Note about the last review.

Even though the readings course I'm taking technically ends today, I'm probably not going to get done with the last review (of Carol Heffernan's The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance) today, since I've two lectures to write before next week starts. Bear with me, loyal reader(s)!


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 6:
The Arabs and Medieval Europe

Norman Daniel. The Arabs and Medieval Europe. New York: Longman, 1975. Pp. xiv, 378. Four illustrations. $44.00 cloth.

Although now more than twenty years old, much of Norman Daniel's 1975 work, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, still rings true. In this, Daniel argues for a new way of seeing history as fundamentally interconnected—we can no more talk of European history without Muslims than we can talk about Etruscan history without the Greeks or South African history without the Xhosa. Daniel begins his argument by selectively drawing parallels between the entire Arab world and Western Europe, especially England, in the 8th century CE, demonstrating the degree to which both were similar in their philosophical, philological, and scientific endeavors. He then proposes to trace how "the two societies have gradually diverged" (22).

This he does, in a series of well-written and insightful chapters, starting with what might be considered a "fracture point": the sudden, though not unexpected, turn toward martyrdom as a form of protest in Cordoba in the 9th century CE—an impetus that might best be recognized as the ideology behind religious suicide bombings[1] today. From here, Daniel turns to the wider Mediterranean, especially Sicily and Italy, before touching on the rise of the Recoquista in Spain, the impact of the crusades across the Mediterranean on both sides of the religious divide, and the rise of the Norman kingdom in Sicily toward its most tolerant peak in Frederick II. These discussions lead into an extended examination of the philosophical impact of such fields as courtly love, theology, natural philosophy, and medicine, most of which have been superseded by later, more focused studies.

Although hampered, perhaps, by its predating Said's Orientalism, as well as Daniel's forgivable, though unavoidable, biases toward Islam, The Arabs and Medieval Europe is largely quite useful. His investigation, for example, of the origins of troubadour and courtly love lyrics (101-105), ending in the surprisingly tentative conclusion that "there were certainly some parallel developments [between European and Islamic sources], and these were probably related" (105), seems mostly to be the skeleton on which the arguments of someone like Maria Rosa Menocal have been built. From time to time the evidence seems unconvincing—at one point he seems to base the existence of an Arabic-speaking Christian population in Spain purely on the fact that a number of Latin names "hide" Arabic meanings—but for what was groundbreaking research on a sensitive and largely cloaked topic, this is not out of the question. Still, the heavy bias toward Islam, perhaps rhetorically necessary when this book was first published, is largely regrettable today, since it undercuts the idea that world history of the period between 412 and 1483 CE is unbalanced in favor of Europe. One does not re-balance the scales by throwing everything on the lighter pan. Instead, what must be done is to see that period of history for what it was: a time in which Europe, far from the Enlightenment portrait of the "Middle Ages," was an active member of a vibrant, yet violent, pan-Mediterranean culture, sometimes Muslim, sometimes Christian, yet always, always, looking East.

[1] Not necessarily Muslim suicide bombings; one could easily apply the same standards to IRA bombings in the 1980s.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 5:
Europe and the Mystique of Islam

Maxime Rodinson. Europe and the Mystique of Islam. 1980. Tr. Roger Venius. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987. Pp xv, 163. Paper, $26.95.

Maxime Rodinson's Europe and the Mystique of Islam is a work in two parts. The first is an examination of the origins of Orientalism, especially the medieval fascination with and fear of their Muslim neighbors. The second is a call to change in Oriental studies. Both parts evoke and enter into a dialog with Said's Orientalism, and overall, by taking a longer historical view, Rodinson improves on Said's classic investigation, especially in Orientalism's origins with and applications for the medieval. Rodinson notes that "the image of Islam was not drawn simply from the crusades, as some have maintained, but rather from the Latin Christian world's gradually developing ideological unity" (7). He traces various contacts between the Muslim and Christian worlds, then argues that a gradual change from fear to fascination came about in the West's perception of Islam, derived from "the increase in factual information about Islam and the Muslim world, the steady growth of actual contacts through both political and commercial relations, and even the mutual respect that was the occasional result of these experiences" (24). He also roots some notions of tolerance in the encounter with the Mongols, another, even less Christian people beyond Islam. Thus, in the mid-13th century, "the feeling that Islam shared the same basic concept of religious monotheism with Christianity was reinforced; it was a notion that recurred earlier only fleetingly" (28-9).

