Translating ‘Biau’ and ‘Perron’

First, I would like to thank Jeffrey Heyer for his questions about my translation of the words biau and perron following the latest post of Michelant’s introduction. Below is my post in answer to his comment:

You translate the younger Escanor’s epithet as Noble. Was the original word used “Biau”? There is also a reference to “Merlin’s base” which is obviously the Fountain of Merlin where Gawain and Grifflet were ambushed in Part 8. Are there alternative translations or implications of the word here translated as “base”?

Thinking about the minute details of translation is something I love. However, it is also something that can be frustrating and, as far as I can see from work done by others, can never quite be satisfactorily resolved. As a brief explanation of my choices of my English translations, which are by no means permanent yet, I will deal with each separately because they raised different questions. With biau I was most influenced by the themes of this romance. The second is purely a linguistic issue, a case of needing to understand the etymology and definitions of Old French words much better!

In Le Roman d’Escanor the term biau is definitely one I was unsure of how to translate when first approaching Escanor’s character in the text and one I will return to. In the first instance, before I started the blog, I did indeed translate ‘Escanor li Biau’ as ‘Escanor the Beautiful. However, I began to feel by translating his name in this way I was exclusively emphasising Escanor’s superficial, physical characteristics. I decided to choose an epithet that suited the character both in the context of the genre of romance and its themes.

Escanor, so far in my reading, seems to be a solidly ‘good’ and royal character as the central king. This suits the typology of his role. In medieval romance beauty is typically an indicator of inherent goodness and/or nobility, for example as for the lost sons of Octavian and Sir Isumbras, or Gareth in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. In these romances beauty has decidedly moral and/or class connotations in the heroic trajectory that distinguishes them from other people, particularly when they are living and acting in non-courtly, i.e. non royal, spaces. In this body of literature I see beauty as a symbol or code, which contains more than one layer of meaning beyond the face value of the physical form it describes. So I have been translating Escanor’s epithet as ‘Noble’ because this choice seems thematically consistent with both his character trait and his class.

The moral connotations of the word biau were in use in different medieval contexts as well. A beau-père in Old French referred to a ‘monk’ or non-specific kind of ‘religious man’, which uses the adjective to elevate the position of ‘father’ from something ordinary and biological to the special and moral (DMF). Escanor actually becomes one, taking on a religious as well as a courtly role because at the end of Eleanor’s romance he spends a period as a hermit and his death are described at length—and in detail (see my 2015 IAS paper abstract). In brief, he is described as a paragon of moral and religious virtue and an exemplar to imitate, enabling his wife to escape the flames of hell by his heavenly ascension.

My only concern with the present choice of ‘noble’ is that for modern readers it may have more class connotations than those of moral or personal traits. Class is an inescapable part of medieval romance, so generically it works. Nevertheless, there is so much in this romance that is interesting for modern readers that I might choose a more neutral word(if such a thing exists) so that the king’s epithet is ‘Escanor the Good’. If Eleanor’s romance consistently invites its readers to empathise and identify with its central king I would like to avoid alienating his character from modern readers who are less familiar with romance as a genre the first time his name is mentioned. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary provides the definition for biau as ‘good’ as well as a much longer list of interior qualities for beautiful. An English audience contemporary to Escanor’s composition would have understood it variously as: ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘noble’, ‘virtuous’, ‘kind’, ‘helpful’, ‘wise’, ‘sensible’, ‘fine’, ‘courteous’ or ‘expert’ (AND). I need to translate more of the poem before deciding for certain; my opinion may change depending upon what other events and people Escanor is involved with in the story. Arthur and his knights are described by Caxton in his preface to Malory’s Morte as ‘good’ (CMEVP). However, knights’ acts often suggest otherwise. So before changing Escanor’s name I will wait and see what other things transpire in Eleanor’s romance…

