Fierabras and Floripas
A French Epic Allegory

First Modern English edition,
translated by Michael A.H. Newth

Medium Aevum

H-France Review



Medium Aevum 79 (September 22, 2010)

This volume, aimed at the general reader or scholar of disciplines outside Old French literature, presents a lively, eminently readable English translation of two chansons de geste — here treated as a single work — normally known under the titles La Destruction de Rome and Fierabras. The translation preserves division into laisses; while the monorhymed format of the original laisses could not be maintained, Michael Newth’s are at least assonanced throughout.

A brief introduction situates the texts for the non-specialist, and the bibliography provides guidance for anyone wishing to pursue them in greater depth. Appendices provide a series of selected passages in Old French as well as a series of extracts from later texts in various languages (all presented here in English translation) that treat the Fierabras legend, ranging from the fourteenth to the twentieth century.

One should be grateful to Newth for making the legend of Fierabras and Floripas — of great appeal to anyone interested in crusade literature, gender studies, concepts of cultural and ethnic difference, and the history of “Orientalism” — accessible to a much wider audience.

— Michael Johnston

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H-France Review 11 (March 2011), No. 66

Fierabras and Floripas is a modern English verse translation of the twelfth-century epic tale of a Saracen brother and sister who join ranks with their archenemy, Charlemagne. Michael Newth has authored his translation from two parts of the Charlemagne cycle — the Destruction of Rome and Fierabras. In connecting these two poems and translating them, Newth has made this cycle, popular throughout the medieval west and the most successful of the French epic cycles in medieval England, available to those unable or unwilling to read the Old French original. The translation is fluid, melodic and measured as it provides the reader with a sense of what epic poetry might have felt like to the twelfth-century audience.

Newth’s thirty-two page introduction situates the tales within the epic cycle known as the geste du roi (King Charlemagne), and provides important historical information about Muslim excursions into Spain and France, and Charlemagne’s involvement, both historical and mythical. The story told in the cycle is that of the sack of Rome (La destruction de Rome), Charlemagne’s pursuit of the relics stolen by the Saracens during Rome’s sack (Fierabras), and finally the return of the relics by Charlemagne to various abbeys in Christendom (Le pèlerinage de Charlemagne). Newth subscribes to the notion that this story cycle was conceived in order to encourage pilgrimage to Saint Denis in the twelfth century, since the relics of Saint Denis figure prominently in the cycle. At the end of the introduction, Newth includes a select but very useful bibliography of secondary readings on the geste. The books and articles that Newth lists would be excellent resources for a graduate class or an advanced undergraduate class. Also included are the primary sources that Newth uses, including two editions of the Old French Fierabras and two editions and a modern French translation of the Destruction of Rome.

Newth combines the Destruction and Fierabras and then divides them into gestes, which he says are “discernible but not distinguished or named thus in the original manuscript” for the ease of the modern reader (p. xxxi). Aside from these partitions he has created and named (Prologue, Vanity, Submission, Desires, and Deserts), he has other divisions that would correlate to the laisses, one would assume, though they are not numbered as such. The first geste, Vanity, a text generally found separate in the manuscript tradition from the text referred to as Fierabras, relates the destruction of Rome by the Saracen giant Fierabras. The story begins with the Moorish King Balan sporting about in Spain, where he is interrupted by the tale of a lone, harried captain who lost a fleet of goods bought for the king when Roman Christians attacked his vessels and slaughtered the crew. The king vows revenge on the Romans and their emperor, Charles. King Balan’s daughter, Floripas, then makes her appearance in this geste, as she agrees to marry Balan’s best knight, King Lucifer, if Lucifer manages to slay the entire flower of French chivalry. A typical Saracen princess, Floripas has fallen in love with a Christian knight upon hearing of his prowess, and she knows that Lucifer will be very unlikely to defeat the best of the French. Newth’s heading of the geste, Vanity, comes from the selfish and vain desires of Floripas in this part of the tale, and by extension the vanity that leads the Saracens to attempt a foolhardy attack against the renowned French armies of Charlemagne. The Saracens, led by Balan’s son, Fierabras, sack Rome and Fierabras himself kills the pope.

