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  • Robert the Devil: The First Modern English Translation of 'Robert le Diable', an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century trans. by Samuel N. Rosenberg
  • Catherine Léglu
Robert the Devil: The First Modern English Translation of 'Robert le Diable', an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century. Translated by Samuel N. Rosenberg. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. 168 pp.

This is a welcome, engaging translation of an often underrated romance into 'free, rhythmic verse' (p. 5), aiming to evoke the experience of a live recitation by a jongleur. The tale of a man compelled to do harm by his demoniac conception, who earns holiness by dint of terrible humiliations, brings together key issues of its time and culture, notably penance, but it also touches on more contemporary concerns with social attitudes towards disability and the morality of collective violence. Robert has to be nameless, mute, and eat only the food he can steal from dogs, yet he has to do this at the heart of an imperial court, as the Emperor of Rome's fool, and the favourite of the Emperor's non-electively mute daughter. The success of the tale of Robert le Diable from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries is summarized deftly in the short Introduction, where Samuel N. Rosenberg cites the major studies by Élisabeth Gaucher. Rosenberg provides a translation of one of the two earliest surviving versions in Old French verse, edited in 1903 (ed. by Eilert Løseth (Paris: Firmin Didot & cie, 1903); version A). Gaucher's edition and translation into French (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006) are based on version B. The choice of version A means that some of the striking poetic images of version B are omitted. For example, Robert becomes aware that he is loathed and feared after he massacres a whole nunnery. In this translation, he returns from the scene to find himself shunned in his fortress: 'He looked a hideous sight, j but no-one was there to see or to greet him' (ll. 358–59). In version A, the scene is more vivid. Robert and his horse are soaked red with the blood he has spilled. The townspeople slam their doors and shutters closed as he rides past. He leaps down from his horse and lowers his head in thought. On the other hand, there is poetic imagery in the B version of the ensuing scene when Robert forces his mother to confess to her having become pregnant through praying to the Devil. His violence abates in favour of a sign of repentance, 'A face that ever before was unmoved and ice-cold. j It was a river of tears' (ll. 450–51). Rosenberg's translation reflects the spare language of his source. There are a few exceptions made for technical terms, for example: '[He] brought him down dead j from the croup of his horse' (ll. 3241–42). In line 3299, the battling Robert '[d]rove through one corps and another', which might cause confusion for an uninformed reader. I have a few quibbles about minor points of interpretation, such as the line, 'When they had martyred all of the Turks' (l. 3405; see also l. 4048): is the sense of the original equally ambivalent? In any case, there are useful research-based notes resolving some specific editorial difficulties, plus a solid bibliography and index.

Catherine Léglu
University of Reading


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