Introduction to Old French Romances
When Morris’s developing interest in printing led him to found the Kelmscott Press, whose first publication appeared in May 1891, he put himself in a position to bring out small editions of works that he liked which were unlikely to appeal to a wide readership, as well as more popular works. In the former category we may place the two volumes of Raoul Lefevre’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy as produced in translation by William Caxton c.1475, which was published at the Press in November 1892, soon followed by Caxton’s translation of The History of Reynard the Foxe in January 1893.1 In April 1893 the Press produced The Order of Chivalry, translated from the French of Ramón Lull by Caxton, together with the medieval French L’Ordene de Chevalerie with a translation by Morris entitled The Ordination of Knighthood.2 With his interest in medieval French literature stimulated in this way, Morris went on to translate the four thirteenth-century stories that came to constitute Old French Romances in 1896.3
Morris’s first biographer, J.W.Mackail, makes the observation that this little book, published in 1856, ‘had for thirty years been one of the treasures of literature to him. Together with the "Violier des Histoires Romaines", which appeared in the same series two years later, it had been among the first sources of his knowledge of the French romance of the Middle Ages'.5 Mackail draws attention to a letter from Swinburne thanking Morris for sending him a copy of the last of the Kelmscott Press volumes of these translations, in which Swinburne recalled his and Morris’s shared pleasure in reading the French stories ‘in the days when we first foregathered at Oxford’ nearly forty years before.6 Mackail also notes that from his reading of the Nouvelles Morris had planned two of the stories for The Earthly Paradise, the completed tale ‘The Man Born to be King’ being based on 'Le Conte de L' Empereur Coustant’, and the unfinished poem ‘Amis and Amillion’, which had its origin in ‘L' Amitié d'Amis et d'Amile’.7
The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane was the first to be issued by the Kelmscott Press, on 28 December 1893; 250 paper copies at 7s.6d. each, and 15 vellum copies at 30/s. The second story to be published at the Press was entitled by Morris Of the Friendship of Amis and Amile. It was issued on 4 April 1894; 500 paper copies at 7s.6d., and 15 vellum copies at 30s. The third and final Kelmscott Press volume, The Tale of the Emperor Coustans and of Over Sea, contained two stories, 'Le Conte de L' Empereur Coustant’ and ‘The History of Over Sea’. The Kelmscott Press issued the book on 26 September 1894: 525 paper copies at 7s.6d. and 29 vellum copies at 2 gns.8 This would suggest that that the two earlier volumes had sold well.
The stories as produced at the Kelmscott Press were expensive, and could expect only a limited readership. But they produced an unexpected spin-off when they came to the attention of the folklorist Joseph Jacobs, who asked Morris’s permission, as he rather longwindedly expressed it, ‘to allow his version of the Romances to be combined in one volume in a form not unworthy of their excellence but more accessible to those lovers of books whose purses have a have a habit of varying in inverse proportion to the amount of their love’. Morris evidently asked Jacobs to write an Introduction, from which this quotation comes.9 ( JJ, p.vi) The book was produced in London in a straightforward but not unattractive edition in blue covers by Allen and Unwin, the publishers of Ruskin; a new edition appeared in 1914. In his Introduction, Jacobs strongly supported the language of Morris’s translation, claiming that, since Morris inaugurated that style in his Icelandic translations in 1869, ‘it has been adapted by all who desire to give an appropriate English dress to their versions of classic or medieval masterpieces’. He also notes that the subject-matter of the stories would have appealed to Morris because they are ‘on the borderland between folk-tale and romance’, like many of Morris’s other works. It was such tales, Jacobs calimed, ‘that William Morris wished to see told in tapestry on the walls of the Moot-Hall of the Hammersmith of Nowhere’.10 Jacobs put the stories into a different order. He starts with ‘The Tale of King Coustans’, followed by ‘The Friendship of Amis and Amile’, ‘The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane’, and finally ‘The History of Over Sea’.
