Siege of Milan

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Siege of Milan


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This fragmentary romance is found in British Library MS Additional 31042, also known as the London Thornton manuscript (c. 1450). Considered part of the Otinel group of Middle English Charlemagne romances, it was most likely composed in the middle of the fourteenth century (Lupack 105).

For an introduction and  full-text version, see the following online edition by Alan Lupack from the Middle English Texts Series: Siege of Milan.

 
Summary
 
PART I
 
Siege of Milan, like many in the Charlemagne group, layers crusading imagery over events that occurred long before the historical crusades to the Levant.  It begins with a description of Lombardy besieged by Saracens led by the Sultan Arabas. His wars are framed as religiously motivated from the outset, with the narrator describing his actions as a war against “Chrystyndome,” a word that is used in this romance to refer both to Christian lands and to the faith itself. The sultan lays Rome to waste and conquers Tuscany as well, placing Saracens in charge of those cities and lands. He burns relics and icons in Christian churches, replacing them with “mawmettes” (idols).
 
The lord of Milan is eventually given an offer by the Sultan: convert, or be drawn and hanged while watching the execution of his wife and children. He prays to God and acknowledges that forsaking his faith would be worse than death.  He falls asleep, and an angel visits him, telling him to seek out Charlemagne’s help. That same night, Charlemagne himself has a dream in which an angel comes to him with the message that Christ has made him His warrior on earth. He then has a vision of the city of Milan and Lombardy. Charlemagne wakes and finds the sword that the angel had given to him in the dream, and tells his lords about his vision.
 
The lord of Milan enters shortly after, telling Charlemagne of his vision and of the Saracens ravaging Lombardy and Milan. After both men compare their convergent dreams, Bishop Turpin—in many ways the central character of this romance—announces that God must be “grevede” by the Saracens and that they must retaliate and fight the invading army.
 
Genyenn (Ganelon) treacherously convinces Charlemagne to send Roland to fight the Saracens in hopes that Roland will die in the process. Roland is sent to Lombardy with forty thousand men; Charlemagne remains in Paris with an army in order to safeguard the city. The Saracens, in turn, depart from Milan to meet Roland and the French army. The armies clash, and an array of individual skirmishes between Christians and Saracens ensues. The Saracens ultimately take the field, slaying forty-thousand minus four: Roland, Oliver, Gawtere, and Guy of Burgoyne. These knights are captured by the Saracens and taken back to Milan.
 
PART II
 
The four Christians are presented to the Sultan, who mistakes Roland for Charlemagne and asks him to convert France to the Saracen faith. Roland introduces himself as the cousin to the king and refuses to aid in the conversion of his fellow people. He proceeds to describe the Trinitarian God and Christ’s death on the cross. The Sultan laughs, saying that he has burned hundreds of the Christian gods (he mistakes idols for deities) in a fire and that they have, by implication, very little power. The Sultan orders a Christian “god” (i.e. a cross) to be brought into the chamber for burning. The Saracens toss it into the fire, but it will not burn, no matter how strongly they stoke the flames. The cross begins to crack and releases a fire of its own that burns out the eyes of the Saracens in the room and kills them, which allows the four Christians to escape.
 
They reunite with Bishop Turpin at the church of Saint Denis, and they tell Turpin of the lost battle against the Saracens. Turpin vows to wear only armor until the Saracens are defeated. Charlemagne joins them at Saint Denis and learns of the defeat as well.  Roland tries to reassure Charlemagne by telling him that the Sultan is dead, but Ganelon warns them of Garcy, the brother of the Sultan. Ganelon advises that the king cede lands to Garcy to avoid losing France entirely. Turpin disagrees, and calls for a war against the Saracens. The bishop promises to lead the clergy of France into war, and he sends out a call for all monks, priests, and friars to join in the battle. He amasses this army and sends word to Charlemagne, but Ganelon convinces the king to let Turpin and his army go into battle alone. 
 
