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The Siege of Milan: Introduction

The Sege of Melayne is found in the British Museum manuscript Additional 31042 (ff. 66bB79b). Referred to as the London Thornton manuscript, it is one of two collections of medieval writings known to have been copied by Robert Thornton of East Newton in Yorkshire. (The other is the Lincoln Cathedral manuscript 91, commonly referred to as the Thornton manuscript.) The British Museum manuscript dates from about 1450, though the poem itself was probably written some time in the second half of the fourteenth century. The poem is written in a northern dialect. Features of this dialect include the present participle in -and(e) rather than -ing (as in `gronande' and `spekande'); the third person plural of the present tense in -es or -is (as in `men that luffes' and `knyghtis bledis'); third person plural pronouns in th- (as in `thay' and `tham'); and particularly northern forms such as `till' (for `to'), `sall' (for `shall') and `solde' (for `should').

The Sege of Melayne is fragmentary, the romance ending in the manuscript just as the French forces are besieging Milan and, surely, just before they capture the city C with, undoubtedly, a good deal of heroics by Archbishop Turpin. The poem is written in a twelve-line stanza rhyming aabccbddbeeb, though there are places where the rhyme scheme is not perfectly maintained.

The Sege of Melayne is considered part of the Otinel (or Otuel) group of Charlemagne romances. Otinel is a Saracen knight who, like Ferumbras, is converted after a fierce battle with one of Charlemagne's Peers, in this case Roland. The combat itself is described in the Middle English poems Otuel and Otuel and Roland. Neither the combat nor even the character of Otuel appears in this poem as it has come down to us, but it is classified with the Otinel romances because only in these is Garcy the ruler of Lombardy.

But perhaps more interesting than its place in a cycle of romances is the fact that there is no known source for The Sege of Melayne. Dieter Mehl has suggested that the poem may have `originated in England' (p. 153). The conjecture is plausible because, more than any other Charlemagne romance, The Sege of Melayne is a poem about a religious struggle rather than a glorification of the military prowess of the French king and his warriors. There is a sense that God, not Charlemagne, is directing the action and working through his minister, Turpin. As W. R. J. Barron observes,
`the focus of interest has shifted so that the religious theme of defense of the faith dominates almost to the exclusion of the feudal theme of conflicting loyalties, while the rare miraculous interventions of the early chansons now rival the military action in importance' (p. 97).
It is a vision in which an angel appears to Charlemagne and gives him a sword that inspires the holy war against the Saracens. And throughout the poem, God assists those fighting the Saracens in symbolic and real ways, so much so that `the romantic story-material is . . . given a strictly religious interpretation and is often embellished in the manner of Saints' legends' (Mehl, p. 156). Richard of Normandy, mortally wounded himself, is comforted by a vision of the slain French knights being led to heaven. When the Sultan Arabas tries to show the powerlessness of the God of the Christians by burning a crucifix, not only does it not burn but a fire flashes forth and blinds the Saracens, giving the French captives time to slay Arabas and to escape on horses miraculously provided for them (horses which equally miraculously disappear when the knights have reached safety).

Central to the shift towards a religious focus is the character of Bishop Turpin. Although the term may seem alien to medieval romance, The Sege of Melayne borders on being a character study. Turpin is pictured as an unswerving defender of the faith. He demands high standards and correct action from those around him and even more from himself. Nor is he afraid to use the spiritual or political power of his religious position. When he hears how Roland's forces have been defeated by the Saracens, he assembles the clergy of the realm and leads them in the vanguard of an attack on their enemy. He curses Ganelon for his bad advice and when Charlemagne, following Ganelon's counsel, refuses to lead the forces against the Saracens, Turpin excommunicates Charlemagne and declares him an enemy of God and, in effect, a coward. Turpin is ready to fight Charlemagne at the very moment of this confrontation. They are restrained by the lords of the land, but Turpin threatens to besiege Paris and to burn and raze the city. When Turpin assembles his troops before the city, Charlemagne is forced to relent and ask forgiveness from the Archbishop.

In addition to this major conflict, there are some small touches that make the character of Turpin interesting. When he hears of the defeat of the French forces, he says, in a passage almost reminiscent of Laban's complaints against his gods in The Sowdone of Babylon, that Mary is to blame for the loss of the French lives and tells her that if she had not been born (and thus had not brought Christ and his religion into the world), those good men would not have died. He is so preoccupied with the disaster that when he encounters Charlemagne he doesn't even greet him, a small detail that suggests Turpin's single-minded dedication to his cause.

When Turpin and Charlemagne return to avenge the loss, the Archbishop once again displays unwavering dedication to the struggle and becomes the voice of conscience reminding others of their duty. Turpin's own squire stops to despoil the body of a Saracen named Arabant, whom the Archbishop has slain. But his master tells him that he should not be worrying about gold when there are more Saracens to kill. He beats the squire with his sword to make him drop his loot and return to the battle.

Perhaps the most impressive and revealing action taken by Turpin is his refusal to allow any attempts to treat his wounds until the city of Milan is recaptured. Earlier, he reminded Charlemagne of the suffering of Christ and berated him for being unwilling to suffer in Christ's cause. Turpin himself shows no such unwillingness. Twice wounded, he looks to Christ's example: `He askede no salve to His sare, / Ne no more sall I this tyde' (ll. 1346-47). Despite his wounds he encourages Charlemagne to attack a greatly superior force. And though the manuscript breaks off before the fall of the city, there can be no doubt that Turpin honored his vow not to accept treatment or to eat or drink until Milan was taken.

By giving such a clear picture of a man devoted to a cause, The Sege of Melayne presents an interesting variation on the usual themes of the Charlemagne romances. Though containing a number of traditional motifs, such as Ganelon's treachery, Charlemagne's conflict with one of his Peers, and the battles between large numbers of troops, The Sege of Melayne achieves some originality through its emphasis on Turpin as the military, political, spiritual and moral center of the poem.

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Select Bibliography

BM Additional 31042 (called the London Thornton Ms.), ff. 66bB79b.

Previous Editions

`The Sege off Melayne' and `The Romance of Duke Rowland and Sir Otuell of Spayne' . . . Together with a Fragment of `The Song of Roland.' Ed. Sidney J. Herrtage. EETS e.s. 35. London: N. Trubner for the Early English Text Society, 1880.

The Sege of Melayne. In Six Middle English Romances. Ed. Maldwyn Mills. London: Dent, 1973.


Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987. Pp. 92B98.

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968. Pp. 152B156.

Thompson, John J. Robert Thornton and the London Thornton Manuscript, British Library MS Additional 31042. Manuscript Studies 2. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987. (A study of the manuscript.)