The second, third, and fourth gestes adhere to the plot of Fierabras, where Oliver is the only French knight brave enough to avenge Charlemagne for the wrong that was done by Fierabras. Oliver defeats Fierabras, who upon suffering the nearly fatal last blow is suddenly converted to Christianity. Fierabras, once recovered, fights his father, king Balan, alongside Charlemagne’s men. The Muslims capture several of Charlemagne’s most valiant men. Floripas recognizes the Christian knight about whom she has heard so much talk, Gui de Bourgogne, and she contrives to release the knights, join the Christians, and marry her man. Charlemagne and his men get their revenge by killing Balan and his men and taking their Spanish stronghold, Aigremore.

Following the main story, Fierabras and Floripas has twenty-nine pages of appendices. The first appendix provides the reader with extracts in Old French depicting key moments in each of the four gestes. The author states that his goal was to make this material available for those who might wish to work on Old French, compensating in part for the lack of the original language in the book. The second appendix, entitled “Fierabras ex libris,” traces the legacy of Fierabras in artistic production from the Middle Ages to the present. From Rabelais to Gustave Doré, reimaginings of Fierabras have held a prominent place in successive generations’ refigurations of medieval culture. Newth provides the reader with a glimmer of the enduring importance of this tale, surely provoking at least some readers to look into the medievalisms that surround these literary conversions.

While this review does not attempt to give an analysis of all previous versions of Fierabras, it is helpful to understand where Newth situates his translation in relation to previous editions and translations of the text. The most recent edition of the work is a 2003 version done by Marc Le Person (Champion) that uses a manuscript from El Escorial in Madrid as its base and that includes variants from all manuscripts currently available. Newth used as the basis for his translation, however, the 1860 edition by Kroeber and Servois that is almost entirely based on BNF ms 12603. According to Newth, this choice allows him to provide a more complete and integral “performance” of the text, since it is based on almost exclusively one manuscript. While it may be true that a single manuscript can give a sense of one time and place, this argument did not seem entirely convincing. Le Person did base his edition on the oldest and most complete manuscript available in the world, and he provided variants from other manuscripts. Le Person’s edition is superior to the 1860 edition in just about every modern editorial practice used. Newth says he compiled his translation from the 1860 version, and took the first part from an 1873 Gröber edition published in Romania. Newth does not explain what he means by the “first part,” but upon comparison with the three editions he cites we must assume the first part correlates to what he calls the “first geste.” Thus, the completed translation does not bear an easily identifiable relationship to any one edition, meaning that the line number system, while used by Newth, does not correlate to any of the editions (and indeed the 1860 edition did not use line numbers).

Newth makes it clear that his edition is aimed at the general audience, so this lack of parallel would not concern his intended audience who would be unable or unlikely to refer to any edition, but I found it detracted from the usefulness of the volume for teachers and students of Old French, who might use the translation in tandem with an edition in order to better understand the original or to perfect their own reading of the Old French. This makes it somewhat less useful for what would seem the ideal audience, students of medieval English literature whose skills in Old French are lacking but not non-existent. For this group of students, who might well want to work on the geste of Charlemagne but who are unable to read H-France Review Volume 11 (2011) Page 3 the entire text in Old French, Newth’s translation provides them with access to a story which will later figure prominently in Middle English texts both as a touchstone referred to by other medieval writers and in adapted translation, but it cannot serve as a reliable source for scholarly writing on the epic. A good scholarly work would require that translated verses be backed up with a citation of the newest edition (Le Person’s), which is very difficult to align with this translation.

In addition, Newth includes the first two parts of the cycle, and one is left wondering why he didn’t also include the Pèlerinage, if for no other reason than to round out the story. A very good translation of the Pèlerinage exists [Glyn S. Burgess, ed. and trans., Voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople (New York: Garland, 1988)], but is out of print and difficult to find. For students, being able to buy the complete story in one volume might be very appealing, and the 900 extra lines would only add about twenty pages to the volume; perhaps Italica and Newth could consider adding this to a later edition.

