The Medieval Review 12.05.23

Edgington, Susan B. and Carol Sweetenham. The Chanson d'Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade. Crusade Texts in Translation, 22. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. viii, 428. $124.95. 9780754654896. . .

Reviewed by:

John France
United States Military Academy, West Point

In an era when, in Britain and America, languages are studied less and less, translation plays an important role in spreading and sustaining interest in medieval history. That is why anybody seriously interested in the crusades should welcome the recent spate of translations. They have tended to focus on well-known chronicles, in Latin or Old French, such as those of William of Tyre and his continuators. However there has recently been a great deal of interest in the Chanson d'Antioche. In 2003 there was a new edition of the old French Chanson d'Antioche by J. Nelson, part of an ambitious programme for the publication of the crusade cycles by the University of Alabama. The same year witnessed an English translation of a closely related text, the Provençal Canso d'Antioca by C. Sweetenham and L. M. Paterson. In 2011 B. Guidot produced a new edition of the old French Chanson d'Antioche (with French translation) and now we have this English translation of the same thing based on the 1977 edition by S. Duparc-Quioc. In neither of these last two works is there any reference to the other. This editorial and translation activity has been accompanied by a considerable volume of studies listed here in the extensive bibliography (401-23). [1]

This intense activity is very welcome and hardly surprising because the Chanson stands at the convergence of two areas of scholarly interest. It is a remarkable literary production, forming, together with Les Chétifs and the Jérusalem, a part of the First Cycle of the Crusade created or perhaps just commissioned by "Graindor." The Antioche, however, is different from the other two in that while they are purely imaginative it marries such material to historical events. This inevitably interests scholars of the crusades, perhaps one of the most vigorous fields in medieval studies. Edgington and Sweetenham have based their translation on the Duparc- Quioc edition, and, on the face of it this appears very unfortunate because in his new edition of the text Guidot is highly critical of the Duparc-Quioc edition which he regards as full of "erreurs de toutes sortes" including "Etonnantes fautes de lecture" and, indeed, devotes 14 pages (13-27) to them. However, important as they may be for a literary and linguistic scholar, these "erreurs" have relatively little bearing upon the translation made here. Very wisely the authors decided to render the Antioche into prose, and they have achieved their goal of being "true to the original" while producing something which is readable (87). Their text is rhetorical and the language just a little archaic, producing very much the intended effect. It is, above all, accurate and clear. They have also provided an excellent explanation of the history and nature of the text which is summarized in an admirable "biography of the Antioche" (47-8) and is broadly compatible with the views of Guidot.

There was a good deal of poetic material surrounding the events at Antioch circulating almost as soon as the crusade was over, and perhaps even earlier. By the 1170s this had congealed into a story focused on the siege of Antioch and may have been cast in the form of a Chanson de Geste. In the early thirteenth century, "Graindor" either undertook or commissioned the present work which is based on a variety of sources, notably stories from the chronicles of Albert of Aachen and Robert the Monk which were probably put together for a work created for the St. Pol family of Picardy--in this context it is worth noting that Guidot perceives a powerful Picard strain in the language of the Antioche. This compiler added the purely fictional Chétifs and the Jérusalem, which is very much modeled on the Antioche, to produce a cycle which was later elaborated even further. The authors, like Guidot, see the whole as essentially a literary work and cast considerable doubt on the existence of a Richard the Pilgrim who is mentioned in the text in a way which suggests that he was the author of an early version of the story. While they do not dismiss the possibility of an earlier version of the song, Edgington and Sweetenham are highly skeptical of any notion that an ur-Antioche written close to the First Crusade can be in any way reconstructed and dismiss this categorically in their discussion (49-61). I am sure they are right, and they are certainly following the mainstream of modern discussion in regarding the Antioche is essentially a literary and imaginative work. In this they are at one with Guidot, but in dismissing its historical value as a source for the First Crusade they provide a through and interesting discussion. There are perhaps a few echoes of real events. The Antioche suggests truces between the besiegers and the people of Antioch, which is at odds with the general tenor of the work, and there may be more incidents like this, but the evidence, I must admit, is thin. [2] This does not mean, however, as Edgington and Sweetenham are at pains to stress, that the Antioche is without historical value because it casts valuable light upon the mentality of the aristocracy in the early thirteenth century, and some of the vignettes of siege and battle appear to reflect contemporary experience. Moreover, Edgington and Sweetenham do very well to address, in a quite long discussion (44-46), the question as to why the poem is centred on Antioch and not on Jerusalem. Their main point is that the last stages of the crusade after Antioch were marked by shameful quarrels which disfigured even the siege of the Holy City itself. In fact, as they say, the Chétifs was possibly invented to cover this very problem. There is a good deal in this, but the siege of Antioch was also marred by quarrels and rivalries. However, it is worth noting that there are two near contemporary sculptures in England which refer to the siege of Antioch, so that it may have taken the imagination of people in the early twelfth century. I would link this to its great length during which there was an alternation of success and failure, which fits with the religious belief in God dispensing punishment and reward according to the virtue of the army which is so evident in the eyewitness Anonymous Gesta Francorum and in Robert the Monk who effectively popularized the earlier work by using it as a base for his own account of the First Crusade. This provided a suitably dramatic framework for the chivalrous stories out of which "Graindor" wove the substance of his tale.

Because they regard the Antioche as primarily a work of literature, Edgington and Sweetenham devote a substantial chapter to it as a literary text (63-85). They conclude that it was a ground breaking text, not because it married poetry and chronicle, which had been done before, but because it created a new and extensive cycle of "heroic and legendary material" to set alongside "those of Charlemagne, Arthur and classical antiquity" (85). This book is not just a useful translation of a work commonly referred to but rarely read, but also a fine scholarly achievement. It is very well organized, thorough in its analysis and careful in its conclusions. There is, remarkably, a very useful Appendix I (333-67) setting out the differences between the Duparc-Quioc edition and that of Nelson which is based on a different manuscript, followed by a table of rhymes and a list of Dramatis Personae. This is a very good addition to Ashgate's excellent Crusade Texts in Translation and one on which the publishers and authors are to be congratulated.



1. J. A. Nelson, The Old French Crusade Cycle, vol. IV, La Chanson d'Antioche (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003); C. Sweetenham and L. M. Paterson, The Canso d'Antioca: An Occitan Epic Chronicle of the First Crusade (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003); B. Guidot, La Chanson d'Antioche: Chanson de Geste du dernier quart du XII siècle (Paris, Honoré Champion, 2011); and S. Duparc-Quioc, La Chanson d'Antioche (Paris: Geuthner, 1977-78).

2. J. France, "The Fall of Antioch during the First Crusade," in M. Balard, B. Z. Kedar and J. Riley-Smith (ed), Dei gesta per Francos. Etudes sur les croisades dédiées à Jean Richard (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), pp. 13-20.