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General Introduction


1 The remaining five Charlemagne verse romances are: The Sultan of Babylon, two versions of Firumbras, The Tale of Ralph the Collier, and the Middle English Song of Roland (DIMEV 1562, 1554, 972, 2596, 1819; NIMEV 950, 944.5, *593.8, 1541, 1132.5, respectively). The character Roland, Charlemagne’s illustrious nephew, features prominently in eight of the ten Charlemagne romances, that is, all except Siege and Ralph the Collier. Despite some imprecision, the term cycle is retained in this volume because it is a recognized designator for the five romances that relate the Otuel narratives. On the English Charlemagne romances, see Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends”; Ailes and Hardman, “How English”; and Cowen, “English Charlemagne Romances.” There are also some later English prose lives or romances that feature Charlemagne: Caxton’s Charles the Grete (1485) and The Foure Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489), and John Bourchier’s The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux (printed by Wynkyn de Worde, c. 1534) (Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 86–87, 98–100). There is also an early printed verse romance: Capystranus (Wynkyn de Worde, 1515). A useful resource for understanding the corpus of Middle English romance is the Database of Middle English Romance, ed. McDonald, Morgan, and Nall.

2 For an edition and translation of the Song of Roland, see The Song of Roland: An Analytical Edition, ed. and trans. Brault. For an overview of the poem’s critical tradition, see Raybin, “The Song of Roland.”

3 There are two largely complete manuscript witnesses of Otinel: an Old French version in Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS Reg. Lat. 1616; and an Anglo-Norman version in Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer Cod. Bodmer 168. See Dean and Boulton, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide, p. 53n78; and the introduction to Otinel in this volume. The Old French version has been edited (with lacunae supplied from the Anglo-Norman version) in Otinel, ed. Guessard and Michelant. The Anglo-Norman version is edited and translated for the first time in this volume. Otinel has not been the subject of a large body of criticism, but see Aebischer, Études sur Otinel; and Hardman and Ailes, Legend of Charlemagne.

4 The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin pretends to have been written by Turpin, Archbishop of Reims from c. 753 to c. 800. The historical Turpin is an obscure figure about whom little is known. The first appearance of the legendary Turpin is in the Nota Emilianense (c. 1060), a sixteen-line Latin text in an otherwise inconsequential manuscript that is the earliest document to suggest the existence of a Song of Roland: Madrid, Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Historia, Codex 39, fol. 245r. Turpin’s name appears in a list of famous heroes in chansons de geste said to have accompanied Charlemagne to Spain — Roland, Bertrand, Ogier Short-sword, William Short-nose, Oliver, and Bishop Turpin. For a Middle English translation of the Chronicle, see Turpines Story, ed. Shepherd. For editions of French versions, see The Anglo-Norman ‘Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle’, ed. Short; The Pseudo-Turpin, ed. Smyser; and An Anonymous Old French Translation, ed. Walpole. On the Nota Emilianense, see Walpole, “The Nota Emilianese” (for a translation); and The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, ed. Poole, pp. xxxii–xxxiii (for a photographic image of the page containing the note).

5 A notable exception to scholars’ tendency to conflate the three Otuel romances is Speed, who examines the prominence of the conversion theme in each of the three Middle English Otuel romances, and argues that Duke Roland foregrounds conversion much more than do the other two versions; see Speed, “Translation and Conversion.”

6 Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 94, 92.

7 Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances, ed. Lupack, p. 1.

8 Emperor Garcy resurfaces (without Charlemagne) in a different Middle English romance — Le Bone Florence of Rome (DIMEV 575; NIMEV 334), ed. Heffernan — where he rules Constantinople.

9 For The Siege of Milan, see DIMEV 408; NIMEV 234. It is not included in this volume because it has already been edited for the Middle English Texts Series; see The Siege of Milan, ed. Lupack.

10 Ganelon’s treachery, frequently cited by medieval writers, has also often been examined in modern scholarship on medieval attitudes to violence and treason. For discussions of Ganelon and his betrayal in various literary texts, see Haidu, Subject of Violence, pp. 66–69; Leitch, Romancing Treason, pp. 149–54; and Mickel, Ganelon, Treason.

11 See Ailes, “What’s in a Name?,” who discusses the terms “Anglo-Norman romance” and “chanson de geste” as they pertain to the three texts and Otinel. Ailes points out which elements of Otinel conform to chanson de geste tradition and which are characteristic of romance, ultimately concluding that Otinel is a chanson de geste that contains romance elements. For a discussion of how English authors adapted, resequenced, and remodeled narratives from chansons de geste so that they would suit romance conventions, see Hardman, “Roland in England.”

12 The character Belesent, Charlemagne’s royal daughter, also appears as a strong-willed love interest (Belissant) in a wholly different French chanson de geste: Ami et Amile (c. 1200); see Jones, Introduction to the Chansons de Geste, pp. 113, 119–22. In the chanson’s Middle English descendent, Amis and Amiloun, the heroine is still named Belisaunt, but she is the daughter of the duke who is lord of both titular heroes. For the Middle English Amis and Amiloun (ed. Foster), see DIMEV 1350; NIMEV 821.

13 Roland, Oliver, and Ogier the Dane are all well-known characters in French chansons de geste. Roland and his companion Oliver star, of course, in the Charlemagne legends and especially the Song of Roland retellings. Ogier the Dane, “one of the most popular epic heroes of the French Middle Ages,” also has a separate legend of his own (Jones, Introduction to the Chansons de Geste, pp. 35–36).

14 The wedding is described in the Vatican City text, but not in the Cologny text of Otinel.

15 Here the plot of Otuel and Roland is connected to that of Roland and Vernagu in significant ways. While Charlemagne is preoccupied with converting Otuel and defeating Garcy, the Saracens have regained power in Spain; in Roland and Vernagu, Charlemagne has just conquered and converted Spain. Thus, his efforts in Otuel and Roland to reconquer Pamplona fit the “loss and recovery” pattern described by Manion, Narrating the Crusades, p. 8, as one of the central characteristics of Middle English crusading romances. The narrative choice to present the failed conquest mission as one of recovery rather than as an aggressively expansionist endeavor lessens somewhat a sense that Charlemagne might be partly culpable for the death of Roland.

16 The Siege of Milan, ed. Lupack, p. 126.

17 Mehl, Middle English Romances, p. 153.

18 Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” p. 93.

19 Porcheddu, “Edited Text,” p. 480, referring to Paris, Histoire Poétique de Charlemagne, p. 156.

20 Porcheddu, “Edited Text,” p. 478.

21 Walpole, “Source Manuscript of Charlemagne and Roland”; Smyser, “Charlemagne and Roland and the Auchinleck MS”; Paris, Histoire Poétique de Charlemagne, p. 156; see also Walpole, A Study of the Source. Paris based his argument on George Ellis’ description of Otuel and Roland because the Fillingham manuscript was at that time lost.

22 Loomis, “Possible London Bookshop.”

23 On the discrediting of the bookshop theory, see Cannon, “Chaucer and the Auchinleck Manuscript Revisited,” pp. 131–33.

24 See Ganz, “Introduction,” pp. 9–10. Einhard composed his Life between c. 820 and c. 830, some years after Charlemagne’s death in 814.

25 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, ed. and trans. Ganz, p. 34. See also The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, ed. and trans. Poole, pp. 56–57.

26 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, ed. and trans. Ganz, p. 24.

27 Barbero, Father of a Continent, p. 45.

28 Barbero, Father of a Continent, p. 47.

29 Lejeune, “La Naissance du Couple Littéraire.”

30 The Chanson de Guillaume and Gormont et Isembart (surviving only in a 661-line fragment) are thought to date from about the same time. For editions, see Bennett; and Bayot. An Old French spiritual drama, La Vie de Saint Alexis, ed. Hemming, survives from c. 1050.

31 Michel discovered the Digby 23 text in July 1835. The improbable story of Taillefer’s battlefield singing is recounted by the Norman poet Wace (c. 1110–after 1174) in the Roman de Rou, lines 8013–18: “Taillefer, qui mult bien chantout, / sor un cheval qui tost alout, / devant le duc alout chantant /de Karlemaigne e de Rollant, / e d’Oliver e des vassals / qui morurent en Rencevals” (“Taillefer, a very good singer, rode before the duke on a swift horse, singing of Charlemagne and of Roland, of Oliver and of the vassals who died at Rencesvals.”). The text comes from Wace, Roman de Rou, ed. Holden, 2:183; the translation is from Wace, History of the Norman People, trans. Burgess, p. 181. On Digby 23 and the discovery of the Song of Roland, see Russell, “Admiring Ambivalence,” pp. 243–45; and Taylor, Textual Situations, pp. 26–70.