Rodinson argues that the eventual shift away from European intolerance toward the Muslim resulted in a gradual rise in the interest for "the Orient" as a thing to be studied. This in turn led to the rise of Orientalism, which in seeking to understand or quantify Muslim behavior, slowly dehumanized its object of study. In a certain sense, then, this relativism is unfortunate, for it led to the idea that the studied may be controlled—and thus to imperialism. So it goes.

One gets the sense, watching Rodinson sift through the differing western interpretations of Islam, that "the Orient," or indeed "Islam," changes depending on who is looking at it; much like Terry Eagleton's discussion of "the aesthetic" as a discreet category, "all that is solid melts into air," and we are left to face the idea that any human creation is constantly being recreated. This is an unexpected moment of Post-structuralist navel-gazing, but not surprising for a book originally written in the late 70's in France. What such a notion—"The Orient" is a flexible category—tells us is that the Orient is never a thing in itself, but a speculum societatis, no more real than yet just as polemical as Tacitius' Germans or Harriot's Virginians.

Unfortunately, the majority of these moments occur in the first half of the book; the second half of the book is interesting largely to professional Orientalists, and may in fact be out-of-date in some areas; after all, the call to action he provides is a quarter-century old, and surely in a field that contains such critics as Maria Rosa Menocal, some work has been done toward change.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 4:
Arab Historians of the Crusades

Francesco Gabrieli. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Tr. E. J. Costello. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. Pp xxxvi, 362. $7.95.

It's a short review this time around, for time reasons, and also because the book is pretty straightforward. Gabrieli presents us with selections from the major Islamic historians of the Crusades, translated and given explanatory footnotes as needed. Overall it does what it says on the box: Gabrieli constructs a continuous narrative of the Muslim world's reaction to the rather sudden and unprovoked invasion of Syria in the 11th century CE, and its continuing invention of ways to drive the Franks out. It's worth noting that, in contrast to the hyperbole of such works as Chanson de Roland, most of the historians here are rational and level-headed, with outbursts limited to lines like "the Franks—God damn them—invaded Syria" and similar quick condescensions . Some sources do attribute disgusting practices to the Franks—such as ibn Al-Athir's account of Roger of Sicily's rhetorical farting techniques—and some, like 'Imad Ad-Din, are impressive as works of art but disappointingly unwilling to compromise.

The world from which they write is remarkably, though perhaps not surprisingly, strong: it is a world of those who are rational as well as faithful, able to see that the recapturing of Jerusalem is as much a matter of military planning as God's will. Many of the historians see right through the Christians' propaganda—miracle discoveries of lances and cross pieces are shown for the carefully planned tricks they no doubt were. The Franks come off most of the time as quite human: one can praise Raymond of Tripoli, but fully and rightly despise the treachery of Reynald de Chatillon. The overall impression of the work is one of openness, tolerance, and a society in which even barbarians may be given the benefit of the doubt. Whether this arises from the selection, arrangement, and translation of certain pieces, or of the pieces themselves, I cannot say for certain, but the present work is quite useful toward repairing the popular memory of the crusades.


