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Octavian: Introduction


1 In these episodes, the northern composer has expanded a brief mention of an encounter in the French Octavian and omitted the penitent father treatment whereby only Florent and his father are captured, and the emperor interprets this as penance for his sins against his wife.

2 In Southern Octavian only, Florent haggles with the horse's owner, which is very out of character.

3 Simons, "Northern Octavian," p. 108.

4 The natural affinity is more striking in the southern and French versions, where father and son do not recognize each other until the end of the romance.

5 For examples of the former see Barron, English Medieval Romance, p. 204, and Mehl, Middle English Romances, p. 114. For examples of the latter see Ramsey, Chivalric Romances, p. 186, and Simons, "Northern Octavian," p. 106.

6 McSparran, Octovian Imperator, p. 18.
Though this romance is always known as Octavian, and Octavian is mentioned in catalogues of romance heroes, the title seems something of a misnomer. The story begins with the Roman Emperor Octavian and his calumniated queen, and relates her separation from their twin sons, one of whom is also named Octavian. However, the tale of the separated family gives way to the career of the other son, Florent. His exploits as a youth, his prowess in battle, and his wooing of the sultan’s daughter offer possibilities for social comedy and exotic adventure that make this romance distinctive among Middle English treatments of the formulaic plot.

The story of Octavian was popular throughout late medieval Europe; texts in many languages survive from Italy to Scandinavia. All derive from a French couplet romance composed towards the middle of the thirteenth century by someone who knew Paris and wrote in the Picardian dialect. In fashioning the narrative, the writer employed incidents and motifs common in legend, romance, and chanson de geste. The sultan, his daughter, his giant champion, and the Saracen attack on Paris all have parallels in stories of Charlemagne. The treacherous mother-in-law appears in legends of Constance; the children carried off by animals and raised by foster parents are found in legends of St. Eustace.

The only surviving copy of the Old French romance was made by an Anglo-Norman scribe at the beginning of the fourteenth century. By the middle of that century, two English versions of the romance had appeared, one composed in the northeast Midlands, perhaps Yorkshire, the other in the southeast near Essex. The English redactors worked independently but followed the same principles in handling their source. They considerably abbreviated the story as told in French, reducing the narrative from 5700 lines to 1800 by simplifying the treatment of the love story, shortening passages of introspection and analysis of emotion, and omitting details and episodes not essential to the plot. This condensation highlights the variety of incident and quickens the pace of action. Such modifications are typical of those made by other authors who composed Middle English romances from French sources, recasting the material for a new audience.

There are significant differences between the southern and northern versions: the former is composed in an unusual six-line stanza (rhyming aaabab); the latter employs the common twelve-line tail-rhyme stanza. The southern has a looser, more paratactic style of narration and relies on oral address to announce transitions between episodes. It follows the French version’s alternation in narrating the separation of mother and sons, while Northern Octavian has a more linear sequence. Southern Octavian embroiders upon the exploits of Clement and the sultan’s flying horse, and the final scene includes the empress’ lengthy recapitulation of her story. The northern version is presented in this edition, since it is in tail-rhyme, and its rendition of the story is, on the whole, more effective. It seems to have been more widespread as it survives in more copies, including a print by Wynkyn de Worde.

The plot is set in motion by infertility and the desire for an heir. Octavian’s empress, seeking divine favor, suggests that they build an abbey, and soon conceives twin boys. At their birth, Octavian’s mother tells him they were fathered by the cook’s helper. Octavian kills him, and later accuses the empress of treason. Condemned to burn by advice of her own unwitting father, the empress begs her husband to have the children baptized; the pitiful spectacle moves him to relent, and he has his wife and children exiled. In the wilderness, an ape seizes one child, a lioness the other, but the empress, voyaging to the Holy Land, is reunited with this son. The lioness will not be parted from him and so accompanies them to Jerusalem; there the empress attracts the attention of the king, who recognizes her and installs her in the entourage of his queen. The king has the boy christened Octavian, and when he comes of age, knights him.

At this point, about one-third of the way through the romance, the story turns to the child seized by the ape. A knight attacks the ape and takes the boy; outlaws attack the knight and sell the boy to a Parisian pilgrim, Clement, who christens him Florent and raises him as his own. But the child’s noble character soon asserts itself in contrast to his foster father’s bourgeois values; Clement’s wife defends the boy, suggesting he is of superior blood.

Meanwhile, France has been attacked by Saracens. Many Christian rulers, including the Emperor Octavian, come to help Dagobert, the French king. The sultan’s giant, Arageous, challenges Dagobert, in return for the hand of the sultan’s daughter, Marsabelle. Florent determines to fight the giant. In a mock-heroic arming scene he dons Clement’s rusty gear, then vanquishes the enemy and beheads him, carrying his trophy to Marsabelle in ironic fulfillment of the giant’s own promise. He then abducts her. She is subsequently returned to her father, but plans with her confidante to meet Florent again. In Paris, the victor is joyously received by the Christian leaders and Dagobert appoints a day for his knighting. Clement is invited to the feast, where his bourgeois values are once again in evidence. The Emperor Octavian wonders that Florent could be the son of such a man and prompts Clement to reveal his story, whereupon Octavian recognizes the youth as his own son.