Now, to take perron, as mentioned at the start this is purely a case of my not being familiar enough with the etymology or meanings for this word. A crucial thing I need to check is whether perron is a term Michelant used independently in his plot summary, or whether he has taken it straight from the romance itself as this would greatly affect my translation. Perron in Old French seems to mean ‘block of stone’ or some other kind of stone ‘construction’ and this meaning continues today in the modern French sense of ‘steps’ (DMF; CFD). Michelant’s choice here, as opposed to earlier, suggests a monument or purely stone landmark of some kind, whereas ‘fountain’ is a water feature. Whether it is naturally occurring or constructed would affect the meaning too—all of which distinctions have too many connotations to consider in detail here. According to the AND a perron was also a ‘mounting block’ too but I doubt it means that in this context (AND). I think Jeffrey is right that by perron Michelant must mean Merlin’s fountain. Currently I am attempting to provide an accessible version of Michelant’s introduction in English that is as faithful as possible to the 19th century French. However I need to cross-check the perron de Merlin in Escanor itself when approaching the original text on this. I chose the temporary word ‘base’ for Michelant because it implies a centre of power of some kind, which I would like to look into in the romance. If it is not a distinct place from the fountain, this must just be either an interpretative gesture on the part of Michelant or a translational inconsistency. When I discover more, I will be sure to post again about this.


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Michelant: Part 9

He [Escanor the Great] was the son of a giant who had married an enchantress and at his birth was born at the same time as that of Gawain, a prophecy was made known that the latter would surpass all other knights in prowess. He had a sister named Eleanor, who married Bruno the Prophet, king of a country situated on the territories of the Irish, in which country she had a son, Escanor, dubbed the Noble, the same who was wounded in the ambush designed by Girfflet. Escanor the Great, trusting in his extraordinary strength, had ordered him to search everywhere for Gawain in order to fight and vanquish him; but in the fight he initiated, Gawain was the victor and in mercy spared his adversary, whom he could have killed; ever since then Escanor had vowed a mortal hatred of him that grew stronger after the attack ordered on his nephew, which he attributed to Gawain; furthermore he sought on every occasion to get revenge for this, while for his part the Noble Escanor, king of the White Mountain, challenged Gawain, in the most outrageous manner, despite having promised his uncle who feared a defeat, to never attack Gawain; but after his recovery, his uncle knowing that great festivities were being prepared at the court of Arthur, sent a troupe of knights to Merlin’s base, in the hopes of surprising Gawain who did not hesitate to go there in search of some adventure.


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Michelant: Part 8

She [Andrivete] replies [xv] that she has never heard anything like it, even though she is of this country, and demands he tell her the details. So Dinadan recounts the rumours that concern her, adding that he is all the more sure than when he left Arthur’s court only two days ago, where Kay received the news from a wise and loyal knight, the lady’s seneschal, whose conduct is highly blameworthy, because the king was prepared to come rescue her and give him his land, in the event that she were to marry Kay. She tells him that he is falsely informed, and while they discuss, Epinogre appears and with him Hector de Maris, who defies the two knights and knocks them down, both wounded. Dinadan curses his bad luck and, above all, this absurd custom to give battle to all and sundry. Andrivete in her turn jeers at his misfortune and threatens to follow him; but he flees to a hermitage to heal himself and she goes to rest at the home of a woodsman who welcomes her kindly. For his part, the messenger sent by Kay learns that all the rumours people have spread about Andrivete are false; he finds all the country risen in support for her; he searches, but in vain, to find her, and informed that she has left secretly, he returns to his master who is disconcerted by such unfortunate events.

The same day Gawain proposes to Girfflet that they go to the fountain of Merlin, where they cannot fail to have some kind of adventure. Indeed, no sooner are they arrived than they are assailed by a troop of knights. A bloody fight ensues, following which they take Girfflet prisoner, who Gawain cannot save because he has lost the bit for his horse; he runs in haste to Carlion to get another one, but at his return he finds no one on the field of battle, and he despairs for the loss of Girfflet, in spite of the efforts of his friends who attempt in vain to console him. Next they arrive at a river so large and so deep that not one of them dares to attempt the crossing; besides, they find no trace on the riverbank of the horsemen who have crossed it, and Gawain returns from the place completely devastated, while the knights that [xvi] have seized Girfflet drag him along the edge of the woods, very displeased to not have been able to capture Gawain to take him to their lord, Escanor king of the Great Mountain, who has vowed a mortal hatred of them.