In sum, Michael Newth’s translation of the two Old French texts, La destruction de Rome and Fierabras, fulfills an important role in medieval epic study. Newth provides the reader who is not proficient in reading Old French with a readable and lovingly crafted poetic rendition of the stories. His translation is ideal for someone wishing to learn the story of Floripas’s and Fierabras’s conversions and integration into French nobility in order to grasp the importance of this story to medieval audiences. While not a word-for-word translation, Newth’s version provides a highly readable and enjoyable book that might entice the reader to venture further afield in medieval epic. While, for the purposes of scholarship, Newth’s text cannot substitute for a close reading of an Old French edition, he achieves his goal of creating what amounts to a modern English performance of an Old French epic. The pricing of the book (particularly the electronic edition) makes this a very affordable textbook for a comparative epic or introduction to medieval literature class, and one might hope that, with an electronic edition, the text would remain available to students and teachers for a very long time. One constant frustration with teaching medieval sources is that the editions tend to become very difficult to find and/or prohibitively expensive for classroom use. Michael Newth and Italica Press are to be commended for making these important epics accessible to an English-speaking audience.

— Lynn Ramey, Vanderbilt University

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Olpihant 26.2 (2011)

Michael A.H. Newth, who previously published a translation of Aymeri of Narbonne with Italica Press, has produced another volume of French epic rendered in English. In this case, he has chosen to publish as one continuous tale two separate works, La Destruction de Rome and Fierabras. Both are part of the popular French epic Charlemagne cycle, and La Destruction clearly precedes Fierabras in the connected narrative, although the composition of the latter may predate the former. As Newth explains in his introduction, both trace their origin to a lost epic commonly referred to as La Chanson de Balan. Thus, by combining two tales that have come down in separate manuscript traditions and recounting them as a single narrative, Newth offers an approximation of what one might surmise to be the older version of the story. Moreover, by giving it the title he does, he not only focuses on the legend of the fierce Saracen giant Fierabras who triumphantly seizes the holy relics of Christ’s passion from a vanquished and pillaged Rome, battles a wounded Oliver, and, once defeated by this champion of God, converts enthusiastically to Christianity, he also highlights the important secondary story of Fierabras’s beautiful and aggressive sister, Floripas, who falls ardently in love with Gui de Bourgogne and, with energy and an appreciable dose of violence, overcomes every obstacle in the path towards fulfillment of her passionate attachment.

Newth provides a twenty-four page introduction divided into sections entitled Genre, Authorship, Artistic Achievement, Sources and Influences, and Editorial Policy — standard divisions for introductions to American editions of medieval works. This is followed by a bibliography which unfortunately is not always clearly tied to the introduction. For example, Newth lists several studies of the motif of the Saracen princess but makes no reference to them in his introduction aside from Crosland’s (although appropriately so as a negative example — he quotes her reference to Floripas as “one of a line of repulsive females” [p. xx]). It might have been helpful for him to explain on what basis he formulated his proffered Select Bibliography, which includes many works beyond those actually cited. Another quibble is an unfortunate slip whereby the full bibliographical citation for a parenthetical reference on page xxv of the introduction, “(Stimming, 550-88),” fails to appear in the bibliography.

When translating medieval works, there is always a choice to be made as to how literal a translation to produce. Even a translation clearly intended for scholars (and particularly a facing-page translation) which attempts to follow the original language as much as possible must veer from strict literality owing to the differences between one language and another. But poetic choices can range more widely in a translation removed from its original and intended for a more general audience. Newth gives us an adaptation that renders the liveliness and vigorous qualities of the original and plumbs the varieties of English poetic language to do so. He chooses to use approximate assonance in most of the lines of a laisse since it is impossible without excessive straining to provide rhymes throughout as in the original. He also adds numerous alliterations that add much to the pleasure of reading the text. Moreover he excels in maintaining the humor, the dynamic violence, and the dramatic tension of the tale. I particularly enjoyed his version of the episodes recounting the siege of the Muslim stronghold where a group of Christian knights along with Floripas and some of her maidens are enclosed in the Saracen keep. The knights sally forth to seize food supplies or to engage in battle the Saracen forces surrounding them, but at times, the ladies join in the battle, hurling rocks from on high on the enemy forces below.