32 Citations of the text and translation of the Song of Roland are drawn from Brault.

33 On violence as central to the poem’s ethos, see Haidu, Subject of Violence, pp. 66–84. On the poem’s treatment of the Islamic Other, see Kinoshita, “Alterity, Gender, and Nation” and “Political Uses and Responses.”

34 Roland is called “proz” and Oliver is called “sage” (Song of Roland, line 1093).

35 For a basic introduction to scholarship on the Song of Roland, see Vance, Reading the Song; and the essays in Kibler and Morgan, Approaches to Teaching.

36 Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, p. 25. Einhard composed his Life long after Charlemagne’s death and half a century after the ambush.

37 See Mandach, Naissance et Développement, especially pp. 21–32.

38 The Song of Roland: Translations of the Versions in Assonance and Rhyme, ed. and trans. Duggan and Rejhon. The narrative survives in two exemplars: Châteauroux, Bibliothèque municipale ms. 1 (8201 lines); and Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana MS Fr. Z. 7 (251) (8880 lines). The translation of Châteauroux-Venice 7 is based on Duggan’s 2005 edition, La Chanson de Roland — The Song of Roland: The French Corpus. For a complete list of manuscripts containing French versions of the Roland story, alongside a précis of Roland scholarship, see Raybin, “The Song of Roland.” For earlier scholarship, see Duggan, A Guide to Studies.

39 On the Middle English Song of Roland, see Hardman, “Roland in England”; and Fragment of the Song of Roland, ed. Herrtage.

40 The classic study of the oral quality of the chansons is Rychner, Essai sur l’art Épique des Jongleurs.

41 Jones, Introduction to the Chansons de Geste, p. xi. The volume offers a useful introduction to the history and development of the chansons. Although there have been many studies of individual chansons, there are very few studies of the chansons as a group. Two books by William C. Calin are helpful: The Epic Quest and A Muse for Heroes. See also Kay, Political Fictions; and Hindley and Levy, The Old French Epic.

42 The Cologny text of Otinel has two laisses in alexandrines with all the rest in decasyllabic lines; see the explanatory note to Otinel, lines 17–44.

43 Jones, Introduction to the Chansons de Geste, lists the versification, number of lines, and approximate dates for seventy-eight chansons (pp. 149–52), along with a bibliography listing over 150 critical editions of chansons de geste and related works, including editions of over 80 chansons de geste (pp. 187–96).

44 Quoted from Bodel’s Chanson de Saisnes in Jones, Introduction to the Chansons de Geste, p. 2.

45 Ferrante, trans., Guillaume d’Orange (includes Coronation of Louis, Conquest of Orange, Aliscans, and William in the Monastery); Newth, trans., Heroes of the French Epic (includes Gormont and Isembart, Song of William, Charlemagne’s Pilgrimage, Raoul of Cambrai, Girart of Vienne, and Knights of Narbonne); Newth, trans., Heroines of the French Epic (includes Capture of Orange, Song of Floovant, Aye of Avignon, Song of Blancheflor, and Bertha Broad-foot); and Ami and Amile, trans. Rosenberg and Danon.

46 Recent studies include Akbari, Idols in the East; Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity; Czarnowus, Fantasies of the Other’s Body; Heng, Empire of Magic and Invention of Race; Huot, “Others and Alterity”; Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby; and Ramey, Black Legacies.

47 The language of the book’s original text is uncertain, but was most likely French. There were numerous medieval translations and adaptations, and manuscripts are extant in Czech, Danish, English (five versions), French (three versions), German/Dutch (four versions), Irish, Italian, Latin five versions), and Spanish; see Introduction, Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski and Benson.

48 Higgins, Writing East, p. 80.

49 On the Other as monstrous, see Friedman, Monstrous Races; Huot, Outsiders; and Cohen, Of Giants and “Green Children.”

50 Heng, “Jews, Saracens,” pp. 257–58. See also Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews, pp. 165–70; Czarnowus, Fantasies of the Other’s Body; and especially Heng, Invention of Race.

51 Heng, “Jews, Saracens,” p. 258.

52 Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity, p. 211. On similar trends in French literature of the same period, see Daniel, Heroes and Saracens; Kinoshita, “Pagans are Wrong,” and “Political Uses and Responses”; and Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre, pp. 53–66.

53 Vernagu contrasts with the titular hero of the Charlemagne romance Firumbras, who is also a giant but converts when he sees that Christianity is superior to his own faith. On exemplary Saracens in French and English medieval literature, see especially Ailes, “Chivalry and Conversion”; Armstrong, “Postcolonial Palomides” and “The (Non-)Christian Knight in Malory”; and Klein, Romancing Islam.

54 A more fully developed example of this type is Firumbras’ sister Floripas, who falls in love with Guy of Burgundy and then betrays her father to help him and other imprisoned French knights.

55 Dinshaw, “Pale Faces,” p. 26, emphasis original. On the physical manifestations of faith and baptism, see Akbari, “Incorporation in the Siege” and Idols in the East; Best, “Monstrous Alterity”; Calkin, “Marking Religion on the Body” and “Romance Baptisms”; Kelly, “‘Blue’ Indians, Ethiopians”; and Rouse, “Expectation vs. Experience.”

56 Calkin, “The Man of Law’s Tale and Crusade,” p. 4.

57 Two notable exceptions to this pattern appear in Floris and Blancheflour, a romance in which a Christian and Saracen marry without either one converting, and in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, where Corsabroyne dies before he is able to marry King Baudas’ daughter. See Floris and Blancheflour, ed. Kooper (DIMEV 3686; NIMEV *2288.8). For the episode in Malory’s Le Morte Arthure, see Malory, Complete Works, ed. Vinaver, pp. 406–08. On Malory’s treatment of Saracen conversion, see, e.g., Armstrong, “Postcolonial Palomides” and “The (Non-)Christian Knight in Malory”; Melick, “Saracens, Graves”; Cecire, “Barriers Unbroken”; and Goodrich, “Saracens and Islamic Alterity.”

58 Othello’s name may be derived from Otuel’s; see Guilfoyle, “Othello, Otuel,” pp. 50–51.

59 Calkin, “The Man of Law’s Tale and Crusade,” p. 3.

60 Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby, p. 140; see The King of Tars, ed. Chandler (DIMEV 1789; NIMEV 1108). Another Middle English romance that invokes the fantasy of conversion and peace effected through intercultural marriage is Bevis of Hampton, ed. Herzman, Drake, and Salisbury, pp. 187–340 (DIMEV 3250; NIMEV 1993).

61 For the two versions of Octavian, see Octavian, ed. Hudson, pp. 39–95 (northern version; DIMEV 3132; NIMEV 1918); and Octavian Imperator, ed. McSparran (southern version; DIMEV 2930; NIMEV 1774). For editions of Firumbras, see Sir Ferumbras, ed. Herrtage (Ashmole version); and Firumbras, ed. O’Sullivan, pp. 1–58 (Fillingham version). Quotations from Octavian are from Hudson’s edition (Lincoln Thornton manuscript), and quotations from Firumbras are from Herrtage’s edition.

62 Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby, p. 169.

63 The trope may draw upon a Western belief that Muslim women were exceptionally lascivious and bent on seducing Christian men.

64 These comparisons refer only to Otuel and Roland and Duke Roland. The arming scene and Belesent’s voiced acceptance of marriage to Otuel are not present in Otuel a Knight.

65 Burnley and Wiggins, eds., The Auchinleck Manuscript.

66 “Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 168,” e-codices.

67 The Sultan of Babylon, ed. Lupack, pp. 1–103.

68 The Tale of Ralph the Collier, ed. Lupack, pp. 151–204.

69 See Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 86–87, 262.

70 See Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 98, 266.

71 See Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 98–100, 266.

72 See Database of Middle English Romance, ed. McDonald, Morgan, and Nall.


The legendary Frankish conqueror Charlemagne loomed large in the imaginations of medieval English Christians concerned with crusades, empires, and national legacy. Although feelings toward the French were less than friendly during the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1452), the English admired the illustrious exploits of Charlemagne (742–814), King of the Franks and the Lombards and First Emperor of the Romans, for his zealous dedication to the suppression of pagans. In this, he was regarded a proto-crusader. The renown of Charlemagne, last of the Nine Worthies, is often cited in Middle English writings, and, as shown by the surviving canon of ten romances featuring the exploits of Charlemagne and his knights, his legends were often adapted into adventures for the entertainment of English audiences. Of these, five belong to what is called the Otuel cycle: The Siege of Milan, Roland and Vernagu, Otuel a Knight, Otuel and Roland, and Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain.1


The tales of the Saracen knight Otuel and his uncle Vernagu deserve to be better known because they offer important medieval literary models of the Saracen — that is, Muslim or other pagan — as either hero or anti-hero. Versions of their story are deeply grounded in the broader “Matter of France” tradition best known through the Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland), an Anglo-Norman chanson de geste composed in the late eleventh or early twelfth century.2 Inspired by the Song’s tragic story of Roland’s death while battling Saracens in Spain, French poets composed dozens of chansons de geste that feature Charlemagne as ruler of Christendom, that is, as conqueror and converter of non-Christians, leader of a band of courageous dussepers (twelve peers), and uncle of Roland, his preeminent knight. One of those chansons de geste is Otinel, a late-twelfth- or early-thirteenth-century poem that is the source for three Middle English romances: Otuel a Knight, Otuel and Roland, and Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain.3 The source for Roland and Vernagu is the Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, a history of Charlemagne’s reign composed in the mid-twelfth century.4 A chapter of the Chronicle tells of a combat between Roland and Ferragus (Vernagu in Otinel and the Middle English romances).

