While browsing in a library, I ran across Bernard Ribémont's modern French translation of Jean Corbechon's Middle French version of Bartholomew the Englishman's De proprietatibus rerum. My curiosity did not disappoint me when I wondered what Jean would have to say about England.
We have the usual descriptions of England taken from Bede, but then Jean hits a snag: a wild praise of England as a land so rich that it needs nothing from other lands, a land whose people are generous, honest, fun loving, and then--you can just see him throwing his quill down in disgust--he declares that there's just too much to summarize and that the work praises England rather too much. It is 1372, after all. He then writes:
... il croit louer son pays et, en fait, il le blâme, car il dit que les Anglais descendent des Géants tout d'abord, puis de Brutus et des Troyens, enfin des Saxons. En disant ainsi, il en fait des bâtards en leur donnant plusieurs pères. Et puis il parle très imparfaitement de cette question, car il oublie la conquête faite par le duc Guillaume et les Normands, qui conquirent l'Angleterre si vaillamment qu'il en reste encore les traces dans les armoiries et les coutumes. Cela ne doit par être oublié, car il y a moins de honte à avoir été conquis par les Français ou les Normands que par les Saxons. (238)(image taken from here)
He believes that he is praising his country, and in fact, he is scorning it, because he says that the English descended from giants first of all, then from Brutus and the Trojans, and then finally from the Saxons. In saying so, he makes them bastards by giving them several fathers. Moreover, he speaks very imperfectly on this issue, because he forgets the conquest of Duke William and the Normans, who conquered England so valiantly that there are still traces [of the conquest? of the Normans?] in the heraldry and customs of England. This should not be forgotten because there is less shame in having been conquered by the French or the Normans than by the Saxons.
Postscript: ALK just asked me, "Are there medieval accounts of boring people? Like some monk writing about another monk who was really boring." I had to say that I didn't know. Any suggestions?
I'd like to see both the original of this and Bartholomew's original. First, does Bartholomew really say that the English are descended from the giants? One normally gets the message that they exterminated the giants, not that the giants are their ancestors. And the Trojans--are they part of the English ancestry? Sometimes they are portrayed as belonging to Celtic and Norman ancestries but not the Saxon English. Also, does he really fail to mention the Normans? If so, is that because he makes a distinction between 'les Anglais' and 'les Normans' (who now rule England, but are not to be confused with 'the English')? It is interesting that the French translator apparently doesn't choose to see it that way. Also, to what extent are the Normans being identified as French?
I'm also wondering about just who conquered whom and who IS whom. Offhand, I wouldn't normally have thought that 'the English' were conquered by 'the Saxons'; surely the English ARE the Saxons, and one could indeed spin that so as to see the inhabitants of England as the product of one glorious wave of conquerors after another. So I'd like to know how the original text actually articulates all that.
Finally, what about the Romans? No mention of them? Or the Vikings? Interesting which conquering races are claimed as ancestors, and which aren't.
I'm glad you commented on this, SH. Having just finished (having finally found the time!) your Perceforest book, I knew you'd find this passage especially strange.
I just noticed that the Ribémont trans lists the original translator as Jean Corbechon; Columbia's library gives the original as Jean Corbichon. Go figure. Judging by Yale's holdings, which I just checked, the only printed editions of Corbichon (sp?) are early modern. Can't figure out easily how to get at Cambridge's library catalog.
And I think it's rather hard to come by a modern edition of the Bartholomew, too. I found the 1495 edition of Wynken de Worde (an English translation: Trevisa's?) through Early English Books Online. Here's a rough transcription of some of the section on England and a summary of other bits:
And then the Britons "overcame the Gyauntes both wyth crafte & wyth strength & conqueryd the ylonde & callyd the londe Brytayne by the name of Brute that was prynce of the hoste. & in the ylonde hyghte Brytayne as it were an ylonde conqueryd of bruite & tyme wyth armes & wyth myghte (transcription off?). Of thys Bruites offprynge [sic] came kynges. And whoever hathe lykynge to knowe theyr dedes rede the story of Bruite.
