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Introduction to Roland and Vernagu


1 See The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, ed. Poole, pp. 40–48.

2 For Roland and Vernagu, see DIMEV 1353; NIMEV 823.3; and Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 90–91, 263–64. The poem has 880 lines in twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas; it is imperfect at the beginning.

3 For studies on the Auchinleck manuscript, see Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity; Connolly and Edwards, “Evidence for the History”; and Fein, New Perspectives.

4 See Wiggins, “Importance.”

5 Herrtage, English Charlemagne Romances. Part VI, pp. xii–xvi; and Wiggins, “Importance.” Herrtage identifies “dialectical peculiarities,” which led him to place the poet in the East Midlands (p. xiii).

6 The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, ed. Poole, p. 3. Turpin is purportedly writing down his account and delivering it to Luitprand, a fictional dean of the cathedral at Aachen (p. xix).

7 But see Boscolo, “Two Otinel Frescoes,” pp. 202 and 204 (fig. 2), who shows a northern Italian fresco that depicts Otinel as a black giant. See also the Introduction to the Anglo-Norman Otinel, p. 262, in this volume.

8 Cohen, Of Giants, p. xiii. On monsters in medieval thought, see also Friedman, Monstrous Races. On the topic of English anxieties about cultural diversity, their nation’s diverse history, and their ties to the East, see Best, “Monstrous Alterity”; Calkin “Anxieties of Encounter” and “Violence, Saracens”; Cawsey, “Disorienting Orientalism”; Cohen, “Green Children”; Houlik-Ritchey, “Rewriting Difference”; Wilcox, “Romancing the East”; and Williamsen, Quest for Collective Identity.

9 “Mahounde” is the main god worshipped by Saracens in romance. “Mahounde” is meant to be Muhammad — another example of the inaccurate representation of Muslims in Western medieval literature, as Muslims believe Muhammad is a prophet, not a god. See the section “Saracens and the Conversion Theme” in the General Introduction, pp. 15–19, especially pp. 16–17.

10 For The Sultan of Babylon, see ed. Lupack, pp. 1–103; for Octavian, see ed. Hudson, pp. 39–95.

11 For an edition of the alliterative Morte Arthure (DIMEV 3745; NIMEV 2322), see ed. Benson, pp. 129–284. The giant of Mount St. Michel possesses qualities that reflect features of romance Saracens, for example, a violent temper, predatory lust, and non-white skin; see Sikorska, “Malevolent Visitors,” pp. 77–78.

12 Beal, “Arthur as the Bearer of Civilization,” p. 38.

13 Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby, p. 193.

14 Ramey, Black Legacies, p. 95.

15 On Roland and Vernagu’s theological discussion, see Vincent, who argues that the conversation mirrors a scholastic debate more than religious instruction (“Reading a Christian-Saracen Debate,” pp. 95–97).

16 Hardman, “Dear Enemies,” p. 68.


The tail-rhyme romance Roland and Vernagu tells the story of Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain and Roland’s encounter with a giant Saracen foe, Vernagu. Based on an episode in the Middle English Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, the scenes involving the giant are significantly expanded.1 The romance begins as Charlemagne sets out to conquer Spain after the apostle James commands him (through a vision) to recover his body from Galicia. Charlemagne fulfills this mission, but then a giant arrives to issue the court a challenge. Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, fights the giant in a duel, and Vernagu is defeated. This romance sets up the action for the three romances of Otuel, who is Vernagu’s nephew.

The sole manuscript witness of Roland and Vernagu is the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1), fols. 263ra–67vb.2 A major repository of early Middle English literature, Auchinleck contains numerous works, twenty-three of them unique.3 It is most famous for its eighteen romances that extol adventures by English knights and gestes by French heroes, as in Roland and Vernagu and Otuel a Knight.4 Auchinleck is believed to have been copied in the 1330s. The dialects of Roland and Vernagu and Otuel a Knight suggest that both were originally composed in the East Midlands.5

Approximately forty-four lines of Roland and Vernagu are missing at the beginning because of a lost folio. Examining the source allows one to guess at some of the lost content. The first surviving line is “For he it seiʒe wiþ siʒt” (fol. 263ra), followed by the poet’s declaration that he will write about Charles. In the Middle English Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, the account of Charlemagne’s dream of Saint James constitutes the prologue offered by the poet. In this section, “Bishop Turpin” explains his eyewitness qualification to chronicle Charlemagne’s life: “I have tried to write promptly, sending to your fraternal hands the most important of his admirable deeds and laudable triumphs over the Spanish Saracens, which I saw with my own eyes.”6 Because both passages mention seeing with one’s own eyes, and because Roland and Vernagu closely follows the Chronicle at this point, it seems likely that the missing lines introduced Turpin and explained how he had seen and recorded Charlemagne’s deeds.

