A Chanson de Geste

Modern Edition and
First English Translation
Sandra C. Malicote &
A. Richard Hartman

The Medieval Review


The Medieval Review 14.12.11

Aiol is a thirteenth-century chanson de geste that has only recently begun to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. The 10,985-line epic appears in a single manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (henceforth BnF), MS fr. 25516, immediately after Elye de Saint-Gilles, with which it forms the “small cycle” of Saint-Gilles. Aiol first relates the coming of age of Élie’s son, who sets out to reconquer the lands and reputation that his father lost owing to the machinations of the traitor Makaire of Lausanne. Raised in a forest with only rudimentary knowledge of warfare and chivalry, the impoverished hero is initially mocked for his scrawny horse and paltry armor. He proves, however, to be an exemplary knight, fierce in battle and filled with Christian fervor. Rewarded for his prowess and faith, Aiol conquers the Saracen princess Mirabel and restores his father’s position and lands.

The second part of the narrative is teeming with adventures characteristic of the second-generation chansons de geste: Aiol and Mirabel endure attacks by bandits and kidnappers, a lengthy captivity, family separation and ultimate reunion. At the story’s conclusion, Makaire is punished à la Ganelon, attached to four warhorses and torn limb from limb. Formally, the work exhibits a bipartite structure: the first half of the poem is composed (mainly) in decasyllabic verse with an unusual 6/4 caesura, while the second half employs the alexandrine line, which became increasingly popular during the course of the thirteenth century.

For too long, scholars have had to rely on the two critical editions of Aiol that appeared nearly simultaneously in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.[1] Oddly enough, 2014 may witness a similar confluence, as Malicote and Hartman's book appears just as a new critical edition by Jean-Marie Ardouin is going to press at Champion. The two editions are, however, intended for different audiences. While Ardouin will offer a complete critical apparatus, the Malicote-Hartman volume provides a rigorously edited text and facing translation that will be welcomed by medievalists and also accessible to a non-specialist Anglophone readership.[2]

A five-page introduction situates Aiol very succinctly in the Old French epic tradition and more specifically in the geste de Saint-Gilles. Drawing upon Malicote’s extensive research into the cycle’s reception and transmission, the editors reiterate the hypothesis according to which a version of Aiol and Élie was presented at the court of Philip Augustus in 1212 in the context of the wedding festivities of Jeanne of Constantinople (daughter of Baldwin of Flanders) and Ferrand of Portugal.[3] The surviving manuscript has been associated with the library of Margaret of Flanders, duchess of Valois (1350-1405). The introduction subsequently outlines Aiol’s medieval reception. Although the text is preserved only in BnF MS fr. 25516, there is ample evidence that the narrative was widely disseminated. In addition to allusions found in Rutebeuf, Raimbaut IV of Orange, and chronicles, the editors cite two contemporaneous adaptations (Flemish and Middle Dutch) as well as late medieval Italian and Spanish versions. Analysis of the poem’s content is limited to a cursory summary of the narrative and an outline of the conventional epic depiction of Christian-Muslim relations. A section on “Structure and Composition” focuses mainly on the role of manuscript illuminations as organizational tools and visual markers of dialectical argumentation. Finally, the “Notes on the Edition and Translation” outline editorial principles (emendation in the case of scribal error, distinctions between “i” and “j” and between “u” and “v”) as well as a justification of free verse as the form adopted for the English translation.

The introduction, then, is clearly aimed at a general audience, and is not intended as a comprehensive presentation of the text’s history, subject matter, and formal characteristics. The few references to previous scholarship, including direct quotations, are not documented in notes. Specialists may be disappointed not to find a discussion of the work’s bipartite formal and thematic structure, its links with other epics, or the critical debate concerning origins. The paucity of detail in the introduction is somewhat surprising given that other components of the critical apparatus do correspond to the exigencies of a scholarly edition. Emendations (including pertinent emendations from previous editions) are scrupulously recorded below the Old French text, and the eighteen pages of endnotes furnish abundant linguistic, historical, codicological, and literary commentary. The back matter includes eleven illustrations (black and white reproductions of manuscript illuminations) and a selected bibliography.

