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Introduction to the Anglo-Norman Otinel


1 The Bodmer manuscript may be viewed by digital facsimile at en/fmb/cb-0168. Its other contents are Waldef and Gui de Warewic, two Anglo-Norman romances of lineage. For background on Otinel (including information about the incomplete OF version edited by Guessard and Michelant in 1859), see Dean and Boulton, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide, pp. 53–54 (no. 78).

2 Problems in the texts of the French-language manuscripts are discussed by Hardman and Ailes, Legend of Charlemagne, pp. 353–66.

3 Boscolo, “Two Otinel Frescoes,” p. 202.

4 Boscolo, “Two Otinel Frescoes,” p. 209.

5 Le Voyage de Charlemagne, ed. Aebischer. The poem was first edited by Michel (Charlemagne: An Anglo-Norman Poem) in 1836, and has been edited and translated by Picherit (Journey of Charlemagne to Jerusalem) in 1984.

6 The only monograph on the Otinel story is Aebischer, Études sur Otinel.

7 On various ways in which the author of the French Otinel departs from the Roland tradition, see Ailes, “Otinel: An Epic in Dialogue.” For other treatments of Otinel, see also Ailes, “Chivalry and Conversion” and “What’s in a Name?”


Otinel, a late-twelfth- or early-thirteenth-century chanson de geste, recounts the deeds of its titular hero, a young Saracen knight who converts to Christianity, fights nobly against the pagans (including some relatives), and marries Charlemagne’s daughter. It is the main source for the three Middle English romances of Otuel edited in this volume, its plot supplying in basic outline the narratives they convey. The chanson begins as Otinel arrives at Charlemagne’s court in Paris as a messenger from the pagan king Garsie, who has just conquered Rome and now demands Charles’ fealty. Otinel himself is eager to encounter Roland, who has killed his uncle. After much boasting and exchange of insults, the two agree to engage in a single combat, in preparation for which Otinel is armed by Charles’ beautiful daughter, Belisant. The two young fighters exchange a succession of ferocious blows, punctuated by sarcastic conversation, which leave their horses dead, their armor shredded, their heads dazed, and their flesh somehow unpierced. As the battle progresses, Roland appears to be in danger, but, in response to Charles’ worried prayer, the Holy Spirit descends upon Otinel in the form of a dove. The astonished knight immediately decides to abandon paganism, accept Mary as his protector, and undergo baptism. He also accepts the promise of marriage to Belisant once he has defeated Garsie. Following the baptismal ceremony, Charles consults with his barons and makes plans to travel to the city of Atelie (Pavia) to confront Garsie once the winter has passed and he can gather his troops.

Spring having arrived, Charles assembles his army and leads it to Atelie. While the troops are resting up from their journey, Roland and his companions Oliver and Ogier sneak off in search of the enemy. They defeat four kings in quick jousts, killing three and capturing the handsome Clarel, the Saracens’ foremost combatant and a cousin of Otinel. As they move to lead Clarel to Charles, the three Frenchmen find that a force of fifteen hundred Saracens blocks their return. They release Clarel, so as not to be distracted, and then kill numerous Saracens. Ogier is separated and grievously wounded, but he is saved when Clarel intervenes, accepts his surrender, and sends the captive back to town to be watched over by Alfamie, Clarel’s sweetheart. Roland and Oliver manage to fight their way through the army, and they meet up with Otinel as they flee toward Charles’ encampment. A battle ensues between the two armies, in which each of the many French barons has a shining moment. As night falls, the beleaguered Saracens flee back to their city. The next morning begins with Otinel fighting in single combat against Clarel, who cannot convince him to return to belief in Mahomet. Otinel kills Clarel, and the pagans then make a short-lived last stand. At about the same time, Ogier escapes and rejoins his fellow barons. His army destroyed, Garsie seeks to slip away, but Otinel and Roland quickly capture him. The chanson ends as they present Garsie to Charles, who has the captive led to Paris.

The base text for this edition and translation is Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer Cod. Bodmer 168, fols. 211ra–22rb, which supplies the best and most complete extant version of Otinel.1 Dated to the late thirteenth century, this previously unedited Anglo-Norman text contains 1907 irregular decasyllabic lines in assonanced laisses of varying length. A 2133-line fourteenth-century continental French version of the poem survives in a less authoritative manuscript: Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Reg. lat. 1616. The Vatican City text was edited in 1859 by François Guessard and Henri Michelant, who incorporated sections from Cologny to fill gaps in the manuscript’s narrative.2 Two fragments are also available in Paris, BnF nouv. acq. fr. 5094 and Paris, BnF MS. f. fr. 25408. Remnants of frescoes in Treviso and Sesto al Reghena provide evidence that some version of the Otinel story was popular in northern Italy in the fourteenth century. The Treviso fresco is of particular importance as it “seems to be the only fresco representing Roland still surviving in Europe.”3 It represents Otinel as a Saracen giant who is black, with scenes displaying his fight with Roland and his subsequent baptism. The Sesto al Reghena remnant does not depict Otinel, but is identifiable by a scene displaying “BELIXANT” and Charlemagne sitting together on a throne.4