Another feature of Newth’s translation is a happy use of English rhythms and imagistic vocabulary. For example, he renders l. 1263 “Li moustiers en poi d’houre fu des payens poeples [sic]” as “Till every aisle was seething with Satan’s renegades” (p. 36).” In another instance, “Li fix Renier de Gennes” is rendered twice as “Geneva’s pride and joy” (p. 52)—far from literal, but providing a rhythm to fit the line and using an expressive English epithet for “son.”

On occasion, one might find the liveliness of the translation a bit excessive, as in the rendering of the following passage:

Rollans et Oliviers adonques s’atourna,
En une camber vint où Mahomet esta,
Apolins et Margos, ù l’ors reflambois.
Cascuns a prins le sien, à son col le carça,
Rollans tint Apolin, durement se hasta,
Ens en la gregneur presse de paiens le froissa.
Et Ogiers prinst Margot, après lui le lancha;
Oliviers, Tervagant, après aus le rua.

Count Olivier spun round as gallant Roland sprinted
To reach that vaulted room where false Mahoment’s figure
Was cast in shining gold, beside his evil kindred.
Each baron picked one up and piggy-backed an image,
With Roland in the lead—Apollo was his piggy!—
Then dropped them on the Moors wherever they were the thickest!
Duke Ogier hugged Margot—but not for long—he ditched him,
Then Olivier alike duped Tervagant as quickly!  (p. 194)

To “piggy-back an image” is already a very colloquial way to say that each Christian hero loaded a statue on his back, even though it does transmit the idea that the knights have no respect for the “pagan” gods and adds another layer of disrespect in alluding to the animal flesh forbidden to Muslims. However, to add that Apollo was Roland’s piggy is perhaps taking a bigger liberty than even the humorous intent of the narrator, who is describing how these statues become missiles in the ongoing battle between the besieged Christians and the surrounding Saracens, can justify; nor, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge, is it a common phrasing in English. Another translation quibble — “amiral” is usually correctly translated as “emir,” but in one instance on page 9 it is translated as “admiral,” probably because it is translated as “emir” in the previous line and English style tends to demand avoidance of repetition of nouns. However, “admiral” in modern English always implies a sea commander, so the translation would have been better served by another variant like “commander” or simply “lord.”

Overall the text is well proofed with only one error noted by this reviewer where “fiancee” appears instead of “fiancé” (p. 140), even though it clearly refers to Guy and not to Floripas.

One last criticism: to emphasize the unity of the two texts, the translator has chosen not only to create one continuous text, he has also divided the text into four divisions called “Gestes” (p. xxxi) which follow what he sees as the four stages of Fierabras’s “long personal journey to a state of grace,” namely Vanity, Submission, Desires, Deserts (p. xix). He sees Floripas’s conversion in similar terms (pp. xxi-xxii). While it might make sense simply to organize the text into logical chapters for the ease of modern readers, I find somewhat artificial and extraneous the imposition of such a thematic schema on a text which is in many ways polymorphic, indeed a motley of storylines concerning not only the adventures of Fierabras and Floripas, but also Charlemagne, Oliver, Roland, Guy de Bourgogne, Naimon, and others. It does not add to our understanding of the text or to the quality of what Newth has achieved here: a lively and entertaining rendering of a medieval classic that should please and serve the needs of general readers, students, and scholars alike.         

— Shira Schwam-Baird, University of North Florida

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Parergon 28.2 (2011): 229-31

This book offers us translations of two separate old French chansons de geste, which can reasonably be read as a single tale: La destruction de Rome and Fierabras. The former tells of the destruction of Rome by a Muslim army from Spain led by the emir Balan and his son Fierabras, during which the population is massacred and holy relics are captured. The attack was in reprisal for a Christian slaughter of Muslim merchants and report of a greater threat posed by the pope. The Muslims return to Spain before Charlemagne is able to arrive from France to defend the city. The latter tells of the fortunes of Charlemagne and his knights who have pursued Balan to Spain. The suspenseful but unsurprising turns of events between the Christian and Muslim armies, ending with the defeat of the Muslims, the execution of Balan, and the conquest of the Iberian peninsula are rendered particularly interesting, however, by the behaviour of Fierabras and his sister Floripas. Fierabras is defeated in single combat by Oliver, converts to Christianity and is baptised, and is granted half of Spain as his kingdom. Floripas falls in love with Gui of Burgundy, betrays her father, aids Christian knights in difficult moments, likewise receiving baptism and marrying Gui, and reigns with him over the other half of Spain.