There follows a series of combats and clandestine meetings of the lovers. Marsabelle agrees to become Christian and tells Florent he may overcome her father by taking his marvelous steed. Clement is able to accomplish this task through trickery and disguise. In the next battle things go badly for the Christians C Florent, Dagobert, and Emperor Octavian are imprisoned. However, word of their duress comes to Jerusalem, where young Octavian undertakes to aid his father and right his mother’s case. Accompanied by the empress and the faithful lioness, he journeys to France, slaughters the Saracens, and releases the prisoners. At the feast following the victory the family is reunited. Marsabelle and Florent wed; the emperor’s mother, condemned for treachery, commits suicide. Finally, after appropriate celebration, the family returns to Rome.

Octavian is a family romance: it begins with the story of a calumniated wife and separated twins, and the focus on family is maintained in the episodes with Clement. The villain of the piece, duly punished at the end, is the jealous mother-in-law. Though adultery, illegitimacy, and infanticide threaten family stability, other family taboos associated with such romances, for example, incest or patricide, do not appear. Nurture is a particularly important theme in Octavian‘s treatment of the family. It is first developed in the episodes where the boys are carried away by animals. The lioness is looking for food for her cubs when she finds Octavian, and much is made of her suckling the infant and her tender, playful treatment of him. Clement procures a wet nurse to accompany Florent to Paris, and his wife loves the boy as her own child, protecting him from her husband’s wrath. Clement is a loving, and, finally, supportive foster father. Like Bernard, the adoptive father in Tryamour, Clement arms his son and shouts encouragement during his battles, rallying him to victory over the giant.

The family romance gets a pious treatment. The French version presents the emperor as a penitent father in search of the family he has wronged (like the heroes of Isumbras and the St. Eustace legend), and emphasizes the redemptive value of his suffering. Though this emphasis is lacking in the English versions, the northern composer elaborates the piety of the calumniated wife, keeping her steadily in focus through the first part of the story. Only in the northern Octavian does she propose the building of an abbey, pray for the baptism of her infants, and meekly accept her fate without asserting her innocence. Later she accepts the separation of her family as punishment for her sins and dedicates her life to serving God in the Holy Land. Once the story turns to Florent, it loses some of its pious perspective. Though the opponents are enemies of the faith, the narration of the conflict features the prowess of the hero, not religion. The Christian forces are even ineffective against the forces of heathendom until Florent arrives; later all the leaders are captured by the sultan.1 The composers passed over an opportunity for pious emphasis in the story of the Saracen princess, showing no particular interest in her conversion. The later parts of the romance focus on social, not spiritual, matters.

Its treatment of social class distinguishes Octavian from other similar Middle English romances. Clement is a velayne, a person of the lower classes, but here the word is also used in the sense of bourgeois, a townsman. His predominant characteristic is a concern for money C his “florins whole and round,” as a frequent tag line puts it. He bargains with the robbers when he buys Florent and seems to have named the boy after the coins for which he is exchanged. In some versions of the story, Clement sends Florent to become a moneychanger. Invited to Florent’s knighting, Clement worries that he will have to pay for the feast. He seizes the nobles’ cloaks as surety for their share of the cost, demonstrating his total incomprehension of that fundamental noble virtue, largesse. Then, to everyone’s amusement, he insists on paying for his and Florent’s dinners. As the narrator observes, “He wend alle had bene marchandyse, / The pryde [splendor] that he sawe thore” (lines 1251–52). Florent, on the other hand, is unconcerned with money. It is merely the means by which he is able to procure things of real (i.e., chivalric) value, which are essentially priceless and of worth according to the worthiness of their possessor. When Clement sends him with two oxen to learn the butcher’s trade, Florent exchanges them for a falcon only to be beaten by Clement, who sees no value in the noble bird. Florent never bargains; he even insists on paying forty pounds for a warhorse though the seller asks only thirty.2 Eventually Clement accepts the superiority of courtly values by admitting that the boy has made appropriate use of his goods. The money for the horse was well spent, since Florent rides him to fight the giant and save the city.

Stereotypical bourgeois characters like Clement are not common in Middle English romance. An instructive parallel is Grim, the fisherman who is Havelok’s foster father. The point being made about innate nobility is the same in both romances, and in both there is class humor; but Grim is not burlesqued, and manners are not an issue. Grim goes on to become a leading citizen and his sons are ennobled and made advisers to their foster brother the king. The treatment of the bourgeois in Octavian is a function of its French source, which makes even more of Clement’s rejecting the assumptions of chivalry. The figure of Clement would have had its own special resonances to readers in the commercial regions of Picardy and the Ile de France; upper-class Englishmen in the era of the Peasant’s Revolt might have seen him in the context of their own time’s social unrest.3 Though his antics at court cause Florent great shame, Clement is generally treated sympathetically, and he does carry off the chivalric exploit of winning the sultan’s horse. The emperor makes Clement a handsome settlement for life, but Octavian is not a fantasy of social advancement; the composer’s use of humor in relating Clement’s behavior emphasizes the gap between noble and bourgeois.

