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23.11.05 Field (trans.), Rigord, The Deeds of Philip Augustus

23.11.05 Field (trans.), Rigord, The Deeds of Philip Augustus

The value of Rigord’s Deeds of Philip Augustus [Gesta Philippi Augusti] for an understanding of politics, warfare, church, and society in late twelfth-century France cannot be overstated. It provides a year-by-year account of the period between Philip II’s coronation in 1179 and the king’s military campaigns in Poitou in 1206, sometimes supplying the sole witness for events. Rigord incorporated within his work significant documents that would otherwise have been lost to posterity, such as the royal testament-ordinance of 1190, which specified administrative arrangements for Philip’s absence on crusade and made provisions for the possibility of the king’s death away from the realm. Although several editions of theDeeds have appeared since the sixteenth century, and the most recent in 2006 included a facing-page translation into French, the only English translations to date have been partial, focusing on select chapters or thematic passages. Students and scholars may already have encountered Rigord’s work online in the form of a translation by the late Paul R. Hyams. Nevertheless, as Hyams’s foreword to the current volume acknowledges, his translation is “rough-and-ready” (ix), only covering the first 76 of the 156 chapters that comprise the Deeds (160 chapters if one includes the brief continuations to 1208). This Cornell University Press volume therefore succeeds in addressing the need for a fresh, comprehensible, and full translation that will enable a much wider Anglophone audience to access and appreciate such an important source.

The new English translation is based on the 2006 Latin edition published by Élisabeth Carpentier, Georges Pon, and Yves Chauvin. [1] This was itself indebted to and built upon H.-F. Delaborde’s 1882 edition, the first to compare and contrast the two surviving medieval manuscripts: Paris, BnF, MS lat. 5925 and Vatican City, BAV, Reg. lat. 88, both copied later in the thirteenth century. [2] The notes and critical apparatus accompanying the 2006 edition are comprehensive, and its position as the go-to scholarly introduction to the Deeds remains unchallenged. The current volume has a different aim and speaks to a different audience, but it conveniently follows many of the practices introduced in the French model, including adopting the same renumbering of chapters. This English translation likewise follows the 2006 edition in italicising biblical quotations throughout, providing readers with an instant impression of the extent to which such allusions shaped Rigord’s writing. It is a shame, however, that the introduction devotes little attention to other historical or literary sources influencing Rigord as he worked on the Deeds. Walter of Châtillon, for example, receives only a brief mention in a solitary footnote (44 n. 22), despite the fact that Rigord introduces his conception of his task as writer in words taken directly from the prologue to Walter’s Alexandreis.

Accessibility is one of the volume’s central aims, and it is evident that much of the content has been curated with an audience of non-specialists in mind. This has resulted in an extremely user-friendly work that will prove invaluable in teaching and allow the full pedagogical potential of Rigord’sDeeds to be realised. Explanations are provided for potentially unfamiliar terms, such as “homage” (5) or “interdict” (7). Four detailed maps accompany the narrative, helping readers to locate places mentioned on a local and international scale. Fifteen colour images--including chronicle illustrations, architecture, and Philip’s seal and monogram--break up the text and provide a vibrant flavour of the artistic and cultural context in which Rigord lived and worked. There is an accompanying chronology, as well as a “cast of characters” to which the editors regularly direct readers requiring a biographical overview or clarification of intricate familial connections. The sole criticism of the accompanying figures relates to the genealogy (xix) which, at least in the paperback edition, is printed in such a way that it does not fill the page and in a small font size that may impede its clarity. At the end of the work, the editors have opted to provide suggestions of further readings on select topics rather than a lengthy bibliography, perhaps to avoid an information overload for those encountering the text at an early stage of their studies. These curated lists, under thematic headings such as “The Development of Paris” or “France and the Crusades,” are short and understandably prioritise Anglophone works, but provide ample direction for those seeking to understand Rigord’s work within its broader context. The suggested titles on “English monarchs” are more limited than other sections, and lack some important recent biographical studies. [3] Overall, however, the editors have carefully chosen supplementary materials that will enhance the reading experience not only for those who are new to the Deeds, but also for those unaccustomed to studying medieval history.

The volume will undoubtedly be of most value for teaching and learning purposes, but there is a patent research-benefit to such a fluid and accessible translation in English, especially when the paperback is priced so reasonably. Scholars are likely to grumble about the lack of a facing-page Latin text to consult directly alongside the new translation, but at least Delaborde’s edition remains freely available thanks to the marvel that is the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica (and this is a feasible substitute for those unable to access the more recent edition or to afford its €70 price tag).

The Deeds is not an overly long work--127 pages in the current volume--and the experiencing of reading it in its entirety, relatively rapidly, is one of the joys of this translation, especially since it is presented in prose that is clear and vivid. This allows a fuller appreciation of the richness of Rigord’s work, his varied interests, and his approach to writing. Moreover, the limitations of the author’s knowledge (or interest?) are striking when viewed in their totality, even if the lack of an extant autograph manuscript means we cannot exclude the possibility of later scribal alterations or errata. Rigord’s ignorance of contemporary German politics--substituting Bohemia for Swabia in the title of Frederick Barbarossa’s son Frederick, for example (121)--appears less surprising when placed alongside his inaccuracies in identifying members of Philip II’s own family. The author not only errs when naming distant royal relations from the eleventh century, but even records the wrong name for his protagonist’s sole daughter.