The Otuel-cycle romances have attracted little attention, probably because the corpus is small and their quality has been regarded as slight. Moreover, when the three Otinel-derived romances are mentioned in critical discussion, scholars often decide to conflate them even though they are distinctly different from one another.5 In an overview of the cycle, H. M. Smyser’s kindest comment is that the Duke Roland poet was “a competent versifier.” More typical is his comment that “lines 909–58 [of Otuel a Knight] may serve as a convenient example of the banality all too frequently found in most of the English Charlemagne romances.”6 Still, while the poets who penned the Otuel-cycle romances may not have risen to the literary talents of Geoffrey Chaucer or the Gawain Poet, the romances deserve attention, especially in the current social and political climate, given how curiously, suspiciously, and sometimes sympathetically they scrutinized — and sought to incorporate through conversion — the religious and racial Other.

In another volume in this series, Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances, Alan Lupack explains how Charlemagne was made the last of the Nine Worthies because he had, as Emperor, defended “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.”7 Middle English Charlemagne romances imagine French Christians in legendary conflict against Saracens rather than against the enemy Charlemagne had in fact battled most often: the Saxons. Historical accounts like Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (dated 829–36) suggest that the Saxons were more prone to plague Charlemagne than were Muslims from the East, and that they were the group Charlemagne was most intent on subduing. But perhaps because the Saxons had been successfully converted, and also perhaps because they were ancestors of the English themselves, the poets of late medieval English romances followed French models and depicted Charlemagne at war with their own religious enemy — Saracens.

In this vein, the Otuel-cycle romances feature Charlemagne’s Christian realm in conflict with non-Christians, and here some weighty questions of who can and cannot be converted come to the fore. In Roland and Vernagu, the chief philosophical and theological matter concerns how there are some human-like creatures that cannot ever be converted to Christianity, that is, how physical form, size, and racial coloring may define an individual as too monstrous to be saved. The same issue is presented and resolved differently in Otuel a Knight, Otuel and Roland, and Duke Roland. In those romances, the medieval audience meets a Saracen hero who rapidly becomes the narrative’s most interesting character, and they are asked to consider the validity and efficacy of a forced conversion achieved by divine intervention. Alongside theological quandaries raised when a Saracen is the featured protagonist, the Otuel-cycle romances further invite reflection on a host of issues: Western conceptions of the non-Christian Other, attitudes toward intercultural exchange, and medieval prejudices that still affect modern attitudes of racism, religious division, and nationalist zealotry.


The five Otuel-cycle romances devolve from three sequential stories that center on a seemingly worldwide conflict between Charlemagne and the Saracen ruler Garcy.8 The earliest story (about a war) is told in The Siege of Milan,9 the next episode (about a second war) appears in Roland and Vernagu, and segments of the third story (about the coming of the messenger Otuel and a final war) surface in Otuel a Knight, Otuel and Roland, and Duke Roland. Brief summaries of the three narratives follow here.

Narrative 1: The Siege of Milan. The romance treats a conflict between Christendom and a Saracen army led by Sultan Arabas, who has conquered many Christian cities and is currently occupying Lombardy and attacking Milan. Alantyne, lord of Milan, requests Charlemagne’s help, but Ganelon, the infamous traitor of the Song of Roland, persuades Charlemagne to keep most of his forces in France and send forth only Roland.10 There ensues a serious dispute between Charlemagne and Turpin, who scolds and then excommunicates Charlemagne for failing to aid a besieged Christian city. Charlemagne repents and joins Roland and Turpin in the siege of Milan. The romance’s ending is unfortunately lost, but it likely concluded with a Christian victory over Arabas.

Narrative 2: Roland and Vernagu. The romance opens by explaining that Ebrahim, Spain’s Saracen king, persecutes and kills Christians, and currently has Constantinople under attack. When Emperor Constantius begs Charlemagne for help, Charlemagne saves the city, and as a reward the emperor gives Charlemagne relics of Christ’s Passion. Saint James then appears miraculously to Charlemagne, explaining that he must go to Galicia and recover the saint’s bones. After experiencing this vision three times, the emperor resolves to invade Spain, the mission expanding beyond Galicia to include conquest of all of Islamic Spain. During each siege, Charlemagne prays for victory, and God always grants him success. With the Saracen faith conquered, Charlemagne establishes an episcopal structure throughout Spain.

The crucial Vernagu episode occurs after this set-up of conquest. While holding court in Pamplona, Charlemagne receives a challenge from Vernagu, a Saracen giant so loathsome that courtiers rush forward to gawk at him. Several dussepers try unsuccessfully to fight him, but before a dusseper can strike, Vernagu lifts him up, tucks him under his arm, carries him off, and sets him down unharmed but humiliated. Roland then begs for a chance to face the giant, and despite their size difference, they engage in an equally matched fight. After several grueling hours, Vernagu asks for a break and falls asleep on the bare ground (because he is too large to enter a building). Roland sets a stone under Vernagu’s head to serve as a pillow, and when Vernagu wakes and discovers the “pillow,” he is moved by Roland’s kindness. With a new sense of goodwill, Vernagu questions Roland about Christian doctrine. Roland expounds Christianity’s major tenets, answering each of Vernagu’s incredulous questions about complicated concepts. After this surprising conversation, the fighters resume the duel to prove which faith is true. Vernagu prevails at first, but when Roland calls out to God for help, an angel appears, ordering him to kill Vernagu because he can neither be converted nor made virtuous. Roland immediately slays the giant and presents his head to Charlemagne as a trophy. The romance ends with a forecast of future conflict. Word of Vernagu’s death spreads, reaching the ears of his nephew Otuel.

Narrative 3: Otuel a Knight / Otuel and Roland / Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain. These romances tell versions of the story in the French Otinel.11 The story of Roland and Vernagu lies in the background, as a prequel that the audience would evidently have known, and Otuel and Roland includes an ending based on the Song of Roland story. Each narrative opens with Otuel coming as a messenger to Charlemagne’s court bearing a challenge from Garcy, the Saracen emperor: if Charlemagne converts, he may keep his lands; if he refuses, Garcy will attack. Otuel hurls insults at Charlemagne, Roland, and the dussepers, and he also reveals his personal motive: he hopes to avenge his uncle Vernagu’s death. Enraged by Otuel’s taunts, a French knight attacks and is immediately slain. With the knights crying out for Otuel’s death, Charlemagne and Roland agree that Otuel must be protected, for he has come as a messenger, so the king grants him eight days’ surety. Still angry, Otuel challenges Roland to a duel on the following day. Both knights are elaborately armed, with Otuel’s arming assigned to Charlemagne’s beautiful daughter Belesent and her maidens, who express concern for his welfare.12 During a pause in the duel, Roland asks Otuel to convert and become a peer, offering him lands, titles, and Belesent as bride. Otuel refuses, however, and steadily gains an advantage over Roland. Charlemagne prays, and in response a dove alights on Otuel’s helmet; the Saracen miraculously converts. Otuel is baptized and made a peer.

Charlemagne and the dussepers now consider how best to answer Garcy’s threat. They agree to wait until spring and better weather before heading to Ataly, Garcy’s capital city. Once spring arrives, they embark, set up camp across a river from Ataly, and build a bridge. Three dussepers — Roland, Oliver, and Ogier the Dane — decide to ride out in secret in search of adventure and soon encounter four Saracen kings, whom they overhear boasting about how they want to kill Roland.13 The three knights meet the four kings and slay three, but the last king, the handsome Clarel, begs for his life. They start to take him back to camp as a prisoner but encounter a large force of Saracens. Realizing that their situation is dire, the knights release Clarel because they cannot simultaneously hold him and fight the Saracens. In the melee, Ogier is gravely injured. Clarel reappears, refuses to let his fellows kill Ogier, and instead sends Ogier to his paramour to be healed. Roland and Oliver flee the battlefield.