The colorful giant character in Roland and Vernagu endures as a source of interest for critics discussing the Otuel-cycle romances. Vernagu is one of many non-Christian giants in Middle English romance. Scholarly discussions of these giants provide good conceptual frameworks for reading about the encounter between Roland and Vernagu, helping to pinpoint how medieval English audiences tended to view giants, and also how Vernagu departs from the typical representation.

Though Vernagu is Otuel’s uncle, they may differ in appearance. Vernagu is described as having dark skin, supernatural strength, and ugly features. While no extant version of Otuel’s story depicts Otuel’s appearance in detail, he is apparently pleasing and attractive.7 Once the shock of his dramatic arrival at Charlemagne’s court wears off, Charlemagne’s men admire Otuel and want to see him converted. An exceptional fighter, Otuel has nearly defeated Roland when their battle is interrupted. He seems to be of normal height, and his skin color is never described.

Ugly as he may be, Vernagu’s gigantic freakishness adds a complicating factor to Roland and Vernagu, because his intellect comes into play. A foe who is a giant is not unusual, but giants who behave intelligently and peacefully are. In Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen articulates the bodily signification of giants:

The giant appears at the moment when the boundaries of the body are being culturally demarcated. In the England of the Middle Ages, he signifies those dangerous excesses of the flesh that the process of masculine embodiment produces in order to forbid; he functions at the same time to celebrate the pleasures of the body, to indulge in wine and food and sex.8

Cohen encapsulates the nature of most giants in Middle English romance. In The Sultan of Babylon, a giant married couple, Astragote and Barrok, guard the Sultan’s city of Mountrible, and they parent two giant sons. Although both Astragote and Barrok are scary and possess superhuman strength, they imitate human behavior by marrying and raising children as humans would. They do not converse with their French foes, but Astragote does pray to Mahounde for help when he is overcome, which indicates that he has the power of speech and understands the Saracen faith.9 After the couple is defeated, King Charles baptizes their offspring, naming them after Roland and Oliver, and adds them to his entourage. A similar acceptance of a giant into human company occurs in Sir Bevis of Hampton (another Auchinleck romance), where the giant Ascopart serves as Bevis’ page for a time. The giant in Octavian (also an Auchinleck romance) loves a Saracen princess, Marsabelle, and in pursuing her hand in marriage, he shows himself to be both a competent fighter and versed in the art of courtly love.10

While these are giants who can function in civilized society alongside humans (often assisting them), the giant in the alliterative Morte Arthure represents another type in romance: the giant who is subhuman, bloodthirsty, and rapacious.11 The alliterative Morte giant is nonhuman, eats infants, and viciously rapes a duchess. He has animal features and shows no evidence of being able to speak. Regarding the famous confrontation between the giant of Mount St. Michel and Arthur, Rebecca S. Beal writes that it is “a battle between medieval versions of civilization and barbarism, for the poem has clothed Arthur with armor produced by his civilization and associated that armor with the feast that shows the king’s preeminence.”12 Beal goes on to note that, while Arthur’s armor is produced by a civilized society, and his feasts are likewise products of a regulated community, the giant is clothed in only a kirtle and feasts on human flesh, including babies. The type of giant found in the alliterative Morte serves a purpose quite different from that of the more humanlike giants found in the other romances. Yet there are similarities between Vernagu and the giant of Mount St. Michel. Both emerge as defenders of non-Christian empires. Both challenge kings who have to defeat them in order to continue the expansion of their realms. And, in both cases, defeating the giant becomes more than a coming-of-age test for a young knight or a demonstration of masculinity. The giant operates as a symbol: any failure to vanquish him will result in a loss of vital land and prestige.

While the narrative functions of Vernagu and the giant of Mount St. Michel are thus similar, there are significant differences in their character and behavior. Unlike the grotesque, nonverbal giant faced by Arthur, Vernagu is able to speak, reason, and debate. As Dorothee Metlitzki explains, Vernagu differs “from the Frankish knights in color and size, but not in kind.”13 In terms of behavior, Vernagu is rather like his partially socialized counterparts in Octavian or Bevis of Hampton because he understands the strictures of courtly behavior and can conform to social codes. However, in being a reasoning creature who can participate in society, Vernagu is distinguishable from these romance giants. In Octavian, the giant is driven by love (more accurately lust) for Marsabelle. In Bevis, the giant orchestrates a tragic betrayal of Bevis when he is let go as Bevis’ page. Although capable of reason and language, these giants still display the bodily excesses and amorality that mark their grotesque type.