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Paper Abstract: International Arthurian Society Conference 7-9 September 2015

Mourning one’s partner in Arthurian romance: the eremitic withdrawals of Escanor and Guenever in Le Morte Darthur

Self-imposed silence or withdrawal from the courtly sphere in response to emotional trauma is a literary phenomenon seen frequently in medieval romance. This paper will explore two examples of withdrawal to an eremitic space after the death of a partner in Arthurian texts and how this acts as an expression of interiority, or subjectivity. Guenever’s withdrawal to a nunnery in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is a much-discussed action, due to the blame she receives for the fracturing of the Arthurian fellowship in the Morte as well as, traditionally, in scholarship. I would like to compare this episode with a mourning process in Le Roman d’Escanor, a thirteenth-century romance in French. In this text, Escanor’s wife dies at the end of the narrative. The scene describes various rituals enacted by Escanor, which reveal a deep attachment to his wife as well as representing an example of publicly demonstrated masculine emotion. This paper will consider the role of culpability and gender in the way grief is expressed and perceived by the community, as well as exploring how the model of a retreating or mournful monarch is used as method of narrative closure.


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Michelant: Part 7

Still shocked by the murder committed on Escanor’s person, the Knights of the Round Table beg the king to resume his ordinary way of life; to respond to their wishes, he proposes to hold a great tournament at the next Pentecostal celebrations and he communicates his intentions to the queen who, according to custom, summons all the women and young ladies of the realm. The seneschal of Bamburgh, seeing everything arranged accordingly, no longer doubts their success; the friends of the princess present themselves before her and press Ayglin to marry her to Kay; but he refuses to do so under the pretext that this man is his mortal enemy; alleging that his niece had been entrusted her to him by his dying brother to marry her in the most honourable way, he manages in this way to remove all her supporters from her and he takes her to a neighbouring castle where he holds her captive, after having summoned a count of the land to come marry her straight away. Yonnet then has the men of the town assemble in a number of three thousand, to prevent this union bringing prejudice and ruin down on the country. This decision is only just taken when a young lady sent by Andrivete arrives, announcing that the count should come [xiv] the next day to marry her, but that she would rather die and begs her men to come save her. The seneschal then suggests Ayglin should leave, so that he can go to battle in the campaign; indeed she benefits from Ayglin’s departure on the hunt, and goes to the rendezvous when her escort runs away into the woods at the sight of a group who come to save her, while she flees, only in the company of two young ladies, towards the town whose people receive her with the greatest joy and promise to defend her. Her uncle vows to be revenged, in learning that she has taken refuge at Bamburgh with the seneschal, who has joined together all the citizens of the region to protect her and assure her rights through marriage with a powerful knight; he sends a messenger to his niece with the injunction to return with him and threatens the seneschal with his wrath, if he thinks of resisting; but he experiences a humiliating refusal. Angered, Ayglin assembles an army and comes to lay siege to Bamburgh where the inhabitants resist, vigorously supported by the men of the campaign. Kay, notified of these events, informs the king, who promises to go help the besieged people. Ayglin, seeing that he will fail in his enterprise, then employs tactics. He has a seal made with the arms of the seneschal and sends a false letter to Kay, so as to warn him that Andrivete has forgotten him and that she has avoided him to marry a man of base extraction, without their knowledge. Kay is upset at this news and curses the inconstancy of women; he intends to send a messenger to Bamburgh to have the most recent news, and during this time the damsel stations herself on the way secretly in order to get herself to the court of Arthur. On the way she meets a courteous knight, Espinogre, who goes to Carlion to take part in the festivities that are going to take place; she tells him that is not the place to which she is making her way and they reluctantly separate when she meets another knight, Dinadan, who professes the greatest indifference and a profound mistrust of the fair sex; she addresses him with sharp reproofs; Dinadan, to defend himself, replies that she has an equally disagreeable character as Kay, and that they would get on perfectly together and should meet since Kay has just been deserted by his Northumberland beloved.

