Rare discovery illuminates history of the French medieval epic
Press release issued: 13 September 2012
Fragments of two medieval French epic poems have been discovered and identified by researchers at the University of Bristol and the University of Edinburgh.
The larger fragment is a section of text from the Chanson de Guillaume, one of the earliest surviving Old French texts, known until now in only one manuscript. The smaller fragment comes from a manuscript of Foulque de Candie, a late twelfth-century poem.
The fragments – each roughly the size and dimensions of a cheque – were found by Dr Marianne Ailes of Bristol's Department of French in a box of manuscript fragments recovered from book bindings in St Andrews University Library.
The two fragments, the only unidentified Old French manuscripts in the collection, both exhibit Anglo-Norman orthography, so had been copied in England. The larger fragment, dating from the late 13th century, contains ten lines of two columns. The second fragment, which is probably from the first half of the 14th century, contains five lines of two columns.
Together with Professor Philip Bennett of the University of Edinburgh, Dr Ailes identified the first fragment as a version of the narrative contained in the Chanson de Guillaume. This important twelfth-century Old French epic poem survives complete in only one manuscript, kept in the British Library. However, the contents of the fragment do not correspond to the narrative preserved in the London manuscript, but represent the version reflected in the late twelfth-century poem Foulque de Candie. The second fragment was identified as a coming from a manuscript of Foulque de Candie.
The hand of the Chanson de Guillaume fragment is very similar to that of a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford – known as Douce 132 – which contains a number of narrative texts copied around 1270-1290 in the south of England. The fragment's page layout is identical to that of Douce 132.
The second fragment also has a similar script to Douce 132, though dates from about 50 years later. Its page layout appears to imitate that used for Douce 132 and for the first fragment.
Professor Bennett said: "It is probable that Douce 132 and the first fragment came from the same scriptorium or from closely related scriptoria in the Oxford area.
"The second fragment might be a conscious attempt to reproduce the work of what is revealed as a prestigious scriptorium – or the owner of the first fragment, who knew that his text should have Foulque de Candie to complete it, had a manuscript of the poem prepared in what was meant to be a complementary style."
Despite the existence of a number of early manuscripts of such chansons de geste (French epic poems) copied in England, it is traditionally believed that the genre was in decline in England by the mid-thirteenth century. However, as Dr Ailes and Professor Bennett argue in a paper presented at the recent International Congress of the Société Rencesvals in Oxford, the discovery of the St Andrews fragments serves as a reminder that absence of evidence does not mean absence of texts.
Dr Ailes said: "The significance of these fragments is out of proportion to their size. As they are written with the spelling characteristic of Anglo-Norman texts they add to our understanding of the reception of this kind of text in England.
"Differences between this manuscript of the Chanson de Guillaume and the only complete manuscript also help us to appreciate the way texts were altered; in this case the addition of a detail links it to the text in the other fragment. Professor Bennett and I are also investigating possible links with two other manuscripts."