- The Legend of Charlemagne in Medieval England: The Matter of France in Middle English and Anglo-Norman Literature by Phillipa Hardman, and Marianne Ailes
Over recent years an increasing awareness of multilingualism in medieval England has been informing linguistic, literary, and cultural scholarship. This book, exploring the intersection of Anglo-Norman and Middle English literary production across religious, geographic, and socio-political contexts, is a solid piece of work sharing in this discourse. The volume focuses on translations and adaptations of various Charlemagne narratives in France and England from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. It embraces both close textual readings and material philology, and it does this within a frame of commonalities and cultural ties between England and France, rather than dwelling on anachronistic or unhistorical divergences between the two.
The linguistic context of medieval England, and its implications for literary and philological analyses, are established at the outset. Latin, French (both continental and Anglo-Norman), and Middle English were spoken and written in England well into the late medieval period, and the authors argue that the presence and use of these languages influenced the character and purpose of translation and adaptation. The introductory chapter explores in detail such implications, including the acceptance that French in England was not a marker of foreignness, any more than Middle English can be taken as a marker of a (burgeoning) national identity. Indeed, the perspective that this volume takes on these texts and traditions explicitly addresses issues of identity, and the authors argue that any notion of Middle English literature as marker of identity is anachronistic and wrong. In fact, the opposite case is made, that a medieval English interest in translated French material is better understood as an appropriation of the French tradition, arising [End Page 214] from and endorsing the idea that the English, in embracing Carolingian narrative into their cultural story-worlds and imaginings, were constructing themselves as insular French, rather than differentiating their Englishness.
The book is bipartite in structure. Chapters 1 to 3 discuss the ways in which the Charlemagne tradition became acculturated, translated, and appropriated in England, while chapters 4 to 6 are each concerned with three discrete narratives: Roland and the battle of Roncevaux, Fierabras, and Otinel.
In addition to reviewing much prior (and often dismissive) scholarship on the relationship between French chansons de geste and English material, the first chapter, 'The Insular Literary Context', also traces the circulation of, and local developments in, French-language material in England. It then maps formal poetic aspects of the developing English tradition, considering critical issues relating to genre and providing a detailed analysis of verse forms and structure in English metrical romances. The chapter concludes with strong arguments in favour of understanding the English material as formally coherent, intertextual, and comprising a consistent selection and translation program.
Chapters 2 and 3 then explore, respectively, the translation of the Charlemagne tradition from continental French into Anglo-Norman, and the appropriation of the tradition into Middle English. The Anglo-Norman works show particular interest in three primary themes: crusades and the alterity of Saracens, the role and importance of holy relics, and the status and importance of kingship and monarchy. These themes carry over into the Middle English adaptations, but with interesting and important changes in emphasis or focus, relevant to the insular context.
In the second part the authors provide detailed descriptions and analyses of all manuscript versions of the relevant narratives. These studies include comparisons with continental versions, variance within the insular material, and examination of the social and political conditions of production. The three narratives being examined (Roland, Fierabras, Otinel) are each afforded their own chapter, and a very useful appendix is included that lists insular Charlemagne texts and manuscripts.
The English and Anglo-Norman Charlemagne texts are shown to be embedded in multi-layered and motivated translation and adaptation practices, and this book reveals...