Weird Little Kids
(an AP scoring report)

originally written 15:15 CST, 18 June 2007

Ninety percent of the time, I don't mind flying. Ten percent of the time, however, I genuinely despite it and spend hours dreaming of a coast-to-coast, high-speed rail network, like British Rail on crack. The reason for this is simple: as I write this—by hand, since network time is expensive—I am on hour six of what should have been a two-hour layover and, as of this morning, still was. However right as we got on the bus at six (EST), we discovered that the 10:40 flight to DFW had been inexplicably canceled. Cue frantic attempts to reschedule, a hassle-up at TSA scanning which cost me half a bottle each of shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste as well as a Leatherman I'd had since high school, and a literal run to the terminal to get on at the last second. As I say, I've been in DFW since 10:00 local time, which means, considering I woke up at 3:00 EST this morning, that I've been up for fourteen hours. Currently I ache in strange places, like the bottom of my feet or the inside of my biceps, and I'm starting to feel a bit like a Donestre, and may in fact eat someone and weep over their head if I don't get to sleep on the plane. [1]

However, this comes at the end of an otherwise wonderful week. Amalie and David sold it well: you do a lot of what amounts to grindingly repetitive though mildly amusing work, and then you're on the beach or in the bar by five. The food is institutional yet plentiful—like "gluttony popcorn," it didn't taste good but there was plenty of it. [2] Most of the people are great (hello to Shirl Chumley, Grimsley Graham, Joan Snyder, and the lovely Melissa Vosen), and the few who aren't are easily avoided.

I think I'm allowed to talk about the questions now that the scoring is over, but I'll be circumspect anyway. Before I go on, let me say that it's highly likely that everything between the next sentence and the three # signs is the property of Educational Testing Services; I believe, however, that posting these anonymously and without any personal gain other than a good laugh is fair use, but if it isn't, contact me and I'll be glad to remove any offending material.
That said, I was assigned to question 3, which asked students to take a position on the ethics of offering incentives for charitable donations, such as bonus points in class for donations. Most of the kids were okay, but some were strange. . .
  • Charity is something that is always willing to take the extra change off your hands, is willing to have you come over and fix that hole in the wall free of charge, and would love to sit and talk about how many touchdowns you scored, back in the day.
  • If (hypothetically) there were two objects teetering equally balanced on a mountain, one is a suitcase full of money, the other is an infant, which would you grab?
  • Although in the twenty-first century we may claim to be sophisticated, we are no better than our ancestral thieves.
  • If children are engaging in this sort of sacrifice for an A+, I personally fail to see how this is less degrading or dehumanizing than a young woman exploiting her body for a better grade.
  • On the surface the group opposed to this exchange may be more attractive, more magnetic to your north and south poles. But before you go welcoming in Santa Claus, make sure it's not a wolf in gramma's clothes.
  • At my school, one of the clubs required its members to sell two bags of onions for a charity or they would not be allowed to return next year. (Frankly, anything that gets you out of the Soviet Poland club is probably a good idea. -- ed)
  • More often than not, moms and dads resort to a trail of stickers that leads to a prize. I remember sitting on the toilet for hours to get a tic-tac. Well, two if it was number two.
. . . while others were just confused. . .
  • I was thought [sic] that if you do it out of your own will, with the goodness of your heart, you don't need a reward because the reward was the goodness you inflicted [sic].
  • As I started applying to colleges, I milked the Darfur cow until I was accepted.
  • It is a dark and dreary night. (opening sentence)
  • Not everyone is going to be as kindhearted or generous as Boo Radley or the woman at the county fair.
  • Ethics is a simple but yet [sic] complicated thing. It has so many sides to it's [sic] coin. Ethics is a world wide thing. Some if not most people say ethics just disturbs the natural order of things. I guess I'm just one of those such people. Ethics just bother me.
. . . while still others were filled with useful knowledge. . .
  • Humans are regretfully greedy.
  • Incentives for charity began when people figured out that people are human, and humans are not "selfless" (generally speaking).
  • George Washington risked his life at war, lived among the other soldiers, and defeated the enemy. Benjamin Franklin sat on [sic] a room for hours, in order to develop the Bill of Rights.
  • Charity has changed from its humble beginnings as a beggar on the street.
  • There are many all over the world who are in need. There are also those who are well-endowed and need no help at all.
  • The ethics of this or any debate can rage on for decades.
Also, I'm to pass along this: "I ♥ Mr. McBride. Y'all should give him a raise." Lucky you, Mr. McBride.

