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Good Words 1860
The Song of Antioch


Did you ever near of the "Song of Antioch" by Pilgrim Richard, modernized by Graindor of Douai? Ten thousand to one but you never did. And yet the work is, to my mind, not only one of the most interesting remains of the middle ages, but one of the most remarkable historical poems that I know.

The story is that of the first crusade. The original author appears to have followed that expedition, and to have put into rude verse what he saw and heard, with a good deal of what he chose to fancy. Only a fragment, however, of his work appears to remain; it is written in the early metre of the "assonance," eventually preserved by the Spaniards alone, in which, instead of a full rhyme, only the identity of the vowel in the last syllable of the line is required; the same "assonance," moreover, being used throughout long stretches of verse. The remainder of the work has come to us as modernized by Graindor, in true rhymes, but still used, according to the older practice, in long single-rhyme pieces. The original must date from the beginning of the twelfth century; the modern version from the end or the beginning of the thirteenth. At this period, there seems to have clustered round it, in imitation of the so-called "cycles" of Charlemagne or of the Round Table, a whole "cycle" of legendary verse relating to the heroes of the crusade, of which it formed henceforth but the historical kernel. M. Paulin Paris is entitled to the credit of having dug out the "Song of Antioch" from this mass of legend, and to have assigned to it its historical value; which indeed, as generally happens with discoverers, he is disposed, I think, somewhat to overrate.

Nothing can be more curious now-a-days than its very commencement. It consists of several distinct introductions, which the wandering minstrel who sang the poem might choose from according to circumstances. Here is the first:—

"Lords, hold your peace; let the noise be stayed, if ye will hear a glorious song. No minstrel shall tell you a better; it is of the holy city so praiseworthy, where God suffered His body to be wounded and tormented, and struck with the lance, and placed upon the cross; which is called Jerusalem by him who would name it aright. These new minstrels who are wont to sing of it, have left aside the true beginning. But Graindor of Douai will in nowise forget it, who hath had all the lines of it renewed for you. Now shall ye hear tell of Jerusalem, and of those who went to worship the sepulchre: how they had the hosts gathered together from all sides; from France, from Berry and her equal, Auvergne, from Apulia, from Calabria, as far as Barletta on the sea, and hither-side as far as Wales, they had the people summoned, and from so many lands that I cannot name them; of such a pilgrimage never man heard tell. By God, they had all to suffer many pains, thirst, and heat, and cold, and to watch and to fast; meet was it that the Lord God should give them all their guerdon, and place their souls in His glory."

The key-note of the Holy War is thus struck. Let me say at once, to dispose of the theology of the poem, that not one point of difference can I detect between the popular Christianity of the period, as shown in this poem, and Mohammedanism, beyond the use of different traditions, and I must say, the sense of chastity—a grace, indeed, from which countless others may flow. The sole idea of the Christian crusader, as that of the votary of Islam, was that of avenging God, and winning and (when occasion offered) imposing heaven by the sword. Either reckoned as fully as the other on being absolved from all his sins, and translated into heaven, if he perished in the holy undertaking; and no Mussulman moollah could inculcate this faith more sedulously than bishops and priests are represented as doing. Of the real nature of the faith they went to combat, not a glimmer seems to have entered the mind of the crusading masses, so far as one can judge from the poem, or to have penetrated Europe by the time when it was modernized. Not the slightest distinction is ever made between Mohammedanism and heathenism; the stern idol-breakers of Islam are everywhere represented as idolaters. Still less, if possible, has the singer any notion of duty towards these said supposed idolaters, beyond that of hewing, hacking, and hating them to the utmost of his power, whilst yet un-baptized. Accordingly, he scarcely ever speaks of them otherwise than in or with terms of contempt and insult.

Next comes a prelude, which in our days would be called blasphemous, but to which in those ages no idea of impiety attached. It represents our Lord speaking on the cross to the two thieves, who bear their legendary names of Dimas and Gitas; and prophesying that in a thousand years He will be avenged by a yet unborn people. Gitas, the bad thief, mocks Him; Dimas, his companion, proclaims his faith. The crusaders are of course the "yet unborn people" referred to. Apart from the necessary repugnance which one feels to seeing the most sacred facts of the gospel thus turned into legend, it is impossible to deny that there is a singular epic grandeur, and a kind of artistic truth, in this prelude. Bully persuaded that they were avengers of Christ's cross, the crusaders must have been equally so, that such vengeance had been foreseen by Him who knew all things; and if foreseen, wherefore not foretold?

