Female learning and literacy in the Middle Ages

As some readers might note from the previous post, at the time Michelant wrote his introduction to Escanor it was still a widely held opinion that, due to the low level of what we consider to be ‘literacy’ even amongst the nobility, women were simply not active readers, writers, commissioners of literature or as educated as their male equivalents. Thankfully, the learning of many medieval women is becoming less and less surprising to us in academia now, and gradually in the general public too; that women were educated and took an interest in areas that, historically and traditionally in scholarship on the subject, used to be considered predominantly ‘male’ domains. Since Michelant wrote his introduction, works such as John Carmi Parsons’ biography Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England are attempting to overturn these assumptions. Certainly, female voice, competition between women, women as agents in their own romance plots, are prevalent in the text to the extent that one could wonder whether ‘Escanor’ is the right character to title this work. Works such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur have recently, in the last couple of decades, been accumulating waves of interest in its surprisingly neglected female characters – I say ‘surprisingly’, considering how long the text has been around. And we are only now hearing of discussions seeking to re-evaluate antifeminist strains in Arthurian scholarship with characters such as Guinevere. I went to a fascinating panel at the Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress just last week that contained such a paper by Elizabeth Maffetone on Guinevere’s portrayal in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. So I think it is fortuitous for Escanor that it can become more prominent and more widely discussed now, and ride on the crest of this new wave of feminist interest in medieval texts. Not least because they help us learn more about gender dynamics we often take for granted and leave unquestioned nowadays.



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Michelant: Part 2

With the first folio the biggest part of the introduction disappeared, of which there only remain four verses where the author tells us that he is called Gérard d’Amiens. In order to promote the value of his work, he announces that the subject (vi) was given to him by a great princess, of Spanish origins, wife of a king of England (who cannot be other than Eleanor of Castille, married in 1254 to Edward II [sic I], died in 1290). It is difficult to imagine that a princess born and raised in a southern region, had had a detailed knowledge of the legends in circulation in the north of Great Britain, also it seems sensible for us to not take seriously the declarations of a poet and to leave him the responsibility for the fictions he tells.

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Translation of Michelant’s Introduction to Der Roman von Escanor (1886): Part 1

IMG_0588Michelant writes: It is a delicate task to categorise the following work, to determine the genre to which it should belong, to assign the position that it occupies in the literature of the thirteenth century and to give it a title that suits it. This last question was without doubt resolved by the manuscript, but the loss of the first folio, of which there only remains a small fragment of four verses, has caused clues to disappear that could have been found there, and leaves us not knowing if the title was simply: Escanor, Le Bel Escanor or Le Roman d’Escanor; but nothing [better] could help to determine the genre of a poem that, if by the names of places, of people, and by the deeds it recounts seems to be closely associated with the romances of the Round Table, on the other hand, by the changes introduced in the characters, the multiplicity of episodes which at each instant stop the progress of action, it appears rather to fall into the class of adventure romances, works of pure fantasy which have no rules other than caprice and the author’s imagination. The great trend of the tales of the Round Table have sparked numerous imitations, such as Le Bel Inconnu [The Handsome Unknown], Méraugis de Portlesgues, Duremar le Gallois, in which the influence of the[se] traditions persists further and has left on them an impression on them more regular, more uniform, more near to the models, which has given them a great superiority; but these qualities cannot increase but by a comparison which will allow [me] to foreground the following summary.

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Esukanōru in Nanatsu no Taizai

Escanor (1)So, if anyone has googled ‘Escanor’ you may have been confused by the number of obscure Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Wikipedia references that surface in the results list. I finally realised that our medieval Escanor has been reincarnated as Esukanōru in a Japanese manga series called Nanatsu no Taizai, or The Seven Deadly Sins! All of these ‘seven sins’ are in fact people, or knights, tied to one sin each and represented by a totem animal. They are Meriodasu (Meliodas) as Wrath, symbolised by the dragon; Diannu (Diane) as Envy, the serpent; Ban as Greed, the fox; King as Sloth, the Grizzly bear; Gowther as Lust, the goat; Merlin as Gluttony, the boar; and Esukanōru as Pride, the lion.