I scored 1087 essays or 0.38% of the total number of essays. Of that, 14 students used the word "donator" instead of "donor,"[3] four opened by comparing charity to love (a correct assertion, etymologically speaking) five suggested by name classical or operant conditioning, four suggested the moral position of "tzedakah" (two of them effectively), seven mentioned pride and Prejudice, four mentioned Clueless, another four mentioned the episode of Friends in which Phoebe tries to do a charitable act without getting something in return, seven believed andrew Carnegie "invented charity," and five confessed to being Eagle Scouts (two confessed to having gotten their Girl Guides Gold Awards, though not in the same essay as the Eagle Scouts).

# # #

Anyway, that's my AP scoring report. I'm about halfway through Arab Historians of the Crusades, and will finish it just as soon as I have a brain again. I've also been tapped to teach ENGL 2303, Survey of English Literature to the 17th Century, in Summer II, instead of WLIT 1113. I hope to get the book tomorrow or Thursday and have all that planned out.

More as it develops. Today will be spent doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, shopping, and watching some Doctor Who.
[1] As it happened, no-one had the seat next to me, and I had a nice and restful flight until we got ready to deplane and discovered the jetway was broken, and we had to be towed to another gate. I nearly cried.
[2] This refers to a story I've now lost track of, originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction sometime in the nineties, concerning a young Jesus who tries out for little league. Anyone who can find that story gets a bribe.
[3] I'm not sure this is a real word, but if it were, it would by etymology mean "someone who has been given as a gift."


I believe the word is "bleurg"

I'm back from scoring AP exams in Florida. I wrote a report, which I'll post tomorrow when I have a brain again and my arms stop hurting from schlepping my luggage around.

For now, I'm thinking shower, as soon as Joni Mitchell's done singing "This Flight Tonight," which has been in my head but not on my mp3 player all week.


Right, well then, I'm off...

I'm leaving for Daytona Beach, city of magic, city of lights—none of which I actually get to see, as I'm going there to score Advanced Placement (AP) exams. For those of you who don't know, AP exams are an array of tests designed to get high school students out of college courses, and in my case I'll be helping (or hindering) students from taking composition. It might be fun, it might be tedious, it might be Dr. Spock's back-up band, but it'll be in Florida, and that's something.

The upshot of this is that I probably won't post something about the next book on my list, Arab Historians of the Crusades until the middle of next week at best. Lots of work. Busy busy busy. Plus I'm also taking a few articles—including Hilario Franco's "La construction d'une utopie: L'Empire de Pretre Jean" and Catherine Brown's "In the Middle"—and, until this morning, I was going to take Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, but will now take Alfred Crosby's The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, because I'm mad like that, and also because I don't want to make friends. Chances any of it will get read except on the plane? 23.2%

See you in eight days!


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 3:
Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival, with Titurel and the Love-Lyrics. Cyril Edwards, tr. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. xxxiii, 329. 1 chart, 7 illustrations. £50.00.

God bless Wolfram von Eschenbach for being so weird. I'll talk about his particular Saracen-weirdness in a minute (and see previous post for my justification of the word "Saracen"), but for now let me say that this is by far one of the most readable and entertaining romances I've ever come across. Like Chretien before him, he's obsessed with details: how people look, what they're dressed in, how their horses look, what their horses are dressed in, the color of the damn grass even—it's all there. To give you one example, Gahmuret, Parzival's father, constantly looks like a million marks, kitted out in ermine and those damn anchors. Nor is clothing Wolfram's only poetic vice, as he is fond of multilingual puns, strange phrasing like "God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival" (48), and one of my favorite episodes ever, the fight between Gawan and. . . a lion:

er hetem den schilt nâch genomn:
sîn êrster grif was alsô komn,
durch den schilt mit al den klân.
von tiere ist selten ê getân
sîn grif durch solhe herte.
Gâwân sich zuckes werte:
ein bein hin ab er im swanc.
der lewe ûf drîen füezen spranc:
Ime schilde beleip der vierde fuoz. (f. 571-2)

The lion had almost succeeded in taking the shield from him. Its first lunge had gone through the shield, along with all its claws. Seldom before has a beast clawed with such force! Gawan prevented it from snatching his shield. He hewed one leg off it! The lion leapt about on three feet, the fourth foot stuck in the shield.