Back at Charlemagne’s camp, Otuel notes the knights’ absence and chafes that they left without him. He assembles a legion and rides toward Ataly. On the way, he encounters Roland and Oliver fleeing and chides them for cowardice. Roland and Oliver join Otuel and return to the battle, now easily won. Otuel kills many former comrades, including family members. Clarel confronts him, and when Otuel reveals his identity and conversion, Clarel accuses him of treachery. They agree to duel the next day. Otuel wins the duel, killing Clarel, at which point a battle breaks out between the forces of Garcy and Charlemagne. When the Saracens are defeated, Garcy tries to flee but is quickly captured and conveyed to France, where he is forced to convert. Rewarded for his service with lands, Otuel marries Belesent.

Otuel a Knight ends with Garcy’s capture. Duke Roland follows the French story by closing with the wedding and a celebration of total Christian victory.14 Otuel and Roland continues, however, and from this point onward its plot embraces elements from the Song of Roland. Having defeated Garcy, Charlemagne conquers other Saracen rulers in Spain and establishes his court in Pamplona.15 The sultan of Babylon dispatches two captains to overthrow Charlemagne by treachery. They communicate with Charlemagne through Ganelon, claiming that they wish to become Christians, but in fact they have bribed Ganelon to join their conspiracy. Ganelon convinces Charlemagne to return to France, and as the French host marches through Roncevaux in the Pyrenees Mountains, the Saracens attack and defeat the rearguard led by Roland. All are slain. Charlemagne mourns Roland and fights a final battle against the Saracens, defeating them decisively. After Ganelon is convicted of treason in a trial by combat, Charlemagne buries the knights who fell at Roncevaux and builds a church to commemorate them.

Taken together, the narratives embedded in the Otuel-cycle romances establish a basic pattern: a Saracen army attacks Christendom, Charlemagne is forced to quell the threat, and another Saracen army makes a strike in retribution. It could be that few medieval English readers had access to all three installments of the narrative sequence, but it is notable that every manuscript witness of an Otuel-cycle romance contains at least one other Charlemagne romance. The Auchinleck and the London Thornton manuscripts each hold two romances from the Otuel cycle. The compilers of these manuscripts appear to present purposefully the cyclical violence found in the broad narrative sweep of the Charlemagne-versus-Saracens story. It seems very likely that their English audiences would have been readily able to recognize and pick up on the character- and theme-based connections among the various Charlemagne romances.

A key issue in the Otuel cycle concerns how the theme of conversion is presented. Roland and Vernagu pits admirable Christian knights against an unconvertible Saracen of monstrous appearance. The romance’s remarkable pause to allow Roland to expound Christian theology to Vernagu, who exhibits an intelligent curiosity about the matter, may seem to leave the impression that Saracens are open to conversion, but for the giant Vernagu that is not to be. The contrast with the three Otuel romances is extreme. While Vernagu is ultimately exposed as an irredeemable pagan (and apparently not entirely human), his handsome nephew Otuel can be converted. The baptized Otuel will be welcomed as Charlemagne’s son-in-law and incorporated into the ranks of Charlemagne’s knights.


Although scholars of Middle English romance now generally agree that the five romances form a coherent Otuel cycle, there was formerly a period of uncertainty over the inclusion of The Siege of Milan and Roland and Vernagu. With four of these romances appearing in this edition, the scholarly debate is worth summarizing and reviewing. The three Middle English translations of the French Otinel obviously stand at the heart of the cycle. Roland and Vernagu and The Siege of Milan share themes and characters but seem to be more at the margins. Siege’s connections by character (other than Charlemagne) are fairly weak: Otuel is never mentioned, and Garcy is mentioned only once, when, after the Sultan has been killed, Ganelon remarks:

“All if the Sowdane thus be dede,
Thay will have another newe,
A more schrewe than was the tother,
Garcy that is his awenn brothir,
That more barett will brewe.”
(lines 590–94)16

cruel; the other

Moreover, Siege does not share any sources with the other four romances; it may in fact be, as Dieter Mehl suggests, an original English composition.17 Smyser explains how the grouping came about: “Gaston Paris and Gautier suggested that the Sege of Melayne forms a kind of introduction to Otuel in the same way as the Destruction de Rome is introductory to Fierabras, and the Sege has ever since been placed in the Otuel Group.”18 Nonetheless, there are some conceptual benefits to including Siege in the cycle. Like his Otuel counterparts, the Siege poet emphasizes how war against Saracens is divinely sanctioned, and the poem’s scope is similar to the others: it covers a single conflict between Christians and Saracens consisting of two main battles. It also fits generally with the chronology of the other romances, which are clearly meant to have all occurred before the action in the Song of Roland.

The second outlier, Roland and Vernagu, has a stronger connection to the Otuel romances, but its place has been questioned as well. According to Fred Porcheddu, the idea of a cyclical link between Roland and Vernagu and the Otuel romances is based on a flawed “Charlemagne and Roland” theory. He argues that the “cycle” title is itself problematic: “in comparing ‘Charlemagne and Roland’ to collections like the Icelandic sagas, Paris intended the word ‘cyclic’ to be synonymous with ‘collective,’ like an anthology, and the result of a single directing hand.”19 As Porcheddu further argues, the central piece of evidence supporting the label — the “Charlemagne and Roland” theory — is in limbo, so it is difficult to justify the categorization in the way that Paris intended.

While Porcheddu’s critique of the term “cycle” for the Otuel cycle carries some weight, Roland and Vernagu’s place among the Middle English Otuel romances is legitimate because it acts as prologue or prequel to the Otuel story: Otuel’s entrance as a Saracen protagonist is said to have come about in direct response to the action in Roland and Vernagu. Indeed, understanding Otuel’s full motive for coming to Charlemagne’s court requires knowledge of Vernagu’s earlier interaction with Charlemagne, Roland, and the dussepers; Otuel arrives as Garcy’s messenger and as would-be avenger of his uncle’s death at Roland’s hand. Moreover, when Roland and Vernagu is taken into consideration, Otuel’s story presents a clear second attempt at achieving two goals: conversion of a pagan and total conquest over the Saracens. Otuel himself is seeking a do-over: he comes to Paris to defeat the Christians and undo his uncle’s failure. At the same time, Charlemagne and Roland seek to correct a past mistake; during the duel they employ new conversion tactics and are successful. Without Roland and Vernagu, the conversion thread in the Otuel romances would be incomplete. Insofar as conversion is a guiding theme in Otuel’s story, Roland and Vernagu fits in the cycle.

A related subject is the contested relationship of the Auchinleck manuscript Roland and Vernagu with the Fillingham manuscript Otuel and Roland. Porcheddu explains the curious situation that so slight a romance, rarely lauded for its literary value, has brewed a noted debate:

. . . its meter and rhyme are not unusual for the tail-rhyme genre; there are no plot elements (apart from the simultaneous duel and theological debate between Roland and the Saracen giant Vernagu) which strike the reader as extraordinary. Although it is a unique copy and has been edited three times, the poem has never been considered important to scholars or students by virtue of its poetic content. Surprisingly, however, this obscure romance lies at the center of an impressive theory of a lost Charlemagne epic. . .20

In the 1940s, Ronald N. Walpole and H. M. Smyser resuscitated a nineteenth-century theory, expounded by Gaston Paris, that Roland and Vernagu and Otuel and Roland are two halves of the same poem: a single lost source called “Charlemagne and Roland.”21 They noted in particular the poems’ three shared stanzas, identical stanzaic forms, and related plots. Their ideas drew on Laura Hibbard Loomis’ Auchinleck bookshop theory, which proposed that the Auchinleck manuscript was evidence of a “bookshop” — that is, a publication center devoted wholly to book production — that employed multiple scribes, hence that Roland and Vernagu and Otuel and Roland are remnants of a lost unified text.22 The bookshop theory has since been discredited, and given the state of manuscript evidence, the “Charlemagne and Roland” theory is a house built largely on sand.23 It cannot be entirely dismissed, but barring discovery of a manuscript containing a “Charlemagne and Roland” poem, it remains speculative.


Although the events and almost all the characters named in Roland and Vernagu and the three Middle English Otuel romances are romance fictions, the idea that Charlemagne fought in Spain and Lombardy has some basis in historical records. For medieval English readers, the line between history and fiction was less sharply drawn than for modern audiences. Medieval audiences would have recognized historical events referenced in the Otuel-cycle romances and considered these occurrences significant to the history of Western Christianity. The events of Charlemagne’s reign thus provide context for the Otuel-cycle romances.

