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Floris and Blancheflour: Introduction


1 Metlitzki, Matter of Araby, p. 243.

2 In this connection it is interesting to note that the Cambridge manuscript has King Horn follow upon Floris.

3 In the Breton lay Emaré, also dated to approximately 1400, the love of Floris and Blancheflour is mentioned in one breath with that of Tristram and Isowde (lines 133-50).

4 Floris and Blauncheflur, ed. De Vries, pp. 44-50.

5 Loomis, "Auchinleck Manuscript."

6 Floris and Blauncheflur, ed. De Vries, p. 39.

7 For V the total number given may vary depending upon whether one includes the visible but illegible lines or not.

8 Compare the editions edited by Hausknecht (Floris and Blauncheflur, pp. 98-108) and De Vries (Floris and Blauncheflur, pp. 7-11).

9 McGillivray subsumes these features under the general term "memorial transfer," by which he means "the movement of material from one part of a text to another part which is physically remote, but which is liable to confusion with it because of similarities of situation, content, or language" (Memorization, p. 5).

10 An example of a loose end is provided by lines 447-52: here Floris is told that the Emir wants to give a "heghe feste" (line 451) to which all those who hold land from him will be invited. This is all we hear of it. Hiatuses in the flow of the narrative are mainly found in E, due to rigorous cutting of the text. As De Vries observes in his edition of the text, for the part they have in common A has 855 lines, against E's 711 (Floris and Blauncheflur, p. 8).

11 Smaller subsections of the poem are marked by paragraph signs, often with no more than ten lines in between. They have not been used for the present edition. For a full description of the manuscript, see the facsimile, The Auchinleck Manuscript, edited by Pearsall and Cunningham (pp. vii-xvii), or the online edition edited by Burnley and Wiggins:

12 Capitals in C are found at lines 9, 433, 479, 721, 749, and 777, in E at lines 203, 443, and 835. In the case of E, it is not quite correct to speak of capitals; they were intended by the scribe but never filled in. All the manuscript has is a guideletter in an open space two lines high, followed by two small capitals for the next two letters of the word, e.g. [n]OW in line 203. In both C and E the first of the capitals does in fact indicate a break in the narrative: in line 9 of C Floris takes his leave of his parents and departs on his quest for Blancheflour; in line 203 of E the narrator tells the audience that he will shift his attention from how Blancheflour had been sold to the Emir of Babilon back to Floris: "Now let we of Blancheflour be / And speke of Florys in his contree" (lines 203-04). The other instances, however, have no notable features of a new beginning.

13 All references to the Old French text are from Floire et Blancheflor, ed. Pelan. There is a Modern English translation based on this edition by Hubert.

14 Barnes, "Cunning and Ingenuity," p. 15.

15 Stevens, Medieval Romance, p. 94.

16 Floire et Blancheflor, ed. Pelan, lines 496-501.

17 The number three, which we saw before in the three saving acts of the queen, occurs again in the three games of chess Floris has to play with the porter. The recurrence of the number three is a feature of folktale narratives.

18 Also the Modern English word basket was probably already available in this period, but before 1300 had no wide circulation.

19 On the position of Blancheflour as a slave at the court of the king of Spain, and therefore as property that could be sold as he thought fit, see Kelly, "Bartering of Blauncheflur."

20 Hornstein, "Miscellaneous Romances," p. 146.

21 Kelly, "Bartering of Blauncheflur," p. 102.

22 For a discussion of the geographical complexities of the Old French and other continental texts, see Grieve, "Floire and Blancheflor" and the European Romance, pp. 46-50.

23 This line occurs in A only. E ends with the coronation of Floris; C skips the baptism of Floris but does have the epilogue (which is almost verbally the same as that in A). In view of this, the original version may not have had the line either.

24 That this is by no means true for all critics is shown by the "anthology" of negative comments provided by Barnes; her conclusion is that these are especially found with scholars who compare the Middle English text with its French original ("Cunning and Ingenuity," p. 10). On the other hand, Kelly opens with a list of positive reactions ("Bartering of Blauncheflur," p. 101).