‘The Tale of the King Coustans’ is the most straightforward of the group; it illustrates the idea that it is impossible to prevent the fulfilment of destiny. One evening the pagan Emperor of Byzantium, Musselin, spcaks unrecognised to a Christian workman an whose wife has just borne a child, and who tells him that the astrological evidence shows that the child, a son, will one day marry the Emperor’s daughter and so become emperor. Musselin is angered by this claim, orders the knight who is with him to steal the child so that he can kill it, slits its belly, and declares that no such lowborn child will ever succeed him. This only shows that he does nor know what kind of story he is in, and the rest of the narrative is the fulfilment of the workman’s prophecy. The knight who has to dispose of the body feels pity, and leaves it near a monastery. Here the Abbot too is compassionate, and sends forn doctors to heal the child. He then baptises him with the name Constans, because it has been costly to save him. The story then moves on fifteen years, by which time Coustans is a handsome and accomplished lad, and a favourite of the Abbot , who takes him with him to court . When the Emperorr is told his story, he realises who the lad is, and demands him from the Abbot. Havingg got the boy into his service, he wants to arrange for him to be killed secretly. He therefore writes a letter, which he tells the unsuspecting young Coustans to take to the Burgreve of Byzantium, in which the Burgreve is instructed to kill the bearer of the letter - a plot device used by Shakespeare in Hamlet. However, when Coustans reaches the city, he finds his way an into a beautiful garden, and falls asleep. Here he is seen by the daughter of the Emperor, who has come there to play with her three companions. They find Coustans sleeping under a tree, and are delighted by his good looks. The Emperor’s daughter reads the letter and is distressed by it, but rapidly come up with a neat plan. She substitutes for the fatal letter one in which the Burgreve is ordered to arrange for him to marry Coustans to the Emperor’s daughter. The Burgreve does as he is told; the wedding takes place and is celebrated for fifteen happy holidays.When the Emperor thinks that enough time has elapsed for his command to have been carried out, he sets off for Byzantium. On the way he meets a messenger, who tells him of his daughter’s wedding and suggests that, as they have been a married for three weeks, she may already be pregnant. The Emperor’s response is surprisingly positive; her accepts that what has happened cannot be reversed, and rides into Byzantium to accept the situation. The positive quality of the conclusion is reinforced when, on the death of the Emperor, Coustans takes the Abbot as his advisor, and the country is converted to Christianity. The son who is born to the couple will become the great Constantine, because of whom the city of Byzantium is renamed as Constantinople. Thus Christian Providence works itself out for the common good, in the most simply positive of this group of stories.
The story placed second by Jacobs is ‘The Friendship of Amis and Amile’. The French source-story had earlier impressed the young aesthetic critic Walter Pater, who discussed it sympathetically in the first chapter of Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873.11 It begins with the birth of two well-born boys, who are taken to Rome by their fathers to the Pope, who baptises them and presents each of them with a fine decorated wooden cup - ‘hanap’, the Old french word, is retained in Morris’s version. The boys become lifelong friends, so that after Amis' s marriage, he goes to court with Amile. Before returning to his wife, Amis warns his friend: ‘But keep thee from touching the daughter of the King; and above all things beware of Arderi the felon’. Amile ignores this good advice, and he is betrayed to the king. Amile formally challenges his betrayer to combat, and then goes in search of his friend. Amis agrees to help him, and goes to court to take up the challenge in his place. The king says that if he - Amis/Amile - is victorious, he will give him his daughter Belsant to be his wife. Amis kills the evil Alveri, and receives Belisant as his reward; she is then handed on to Amile, who returns with her to the court.
Events now become dramatic: Amis is stricken with leprosy, and his wife Obias, instead of seeking to cure him, becomes belligerent towards him. Eventually, Amis asks his companions to take him to Amile, where he is recognised and taken into the house despite his sickness. An angel then appears to Amile, and tells him that Amis can be healed only by being treated with the blood of Amile's infant children. After much heart-searching, Amile follows the angel’s instruction, cuts off the children’s heads, and lays the bodies and heads in the beds, covering them as they were covered when sleeping. (This part this of the story is quoted at length by Pater, in his own translation, which is less archaic then Morris’s). Amile then washes Amis in the blood and prays for his recovery, which occurs at once. The two men then give their thanks to God, and go to the church, where the bells miraculously ring by them selves. God also ensures that, when Amile takes his wife to the children, expecting to weep over theirt bodies, he finds them alive and playing in their beds, though with scars around their necks.
So all is well, and Amis' s lot is made all the better by the sudden - and we may feel providential - death of his aggressive wife, borne off by devils, and he becomes a good servant of the Lord. Thus, when the king of the Lombards attacks the Church, the Pope ask for the help of the king of France, and Amis and Amile take part in the successful campaign against the Lombards. They are model knights, and both die courageously in battle. The king of France establishes two churches to commemorate the battle, one in which Amis is buried, and a second in which Amile is buried. However, in a spectacular conclusion, on the morning after the burials, the two coffins are found close to each other in one of the churches This is acknowledged as a miracle, and the priests of the church where the two bodies lie are told to constantly guard the bodies of the friends, who cannot be separated even in death.