See what I mean? I can only imagine Gawan yelling "getitoffgetitoffgetitoff!" while flailing wildly at it with the sword. It's not heroic, but I grew up with Monty Python.[1]

You can also see here how readable Cyril Edwards' translation is. It's modern, but it retains Wolfram's diction pretty well. The Boydell and Brewer edition is, as one might expect from that publishing arm, a fine one indeed. The introduction is focused but explanatory, and seems aimed for the general educated reader—exactly the sort of person who might have need of the book in the first place. Edwards includes many footnotes—a convenience often overlooked or, as in the Oxford edition of the same translation, relegated to far-less-accessible footnotes—and while it seems in places a few more might be useful, one sees why they might have been life out. The critical material, including a short explication of the illustrations in the Munich manuscript, is also well done. The only downside I see is that common to many of Boydell and Brewers' editions: a lack of a bibliography, with the result that one has to comb footnotes to find a citation.

Saracen Decorations

Save for Gahmuret's episode in the holy land/Outremer/Over There, the Orient shows up mostly as "Saracenerie," moveable goods from the luxurious East, and the standard furs, gems, and silk. It's everywhere in Parzival, from the one-off ruby to the ever-present Syrian silk to the gold braidwork on the Fisher-king's robes. "Arab," "Moor," "Saracen": these are just color-words for Wolfram—pun slightly intended, for while he primarily uses them as one-off references or flavorful adjectives attached to consumer goods (Moorish horses, Arabian silk, etc), he does of course "color" the Moors/Arabs black. Yet unlike many of his fellow epic-romance writers, Wolfram spends little time attributing to that color any significance other than wonder: the Moors are black, so it seems, because the spectacle of a literally half-black, half-white half brother for Parzival is just too good to pass up. One gets the impression that they do not function as allegorically for Wolfram as they do for, say, "Turold" or the compositor of El Cid, in part because when Wolfram wishes to be allegorically nasty, he is.

Witness the sorceress Cundrie (100 ffl), whose monstrosity is evident from the start. She is marked as other both physically, through the use of animal-derived signifiers such as bristles and tusks, and mentally, though her learning. For, as Wolfram tells us, "she spoke all languages well: Latin, heathen and French. She had a cultivated mind, encompassing dialectic and geometry: known to her, too, were the skills of astronomy" (100). This catalog seems to be as monstrous an indicator as her tusks, yet it is less so because of what she knows than the fact that she knows it at all. However, I know less than nothing about the expectations of women's education in medieval Germany, much less the education of sorceresses, and so can't be sure to what degree such erudition is normal for Wolfram's audience. I suspect it isn't quite normal, because Wolfram takes the time to single it out. The point is: some things in Wolfram might be monstrous, but Saracens aren't, and that alone makes him interesting.

Cundrie is not alone: she and her brother Malcreature [2] were sent to the Fisher-king by Queen Secundille, wife of Feirefiz, Parzival's half-brother and ruler of all of Tribalibot (aka India). This gift is interesting, because it sets up a reciprocal relationship between heathenesse and the Grail: the Fisher-king sends gifts to her in response, and both are pleased. But this makes little sense, for as we are told later, no pagan can see the Grail or, presumably, use it to gain its riches. Of what use is the pagan connection to the holiest of Christian relics?