The popularity of the story of Roland’s death at Roncevaux recounted in the Song of Roland was such that later French poets, whether simply appreciating the Roland characters or recognizing a public demand, devised pre-histories for Roland, Oliver, and other popular heroes. Among the best of these poems are Le Voyage de Charlemagne a Jérusalem et a Constantinople, an early-twelfth-century parodic narrative in assonanced laisses that expands humorously on Roland’s pride, Oliver’s love life (along with his wisdom), and William of Orange’s prodigious strength; and the Chanson de Aspremont, which recounts how a youthful Roland acquired his horn, horse, and shield.5 Otinel falls into this category, as do, by extension, the poem’s various English adaptations: the poets present Roland characters warring happily in Italy at a time prior to their heroic deaths in Spain, and they direct much of their attention to a new character, Otinel/Otuel, a Saracen convert to Christianity who rivals Roland in his ferocity.6 There is no evidence that authors of the Otinel poems knew the assonanced text of the Song of Roland that is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 23 (many versions of the Roncevaux story may be presumed to have been in circulation), but it hardly matters: the poets knew enough of the basic story to draw upon the protagonists’ surface characteristics without worrying about the subtleties of Roland’s bravery, Oliver’s good sense, or Charlemagne’s age and anxieties. And, of course, they all knew, with complacent satisfaction (less so from the perspective of modern readers), that pagans are bad, Christians are good, and violence is admirable.7

Among the qualities that distinguish the Otinel poet’s voice is mordant humor, especially common when a French warrior derides an opponent. Otinel’s taunting of Clarel after returning a powerful blow is typical of the poet’s scenes of witty repartee:

La jowe enprent od trestut le jower,
Si que les denz en vit blanchoier.
“Par Deu,” dit Otes, “issi deit l’um chanchier
Colp pur colee, maille pur dener!
Bien semblez humme qui voillie eschiner.
Ne t’avera mes Alfamie mester —
James pucele ne te voldra baiser!” (lines 1450–56)

[He slices off the cheek with the whole jawbone,
So that one might see his white teeth.
“By God,” says Otinel, “thus may one exchange
A blow for a tap, a farthing for a denier!
You resemble a man who’d want to grin;
Alfamie won’t have any more business with you —
Never will a girl want to kiss you!”]

In a similar vein, when Roland’s warhorse has been killed, Oliver wastes no time regretting the dead steed but gleefully supplies Roland with a handsome horse that Ogier has just taken from Clarel: “De part Ogier le vus doins e present — / Meildre est del vostre. Jo qui qu’il valt les cent!” (“On Ogier’s behalf, I give and present it to you — / It’s better than yours. I think it’s worth a hundred!”; lines 803–04). A live horse is surely at least a hundred times better than a dead one!

Also of interest is the bold confidence the poet assigns to noblewomen, both Christian and pagan. When, for example, Charles is impressed by Otinel’s endurance while fighting Roland, Belisant grants herself partial credit for his success: “Bon sunt mi garnement” (“My armor is good”; line 397). When an aged emir brings the captured Ogier to Alfamie and tells her that a hundred pagans have just had their heads cut off by three Frenchmen, she blithely commands that he and his companions return to battle and fetch Roland and Oliver. All the disconsolate pagans can reply is “Einz passera estez!” (“It will happen as before!”; line 971). When the Saracen fighters leave, Alfamie quickly turns her attention to Ogier, whom she somehow knows by reputation.

Overall, the general sense one has on reading Otinel is of a typical chanson de geste that recounts a series of violent jousts and battles, the latter largely presented as single combats. As is normal in chansons, the duration of any given clash is a function of the importance of the defeated or winning warrior. Other traditional elements are dialogue comprised mostly of boasts and taunts, extended accounts of mustering troops, brief evocations of the landscape, assertions of the ugliness and wickedness of Saracen warriors (with the occasional handsome or noble Saracen noted as a figure of contrast), and setpieces that describe the arming of individual warriors.

We are glad to bring this seven-hundred-year-old song of adventure finally to light, both in its original Anglo-Norman language and in modern English translation. It fittingly accompanies the Middle English romances centered on the Saracen hero Otuel, a warrior who is first a rival and then a comrade-in-arms to the famous Roland. In his own culture, Otinel possesses status (like Roland) as an illustrious nephew (of Emperor Garsie), but he eventually shifts his allegiance to become a French peer and Charlemagne’s own son-in-law. The historical valences — both optimistic and deeply prejudiced — to be found in the tale of Otinel/Otuel’s confrontational Otherness, and yet final and full assimilation into the community of Western Christendom, should be of no small interest to audiences today.

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer Cod. Bodmer 168, fols. 211r–22r. [1907 lines; Anglo-Norman; dated last third of thirteenth century. The most complete witness, this manuscript contains Waldef, Gui de Warewic, and Otinel. Base text for this edition.]

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France MS f. fr. 25408. [A fragment of 4 lines; Anglo- Norman. dated c. 1267.]

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France MS nouv. acq. fr. 5094, fols. 7r–8r. [A fragment of 292 lines; Anglo-Norman; dated late twelfth to early thirteenth century.]

Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Reg. lat. 1616, fols. 93r–102v, 109r–24v [2133 lines; northeast France; of poor quality. Old French. Copied at Saint-Brieuc in 1317, this manuscript also contains Fierabras.]

“Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 168.” e-codices — Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, 2005. Online at 211r/0/Sequence-887.

Otinel, Chanson de Geste. Ed. M. M. F. Guessard and H. Michelant. Paris: Maison A. Franck, 1859. Rpt. Nendeln: Kraus Reprint Ltd, 1966. [Based on the Vatican City MS, supplemented with passages from the Cologny MS.]

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