Fragment of lost epic poem from the 12th century found in the binding of another book | Books

A fragment of a 12th-century French poem, previously thought to have been lost forever, has been found by an academic at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

Dr. Tamara Atkin from Queen Mary University of London researched the recycling of books in the 16th century when she came across the fragment from the hitherto lost Siège d’Orange in the binding of a book published in 1528. Parchment and paper were expensive at the time , and unwanted manuscripts and books were often recycled.

Scholars had believed in the poem, which originated from a cycle of epos – epic narrative poems – about Guillaume d’Orange, existed, but there had not previously been physical evidence that it was true. The fragment extends only to 47 lines, but it proves the existence of a poem believed to have been lost.

The poem takes place in the ninth century, under Louis the Pious, son of Charles the Great and heir. Atkin said that although it is believed to have been composed in the late 12th century, the fragment itself is from a copy made in England in the late 13th century.

A fragment from Siege d'Orange.
A fragment from Siege d’Orange. Photo: Tamara Atkin / Bodleian Libraries

“He asks, how does he rest? / Mauuoisement li quiens Bertram ad dit / My brother has no bread ne ble ne wine / Garison nothing he can guarantee / But ke of blood li the full Bacin test,” runs an early section of the fragment, which Philip Bennett, an expert on Guillaume d’Orange from the University of Edinburgh, has translated into: “He asks him, ‘How are you?’ / ‘Ilde,’ said Count Bertram. / ‘Your brother has neither bread nor grain nor wine; / He has no supplies to save himself with, / Except for a basin full of blood, which I left him. ‘”

The quoted lines come as Bertram asks the king for help in easing the siege of Orange, a town in the Rhône Valley, and describes the severe siege conditions. “In later parts of the fragment we hear him scolding the queen (at one point he even calls her ‘Russian whore‘or’ red-haired whore ‘), who has objected to her husband leading a replacement army south, “Atkin said.

Atkin also found a parchment fragment from Bérouls Tristan novel, which tells part of the story of Tristan and Iseult, in the same book. The poem from the 12th century is one of the earliest versions of medieval romance, and until now the only proof of its existence had been an incomplete 13th-century manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The fragment found by Atkin differs “significantly” from the manuscript and shows that the poem was circulated more widely than previously thought.

“When you find manuscript waste in a book from the 16th century, it tends to be in Latin, and it is almost always something theological or philosophical, and from the point of view of contemporary literary studies, perhaps not so interesting. But the fragments in this book were different, ”Atkin said. “They were in French, they were in verse, and in one of the fragments the name Iseult immediately sprang out. I’m not a French scholar and I realized I needed to pick up some collaborators. From there, it has just been really fun and exciting. ”

She turned to academics from the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh and British Columbia for help. “I knew it was something important,” said JR Mattison, a French manuscript specialist from the University of British Columbia who helped identify Tristan and the Iseult fragment. “This piece of the poem comes from a significant moment in which Iseult speaks to her husband, King Mark. This fragment expands our knowledge of the poem’s audience and its changing meaning over time and contributes a new perspective on how Tristan legends moved through Europe.”

Bennett said there had been “no physical traces” of the Siège d’Orange poem before. “There is a lot of evidence from others epos that a poem about the siege Guillaume d’Orange suffered in his newly conquered city must have once existed, ”he said. “The discovery of the fragment we now have fills an important gap in the epic hero’s poetic biography. This is a very exciting addition to the corpus of medieval French epic poetry. “

The team will now work to find out more about when and where the fragments were copied and how they came to be bound in the book from 1528. “That manuscripts were made at all reflects the value that was once placed on those texts. , they contain. But manuscripts that were dismembered and recycled as waste were no longer valued as texts. Their only value was as a material commodity – parchment – that could be used to reinforce the binding of another book. The manuscripts containing these French poems were probably reused because the texts were considered old-fashioned and the language obsolete, ”Atkin said.

“It’s amazingly exciting to discover something that’s been lost all this time, but I think it’s worthwhile at the same time to hold on to the idea that the only reason these fragments have survived is that “Someone at one point thought of the manuscripts in which they appeared. were not valuable as anything but rubbish. There is a kind of nice excitement in it, I think.”

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