In their introduction to the Deeds, the editors identify seven major themes recurring throughout the work. These are: Paris and its urban development; Christian religious practice, relics, and St Denis; anti-Jewish persecution; the mythic Trojan origins of the Franks; ideas of a prophetic future; the crusades; and monarchies and monarchs. Concern for the natural and astronomical worlds is a prominent topic missing from this list, since Rigord comments on weather phenomena and lunar eclipses with some frequency. The author appears to have had an especial interest in water in all its many forms--rain, streams, rivers, floods--and his work concludes with the destruction of the Petit-Pont bridge arches and several homes in Paris during flooding in December 1206. Water also provides the canvas for illustrations of Philip II’s God-given gift of leadership, as when Rigord explains how the king went “alone to survey the river” at Tours, testing its depth with his spear and marking a ford, before crossing the Loire ahead of his army with the waters miraculously lowered (110). This impression of Philip as a ruler with such command of the natural world that he can manipulate water is reinforced by the story’s placement alongside an account of the English king’s embarrassing plummet into a moat “horse and all,” when a wooden bridge at Gisors collapsed under Richard’s feet (111).

In general, the English translation is consistent and reliable, refraining from departing too far from the edited Latin text. Divergences between the two manuscripts are flagged, as in the differing figures recorded for Louis VII’s age under the year 1179 (47 n. 49), a discrepancy that Carpentier et al. noted in their 2006 edition. The editors of the current volume occasionally provide additional context for trickier translation decisions, such as the multiple possible meanings of communia (105 n. 414). There are relatively few occasions where the accompanying notes engage with Rigord’s selection of Latin terms. This is understandable in a volume produced with a non-specialist audience in mind, but is a missed teaching opportunity to encourage advanced students to engage more critically with the complexities of working with sources in translation. The passages concerning Rigord’s differing treatment of Philip’s wives furnish an example of where more explicit reference to the original Latin would have proven especially beneficial. Although the editors indicate the Latin terms Rigord used to address Queen Ingeborg, regina and puella sancta (133 n. 587), there is no corresponding signposting to the Latin alongside references to Agnes of Méran as the king’s “wife” (140) and “concubine” (150, 152). Interestingly, Rigord used the term superinducta for the latter, as opposed to concubina. It would also be remiss of a reviewer not to find some choice bit of translation about which to quibble. In this case, it is the decision to translate Arthur’s title as “count of Brittany” at the moment of his seizure of the county of Anjou in 1199 (147). The Latin in fact reads comes Brittannici littoris, for which a more accurate translation would be “count of the shore of Brittany” or “count of the Breton shore.” This is a small divergence, but a significant one for its possible allusions to Roman military organisation or, more likely, to the epic figure of Roland, who is similarly titled prepositus...Britanni littoris in Egidius Parisiensis’s Karolinus, the pedagogical verse presented to Philip Augustus’s son, Louis VIII, in 1200. [4] Such possibilities merit further critical attention and would have been aided by a more precise English translation of the title Rigord bestows upon the young Arthur.

A postscript from the translator concludes the work with a lively summary of the overarching narrative of the Deeds and brief discussion of some of the text’s more intriguing passages. An explanation is provided for Rigord’s diversion from France to Constantinople towards the end of his work, since the record of these deeds paves the way for Philip’s momentous gift of relics to the abbot and community of St Denis. The postscript also draws attention to enduring uncertainties around certain sections of Rigord’s work, namely the possible reference to two full moons in February 1189 and the strange lunar movements at Argenteuil (109).

The Deeds is much more than a record of one king’s actions, as will quickly become apparent to those who first encounter the text through this translation. Rigord intertwines stories about Philip’s life and kingship alongside events that concern his community at the abbey of St Denis, as well as other details of local, regional, and international significance. Sometimes the stories Rigord tells are miraculous or fantastic, such as the ghostly images of knights that appeared in the skies above Nogent in the county of Perche in 1192. Elsewhere, the narrative takes a vitriolic turn, providing an example of the ferocity of anti-Jewish attitudes in medieval France, and how such persecution became entrenched in royal policy in the mass expulsion of Jewish communities in 1182. Occasionally, passages divulge insights into everyday life, as when the volatility of warfare and weather contributed to rising food prices in Messina in 1190, or Paris in 1195. Future generations of students and scholars will be indebted to this new translation for providing such an accessible and readable English introduction to the myriad delights, discomforts, and discrepancies of Rigord’s Deeds.



1. Rigord, Histoire de Philippe Auguste, ed. and trans. Élisabeth Carpentier, Georges Pon and Yves Chauvin, Sources d’Histoire Médiévale, 33 (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2006).

2. Œuvres de Rigord et de Guillaume Le Breton, historiens de Philippe-Auguste, ed. Henri-François Delaborde, 2 vols. (Paris: Renouard, 1882-1885), I, 1-167, digitised at

3. For example: Henry II: New Interpretations, eds. Christopher Harper-Bill and Nicholas Vincent (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007); Stephen Church,King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant (London: Macmillan, 2015).

4. M. L. Colker, "The Karolinus of Egidius Parisiensis," Traditio 29 (1973), 199-325 (at 273).