The opening of the story is chronologically incorrect. The departure of Peter the Hermit, with the vanguard of the crusading host, is represented as an entirely distinct expedition, prior to the Council of Clermont. The account of it, however, barring of course exaggerations of the prowess of the crusaders, does not apparently vary much from the truth. It narrates the overthrow of the Christians in a battle which is called that of "Civetot," near Nicaea, the slaughter of the great bulk of them, the taking of the chiefs prisoners, and Peter's escape; which, however, is mistakenly carried as far as to Paris, he having in reality only rejoined Godfrey of Bouillon at Constantinople. Then comes the Council of Clermont, the date of which (November 1095) is again misplaced, apparently to bring in a pleasant bit of poetical commonplace.

"Lords, now keep peace, and may God bless you ! It was a day of May, when every bird calls, when the nightingale sings, and the blackbird and the magpie, and the lark goes away into the air with voice serene,—when the wood is full of leafage and green the meadow. To Clermont in Auvergne came the chivalry of France, of England, of all Normandy, and princes and dukes and earls, each with his vassalry. The Apostle of Rome" (i.e., the Pope), "when he had finished the mass, went forth of the castle amid the meadow; all sate down on the green grass; the Apostle stands upon his feet and reproves them," &c.

Such is the opening of one out of several versions of the story of the Council, which the singer might use, like the introductions, at his pleasure, —a practice which prevails throughout the book, and indeed throughout the whole class of poems of which it is a sample. As a further instance of the poet's lighter moods, I may quote the taking of the cross by one of the nobles:—

"Earl Robert of Flanders leaves the baronry" (i.e., the assembled barons of Clermont); "he ha3 come to Clermont, to Clinence his dear" (wife); " softly he counsels her, gently in her ear: 'Lady, I bear the cross, may it not displease you! I beg my leave of you; I will go to Syria to deliver the sepulchre from the paynim people.' When the countess hears him her colour blackens. 'Lord,' said the lady, 'for my sake you shall not go; you have two fair sons, whom may Jesus bless! great need have they of you and of your aid.' When the earl heard it, straitly he kissed her. 'Lady,' said the earl, 'behold, I pledge you, as soon as my offering shall be laid on the sepulchre, and I shall have kissed it, and finished my orison, within the fifteen days, I pledge you, without deceit, I will put myself on my return, so God give me life.' The lady holds his hand, and the earl gives the pledge. There is none whose face is not wet with tears."

Or again, in more general terms, and as it seems to me, with somewhat less pathos, he tells us :— '' At Clermont in Auvergne very great was the assembly ; there is Jesus' host set up and sworn to throughout the land of France and many a land besides. Great thereof was the rumour to ladies, to maids ; each cried for herself, Alas ! me miserable! One said to the other, ' What evil hap is this? Ill for our wishes was made the gathering of the barons ; to-morrow there will be no room that shall not be discurtained, nor song shall be said, nor joy had; every richest one shall remain helpless.' None is there but says, 'Alas! how ill that I was born.'"

The truly historical part may now be said to begin. It recounts, very briefly, the journey to Constantinople, which the singer seems not to have taken part in. Afterwards, at greater length, the arrival of Bohemund and Tancred, from South Italy, to join the Crusaders, and the hesitations of the Greek Emperor about the reception of the strangers; assigning a favourable part to a personage who is somewhat ill treated by other writers, Tatixus or Tatinus, "the noseless," one of the high officers of the Emperor's court, who is said elsewhere to have been of Saracen origin, and in whom we may, perhaps, from his description, suspect a man of Tartar birth. We may take, on the whole, the account as a popular version of the negotiations which took place between the Emperor and the Crusaders.

They then press on to Nicaea, and in the account of the encamping of the host, and the enumeration of the barons, it is difficult for one not to see the handiwork of an eye-witness, although the many variations in the list, scattered through the different MSS., show, I suspect, equally that it was tinkered up by the wandering minstrel to suit the credit or the policy of the lord within whose castle or whose jurisdiction he might find himself for the time being. Here also occurs the first mention of an act which is henceforth frequently commemorated, the shooting of Saracens taken prisoners, from the engines of war into the enemy's camp or town, "because it is shame and affront," i.e., to the foe.