And longe tyme after the Saxons wanne the ylonde with many & dyuers harde batayles & stronge & theyr offprynge had possessyon after them of the ylonde & the Brytons were slayne or exylyd. And Saxons departed ylonde amonge theim & gave every provynce a name by the propryte of his owne name and nacion. And therfore they cleppyd the ylonde Anglia by the name of Engelta the quene, the worthyest Duke of Saxons doughter that had the ylonde possessyon after many bataylles.
[then we get Isidore and England from Angulo and being in the corner of the world, and then St Gregory from Bede and the Angels. And then Pliny. And a discussion of the natural resources: many harts and wild beasts, few wolves or none, so therefore many sheep. And then we get the passage that so annoyed Jean, which I took as a screen shot, available here]
Short version of all this: so far as I can determine, I don't know (yet) why Corbe/ichon presented matters as he did.
One normally gets the message that they exterminated the giants, not that the giants are their ancestors. And the Trojans--are they part of the English ancestry?
Oh, should have made this clear. Brutus is a Trojan in this Middle English version, who comes to Albion (so called from white rocks alongside the sea). Doesn't say where the giants come from (so no sense here of Des grantz geanz tradition). Also there is in fact nothing about William the Conqueror. Perhaps it's because Barth is interested (or pretends interest) in only how England got its various names: how it went from Albion, to Britain, to England. William, with such an interest in stressing continuity, never renamed the island, so he doesn't rate in Barth's history. That's just a guess.
And it does seem that Jean thinks of the Normans as French! I can see a reason for this in the 1370s, but it's still rather funny, given his low opinions of Nordic/Saxon types.
No romans or vikings. But again, it's sort of hard to get at a complete Latin De proprietatibus. The one I use in my diss is a 1601 edition reprinted by Minerva Press in Frankfurt in 1964. Not ideal, but that might be all there is. However, if anyone knows better than I know (and I'm sure 100s do), Bernard Ribémont does.
Of thys Bruites offprynge [sic]
Aargh. No sic. I just misread it.
Wow, thanks, I haven't even had time to look at our library catalogue (our academic year is just ending, so things are only just settling down) and already you're giving me the text!
The Middle English you've got here doesn't make it sound like the giants are the ancestors--but the French passage you quoted did seem to imply that. Or course, there are romances that imply some human-giant inter-breeding (for lack of a better term) but I don't even know if Bartholomew, Corbechon, etc, would have been thinking along those lines, though they certainly wouldn't necessarily have thought along the SAME lines as one another.
I know that Brutus is Trojan, but in what sense is he the ancestor of 'the English'? That depends on who 'the English' are, doesn't it? The Celts are Trojan, the Romans are Trojan, the Normans are Trojan, but most of the time the Saxons are not Trojan... But if 'the English' are the people that the Saxons conquered, well, hmm... I guess 'the English' are that conglomerate of people who inhabit England, lacking any racial purity (unlike those who inhabit France?? yeah right) since they are just the sorry remnants of a succession of incoming settlers, all of whom were later conquered by the next wave, so how good could they even have been anyway? With perhaps the exception of the Normans, who conquered the conquerors of the conquerors of the giants, and are themselves still unconquered; and whom we can't dis TOO much since those current Norman-descended kings are pretty closely related to us Frenchmen.
Or something like that.
Perhaps my connections are too dissociative to actually relate to Bartholomew's/Corbechon's accounts, but the post immediately reminded me of the Norse eddas and their accouts of origins--especially Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda. Snorri writes in the prologue to his Edda that Thor and the other Norse "ancestors (gods in the pagan tradition) originally came from Troy, and later they migrated to the northern lands. He, thus, appropriates the Mediterranean tradition of Troy into the Norse ancestry (and, at the same, does away with the pagan gods that are so problematic in a Christian tradition). Such an account also connects with Snorri's first stories in the Heimskringla, in which he explains how humans came to believe their ancestors had been gods (again, dispelling pagan beliefs and working the myths into a Christian framework). Curiously, in the section of the Prose Edda known as "The Deluding of Gylfi," however, Snorri's account also relates how the first humans sprouted out of the armpit of a frost giant named Ymir (the first living being, apparently) and then killed the giant to create Middle-earth out of his corpse. In this way, following both Snorri's retelling of pagan myths as well as his prologue, the ancestry of the Norse are tied in with both giants and Troy--much like Bartholomew's/Corbechon's accounts.
