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Eustache the Monk: Introduction

Written in Old French, with traces of the Picard dialect, Eustache the Monk survives in a unique text, now Bibliothèque Nationale fonds française 1553 (fols. 325v-338v), dated 1284. The anonymous poet, who composed the 2307 verses in rhymed couplets, wrote the work between 1223 and 1284 (Conlon, pp. 10-11).

Both Eustache the Monk and Fouke le Fitz Waryn, the final selections in this section, are set in the historical time of King Richard I, King John, and King Philip Augustus of France. Because an awareness of the historical background is vital to an understanding of both works, we have included the following brief summary of the important events.
1199      Richard I dies leaving no male heir. Contenders for the succession are Arthur, son of Richard's eldest brother Geoffrey, and Prince John. John's claim is supported by Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, the English barons, and his mother, the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine. Arthur's claim is supported by King Philip Augustus of France, who sees an opportunity to expand the Capetian empire into Angevin territory in France.

            When John is crowned in Westminster on 27 May 1199, he faces three major conflicts during his seventeen-year reign: war with France, excommunication by the Pope, and rebellion of the English barons.

1200      John divorces his childless first wife, Isabel of Gloucester, and marries Isabel, daughter of the Count of Angouleme, then twelve years old and already betrothed to Hugh Lusignan, a baron of Aquitaine. When Lusignan lodges a complaint with Philip Augustus, the king issues a formal summons ordering John to appear before his court. When John refuses to appear, Philip seizes the opportunity to declare John's fiefs -- Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine -- forfeit. To add insult to injury, Philip gives Arthur all of the Angevin fiefs except Normandy and betroths him to his daughter Mary.

1204      John withdraws from France after the disappearance and murder of his nephew Arthur in 1203.

1207      John invades and captures Poitou. A truce is made.

1208      Pope Innocent III declares an interdict against John for disobeying his order to install Stephen of Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury and for imposing a new tax on the clergy. John responded by confiscating the property of the clergy who obeyed the interdict.

1212      King John forms an alliance with the Count of Boulogne, Otto IV of Germany, and Ferdinand of Portugal with the aim of fighting Philip Augustus, but the plan is abandoned due to lack of baronial support and rebellion in Wales.

1213      Pope Innocent III authorizes Philip to invade England, and Philip assembles a large army and fleet of 1500 ships. John responds by calling out the feudal levies and all ships capable of carrying six horses. The invasion is averted when John agreed to the Pope's conditions -- Stephen Langton is accepted as the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the exiled clergy are reinstated. In addition, John cedes overlordship of England to the Pope in order to win his protection from his disaffected barons. King Philip, disgusted at the outcome, burns his own fleet.

1214      King John invades France with a large army, recaptures Poitou and Angouleme, defeats the Lusignans, and occupies Angers, capital of Anjou. The victories are short-lived as John's coalition of forces -- Otto IV, the Counts of Flanders, Boulogne, Holland, Brabant, and Limburg, and the Duke of Lorraine -- are soundly defeated at the battle of Bouvines. John returns to England with ruined schemes to face his unpopularity among the northern barons.

1215      Although John accepts the articles of Magna Carta on June 15, he has no intention of honoring them. Instead, he prepares for war against the barons.

1216      The barons successfully negotiate with Louis of France, Philip's son, promising him the English throne if he will help depose John. Louis lands in England and advances to London, while John, ill from dysentery, retreats to the west. When John dies, the barons choose young Henry III, and Louis returns to France.

Like Hereward the Wake and Fouke le Fitz Waryn, Eustache the Monk is based on the life of an actual person, Eustache Busket, who lived from c. 1170 to 1217. But the poet transformed Busket's life into the stuff of legend and folklore. While it may be impossible to separate fact from fancy, the following summary, drawn from Conlon's French introduction, pp. 14-19, represents a brief biography of Eustache.

c. 1170   Born at Courset in the district of Boulogne, he entered the Abbey of Saint Samer as a monk.

1190      After his father, Baudoin Busket, peer of the Boulonnais province, was ambushed and killed, Eustache left religious orders to demand justice from the Count of Boulogne, Renaud of Dammartin. To settle the dispute, a judicial duel was arranged and Eustache's champion was killed.

1200      Eustache is appointed seneschal of the Count of Boulogne during his expedition with King Philip Augustus to reclaim territories held by King John of England. Upon his return in 1203, Eustache was accused of mismanaging the Count's financial affairs. Suspecting treachery, Eustache fled into the forest surrounding Boulogne, and the Count retaliated by confiscating his properties.

1205      King John orders the port bailiffs to help a William Little recover his ship captured by Eustache, who has been roving the English Channel as a pirate. As a mercenary mariner, he enters the service of King John, who gave him ships to wage war against King Philip.