The humor with which conflicting class values are presented is another distinguishing feature of this romance. To some extent, the capacity for humor, ironic understatement, and epic boast is inherent in noble character. A romance hero is expected to exhibit a certain high-spiritedness. There are many intentionally funny scenes in Octavian, and a range of comedy from slapstick to subtle irony. Nor is the humor merely an embellishment; often it is employed to direct the audience’s response to the class-determined values of Clement and Florent. Humor arises from the incongruity of behavior and context: first the relatively gentle humor of Florent’s courtly behavior in bourgeois surroundings, as when unperturbed he demonstrates the proper arrangement of the falcon’s feathers to the exasperated Clement, then the more critical treatment of Clement’s behavior at court, where the audience is encouraged to join the feasting nobles in their derisive laughter at his expense. Earlier, when the knights mock Florent in his makeshift armor, we do not identify with them but recognize the literal truth of their ironic wit C despite appearances, he is a “nobylle knyghte / The geaunt for to habyde” (lines 993–94).

Florent’s career is a demonstration of the proposition that nobility of character is dependent on noble lineage. The youth is constitutionally unfit to become a butcher’s apprentice: he instinctively understands the care of chivalric animals and insists on arming himself and challenging the giant, though the other citizens run in fright. In fact, both twin boys’ inherent nobility is apparent from birth: the knight and the robbers who seize Florent are struck by his fairness, and the lioness spares young Octavian because she recognizes him for a king’s son. While unaware of their relationship, the emperor and Florent feel a natural attraction for each other, as do father and son in Tryamour.4

Florent’s chivalrous nature is further exemplified in his courtship of Marsabelle. Theirs is a courtly love, especially by the standards of Middle English romance: it is sudden, consuming, private, conducted in secret with the aid of a confidante. But the love interest in Octavian is not especially linked to class; the lovers differ in religion, not status, so the fantasy of social advancement through marriage is not evoked. Rather, love seems to be of interest for its own sake, and for the exotic overtones of the Saracen princess. Marsabelle demonstrates the forwardness and penchant for scheming against authority often attributed to Saracen princesses, for example Josian in Bevis of Hampton, and Floripas in The Sultan of Babylon and Ferumbras.

All the composers of the Octavian romances faced the same challenge: maintaining a consistent focus while presenting a multiplicity of characters and incidents. A successful combination of family romance, pious legend, social farce, love story, and epic was not easy to achieve. Scenes of combat are not particularly embellished; the action is often vague when compared to the deeds of arms recounted in other romances such as Tryamour or Eglamour. The diversity of themes and directions results in a certain incoherence, which is reflected in assessments of the romance. Some scholars read Octavian as a pious tale, while others stress its political themes.5 Actually, the composers seem to have aimed to fulfill as many generic expectations as possible. No doubt its variety and the appeal of its familiar plot account for the popularity of Octavian and its influence on such later romances as Erle of Toulous and Torrent of Portengale, among others.

The northern version exists in two manuscripts and a fragment of a print by Wynkyn de Worde. The Thornton manuscript is the older, closer to the Old French poem, and presents the fuller version of the narrative. The other text, Cambridge University Ff. 2.38, omits passages from the episodes of the giant slaying, Florent’s knighting, and Clement at the feast. The scribe/editor seems to have wanted to shorten the poem. Otherwise, the two texts closely resemble each other (allowing for the usual formulaic variation). Rhyme schemes of stanzas almost always agree. McSparran says the texts are related by written, not oral, transmission.6 The Thornton text is the basis for this edition, but as the folio following 102 is missing and half of folio 108 has been torn away, the missing lines have been supplied from the Cambridge text.

The dialect of the Thornton text, copied by Robert Thornton of Yorkshire, is more northern than that of the Cambridge. We find such northern features as the -ir plural in brethir, the th pronoun forms of they/them/their, and the feminine singular pronoun scho. S rather than sh appears in such words as sall (shall). The present participle ending is -and(e). Thornton’s idiosyncratic spelling produces some unusual forms, like the doubled consonants of wonndir, twentty, etc., and the indiscriminate use of ie/ye and ie/ey, for example, “wife” (wife, wiefe, wyefe) and “this” (this, thies, theis).


Indexed as item 1918 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:
  • Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral Library Thornton MS 91 (1430–40), fols. 98v–109r. [Northern version; base-text.]
  • London, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii (1446–60), fols. 22v–35r. [Southern version.]
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 2.38 (c. 1450), fols. 90r–101v. [Southern version.]
  • San Marino, Huntington Library 14615. London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1504–06 (STC 18779), incomplete. [Northern version.]

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