Could these parallels be viably connected in some way? Could Bartholomew's/Corbechon's (possible) parallels to Snorri's ideas present an instance of the close and convoluted intermingling of Anglo-Saxon and Viking cultures in the early Middle Ages (especially the Vikings' intermingling with Anglo-Saxons directly preceding the Norman invasion) that melded with other English legends and lasted on into the High Middle Ages?
Just thought I'd throw in that I was reading 'Renart le contrefait' today and noted that this c14 author identifies the English with the Saxon conquerors of the Britons, as I would more expect: 'En ce temps, les Anglois estoient une maniere de gent de Saxoine, faissant moult d'assaulx aulx Bretons, et finablement ilz les mirent hors de Bretaigne, qui estoit appelee de leur nom. Lors quant les Anglois les eurent tues et chassiez hors de Bretaigne, ilz l'appellerent de leur nom Engleterre' (ed. Raynaud and Lemaitre, p. 256). [At that time, the English were a kind of people of Saxony, making many attacks on the Britons, and finally they drove them out of Britain, which had been named after them. Then when the English had killed them and driven them out of Britain, they named it England after themselves.]
This author even knows exactly when that happened: 'L'an .M. cent .LXVI. nasqui Philippe, le filz Loys... En celle annee, furent acomplis .viii.C. et .xxx. ans que les Anglois vindrent premier en Bretaigne le Grant qui est appellee Angleterre' (p. 284) [In the year 1166 Philip, the son of Louis, was born... In this year, 830 years had passed since the English first came to Great Britain, which is called England.]
Sorry it seems I cannot do diacriticals in this thing.
This author seems not to mention the Trojan settlers of Britain or their encounters with the giants, although obviously that story would be well known by then--he isn't giving a British history here but a 'universal history' (as understood at that time) so he doesn't cover every detail. (Though I'm not certain since the text is over 40,000 lines of verse plus the prose chunks.)
Responding to Brandon, to what extent those British giants are a product of Nordic/Germanic lore, to what extent Celtic, to what extent Biblical, etc, I don't really know, though I'm sure others have investigated this.
I really love the idea of the first humans originating in a giant's ARMPIT. Like fleas.
This sounds like a much bigger giant than the ones that populate Arthurian romance, however.
Funny how western Europeans, obsessed with their supposed Trojan roots, made such a virtue out of being descended from the losers of that originary clash of civilisations.
I don't even know if Bartholomew, Corbechon, etc, would have been thinking along those lines, though they certainly wouldn't necessarily have thought along the SAME lines as one another.
There's been discussion of this matter here before (here and here) that seems to dovetail with what I'm about to say: Corbe/ichon (I keep wanting write it 'Cornichon') knows that conquest does not necessarily = extirpation. Conquest can = humiliation (hence the outrage over omitting 1066, since this is the moment when 'France' humiliated 'England'), but there's also a recognition (?) that inhabiting the land means contamination/interbreeding/however they might have thought it. Brutus and his men could not have utterly destroyed the giants; therefore, they must have interbred with them.
I would say that Corbe/ichon would take this approach because he's writing in France, where so far as I know there is no tradition of successive genocides and dispersals. He's necessarily going to have a different reading on the conquest of Britain, then, than British writers.
At the same time, I don't want to obscure the possibility that Corbe/ichon is simply 'forgetting' the history (which he would have known perfectly well from the various Bruts floating around) in order to insult the (14th-century) English as bastards.