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Michelant: Part 6

He [Gawain] then sees a group of young men and young ladies arriving while singing, who, at his request, tell him that they are from the White Mountain, and that their lord, who has no equal, is going to Carlion to engage in single combat; he continues on his way and he meets a new group of maidens singing in chorus; upon questioning, they tell him that they belong to the most beautiful and lovable couple in the world; finally, further on, is a company of young ladies and richly dressed knights, who in their songs embellish even more the praises they give to their lord, whose splendour and arrogance annoy Gawain more and more. Gawain lets the group that precedes Escanor pass and following on his way with the firm purpose of killing him, he moves forward close to the young couple whose elegance and beauty the poet describes . . . (Omission of a quire and around 1200 lines, which recount the details and the result of the attack planned by Girfflet . . .) A maiden addresses the sharpest reproaches to the king over what has happened; during a period of amnesty and with the assurance that he had nothing to fear, Escanor has been assassinated in treason. Angered, the king vows to [xii] exact a terrible vengeance for this act; he sends knights to enquire about the murder and search for the perpetrator. They find Escanor in the hands of physicians; upon seeing them he raises a racket of simultaneous complaints and regrets, but they ignore the details of the event, except Girfflet, who understands that, if they knew him to be the perpetrator, his brother would be dishonoured; and also his accomplice keeps absolute silence for him, while Gawain feels the most intense anger at not having been able to fight his accuser. He returns to hear the mass with the king and his friends when two maidens appear, who accuse him of being the perpetrator of this murder; these new grievances plunge the court into a profound sorrow, which goes into mourning. However Kay, still preoccupied by his love, desires to return to Northumberland and takes leave of the king, who tries in vain to make him stay. On his way he passes in front of a tower built near to a deep and rapid river that he cannot cross, despite his desire to reach the other bank; he hears a horn being sounded by a hideous dwarf who lowers the drawbridge and orders him, according to established custom, to hand over his horse. Kay threatens to throw him in the water[1], but the dwarf responds by blows with his baton and Kay hesitates no longer in taking it away from him, when the master of the castle arrives, a perfidious and disloyal knight named Colivre the Proud, brother of Bruno Without Pity who challenges Kay; he struck this man dead at the first attempt and already he was regretting his impulsiveness when a young girl comes to throw herself at his feet, while thanking him for having delivered her from a villain, who had abducted her by force after having killed her father in order to avenge himself on the man for having refused his daughter . . . (short omission following which they find Kay, who is dismayed to learn that Ayglin wants to take Andrivete away to his home . . .) He arrives at Bamburgh where he finds, to his great satisfaction, his former host, called Yonnet, a very honourable knight, seneschal of the king’s daughter, detested by Ayglin because of the fondness he felt for her; since he [Ayglin] only wanted her to marry a man of lowly estate whom it would be easy to get rid of; he also had her watched and guarded closely, out of fear that she would not do homage to King Arthur, in her capacity as heiress of the regions of her father, recently dead, [xiii] and he wanted above all to prevent her from speaking to the newcomer. However, through Yonnet, the young lady had been able to warn his whole lineage, who have been eager to rush to her service. Yonnet warns Kay about Aiglin’s plans and keen to get him an interview with his beloved, he goes to find her and invites her to a meal, where after the first service, she will leave the table and go in the company of her lady to walk in the garden so as to meet Kay there. Everything being organised, the rendezvous takes place in a secluded spot: the damsel informs Kay of these goings-on and seeks his support; he confers with Yonnet who puts him on his guard against Ayglin’s underhand plans. It is agreed that Kay in returning to the court will take the most constructive measures in order to prevent the misappropriation of the inheritance that he will try hard to keep for the young lady. Indeed King Arthur is favourably disposed to his ideas, and all his friends promise him the support most efficient to realise them, with an eagerness that makes him have the highest hopes.

[1] I have translated fossé for ‘ditch’ here as water, as the space Kay is threatening to throw him in is the river he wishes to cross. It highlights an interesting link between Norse and the Norman languages, as the English ‘foss’ meaning ‘river’ comes from Old Norse, but also has a precedent in the Latin fossa.