Anyone who reads the summaries of the manga stories and characters will realise immediately that medieval chivalric romance traditions and Arthurian tales form the foundation for the modern series. The scene is set in the semi-fictional location of Buritania (Britannia). It features both some of the best known characters like Merlin, as well as the more obscure figures like Escanor. Some characters have interestingly accurate seeds, for example Gowther’s sin is lust. Obviously, however, the modern characters quickly become divergent.Escanor (2)

The comics are illustrated and written by Nakaba Suzuki and have been published in instalments in Kodansha’s Weekly Shōnen Magazine since 2012. As of late 2014, the comics began airing as an anime television series by A-1 Pictures. From descriptions of Escanor on commentaries of his manga/anime character, it doesn’t sound as if there are (m)any similarities with medieval Escanor. However, for those able to follow the anime series I would love to hear of any interesting links.

Images taken from:



Escanor (3)

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Secondary translations to come

I will soon be posting, in short sections, an English translation of Henri Michelant’s introduction to his edition of Der Roman von Escanor. To keep the integrity of his introduction I have refrained from imposing modern punctuation, so some sentences are long or have a slightly more archaic turn of phrase. However, this is the only change I have made in translating Michelant’s original text. After this I also plan to provide English translations of the introductory materials in Richard Trachsler’s 1994 French edition. Each time I have completed a translation of material relating to Escanor, I will upload a complete document of the texts so that they are available as resources.

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Re: ‘aucun’ in Old French

Having spoken to a colleague in Old French, and consulting further dictionaries better suited to Escanor’s period (such as the Godefroy and Hindley/Langley/Levy’s Old French-English Dictionary), I have confirmed that in deliberating with the two translation possibilities for the passage previously posted, I in fact chose the wrong one! The passage does mean that ‘some people’ not, ‘no one’ who displeased the princess Andrivete could receive sharp words from her in return. ‘Mais’ is not a strong enough negative to mean ‘no one’, so this will be useful in future. I am pleased, because this gives her a more interesting character. It does seem more in keeping with her seemingly argumentative, or certainly more vocal, nature suggested by later passages. For example, there is competition between the ‘Queen of Traverse’ as I am presently calling her, and Andrivete. The issue of female jealousy and political competition is something I am looking forward to considering in this romance. Andrivete also expresses her dissatisfaction in other instances. Moreover, women besides Andrivete frequently challenge male members of the court in this romance, so it will be interesting to compare them with the main heroine. The love story between Andrivete and Kay features prominently as a thematic strand, and their love is eventually rewarded. So it will be interesting to see how a more vocal woman is dealt with by the text in comparison to other medieval romances which question issues around female silence, for example Enide’s speech in Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide. I am looking forward to analysing the tone of Andrivete’s conversations with Kay, as they have several ‘interviews’ or meetings together before eventually marrying.

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Names and Naming

Christopher W. Bruce’s The Arthurian Name Dictionary is a good reference for establishing the geographical locations of some of the lesser-known characters and places in Arthurian landscapes from any time period. There are two men called ‘Escanor’ in Bruce’s list: ‘Escanor the Handsome’ and ‘Escanor the Large’. The former is the Escanor first mentioned in this text (corroborated by Norris J. Lacy’s resource, see below), as he is described ‘Escanors, cil de la Montaingne’ (line 207) and Bruce summarises:

King of the White Mountain and nephew of Escanor the Large. Gawain defeated him in combat after Escanor tried to abduct Sir Girflet. Consequent of this defeat, Gawain obtained Escanor’s horse, Gringolet, which had been given to Escanor by his lover, the fairy queen Esclarmonde. Later, Escanor wrongly accused Gawain of his cousin’s murder. Gawain at first refused to fight him, so Sir Galantivet, Gawain’s squire, ambushed and defeated Escanor. When Escanor and Gawain finally met in combat, Gawain had the upper hand and would have killed his opponent, but a fairy named Felinete, who had once helped Gawain, interceded and convinced Gawain to spare Escanor’s life. The two knights reconciled and became friends. Escanor retired to a hermitage after his wife died (171).

