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  • The Legend of Charlemagne in Medieval England: The Matter of France in Middle English and Anglo-Norman Literature eds. by Phillipa Hardman and Marianne Ailes
  • Catherine Léglu
The Legend of Charlemagne in Medieval England: The Matter of France in Middle English and Anglo-Norman Literature. Edited by Phillipa Hardman and Marianne Ailes. (Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures.) Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017. 489 pp., ill.

This fine co-authored monograph should be read in context as part of a series edited by Marianne Ailes and Philip Bennett on 'Charlemagne: A European Icon', complementing the recent themed volumes on Latin and in the Iberian peninsula. The co-authors have succeeded in speaking with a single voice. They create a clear and authoritative frame for a very dense corpus of texts and compilations in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English (the Appendix of texts is a handy addition). Four key findings are established in the first chapter and illustrated throughout, with longer and more detailed studies of translations of specific scenes, poetic metre, and heraldry in illustrations. The first conclusion is that the Middle English texts exacerbated an already selective reception in Anglo-Norman French of the chanson de geste tradition of the so-called 'Cycle du Roi', in other words the poems that recount events of Charlemagne's reign. Rather than the dozens of epic poems written down on the Continent, we find a small cluster, comprising the core story of Roland's death at Roncevaux, the less popular tale of Olivier's combat with the Saracen giant Fierabras, and an analogous tale of another converted Saracen, Otinel or Otuel. This cluster led to fifteenth-century Middle English variants, the Sowdone of Babylone, and yet another combat with a Saracen giant, Roland and Vernagu. The second finding is that the focus of the poems shifts from local concerns such as identifying French reliquary shrines, to a broad allegory of Christendom, symbolized by Charlemagne's empire, and a Saracen federation that is loosely defined as the rest of the known world and more specifically identifiable as Islam. As a result, the insular tradition rehashes a stereotype of Christian and Muslim champions. The designation of these as a concept of 'Europe' and 'the Saracen "Other"' suffers from being spread across the book in aperçus as well as in Chapter 1 and the Conclusion, rather than put to detailed scrutiny in a single focused section. The third finding nuances this second conclusion, inasmuch as, in the fifteenth-century texts, religious polemic acquires anti-heretical traits that chime with the domestic concerns of English rulers and churchmen. The logical conclusion, that clichéd Saracen giants are a means of representing dissent from within, is left for others to explore. The fourth finding challenges a once-dominant view of English literature emerging in conflict with French culture impelled by the Hundred Years' War. Rather, Marianne Ailes and Philippa Hardman show that these texts are familiar with French chansons de geste, claim 'Frenchness' for themselves, and engage in cultural and political appropriation. Less-foregrounded discussions are also worth mentioning, such as the failure to translate the rebel baron poem of Aspremont, despite its popularity. Is it a reflection of some form of censorship, or have key manuscript witnesses been lost? Overall, this book offers many new insights into the political and cultural uses of translation and adaptation, as well as a fresh perspective on the development of Middle English literature through dialogue with literature in French. [End Page 425]

Catherine Léglu
University of Reading
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
p. 425
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-15
Open Access
No
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