1209      Still in the service of King John, Eustache witnesses the signing of a charter in Boulogne as an English ambassador to the Count of Boulogne. When the Count learns of his visit, he outlaws him.

1212      Now in London, Eustache witnesses a charter of allegiance between Count Renaud and King John. Again suspecting foul play, Eustache switches sides and joins forces with King Philip.

1213      In support of the northern English barons attempting to depose King John, King Philip prepares for the invasion of England on May 10, but when the Pope lifts the excommunication of John, he hesitates, and his ships are attacked and destroyed by John's navy at Damne. Eustache loses the nef de Boulogne, a huge ship in the shape of a castle.

1214      Eustache supplies arms to the northern barons rebelling against King John.

1215      Eustache and his navy control the English Channel. King Philip warns a papal legate not to cross the Channel.

1216      In May, 800 ships of Louis, Philip's son, leave for England in order to help the barons depose John. When Louis disembarks from Eustache's ship on the Isle of Thanet, he learns of the death of King John and the barons' decision to choose young Henry III as king. On August 24, Eustache's ship is surrounded by four English ships, and he is captured and beheaded on the spot. Louis eventually withdraws from England and a peace treaty is signed on September 11.
To this substratum of bare historical fact, the poet has added a rich layer of fantastic exploits and adventures, derived from the popular romances, chanson de geste, and fabliaux of the day. Among these works, the influence of the Romance of Reynard the Fox or Roman de Renart is, as we will see, particularly strong. After completing his apprenticeship as a sorcerer in Toledo, Spain, Eustache sets out for the monastery of Saint Samer with his companions. While in Monferrant he gets into a fight in a tavern and casts a magic spell, causing the tavern-keeper and her customers to strip off their clothing, straddle the wine casts, and engage in a bawdy feast. Next, Eustache casts a spell on a cart-driver, making the cart and horse go backwards rather than forwards. Once he arrives at the monastery, he creates mayhem by casting more spells: the monks fast when they should eat; they go barefoot when they should wear shoes; and they swear when they should remain silent. He then turns a side of bacon into an ugly old woman, terrifying the cook. Finally, he gambles away in a tavern the crucifixes, statues, and books of the monastery.

Upon learning of his father's death, Eustache leaves the monastery to demand justice from the Count. When his champion is killed in the judicial duel, Eustache burns the Count's windmills and is outlawed. Fleeing into the forest of Hardelot, he begins a career as a trickster outlaw. In a series of adventures designed to revenge himself on the Count, Eustache uses various disguises in order to harass, embarrass, and rob the Count: a monk, a shepherd, a pilgrim, a coal-man, a potter, a prostitute, a villein, a leper, a fish-merchant, and a baker. In this second set of episodes, Eustache no longer resorts to magic spells but to trickery and deception instead. These "slapstick" adventures owe much to the spirit if not the substance of the popular Reynard the Fox stories. To avoid execution by hanging in Branch I, for instance, Reynard promises to go on a pilgrimage across the sea, and he dons the pilgrim's scrip and staff (Owen, p. 25). In Branch Ib, after Reynard is outlawed by King Noble, he prays to God to provide him "with such a disguise that no beast who sees me may be able to tell who I am." His prayer is answered when he falls into a tub of yellow dye at a dyer's house: "it's made me a shining yellow," he says, and "I'll never again be recognized wherever I've been seen before" (Owen, pp. 38-39). Other impersonations include a fiddler (p. 41), a monk (pp. 128-29), and a physician (p. 199). Another compelling link is found in Branch XI, Renart Empereur, which was composed between 1196 and 1200 -- the precise historical time depicted in Eustache the Monk. In this story Reynard plays the role of a "baron, féodal, grand seigneur, hardi, ambitieux, brutal et sans scruples, qui conspire à usurper la place de son monarque absent" (Flinn, p. 99). Ernest Martin, cited in Flinn, opines that the poem was inspired by the conduct of Prince John during the absence of King Richard and King Philip Augustus on the Third Crusade. The Reynard role is thus played by Prince John. It seems reasonable to conclude that the Eustache poet, recognizing the political allegory in Branch XI, adapted it as well as the trickster motifs for use in his poem.