The posthumous chronicle of Charlemagne’s life composed by his advisor Einhard is an important near-contemporary source of information about the Frankish ruler.24 Despite the many layers of transmission, translation, and adaptation between Einhard’s chronicle and the Otuel-cycle romances, some details found in the romances seem to have roots in Einhard, such as the Roland and Vernagu poet’s description of Charlemagne:

Now late we be of this thing,
And speke of Charles the king
    That michel was of might.
Of his lengthe and his brede,
As the Latin ous sede,
    Ichil you rede aright.
Tuenti fete he was o lengthe,
And also of gret strengthe,
    And of a stern sight.
Blac of here and rede of face,
Whare he com in ani place
    He was a douhti knight.
(lines 425–36)
set aside

tells us

of height

imposing appearance
hair; red

While the notion that Charlemagne was a giant is of course absurd, this description follows Einhard’s depiction of him as an exceptionally tall man with dark hair and ruddy cheeks.25

Other aspects of the Otuel-cycle romances are also connected to historical accounts. Although there is no evidence of his involvement in Charlemagne’s court, a contemporary Archbishop Turpin did exist, and though the documentation is late, there may have been a Roland. The continuing conflict with Saracens from Spain, central to Roland and Vernagu and Otuel and Roland, may reflect the many Carolingian treaties, territorial disputes, and battles with Muslim leaders in Spain. Prior to Charlemagne’s ascension, Muslim groups occupied cities in France, but Charlemagne expelled most of them after a series of battles and sieges. Soon thereafter, the Muslim governor Suliman sought an alliance with Charlemagne in order to gain an upper hand in his power struggles with other Muslim leaders. In return for Charlemagne’s support, Suliman offered him control of northern Spain. The acquisition appealed to Charlemagne for two reasons: first, it would create a barrier between France and the Spanish Muslims, and, second, it could lead to the conversion of non-Christian populations.

In 778, Charlemagne’s forces proceeded through Spain as two armies. One army, led by Charlemagne himself, went through the Pyrenees and Pamplona in the west, and the other went through Septimania toward Barcelona. After seizing Pamplona, populated by Basques who were Christians but unwilling to be ruled by a foreign party, Charlemagne proceeded to Zaragoza, which had been promised to him, and there reunited with the other half of his army. The ruler refused to turn over the city, and Charlemagne was able to sustain a siege for only a short amount of time before a more proximate threat from the Saxons and waning supplies led him to return to France, taking Suliman with him as hostage. Charlemagne again passed through Pamplona, where he discovered that the conquered city had rebelled against his rule and the resident Basques had joined with the Muslims to resist him. Charlemagne destroyed the city and then proceeded homeward across the Pyrenees.

The greater importance of the Saxon threat is well documented. Einhard recounts the Saxon campaigns at much length, and even his account of Charlemagne’s Spanish campaign begins with a note on Charlemagne’s conflict with the Saxons: “While he was vigorously and almost constantly pursuing the war with the Saxons, and had placed garrisons at suitable points along the frontier, he attacked Spain with as large a force as he could.”26 Alessandro Barbero describes the cyclical nature of the conflict between the Franks and the Saxons:

Time and again the Saxon chiefs, worn down by war with no quarter, sued for peace, offered hostages, accepted baptism, and undertook to allow missionaries to go about their work. But every time that vigilance slackened and Charles was engaged on some other front, rebellions broke out, Frankish garrisons were attacked and massacred, and monasteries were pillaged.27

Charlemagne surely was eager to subdue the Muslim threat in Spain and gain new territories, but, as Barbero explains, he viewed it as his spiritual duty to achieve a permanent conversion of the pagan Saxons, considering himself a new David facing a new Jericho.28


Circumstantial evidence for the existence of a popular story about Roland’s heroic death dates back at least to the early eleventh century, when brothers began to be named Roland and Oliver.29 The oldest extant version of a Roland poem is the 4002-line chanson de geste in Anglo-Norman bound in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 23. Dating to around 1100, this magnificent poem, composed in the assonanced stanzas of variable length known as laisses, is the oldest extant secular narrative in a modern European language.30 An otherwise unknown Turoldus, named in the manuscript’s final line, is in some way related to the poem’s composition, be it as composer, scribe, or some mixture. The text in Digby 23 is untitled, the name Chanson de Roland assigned by the young French medievalist Francisque Michel, who in 1833 came to England in search of French manuscripts in British libraries, most especially the long-sought “Chanson de Roland” sung by the Norman poet Taillefer at the onset of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.31 Almost all critical studies of the Song of Roland treat the Oxford text.

The action of the poem centers around two battles. The first takes place at Roncevaux, a pass through the Pyrenees Mountains that separate France and Spain. Charlemagne has spent seven years in Spain, conquering the entire land save one city, Zaragoza, ruled by the Saracen king Marsile. Hoping to convince Charlemagne to withdraw, Marsile offers to convert to Christianity. After an exchange between Roland, who opposes the offer, and his stepfather Ganelon, who favors it, Charlemagne agrees to negotiate. At Roland’s urging, he sends Ganelon to Zaragoza as his emissary. Furious and threatening revenge, Ganelon plots with Marsile to have Roland killed: Ganelon will arrange that, as Charlemagne crosses the Pyrenees, Roland with 20,000 young Frenchmen, the pride of Charlemagne’s army, will man the rearguard, which is then open to a treacherous attack by Marsile’s army of 400,000 Saracens. As Roland proclaims, “Paien unt tort e chrestïens unt dreit” (Pagans are in the wrong and Christians are in the right; line 1015).32 The battle is long and fierce, featuring dozens of intensely violent single combats between the French twelve peers and the foremost enemy warriors — battles that show off the brutishness of the pagans so as to demonstrate the natural superiority of the French.33 Scenes of action are punctuated by two debates among worthy Roland, wise Oliver, and mediatory Archbishop Turpin over whether the duties of a vassal allow that Roland summon Charlemagne to their defense.34 When, eventually, the French forces dwindle and the immensity of their loss is revealed, Roland determines to blow his horn, not so that Charlemagne will save them, but so that the emperor may avenge their deaths. In the end, the Saracens are defeated, their few survivors abandoning the battlefield, but all the French are dead. Roland’s flesh is untouched, but he bursts his temples when he blows his horn to call Charlemagne. God sends four angels to raise Roland’s soul to paradise, and miraculously stops the sun to allow Charlemagne time to kill the fleeing Saracens.

The second battle takes place on the plains outside of Zaragoza, where Charlemagne leads his army against the immeasurably large battalions of Baligant, emir of Babylon, who has arrived in Spain a day too late to support Marsile. A battle between massed troops concludes with a one-on-one fight between Baligant and Charlemagne, who triumphs when God sends Saint Gabriel to encourage him. The poem closes with a judicial combat that determines Ganelon has betrayed not only his fellow warrior Roland — which he claims was justified by their mutual hatred — but the emperor as well, and Ganelon is drawn and quartered. The final laisse finds Charlemagne, summoned to yet another battle against pagans, bemoaning his weary life.35

There is no evidence of a large battle at Roncevaux, and the historicity of Roland’s death in the Pyrenees is uncertain. In his Life of Charlemagne, Einhard recounts an incident in August 778 in which a group of local Basques ambushed Charlemagne’s baggage train as the emperor returned from a Spanish campaign. Among those killed were “Eggihard, the overseer of the king’s table, Anselm, the count of the palace and Roland, the prefect of the Breton March.”36 Einhard makes no mention of Oliver, twelve peers, or a battle against Muslims. As the earliest manuscripts of the Life do not mention Roland, it is possible that his name was added in response to a developing legend.37

The continuing popularity of the Roland story is evidenced during the centuries following the Oxford Roland, as adaptations, translations, and references abound across Europe. Important early witnesses to the story’s popularity include a late-thirteenth-century narrative in mostly rhymed, Italian-inflected French verse, presumably adapted from an assonanced French version and more than twice the length of the Oxford text.38 This poem romanticizes and extends the story, creating a different tone (that of a romance epic), yet existing as fine verse in its own right. The principal extant Middle English witnesses are lines 1979–2790 of Otuel and Roland, which recount the entire Roncevaux story in abbreviated form, and the Middle English Song of Roland, a 1049-line fragment in alliterative couplets in London, British Library MS Lansdowne 388, fols. 381r–95v, with folios missing at the beginning and end. The text that remains tells the story from Ganelon’s return from Zaragoza until shortly before Roland blows his horn.39


