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The White Book of Mottistone


The White Book of Mottistone contains a number of medieval verse romances shortly to appear in Modern English translation, including a Middle English version of the Romance of the Rose that was at least partly translated from Old French by Geoffrey Chaucer. Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick and the enigmatic Romance of Partenay will add to the weight of evidence collected here. But evidence for what?

Well, first of all there is the endemic use of the motif of disguise. How better to exemplify this than with the Middle English Breton tale The Earl of Toulouse? In diptych form, each panel of this story involves the hero taking on a disguise. And then there is the unquestioned existence of giants in many of these tales. How better to illustrate this than by the romance of Torrent of Portugal, who becomes a giant-slayer 'par excellence'. And if the presence of giants suggests a Scandinavian influence, then what about Marie de France's Breton lai Le Fresne? Its Middle English version conveys an account, entirely faithful to the original, of a baby discovered inside an ash tree, which in the Old Norse world view was the species of the tree of life, Yggdrasill.

These tales are all translated from the original Middle English and retold in Modern prose English, in free translation.

Breton tales, Arthur, giants and marvels

Le Freine is a faithful Middle English retelling of Marie de France's Breton lai Le Fresne. It is the tale of a woman who, through accusing another woman only to find that she has accused herself, sepatates her two baby daughters in an attempt to conceal this guilt. The girls grow up not knowing of each others' existence. But when a local nobleman is about to marry one of them, the other, whom this nobleman has lived with for a long while and whom he loves very much, gives away her identity to her mother through an act of generosity that leads to her being able to marry the nobleman instead, now that everybody knows who she really is.

Erl of Tolous is a Middle English Breton lai that is not found in the collection left to us by Marie de France. The eponymous earl eventually marries the woman whom he seems instinctively to know that he loves, but not before glimpsing her while standing as a beggar in the church in which she worships in her own private chapel, and then as a monk who comes to hear her final confession before she is burnt alive for a crime that she has not committed. Having listened to her and assured himself of her innocence, this monk, who is the Earl of Toulouse in disguise, fights for her in a trial by combat and saves her from the flames. In the true tradition of medieval romance, her husband dies soon afterwards (very conveniently) and the earl is made emperor in his place after marrying her, as though – as in numerous tales of this kind – the inheritance of the kingdom, or the empire, passes through her.

Torrent of Portyngale, or Torrent of Portugal, rehearses themes found in a number of other romances, and in particular, it parallels Sir Eglamour of Artois quite closely. Torrent is sent off by his lord, the king of Portugal, on a number of impossible quests in order to gain the hand in marriage of the king's daughter, quests that involve the defeat of many giants and dragons. But every time he returns victorious, Torrent is sent away on yet another mission. When his lady is found to be pregnant by him, she, like other heroines in this position, is put to sea alone with her babies in a small boat and given to the mercy of the winds and the waves. As in many other related romances, her babies are quickly taken by wild animals. But after a prolonged separation, in which father, mother and children live their lives not knowing what has happened to each other, they are all reunited again at the end of the tale.

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