration, with a preference given by adaptors to the structural techniques of abbreviation and amplification. Particularly persuasive, in my view, are the readings of the Fillingham Firumbras, which reinforces orthodox teaching and proper attitudes towards relics; and of The Sowdone of Babylone, which, through several extended or interpolated passages, ‘destabilizes the traditional epic presentation of the Saracen sultan and questions the notion of otherness’ (p. 331)—an interpretive programme which, however, though traced back to the trope of the noble Saracen of chanson de geste, sits uneasily alongside the authors’ claim that the Middle English Charlemagne romances adhere to the genre’s supposed tendency ‘to present a simplified contrast between virtuous heroes and vicious enemies’ (p. 86). Chapter 6 shows the engagement of the insular romances of the Otuel tradition with a series of cultural agendas, including didactic chivalric instruction, orthodox defence against home-grown heresy, and cultural rehabilitation of Christian defeats against the Ottoman Turks. Scenes of Christian rebuke of God and the Virgin Mary are viewed, in line with previous scholarship, as bearing affinities with Christian rituals of humiliation of the saints and as building upon the chanson de geste motif of the raging Saracen who abuses his gods. Yet the degree of interplay between literature and history is far more pronounced than the authors would suggest: similar expressions of divinely addressed frustration feature in numerous historical sources of the crusades, notably those documenting Christian responses to Saint Louis’s defeats and to the fall of Acre in 1291. By examining each of the extant insular Charlemagne texts as a ‘revisioning of the tradition in its own specific moment’ (p. 31), Hardman and Ailes uncover a variety of critical cruxes, the cultural contexts of which can at times only be addressed succinctly, leaving the reader with the desire to know more; but this is an inevitable consequence of the book’s comprehensive, in-depth coverage of what was, before the authors’ intervention in the field, little explored material. Carefully researched, ambitious in scope, and lucidly written, The Legend of Charlemagne in Medieval England conclusively debunks long-held perceptions of the insular Charlemagne narratives as inferior ‘hack-work’ and will become an indispensable resource for anyone working within this tradition. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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