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Michelant: Part 5

At this point Gawain returns to Brittany; he is received with the very greatest welcome by the king to whom he relates all the treasons plotted against him; in public he offers the queen the bird that had led him astray, and introduces the friend of the Round Table le Bel Inconnu, who has come to join them and who everyone welcomes eagerly; but at the same time he learns of the challenge that has been sent to him: he [xi] gets annoyed with his friends because they have not inquired about the name of the knight who accuses him and complains bitterly about it to the king, who to calm him assures him that the man will appear to prepare himself for the fight, to give himself up to numerous devotional practices; Girfflet no less tormented asks his brother to fight in his place, which he refuses. Girfflet then goes to consult a squire named Galantinet that Gawain had trained and they look for a way to avoid combat with the latter, so much so that they make him glum and dejected. After deliberating for a long time they arrive at a plan they propose to execute in utmost secrecy. Girfflet sends for a great and vigorous destrier to be purchased in another country that no one could recognise; he dons an old suit of arms that is completely rusty and embossed, over it a dirty and torn haqueton, he covers his head with a helmet of iron that had been forgotten in a fireplace; and equipped with a strong lance, he goes to take up his position on the road Gawain’s adversary has to take.

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Michelant: Part 4

Then a knight arrives who announces to the king that [the region of] Brittany is outraged and that they would like them to send a determined knight like Gawain promptly in order to re-establish order; this man accepts the mission; in no time he conquers the malcontents and forces them to promise by oath that in the future they will begin anything against their sovereign. But amongst the rebels are the parents of a damsel who is a very competent necromancer, who vows a mortal hatred of Gawain. She had the custom of drawing people she wanted to do away with in an ambush, by means of a goshawk trained to flutter about them and lead them little by little to the place of the ambush.

