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The Sultan of Babylon: Introduction

The romance known as The Sowdone of Babylone survives in only one manuscript, Garrett No. 140, which passed from the Garrett collection in Baltimore to Princeton University. The manuscript dates from the mid-fifteenth century. The poem itself must have been written in the late fourteenth or the early fifteenth century since it contains echoes of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The Sowdone of Babylone is one of the many medieval tales dealing with the exploits of Charlemagne and his band of retainers known as the Twelve Peers. The most famous of the peers were Roland and Oliver, who are heroes of The Song of Roland, the greatest of the medieval French epic poems or chansons de geste. Written around 1100, The Song of Roland both brought to fruition a tradition of tales about Charlemagne and inspired others. In the twelfth century, as romance replaced epic, stories about Charlemagne and the Peers continued to be written. Charlemagne himself, who lived from 742-814, was counted as one of the Nine Worthies, a group which included three personages from each of the classical, Biblical, and modern (i.e., medieval) worlds. This status ranked Charlemagne with such important figures as Hector, Alexander, Julius Caesar; Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus; Godfrey of Boulogne and Arthur. Perhaps only Arthur was of more importance to the medieval world than Charlemagne, who was, after all, credited with defending Christianity - and thus, for most medieval western readers, the civilized world - from the advancing Saracens, a more imminent and proximate threat than that which was met by the other Christian Worthies.

The stories about Charlemagne make up one of the three great `matters' (or subjects) of medieval romance, as defined by the thirteenth-century romance writer Jean Bodel in his Chanson de Saisnes:
N'en sont que trois materes a nul home entendant
De France, et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.
The stories clustered around Charlemagne make up the matter of France; stories about King Arthur and his knights, the matter of Britain; and stories of kings and heroes of the classical world, including Troy and Macedonia, the matter of Rome. The three matters are prominent in the medieval literature of England, Italy, and Germany, as well as France, though France often provides source versions for other vernacular literatures.

The English Charlemagne romances, which are generally translations or adaptations of French originals, may be divided into three groups. The first, of which The Sowdone of Babylone is a member, contains those in which the exploits of the son of the Sultan, Firumbras (or Ferumbras, as the name appears in The Sowdone of Babylone), are highlighted. (The other two groups will be discussed in the introductions to the other romances in this volume.) These are derived from the French romance Fierebras, a chanson de geste of the late twelfth century - although it is generally believed that The Sowdone of Babylone is based on an Anglo-Norman retelling of Fierebras rather than directly on the French romance itself. The first part of The Sowdone of Babylone, dealing with the Saracen assault on Rome, has its ultimate source in the Destruction de Rome, a French poem of about 1500 lines, which describes the sacking of Rome by the Saracens. The events of the Destruction are introductory to those dealt with in Fierebras. The Anglo-Norman manuscript on which the Sowdone of Babylone is based abridges and adapts both of the French poems, which are, in turn, adapted by the English author of the Sowdone.

The poem is in an East Midland dialect. Thus we frequently find third person plural pronouns in h- rather than th- (as in `here' = their; `hem' = them; and, in l. 2698, `he' = `they'); and the form of the third person singular feminine pronoun is `she' (rather than the northern form `scho' or the southern and western form `heo'). In the third person singular of the present, the verb generally ends in -th (as in `King Lowes witnessith' and `corage begynneth'); and in the plural the ending is -en (as in `frith and felde wexen' and `lovers slepen'). The present participle ends sometimes in -ing(e) or -yng(e) (as in `gyvinge' and `seynge') and sometimes in -and(e) (as in `cryande' and `prikande'), as is typical of the East Midland dialect.

Despite the fact that The Sowdone of Babylone is derived from earlier works, there is a degree of liveliness and originality in the narrative that makes it interesting in its own right. It is, after all, a poem whose scope borders on the epic. The Saracen threat to Christendom, which must have been perceived in the Middle Ages much as the Communist threat to the free world was in America in the 1950s, concerned not only the fate of a country but the survival of the way of life that most in the western world knew. The conflict thus takes on the overtones of a world war. The fighting takes place in Rome and in Spain; and Charlemagne's French troops must battle forces assembled from all over the Saracen world. The Sultan's vassals come from Asia, Asia Minor, northern Africa and parts of Europe. As W. R. J. Barron observes, the romance `disarms criticism of its improbable events by the sweep of its narrative' (p. 102).

This sweep allows the author to introduce exotic details that must have had a great appeal to the medieval reader. Indeed, some of them still seem interesting devices for revealing the alien nature of the people that Charlemagne must fight. When Laban, the Sultan, eats serpents fried in oil, or when he makes his vassals drink the blood of tigers, antelopes, and giraffes to inspire their courage, or when the seven-month-old children of a giant in the Sultan's service are said to be fourteen feet long, the audience, medieval or modern, experiences a fearful fascination.

But between the extremes of epic scope and exotic detail, there are other virtues to the narrative. There is in the romance a distinctive sense of character. One of the most interesting characters is Floripas, Laban's daughter. The motivation for her betrayal is slight: in a parody of courtly love, her affection for Guy of Burgundy, whom she has never seen, leads her to assist the Twelve Peers and frustrate the Sultan's plans to put them to death. But she is a striking example of a resourceful and independent female character as she aids her father's enemies.

When Laban is about to kill Roland and Oliver, Floripas advises him to keep them as hostages and then sets about to free them from the suffering and misery of their captivity. When her governess refuses to join in her plot, Floripas, on the pretext of having her watch porpoises at play, brings her to a window and shoves her out into the sea so that the governess will not betray her. To gain custody of the prisoners, she slays the jailer and convinces her father that she did so because he had fed the prisoners even though ordered not to by the Sultan.

