The spectacular medieval manuscript known as the Romance of Gillion de Trazegnies tells the story of a bigamous French-speaking knight from Hainaut (a county in present-day Belgium). Gillion is married to a western Christian noblewoman and an eastern Muslim princess at the same time—while leading the army of the sultan of Egypt.
The book is written in Middle French, the predecessor of the modern language whose grammar and pronunciation is much different from French today. Hear audio recordings of two passages in this post, below.
Although this is a work of historical fiction, the anonymous author of the romance took his inspiration from contemporary events: the advance of Muslim Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, who captured Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, and the crusading projects in the Mediterranean of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419 to 1467, for the Christian recovery of Jerusalem and Constantinople.
The story of a Christian noble in the East would have been of great interest to the duke and his courtly entourage. A loyal and strong western knight is captured by Muslims on his return from a pilgrimage in Jerusalem, becomes a mercenary in the service of the sultan of Egypt, kills the sultan’s Muslim enemies and thus works toward the salvation of his soul, and marries the sultan’s daughter and inherits the Muslim empire, all the while holding steadfastly to his Christian faith. See a fuller plot summary of this medieval soap opera here.
The manuscript was made in 1464, most likely in Bruges, at that time a major center of artistic and scribal workshops for late medieval book production. Many of the most dazzling and lavish illuminated manuscripts were produced there, as well as in other cities of medieval Flanders, like Antwerp and Ghent. The county of Flanders was part of the duchy of Burgundy, as was the county of Hainaut, ruled by the French-speaking Dukes of Burgundy and known as part of the Burgundian Low Countries.
French was the official language of the Burgundian Low Countries. The manuscript was made for one of the highest-ranking members of the duke’s entourage, Louis of Gruuthuse, governor of Bruges, governor general of Holland, Zeeland, and Frisia, and Duke Philip’s trusted counselor. The story of Gillion de Trazegnies’s adventures was intended to be read aloud, as the dedicatory owner’s prologue of the text states clearly:
“It [the story] should be read and very diligently heard and learned among the princes, and especially before those of young age, in order to direct their hearts and acts to valiance and virtuous deeds in everything.”
The author’s prologue, the second prologue of the Getty Gillion manuscript, presents the story to be heard as a model of chivalric life:
“The high and exalted deeds that inspired the noble hearts of our ancient predecessors are worthy of praise, recommendation, and perpetual memory, especially among princes and noblemen. Upon hearing or reading the stories of righteous men of lore who used and employed the arms and conditions of chivalry, even on the infidels, ancient enemies of the Catholic faith, [princes and noblemen] can thereby greatly gain from fleeing all vice and loving good virtues.”
In many ways, a public reading was itself a performance of chivalry.
Public readings, as much as public viewings, were part of the Burgundian courtly culture. Philip the Good, and his son and heir Charles the Bold, regularly held readings at the court. One of Philip’s favorite scribes, his secretary David Aubert (who probably wrote out the Getty Gillion manuscript for Louis), describes Philip as “having been accustomed for a long time to have ancient histories read for him daily.” Louis of Gruuthuse likely saw on one such public occasion a manuscript made for the bastard son of Philip the Good, Anthony of Burgundy, then commissioned a copy for himself.
This captivating story of a Christian knight’s adventures in the East was written out in a script known by its Latin name of bastarda, Burgundian Gothic cursive, a typical scribal handwriting of the second half of the 15th century. The manuscript’s language is Middle French, the French of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.
Middle French is a transitional phase between Old French, which evolved between the 9th and 13th centuries from Latin, and Modern French that is spoken today. Thus situated at a midpoint in the evolution of the French language, Middle French, while at moments close to Modern French, is not pronounced in the same way. In particular, we note the rolled r (as in the French of present-day Burgundy), the strong presence of consonants despite nasalization (as in the French of present-day southern France, e.g. in “biens” or “tresinstamment”), pronunciation of final r, double articulation of certain diphthongs (for example in “haulte” or “souldan”), and pronunciation of the diphthong [oi] as [wé] (as in “memoire”).
Another element of surprise for the modern reader is that Middle French (as Old French) occasionally uses different proper names for cities and countries. For example, medieval writers called Old Cairo “Babilonne.” Since Mamluk sultans ruled over both Egypt and Syria from their seat in Cairo, the “sultan of Babylon” is the “sultan of Egypt.”
Reading 1: Prologue
The author’s prologue states the author’s intention and motivation for writing the story. Its expressive and colorful language sets the scene with the description of the triple tomb in the Abbey of Olive in the county of Hainaut. In it lay Gillion and his two wives. The artist of the manuscript, Lieven van Lathem (active 1454-1493), one of the most highly sought-after Flemish illuminators, painted a half-page miniature showing the author’s discovery of the tomb and the creation of the story.
Reading 2: Wife vs. Wife
The second scene is a historiated initial on folio 200 verso. The image shows monks celebrating a private mass with nuns at the Abbey of Olive, and the two women to the right of the center are probably Gillion’s two wives, Marie and Gracienne, depicted in harmonious communion of shared prayer. Within the same year, at the Abbey of Olive to which they had retired by common agreement, Gracienne will die and Marie survive her by only two days. In this chapter, Gillion, having taken a monk’s habit at the Cambron Abbey, tells his life’s story to his overlord, the Count of Hainaut.
The manuscript has preserved the detailed story of Marie’s, Gracienne’s, and Gillion’s simultaneous decision to enter religious orders, told in the folios preceding the historiated initial. In an emotional and poignant scene, each of Gillion’s wives argues that she should be the one to give him up as husband, each promising not to have carnal relations with him ever again. The absolute dedication of each wife to her husband’s happiness (each assuming that he is happier with the other) is overwhelming; at the same time, the nascent complicity and harmony between Marie and Gracienne is captivating.
Although the text breaks off because of one missing folio, on the next remaining folio, 196v, Marie, the lady of Trazegnies, presents to Gillion her and Gracienne’s request to allow them to enter a convent together.
With the three protagonists entering the monastic orders, the controversial situation of bigamy is resolved positively, while the characters incarnate a model for and move their audience with the commitment to expiate their worldly sins.
For more on this manuscript, see the book The Adventures of Gillion de Trazegnies: Chivalry and Romance in the Medieval East, coming in December 2015 from Getty Publications. Co-written by Zrinka Stahuljak and Elizabeth Morrison, the book combines a complete reproduction of the book’s illustrations, a partial translation of the text, and essays that explore the manuscript’s vibrant cultural, historical, and artistic contexts.
Text of this post © Zrinka Stahuljak. All rights reserved.