Escanor does not have a full entry to itself in The Arthurian Encyclopedia by Norris J. Lacy, but it contains a useful entry on the author, Girart d’Amiens.

GIRART D’AMIENS, who also wrote Méliacin, is the author of Escanor, a romance of nearly 26,000 lines dated to ca. 1280. It may have been presented in 1279 to Eleanor of Castile. One of the two main plots concerns Kay, who falls in love during a tournament with Andrivete, daughter of Canor of Northumberland. Kay, however, returns to court without confessing his love, and Andrivete narrowly escapes being married for political motives by her uncle to someone of inferior social status. In the other plot, Gauvain is accused by Escanor le Beau of the murder of a cousin. Gauvain hesitates to defend himself against the accusation, and Gifflet’s brother Galantivet defeats the accuser. In the meantime, Escanor le Grand, uncle of Escanor le Beau, captures Gifflet when he is unable to take Gauvain. Gauvain finally defeats Escanor le Beau and the two are reconciled.

Although much of the narrative is formed by stock motifs, the author does depart from convention in his portrayal of Kay as a timid lover and Gauvain as somewhat of a coward. An aura of religiosity pervades the end of the romance. Much of the plot hinges on necromancy and the supernatural, and the influence of the prose romances, especially the Prose Tristan, is particularly strong. Composed during the same period, Escanor has much in common in terms of narrative structure and treatment of subject matter with the romance of Claris et Laris (236).

Obviously, the majority of information about the plot cannot be covered in this kind of summary, but it makes me wonder if, as is so common in medieval romance, the plot is made up of interlaced narratives and multiple strands, why was the romance named after the knight Escanor? It raises interesting questions about who is the hero or heroine of a multi-protagonist romance, and to what extent the title influences the direction of criticism on any given text. Heinrich Michelant’s edition of Escanor contains a much lengthier summary of the plot and some thematic issues, which I intend to translate into English and post later.


Bruce, Christopher W. The Arthurian Name Dictionary. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Girart d’Amiens. Escanor. Ed. Heinrich Michelant. Tübingen: Bibliothek des literarischen Vereins in Stuttgart, 1886.

Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1986.

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The problem of translating positives and negatives and the impact on characterisation

One interesting aspect of translation and the transmission or copy practice of stories between manuscripts is how just one word, translated as a positive or as a negative, can affect the portrayal of a particular character. I came across such an example first in my research on the figure of Igraine, King Arthur’s mother, in Arthurian literature. In one manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after Ygerna’s marriage to Uther, he appears to say that they lived in ‘no small amount of love’ as translated into English from the Latin non minimo. Siân Echard notes that in another manuscript the Latin is instead cum minimo, which changes the meaning drastically to ‘joined by no love at all’ (emphasis mine). Echard remains aware that this could be an accidental scribal error, but finds it more interesting to consider the implications about their relationship if this represents a conscious choice, designed to increase the ambiguity that colours the marriage of Ygerna and Uther (commentary on this line in Arthurian Narrative 54-55).

I was reminded of this positive/negative comparison in deciding on a translation when reading line 84 of Escanor. It forms part of a description of a princess’s virtues:

Elle refu bien enseingnie

Et de mout gente compaingnie

A trestouz ceuz qui li plaisoient;

Mais aucun qui li desplaisoient

La retrouvoient anieuse

Et de parler un peu crueuse (Trachsler 81-86).

Here, the Old French aucun has the potential to change the character of the princess described; she could appears as having two opposite temperaments, depending on whether this is translated as ‘someone/those who’ or ‘no one’. The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (DMF) explains the word as meaning certain, or ‘anyone’ in a positive phrase. Similarly, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND) gives multiple examples of the indefinite pronoun meaning ‘any’, ‘anyone’, ‘someone’, ‘certain [people]’. Translated with this in mind, the passage would read thus:

She was well educated

And of the most genteel company

to all those who pleased her;

but anyone who displeased her

found her disagreeable

and a bit cruel in her words (81-86).