Gawain prepares to go in search of some adventure in the forest of Broceliande, when he sees the bird, which imperceptibly draws him into a forest where he is assailed by five knights lying in wait to kill him. He fights four of them, puts the fifth to flight, and arrives at a chapel where he finds a cottage that is not very comfortable at a hermit’s home. The next day, after having heard the mass, he goes on his way again, and meets the bird once more, who again tries to lead him astray like the day before; but he sees seven knights who are getting ready to attack him. One of them however who appears to be their leader, ashamed of attacking a man alone in such great numbers, remains a spectator until Gawain defeats his companions; then he starts a new fight where he is in turn vanquished by Gawain, who tells him to turn himself in as a prisoner at Arthur’s court. He learns that it is at the instigation of Brian of the Isles that he was attacked by this knight, who tells him he is called the Handsome Unknown, and (viii) seeks to dissuade him from following the goshawk, warning him that at the instigation of the damsel of Nantes, he will be assailed yet again by twenty knights. Without being frightened by the number, Gawain in following his orders anew, continues to hunt the goshawk that leads him to a new ambush where he would have run the risk of dying, if at his birth he hadn’t been endowed by a fairy with the gift of seeing his strength double after the hour of midday; this moment arriving at the end of the fight enables him to vanquish his adversaries. The damsel of Nantes amazed and charmed by such valour, offers him a gift of the enchanted bird whose qualities she reveals. Gawain proposes to give Girflet to his brother, settled in Karahez, and after having healed his wounds, he gets on the way to the Northumberland tournament, where Caradoz, the king of Ireland and the young wife of Escanor the Handsome, the leader of the White Mountain, nephew of Escanor the Great, have already gathered, who have come in all haste to fight against Gawain; but the most beautiful of the lovely ladies is Andrivete, with whom Kay falls in love. Brian of the Isles asks him which troop he wants to join, to which he responds that the party of assailants already comes to numerous champions, he gathers amongst the defenders, where wanting to seem like a new knight, he takes plain arms without marks according to custom. They both arm themselves and join the joust where Lucan has just attacked Kay who isn’t recognised by anyone. Both men fall off their horses and the fight continues with Brian of the Isles, Laiz the Bold, Hector de Maris, the son of the King of the Firth of Forth, the King of the Erses[1], Melian de Lis, the King of Scotland and Gorvain Cadruz who has just provoked Kay; at his turn this last man fights with Bisclaret who he wounds. In the lodges conversation starts up amongst the ladies, who contribute cutting observations on the subject of the champions who interest them; the conflict escalates and many knights are wounded, who will be unable to hold a lance for months at a time. Whilst withdrawing Kay is anxious to know if there will be any rivals who will take the prize away from him; a message to Brian (ix) reassures him and informs him that he will without doubt be proclaimed the victor according to all the other knights, who praise him to the envy of the knight in red armour, who is unaware that Kay wears them as well. On her part Andrivete feels seized by love for he whom until then she had little esteemed; while the knights who are outside, camped in a meadow beneath the walls of the town, rejoice for the prowess of the new knight who they regret not knowing, and they decide that the joust of the following day that should be [fought] by the sword will be begun by Yvain, according to his custom. He engages Kay in a fight who this day wears white armour; both fall from their horses, but Kay quickly remounts and goes in search of new adversaries, while Yvain is obliged to withdraw completely broken down by his fall; the melee recommences more strongly than before and people see there a great number of knights, whose arms are carefully described. The ladies at the lodges converse about the deeds of arms and one of them plagues Andrivete with mockery on the subject of her preference for Kay. The latter is downcast, but Brian has him get up and be taken care of by his healer who announces that the wound is not fatal. During this time, the knights of the Round Table push their adversaries so hard that Brian rushing to help them is obliged to give himself up as prisoner. Kay is upset then is fearful of having lost the one he loves; but Brian comes to console him and recommends on the advice of the doctor to not torment himself in order not to delay or prevent his recovery. The jousts over, the ladies and young men get together for dancing, while the mature men discuss the results of the day and the merit of the diverse winners: some gave the prize to Yvain, others to Bruno, or to Gaherit, others finally to Kay, still laid low by his wounds and fear of not having been victorious. Brian comes again to console him and tells him that he has won the heart of the lovely Andrivete, who herself comes to see him and tells him that her father is ready to give anything he could desire in his kingdom; her visits soften Kay’s shame and ills, but his timidity prevents him from expressing a love that the damsel returns without daring to declare. He takes pleasure even so in prolonging his stay (x) at Bamburgh, when he receives a message from King Arthur who commands him to come to Carlion where he has summoned all the nobility and knights of the realm; he dares not refuse and leaves without having declared a love which King Cador would have approved of. He would have willingly given his daughter to him; but he had a brother named Ayglin who rebelled against all of his forces in the hope of seizing the crown upon the death of the king and deprive him of his niece, which would be impossible if she married Kay, who would assure him the support of all the knights of the court of Arthur. But this departure causes Kay a mortal shame; also he does not dare to speak a word to his lover, who takes extreme exception to this. Arrived at court, he receives the best welcome from the king; this man nevertheless reproaches him for his conduct towards his nephew Mordrec, Dinadan and the dwarf and the damsel who accompanied them. Kay argues in his defence that he had been attacked without warning; the king replies that Mordrec accuses him of having wanted to take away his mistress, at which Kay protests; then people send him to Cardueil in order to prepare the festivities which were owed to him. However when all the court is assembled to run the quintain, a foreign knight arrives calling for Gawain who he proceeds to challenge in accusing him of having killed his first cousin in treason. The king informs him that Gawain has had to absent himself to go on an important mission, but he rejects without question the accusation of treason and disloyalty, and all the most renowned knights, Lancelot, Yvain, Gaherit, Agravain, Brandelis, and Melian join together against him to defend Gawain; they accuse the foreign knight of slander and defamation to whom the king proposes to assign a day when Gawain will appear in order to accept the sent challenge, and the limit is fixed at forty days; but instead of waiting for the time to elapse, the knight disappears without anyone being able to find his tracks.

[1] Thus far I have not found the modern equivalent of this medieval place name.


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Michelant: Part 3

Canor, king of Northumberland, seeks to marry his only daughter, whose rejections have driven away all suitors up to now. Eager to find a son-in-law of equal worth and whose bravery could help keep her on the throne against their enemies, he has it announced at Bamburgh his capital, that [there will be] a huge tournament where the winner will receive the hand of the princess as a reward. The news reaches the court of Arthur; he highly approves of this measure, which leads to many reflections on the part of the knights of the Round Table; Kay amongst others claims that he will be the winner, if Gawain by his fine words doesn’t manage to win the goodwill of the judges who always decide in his favour; the king reproaches his habitual causticity and scornful remarks, but after having exchanged words with the other knights, Kay leaves irritated, without even taking leave of the king, and makes his way to the tournament. His route leads him near to a fountain where he finds in company a deformed dwarf, a damsel, the friend of Mordrec, whom he leads to the court, followed by Dinadan who he had met on the way. They prepare to make a light meal near to this fountain, when they hear the cries of terror shouted by a young girl pursued by a knight called Bruno Without Pity, who comes to kill her lover in treason. They see Bruno mounted on an excellent courser fleeing in great haste, and the damsel hide herself in the bushes, from where she reaches the way which will lead her to her mother’s. Kay deep in thought passes, without greeting them, near to the dwarf and his company; they in a fit of pique reproach him this lack of courtesy. Kay according to habit replies with insults, pushes the dwarf in the fountain, and moves away from the middle of the conflict and lively rebukes. Mordrec and (vii) Dinadan returning from their chase, informed of what has happened, follow Kay’s trail who they find and attack; they are wounded one after another just as Kay is, who is the least injured. This last demand of Dinadan is the purpose of an attack just as unexpected and Dinadan informs him of it. Mordrec is therefore taken to a woodcutter where his lover comes to care for him; Kay continues on his way and Dinadan, recovered also arrives at the court where Arthur reproaches his lack of courtesy towards the damsel who had been received enthusiastically.