Otinel, like the Song of Roland, is a chanson de geste. Chansons de geste, which may be understood as “songs of deeds, feats of arms, or lineages,” are narrative poems, usually in French, that recount the imagined military adventures of various historical and pseudo-historical barons, knights, and kings. The action frequently centers on conflict between Christians and Muslims (referred to as pagans and Saracens), but many chansons focus on power relationships among kings and barons — the two themes are often combined. The poems are typically characterized as epics, a loose term that suggests heroic behavior and perhaps mythic or historical significance. The earliest chansons appear to have been sung or chanted, as evidenced by the incorporation of the formulaic lines and half-lines typical of orally composed narrative poetry; later chansons, which tend to have fewer formulas, were recited or simply read aloud.40

Over one hundred chansons de geste survive from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries in over three hundred complete and partial copies, including several in Anglo-Norman.41 The verse in many twelfth-century chansons is rendered in assonanced decasyllabic laisses, with a caesura after the fourth or sixth syllable, but chansons also exist with alexandrine (twelve-syllable) and octosyllabic laisses.42 Later chansons tend to be composed in rhymed laisses with alexandrines, though assonance and decasyllables are reasonably common and there are many mixed forms. A number of late-twelfth- and earlythirteenth- century chansons announce the close of laisses with six-syllable lines.43 The poet and dramatist Jehan Bodel, writing toward the end of the twelfth century, divides the narrative poetry of his day into three matières (matters): “De France et de Bretaigne et de Rome la grant” (of France, of Britain, and of great Rome). The “Matter of France” refers to the chansons, which Bodel says may be distinguished from frivolous Breton tales and sage Roman texts by their observable veracity, “Cil de France de voir chascun jor aparant” (those of France are true, as is every day apparent).44

Composition in laisses — that is, variable-length stanzas of mono-assonanced or mono-rhymed lines that present either a single moment, scene, or discourse (“unified” laisse) or a transition or series of elements (“composite” laisse) — is a distinguishing characteristic of the chansons de geste. The use of assonance or rhyme as a structural marker was effective in distinguishing scenes and conversations at a time when punctuation was rare and direct discourse was not delineated by quotation marks. A switch in assonance or rhyme might announce that one thought had ended and another was begun. Poets sometimes took advantage of the laisse structure to compose a sequence of two or more laisses that present the same basic information with slight variation. By slowing down the narrative progression, these sequences highlight a moment’s dramatic importance. In the Song of Roland, for example, one set of three successive laisses shows Roland blowing his horn (his olifan) and Charlemagne hearing it from a distance. It is unclear and perhaps unimportant whether Roland blows his horn three times or just once (though Charlemagne says in the third of these laisses that the horn has sounded for a long time). What the poet conveys tremendously effectively is the extent of Roland’s agony:

Li quens Rollant, par peine e par ahans,
Par grant dulor sunet sun olifan.
Par mi la buche en salt fors li cler sancs,
De sun cervel le temple en est rumpant.
(lines 1761–64)

[Count Roland, with pain and suffering,
With great agony sounds his oliphant.
Bright blood comes gushing from his mouth,
The temple of his brain has burst.]

Later poets may have modeled their use of what specialists call “parallel” and “similar” laisses on their famous appearance in the Song of Roland and other early poems such as Gormont et Isembart and the Chanson de Guillaume.

Chansons de geste are generally divided among loose groups highlighting characters and themes: Charlemagne and Roland, William of Orange and his family, Garin le Lorrain and his family, rebellious barons, and the first and second crusades. There are also many outliers. Anglophone readers who wish to get a glimpse of the range of chansons de geste are encouraged to consult Joan Ferrante’s translations of four poems in the Guillaume d’Orange cycle; Michael Newth’s translations of chansons including the Chanson de Guillaume, Gormont et Isembart, the Voyage de Charlemagne, Raoul de Cambrai, and Aye of Avignon; and Samuel Rosenberg and Samuel Danon’s translation of Ami et Amile.45 Over the course of the twelfth century, coincident with the advent of Arthurian romance, chansons de geste pay increasing attention to mixing scenes of love with the ever-present scenes of war, but the two tendencies may have been parallel rather than causal. Romance-like elements tend to be especially strong in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century chansons.


Imagining Christian armies soundly defeating Saracen foes appealed to medieval English Christian audiences, who were themselves frequently in the midst of, recovering from, or preparing for crusades. Nonetheless, depictions of Saracens were not always wholly negative. While Western Christians wanted to triumph over Saracens, they also wanted to convert them. A concept of the “noble Saracen,” able to be converted and incorporated into Christian society, also fascinated Christian audiences. Given current interest in cross-cultural relations and understanding of the Other, it is not surprising that the body of scholarship on Saracens in Middle English literature, particularly romance, has grown substantially in recent years.46 This section presents a brief overview of the subject, especially as it relates to the Otuel-cycle romances.

It is easy to think of medieval England and France in the Middle Ages as spaces occupied by a homogeneous group of white Christians. White Christians certainly made up the vast majority of the English populace, but the British Isles were far from monocultural. Travel was difficult, and information tended to circulate slowly, but in addition to journeying to the wilds of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, many medieval English ventured beyond the Channel and even beyond Europe, and they interacted through trade with people who were neither white nor Christian. Moreover, the English, like continental Europeans, were eager for information about territories beyond their borders. Stories about other peoples and faiths were popular. The travel narrative The Book of Sir John Mandeville was translated into many European languages, and over two hundred manuscript witnesses survive,47 evidence that medieval Europeans wanted to know about other occupants of the world, even if their interest was not always benevolent. As Iain Macleod Higgins argues in Writing East: The “Travels” of Sir John Mandeville, the Mandeville author and adapters have a clear and obvious purpose in their descriptions of foreign lands and people: to distinguish Western Christians from the Other, and to use this distinction to critique the shortcomings of the former through “use of the Other as a Self-critical mirror.”48 As in The Book of Sir John Mandeville, depictions of the Other in literature were wildly fictionalized and often derogatory, with a steady focus not just on observing foreigners, but on converting, subduing, or obliterating those who followed non-Christian faiths.49

In England during the Middle Ages, Saracens made popular characters for romances, particularly after the crusades had begun. Geraldine Heng argues that the crusades and English romance were closely intertwined. According to Heng, the romance genre developed as a response to the trauma experienced during the crusades and was used to examine some of the central issues raised by crusading activity:

. . . key historical developments in England — the idea of a medieval English nation, crises in knighthood and the encroachment of forms of modernity threatening chivalric feudalism, the rise of conversion and missionizing as alternative forms of conquest to military adventurism, and the expanding sense of an infinitely enlarging world in which England was located — found expressive voice by retelling the history and meaning of the crusades against the Saracens and Islam.50

English audiences enjoyed romances that depicted Saracens and conversion efforts because these romances bolstered their crusading fantasies. In later romances, once the success of past crusades and the viability of future crusades had become questionable, depictions of Saracens were sometimes used as thought experiments for authors considering whether crusades could be won, and whether Saracens could truly be converted.

Most English Christians did not have much firsthand experience with Muslims unless they had traveled extensively. However, they did have access to texts and stories that would have informed them about Muslims and their faith. For example, The Book of Sir John Mandeville mixes accurate and fanciful details about Islam, and properly characterizes Muslims as highly devout. Nonetheless, Saracens and their faith were most often depicted in romance as unholy inversions of Christians and Christianity. Thus Saracens are usually shown as having three or four gods, worshiped as idols. The gods’ names vary by romance, but the most common are Mahounde (Muhammad), Apollin, Jovin, and Termagaunt. Less common are Jubiter and Platon, names adapted, like Apollin and Jovin, from Greco-Roman mythology and history. In the four romances in this edition, Mahounde is the god invoked most often by Saracen characters, but Saracens in Roland and Vernagu pray to Apollin (line 860) and Jubiter (lines 343, 852, 860); Saracens call upon Apollin in Otuel a Knight (line 1276) and Duke Roland (“Apparoun,” line 1483); and, in Otuel and Roland, Saracens invoke the group of Mahounde, Apollin, Jovin, and Termagaunt three times (lines 1185–87, 1195–99, and 1534–35), Termagaunt two additional times (lines 127, 736), and Platon three times (lines 122, 1235, 1487).

While inaccuracies in the depiction of Saracens may seem fairly innocent, Heng explains that when “Romances in the English Charlemagne/Roland cycle, like the Sultan of Babylon and Otuel and Roland, . . . exuberantly feature a multiplicity of Saracen gods and idols,” this “depiction of Islam as a polytheistic pagan apparatus turning on idol worship and false gods . . . is an aggressive polemical stance of denigration and dismissal.”51 Saracen characters often exclaim to their gods in prayers that mimic Christian prayers, and when they swear oaths, they usually avow “bi Mahoun” (e.g., Otuel a Knight, line 220) and praise him as a mighty worker of miracles (Otuel a Knight, lines 1183–84). When Clarel confronts a converted Otuel, he advises him to “leef en Mahoun” (Otuel a Knight, line 1168) or “Giffe thi hert unto Mahoun” (Duke Roland, line 223). In Otuel and Roland, Saracens even offer up a cry of “Mahoun joye” (line 825) after a successful attack, an adaptation of the Christian exclamation “Mountjoy!” There are several references to idol worship and idols: “maumetes” (Roland and Vernagu, line 323) and “maumettrie” (Otuel a Knight, line 25).