She lends similar aid to the rest of the Peers when they become prisoners. Supplying them with food and armor, she allows them to hold out against the Sultan until assistance from Charlemagne arrives. When supplies run out, she has in reserve a magic girdle that makes anyone who puts it on feel as if he has just eaten his fill. And when the Sultan's men are about to break into the castle, she devises the stratagem of hurling down the Sultan's treasure and thus ending the attack as his soldiers scramble to get as much of the gold and silver as they can.

Floripas is in some ways a character as important in the romance as her brother Ferumbras. And the two together make Charlemagne's victory possible. Ferumbras might be seen as the fortitudo that complements Floripas' sapientia (or at least cunning). He is valiant in battle. He overcomes the Pope and has him at his mercy but scorns to kill a cleric and so spares him. He engages in a fierce combat with Oliver, as a result of which he decides to convert to Christianity and to assist the French forces. He even saves the life of Charlemagne who is abandoned in the midst of his foes because of the treachery of Ganelyne (the Ganelon whose villainous behavior is traditional in Charlemagne tales from The Song of Roland on).

Of course, the conversion of his two children to the religion he hates is one of the greatest defeats that Laban suffers. The conversion of the children of the leader of the Saracens is a symbolic victory for the forces of Christianity, especially since almost all the Charlemagne romances are couched in terms of a religious struggle, even when they are not specifically about religion. The conversion also provides one of the thematic links between the two parts of the poem. Early in the narrative, the Sultan said to Ferumbras, `My joy is alle in the nowe here / And in my doghter Dame Floripas' (ll. 95-96). This statement echoes throughout the romance, right up to the end when he has no joy left and can only curse his son and daughter, calling her a `hore serpentine' and him `fals cursed Ferumbras' (ll. 3171-72).

Charlemagne and Laban are poles apart not only at the end of the romance, but throughout. Charlemagne can be unreasonable, as he is when he insists on sending all his Peers as messengers to Laban merely because each of them objected that it was foolhardy to send anyone to a man known to slay the messengers of his foes. But he is unswerving in his faith. He prays to Christ to give Oliver victory in his struggle with Ferumbras, and an angel comes to tell him his prayer has been heard. Laban, on the other hand, is repeatedly defying and denying his gods when he does not receive the results he has prayed for. When he is forced to flee his castle because of his daughter's betrayal, he tells the gods that they sleep too long and threatens to forsake them all if they don't help him. When the Peers sally forth and obtain provisions, Laban is so enraged that he threatens to burn the images of his deities and renounce them all. He goes so far as to have a fire prepared before his priests intervene and convince him to repent and to make a conciliatory offering. Yet again when his treasure is thrown from the castle, Laban is so angry with his gods that he strikes the statue of Mahound and knocks it to the ground.

In the end, Laban can neither be faithful to his own gods nor accept the Christian faith. He spits into the font in which Charlemagne intends to have him baptized and, being recalcitrant, must be executed. His soul is taken off to join the devils in hell while Charlemagne, having rescued the relics stolen by the Saracens from Rome, entrusts the holy objects to churches throughout France.

While Barron is probably correct in saying that religion is not the real interest of The Sowdone of Babylone, it does play a part in defining the characters of Laban and of Charlemagne and in emphasizing the difference in their causes. And it is this polarity that forms the thematic center of the poem. Elements beyond religion enter into the contrast. One of the most important is the matching of words and works. The impetus for all the action of the romance is the robbing of the wealth on one of the Sultan's ships by the Romans, for which he vows to be avenged. But his life becomes a study in frustration. While his vow seems to be fulfilled by the sacking of Rome, he is ultimately thwarted in achieving his revenge by Charlemagne and his Peers, and, worse, by his own children. Laban vows to Mahound that Oliver and Roland will be slain, but is dissuaded by his daughter, whose betrayal assures that they never will be executed. And later he swears that he will hang Charlemagne unless he will return Ferumbras and leave his territory. Of course, Charlemagne is never hung. Even Laban's threats against his gods are never carried out.

What develops is a pattern of rash speech which Laban does not have the power to translate into deeds. Charlemagne is just the opposite. What he says comes to pass, even if it is the rash demand that his Peers take a message to Laban. Perhaps most important in this regard and most revealing as a point of comparison is Charlemagne's vow (sworn `by God and Seinte Denis,' not by Mahound) that unless Laban will be baptized and renounce his false faith, he will never see Babylon again (cf. ll. 761-766). This is precisely what happens. At the end of the romance, when Laban refuses to convert to Christianity, he is put to death.

The contrasting vows and attitudes towards the gods and religion demonstrate that The Sowdone of Babylone is not as poorly structured as might first appear. There is at work in the poem a common medieval structural principle by which meaning is revealed through a series of comparisons and contrasts. The poem can be seen as a kind of diptych in which Charlemagne appears in one panel and Laban in the other. By means of parallel incidents, statements, and relationships with characters, certain qualities in the two and the worlds they represent are emphasized. Through these contrasts the poem comes full circle, and order, disturbed and threatened with extinction at the beginning of the poem, is restored in the end.

Go To The Sultan of Babylon
Select Bibliography

No. 140 in the Robert Garrett Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, now at Princeton University.

Previous Editions

Romaunce of the Sowdone of Babylone Who Conquered Rome. London: Roxburghe Club, 1854.

The Romaunce of the Sowdone of Babylone and of Ferumbras His Sone Who Conquerede Rome. Ed. Emil Hausknecht. EETS e.s. 38. 1881; rpt. London: Oxford UP for the EETS, 1969.

Lines 1491-3226 of The Sultan of Babylon appear in Middle English Metrical Romances. Ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. I, 239-284.


Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987. Pp. 99-103.

Smyser, H. M. `The Sowdon of Babylon and Its Author.' Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, 13 (1931), 185-218.