Translatio Studii: Sources for Romance

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Translatio Studii: Sources for Romance

The Medieval Definition of "Translation."

Reverence for the past and respect for the "authority" of previous authors and texts determined which plots and characters medieval writers selected to "translate" from a different language, either Latin or another vernacular language, into a new vernacular version for their immediate audience. This process, known as translatio studii, was not the equivalent of the modern translator's earnest striving to reproduce with linguistic exactitude the ideas of a foreign language literary text; rather, it reflected the Latin root of "translate," meaning "to carry across." Thus, the medieval translator's goal was to transfer the plot and characters of a tale produced for the audience of one national culture or earlier period to that of another culture in a later period. This process was often accompanied by significant changes in the transfer. Often what got "lost in translation" was not only some of the plot and original roles of the characters, but also the very genre that the model text represented. In France, the twelfth century simultaneously saw a peaking of the popularity and production of chansons de geste (heroic poetry), exemplified by the large cycle of William of Orange poems, and the development of a new genre, courtly romance, in the works of Chrétien de Troyes. Given the reluctance of medieval writers to invent new plots, it is not surprising that many older works were "translated" to fulfill the demand for stories that could be reworked into this popular vernacular literary form.

Translatio Studii from French to German.

In the early thirteenth century, the German writer Wolfram von Eschenbach (d. 1220–1230) "translated" Aliscans, a twelfth-century French chanson de geste from the William of Orange cycle, for a new German-speaking audience. As a result, the genre of Wolfram's uncompleted Willehalm is virtually unclassifiable. This hybrid work exemplifies a significant trend in the development of medieval European literature: the transition in literary taste from the heroic mode to the romance. Wolfram's earlier Parzival had already translated Chrétien de Troyes's unfinished Conte du Graal, a courtly romance about the "Quest for the Holy Grail," proving him an adept practitioner of the new genre. In Willehalm, Wolfram maintains the basic chanson de geste plot conflict about the title character, a Frankish warrior, William, who must enlist aid from the reluctant French king Louis to defend the city of Orange against attack by armies of Moors attempting to recapture Willehalm's newly converted Christian bride, Gyburc. However, in importing this plot from the French heroic mode, the German author, a practiced romance writer, adds many romance elements to the received heroic plot. Leading the Moors are the father, former husband, and son of Gyburc, whose family is intent on returning her, dead or alive, to both her original home and her Muslim faith. However, in Wolfram's treatment, Gyburc's conversion results as much from her deep love for the Christian warrior Willehalm as from her altered religious convictions. This change reveals the obvious influence of the development of "Minne," the German concept of courtly love.

The Shift to Romance.

Although the heroic literary tradition exoticized the Moors to the point of their seeming monstrously inhuman and therefore deserving slaughter by the Christian armies, Wolfram also shows a new tolerance for religious difference that replaces the rigid "The Christians are right, the Pagans are wrong" mentality that dominated the earlier heroic mode. He depicts the Moorish leaders as courtly knights who practice the same chivalry as their Christian counterparts. This shift is exemplified in his revised characterization of the giant wild-man-like Moor Rennewart. In the epic exaggeration of the source text, this buffoonish character carries an uprooted tree with which he crushes anyone who causes him trouble. Wolfram's character at first wields a large club, which he later replaces with the more civilized sword. Moreover, his substantial role in the French source is downplayed so as to give Wolfram's hero Willehalm more prominence. On the other hand, Willehalm's doomed nephew Vivianz, whose idealistic heroism reflects Roland's stubborn self-sufficiency and whose saintly death reflects the wafting of Roland heavenward at the end of the Song of Roland, seems a throwback to the earlier mode. Wolfram's revised treatment of Gyburc, the heroine, also illustrates his bridging of elements of both genres. This engaging and sympathetic female character is shown to be capable both of carrying out the "feminine" duties of the faithful wife and chatelaine of the castle, and of ingeniously defending the citadel of Orange (in Willehalm's absence) against a protracted siege waged by armies of Moors that include her own father, former husband, and son. Whereas typical chansons de geste downplayed the role of women in the lives of heroic warriors such as Roland and Oliver, Gyburc is a substantial character in Wolfram's reconceived plot and a major force in the hero's successful defense of home, nation, and religion.

Translatio studii from Greek to Italian to Middle English.