Saracens are also portrayed as heavy drinkers and prone to lust. In Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript, Siobhan Bly Calkin argues that these inaccuracies were probably not truly intended to spread misinformation about Muslims, but were instead a way for English authors to negotiate their own national and religious identities:

Within the context of the early fourteenth-century Auchinleck manuscript, Saracens serve to define the “Inglisch” identity asserted so stridently therein, and to explore the processes and problems involved in asserting such an identity in the 1330s. The Saracens of Auchinleck thus decisively demonstrate the various ways in which figures of religious alterity offer crucial insights into cultural and political debates in which their audiences are directly engaged. The manuscript therefore explains, at least in part, the popularity of Saracens in the late medieval West: these characters provided their audiences with the opportunity to examine purportedly exotic realms and people, but simultaneously ensured, through their inaccuracies and resemblances to Westerners, that such examination provided their audiences with ideas about, and clarifications of, the audiences’ own concerns.52

Calkin’s observations about Saracen characters in the Auchinleck manuscript romances (which include Roland and Vernagu and Otuel a Knight) apply equally well to the other Otuel-cycle romances. Vernagu’s courtesy and honorable comportment align him with Christian values, but his enormous size and dark skin color define him as Other.53 Clarel’s lover Enfamy suggests the type of “enamored Saracen princess” who converts to Christianity for love. Though Enfamy never actually betrays Clarel, she is undeniably intrigued by Ogier when she heals his wounds.54

While converted Saracen characters like Otuel were popular with audiences eager to consider the successful conversion and incorporation of Saracens into Christendom, Saracen characters who do not convert are nearly as important to an understanding of how the non-Christian Other was received. Vernagu and Clarel are prominent Saracens who cannot be persuaded to convert. Characters like Vernagu are often seen as suggesting that some Saracens simply cannot be converted because they have an inherent quality that prevents them from changing their faith. Carolyn Dinshaw discusses this principle in relation to the Syrians massacred by the Sultaness in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, noting that even though they have converted, the Man of Law does not present them as true Christians:

Christian converts from Islam in The Man of Law’s Tale are treated in ways that are not so different from the ways intransigent infidels are treated. They all die, that is, and they die because they’re still corporeally, racially, the same . . . . No one, not even the usually hyperbolic Man of Law as narrator, bewails the deaths of so many Christians: their everlasting lives are not even mentioned. . . . But a question arises from this narrative treatment: is there a difference between a real converted Saracen and a fake one, if each shares the same ugly narratorial fate?55

Likewise, anxieties about whether Saracens could actually be converted are expressed often in the Otuel romances. An angel reveals to Roland that Vernagu, notwithstanding his interest in Roland’s explanation of Christian tenets, can never be converted, and commands Roland to kill him. Otuel’s conversion is achieved through a miracle, against his will and refusal to abandon his faith. Even as Otuel’s faith has nominally changed, not much about his character or behavior is different. It is reasonable to ask whether such a conversion is genuine.

A related concern in the romances was about which methods were likeliest to bring about genuine conversion. Calkin discusses how some popular conversion methods — marriage, preaching, trade, money — are used to varying success in the Man of Law’s Tale. Though marriage was a “peaceful complement to traditional crusade warfare in endeavours to extend Christian control over Saracen territories,” its use in the Man of Law’s Tale

is not really about conversion in any spiritual sense, wherein a process of theological instruction leads to a change of religious belief. Instead, Chaucer’s depiction of this marriage eliminates suggestions of proselytizing efforts on Custance’s part and emphasizes the role of trade and ‘certein gold’ in spreading the Christian faith.56

It is in some measure unsurprising that Custance’s marriage to the Sultan — arranged by a mercantile exchange of a Christian emperor’s daughter and her dowry for a Saracen ruler’s conversion — ends in a massacre of both Christians and Saracens.

The Otuel-cycle romances show the utilization of multiple conversion tactics, with Roland employing a trial-and-error approach to finding the most effective method. In Roland and Vernagu, Roland expounds Christian theology to Vernagu, answering all his questions and explaining the most paradoxical tenets. In the Otuel romances, Roland first offers lands, titles, wealth, and status to Otuel and then proffers marriage to Belesent. All of these solicitations fail, and the stubborn Saracen is converted only by an act of divine intervention in response to Charlemagne’s prayers. Insofar as a miracle is the only effective solution, the Otuel-cycle romances paint a fairly bleak picture of the possibility of genuinely converting Saracens.


The treatment of Belesent and Otuel’s relationship is one of the most intriguing and curious ways in which the three Otuel romances overlap and yet differ. Otuel a Knight minimizes the relationship and includes Belesent in the narrative only when necessary, while Duke Roland features a Belesent who is obviously attracted to Otuel even before he converts to Christianity. Romantic attraction between a Saracen and a Christian is common in Middle English romance and typically leads to the Saracen’s conversion and subsequent marriage.57 That a Saracen would willingly convert for love of a Christian thus became another part of the Western Christian crusading fantasy, particularly when the Saracen was in a ruling position and could peacefully convert his or her nation. It is possible even that the Otuel/Belesent romance served as a distant yet direct model for Shakespeare’s Othello/Desdemona interracial pairing.58 Still, some aspects of the relationship between Belesent and Otuel are unusual. Observing how the conversion-through-marriage theme typically works in Middle English romance helps us to understand how the Otuel story, and especially Duke Roland, departs from the tradition.

Calkin explains that the concept of using marriage to effect conversion was hardly a pure fantasy for medieval Western readers:

The idea that Christian women might participate in peaceful efforts to expand the influence of Christianity was not as uncommon as one might think, and was a possibility raised in literature about crusade and crusading locales . . . . In romances, women might preach Christianity to their husbands and convert them within the context of inter-faith marriage.59

Although there was a sense that conversions achieved through monetary bribes or marriage contracts were less effective than were those achieved through proselytizing, the concept of being able to convert an entire nation of Muslims by means of a well-strategized marriage was attractive. Referencing the Man of Law’s Tale and the romance The King of Tars, Dorothee Metlitzki explains how the fantasy makes its way into so many romances:

In spite of the differences in treatment, the core of the Christian-Muslim marriage theme in the King of Tars and the story of Constance is the same as in . . . the Arabian story of Omar an-Nu’man: the importance of the interreligious and binational marriage. The child of such a marriage . . . will bring about the harmonious union of two warring peoples. The dream of oriental romance throughout the Middle Ages is the union of Christian and Saracen.60

Christians were drawn to the conversion-through-marriage method for two reasons: it was a less violent alternative to issuing “convert or die” ultimatums to non-Christian enemies, and it appealingly suggested that some non-Christians wanted to be converted and integrated into the Christian community.

While the depictions of conversion through marriage in such romances as The King of Tars and the Man of Law’s Tale certainly question the validity of conversions rooted in a marriage agreement, many interfaith marriages depicted in Middle English romances result from genuine attraction and love. In these relationships, the Saracen character is typically enthusiastic about his or her conversion, even when it is made clear that conversion is a non-negotiable condition for the marriage. Love for the Christian paramour becomes the primary motivator for their change of faith. Examples of this trope are found in Octavian and Firumbras.61

In Octavian, a Saracen princess, Marsabelle, falls in love with a Christian knight, Florent. Florent does not tell Marsabelle that she must convert if she wants to marry him, but he strongly suggests it:

“In alle this werlde es non so free
Forwhi that thow wolde cristenede be
    And sythen of herte be trewe.”
(lines 1511–13)
If only

Marsabelle immediately understands Florent’s meaning and offers to convert:

“Sir, if that thou myghte me wyn,
I wolde forsake all my kyn,
    Als I them never knewe.
Sythen thou wolde wedde me to wyfe
I would lyve in Cristen lyfe;
    My joye solde ever be newe.”
(lines 1514–19)

As if

That Marsabelle does not hesitate to abandon faith and family and willingly offers to become a Christian does indeed lead to a happy marriage.