To me, this came across as slightly strange, given the usual formulaic construction of heroines in folklore and romance as perfect, indiscriminately kind and accommodating. The AND includes the negative for ‘no [one]’ in its list of definitions of aucun and although there is a lack of a clear negative ne preceding its use in line 84, I wonder whether the word could safely be translated as ‘no one’ due to the negative implication of mais. In the context, the negative ‘no one’ fits a positive portrayal of the princess better.  If Girart d’Amiens wants to portray a flawless woman ‘qui . . . n’avoit pareille’, ‘who had no equal’, her character is more sympathetic if she is equally kind to those that displease her as to those she loves. So I have translated the following lines thus:

She was well educated

And of the most genteel company

to all those who pleased her;

but no one who displeased her

found her disagreeable

or a bit cruel in her words (81-86).

In line 86 I have changed the ‘and’ to ‘or’, simply to fit the phrase better in English. This kind of example of how to translate just one word is quite a good demonstration of the effect a tiny change can have on the characters and text as a whole.


Echard, Siân. Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


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Aims and Objectives

This blog is intended to provide a forum for discussion of this virtually unexplored medieval romance. I am hoping it will be at the very least bilingual, so if anyone is interested in providing translations of posts from/into other languages on this blog can contact me at phoebe.linton@ed.ac.uk.  I have known and been excited about this manuscript for four years now, and have started an independent translation. The work is slow, as I am currently completing a PhD on a different text; my research on Escanor is kept for ‘free time’ and the occasional conversation with other people who have been struck by their discovery of Girart d’Amiens’ work. I would like to thank Kate Maxwell for enthusiastically contacting interested parties through Francofil and putting me in touch with Zalka Csenge Virág (Twitter @skatemaxwell @TarkabarkaHolgy). Given the slow nature of this work, I have thus far been reluctant to devote too much time to it because of other priorities. However, the opportunity to talk to others about this text, and with people working on translations of any kind, is too enticing and I decided to establish this blog in order to motivate myself to work more consistently.

I imagine this blog to contribute to and consolidate discussion on Escanor by providing opportunities for networking and compiling lists of resources. Posts will cover a range of topics, from summaries of relevant articles, to news of innovations in the scholarly field, as well as providing links to creative ways non-academics are encountering medieval texts and bringing awareness of them to the public. Post might also discuss (and would welcome comments on) such subjects as, but not limited to: the story of Escanor, the language, how works are translated, the ways in which editorial choices can affect accessibility, whether translations are texts in their own right or not, how word choice subtly affects the interpretation of character and narrative voice, etc.

I have set up a mailing list for the purpose of sharing information pertaining to Escanor and any links with other texts both in the medieval period and from any literary period. If you wish to subscribe to this list, you may do so at:


In addition, you may follow the conversation on Twitter at:

twitter.com #RomandEscanor

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Escanor: A Thirteenth-Century Romance by Girart d’Amiens

Le Roman d’Escanor is an enigmatic thirteenth-century French manuscript of 25939 lines that was probably written around 1280 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 24374). It was commissioned by Eleanor of Castile, wife to Edward I of England. She was a Spanish princess, who married an English king and thereby entered the line of ‘English’ queens. Eleanor also had French connections, as she was Countess of Ponthieu when the county became part of her dowry when she married Edward. Escanor should be considered part of the English, or British, literary canon because it was produced by an English queen for a courtly audience in her adopted country. And yet the text is also a work of French literature, being written in Old French; naturally, the first spoken language in the English royal court and among most of the nobility was still French at this point in time but I feel that in popular discourse the closeness of this European relationship has been largely forgotten. It is my feeling that Escanor has been omitted from mainstream scholarly discussion thus far precisely due to its slippage between languages, nationalities and literary traditions. The best and most recent full critical edition of the text exists in French, published by Richard Trachsler in 1994. There is, as yet, no English translation of this text, though for obvious reasons it would be of immense interest, if better known, to anyone studying subjects such as Arthurian literature, women’s studies, medieval print culture, comparative literature, book history, linguistics, historic European relations and many more.


Trachsler, Richard, ed. Girart d’Amiens: Escanor, roman arthurien en vers de la fin du XIIIe siècle. Genève, Droz: Textes littéraires français, 1994.

Digitisation of MS Français 24374: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b9063126g

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