Another case of how translatio studii could significantly change the nature of a well-known story involves the transmission of narratives about the ancient Greeks into late medieval literature. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), an Italian writer more famous for his story collection the Decameron, also wrote two important texts about characters from Greek history—Il Teseide (The Story of Theseus; c. 1341) and Il Filostrato (The One Made Prostrate by Love; c. 1341)—both of which balance heroic and romance style. Geoffrey Chaucer translated these works into Middle English in the late fourteenth century, but significantly altered them, both in content and in genre, while doing so. Both Boccaccio's Filostrato and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde are set during the Trojan War and feature such famous classical characters as Troilus, Priam, Hector, and Cassandra. Although Boccaccio had already somewhat altered the Greek story for his medieval Italian audience in the Filostrato, Chaucer added to his own translation (written about forty years later) even more "medievalizing" of the costumes worn, religious faith practiced, and general socio-cultural outlook of the story's characters. For example, Chaucer turned the political tragedy of fallen Troy into a backdrop for complicated interactions between the ill-fated lovers Troilus and Criseyde, their go-between Pandarus (now Criseyde's uncle rather than her cousin as in Boccaccio), and a rival lover Diomede. With its incorporation of courtly love elements such as the enforced secrecy between the lovers and Troilus's protracted languishing in physical afflictions and emotional despair, Chaucer's text more resembles a courtly romance than an epic. In a further example of translatio studii, Chaucer also assigned to his character Troilus many speeches about free will versus predestination taken almost verbatim from Boethius's Latin Consolation of Philosophy, which Chaucer had himself translated from Latin to Middle English as the Boece. At the conclusion of the Troilus, Chaucer's narrator also adopted a medieval Christian perspective that is at odds with his earlier pagan outlook, which had been indicated by invocations to the classical muses and overt references to the Greek pantheon.

Boethian Additions.

In the Knight's Tale, the first of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer performs a similar transformation from an epic or heroic mode to romance. He eliminates most of the material in his Italian source Il Teseide about Theseus's war against the Amazons and renders Theseus less a tyrant and more a philosopher-king, thus moving the poem towards a consideration of universal order and earthly impermanence. Likewise, by enhancing the courtly love motif in the triangle between the rival lovers Palamoun and Arcite and their love object Emeleye, and eliminating any characteristics that would associate her with the war-like Amazons, he brings the trio into a thoroughly medieval world that includes conventional beauty, love-sickness, jealousy, and the demande d'amour (a question of which of the two lovers is worse off, since the one the lady has not chosen can see her from his prison while the other has her love but is exiled). Chaucer also incorporates, as he did in the Troilus, significant passages from Boethius's Consolation in the discourse between Palamoun and Arcite, whose imprisonment by Theseus in a tower resembles the situation of Boethius. In this way, Chaucer and other medieval authors took material from the past as well as texts of earlier authors and made them relevant to the cultural situation of their immediate audience. In doing so, they created literary works that straddle the genres of epic and romance.

and the Consolation of Philosophy

A prominent scholar who translated and harmonized the works of Plato and Aristotle and who wrote treatises on music, arithmetic, logic, and theology, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480–524) was most famous in the Middle Ages for a work he wrote while awaiting execution in prison, the Consolation of Philosophy. This work strongly influenced the visionary literature of the later Middle Ages, whose writers considered Boethius so authoritative that his prison memoir was the most widely copied work of secular literature in Europe. The structure of the Latin Consolation alternates between prose and verse sections, a form also used by other writers, such as Martianus Capella in The Marriage of Mercury and Philology; Bernard Silvester in On the Whole World; and Alain of Lille (Alan of the Island) in The Complaint of Nature. Moreover, the Consolation was translated into Old English by King Alfred in the ninth century, into Old French by Jean de Meun in the thirteenth century, into Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century, and into Early Modern English by Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century.

The Consolation of Philosophy consists of a dialogue between two characters, the narrative persona called "Boethius," mirroring the author, who laments the series of misfortunes he feels he has undeservedly suffered, and his interlocutor, the majestic allegorical personification Lady Philosophy (Love of Wisdom), who appears to him in his prison to console and enlighten him. Lady Philosophy teaches Boethius to find the insight to distinguish what is truly valuable and "good" from the transitory, valueless, "partial goods" he has been complaining about losing—possessions, honors, titles, even friends and family. Through a series of Socratic questions and answers, Lady Philosophy brings Boethius to recognize that the universe is a rationally ordered whole, a great "chain of love," governed, if not by a benevolent God, at least by a neutral one who can "see" events, even adverse ones, providentially within the grand scheme of time, but whose providential vision of these events does not cause the events to happen since man exercises free will. On the other hand, humans only "see" these same events partially and imperfectly—as "fate," not "providence."