The Saracens have interesting connections to the entire legend. Wolfram, admitting to his audience that Chretien's narrative is defective, invents a bard named Kyot, who "found in Toledo, lying neglected, in heathen script, this adventure's fundament. The a b c of those characters he must have learned before hand, without the art of necromancy" (145). As Cervantes would do some four centuries later, Wolfram imagines the Orient as a place of secret knowledge as well. In the latter's case, however, the knowledge isn't just a story, but the "Truth" of Christianity, written down in "heathen script," which can presumably be read by "heathens." The knowledge they possess is, like possessing the Grail itself, useless to them. One suspects that beneath his relatively benevolent position, Wolfram is suggesting that the heathens are sinister, keeping truth from not only themselves but all of Christendom as well, just for spite.

Or perhaps it is this: we are told many times that no-one can take the Grail by force, but must be summoned to it (250). Yet the Grail calls to Christian and heathen alike, and does not distinguish. Wolfram's portrait of Christianity is nicely universalizing, even if disturbing in its treatment of the heathen, who is all too willing to let go of "Jupiter and Juno" in the face of Christian "truth." [3] We may praise Wolfram for letting the Saracens off so easily, but we should remember that his is the most distorted view of Islam yet (of the three I've read, that is): unlike the Spanish Saracens in Roland, Parzival's pagans don't even name-drop Mohammed. Again, Wolfram understands the Orient as a source of wealth and the location of earthly paradise, but he displays even less knowledge of the east than John Mandeville.
[1] Which reminds me, while we're on the subject of Python and Germans: I watched the Staatsoper Stuttgarts rendition of Das Rheingeld a few days ago, and couldn't finish it, primarily because the guy who sang Wotan did so out of the side of his mouth like Terry Jones (albeit Terry Jones with eczema, poor guy).
[2] Wolfram has hit the bottom of the name bag now.
[3] In typical knightly fashion, Feirefiz is won over to Christianity by the radiant beauty of the Grail-maiden, and not out of any desire to see the Grail as such.


Summer Reading Reviews, Part 2:
La chanson de Roland

Note to the reader: This review is in three parts: the first is an exercise in writing an academic review (here to keep the punters happy), the second is a reaction to the text itself, and the third is a list of questions I’ve yet to fully ponder that arise from the text. If you’re interested in my reactions, skip to the part so labeled. -- Ed


Brault, Gerard. La Chanson de Roland: Oxford Text and English Translation. Student Edition. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1984. Pp. xxxiii; 245. $15.00.

A student edition of a larger work is often necessary, since we expect our students to be less interested in the sorts of minutiae that we tedious academics get lost in. Yet a student edition must be helpful and useful to the students’ understanding of the text, and that goal is in Gerard Brault’s 1984 edition of the Chanson de Roland, occasionally lacking. On the one hand, the introduction seems largely useful, helping to distinguish all the cultural and genere forms that produced this text. He moves quickly through the kinds of narrative poetry that France produced in the High Middle Ages to the “Historical Event” of Charlemagne’s disastrous campaign into Andalusia in the late eighth century. From there he discusses the development of the legend, then of the chanson itself, before analyzing its usefulness as an historical document. All this is done in a clear and concise prose style that would seem to work quite well for the general undergraduate reader.

There are, however, flaws in this introduction, as well as in the edition itself. These are in some places stylistic issues and in others questionable choices about what and how certain information is presented. He cites, for instance, Schliemann excavating at Troy as a reason to give some credence to the poem’s historical relevance (xix); not only is this an old chestnut, but it is not a very meaty one at that (Schliemann’s methods were not the best, nor was his poly-chronic reconstruction of “Troy” the Homeric city). Too, he occasionally lapses into strange idiom, such as the puzzling notion that “as in contemporary society, individuals in this epic are also bound together by feudal ties involving mutual obligations between lord and vassal” (xx). Unless Brault has been living in an alternative France, one can only assume he means “contemporary to the poem,” or perhaps to AD 778, something that in any case is not clear from the context. While later usage seems to indicate the former meaning, such imprecision in the introduction does not bode well for the translation ahead.

