Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Raoul of Cambrai

The old French epic known as Raoul of Cambrai, belongs to a genre of poems known as the chansons de geste (meaning 'songs of deeds' or 'songs of war'). Of the numerous chansons that survive today the majority of their manuscripts date from around the twelfth century. However it is highly likely that the poems themselves are much older and were preserved through oral history.

Entertainers called jongleurs would have sung or chanted the poems to a number of people. As they were written in the vernacular, this suggests that they would have been performed or read for the entertainment of a lay audience. Jongleurs also performed other forms of poetry, juggled, mimed, played instruments, and even did acrobatic tricks! They were often thought to be untrustworthy, and belonged to the lowest level of medieval society. As they relied upon the generosity of their audience for their pay, this would show that what they performed would have been the popular form of entertainment at that time. The chansons de geste in particular were highly popular.

Traditionally these epic poems have been arranged by their content into three main cycles. These are: the Cycle of the King, the Cycle of William of Orange, and the Cycle of Barons in Revolt (or revolting barons!). Raoul of Cambrai is a superb example from the last of these cycles.

The poem (along with many other chansons) is set during the reign of Louis IV of France, the son of Charlemagne. It weaves a tale of feudal ties and vengeance, which culminates in Raoul being killed by his vassal Bernier at the end of the first section. It would seem that the poem is most likely fictional, however it is possible that there are some historical links to it.

Despite the fact that Raoul of Cambrai is an epic poem and therefore some aspects would have been exaggerated, it is still a superb source for gaining an insight into the late twelfth century (the period in which the surviving version was written). One area in which it would be of use is to the study of knighthood. For example:

'On the next day the praiseworthy Count Raoul knighted Bernier and invested him with the best arms on which he could lay his hands. He put a strong well burnished hauberk on his back and laced a golden helmet on his head. Then he girded the sword with which he was knighted to his side and Bernier straight away mounted his good warhorse.
As soon as Bernier was mounted on his horse every one could see what a good knight he had become. He seized his gold banded shield and held the sharp lance with its pennon fastened by five golden nails in his hand. Then he charged forward on his horse and returned to his place again. There were many knights in the square and they said one to another: "How well he looks in his arms. Even if he is the son of an unwed mother, he must still be of rich and noble birth".' 1

This passage from Raoul of Cambrai tells us a great deal about the ceremony of knighting, and also ideals of being a good knight. For example, that care was taken to describe Bernier's extravagant equipment shows that this was a very important ceremony - and an occasion to be proud of. Due to the expense of this equipment it is also indicative of the growing association between knighthood and the nobility in this period, despite the fact that Bernier was a bastard. Weapons, armour and warhorses did not come cheap, and especially not the lavish examples described above!

This is just one example of the use of this fantastic source. The tale it tells can also help historians gain an insight into many other themes, such as: contemporary ideas about noble society, ideals of the family, the relationship between lords and vassals - the list could go on! And not only is this useful, but it also makes an excellent read! 

1 'Raoul de Cambrai, An Old French Epic', trans. Jessie Crosland, revised by Richard Abels, USNA 1993 at 

Sources Used:
  • Duggan, Joseph J., '1095 - The Epic', in Denis Hollier (ed.), A New History of French Literature (Harvard University Press: 1994), pp.18-23
  • Kaeuper, Richard W.,Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2006)
  • Newth, Michael, Heroes of the French Epic: Translations from the Chansons de Geste (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2005)