25 Gray, "Early English Entführung," p. 210. It is telling of the tale's mixed reception that Gray could see it as "an early English example of the 'literature of tears,' a 'piteous tale' [which] heightens and intensifies the moments of pathos and sentiment" (p. 208), whereas Field concludes that "sentimentality is avoided with a deft touch" ("Romance in England," p. 166).
Floris and Blancheflour is undoubtedly one of the most popular stories of the Middle Ages. Although not part of one of the well-known medieval conglomerations of narratives, like those of Arthur or Charlemagne, there are versions of it in all Western European languages, from Italy to Iceland and from Spain to Sweden. The one in Middle English survives in four manuscripts, and goes back to an Old French original composed c. 1160-70, i.e., the period in which Chrétien de Troyes started to write the first medieval romances. When exactly the Middle English adaptation was made is difficult to say, as none of the manuscripts are direct copies of the original, but critics agree that it must have been around 1250. This early date makes Floris the second oldest romance in English, after King Horn (c. 1225-50), but where the latter is a typical example of the "matter of England," set in the Germanic world of northwestern Europe, Floris is an oriental tale with all the indispensible wonders of the East: a garden with a magical spring and tree, a harem, eunuchs, an emir who marries a different maiden every year, and the like. And, as Dorothee Metlitzki has pointed out, what is "remarkable is not only the Saracen setting . . . but the sympathetic treatment of the emir," 1 which again is in stark contrast with the role of the Saracens in King Horn.2


Of the four manuscripts of the text, two are clearly older than the others. The Cambridge (C) and London Vitellius (V) manuscripts can both be dated to c. 1300 or even the last decades of the thirteenth century. Of the other two, the manuscript in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the so-called Auchinleck Manuscript (A), dates from 1330-40, while the London Egerton manuscript (E) is the youngest, c. 1400.3 On the basis of a careful analysis of the linguistic features of the texts, F. C. De Vries concluded that V had a southwestern origin, that C was possibly written in Winchester, and that E was of an East Anglian provenance.4 The Auchinleck MS, containing no fewer than seventeen romances in its present state (from a total of forty-three pieces), was presumably the work of a London professional (i.e., commercial) scriptorium.5 Among scholars there is general agreement that the original text was composed in a dialect of the southeast Midlands.6

By an unfortunate whim of fate the beginning of the text is missing in all four manuscripts. V is one of the manuscripts that was partly destroyed and for the rest heavily scorched by the fire that caused so much damage to Sir Robert Bruce Cotton's library in 1731. As a result, many of the lines of the leaves that remain are hardly legible, or are incomplete. In C Floris is the opening text of a single, incomplete quire, of which the first two leaves, or about 350 lines, have been lost. A has lost an equal number of lines, but here that is due to the loss of a complete gathering, the last two leaves of which must have held the opening of Floris, which is continued in the next quire. E preserves more than any of the others, as here the loss is limited to as much as was contained on one folio, roughly some eighty lines. However, it is not only the different number of lines missing at the beginning that cause the four versions to vary considerably in length; this is also due to the texts themselves, which in many places have been abbreviated or added to, resulting in the following total numbers: 824 lines in C, 861 lines in A, 1083 lines in E, and 445 lines in V.7 From what we have and from what has been lost it can be deduced that the original must have numbered some 1,200 lines, which makes it about a third of the length of the Old French text. In this edition, I have provided a brief summary of the missing beginning, based on the French.

In spite of these differences, the four versions all offer what is clearly the same story, while at the same time they are sufficiently dissimilar to preclude the possibility that any of them is the direct source of any of the others. Still, it is also clear that some versions are "more similar" than others, and on the basis of common readings it can be shown that V, A, and E together form a group over and against C, which stands apart.8 This is an interesting conclusion as it means that within fifty years of its alleged first composition in English at least two rather divergent versions were already circulating. Such a rapid development of the text can only be explained if one accepts a vivid oral tradition, as was argued by Murray McGillivray, who further underpins this by pointing out a number of features characteristic of memorization in the texts, such as repetition, anticipation, or long-range transposition of lines.9