The old poet is in his element in describing the fight before Nicaea, and it is impossible to mistake the vigour of his pictures, though, of course, there is much sameness in them:—

"Now see through the battle, Sir Guy of Por-cesse: full well was he armed; never ending, never ceasing, with lance in fist, he drives on the pagans, and goes strike a Turk, Pisart of Valeresse; his shield he split atwain; he flung him against the earth; into his body he thrusts the iron; full hard he presses him, so long as the lance-handle lasts ; he strikes him down without confession. 'Holy sepulchre!' he cried, then strikes into the press. Strike, free knight, in the name of the holy mass ! Ill boasting shall depart the filthy foeman folk."

I need not go into the details of the story, which, once more, may, I think, be considered as a faithful echo of popular contemporary opinion. Nothing is disguised; neither the cowardice of Stephen of Blois, nor the quarrels of Baldwin of Boulogne with Bohemund and Tancred. The special subject of the book, however, begins with the arrival of the host before Antioch, where fearful sufferings were to be its lot. Here the minstrel's narrative is thought by M. Paris to have been consulted by some of the Latin chroniclers.

It is a dreadful story. At an early period of it we are shown the Christians violating and plundering the Saracen graves, dragging out the dead bodies, cutting the heads off some 1500, the rhymer declares, and shooting them into the town, where fathers and mothers, sisters and wives, recognise them and lament over them. Then comes the famine, "which the Christians suffered to save their souls," when two besants of gold would have been willingly given for a small loaf, and an ass's thigh was worth 100 shillings, and two beans sold for a penny. [I translate "sou" by shilling, and "denier" by penny. The relation between the coins is not only thus retained, but I suspect the actual cost is fairly indicated.] The most hideous incident of it is that of the Beast of the Ribalds, which deserves some preliminary detail.

Following the host of the mounted knights and their vassals, was a crowd of many thousands of men,—pedlars, suttlers, minstrels, gipsies, harlots, riff-raff of all sorts, spoken of generally as the "ribalds," or "tafurs." Over these a man, who had fallen from or had quitted the rank of knight, seems to have held complete authority, under the name of "King Tafur;" indeed it is not pretended that the barons exercised any jurisdiction over his subjects. By the side of King Tafur, Peter the Hermit is constantly presented to us as a kind of spiritual leader of the motley host, and it will soon be seen that the company was by no means unworthy of him. Of "the folk of King Tafur'' Pilgrim Richard, in the preserved fragment of the original, says—"They bear nor lance nor swords, but sharpened axes and leaded clubs : the king bears a scythe well attempered; there is no Pagan so well armed in all the country, if he reach him with his sharp scythe, but he will cleave him in two. Close does he hold the company of his people ; their sacks are hung from their necks, their flanks are bare, .... by whatever land they go, they waste the country very much; this was the host most dreaded of ail." At their first encampment before Antioch, they are represented as '' swearing to the Lord God who made all the world, that if they can hold any pagans, they will eat them with their teeth." The poet shall now tell us how the pledge was redeemed in the famine.

"Sir Peter the Hermit sat before his tent. King Tafur came thither, and much of his baronry. More than a thousand of them are swollen with hunger. 'Sir, advise me, for holy charity, of a truth we are dying of hunger and misery.' Answered Sir Peter, ''Tis for your idleness; go, take yonder Turks that are thrown there dead; they shall be good to eat if cooked and salted.' Said King Tafur, ' You speak truth.' From Peter's tent he returns; his ribalds he has summoned; they were more than 10,000 when gathered together. They have skinned the Turks and taken the entrails out; in water and on the spit they have cooked the flesh; . . . they eat them willingly without bread and salt, and one says to the other, 'Flesh-meat day is come; 'tis better than flesh of pork, or bacon steeped in oil; damned be he who dies, so long as there be enough.' Richly feasts the king and his baronry. From the Turks they are roasting, a great smell rises; through the city of Antioch the cry is raised that the Franks are eating the Turks they have killed. The pagans mount the walls, great plenty was there of them; with pagan women even all the wall was garnished.....' By Mahomet, see!

