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22.02.09 Bryant (trans.), The Tournaments at Le Hem and Chauvency

22.02.09 Bryant (trans.), The Tournaments at Le Hem and Chauvency

While it is easy to find English translations of Marie de France’s lais and Chrétien de Troyes’ romances, a vast corpus of lesser-known Old French medieval literature remains inaccessible to English speakers. Nigel Bryant is ensuring that the number of texts in the latter category continues to shrink thanks to his series of translations, including Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and its continuations, Perceforest, The History of William Marshal, The High Book of the Grail, and The Song of Bertrand du Guesclin. He has now made The Romance of Le Hem and The Tournament at Chauvency available in English for the first time, allowing a wider audience the joy of discovering the poems.

The texts are relatively short eyewitness accounts of two tournaments: the 1278 jousting festival at Le Hem, and the 1285 tournament at Chauvency. At the beginning of The Romance of Le Hem, Sarrasin laments the damage caused to knights’ reputations by Louis IX’s ban on tournaments. Decrying their inactivity, the Lords of Bazentin and Longueval plan a three-day festival based on Lady Courtesy’s advice, with Guinevere (played by Longueval’s sister) as the guest of honor. The poem consists of a series of performed scenes--including episodes in which the Knight of the Lion frees imprisoned maidens, and a mistreated woman and her contrite lover are reconciled--interwoven with jousting sequences. Each day ends with dancing and feasts. The tale concludes with Sarrasin’s promise to record the events he has witnessed.

The prologue of The Tournament at Chauvency introduces the subject: love, arms, and joy. Jacques Bretel organizes the narrative chronologically. Jousts take place during the first two days; on the third day, jousting is on hold to prevent injuries before the fourth day’s mêlée. Besides recounting the knights’ chivalric exploits, Bretel narrates commentary from the stands, including ladies’ praise for the participants and conversations with heralds. Feasting, dancing, and games bring the days to a close. Following the mêlée, a knight asks Jacques for verses on arms and love, which leads to a lengthy discourse on the obligations of loyal, courteous lovers. On the final day, participants depart after Mass and a celebration.

Prior to the translations, a detailed introduction treating one tale at a time provides historical context and highlights key themes. Bryant remarks that Sarrasin’s account of the events at Le Hem (likely today’s Hem-Monacu) is notable because it was likely composed within weeks afterwards. Bryant explains that the emphasis on the theatrical elements of the festival permitted knights to display their chivalric abilities without violating the king’s interdiction on tournaments. He notes that an internal logic guides the text, so that episodes that seem like digressions prove to be necessary to make sense of what happens later. Although readers may initially believe that the romance is not a serious historical text, it proves to be accurate and is valuable to scholars of both chivalry and performance.

Performance as a central reason for the festival leads Bryant to consider the tale’s potential theatrical aspects, such as the Duke of Lorraine’s arrival and a costumed actor playing the role of the Knight of the Lion’s leonine companion. He posits that several scenes with the knights and ladies who attended as Arthurian characters appear to follow prepared scripts, whereas others opened themselves to improvisation. Whether invented in the moment or written in advance, the dialogues among characters indicate familiarity with Arthurian tales.

The more lighthearted exchanges during the performances contrast with the seriousness of the jousts. Sarrasin’s descriptions underscore the prospect of serious injury, suggesting that most of the jousts were not contrived. Bryant compares the composer’s style to sports journalism: while Sarrasin is not an elegant writer, his varied images add interest to the portrayal of each of the jousts, keeping them from becoming formulaic.

Like The Romance of Le Hem, The Tournament at Chauvency is written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, reveals the attendees’ familiarity with literature, and underscores the violence of combat. The two tales have marked differences, however. Bryant praises Bretel’s rich vocabulary and the way that the audience feels as if they are watching the tournament alongside him. Besides jousts, the tournament involved a mêlée--in which two opposing teams simulate battle with sharp weapons--rendered possible by the location: Chauvency-le-Château is near today’s borders with Belgium and Luxembourg. Because Lorraine was outside of the French king’s jurisdiction, the ban on tournaments did not apply.