If oral tradition may account for the presence of such features as described by McGillivray, others certainly cannot be explained in this way. All four versions show abrupt transitions, hiatuses, and loose ends. The most conspicuous example is that of the pillar in the garden of the Emir's palace, where Claris, Blancheflour's friend, fills her basin with water (line 960). The pillar occurs in all four versions, in a passage that is remarkably uniform and therefore must go back to the first adaptor. It is curious, nevertheless, since the existence of this piler comes as a complete surprise - except to the audience of the C-text, for there it had been introduced three hundred lines earlier, when Darys, the keeper of the bridge, described the city and the Emir's palace to Floris (C lines 223-30):
In the tur ther is a welle
Suthe cler hit is withalle.
He urneth in o pipe of bras,     
Whiderso hit ned was.
Fram flore into flore
The strimes urneth store,
Fram bure into halle,
The stremes of this welle.
Very; indeed
It runs into a
    Whichever way; needed
streams flow abundantly
The line in A is a literal translation of the corresponding line in the Old French version, but there, as in C, a much more detailed description of the palace of the Emir had been given. Its central part is a tower, which functions as a four-story apartment building for the Emir and his harem; Blancheflour has her room on the top floor, together with seven times twenty other maidens. In the middle is a pillar which is the main support of all the floors and through which water, as from a spring, rises to all floors and all rooms. Whenever one of the maidens needs some water, she can tap it from this pillar-conduit.10

Other modern editions (e.g., those of French and Hale or Sands) followed E as their base text. I have chosen A as my primary text, with E to supply 366 of the missing lines at the beginning not found in A, thereby recovering more of the original ME text (i.e., 1,227 lines). A is more rich in detail than E and, although it is at times more difficult to read, it is, nonetheless, the more interesting.


The deficient opening is in itself no obstruction to our understanding of the narrative, as the French version can be used to supply the relevant details. At the court of the king and queen of Spain lives a slave; both she and the queen are pregnant. When the two women have given birth on the same day, the pagan parents of Floris request the Christian mother of Blancheflour to look after the two babies. The E-text begins when the children have reached the age of seven years and are ready to go to school. Five years later, at the age of twelve, they have completed their school education and are approaching marriageable age; the first part may be said to end here (lines 1-30). At this point the king realizes that Floris is unlikely to accept any wife but Blancheflour unless drastic measures are taken to prevent this. Consequently, the second part deals with these inadequate measures and the king's eventual assent to the marriage (lines 31-324). The third part encompasses Floris' quest for Blancheflour (lines 325-809), and the fourth the happy reunion, the trial, and the wedding (lines 810-1197). In part five the story ends with the return to Spain of the newlyweds, where they are crowned and Floris is christened (lines 1198-1219). Finally, there is an epilogue by the narrator, in which he provides a historical perspective by informing his audience that Floris and his beloved are now both dead, ending it with the devout wish that, like them, we may all find happiness after misery (lines 1220-27).

The Auchinleck Manuscript has a number of three-line capitals indicating new sections of the poem; they occur at lines 676, 810, 858, 948, and 1198. Of these, the capitals at lines 810 and 1198 occur at points where the above scheme proposes section breaks, too; the other three are not so easily explained. At line 676 we are in the middle of the description of the garden of the Emir's palace, and the narrator here moves from the spring to the tree of love that stands at the head of it: "At the welle heved ther stant a tre, / The fairest that mai in erthe be" (lines 676-77). In line 858, after a lament by Blancheflour, we hear how Claris commiserates with her, but also rejoices at the secret arrival of Floris, which she can now reveal to Blancheflour. Finally, in line 948, the Emir shows himself so impressed by Claris' defense of Blancheflour that he is now certain that he wants to marry her. Admittedly these are important moments in the development of the story, but not of equal weight to the other two, at lines 810 and 1198. An additional problem is posed by the absence of any large capitals in the first 309 lines of the A-text - it would be too facile a solution to think that the scribe must have overlooked these at the initial stages of his copying job, or changed his mind about capitals while going along.11

A look at the other manuscripts is not very helpful here. V is too mutilated to be of any service, while in neither C nor E do capitals ever occur in the same place as in A.12 Apparently there was no basic section structure that the scribes recognized and copied into their own texts.