these devils are eating our people, now see!' King Tafur looks; he sees the pagans assembled, and ladies and maids, a full many of them. He gathers together all his ribalds and leads them forth; they go to the graveyards, they have dug up the bodies, they have gathered them all in a heap; all the rotten ones they have thrown into (the river) Ferne, the others they skin, they have dragged them to windward. Earl Robert came thither, Bohemund and Tancred, and the Duke of Bouillon who was much honoured ; Count Huo of Maine [brother of the king of France] is gone with them, and the Bishop of Buy, who was very wise, and all the barons; not one remained, but every one was well harnessed and armed. Before King Tafur each stops; laughing they ask him, 'How fare ye?' ' By my faith,' said the king, 'I am feasting right well; had I to drink, I have enough to eat.' Said the Duke of Bouillon, ' Sir King, ye shall have it.' Of his good wine he presented him with a skin; King Tafur drank of it, it was then given to the rest."

The most hideous point about this hideous picture is, that not a thought of moral reprehension seems in the singer's mind to attach to this cannibalism. He describes indeed Bohemund as answering the Saracens' complaints on such conduct by declaring that they (the barons) never ordered such a thing, and that King Tafur cannot be kept in by all of them together. But when we see the barons spoken of as merely laughing at the sight, and even the noble Godfrey as adding his good wine to the cheer of the hellish feast, we must feel that between the baron and the ribald, the singer sees no difference on the point but this, that the ribald was the fouler feeder of the two. At a much later period indeed of the story, and in the fragment of the original poem, at the siege of Marra, the ribalds are again represented as ''eating Turks, such as they choose." The silence of the lettered chroniclers of the crusade on the point, or their endeavours to explain it away, do not appear to me to invalidate the likelihood of the story, although we may well believe that the minstrel has exaggerated the reality.

A fierce race indeed were these crusading ancestors of ours. Our minstrel does not, of course, omit Godfrey of Bouillon's famous sword-stroke, by which he clave a Turk on horseback so sharp and true, that " the one half of the Turk fell amid the meadow, and the other remained on the golden saddle. The Turk's flesh shrank, for the soul is departed; stiff was the leg as if it had been planted there. When the Franks saw it, great joy had they ; then was it loudly cried, Montjoie! The horse fled at full prick of the spur, straight towards Antioch he took his course. Of Turks and Pagans there was a great gathering there; as he goes, all the road is bedropped with blood, up the streets of the vaunted city." More frightful still is the prowess of Raimbaud Creton. In a fight outside Antioch, many of the Turks have fallen from a bridge, or leaped into the water on their retreat. Two hundred of them have found refuge at the foot of one of the arches. Raimbaud Creton, a knight who was "nor tall, nor long, nor broad, but a little man well-shapen and well-limbed," descending from his horse, plunged into the water with lance and sword, swam to the arch, and there began striking upon the Turks, who could not believe him to be alone. He kills half, compels the other half to take to the water, and returns under a storm of missiles from the town, his hauberk broken, his body pierced with fifteen wounds; feebly he swims, and at last sinks, but is dragged out still alive by "light varlets," who plunge in to save him.

The most truly tragic episode of the book, however, is the story of Renaut Porquet, a knight, who, in driving in the Saracens, pressed into the city, and had the gates closed upon him. There is real pathos in this:—

"Within Antioch, when he looked at himself, he saw the gate shut and barred; whereby he knew for a truth that he was cast to death. On the Lord God, then, did he gently call: 'Glorious Lord Father, who on the cross didst suffer, have mercy on my soul, for the body is done with. I shall not have priest or clerk to confess to : you know, 0 God, the sins wherewith I was loaded; Lord, I am guilty ! if you would forgive me. Ah, dear love ! never shall you see me, nor I you, nor you me, so much the more wroth am I. This morning when I left, and that I had returned, four times you kissed me for very great love ; he who does you good, may he be honoured of God ! And you, Robert of Flanders, man of valiant nature, greeting I send you, friend, . . . and to all the barons who are here assembled.'" Of course, he does not strike the less manfully for this prayer. The king is enraged to hear that his people all together cannot overcome a single Frank. He offers him the highest honours if he will yield and recant his faith, but is met by insult. At last the knight is overpowered and taken prisoner; his wounds are cured, and he is treated with considerable liberality, but only to endure a worse fate hereafter.

