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Introduction to Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain


1 For Duke Roland, see DIMEV 3254; NIMEV 1996; and Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 94, 264–65. The poem consists of 1596 lines composed in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas.

2 On Robert Thornton and the Thornton manuscripts, see the essays in Robert Thornton and His Books, ed. Fein and Johnston. On the Thornton Charlemagne romances as being part of an aspirational vision for Christian world dominance (as displayed by manuscript context), see Hardman, “The Sege of Melayne”; and Warm, “Identity, Narrative and Participation.” Seen in this light, Thornton sets Charlemagne among other celebrated “world conquerors” that include Arthur (the alliterative Morte Arthure) and Richard (Richard Coer de Lyon). On how iconic echoes of Charlemagne influenced English depictions of King Richard in romance, see, e.g., Hardman, “The Sege of Melayne,” pp. 75, 85–86; Libbon, “The Invention of King Richard,” pp. 133–38; and Taylor, “The Chanson d’Aspremont,” pp. 111–12.

3 English Charlemagne Romances. Part II, ed. Herrtage, pp. xii–xiii.

4 On these scenes which involve women and Otuel’s penchant for insult, see the introduction to Otuel a Knight, pp. 65–66.

5 Calkin, “Saracens,” p. 187.

6 On this passage in Otinel, see Hardman and Ailes, Legend of Charlemagne, p. 355.

7 According to Berlings, several romances in Robert Thornton’s manuscripts — e.g., The Siege of Milan, Sir Perceval of Galles, and Richard Coer de Lyon — contain unflattering or derogatory depictions of the French (“The Sege of Melayne,” p. 58). Otuel’s accusation of cowardice among the preeminent knights of France follows this pattern; it is also notable that Otuel is superior to the French knights in combat, even before he has converted to Christianity. For The Siege of Milan (ed. Lupack, pp. 105–60), see DIMEV 408; NIMEV 234. For Sir Perceval (ed. Braswell, pp. 1–76), see DIMEV 3074; NIMEV 1853. For Richard Coer de Lyon (ed. Larkin), see DIMEV 3231; NIMEV 1979.

8 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 1. For a comparison of tail-rhyme to other twelve-line stanza forms, see Fein, “Twelve-Line Stanza Forms.”

9 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 4.

10 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 3.

11 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 7.

12 For a reproduction that shows Thornton’s graphic tail-rhyme layout for Duke Roland, see Thompson, Robert Thornton and the London Thornton Manuscript, plate 16 (fol. 94r); for The Siege of Milan, see plate 13a (fol. 79v).

13 Purdie, Anglicising Romance, p. 76.


The last of the Middle English Otuel romances, Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain tells the same basic story of Otuel’s coming to Charlemagne’s court, his duel with Roland, and his conversion to Christianity, which then leads to his heroic part in the defeat of Emperor Garcy. As another of the English Otinel translations, Duke Roland offers a slightly different rendering of some main characters; the romance deepens the relationship between Belesent and Otuel and heightens Belesent’s active role. In this version, Otuel stands out for his sharp tongue and quick wit, qualities that are maintained after conversion. The poet blames French knights for their missteps, using Otuel’s insults to voice criticism of French shortcomings.

Duke Roland has a single manuscript witness, the London Thornton manuscript (London, British Library MS Additional 31042), fols. 82r–94r, copied in the mid-fifteenth century.1 The London Thornton is one of two manuscripts compiled by Yorkshire gentryman Robert Thornton, each containing a variety of devotional and popular texts, including many romances.2 The London Thornton also contains the only copy of a second romance from the Otuel cycle, The Siege of Milan, fols. 66v–79v. Thornton is also the copyist of the unique text of the alliterative Morte Arthure in the Lincoln Thornton manuscript (Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral MS 91), fols. 53r–98v. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, the nineteenth-century editor of Duke Roland, dates the composition of both it and Siege to the end of the fourteenth century. To judge by its dialect, Duke Roland was originally composed in northern England.3