The greatest merit of this book is surely to make these two epics available to a wider audience in a very accomplished and readable verse translation, which succeeds in conveying much of the sense of oral performance that their medieval audiences would have enjoyed. In order to achieve this effect, Michael Newth has necessarily taken some liberties (cf. pp. xxx-xxxi), so that this cannot be regarded as a literal translation, but it joins a respectable series of similar translations by him. While he includes a selection of excerpts from the original Old French version as an appendix, such translations are only serviceable to specialist scholars and students when accompanied by the complete facing text.

The bulk of the Introduction proposes an historical and interpretative approach to the poems. Newth claims that they were probably composed under the influence of Abbot Suger and originally performed at the annual market of Lendit at the abbey of Saint Denis. The abbey claimed to possess several of the relics depicted in the poems, Saint Denis is regularly mentioned and Suger supported a political programme which appealed to Charlemagne in order to establish France's exemplary role as defender of Christendom and of Rome. Newth arranges the two poems, as a single whole, into four parts reflecting a spiritual progression, notably of Fierabras, which he considers implicit in them and which raises the poems from an adventure story to a moral epic: vanity, submission, desires, and deserts.

At several points, the translator seems to be at pains to demonstrate that a medieval poem can also be ‘relevant’ to modern readers, and this relevance seems to lie partly in its-alleged moral and religious message. While allowing that a medieval audience could have made associations based on names or other details in the narrative with religious models and thereby indeed perceived a higher meaning in such entertainment, Newth's suggestions here seem overdrawn, and there is nothing in the poems' prefaces to support them. We need to distinguish between medieval hermeneutics and modern relevance. The relics, for instance, do assume some importance in the story but they do not inspire any spiritual contemplation by the characters; they function only as booty, as a source of healing and protection, and as the object of simple piety.

The other significant difficulty with this text lies with its composition. This edition would be more useful to scholars with a discussion of the manuscripts, the relationship between the various dialect versions, and evidence as to why we should consider the poems to have been originally composed in the Picard dialect while the remaining versions are seen as subsidiary. Newth seems to assume that these poems have passed through three stages of composition, although sufficient proof of this is not provided, nor are objections to his position acknowledged; in fact, some of his views contradict those of many scholars (Stimming, cited on p. xxv, is not included in the bibliography).

Newth cites the author’s claim in his preface to have rediscovered a text of the poem preserved at Saint Denis, apparently in support of' his position, although such appeals represent a literary topos and need not be taken literally. Even if the present poems do include older material, they also constitute a re-working of such material, because they include themes and assume circumstances that did not obtain in earlier centuries. Suger was abbot of Saint Denis from 1122-1151, yet these poems have been dated to c. 1190, or later. Unfortunately, there is no discussion of how the hypothetical versions of this poem would stand in relation to one another, nor how a poem composed at the end of the twelfth century could have been influenced by Suger. We should also bear in mind that most of' the almost one hundred surviving chansons de geste are associated in some degree with Charlemagne, but are not all to be associated with Saint Denis. Why then, should these be?

Finally, a discussion of the genre and its narrative techniques, of themes in the poems such as feudal relations, rebellious attitudes of nobles towards their monarchs, and of the misrepresentation of Muslims, for example, as worshippers of Roman idols and of' Mohammed, and an attempt to contextualize such depictions within the complex interactions between Christian Europe and the Islamic world in this period, would have enriched this introduction (cf., e.g., Joan M. Ferrante, trans., Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974, Introduction). And why would Floripas have snow-white skin and golden hair?

Michael Newth deserves full credit for a skilful translation. The introductory material, however, would benefit from a more balanced and comprehensive discussion.

Stephen Lake, Sydney, NSW

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