Pater offers a thoughtful account of the story, although his argument that it belongs to ‘a Renaissance within the limits of the middle age itself’ has been disputed.12 He brings out the significance of the physical resemblance between the two as ‘an outward token of the inward similitude of their souls’, reinforced by ways in which reference to ‘the two marvellously beautiful cups’ can be seen to ‘cross and recross very strangely in the narrative’; while their owners’ liking for the cups is said to bear witness to ‘the enjoyment of beautiful handiwork by a primitive people, their simple wonder at it’13 - an attitude we might attribute also to Morris. His account of the story, from which the passages he translates are in a more modern English than that of Morris, brings out the humanistic assertion of the value of fellowship in a context in which Christian belief is central. Pater argues that in some other stories of the period, such as Aucassin and Nicolette, a ‘note of defiance’ of Christian constraints can be discerned, but he sees Amis and Amile as one in which ‘the harmony of human interests is still entire’.14
The third story, ‘The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane’, is interestingly constructed, alternating its two main points of focus, King Florus on the one hand, and Jehane on the other. King Florus’s story is the simpler. He is married twice, but neither wife bears him an heir. He is thus still wanting a suitable wife towards the end of the tale, when his story unites with that of Jehane, to whom most of the narrative is devoted. Jehane’s more complicated story involves marriage to a humble squire, Robin; an unwise bet on the virtue of his wife with the villainous Raoul who, although valiantly resisted by the lady, has noticed ‘a black Spot which she had on her right groin hard by her natural part’, and when he reports this to Robin, he - rather supinely, to the modern reader - decides that he has lost the bet, pays up, and sets off for Paris. (Shakespeare tell a similar disturbing story involving a bet between a husband and a villain in Cymbeline). The robust Jehane responds to his departure by herself setting off for Paris to seek her husband, with her hair cut short, ‘arrayed like to an esquire’ and calling herself John. She and Florus meet up on the way, and Jehane/John becomes Robin’s squire, and goes with him to Marseilles; he of course has not recognised her. In Marseilles they have to sell their horses, but the ever-resourceful Jehane announces that she/he is good at making ‘French bread’, and does this so successfully that soon they can buy 'a very great house’, and set themselves up to run it, successfully, as a hostel for guests . As fate will have it in such stories, Raoul - who has been istructed by his confessor tgo to Rome asa penitent, also arrives in Marseilles, and stays at the very house; Jehane hears him telling his story, but cannily holds her peace. Robin and ‘John’ continue to prosper, and finally decide to return home, where Robin challenges Raoul -who has reverted from penitence to aggresion - and eventually defeats him in a vividly described battle. Now it is time for Jehane to reveal herself as a woman - indeed, according to her supportive female cousin, as ‘the fairest lady of the world’. Robin and Jehane live happily together for ten years, though childless; then Robin dies ‘like a valiant man’, leaving Jehane as a beautiful and philanthropic widow.
The story placed last by Jacobs, ‘The History of Over Sea’, has a complicated and dramatic plot, involving, as the title suggests, a good deal of travel. The hero, Thibault, who is married but childless, decides to go as a pilgrim to a shrine, presumably to ask to be blessed with an heir; his unnamed wife insists on accompanying him. On their way, the couple are set upon by eight robbers as they pass through a forest. Thibault kills three of them, but is over come by the others, tied up, and thrown into a bramble-bush. The five remaining robbers then rape the lady, and leave her with her husband.He has seen what has happened, but feels no ill will towards his unfortunate wife, as he knows that she had been forced. He calls to her to unbind him and get him out of the brambles, but - to the reader’s surprise - she picks up a sword and advances aggressively towards him, fearing that one day he will will reproach her. She seems even to want to kill him, but the blow she delivers with the sword cuts through his bonds, and he escapes. After this extraordinary event, they escape from the forest and rejoin their retinue. Thibault continues to honour his lady, but no longer lies with her.
The train of events here started will obviously have its consequences. The lady's father finds out what has happened, and tries to punish her. But Providence prevents this, and after a series of exciting adventures, she becomes part of a group of travellers. They make their to the East, to the land of the Saracens , where the lady marries the generous young Sultan and has two children by him. The Europeans return to Europe. In Rome the Pope baptises the Sultan’s son as William, receives the lady back into the Christian church, and confirms her marriage to Thibault. Thus they can return happily to their native place. The Count’s son becomes a knight, and worthy of the rank because of his chivalrous behaviour. The story ends positively with two weddings. William marries the daughter of Raoul de Preaux, while his sister marries Malakin of Baudas, a valiant servant of the Sultan. She, like her mother earlier in the story, is given a choice in the matter; indeed, Malakin will accept her only if it is a free choice on her part a remarkable attitude for its time. She becomes the grandmother Saladin. Thus we are brought back to the figure so prominent in The Ordination of Knighthood, and so admired in medieval Christendom.
Morris’s pleasure in all four stories is evident. He tells them vigorously, with a preference for short words, and employing a deliberately medieval vocabulary (for which a Glossary has been provided) which takes the reader into an unfamiliar but engrossing world. The clear contrasts between good and evil, and the delight in story-telling and the natural world, appealed to him, just as he reacted against the psychological complexity of contemporary novelists like Henry James, whom he termed the ‘clever but dull Mr. James’. 15 Thus it is no surprise to find that Morris was at the same time writing the series of stories that have come to be called the Prose Romances, which exhibit some of the qualities of the French tales. At the Kelmscott Press he produced The Story of the Glittering Plain in May 1891 and again, with Walter Crane’s illustrations, in February 1894; The Wood beyond the World in October 1894; Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair in September 1895; The Well at the World’s End in June 1896; and, after Morris’s death, the Press issued The Water of the Wondrous Isles in July 1897 and The Sundering Flood in February 1898. In the section of her recent William Morris and the Idea of Community entitled ‘The Bibles of the People’,Anna Vaninskaya has given a convincing account of Morris’s attitude to fiction in these years, showing how his use of the romance genre enabled him to ‘demonstrate the values of association, fellowship and mutual aid as against ‘modern individualism and introspection’.16 His reading of the French tales clearly helped him in this self-imposed task.
1 William S. Peterson, A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984; 1985, pp. 24-7 and 29-31. Subsequently as Peterson.