An examination of the four touchstone scenes quickly unveils Duke Roland’s distinct character as the newest poem in the group.4 To start with, the women in Duke Roland are the most vocal of all females found in the Otuel romances. As in Otuel and Roland, Belesent is permitted to arm Otuel and then to watch the duel beside her father, but in Duke Roland she is also allowed to decide whether or not she will marry Otuel. When Charlemagne offers Belesent to Otuel, Otuel kneels and asks Belesent if she is pleased with the match (lines 637–41). The Duke Roland poet also hints at an instance of premarital lovemaking between Belesent and Otuel. When Otuel accepts her as his intended bride, he asks that the wedding be delayed until after Garcy has been defeated. This scene is the same in all versions, but it is especially meaningful in Duke Roland because it confirms that for most of the romance the two are not yet married. It is therefore curious that, when Charlemagne and his forces arrive in Ataly, and Roland, Oliver, and Ogier secretly go off to pursue adventure, Otuel is alone with Belesent in her chamber:

Otuell that was so wighte
Duelles with Belesent the brighte,
         Was comely one to calle.
Oute of hir chambire he wendis righte,
Als faste als ever that he myghte,
         Into the kynges haulle
To seche Olyver and Rowlande,
Bot never nother he ther fande
         Amonge the lordes alle.
(lines 1009–17)


The Duke Roland poet’s explanation for Otuel’s absence from the group of adventurers is unique.

In Duke Roland, when Otuel first arrives in Charlemagne’s court, he thoroughly berates Charlemagne and his knights, hurling insults, threats, and challenges for fifty lines before even beginning to deliver his message from Garcy. Otuel’s insults are so outrageous that Estut, a knight of Charlemagne’s court, tries to attack the Saracen. Roland reminds Estut that Otuel is protected from harm because he is a messenger, but Estut attacks him anyway and is then quickly killed by Otuel (lines 151–68). In the French Otinel, Roland is not bothered by Otinel’s threats, but simply laughs at his insults, and it is not Estut who attacks Otinel but an unnamed knight who was “reared badly” (Otinel, line 91). In adapting this scene, the Duke Roland poet heightens the emotional reaction of the French court. It is not just a single, badly behaved knight who loses control and attacks Otuel; all of the knights, including Roland, are outraged by Otuel’s insults and threats. Siobhain Bly Calkin discusses how this outrage reflects on the French court:

The inefficacy of the prohibition points to traditional problems within Charlemagne’s court, namely the king’s inability to maintain discipline and the willingness of some of his knights to behave reprehensibly. The incident suggests that, as honourable and courteous as Charlemagne and Roland are, the larger court to which they belong does not share their sense of honour, and instead actively invalidates their assurances of safe conduct.5

As in the source, Charlemagne guarantees Otuel’s safety while he stays at court, but the Saracen’s shocking taunts push the dussepers past the point of maintaining their courtly decorum.

Otuel continues to make rude, sarcastic comments as the romance progresses. When he encounters Roland and Oliver fleeing the Saracen battle, his short speech reproves the knights, both for fleeing and for undertaking the foolish errand:

He hailsede tham with steryn chere,
And sayde, “Sirres, whate make ye here?
         Come ye fro fischeynge?”

He reproved tham there full velanslye,
And yit theire bodies were alle blodye
         With wondes many one.
“Wene ye, for youre chevalrye,
For youre boste and youre folye,
         That the Sarazenes will late yow one?
Charlles with his stronge powere
Schall thynke this a grete gramaungere,
         This dede to undertone.
Bot this chase schall thay by full dere!”
(lines 1042–54)


grant you [victory]

foolish enterprise

cost them dearly

Otuel devotes relatively few words to galvanizing his overcome comrades and encouraging them to return to battle. Instead, he aims his sharp comments at the shamefulness of their actions. The Duke Roland poet also changes the dialogue in which Otinel asks the knights whether they have gone fishing and then boasts that he can “fish” for Saracens as well as they (Otinel, lines 1041–47).6 The English poet omits the wordplay, and the comment becomes a sarcastic critique of the bloodied knights, who are obviously running from a battle.7

In Duke Roland, the scene in which Alphany cares for Ogier the Dane’s wounds closely follows the Otinel source while enhancing a sense of intimacy and attraction between the two characters. In the Anglo-Norman Otinel, Alfamie, aided by three maidens, disarms Ogier and tends his wounds outside in a courtyard (lines 978–90). In Duke Roland, Alphany assures Ogier that none of her men will harm him while he is under her care, and she tends to Ogier herself without any help from other maidens (lines 985–94). As she treats him, she asks who he is and says she has heard of him before when he reveals his identity. After Ogier’s wounds have been attended to, he is “lyghte als lefe one tree” (line 996) despite the fact that he is being held as a prisoner of war. Ogier does not address Alphany when he escapes in Duke Roland, but her care of him is as suggestive of desire as it is in Otuel and Roland. Later, when Otuel taunts Clarel during their duel, the Duke Roland poet continues to focus on matters of sexual attraction. When Otuel slices Clarel’s cheek off, he does not make a joke about shaving or tooth-pulling (as in the other Middle English versions), but instead asks why Clarel is grinning at him. Here, Otuel insults Clarel for his loss of sex appeal, telling him that Alphany will never again want to kiss him (lines 1321–26). This version closely mirrors the French source (Otinel, lines 1452–56).