Vernagu, on the other hand, exhibits none of those excessive tendencies. After he arrives at Charlemagne’s temporary court in Pamplona, he issues an official challenge in response to Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain and faces Charlemagne’s knights in fair duels. Even though he could kill the French knights, Vernagu chooses to spare their lives: he carries each one off the field and sets him down unharmed. Beyond his reluctance to commit violence, Vernagu exceeds his fellow giants in intellect. In Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages, Lynne Tarte Ramey discusses the criterion of reason in the evaluation of a creature’s humanity. She notes that when medieval Westerners read accounts of foreign lands and people in texts about travel to the East, they were faced with the question of what makes a being human. In most cases, if a group (even a fictional group like pygmies) could speak and reason, they were considered sufficiently human for the purpose of salvation.14 While many romance giants do speak and act rationally, it is rare for a giant to be shown to have an in-depth, intellectually taxing conversation with a human. Roland and Vernagu contains a decidedly odd scene in which Roland and Vernagu debate Christian theology in the middle of the night. After Roland and Vernagu have been dueling for hours, the sunlight fades and Vernagu requests time to rest. Too large to fit inside a building, he falls asleep in the field, whereupon Roland places a stone beneath Vernagu’s head to serve as a pillow. Upon waking, Vernagu, moved by Roland’s gesture, asks the knight to explain his Christian faith. As Roland expounds Christianity’s tenets, Vernagu voices astute objections, which Roland quickly answers with familiar, pat explanations.15

Despite Vernagu’s curiosity about Christianity and capacity for rational thought, which should qualify him for salvation, his story ends much the same way that the other giants’ stories end — with a beheading. After their conversation, Roland and Vernagu resume the fight, each agreeing that the outcome will prove which faith is true. Mid-duel, an angel appears to Roland and informs him that Vernagu can never be converted; the giant must be killed. After this revelation, the scene takes a familiar turn: Roland strikes down Vernagu, removes the giant’s helmet, cuts off his head, and brings it to Charlemagne as a trophy. Vernagu’s relatively nonviolent disposition and unusual intellect may separate him from other giants who populate the pages of Middle English romance, but his death resembles that faced by the others. Phillipa Hardman explains that part of the function of dark-skinned, frightening Saracens like Vernagu is to provide contrast for the fair-skinned Saracens who are desirable converts:

one can see something of the same paired effect in the treatment of Saracen champions, where those worthy of conversion are fierce but fair, while the representatives of infidel evil are monstrous and black. Thus, Fierabras’ size provides a physical referent for his status as alien, hostile outsider, linking him while in his unconverted state with monstrous Saracen giants such as the Giant of Mautrible and Vernagu — but without their ugliness and grotesque features, so that upon his conversion it is not difficult for Fierabras to be re-presented as an ideal specimen of knighthood.16

Vernagu may be uncommon for a giant, but, in the end, he is made to fulfill the typical function of a giant in a Western European medieval narrative — that is, to represent the Other — and, in being defeated, to reinforce the supremacy of those belonging to dominant categories. This function is all the more important because of Roland and Vernagu’s connection to the Otuel storyline, where Otuel is presented as his uncle’s opposite. Otuel’s conversion is ardently sought and prayed for. In contrast, the angel’s words in Roland and Vernagu confirm what Roland must have known from the first moment he laid eyes on a giant:

“For he nas never gode
    Bi lond no bi se.
Thei alle prechours alive
To Cristen wald him schrive,
    Gode nold he never be.”
(lines 810–14)

Even if all preachers alive
administer penance to him as a Christian
He would never be good

Having received this angelic word, Roland quickly refocuses his attention and kills the monstrous pagan.

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck MS), fols. 263ra–67vb.

Pearsall, Derek, and I. C. Cunningham, eds. The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. London: Scolar Press, 1979.

Burnley, David, and Alison Wiggins, eds. The Auchinleck Manuscript. National Library of Scotland, 2003. Online at

Rouland and Vernagu. In The English Charlemagne Romances. Part VI. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage. EETS e.s. 39. London: Oxford University Press, 1882. Rpt. 1969. Pp. 37–61.

Roland and Vernagu. In The Auchinleck Manuscript. Ed. David Burnley and Alison Wiggins. National Library of Scotland, 2003. Online at

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