To those who see the sword as the quintessential feature of the romance genre, the contents of Floris must come as a surprise: the only sword that occurs in it is that of the Emir, who, in his anger at discovering Floris and Blancheflour in bed together, is tempted to kill them and draws his sword, only to drop it when pity moves him to embrace the young couple. The hero himself, Floris, performs no act of martial skill at all, and is in fact not even a knight; it is only at the very end of the story that the Emir, impressed by Floris' account of his adventures, has him dubbed a knight and invites him to join his retinue (lines 1181-83). More remarkable still, during his quest for Blancheflour, which makes up a large part of the story, Floris takes on the disguise of a merchant, a member of a class that in other romances is hardly visible at all. But in the end, of course, all falls out as it should: Floris and Blancheflour are married, return home, and are crowned king and queen of Spain.

If it is not by prowess, then how does Floris win his beloved in this story? The answer to this is in a key term that occurs no fewer than twelve times in the text: ginne (or engynne), meaning "ruse, trick, stratagem." It is the person who can devise the right stratagem who will eventually be successful; only he can obtain access to the Emir's tower. In this respect it is worth noticing that the Emir's harem is guarded by eunuchs, who are selected for this job exactly because they lack a "ginne," or as the text has it, none of them "in his brech bereth the ginne" (line 630). The line is found in all versions (V is illegible here), and must go back to the original. Since the French text reads: "Les guetes qui en la tor sont / Les genitaires pas nen ont" ("The guards who are in the tower do not have genitals" - lines 1707-08),13 the English adaptor probably saw the humorous potential opened up by the use of the word ginne here in relation to its application elsewhere. The emphasis on ginne, as the means to reach the desired goal, goes hand in hand with a need for good advice (red, ginne, or counseil): the queen advises the king; the innkeepers, including Darys, advise Floris (as does the porter); Claris advises Blancheflour; and the barons advise the Emir. That this feature plays a more conspicuous role in the Middle English text than in the French has been shown by Geraldine Barnes: "Where comparison is possible, these three MSS [C, A, and E] all show additional occurrences of counseil, gin, and rede."14

The way in which the story is told evokes folktale rather than romance: it abounds with repetitions of words, of lines, of entire passages; and it abounds with sentiment. John Stevens goes so far as to define the poem as "a game of sentiment" rather than amour.15 But the story is well told, and such features enable the audience to recognize the successive events as part of an ongoing development within a coherent plot. An illustrative example is found at the beginning of the text. The king, seeing the great and continuing affection between the children and realizing that, when the time comes, Floris will want to marry no one but Blancheflour, intends to put her to death. When he tells his wife, the queen advises him to send Floris away, to her sister, a measure which has, she says, "muche more honour / Than slee that mayde Blancheflour" (lines 61-62). When it appears that Floris is pining away at the court of his uncle without his Blancheflour, again the king can think of no other solution but to behead the girl, and again the queen comes up with a plan that will save Blancheflour's life and, hopefully, force Floris to accept the inevitable fact of having to choose a different partner. Blancheflour is sold off to a merchant, the tomb is built, and everyone is instructed to pretend that Blancheflour is dead. But the scheme fails to accomplish its desired effect: Floris tries to commit suicide, from which he is saved by his mother. All in tears the queen runs to the king and beseeches him to consent to the marriage as otherwise the last of their twelve children will die, and he will be left without offspring. In this passage the queen steps in three times to save the life of one of the children. The two involving Blancheflour are identical; the third, when she saves Floris, is subtly different: first she saves his life and only then does she go to the king and suggest a solution. Similar repetitions are found in the scenes in the three inns where Floris and his companions take their lodging. The first two of these are identical; the third deviates slightly: in the inns at the harbor from which they set sail, and in the lodgings in the city at which they land, Floris is given information because his absentmindedness and his sad demeanor remind the host and hostess of Blancheflour, while in the third inn, just outside Babylon, he is helped thanks to the mediation of the host of the second inn.

