A popular romance in Medieval Europe, Octavian circulated as far as north as Scandinavia and as far south as the Italian peninsula. The romance draws heavily from the legendary traditions of both Charlemagne and Constance, and it is similarly indebted to the life of St. Eustace for many of its plot devices. Octavian—despite its meager investment in religious warfare and the fact that it is set during the time of Imperial Rome—incorporates allusions to crusade and plays off of late medieval anxieties over Saracen invasions.
While the calumniation of the queen—and her resulting exile—lacks the heavier overtones of crusading that appear in Constance's analogous travels, the fact that she is greeted and taken in by a Christian King of Jerusalem projects certain fantasies of crusading nonetheless. His very existence suggests a Holy Land under Christian control, which presents the Levant in ways that are both "nostalgic and anticipatory" (Norako 15). It gazes back upon a time in which the Levant was under Christian rule, but it also—especially in light of Octavian’s circulation through the late Middle Ages—reflects contemporary desires for the Holy Land’s recovery by presenting Jerusalem in its ideal state.
The depiction of the Saracens' invasion of France, moreover, operates out of crusading aspirations contemporary to the romance's composition. Though Octavian circulated in France as early as the thirteenth century, the English iterations of the romance were copied during the mid-fourteenth century, a time that witnessed the rise of the Ottoman Turks and their encroachment into Christian territory. These conquests inspired a host of texts that reflect contemporary fears of Christendom’s territorial contraction. Thus, while Octavian circulated on the Continent well before anxieties over the Turks had developed and gained traction, the romance’s continued popularity in late medieval England could partially be attributed to such concerns.
Manuscripts and Early Printed Editions:
Lincoln Cathedral Library Thornton MS 91 (1430–40)
British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii (1446–60)
Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 2.38 (c. 1450)
Huntington Library 14615. London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1504–06 (STC 18779)
Norako, "Crusading Imaginary of Late Medieval England." Ph.D. Diss., University of Rochester. 2012.