The twelfth-century Old French romance of Partonopeus de Blois recounts the extraordinary love story of the thirteen-year old hero and the somewhat older heiress of Byzantium, Melior. The romance is lengthy, at some 14,000 lines depending on the manuscript version, and full of delicious realistic as well as marvelous detail. Even readers familiar with the text, however, often need a plot synopsis. Penny Eley's comprehensive new monograph on the work offers an excellent one in an appendix, which was useful reading before and during examination of this book. Melior, searching for a suitable consort, finds Partonopeus, of Trojan lineage, in Merovingian France. She brings him to an enchanted city for lovemaking and noble pursuits until she can present him at court, on the promise that she may remain invisible until then. Homesick, he returns to Blois and saves France from a pagan Norseman. His mother arranges his marriage with another but he regains his senses and Melior forgives him. Later he returns to Blois again, and his mother and the bishop try to extricate him from his secret relationship by convincing him to look upon his beloved by trickery, a rift on the Cupid and Psyche legend. His betrayal diminishes her powers and shames her. He returns to France in despair, seeking death by wild animals in the Ardennes, abandoning his squire Anselot. Melior's sister Urraque rescues him and prepares him to combat incognito in the tournament to win Melior's hand. He fights the Sultan of Persia among other rivals from Europe and the Middle East, but the tournament judges ultimately choose the husband by a beauty contest. Eventually the lovers are united in marriage. One version includes a triple wedding. One continuation follows the adventures of the abandoned Anselot. Another expands the revenge of the jilted Sultan into an all-out war.
Partonopeus has been little known even to French romance specialists. Eley calls it unlucky: editor after editor died or abandoned the project, and in the mea time the editions principi of the works of Chrétien de Troyes and Benoît de Sainte- Maure were published, gained scholarly momentum, and came to be treated as the "inventors" of romance. Interest in Partonopeus gained ground in the 1960's with Anthime Fourrier's Le Courant Réaliste (1960), which devoted a chapter to the text and proposed dating it to the beginning of Philip Augustus' reign. Partonopeus only began to come into its own in the 1990's, with Matilda Bruckner's studies, and then articles by Penny Eley and Penny Simons. Their online edition (http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/partonopeus-- an extraordinary tool for navigating and comparing the work's seven extant manuscripts, three fragments, three different endings, and multiple interpolations and variations--and the 2005 Collet-Joris print edition have finally made this work fully accessible.
Partonopeus de Blois: Romance in the Making represents Eley's two decades of scholarship on this text. The strength of its convictions reflect the maturity of reflection that can only come with editing, translating, and analyzing a text over a career. This is a dense work. The evidence supporting Eley's radical argument for revising the work's dating is copious, carefully arranged, and convincing in chapters that build upon one another. This book constitutes a sine qua non for Partonopeus scholarship. It is also a very important study for anyone considering the history and creation process of medieval romance, in France and elsewhere. The book considers the versions of Partonopeus in German, Dutch, English, Spanish, Danish, and Icelandic. Moreover, by placing the initial composition of Partonopeus in the 1170's, mid- production for Chrétien de Troyes, the text ceases to be an easily- dismissed "later" text and emerges at the forefront of the experiments in romance composition.
The book works from three key premises. The first, now widely shared among scholars, is that Old French romance developed within a culture of rewriting. Skillful adaptation and reference to works from the ancient and recent past were more valued than "originality" in the modern sense (9). Second, more controversial, is that the dating of Partonopeus (as well as the works of Gautier d'Arras) should be reevaluated. In 1995 Eley and Simons first proposed re-assessing Fourrier's dating of the text to 1185-1188 in favor of understanding Partonopeus as a series of versions or indeed "editions" that first went into circulation in the early 1170's with MS A, were revised and continued in the 1180's (with the Tours MS used by Fourrier), and remained in circulation and open to revision for several centuries thereafter. The third premise is that twelfth- century romance cannot be read in isolation from the context in which and for which it was composed because they refract (rather than reflect) the social, political, and economic realities of their moments of composition, reception, and adaptation. Partonopeus must be read as a "political fiction."