The king's nephew having been taken by the Christians, a truce is concluded, on the terms of a mutual exchange of the two prisoners, and a supply of provisions by the Turks. Renaut Porquet is exhibited in the first instance, and gives an account of his good treatment. But King Tafur having broken the truce by taking a Saracen chief, the Saracen king determines to avenge himself on Renaut Porquet. He had a great smooth plank placed on marble, and calling " eight cursed pagans," commanded them to stretch Renaut Porquet on the plank. Here (after flogging him with a knotted scourge), binding his arms and his feet, they burn his hamstrings with fire and coals, and hot brimstone, and molten lead, as well as the veins of his arms, and each heel. "Renaut roars and cries hard, in loud tones: 'Glorious Lord Father, who sufferedst the passion, have pity on my soul, and give me true forgiveness. Ah! if now ye knew it, good Lord Bohemund, and you, Huo of Maine, and you, Duke of Bouillon, that thus have dealt with me, these felon Turks never should be taken ransom by us of the Turks that ye have in your prison. If they be rendered for me, ye will do folly; for never to joust shall I wear the spur, nor shall be able to mount horse on saddle-trees. But could I live, by the body of St. Simeon, I would yet cleave pagans to the chin.'" The king, made wroth by these words, strikes him four blows with a stick, so that the blood runs down from his chin. Renaut reproaches him with having given him to eat, and then killing him, i.e., for a deadly sin against the laws of hospitality, and vows that the Christians shall avenge him.

The king now has Renaut unbound, and gives him over to his physicians, who heal his outward wounds. "Renaut cannot walk, he cannot lift himself. Garsion (the king) has him well dressed and shod, clad full well with rich cloth of silk; then he has him lifted on a swift charger, and bound on to the saddle-trees, so that he cannot on either side fall or slip." He has him now led to the gate, and calls Bohemund to return him his own prisoner. The Christian knights come out, but Renaut Porquet cries to them: ''Bohemund of Sicily! by God, I require you, and all our barons, I will pray them also, that for me ye render not one penny's worth. I have my hamstrings burnt; I shall never need anything. The Turks have had me tied on this horse; I have no more need of life, for I cannot help myself." The Christians of course rush upon the Turks, and kill many of them. "Then might you have heard Eenaut wail and lament, and recall oftentimes his bold vassalage (i.e., conduct or life as a vassal). His dear so bemoans him that none can quiet her. She tears her hair, she tears her bright face. The barons tell her: "Lady, let be: by no so great mourning can he be restored." The chronicler has indeed no thought of making the most of his pathos; his only haste is to tell how the crusaders bade King Tafur cut off the head of the Saracen king's nephew, and had it flung by a mangonel into the town, and how the host feasted upon a certain quantity of provisions which had been supplied by the Turks, as one of the conditions of the truce.

There is a good deal of curious legend in the account of the sending of the son of Garsion, "Sansadoine," to the great Sultan at "Sarma-sane," supposed to be Kirmanshah. He finds the Sultan at his devotions, in an orchard waving with cypress and laurels, sweet-smelling —"the birds make their joy there and carry on their song"—before an idol of Mahomet, suspended in air by means of four magnets, which however, in the midst of fourteen kings, Sansadoine knocks over as a worthless piece of wood which has not been able to save them from the Christians. A more remarkable instance of the confusion between Islam and idolatry can scarcely be imagined. They send for the original Mahomet—another idol—from Mecca, to give courage to the army of relief. Only the mother of King Corbaran of "Oliferne" (Aleppo), an old sorceress, predicts that they will be vanquished and slaughtered by the Christians. There seems to be curious historical detail on the other hand, in the account of the betrayal of An-tioch to the Christians by a "blessed Turk," who recanted his faith and flung his wife over the wall because she would not listen off-hand to his proposals of conversion to Christianity (besides having his brother's head cut off on the same ground), and supplied the Pranks with a rope-ladder to mount the wall. The story of the escalade in particular, is given too much at length, and with too much personal detail (far from favourable, moreover, to the barons, who are represented as shrinking, one after another, from mounting first the ladder), not to seem at least founded on the narrative of an eyewitness. The troubles, however, of the host are far from finished when they enter the town ; not only does the castle yet hold out, but the crusaders are soon besieged in their turn by the Persian army, whose aid Sansadoine had gone to fetch. They suffer again fearfully from hunger, they lose all hope of succour from the Greek Emperor through the cowardice of Stephen of Blois, and have to be inspirited by the discovery of the Holy Spear (by which our Lord was wounded on the cross), through a dream of Peter the Hermit; their sufferings being, the singer tells us, a chastening upon them for their misconduct with the Saracen women. In a final battle the Persians are defeated, and the crusaders see themselves free to continue their march. From the long and vigorous description of the battle, I will only extract the following passage as to the fighting of the ribalds.