A powerful structural image is that of the cup. When Blancheflour is sold, the king receives for her a golden cup of unsurpassed craftsmanship and beauty. On it was depicted how Paris "ledde awey" Helen, while their great love was portrayed on the lid. The cup was taken by Aeneas to Italy, there became the possession of Caesar, from whom it was stolen by the same man who has now sold it to the king. The parallels with the events in the story are obvious: like Helen, Blancheflour is loved by the son of the king but is a prisoner at a foreign court. Like the cup, she was taken overseas where she became the possession of the "emperor" from whom, in the end, she will be stolen. Because Blancheflour had been sold for the cup, this can serve as a quid pro quo for Floris, who takes the cup with him on his quest. The way in which the English adaptor deals with the possibilities of this symbol shows him to be a careful reviser. In the French original it is said that the merchants bought Blancheflour for thirty marks of gold, twenty of silver, precious textiles and the gold cup, and they thought it cheap because they were certain to get double the price from the Emir in Babylon.16 The Middle English text says that the thief who paid for Blancheflour with the cup (and an additional twenty marks of red gold) "wyst to wynne suche three" (line 185). That he was right in his assessment of Blancheflour's value we see when we follow Floris on his way to Babylon: it costs him three cups before he eventually gains access to and is reunited with Blancheflour; two of lesser value are paid to the hosts of the first two inns; with the third, the gold cup, he buys the loyalty and help of the porter.17 But the adaptor goes a step further than this. After he has handed him the cup, the porter devises a plan to smuggle Floris into the Emir's tower by means of a basket filled with flowers. The word for "basket" used here is coupe, and it is the same in both C and A, whereas the later E-version employs lepe (there is no text for V here). The earliest quotation in the MED for coupe is from Floris, and for lepe from The Owl and the Nightingale, a text that is from the same period (c. 1250) and same region (probably Guildford). Considering that the earliest text, C, and the second earliest but of the other group, A, both have coupe, we may assume that the original had this as well, and that this was a conscious choice of the adaptor.18 This also means that there is an intended play on words when the narrator tells us that Floris had to hide under the flowers in the coupe. The cup as a vessel, or container, is a feminine symbol, so, when Floris has given up the gold cup, i.e., the symbol of Blancheflour, to the porter, he receives in return a new but equivalent symbol of her. His subsequent hiding in it is a prefiguration of his sexual union with Blancheflour that will take place soon after. And there is more to it. While he is on his way to Babylon and acting as a merchant, Floris will refer to Blancheflour as his "merchandise," as if she were an object that could be obtained by a commercial undertaking.19 When Floris has given him the cup, the porter becomes his man, his vassal in a feudal sense. In other words, this act enabled Floris to resume his status as a member of the aristocracy, and to receive, as a return service, the help of the porter.

The imagery of the cup has even further implications. When the cup is first introduced it is given an ample description of its splendor and luster. Apart from the story of Paris and Helen already mentioned, the cup has a "pomel" on its lid, an ornamental ball, holding a carbuncle which would light up any cellar where a cupbearer might have to pour out beer or wine (lines 171-75). Later on in the story, Darys describes the tower of maidens in the Emir's garden, and it appears to have some familiar features (lines 615-20):
And the pomel above the led
Is iwrout with so moche red,
That men ne dorfen anight berne
Neither torche ne lanterne;
Swich a pomel was never bigonne,
Hit schineth anight so adai doth the sonne.
ornamental globe on the top of the lead [roof]
made; ingenuity
need by night burn

by night as by day
The parallels between the cup and the tower confirm that here the ultimate goal of Floris' search must be sought. He has given the replica, the cup, to the porter and will now receive its exemplar, the tower, in compensation.