Why was the thirteen-year-old hero involved with the older heiress? Chapter one, "Patterns of Youth and Age," analyzes how the narrator draws attention to Partonopeus' precocity, noting his good looks, courage, and nobility, as well as sexual readiness ("his mouth was perfect for kissing"). Later adaptations show discomfort with the age of thirteen, changing it to fifteen or eighteen or leaving age unstated. As Bruckner noted, when Melior is betrayed and loses her powers, she ceases to appear the "older woman" arranging Partonopeus' education and becomes seemingly younger than him, a vulnerable heiress. Eley argues that when the narrator insists upon a detail such as unusual ages, it is a flag to the reader "that this text needs to be aligned within a network of other texts for its sens to become apparent" (29). On the literary level, Cupid was the model for the boyish yet sexually active protagonist; the Parthenopaeus of Statius' Thebaid was very young, and similarly his Achilles; and Geoffroi de Vinsauf presents Parthenopaeus as the point of reference for exceptional youth. On a historical level, there are parallels to the heiress of Byzantium in the 1160s, Maria Komnenos, for whom the preschool-aged son of Henry II was considered as consort in 1170. The singular age difference is also part of the text's narrative economy: the heroine must first assure his éducation sentimentale, then retreat to allow him to become emperor in his own right, rather than disappear into the supernatural like Lanval. This is another key premise for Eley: Partonopeus experiments in fusing the earlier dynastic romance model (Eneas) with the newly competing Celtic models (e.g. Lancelot or Yvain). This text seeks to negotiate a "path between two conflicting narrative imperatives" (25). This puts a very different light on narrative moments where Partonopeus has been critiqued as awkward or a weak attempt to imitate Chrétien.
Another peculiar recurring theme in Partonopeus is vituperation against courtiers of base birth, treated in Chapter two, "Power, Birth and Values: The fils à vilain Theme." The second part of the romance's prologue represents a humorous rewriting of Eneas and the Roman de Troie, depicting Anchises as a treacherous serf foundling who invents the story of his divine ancestry, and hinting that Eneas may not have been legitimate. Eley argues this is a knowing commentary on accepted notions of the translatio studii et imperii: how valid is Rome's hegemony (56)? The only valid line of descent presented is that of Marcomyris from Troy to France. Another episode, the pagan king Sornegur's betrayal by a vilain counselor, may reflect concerns about Philip II's reliance on non- noble administrators as Fourrier argued, or earlier, the murder of Thomas à Becket, which haunted Henry II's reign. A further contemporary vilain was the Bishop of Paris Maurice de Sully, possibly demonized as the bishop conspiring with the hero's mother. The romance presents the fils à vilain as threatening future anarchy, in real and imagined political arenas, and a threat to courtly love as well--necessitating both complex literary and political readings to understand a trope that otherwise might take the reader aback.
The subtle observations of the romance's recurrent animal and bird images suggest the author was something of a naturalist. Chapter three, "Walter Map and Other Animals" examines moments such as the encounter with the wild beasts of the Ardennes who refuse to enable Partonopeus' suicide, arguably the pivotal episode in the main narrative. Eley suggests the diptych structure this episode creates was inspired by the the underworld episode in Virgil's Aeneid, but was also a rewriting of Capaneüs' horse in the Roman de Thèbes. Both feature a horse attacked by a hungry lion, presaging death for the former character, but rebirth for the latter. Lions betray a preoccupation with East-West encounters (the medieval lion was Asiatic, not Sub-Saharan), and the fascination and unease that Constantinople and Persia inspired in French-speaking readers. In another "political fiction" reading technique, the lion evoked monarchy, the horse nobility: when Partonopeus' horse kills the lion, kingship is called into question. A second part of chapter three treats "Anselot's tirade," which enumerates animal analogues for the diabolical behavior of the fils à villain, from wolves to scorpions to unicorns to werewolves. Eley studies a complex pattern of agreement and non- agreement in the interpolations between the five manuscripts that contain the tirade (85). A curious colophon in Anglo-Norman manuscript L reads that there ends the story as the scribe found it written, "for Walter Map had no more to say about it" (102-103). While Eley immediately dismisses the notion that this Welsh clerc (to whom the Mort Artu and Queste del Saint Graal were falsely attributed) might be the author of Partonopeus, she finds a strong connection between a mention of the "dipsa" snake in Anselot's tirade and an anti-feminist section of Walter's De Nugis curialium. Both structural similarities, a tendency to use elliptical asides and quotations, and circumstantial evidence (Walter was at the highly literate court of Henry II and traveled to Paris) suggest the possibility that he might be the author of some of the amplifications to the romance added in the late 1170s. Moreover, in manscripts L, P, and T there are several passages that enhance the role of the English king and indeed serve as ripostes to anti-English commentary earlier in the text. Walter would have been in a unique position to copy and adapt the romance for English audiences. This identification is hypothetical of course, but Eley makes the point that the interpolator, whoever he was, had specialized acquaintance with bestiary material, was not as skilled as the original author with Old French octosyllables, and made the ironic move of making a text originally conceived as anti-Plantagenet pro-England.