To explain how bad things can nevertheless happen to good people, Philosophy introduces the metaphoric construct of cyclical human misfortune, caused by the turning of a Wheel by another allegorical personification, blindfolded Lady Fortune, on whose "Wheel of Fortune" all men are situated, rising high upon or being cast off of the wheel (regardless of their merits or evil actions) according to their current state of luck. Thus Lady Fortune, not God, is responsible for alternations between worldly prosperity and adversity, and good fortune is actually more deceptive than bad, since good fortune deceives through raising false hopes while bad fortune warns man not to seek happiness in the false and temporary goods of fortune. The ultimate lesson Boethius learns from Philosophy is to avoid dependence on any external goods, relying instead on self-sufficiency.

The Breton Lay in French.

Although the transformation from heroic poetry to romance was among the most common kinds of "translation," not all romances were long narratives with grand battles and episodic repetitions. Some examples were quite brief. In fact, the structural relationship between what is known as the "Breton lay" and a full-length romance is similar to that between the short story and the novel. During the twelfth century, traveling minstrels and conteurs (storytellers) spread a body of tales then originating in Brittany, whose plots reflected and incorporated aspects of Celtic folklore. These tales, originally in the Breton language, were performed orally until eventually a twelfth-century female writer, Marie de France (probably a native of France living in England), transformed her oral sources into formal Anglo-French "lays." Marie's sparely written narratives feature settings in the magical Celtic Other World, rash promises, erotic entanglements between humans and the world of faery, an ambivalent almost amoral code of ethics guiding behavior, and a strong supernatural strain. Marie's Lanval exemplifies the genre's main characteristics. This lay depicts the secret erotic relationship between an impoverished Arthurian knight Lanval and a ravishingly beautiful faery mistress, who brings him prosperity and fame in return for his promise not to tell anyone about their relationship. When the jealous Queen Guinevere accuses Lanval of homosexuality, he breaks his promise by praising his absent mistress's beauty, thus revealing her existence to Arthur's court. Although the protagonist is saved by the faery, she whisks him, perhaps ominously, to the Other World of Avalon at the tale's end. In another of the tales, the title-character Bisclavret, although a werewolf, nevertheless is portrayed as being ethically superior to his traitorous human wife, thus exemplifying the moral ambivalence of the genre. Similarly, Marie's Laüstic, meaning "Nightingale," tautly narrates the clandestine relationship between an unhappy wife and her lover in a house across the alley from

Example of Translatio Studii:
Boccaccio and Chaucer

Although both Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer wrote poems about the Trojan warrior Troilus that retold a tale from the matter of antiquity for their medieval audiences, Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (1351) is a more epic-like text that does not spend much time on Troilus's response to love. In rewriting Boccaccio's poem for an English audience some thirty years later, Chaucer, in his Troilus and Criseyde, adds more romance elements, dwelling on how literally smitten his Trojan hero is by the mere sight of Criseyde. This change reflects the incorporation of the discourse of courtly love into the English author's version of a story that is ultimately about Trojans and Greeks at the time of the Trojan War. Although Boccaccio already has medievalized the story somewhat, Chaucer completely recasts it for a fourteenth-century audience accustomed to the conventions of fin'amors in medieval romances. He heightens the Ovidian notion of love piercing the heart through the eye (also employed by Guillaume de Lorris in the Dreamer's being struck by the God of Love in Romance of the Rose). Numerous other changes and additions recall the conventions of fin'amors: Chaucer softens Troilus's jeering at love to a more lighthearted bemusement; adds Troilus's physical reaction to Criseyde's beauty, as if struck by a blow that stunned him; has Troilus address the God of Love; describes Troilus's lengthened and lingering gaze on the new object of his desire; and has him revert to his former joking demeanor in an attempt at secrecy. All of these features make the poem more like a courtly romance than a heroic narrative.

From Boccaccio's Il Filostrato:

Just then, while Troilus went up and down, jeering now at one and now at another and often looking now on this lady and now on that, it befell by chance that his roving eye pierced through the company to where charming Criseida stood, clad in black and under a white veil, apart from the other ladies at this most solemn festival.

From Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde:

Inside the temple Troilus went forth,
Making light of every person in the room,
Looking upon this lady, and now on that,
Whether she came from Troy or from out of town;
It happened that through a crowd of people
Troilus's eye pierced, and his stare bore into them so deeply,
Until it struck on Criseyde, and there his gaze stopped short.

And suddenly he was rendered stunned by the sight,
And he began to observe her more carefully.
"O mercy, God," thought he, "where have you lived,
Who are so beautiful and good to look at?"
Thereupon, his heart began to expand and rise,
And softly he sighed, in case men might hear him,
And he recaptured his original scoffing manner.

source: Boccaccio, Il Filostrato. Trans. R. K Gordon, The Story of Troilus (New York: Dutton, 1964): 34. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde. ll. 267–280. Text modernized by Lorraine K. Stock.

hers. The adulterous courtly love of these neighbors is symbolized by the title bird, whose evening song is the woman's excuse (to her jealous husband) for standing at the window to communicate with her lover. When the irate husband kills the bird, the lovers enshrine the nightingale—and their love—in a jeweled casket.

The Breton Lay in English.

Some of the Anglo-Norman lais of Marie de France were translated into Middle English. For example, Marie's Lanval was rendered by an anonymous author as the fourteenth-century short romance, Sir Launfel. Other Middle English romances based on Breton lays include Sir Orfeo, retelling the legend of Orpheus and Euridice, Sir Degaré, and Sir Gowther, the last two of which involve magical transformations and shape-shifting. However, the most famous English example is the typical Breton lay that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote as one of his Canterbury Tales. The Franklin's Tale, which is set in Brittany, revolves around an intricate exchange of promises made by a husband Arveragus, his wife Dorigen, a neighboring squire Aurelius who is smitten with the wife, and a clerk from Orléans. The tale's crux involves the disappearance, magical or otherwise, of treacherous rocks along the coastline of Brittany, the removal of which Dorigen imposes on the squire as a condition of her love. The Franklin's Tale concludes with the ambiguity that is the hallmark of the genre of the Breton lay, an open-ended question asking the audience to choose—from the husband, the squire, or the clerk—whose behavior was the most "free." This key word "free," an adjective that means "generous" and "honest," also refers to the status of a non-noble landowner, the rank of the teller, the Franklin ("frank"="free"), who is especially concerned with exhibiting virtues that will associate him with a higher class.


introduction: This passage from Marie de France's Lais, written in the twelfth century, depicts the idealized beauty of the typical romance heroine, the hero's faery mistress from the lay called Lanval. The order of the details—which are entirely conventional—reflects a descriptive method called ordo effictiones that was taught in medieval schools, suggesting that Marie had a clerical education of some kind. Often such descriptions worked from the top down, but in this case the author works from the horse up.

There was none more beautiful in the whole world. She was riding a white palfrey which carried her well and gently; its neck and head were well-formed and there was no finer animal on earth. The palfrey was richly equipped, for no count or king on earth could have paid for it save by selling or pledging his lands. The lady was dressed in a white tunic and shift, laced left and right so as to reveal her sides. Her body was comely, her hips low, her neck whiter than snow on a branch; her eyes were bright and her face white, her mouth fair and her nose well-placed; her eyebrows were brown and her brow fair, and her hair curly and rather blond. A golden thread does not shine as brightly as the rays reflected in the light from her hair. Her cloak was of dark silk and she had wrapped its skirts about her. She held a sparrowhawk on her wrist and behind her there followed a dog. There was no one in the town, humble or powerful, old or young, who did not watch her arrival, and no one jested about her beauty. She approached slowly and the judges who saw her thought it was a great wonder. No one who looked at her could have failed to be inspired with real joy.

source: The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (New York: Penguin, 1986): 80.


Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, trans., The Lais of Marie de France (New York: Penguin, 1986).

Mortimer J. Donovan, The Breton Lay: A Guide to Varieties (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1969).

R. K. Gordon, The Story of Troilus (New York: Dutton, 1964).

Ronald G. Koss, Family, Kinship, and Lineage in the Cycle de Guillaume d'Orange (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Press, 1990).

Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, eds., The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995).

Thomas C. Rumble, The Breton Lays in Middle English (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1965).

see also Philosophy: The Foundations: Augustine and Boethius

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Translatio Studii: Sources for Romance

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