A similar pattern occurs in Firumbras when the Saracen princess Floripas falls in love with Guy of Burgundy while he and the other dussepers are imprisoned by Floripas’ father. Floripas, revealing that she is in love with Guy, describes seeing him in battle against her father:

“Fro þat day in-to þys; myn herte haþ he yraft,
Ne kepte y neuere more blys; were he to meward laft [honor me]
Wolde he be my worldly make; & weddy me to wyue,
For his loue wold y take; cristendom al so blyue.”
(lines 1420–23)

Floripas not only offers to convert in order to marry Guy; she purposefully acts against her father’s interest. As Metlitzki explains, “the appeal of this type is instructive, not only as the popular image of a ‘good’ Muslim princess but also in conjunction with the theory that the aggressive and masterful nature of such heroines was foreign to the feminine ideal of the West.”62 After her conversion, Floripas has a few missteps with her new faith, at one point even suggesting that the dussepers pray to her Saracen idols and ask for aid (lines 2525–28). But once the French knights smash the idols and show them to be powerless, she fully embraces Christian belief. At the same time, her actions throughout the romance show that her greatest affection is for Guy, not God. When Guy is captured by her father’s army, Floripas forces the other Christian knights to undertake a risky rescue mission to save him, showing no qualms about using nefarious methods to insure that she and her love have a future together.

This kind of love affair between female Saracen and male Christian is a fairly common trope in medieval romance.63 The interfaith marriage in Otuel and Roland and Duke Roland switches the pattern, however, in that the relationship occurs between a Christian woman and a Saracen man. While Belesent never offers to become a Saracen in order to pursue a relationship with Otuel, the description of her first encounter with Otuel closely mirrors the moments in Octavian and Firumbras when a Saracen princess falls in love with a Christian knight.64

On the morning of the duel between Otuel and Roland, Charlemagne asks Belesent to arm Otuel. After performing this intimate task enthusiastically, Belesent warns Otuel to be careful of Roland’s sword. Her fervent prayers during the duel indicate her attraction to Otuel, even as it means wishing for Roland’s failure. After Otuel converts, Belesent continues to cross the line of Christian propriety for her lover. In Duke Roland, the narrator explains that the reason Otuel misses Roland, Oliver, and Ogier’s adventurous foray is that he is with Belesent in her chamber. The poet does not state directly that the as-yet-unmarried couple are sexually engaged, but the implication is undeniable. The emphasis on Belesent’s amorous behavior might be a twist on the typical Saracen princess’s romantic tendencies, or it might simply be designed to titillate, but it might also be intended as an English criticism of French promiscuity. It is perhaps relevant that the romances that include these scenes, Otuel and Roland and Duke Roland, depict the French less favorably than does the earlier Otuel a Knight, which was copied before the start of the bitter French-English conflict in the Hundred Years’ War.

While Belesent’s attraction to Otuel is palpable, Otuel seems only peripherally aware of Belesent. He thanks her for his armor, but when Roland first offers Belesent in marriage in return for Otuel’s conversion, the Saracen adamantly refuses. Otuel eventually will marry Belesent — and receive the titles and land that come with her — but nothing short of divine intervention is capable of converting the steadfast Saracen. At a time when Christians were concerned that interfaith marriage contracts could not effect true conversion, the inefficacy of Roland’s attempt to convert Otuel might be a suggestion that would-be proselytizers should rely piously on earnest prayer and direct supplication to God.


All texts

Medieval letter-forms are converted to modern forms in accordance with METS practice: i/j, u/v, th (for thorn), g/gh/y (for yogh). Abbreviations are silently expanded. Word breaks are modern. In Middle English texts, the second-person pronoun the is spelled thee to avoid confusion with the, and of is distinguished from off. Final -e pronounced as a syllable is given an accent mark (e.g., cité). Scribal corrections (inserted letters, canceled letters) are not noted in the Textual Notes. Rubbed-out, worn, or otherwise obscured letters are not noted except by dots wherever letters are unreadable. Emended letters are listed in the Textual Notes.

Roland and Vernagu

Roland and Vernagu is composed wholly in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas, rhyming aabccbddbeeb. It lacks its opening lines in its sole copy, the Auchinleck manuscript. What survives are 880 lines (73¼ stanzas). Paraphs in alternating red and blue mark the opening of each stanza. They may be viewed in the digital facsimile. There are six large colored initials in the manuscript copy, which denote scribal or authorial points of transition. The transitions are indicated in this edition by a line of three asterisks between stanzas (to represent the large colored initials, which appear at lines 17, 269, 365, 425, 485, and 533). These initials may be viewed in the digital facsimile.65

Otuel a Knight

Otuel a Knight survives in the Auchinleck manuscript as 1738 lines, with a gap of 8 lines after line 120. The lacuna is indicated in this edition by numbered dotted lines, and the poem is therefore numbered at 1746 lines. Its verse form is octosyllabic couplets, with the scribe regularly adding marginal paraphs in alternating red and blue. In this edition, a small indentation appears wherever the scribe has inserted a paraph. The paraphs may be viewed in the digital facsimile. There are four large colored initials in the manuscript. These authorial or scribal points of transition are indicated in this edition by double spacing and a line of three asterisks. Appearing at lines 1, 677, 1081, and 1627, the large colored initials may be viewed in the digital facsimile.

Otuel and Roland

Otuel and Roland, as it survives in its sole copy in the Fillingham manuscript, numbers 2790 lines. Seven detectably missing lines are counted in the total, and they are indicated in this edition by dotted lines (see lines 8, 1501, 1615–16, 1849, 2218, and 2266). The poem is composed predominately in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas, rhyming aabccbddbeeb, with a pronounced tendency to produce a four-rhyme variant, aabaabccbddb. Stanza length is, however, variable; there are many stanzas of six, nine, or fifteen lines, and one of eighteen lines (lines 1820–37). Six-line stanzas are sometimes deployed stylistically as a way to mark points of transition, with the poet explaining a shift in scene. There is also a single couplet (lines 1979–80), which introduces the portion of the poem that retells the Song of Roland. In total, in its surviving state, the poem has 241 stanzas of variable length, plus the internal couplet.

The Fillingham copy has twelve large red initials, eight of which clearly denote sections because they are prefaced by a six-line stanza of transition (sometimes copied in a larger, somewhat more formal script). When the large initial that opens the poem is added to these eight initials, a structure of nine sections becomes evident. This structure is indicated in this edition by the insertion of “fitt” numbers (1–9) before the prefatory stanzas. Large initials appear at lines 1, 232, 676, 871, 1165, 1567, 1700, 1981 (headed by the couplet), and 2593. The prefatory stanzas are represented in this edition by italic font.

The remaining three initials mark secondary transitions. They occur at lines 1039, 1859, and 2377, and each is marked by a line of three asterisks in this edition. Line 1039 marks the moment Otuel sees that Roland, Oliver, and Ogier have departed to seek adventures without him. Line 1859 marks the coming of a new messenger to Charlemagne’s court. The large initial at line 2377 is noticeably odd because it begins a stanza’s fourth line, but it is positioned with significance: a large R on Rouland, it marks Roland’s death scene.

Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain

Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain is wholly composed in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas with three rhymes, aabaabccbccb. It has 1596 lines (133 stanzas). There are six large red initials in the manuscript copy, which denote sections. Each of these sections is indicated in this edition by the insertion of “fitt” numbers (1–6). Large colored initials occur at lines 1, 157, 337 (before this line, the scribe writes “A fitt”), 661, 1057, and 1345. Robert Thornton, the scribe, supplies this work with an incipit and explicit, which provide its title. Both are included in this edition.

The Anglo-Norman Otinel

The Anglo-Norman Otinel, numbering 1907 lines, is composed in monorhyming laisses of variable length, the epic verse form used in many Old French chansons de geste, including the Song of Roland. In transcriptions of the Anglo-Norman text, modern apostrophes, cedilla on c, and accent on tonic e are editorially added. If missing words or letters appear in the Old French Otinel, they are supplied from that text and noted in the Textual Notes. Laisse breaks are indicated by rhyme change. Most laisses are headed with a large colored initial (red or blue, two to four lines in size). Laisses that lack a large initial are noted in the Textual Notes. The initials may be viewed in the digital facsimile.66


Verse Romances (14th–15th centuries)

Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain
Otuel a Knight
Otuel and Roland
Roland and Vernagu
The Siege of Milan
Firumbras (Fillingham)
Firumbras (Ashmole)
The Sultan of Babylon 67
The Tale of Ralph the Collier 68
The Middle English Song of Roland

Later Prose Romances (15th–16th centuries)

Charles the Grete (translated and printed by William Caxton, 1485)69
The Foure Sonnes of Aymon (translated and printed by William Caxton, 1489)70
John Bourchier, The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux (printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1534)71

Later Verse Romance (16th century)

Capystranus (printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1515)72


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