While Bretel furnishes comprehensive portrayals of the jousts and the mêlée--including descriptions of knights’ arms and armor--love is at the heart of the narrative. The narrator repeatedly links affection and chivalric exploits, reminding the ladies watching in the stands that their encouragement inspires knights. The combatants, too, have love on their minds; both knights and ladies perform songs in the text, with knights often singing as they make their way to the field. Bryant notes that only single lines or couplets appear in the manuscript and questions whether that means that the songs were instantly recognizable to the audience, whether they were cues for someone reading the tale aloud to sing more of the song, or whether refrains served as a type of chant as participants rode into combat.

Bryant also highlights the blurred boundaries between religious and chivalric devotion, as tournaments offered knights a means to both salvation and the rewards of love.Recognizing the interplay between literature and history, Bryant asks whether knights were enacting values from literature or whether literary works expressed established values. In this case, he concludes that life imitated art, providing as evidence literary influences in the founding of chivalric orders like the Order of the Garter.

The introduction ends with bibliographical information on the most recent editions of the poems (1939 for Le Hem and 1932 for Chauvency), the identification of manuscripts in which they are found, and a short list of recommendations for further reading. This last centers on secondary sources dealing with chivalry or performance and includes three links to material related to The Tournament of Chauvency: two websites with information on heraldry, and a site with photographs of Bodleian Library, Douce 308, which contains the poem. Each romance is then presented in turn, with a map at the beginning to situate the events. At the end of the volume, a separate index for each poem consists largely of names of people and places.

The translations read very smoothly, and Bryant’s careful attention to tone allows him to stay faithful to the spirit of the original text. For instance, he captures Picard and German accents in The Tournament at Chauvency by imitating a Cockney accent to translate the former and twisted English syntax for the latter. Throughout, colloquial phrases reflect the sense of the composer’s work; as the pace of jousts increases in The Romance of Le Hem, Bryant translates the original verse as “Everything now was hotting up!” (56), and as the poem nears its end, Sarrasin promises to have the work “all done and dusted” (59) by year’s end. As appropriate, Bryant provides a more literal translation of idiomatic expressions as a footnote. On rare occasions, British terms--such as “chuffed”--might not be familiar to an American audience, yet the context makes the meaning obvious.

In addition, Bryant provides many historical footnotes to identify dates, locations, and the participants--or in some cases to acknowledge that a name cannot be identified with certainty. He further points out which knights at Chauvency also participated at Le Hem, forging an interesting link between the poems.

From a scholarly perspective, the volume has several drawbacks: Bryant offers little explanation of his editorial choices; he provides minimal information about the manuscript(s) of each poem (although some details about Douce 308 appear in a footnote); and footnotes pertaining to linguistic features are rare. Moreover, as is nearly always the case with translations, the octosyllabic rhyming couplets are rendered in prose. While the meaning of the text is preserved, some of the poet’s art is lost. Verse numbers appear periodically in brackets without being identified as such; audiences unfamiliar with medieval verse narratives may not realize what the numbers signify. Still, these points do not detract from Bryant’s accomplishment. Scholars interested in the poems will seek the editions in Old French, a language we may safely assume that most of Bryant’s target audience does not read.

With the publication of The Tournaments at Le Hem and Chauvency, we once again owe Nigel Bryant a deep debt of gratitude for his work. The tales could be integrated into classes ranging from medieval history to the reception of Arthurian literature, and the volume will also appeal to scholars interested in chivalry and tournaments. Bryant’s next translation--this time of Raoul de Houdenc’s works--is already in print, and I look forward to seeing his future projects. Thanks to his invaluable contributions, he is expanding our appreciation of the richness of Old French literature one translation at a time.