15.08.04, Morton, trans., Bertha of the Big Foot

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Anne Hélène Miller

The Medieval Review 15.08.04

Morton, Anna Moore, trans. Bertha of the Big Foot (Berte as grans piés): A Thirteenth-Century Epic by Adenet le Roi. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 417. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013. pp. x, 118. ISBN: 9780866984652 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anne-Hélène Miller
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
ahm@utk.edu

Bertha of the Big Foot (Berte as grans piés) by Anna Moore Morton represents the first English prose translation from the original Old French verse narrative composed by the trouvère Adenet le roi. A figure associated with the courts of Flanders, Brabant, and France in the second half of the thirteenth century, Adenet le roi has been identified as the author of at least four works: Enfances Ogier, Cleomadès, Berte as grans pies, and Beuve de Commarchis, which can be perceived as quite remarkable for a writer during this time period. In fact, at the beginning of Bertha of the Big Foot, Adenet explicitly places his own authoritative voice within the tradition of poetic translatio by stating how he was once shown "the history book; and I saw there / The Story of Bertha and also of Pépin," he writes, in reference probably to the Grandes Chroniques. But "Greenhorn minstrels and writers who didn't care enough to get the story right, / [...]Have falsified the story." So, "I stayed at Saint Denis[...] / Long enough that when I left I had the true story with me" (15), he concludes. Such self-depiction is representative of Adenet's concern with the framing of his own poetic identity within his works.

Composed around 1275, Adenet's Bertha recounts the legendary story of the eponymous character Bertha, alias Bertrada of Laon, the future mother of Charlemagne. She is portrayed in Adenet's poem as a young Hungarian Princess who comes to Paris to marry the French king Pépin the Short, but becomes the object of a betrayal and usurpation of identity by a false queen, and is forced into exile in the forest of Le Mans. Thanks to a decisive intervention by her mother, Blanchefleur, justice prevails in the end, restoring Bertha with her full status so she may return to Paris, and be the rightful Queen of France. This is an intriguing story for various reasons. The tale of Bertha functions primarily as a sort of narrative of origins that traces back from the thirteenth century to the Carolingian dynasty, and serves to establish legitimacy for the contemporary Capetian line (19). In that respect, it belongs to the cycle of the "geste du roi," and Adenet's "true story" (15) of Bertha revolves around two main poetico-political loci associated with the establishment of a Capetian legitimacy at the time, Saint Denis and Paris. It even offers one of the earliest and most famous laudatory panoramic descriptions of the French capital in the vernacular (67).

These key aspects, along with the fact that the text deals with the subject of queenship and female lineages, emphasizing mother-daughter relationships in the "cycle dit du roi" could have benefited from an expanded treatment by Morton in the introduction, especially in the subpart titled "Artistic and Thematic Aspects of the Poem." Rather, in this portion, she refers to the scholarship that discusses the hybrid genre of this text, between epic and romance--the hagiographic nature of the text has also come up among scholars, but is unmentioned here. In that respect, Morton refers rightfully to the work of Sarah Kay, [1] recalling how Kay sees "women (often Saracen princesses) in Old French epics participate fully, even at times militarily, in the politics of society" and how "[s]he rejects the idea that the mere addition of women to an epic poem adds a romance element and compromises the epic's concern with society" (2). Research, especially coming from gender studies, has focused on these aspects, helping us reevaluate the full participation of women in Old French narratives. [2] Mentions or depictions of "foreign" Saracen women in particular is an interesting trait, since after all Bertha is a "foreign" woman, but how "foreign" is this Hungarian princess who speaks in good "Parisian French" (19)? It would have been helpful, even so briefly, to reframe Adenet's Bertha within the context of current scholarship on medieval women and identities. Yet, Morton refers instead to William C. Calin's earlier work on the characteristics of the Chanson de Geste, [3] and later argues that "even in epics with eponymous heroines such as Florence de Rome (early thirteenth century) men determine and execute most of the action" (4), a statement which, if it is meant in this context to inform our reading of the text, might seem to undermine Kay's previously mentioned argument. One might indeed take issue with a more current and decisive critical approach by Morton in this otherwise informative introduction.

Regarding the translation proper, Morton makes the sensible choice to base her English rendition of the poem on Albert Henry's Old French edition that dates back to 1982, referring occasionally to his 1963 edition. [4] The text by Adenet le roi survives in nine manuscripts, and Henry, a preeminent literary specialist of Adenet's works, relies primarily for his edition on Arsenal ms 3142, f. 120vb-140v (ms A), which opens up with the compiled works of Adenet, and is considered by some as a manuscript of reference. The notes, which are to be found at the end of Morton's translation, are for the most part a translation from Henry's own notes. These provide opportunity for contextualization of the text that were not otherwise afforded in the introduction. Whenever Morton supplements Henry's remarks, conveying important nuances, especially regarding her choices as a translator, these are judicious and helpful. Some additional endnotes on the introduction are also placed here. These may have been combined with the already existing footnotes in the introduction to make it easier for readers to follow.

Aside from these small quibbles, most importantly, Morton renders a beautiful modern English prose version of Adenet's Bertha, following the same disposition in 144 laisses of 3486 verses as the original poem. Morton manages to render the thirteenth-century aesthetic qualities of the text, especially the art of repetition, in a limpid, yet rich and varied, modern-day language, a fine balance that is not always that well achieved. I did not notice any mistranslation or typographical errors, but rather several occurrences of nice alliterations, such as in this passage: "Blanchefleur, whose heart was sincere, went away. / She was much annoyed with her daughter Bertha, / Of whom the people everywhere complained without reserve" (61). Overall, there seems to be an exciting renewal of interest for this text and story. [5] So, not only does Morton's single edition of the poem appear timely, it should prove useful to those who teach in translation and are solely interested in reading this epic tale of Bertha by Adenet le roi. We should be grateful to Morton for succeeding in making more accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike a classic text of medieval literature.

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Notes:

1. Sarah Kay, The Chanson de Geste in the Age of Romance. Political Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 29-38.

2. See for instance E. Jane Burns, Sarah Kay, Roberta L. Krueger, and Helen Solterer,"Feminism and the Discipline of Old French Studies: Une Bele Disjointure," in Medievalism and the Modernist Temper, eds. R. Howard Bloch and Stephen G. Nichols (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 226-266; Sharon Kinoshita Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 15-45; or on Queenship, see Peggy McCracken, The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

3. William C. Calin, The Epic Quest: Studies in Four Old French Chansons de geste (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966).

4. Albert Henry, Berte as grans pies (Droz: Geneva 1982).

5. See Michael Newth's version of Bertha Broad-Foot in Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2014).

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