Introduction: Charlemagne Romances

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Introduction: Charlemagne Romances


Charlemagne enjoyed widespread and sustained literary treatment throughout the high and late Middle Ages, and tales of his and his knights' exploits regularly intersected with tales of the crusades during this time. Charlemagne was cast as a proto-crusader as early as the 10th century; Benedict of St. Andrew on Monte Soratte configured the monarch's journey to the Holy Land as a diplomatic mission to ensure the safety of Christians in the Levant, and, a century later, the author of the Descriptio qualiter Karolus Magnus (c. 1080-95) configured this same journey as a martial campaign designed to conquer the Holy Land (Stuckey 138). This configuration persisted in the centuries that followed, even as actual crusading efforts to Outremer dwindled.

The vast majority of Middle English Charlemagne romances, in fact, date to the fourteenth century or later (Smyser 80), and themes of crusade and religious conversion abound within these narratives. There are a few broad categories into which these romances fall, and I provide below a brief description of each:
  • The Firumbras Group: romances inspired and derived from Fierabras, a chanson de geste. The eponymous hero is a Saracen who, in all versions, is successfully converted and brought into the fold of the Carolingian court. Included in this group are The Sowdon of Babylon, Sir Firumbras, and Caxton's Charles the Grete.
  • The Otuel Group: romances derived from a chanson de geste known as Otinel. Like the Firumbras romances, these narratives focus on a Saracen, his conversion to Christianity, and his martial defense of the faith. This group includes Otuel and Roland, The Siege of MilanRoland and Vernagu, Otuel a Knight, and Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain
  • Miscellaneous Romances: called "detached" romances by Smyser because of their existence outside of these other groupings. The Tale of Ralph Collier is included in this section.
This portion of the project will provide detailed descriptions of representative romances in each of these categories.
Bibliography
Smyser, H. M. "Charlemagne Legends." In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English. 1050-1500 (Vol. 1, Romances). Ed. J. Burke Severs and Albert E. Hartung. New Haven: : Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967. Pp. 80-100. 
 
Stuckey, Jace. "Charlemagne as Crusader? Memory, Propaganda, and the Many Uses of Charlemagne's Legendary Expedition to Spain." In The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith, and Crusade. Edited by Matthew Gabriele and Jace Stuckey. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. Pp. 137-152.