"See now King Tafur, with him his small folk; they have nor hauberk nor helmet, nor shield-bands hung to the neck; but when they went down into the medley, many a blow they struck with stones and with clubs, and with sharp knives, and with hatchets keen; of many a Saracen have they scattered the brains. Horrid folk were they, full ugly and rough; never is there a band so dreaded. Into the greatest press of the pagaos they have flung themselves; who cannot reach, throws great stones into it; all with bared teeth they run; he who sees them thinks they are about to eat him. Sir Peter the Hermit with his white beard wearies himself hard in striking upon the Turks. Whomsoever his blows reach, down to earth he fells him with his good iron-shod staff, so that lustily he sweats." By the way, the Bishop of Puy acquits himself no less valiantly in this battle, only in knightly armour, which he seems never to have put on before. The last remarkable incident of the day is the danger of Godfrey of Bouillon, who had pursued the enemy till quite separated from his companions, and was only rescued when hard pressed and in danger of death.

Such is a sample of the popular historical epics of the middle ages. They are works not of the closet, but of the banquet-hall, or latterly of the market-place; never meant as bosom friends, but as table-guests. Nothing can show this more clearly than the introductory line, which occurs several times in slightly varied forms:—"Lords, hold your peace, and stay your noise." And this accounts at once both for the characteristic excellencies and failings of such poems. What the singer needed above all, was a stirring theme, and vigorous treatment of it, such as might arrest the attention of the barons laughing or quarrelling over their wassail. When latterly he descended into the street, whilst his style might grow vulgarized, he still needed the same qualities for dealing with the noisier crowds of squires and prentices which he found there. And hence the truly epic brevity and flow, the broad picturesqueness of the narrative. It would have been waste of time to polish his verse, to string together dainty metaphors, to bring out sentiment with tender touches. But there must be a constant appealing to the leading passions and feelings of his hearers; the thirst for novelty, the pride of race, the delight in warlike adventure, the. common faith, the simple instincts of humanity; the imagination must be vividly struck, fixed, if need be, by exaggeration. There can be no healthier literary study than some of these rude works for many a writer of our day, who fancies that poetry is nothing but a mirror-play of metaphors and images. In the Song of Antioch there is scarcely such a thing. If a comparison occurs, it is in two or three words, and of the most obvious character; and yet it is impossible to deny that the narrative is in many parts in the highest sense poetical,— that the poet "makes" that which he describes into a semblance of reality, as life-like as words can effect; and this by words the very simplest. For the essential condition of the singer's success was this, that he should see clearly himself the scenes which he had to tell of, in order that he might show them clearly to his hearers. It is thus that the "Song of Antioch," the Spanish poem of the Cid, the German Nibelungenlied, and other popular narrative poems of a rude age, are the true though humble congeners of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and compel us to throw into quite a different genus closet epics such as the Ćneid or Paradise Lost. Like them, the Greek masterpieces were composed by a wandering minstrel or minstrels; made to be sung and not to be read, made for the throng and not for the individual; and the more we reflect upon them, the more we shall see that the attempt to reproduce anything analogous in an educated age is simply preposterous. They are essentially the poetry of the illiterate ; they do not preclude the existence of writing, but they presuppose that the ear and not the eye is yet the one great avenue open to the mind between man and man.

How far these times seem from us! How difficult to believe that eight lives of fourscore years would carry us back to the days of Graindor of Douai, when the roasting and eating of Saracens was considered, even by the rich and courtly, only as a grim sort of joke! Shall we seem as strange and barbarous to our descendants, when eight more such lives shall have passed away?


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