Both at the beginning and at the end Floris has to overcome the resistance of a male opponent, the king and the Emir respectively, but on both occasions he is supported by a female assistant, his mother, the queen, and Claris, Blancheflour's friend in the Emir's harem. The two men act as cold, rational beings, the women as their compassionate, feeling opposites. In their function as rulers of a state the men have to behave like that; they cannot afford to lose sight of the state's welfare. Consequently, the queen only manages to persuade the king to desist in his obstruction of Floris' wishes when she reminds him that if Floris should die, there will be no heir to the throne - to which she adds the emotional argument that the other eleven children they had have all died. In the same manner the Emir is eventually won over to allow Floris to have his Blancheflour. During the court trial, the duke, who had found the lifesaving ring that Floris and Blancheflour were each trying to give to the other, and who like all bystanders was impressed and moved by the couple's display of self-effacing love, suggests to the Emir that he not kill the two, but instead ask Floris to reveal how he had managed to enter the tower, for in this way he could all the better protect himself against future attempts to do so. The Emir follows this advice, and the ensuing dialogue between him and Floris leads to the happy ending.


The immediate source of Floris is the Old French Floire et Blancheflor, which is about a hundred years older than the Middle English text. This French version is usually designated the aristocratic one, or a roman idyllique, to distinguish it from the later "popular" version (in which Floris needs the strength of his hands more than cunning, or engin, to win Blancheflour). There may be little doubt regarding the source of the English text, but this is not the case for the French tale. As Lillian Hornstein writes: "The origins of the story are uncertain: parallels and resemblances have been noted in Byzantine, Greek, and Arabic romances; their exact relationship to the western versions is not clear."20 Kelly has neatly summarized the discussion of the sources as follows: "Scholars disagree as to whether Floris and Blauncheflur is an oriental tale that was adapted for Western audiences, or a tale whose European author simply supplied it with an oriental setting."21

The appearance of a book by Patricia Grieve in 1997 marked a watershed in the discussions of the sources and dissemination of the story through Europe. She was able to show that the origin lies in Spain and goes back to the wars between the Moors and the Christian kings there. This hypothesis would explain not only the strong emphasis placed on the conversion of Floris and all his subjects in many of the continental versions, but also the "perplexing" geography of these versions.22

When the English reviser set out to compose his version of the text, he not only reduced it in length, he also cut out all the references to French history (in the French text and others, the daughter of Floris and Blancheflour, Berthe, is the mother of Charlemagne), and most of the names, both of persons and of places; and he toned down the lengthy descriptions of Blancheflour's tomb and the Emir's palace and garden, while reducing the religious, missionary aspect of the text to a single line.23 But on the whole he did his job skillfully, and critics have often commented favorably on the way in which he has reshaped the romance.24 The dialogues are swift and convincing, the "simple, formulaic style allows rapid movement," and the story ends with "one of the most impressive climaxes in the whole of Middle English romance."25 On the other hand, some losses must be noted as well, occasionally resulting in obscure lines or passages that cannot be clarified without recourse to the underlying French text. The example of the "piler" has already been dealt with; another is that of the peculiar names of the main characters. In the French text we learn that the two babies were born on the same day, "Le jour de la Pasque florie" ("The day of flowery Easter," line 161), which even in Modern French still means Palm Sunday; this is why they are given their flower names. Throughout, the story emphasizes that the red rose is the flower of Floris and the white lily that of Blancheflour. These colors/flowers are found, for example, on the tomb made for Blancheflour and later in the Emir's garden; both are decorated with trees, one of which has white flowers, the other red. The color symbolism explains as well the curious colors of Floris' horse, which was half red, half white (lines 365-66). A final point is that in the French text Blancheflour's tomb becomes a prefiguration of the Emir's garden, which it resembles so unmistakably. The English text has to do without this balancing image.


Editors have generally opted to use the E-text, probably because it has more of the missing opening part than any of the others. Here the A-text has been chosen, complemented with as much of the E-version as was necessary, for the simple reason that it is the longest and in many ways the most complete text.


Indexed as *45 in Brown and Robbins, eds., Index of Middle English Verse, and as item *2288.8 in Cutler and Robbins, eds., Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse:
  • Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates' 19.2.1. Fols. 100r-104v. [A]
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.iv.27.2. Fols. 1r-5v. [C]
  • London, British Library, MS Egerton 2862. Fols. 98r-111r. [E]
  • London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius D.iii. Fols. 6r-8v. [V]

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