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E. Jane Burns’s ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies’, or the Gender of Words

I read an interesting start to an article by E. Jane Burns, whose writing I love as she has wonderful things to say about gender in medieval literature (and therefore indirectly about modern constructions of gender and the vocabulary we use to describe it). Her article reminded me of a discussion in one of the Old French classes I audited at the Ecole nationale des chartes last year, where people were discussing how to translate a word in a passage from Chrétien’s Arthurian romances, I think ‘Erec et Enide’. I’ll first quote Burns’s introductory paragraph to her article ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot before discussing the word it reminded me of.

As the translators of the Lancelot-Grail cycle worked together over the past few years, hammering out solutions to some of the more difficult transitions from Old French to modern English, we struggled over many problematic terms. One of the most troublesome translation snags, for which we never found a satisfactory solution, involved the terminology for medieval undergarments, most specifically, the words chemise and braies. Although these terms do not occur frequently in the Lancelot-Grail corpus, their occasional appearance did send us on a hunt for adequate English equivalents. How were we to describe, for example, the temptress who is said to be dressed only in a chemise when trying to seduce the wayward Lancelot? The word ‘shirt’ bears connotations that are obviously too masculine. To say that the seductress was wearing a ‘shift’ suggests outer clothing rather than the garment often described in medieval French texts as lying next to the skin. The word ‘slip,’ which readers would readily recognize as underwear, describes a tight-fitting sleeveless garment, whereas the medieval chemise was loose-fitting and had long sleeves. What about the word ‘chemise’ itself, defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as ‘a woman’s loose, shirt-like under-garment?’ It seemed a perfect solution. And yet how many speakers of English would in fact know what the English term ‘chemise’ meant? (152)

The issue of gender connotations when translating a word 1) either from Old French to modern French, or 2) from Old French to modern English, reminded me of a discussion at the ENC about the Old French vaillant which still exists in modern French as vaillant(e) and the English is ‘valiant’. If my memory serves me correctly, I seem to remember that in translating a line of Erec et Enide the word vaillant was said to be more appropriate to knights, being a male word. The character whom it described in this instance was a woman, and therefore an alternative in modern French had to be found. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what word was suggested instead. However, it got me thinking. In modern English, in my opinion, the word has become more gender neutral, for example it works to describe either men or women who ‘make a valiant effort’ at something. Therefore, when the word is used by the author of Escanor to describe Eleanor of Castile I have kept close to the original and translated her character as ‘valiant’.

This issue of words being considered as predominantly describing ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics is, of course, an ancient one. Having given a paper at Kalamazoo last week on the idea of the ‘gender-free being’ as inspired by the Roman de Silence which boasts one of the few female knights in medieval romance, I suppose ideas around the subject are still very fresh in my mind. I think words are best when describing characteristics, not when describing notions of gender. After all, anyone – regardless of their sex or gender – can be ‘strong’, ‘weak’, ‘determined’, ‘daring’, ‘loud’, ‘angry’, ‘meek’, etc. So why can our commissioning queen of Escanor not be ‘valiant’?

Works Referenced

Burns, E. Jane. ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot.’ The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Texts and Transformations. Ed. William W. Kibler. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994: 152-174.

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Filed under criticism, gender, language, Old French, scholarship, translation, women