Charlemagne’s refusal to fight directly angers Turpin, and both he and a cardinal confront the king and accuse him of cowardice. Turpin curses Charlemagne in Christ’s name. He calls the refusal to fight for Christendom a heresy and states that he is worse than a Saracen. He warns Charlemagne that if Christendom is lost it will be his fault. Turpin’s words anger Charlemagne immensely, and Turpin eventually leaves without him. The king realizes his error and the rightness of Turpin’s criticism, however, and quickly seeks forgiveness. In recompense, the king assembles an army and joins the bishop on the campaign.
 
PART III
 
Charlemagne and Turpin arrive in Lombardy, and the Saracens quickly crown Garcy as their Sultan and prepare for battle. An elaborate description of the coronation ensues. Garcy is given many lavish gifts, including sixty fair maidens. He sleeps with each one of them, and then marries each one off to one of his knights. 
 
In the meanwhile, Turpin and Charlemagne arrive with their armies, and the bishop proceeds to say a mass. Afterwards, Turpin gives a speech and asks to take the vanguard in the upcoming battle.  Charlemagne leads his army up to the city of Milan, and the Sultan calls for his knights to ready themselves for battle. The fighting begins, and the Saracen Sir Arabaunt kills a number of Christian lords, including the Lord of Milan. Turpin retaliates and kills Arabaunt himself.  The bishop’s squire tries to loot a Saracen’s pendant but is beaten and rebuked by the bishop for wanting to steal gold rather than fight “Goddes foo” (987).
 
Sir Darnadowse, another Saracen, rides forward to the Christians and dares Charlemagne to come and fight him. The French king prepares to accept the dare, but Roland asks to fight in his stead. Charlemagne refuses the offer, however, saying that it is his duty to do his part and lead his army in battle. The two are both formidable opponents, and are rather evenly matched. Eventually the Saracen asks for a reprieve, saying that he knows Charlemagne to be a Christian because of his martial strength. He offers him lands if he will convert to the Saracen faith. Turpin orders Charlemagne to think on Mary and his faith and prays for the king’s safety. The king assures him that he will not forsake Christianity, and he eventually kills Darnadowse, gets back on his horse, and continues to battle other Saracens.
 
The fighting continues, and many Saracens are killed because the Christians are fighting “in Goddis righte” (1100). A Saracen eventually approaches Bishop Turpin, brutally strikes him, and quickly flees. Turpin follows in pursuit and mortally wounds him in return. In the process, however, Turpin finds himself surrounded, but manages to escape back to the French side.  His army of clergymen, revitalized after seeing their bishop back on his horse, fight with renewed energy, killing so many Saracens that the heathen army eventually turns and runs.
 
The Sultan and several of his knights flee back to the city, and the French realize that they cannot take Milan directly.  They agree to wait for the Saracens to come out and face them. Turpin, during this waiting period, makes a vow that he will not accept treatment for his wounds until the city is won.
 
The Sultan then sends word to Charlemagne that the he plans to march out of the city gates with forty thousand soldiers. Charlemagne says that he will stay and fight with his men.  As the army approaches, Charlemagne takes the vanguard. The initial charge of the French is so powerful that the Saracens feel that the “might of saynt Mahownn” disappears (1253). The Sultan tries to flee back to the city gate, but is followed by some of the Christian knights. Both sides incur heavy losses, and the French decide to abandon the siege. The Sultan and Charlemagne exchange insults (each accuses the other of fleeing like a coward).
 
Charlemagne goes to Turpin to see how the bishop’s wounds are healing. He wishes Turpin would allow a surgeon to tend to him, but Turpin refuses, saying that Christ suffered far worse than he. At this point, they receive word that the Sultan’s brother-in-law, Sir Tretigon, has arrived with sixty thousand men to reinforce the city.
 
As Alan Lupack observes, the manuscript at this point lacks one or more leaves. Somewhere in this lost passage, however, Charlemagne orders one of his men to seek help in France (149).  The narrative continues in the manuscript with the knight in question, Sir Bawdwyne, who is displeased with the order because he hasn’t had the opportunity to be wounded in battle yet, and the next knight asked by Charlemagne refuses to be an envoy for similar reasons. None of his soldiers will go, but the Duke of Brittany somehow hears of the French army’s need for reinforcement and arrives quickly with thirty thousand soldiers.
 