Perhaps most annoying is the lack of an apparatus criticus and footnotes, both crucial features for understanding a poem no matter what one’s academic standing. Taken in conjunction with his abbreviated bibliography of works largely in French, and his quasi-literal translation of the poem, one is not certain for what sort of “students” Brault expects this volume to be useful. French majors are presented with a ready-made trot; literature majors are not presented with a very literary rendition of the text; and the majority of today’s undergraduates, lacking a guide to the meaning of the text, will see the poem as just another incomprehensible relic of the middle ages.

Reactions to the text

The ideological machine that this text contains is centered largely on the dehumanization of the Saracen. I use “Saracen” deliberately here, since it contains the European idealization of the Muslim other. (Note: I’m almost certain I’m not the first person to say this, and if I’ve not given credit for this idea it’s because I can’t remember where I’ve read it). The Saracen in this text is dehumanized in a number of ways, some subtle, some less than that.

An example of the more subtle dehumanization occurs in brief moments such as this: Oliver, Roland’s companion, [1] looks out over the field of battle and says:

Jo ai veüt les Sarrazins d’Espaigne,
Cuverz en sunt li val e les muntaignes
E li lariz e trestutes les plaignes.
Granz sunt les oz de cele gent estrange (laisse 84)

I have seen the Saracens from Spain; the valleys and mountains are covered with them, the hillsides, too, and all the plains. The armies of that foreign people are huge.

The Saracen other becomes a blight on the land, like a plague of locusts.

In another sense, they are a blight since they are comprised of things that are always “almost knights,” people who ben resemblet barun (look a good deal like a true knight, laisse 229). They follow the same martial culture as Charles and his men, but they cannot be true knights, quite likely because they employ monsters:

De Micenes as chefs gros:
Sur les eschines qu’il unt en mi les dos
Cil sunt seiet sensement cume porc (laisse 232)

Of large-headed men from Misnes: on their spines, along their backs, they have bristles like pigs.

This detail, coming at the start of a list of the different nations that make the Saracen army, throws suspicion on all the “normal” people who follow in the list, not only those ki uncles ben ne volt (never wished to do good, laisse 232) but monstrous races as well. This highlights something about monsters that I’d not considered before: the Monstrous Races are always objectified. At no time does anyone expect a man to live, work, worship, or fight alongside monsters, for there is always the chance that you yourself will become one by proximity. Furthermore, no monster ever speaks nor has it own agency; those that speak at all, e.g. the Donestre, do so in the voices of others.

I’m reminded, too, of an essay by Greta Austin, in which she points out that the line between nation and race is paper-thin in the middle ages, and the line between race and monster is equally porous. [2] One could easily collapse the categories depending on polemical need, and thus it seems almost anticlimactic to discover that some of the members of the Saracen army aren’t human; after all, to the medieval European eye, nothing from the Orient was ever really human.

The Saracen is also marked by conspicuous wealth. From the start, they may not have a good army, but they can bribe Charlemagne with:

curs e leons e chens
set cenz camelz e mil hosturs muërs
d’or e d’argent iiiiC muls cargez
cinquant carre qu’en sent carier (laisse 3)

bears, lions, dogs, seven hundred camels laden with gold and silver, and fifty carts for a wagon train.

Ironicallly, Blancandrin, the speaker and “one of the most cunning pagans” (de plus saives paiens, laisse 3) next says that with such a bribe, Charlemagne “will be able to pay his soldiers well” (ben en purrat luër ses soldeiers, laisse 3). One wonders why King Marsile of Saragossa hasn’t bought his own army with such a treasure-hoard, or indeed why he should in effect become paymaster of the Christian army. The obvious answer—because God wills it—is not enough. Rather, I think it has much to do with the idea that Muslims are Orientals and therefore rich and stupid. Something in me also suspects that this is a post-Crusades mentality; while the Andalusian Caliphate was rich, I think, to borrow Professor Tolkien’s famous phrasing, “the tale grew in the telling.” After the mentality arose that one could go East and seek one’s fortune along with penance, I suspect it became much more common to assume that the Oriental would be a source of wealth for the Occidental. However, this is mere assumption, and I haven’t a thing to back it up with yet.