Brandon: I like the connections you're making, but my sense is that Corbe/ichon isn't doing what Snorri's doing. Assuming for a moment that there's a more or less clean break between pagan and Xian, would I be right is saying that the pagan 'past' is much closer to Snorri than it is to a late fourteenth-century Frenchman? We might think of the pagan 'past' for 14-15c French as a textual past that is also a textual present but in no way a material present. That is, it's not Gaulish/Celtic/Whatever, but classical, derived not from hoi polloi but from Vergil and Ovid; the textual paganism is not 'their own,' i.e., it's classical mythology. There's still a kind of anxiety, but it's all a textual anxiety. So we have a strong Euhemerist tradition in, say, the Ovide Moralise, the Epistre Othea, and so forth, in which they're talking to other readers, not to possible worshippers. The instances of people taking the classical myths literally, i.e., believing that these classical gods are real, are self-conscious revivals rather than, say, rememberings, as they would have been in Scandinavia. For example, this:
Vilgard at Ravenna c. 970:
"At that time also, mischief not unlike the above appeared at Ravenna. A certain man named Vilgard occupied himself with more eagerness than constancy in literary studies, for it was always the Italian habit to pursue these to the neglect of the other arts. Then one night when, puffed up with pride in the knowledge of his art, he had begun to reveal himself to be more stupid than wise, demons in the likeness of the poets Vergil, Horace, and Juvenal appeared to him, pretending thanks for the loving study which he devoted to the contents of their books and for serving as their happy herald to posterity. They promised him, moreover, that he would soon share their renown. Corrupted by these devilish deceptions, he began pompously to teach many things contrary to holy faith and made the assertion that the words of the poets deserved belief in all instances" (Heresies of the High Middle Ages 73)
Compare this to, say, Scandinavian law codes (the Book of Gragas, the codes discussion by Anne Irene Riisoy, &c.), which make a point of forbidding pagan practices such as placating trolls &c. And these codes date, iirc, from the 12-14th c.. Quite late. In contrast, there's the anti-pagan material in penitentials on the Continent like Burchard of Worms, but this is (almost?) entirely early 11th c. and earlier.
BTW, SH, perhaps I missed it in the book, but do you have a ready answer for why Perceforest, a romance of England, should have been written at the Court of Hainault? Its composition predates Philippa's marriage to Edward III, so at the time of its writing, there's no necessary connection to England and its narratives.
Funny how western Europeans, obsessed with their supposed Trojan roots, made such a virtue out of being descended from the losers of that originary clash of civilisations.
Yes: that is weird. Is there a good article/book on this? Seems there should be, possibly in something on SGGK.
From my own reading in medieval European/Scandinavian literature, but also in classical literature [Greek mythology, especially, but also Latin poetry], it seems to me that a narrative concerning "giant" races having inhabited various landscapes [or the whole earth, more generally]--who ante-date gods but pre-date humans] is a recurring feature of "origin" stories & myths. Of course, JJC's book "Of Giants," especially the chapter, "Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, Family" [chapter 2], speaks well to the conversation here, especially as regards the link--which I see prevalent in many different historical traditions--between the necessary "evacuation" of giants [sometimes gendered female] and nation-building. I think this is a "link" [or whatever you want to call it] that goes deeper than what might be called "shared traditions"--i.e., tracing a similar narrative structure within, say, Scandinavian and English literatures, which can then be attributed to some kind of assimilation facilitated by co-habitation [easy or uneasy] in early medieval Britain. I think it's more, for lack of a better term, "deeply anthropological," and likely arises in different times and places in connection with various forms of culture-building [as opposed to later, more developed forms of "natio"-building] that have need of various taboos against so-called "monstrous" behavior, including murder, incest, rape, etc.
Thanks for the thoughts, KS & EJ. The more I read--this blog, Blurton's Cannibal monograph, and other texts--the more I'm convinced that I need to get a hold of JJC's Of Giants and Friedman's Monstrous Races to do some more background reading on "monsters" (with which I'm becoming increasingly fascinated). I also keep getting the overwhelming feeling that I'm very behind on critical texts that will be essential to my continued study... but I'm excited to attempt the catching-up. And this blog has done wonders for helping so far.