Chapter four, "Experiments in Fiction: Anselot's Story," continues this careful probing of the romance's continuations, building on Bruckner's treatment of the work as experimental and her suggestion that the 600-line Anselot story constituted a kind of lai insertion. Eley presents Anselot's story as "an editor's nightmare" (115), with four of five manuscripts that preserve it containing lacunae, and the only complete version appearing in the unreliable MS G. Eley deduces that the original poet wrote this lai before the main narrative and inserted it later, before the composition of the final third of the romance. A technique of narrative doubling links the two (e.g. Anselot is a double for Partonopeus), but does not "double" any characters or situations from the last third of the text. The Anselot story has no preamble and seems to stand alone, not acknowledging Partonopeus' new status as emperor at the time of their reunion. Eley argues that Anselot's tale functions more as an exemplum cautioning against the fils à villain, fusing the romance with the Seven Sages tradition (as well as Wace's Roman de Brut and Solomonic texts among others), typical of the author's virtuoso technique of making borrowed material his own. She warns that the tale's "cautionary payload" is complex. It dramatizes competing models of authority: allusions evoke clerical models, while the narrative technique deploys the eyewitness model. Substitutions of perceptive young characters who prove wiser than their elders undermine the narrative authority and constitute an invitation to look beyond the obvious. For Eley, the Anselot episode is not entirely successful, but does present a fascinating window into the romance composition process.
Partonopeus constitutes one of the earliest vernacular texts featuring "continuations." Three of five extant "continued" manuscripts are incomplete, and features of the Middle Dutch version suggest that no version was "finished" before MS T. Medieval readers would have experienced this romance as one that invited further contributions. Chapter five, "When is an Ending not an Ending? Questions of Closure" examines the longest extended ending (or sequel? The semantics are up for debate) added by a fourteenth-century scribe to T, in which the Sultan of Persia's love for Melior is brought to a compressed 30-line conclusion, but other loose narrative threads are simply dangled (for instance, a sequel featuring Gaudin).
Eley amply demonstrates that the romance was composed by stages over more than a decade. In Chapter six, "Poets and a Patroness: The Making of Partonopeus de Blois," she addresses the chronology of composition, the nature of its audience and patronage, and the question of the author's anonymity. Examining the instability of the metrical form in the extant continuation--first 1522 octosyllables, like the romance's body; then 1526 dodecasyllabic laisses with minimal rhyme, four octosyllables, sixteen alexandrines ostensibly at the request of a lady, and finally124 decasyllabic couplets in homonymic rhyme--she proposes that the alexandrine section must have been composed in the early 1180s, after the appearance of the Roman d'Alexandre exerted influence on verse fashions. Comparison with Florimont suggest that Aimon de Varennes knew the continuation by 1188. Urraque disappears in the continuation. Her unusual name likely evoked several Spanish princesses, including one in line to become queen of Léon at her 1165 marriage. In 1175 this marriage was annulled, and the name surely became more embarrassing, suggesting that the main composition of the work occurred before this time. In all, Eley calculates that there were seven "continuations," adding gradually over the 1170s and 1180s.
In one epilogue the narrator addresses a "beloved" called "Passe- Rose," whom Fourrier interpreted as Marguerite of Blois, with whom the chivalric author might have been smitten. Eley disputes this, dating this continuation to 1182-1185 when that Marguerite was about 10, arguing that the author was more likely a clerc, and suggesting persuasively that this figure represented a patroness: the narrator's purported love affair codes that with his paymistress. The yearning language of fin'amor is a perfect cloaking mechanism for the need for financial fulfillment. This explains a curious passage praising women's wantonness: if chastity equals parsimony, the impoverished poet must praise lust. The piecemeal composition of the continuations suggests that endings and sequels had to be composed in installments, when there was enough surplus wealth to invest in entertainment. This approach to both closure and patronage could certainly be applied to other medieval works, many of which Partonopeus" certainly influenced.