There is, however, this: the Saracens in this poem are an often indirect source of European wealth. Consider Roland’s “oliphant,” the elephant-tusk horn he carries with him. There being precious few oliphants in Europe since the last Ice Age, how else might he have gotten it but from Saracen traders? It is a surprisingly Oriental signifier in the midst of all this anti-Oriental luxuria.

Indeed, the portrait of the Franks is at times as disturbing as that of the Saracens. Their motives are typically rather thin; Ganelon, for instance, displaces the impetus for conquest off of Charlemagne and onto Roland: it is Roland who because “he holds sway over the Emepeor himself / will conquer for [Charlemagne] all the lands from here to the Orient” (l’emperere meïsmes ad tut a sun talent / cunquerrat li les teres d’ice qu’en Orient, laisse 30). No other reason is given for conquest—the famous “pagans are wrong and Christians are right” must wait until the battle begins, some 600 lines from this point—and one is led to assume, as Blancandrin says here, that “Roland is a maniac” (mult est pesmes Rollant, laisse 30).

The Franks also have curious rituals surrounding death: The cultural anthropologist in me is more interested in the death ritual that Roland performs (laisse 174) including the choice of a pine tree, placing his valuable weapons beneath him, turning his face to the enemy, and—most curious of all—pur ses pecchez, we are told, Deu en puroffrid lo guant (he offered his gauntlet to God for his sins), as if he is pledging his service to God in the afterlife. It all seems quaintly Germanic: dying under a tree, showing no fear, soldiering for God when you’re dead. I’m reminded most of all that I need to pick up James Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. To make matters stranger, after the Franks cut out Roland, Turpin, and Oliver’s hearts and set them in a casket while wrapping the bodies in stags’ skins (ritual!), the pagans arrive, and in a rather disturbing scene of re-arming, all the regions of the Carolingian empire are mentioned, as if this were a 12th-century rendition of Triumph of Will: each region is strong, proud, and unafraid of battle (laisses 218-225)

In the end, neither portrait really matters, since the end result of this conquest is rabid anti-Semitic fantasy, as “idols” are smashed in Saragossa:

A mil Franceis funt ben cercer la vile
Les signagoges e les mahumeries
A maliz de ser e a cuignes qu’il tindrent
Fruissent les ymagenes trestutes les ydles
N’i remendrat ne sorz ne falserie (laisse 266)

Orders are given for a thousand Frenchmen to search the city, the synagogues and the mosques; holding iron hammers and axes, they smash the statues and all the idols. No sorcery or false cult will remain there.

The point here being that of course this did not happen: Saragossa was steadfastly Muslim until well into El Cid’s day.

I’m leaving out a lot, I know—battle scenes, the quick and surprising conversion of Bramimonde—but these are some of the weird images I’ll take away from the text, along with a general idea that, although we are supposed to believe the Christians are right, neither side comes out very well in the telling.


[1] I have an idea that “companion” here might have something to do with Alan Bray’s notion of the “friend” (see The Friend), but swive me if I can see anywhere to run with this idea.

[2] Greta Austin "Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races? Race and the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East.” Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger, eds. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Kalamazoo: U of Michigan Press, 2002. 25–51.

  • How demonized were the “Saracens” in heroic literature before the Crusades?
  • What else—besides the ambiguous wascones in the Carolingian chronicles—did the “universal enemy” of Saracen replace?
  • Is the choice of “Saracen” as enemy a deliberate (or “accidental”) internationalizing of the story from something only locals would know to something all who read it would understand as “other”?
  • Is Roland more of a hero fighting Saracens than if he were fighting “Wascones”?
  • How did later ages in France treat the Carolingians?
  • Is it even worth being surprised anymore that the luxurious and effeminate Saracens also use as soldiers monsters from farthest Ethiopia (laisse 143 ffl)?
  • What’s with the beard fetishism in medieval heroic texts? El Cid grows his out, Charles exposes his beard to show he’s unafraid (so does the pagan king)—what gives? Weird masculinity signifiers?