Relation to Robin Hood Legends

In assessing the relationships between Eustache the Monk and the Robin Hood legend, we need to consider their similarities and differences, their dates, and their opportunities for contact. Beyond the obvious shared features -- both are outlaws living in the forest, venturing out to punish and humiliate the Count of Boulogne and the Sheriff of Nottingham -- there are also a number of episodes too similar to be accounted for by coincidence or common tradition. In the first pair of scenes, the count and the sheriff come face to face with the outlaw leader in the forest. In lines 776-853, Eustache, disguised as a pilgrim, tricks the count into the woods where he captures him. Eustache offers to make peace with his adversary, but the count refuses and is released unharmed. In the Gest, lines 722-817, Little John, disguised as Reynolde Grenelef, meets the sheriff in the forest and lures him into Robin's camp by promising him a "ryght fayre harte," who of course turns out to be Robin "the mayster-herte." Once he is fed, the sheriff asks to be released, and after swearing an oath that he will not harm Robin or his men, he is let go. In the next pair of episodes, the waylaid victims who tell the truth are allowed to keep their money. In lines 930-54, Eustache meets a merchant from Boulogne and asks him how much money he has. The merchant answers truthfully that he has forty pounds and fifteen sous. Upon counting the money and discovering that he is telling the truth, Eustache returns the full amount and lets the merchant go unharmed. In the Gest, lines 145 ff., after the impoverished knight dines with Robin in the forest, he is asked to pay for the meal, and when the knight truthfully replies that he has only ten shillings, he is rewarded many times over. However, in another pair of scenes, when the victims -- both ecclesiastics -- lie about the money they are carrying, they are severely dealt with. For example, in lines 1746-77, Eustache confronts the Abbot of Jumièges on the road and asks how much money he has; the abbot replies untruthfully that he has only four silver marks. When Eustache discovers thirty marks on his person, he keeps twenty-six marks and returns four. As we have already seen, Eustache and Robin Hood are masters of trickery and disguise. In order to fool the count, Eustache, in lines 996-1141, disguises himself first as a coal-man and then a potter. When the count meets the potter, he is crying "Pots for sale!" and tricks the count into believing that the coal-man, with whom he has switched identities, is really Eustache the Monk. Similarly, in Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin assumes the identity of the potter when he goes into Nottingham to spy on the sheriff.

Although J. C. Holt admits that "some of the analogous material must have been transmitted, by confusion of memory or literary borrowing, from one tale to the other," he concludes that "the ballads are not bred in simple fashion from the romances" (Holt, 1989, pp. 64-66). Maurice Keen, after detailing the parallel passages described above, asserts that the romances "cannot be said to be much of an anticipation of the ballads of Robin Hood, except as regards isolated incidents" (Keen, 1987, p. 59). In stressing the differences between Eustache the Monk and the Robin Hood ballads, Holt and Keen seem to deny the ability of the English poets to adapt creatively characters and plot situations from their sources. It should be recalled too that the Anglo-Norman community in England was bilingual, and, consequently, stories could be easily translated from one language to another. Finally, when Holt (p. 65) claims that the restoration of a lost inheritance plays a fundamental role in Hereward the Wake, Fouke le Fitz Waryn, and Eustache the Monk, he neglects to mention that this too is a central theme in Gamelyn, an early outlaw tale in Middle English, and in later Tudor dramas, such as Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington.

The following excerpts from Eustache the Monk were translated from Denis Conlon's French edition, Li Romans de Witasse le Moine, by Thomas E. Kelly especially for this volume.

Translator's Note

As for the title character of the romance, it should be noted that the Monk's name has been normalized in English to the spelling "Eustache." The manuscript used for the translation has a number of variant spellings in Old French: Witasse/Wistace/Wistasces, and Uistasces/Uistasses.

The original text is composed in octosyllabic rhymed couplets, the same verse form used by Chrétien de Troyes in his romances. The form lends itself to a fast-paced narrative style which is difficult to render into modern English prose. Also lost in translation is the sharp wit of a storyteller who never lets up on his word play, especially puns and double-entendre. The word conte, for example, lends itself to frequent semantic shifts from the tale itself to the Count of Boulogne, to the settling of Eustache's accounts with the Count. In the passage where Eustache disguises himself as a leper (lines 1366-1422), the author delights in frequent puns on the various meanings of tour/retour: "retraced tracks," "turn," "turn about," "turn"= trick/disguise -- which are impossible to convey in an English prose translation. The present translation has the modest objective of rendering as accurately as possible only the content of the narrative details, without attempting to focus the reader's attention on stylistic or linguistic nuances: traduttore = traditorre!

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Select Bibliography


Conlon, Denis Joseph, ed. Li Romans de Witasse Le Moine: Roman de treizième siècle. Édité d'après le manuscrit, Fonds Français 1553, de la Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. University of North Carolina Studies in Romance Languages and Literatures, Number 126. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Dufournet, Jean, ed. Le Roman de Renard. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1970.

Owen, D. D., trans. The Romance of Reynard the Fox. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Commentary and Criticism

Flinn, John. Le Roman de Renart dans la littérature Française et dans les littératures étrangères au Moyen Age. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963.

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood: Revised and Enlarged Edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Keen, Maurice. The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. Revised paperback edition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.