Brandon, that's great. Others might disagree with me, but this is how I would go about it:
Wittkower, R., 'Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 5 (1942), pp. 159-97
Then Jeffrey's book, although I wonder how much of it he would disavow now! You might want to read a brief introduction to psychoanalytic theory before you read the Giants book, as the book can be slow going if you're not minimally conversant with the theory (just remembering my first time reading it: I was not a sympathetic reader!).
I'm sure you've already read it, but what about Tolkien's classic essay on the monsters of Beowulf? Perhaps after Wittkower...
Other useful books on the subject include: Deformed Discourse and Saracens, Demons and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art.
Reply to Karl: Philippa of Hainault married Edward in 1328, and even that was a bit after her father and uncle helped overthrow Edward II (wasn't that 1325?). The date normally imagined for composition of Perceforest is about 1340ish. So actually, William of Hainault was already the father-in-law of the English king at that point. Of course, it would have taken more than a year to write the thing, but it still might not have been begun before 1328. Also, the fictional account of William learning about the supposed Greek chronicle, places that event during his visit to England, I think for the wedding of Isabelle of France and Edward II (?? I don't have the book to hand right now) implying that he may always have had some interest. There must be a reason why Isabelle went to him, of all people, when she wanted someone to overthrow Ed II, and a reason why he was willing to do it. (I know he was some kind of cousin or something, though I'm kind of assuming, with the medieval aristocracy, like, who wasn't? But there was some kind of connection here.) And of course the Low Countries also play a prominent role in the world of Perceforest.
For that matter, one could ask why the whole of western Europe was so obsessed with British 'history' and Arthur and all that. Why didn't they make up their OWN illustrious distant past for heaven's sake? I know they did write about Charlemagne, and others, but they were all mighty worked up over Arthur, Tristan, Lancelot, Brutus and the rest. Why did it seem obvious not only to the British but also to Germans, French, Italians, etc, that of course the Grail was in Britain, and Arthur was the greatest king ever, and so on? Sort of like the question of why they all wanted to be Trojans. A severe case of mimetic desire??
Brandon--Karl has started exactly where I would with a "primer" approach to work in medieval scholarship on medieval monsters. For a more thorough [and I would even claim, exhaustive] bibliography that I and my M.A. students compiled last semester, go here:
The bibliography has four  sections:
I. Pre- and Early Modern Monsters, Demons, and Shape-Shifters
II. Travel Narratives/Other "Races"
III. Theoretical/Philosophical/Anthropological/Historical Perspectives
IV. Film Criticism & Theory [horror and monster movies]
AND: if anyone who reads this blog cares to peruse this bibliography, and let me know who & what I have left out, that would be great.
Thanks so much for that clarification (or let's say reminder, since I should have known the answer myself), SH. Does help matters.
This does seem to be the question of questions:
For that matter, one could ask why the whole of western Europe was so obsessed with British 'history' and Arthur and all that. Why didn't they make up their OWN illustrious distant past for heaven's sake?,
We could blame it on the 'Norman Empire,' but that hardly explains Germany. And, yes, it seems individual places had some individual champions, but none of these ended up translated other languages, other times, as Arthur and Tristan did. If there's a Hebrew or Italian version of, say, Herzog Ernst, I'd love to see it.
...and then there's the other international superstar, Alexander. I can think offhand of versions in Greek, English, French (continental and Insular), German, and Hebrew, and I imagine there are versions in Latin, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and probably Old Norse too. Why Alexander? And I'm not talking about historical records; I'm thinking of narrative invention.
I suppose what makes Alexander work for narrative are his vagaries. His life is the ultimate road movie. Judas Maccabeus, not so much, nor, for that matter, Aeneas, so far as I know, as Virgil pretty well covers his life.
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