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  • Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature
  • Marianne Ailes
Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature. By Lynne Tarte Ramey . ( Medieval History and Culture, 3). New York — London, Routledge, 2001. xii + 120 pp.

This is an ambitious subject to tackle in such a limited space, though the subject is sensibly restricted to inter-ethnic couples, both homosocial and heterosexual. While the choice of texts is interesting, ranging from the well-known Chanson de Guillaume or Chanson de Roland to the little studied Lion de Bourges, it is perforce a limited selection. Equally, it is impossible within such limits to avoid making generalizations which are only partly true. Thus the statement that 'to say "Saracen" is in essence to say "evil"' (p. 3), is at odds with the depiction of Saracens, in even our earliest texts, as those with the potential to become good through conversion; it is, however, true to say, as Ramey continues, that 'their actions are pre-programmed' by their 'saracenness'. Indeed, the author goes on to demonstrate that the presentation of Saracens is ambiguous and she is throughout careful to avoid as far as possible an over-simplistic reading, drawing from post-colonial theory a model of the 'symbolic', fictional writing which allows for a flexible attitude to the Other rather than a model which will admit only a manichean relationship between Self and Other. The analysis throughout makes clear that even within one text the Other can be presented as both grotesque and admirable. In her Introduction, Ramey expounds the difficulties which arise from our grouping together of the literature of some 500 years, before going on in her first chapter to clearly set out her theoretical perspective. There is a tendency in the analysis to prioritize national over religious identity rather than deal with the co-existence of religious and racial Otherness. Her terminology can be confusing, as she uses both 'epic romance' (p. 6) and 'romance epic' (passim) as a 'hybrid appellation' for texts which 'did not fit received notions of genre', specifically here, later chansons de geste; 'romance epic' is normally used to refer to epics in Romance languages. The distinction between 'epic' and 'romance epic' is linked by Ramey to a chronological development whereby assimilation replaces destruction of the Other and fails to take into account the fact that assimilation and destruction are frequently found together in even the earliest texts; no account is taken either of Saracens who refuse to be assimilated through conversion or who defer conversion. There is a laudable concentration on the texts, yet with, perhaps, inadequate account taken of the work of others; thus while Norman Daniel's work is referred to in the Introduction, there is no evidence in the analysis of his recognition that the 'absurd religion of polytheism' is a literary construct, nor his thesis that the presentation of the Saracens is not so much a reflection of ignorance as a distortion for the purposes of entertainment. Bancourt's major study of Les Musulmans dans les chansons de geste du cycle du roi, though listed in the Bibliography, is not taken into account in the analysis. The Bibliography itself is fairly comprehensive, though surprisingly lacks Trotter's Medieval French Literature and the Crusades. A few minor apparent inaccuracies are probably the result of lack of space to expand a point; for example, Guibourc and Guillaume are described as 'founding a noble line', with no explanation of what is meant here, as Guibourc and Guillaume have no children. Overall, this succinct study opens interesting avenues of analysis, asking [End Page 262] questions about relationships between Christian and Saracen and avoiding over-simplistic answers; it makes a useful contribution to the analysis of and awareness of the complexity of the Christian–Muslim conflict and the presentation of the non-Christian in Old French literature. However, the subject approached is a huge one and in the end cannot be encompassed within one slim volume.

Marianne Ailes
Wadham College, Oxford


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