Turpin, wounded as he is, grabs a spear and rides out to meet the reinforcements. Concern arises over the greater number of Saracens the French will face, but Turpin encourages the Bretons, saying that the more Saracens there are, the greater the glory will be for the Christians. The armies clash once again, and many Saracens are killed. Turpin is badly wounded and exhausted from fasting, and his appearance makes Charlemagne weep. 
 
The romance fragment ends abruptly at this point, with the Bretons bringing food to Charlemagne’s army.
 
 
Analysis
 
The events described in this romance are entirely fictive and are set well before the First Crusade. Nevertheless, the battles between the French and the Saracens are couched directly as defensive holy wars. The initial invasion of Italy by the Saracens, for instance, reflects upon fears of Islamic (especially Turkic) conquests taking place during the late fourteenth century. In this way, the opening episode of the romance presents an image of Saracen conquest convergent with many other crusades romances (consider the Saracen invasion in Isumbras or Octavian, for instance). As in other romances, the Saracens here are cast not only as territorial but as religious aggressors who must be defeated.
 
Moreover, the angelic dreams of both the Lord of Milan and Charlemagne inscribe their retaliatory measures with a heavy dose of divine license. Charlemagne, in particular, is named as Christ’s warrior—the one who will be able to confront and defeat the enemies of God. Interestingly, however, Bishop Turpin takes the helm as the leading religious warrior in the text, one who by turns encourages and admonishes the king in his battles against the Saracens. Turpin’s rebuke of the king, for instance, forces the monarch to recognize the role that he has to play in this religious struggle. In like fashion, Turpin’s acquisition of an entirely religious army further emphasizes the fact that these wars are primarily about religious superiority and dominion.
 
Building upon this theme, the narrator consistently juxtaposes Saracen and Christian behavior. The Saracens are cast as a people who cannot read the world correctly, whereas the Christians consistently interpret their surroundings with accuracy. For instance, whereas the Roland and his fellow prisoners understand the risks of converting to a false faith and are able to remain resolute, the Sultan and his people misunderstand the nature of the Christian religion and believe that the icons and relics are the Christian gods themselves. Their punishment for this misinterpretation is blindness and death, and the Christians, in turn, are rewarded with freedom.
 
In another example, the text juxtaposes two significant social rites: a coronation and a mass. The coronation of Garcy, the Saracen Sultan, is defined by excess: copious amounts of gifts and gold are handed over to the new Sultan, and the celebration culminates with the Sultan sleeping with sixty virgins who were presented to him as gifts. Immediately following this description, which the narrator even says makes him uncomfortable, Turpin is described preparing and saying a mass, a scene that places considerable emphasis on the contrasting piety of the Christian French.
 
The centrality of Bishop Turpin, in fact, allows the romance to focus as consistently as it does on matters of religious warfare and to assert the superiority of the Christian faith (Lupack 106). Turpin himself singularly focuses on his goals and duties as a warrior of God, taking extreme measures to demonstrate his devotion to his cause. Not even Charlemagne or Roland can rival him in his zeal, and it is he who consistently inspires those around him by existing as an idealized example of a holy warrior. In this way, Siege of Milan stands as a rather unique text in the corpus of crusading and Charlemagne romances, because it presents audiences with a religious, rather than secular, leader as the most tenaciously heroic of crusaders.
 
Bibliography

Manuscript: 
 
BM Additional 31042 (London Thornton).
 

Editions:
 
Herrtage, Sidney J., ed. ‘The Sege off Melayne’ and ‘The Romance of Duke Rowland and Sir Otuell of Spayne’ . . . Together with a Fragment of ‘The Song of Roland.’ EETS e.s. 35. London: N. Trubner, 1880.
 
Lupack, Alan, ed. The Siege of Milan. In Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.
 
Mills, Maldwyn, ed. The Sege of Melayne. In Six Middle English Romances. London: Dent, 1973.