Duke Roland differs from the Auchinleck and Fillingham Otuel romances in how its text is arranged on the manuscript page. Like Roland and Vernagu and Otuel and Roland (but not Otuel a Knight), Duke Roland is composed in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas. There are thirty-six extant Middle English romances written in tail-rhyme, comprising roughly a third of all surviving Middle English romances.8 Tail-rhyme verse employs a twelve-line stanza with the rhyme scheme aabccbddbeeb; in other words, a stanza contains four rhymed couplets with four tail-rhyme lines placed in between the couplets. The couplet lines typically have four stressed syllables while the tail-rhyme lines have three, and it is the tail-rhyme lines’ matching end rhyme that unifies the stanza.9 The Duke Roland stanza is a more difficult three-rhyme variant: aabaabccbccb. As Rhiannon Purdie explains, although the tail-rhyme stanza appears in poetry in other languages, it was used for romance, and more rarely drama, only in English. By the fourteenth century, most English readers would have recognized that tail-rhyme stanza probably meant that an English poem was a romance.10 A subset of the thirty-six tail-rhyme romances consists of six poems classified by Purdie as “graphic tail-rhyme romances” because of the way they are visually laid out by scribes.11 Thornton employed the graphic layout for Duke Roland.

A graphic layout uses a system of brackets to link tail-rhyme lines to the corresponding couplet. The employment of brackets to highlight rhymes was a fairly common practice for medieval scribes, but the graphic tail-rhyme arrangement was much more difficult for both scribes and readers than was the basic bracketing that highlighted rhymes. In order to execute the graphic arrangement, scribes had to try to fit the marginal brackets on pages typically set up for two columns of equal width. In most cases, the scribe would scrub out the ruled lines, or simply write the graphic tail-rhyme lines on top of the ruled columns. Upon realizing that the graphic arrangement was unmanageable, half of the scribes who attempted the layout abandoned the endeavor and switched to single columns for the remainder of the romance. In the Lincoln Thornton manuscript, Thornton tried to fit the tail-rhyme lines of Sir Degrevant into the margins on a two-columned page (fols. 130r–39v). Although his copy of Sir Degrevant is cramped and messy, Thornton’s dedication to the graphic tail-rhyme layout is noteworthy. In all, he persevered in copying three romances in the graphic tail-rhyme arrangement: Sir Degrevant, The Siege of Milan, and Duke Roland.12

The graphic tail-rhyme romance garnering the most critical attention is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas, which almost certainly uses the form to parody the trite figures and tropes of the tail-rhyme romance genre. As Purdie explains,

It is possible, of course, that the layout of Sir Thopas in these early manuscripts was the scribes’ idea, but given the dates, number, importance and variety of these manuscripts, it is far more likely to have been Chaucer’s own. It relies upon the reader’s recognition that Sir Thopas is arranged in a layout traditional for Middle English tail-rhyme romances, thus adding another layer to Chaucer’s parody of Middle English romance conventions.13

Like Thornton’s choice to use the graphic display of tail-rhyme in some romances but not others, the choice of many scribes to replicate the graphic arrangement of Sir Thopas indicates that this layout was significant to the romance and a definitive mark of the genre for English audiences. Still, Thornton’s use of the graphic arrangement for three romances is somewhat perplexing because there are other tail-rhyme romances in his books that he does not arrange in graphic form. Thornton’s persistence in using the graphic arrangement for some romances and his choice not to use it for others suggests that his decisions to arrange graphically, when he did so, were purposeful. It may be that he was faithfully following the layouts he found in his exemplars, or it could be that he saw layout as a key component of poetic presentation.

London, British Library MS Additional 31042 (London Thornton MS), fols. 82r–94r.

The Romance of Duke Rowlande and of Sir Ottuell of Spayne. In The English Charlemagne Romances. Part II. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage. EETS e.s. 35. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1880. Rpt. 2002. Pp. 55–104.

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