Spot-checking against the manuscript (available online through Gallica) indicates that the edition is accurate and reliable. Furthermore, Malicote and Hartman have admirably achieved their goal of creating “a lively, interesting and engaging translation” that remains “faithful to the spirit and meaning of the Old French poem”(xiii). The English free verse is fairly literal, allowing close comparison to the original. It nonetheless remains very readable as a free-standing text. Typographical errors are rare, as are problematic translations. A few word choices give pause, such as “pony” for roncin (ll. 614, 647) and “troubadours” for joglere (l. 15). In addition, Celés vostre corage tout a estrous (l. 191) is rendered here as “steel your heart against all ordeals,” but translated more accurately in l. 203 as “Conceal your identity from everyone.” Teus me pora anqui orgeul moustrer (l. 4287) is rendered as “Today may you allow my pride to show itself” instead of “Someone may attack me today”— a prediction fulfilled in the ensuing episode.

While the English version generally manages to avoid both excessively archaic usage and distractingly modern phrasing, it does occasionally veer off course. One might not object to quiver François rendered as “foul cur of a Frenchman” (l. 10096), but it is somewhat jarring that such expressions coexist with examples of markedly modern idioms, such as “I’m feeling really depressed” for the Old French sui jou marie (l. 2478); “all decked ou” for moult achesmés (l. 4104); and “he’s back on his feet financially” for il resoit d’avoir trés bien garnis (l. 3457).

However, this sort of slippage is infrequent and does little to detract from the overall quality of the translation. Malicote and Hartman have provided a valuable resource for scholars and an inviting tale for devotees of medieval heroic literature.

— Catherine M. Jones,
University of Georgia


1. Wendelin Foerster, ed., Aiol et Mirabel und Elie de Saint Gille (Heilbronn: Henninger, 1876–82); and Jacques Normand & Gaston Raynaud, eds., Aiol: Chanson de geste publiée d’après le manuscrit unique de Paris (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1877).

2. A summary of Ardouin’s 2010 doctoral thesis may be found at

3. Sandra Obergfell Malicote, “‘Cil novel jougleor’: Parody, Illumination and Genre Renewal in Aiol,” Romania 120 (2002): 353–405. For an alternative viewpoint, see Baukje Finet, “La tradition écrite de la chanson d’Aiol: Une mise au point,” Romania 124 (2006): 503–507.

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Mediaevistik 27 (2014): 335

In the manuscript BNF fr 25516 we find copies of the epic poems Elye of Saint Gylles and Aiol, which have been preserved only here, that is, only one time. They belong to the group of ca. 80 Old French epic poems and address topics in the life of Julien of Saint Gilles. For a number of reasons it seems most plausible that “Aiol was presented at the Parisian court of King Philip Augustus upon the occasion of the lavish, festive wedding in 1212 of Jeanne of Constantinople, countess of Flanders, and Ferrand of Portugal” (ix). Ferrand was the son of King Sancho I of Portugal. The figure Aiol was mentioned a number of times by thirteenth‑century writers, and there are Flemish and Middle Dutch translations, probably from this one manuscript. While previous scholars have paid fairly little attention to Aiol, recent investigations have revealed that this text actually deserves much closer analysis, especially because the author reflected rather closely on the Arab world and conveyed more details than many other contemporary writers. Nevertheless, this chanson de geste does not deviate dramatically from many others of this type, although here we have, once again, the theme of a Saracen princess falling in love with the Christian knight, fleeing with him, and then converts to Christianity.

Aiol had already been edited before, first by Wendelin Foerster (1876–1882) and then by Gaston Raynaud (1879), but both had emended the text extensively, which we no longer do. While they had assumed that a Picard scribe had created havoc with the original text which he allegedly copied from the Old French, this view is no longer accepted. Picard was a rather hybrid language, which finds its reflection in the text of Aiol as well. Consequently, Malicote and Hartman have wisely abstained from intervening into the text, except when there were obvious scribal errors, the absence of a nasal bar, omissions or repetitions of letters or of a word. All emendations, which they have kept to a minimum, are annotated at the bottom of the respective page. They distinguish the letters ‘i’ and ‘j’, ‘u’ and ‘v’, and they have included a modern punctuation.

On facing pages, they also offer an English translation, in which they have standardized the spelling of the proper names. The translation is based on free verse for an easier reading, while the authors still stay very close to the original text. At the end we find eleven b/w illustrations, notes, and a select bibliography.

Considering that this work consists of close to 11,000 verses and has not been studied too intensively, it would have been very helpful if the editors had also included a brief structural analysis or had provided a plot summary. The main purpose, however, was to make this important Old French epic poem available again in a solid edition closely based on the sole manuscript and to accompany it with this translation. Spot checks confirm that the two authors have done very good work and rendered the original into a very legible, yet authentic modern English.

— Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

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