The Sultan of Babylon
Composed in the East Midlands in approximately 1400, this romance depicts a global war between Charlemagne's forces and those of the Saracens. It draws clearly from the French Firumbras, but may well have been more directly derived from a now lost Anglo-Norman version (Lupack 2).
For a summary of The Sultan of Babylon and a full-text version, see Alan Lupack's online edition from the Middle English Texts Series.
The romance begins with Laban, the Sultan of Babylon, sailing with his children—his son Ferumbras and his daughter Floripas—to lay siege to Rome. The pope calls on Charlemagne for aid against the Saracens, and Charlemagne sends Guy of Burgundy. Rome falls before Guy's arrival, however, and the victorious Saracens loot relics from St. Peter's before returning to Aigremore in Spain (the capitol of Laban's kingdom). Charlemagne eventually joins forces with Guy, and they journey to Laban's kingdom where they proceed to lay waste to the countryside. A lengthy battle between Christian and Saracen forces (led by Ferumbras) ensues, and the Christians triumph.
The Sultan and his army prepare for battle shortly thereafter by—among other rites—praying to their gods and drinking the blood of wild beasts. Ferumbras is given command of a portion of this army, and he journeys to Charlemagne's camp where he challenges Roland, Oliver, Guy, Duke Neymes, Oger, and Richard, Duke of Normandy (all peers of Charlemagne) to fight. Oliver eventually accepts the challenge and, after a day of fighting, defeats Ferumbras. At this point, Ferumbras renounces his gods and asks to be baptized.
In a subsequent battle, Saracen forces capture Roland, Oliver, and many of the others and bring them to Laban. Floripas, the Sultan's daughter, takes pity on them and promises to help them. She kills both her governess (who refuses to assist her) and the jailor, and brings the imprisoned Christians to her chamber. Soon after, she and Guy become engaged. The peers eventually attack Laban and his men and force them to flee the castle.
A lengthy siege ensues, but Laban is unable to retake the castle because of his daughter's magic girdle, which protects the inhabitants from hunger. Laban sends one of his men to steal it, but the thief is caught and beheaded by Roland. Roland casts the body into the sea, unaware that the man had the girdle on his person.
Undeterred, the peers successfully steal food from the Saracen supply ships, and Floripas distracts her father's army by hurling his treasure over the castle walls. More battles ensue, and Richard, who had been sent to get help from Charlemagne, eventually makes his way to the king in time to disprove the traitor Ganelon's message that the peers had all been killed. With the peers and Charlemagne's forces reunited, Laban and his army are swiftly defeated. Floripas returns the Roman relics to Charlemagne. Ferumbras asks that his father be given an opportunity to convert, which Laban immediately refuses; he spits into the baptismal font and is promptly beheaded. The romance comes to a close with Floripas' marriage to Guy, the dividing of Spain between Ferumbras and Guy, and the drawing and hanging of Ganelon.
While this story has little to do with the historical crusades, it includes many of the same themes and constructions seen in other, more overt crusades romances. The Saracens, for instance, are mainly presented as a cultural Other that deeply threatens the existence of Christianity and Christendom. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen observes:
Embodying alien, racialized physicality, these Saracens are typically described only in terms of their skin color. ... Unintelligible in their customs, language, and vice, they worship senseless idols, torture prisoners, ride strange beasts, murder innocents. During the prolonged battle scenes which form the narrative heart of this as well as most other Charlemagne texts, the majority of Saracen bodies exist to menace Christian integrity and as a consequence to be spectacularly destroyed. (126)As a result, they resemble the Saracens encountered in Sir Isumbras, Sir Perceval of Galles, The Alliterative Morte Arthure to name but a few. As straw men, they exist merely to allow the Christian heroes a body on which to perform their martial and religious superiority.
This romance also shares with other crusades romances the theme of religious conversion. Ferumbras’ path to conversion, for instance, shares much with that of Priamus of The Alliterative Morte Arthure. In turn, the conversion of Floripas draws on an entire tradition in medieval epic and romance of Saracen princesses cast as innate Christians (Metlizki 161-76). These constructions allow for a reiterated performance of Christian superiority in the romance. Laban, finally, is cast as a stereotypical, villainous Sultan who wishes to destroy all Christians. In this respect, he resembles the Sultans in both Sir Isumbras and The King of Tars. Like the latter, Laban rails at his gods for failing him, but he, unlike the Sultan of Damascus in Tars, remains faithful to his religion, preferring death over conversion. His spitting into the baptismal font reaffirms and legitimizes the extermination of Saracens who refuse conversion because it reenacts the threat of pollution and destruction that the Saracens pose to Christendom. As a result, the romance stages Laban’s fall from a position where he can legitimately threaten Christians and their territory. Whereas Laban successfully lays siege to Rome, kills tens of thousands of Christians, and loots their holy relics at the outset of the romance, by the end of the tale—utterly defeated and outmanned—he can only stage the feeblest of desecrations before being killed. In each of these instances, The Sowdon of Babylon presents successful Saracen conversions as largely exceptional; for every Ferumbras and Floripas there are scores of Saracens like their father who must be destroyed in order to guarantee Christian safety.
In this way, Sowdon—like so many other medieval crusades romances—reinforces the impossibility of coexistence with alien races. Conversion here, as elsewhere, becomes another form of extermination, and Christians’ attempts to exist alongside with alien peoples swiftly prove futile. This is made clear through the various martial encounters with Saracens in the romance, but is also emphasized in Charlemagne and his army's encounter with giants. After killing the giant Estragote and his wife Barrok, the army comes upon their children. Charlemagne attempts to bring them into the Christian fold by having them baptized, but they die shortly after because they lack their mother's breast milk (lines 3031-36). As Cohen observes, "their death makes clear the impossibility of the children's assimilation into Christian otherness: they die because Charlemagne's men can never provide a home, never provide a protective structure of 'joye' anything like a family" (132). Charlemagne’s encounter with the giants, then, provides another way of reinforcing the binary of Self and Other so essential to this brand of romance.
The Robert Garrett Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, no. 140 (Princeton University).
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. "On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001): 113-146.
Lupack, Alan, ed. Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.
Metlitzki, Dorothee. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
Smyser, H. M. "Charlemagne Legends." In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, vol. 1. New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967.
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. Eds. Matthew Gabriele and Jace Stuckey. New York: St. Martins Press, 2008: 137-52.