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Margaret Jewett Burland: Strange Words: Retelling and Reception in the Medieval Roland Textual Tradition.


Strange Words: Retelling and Reception in the Medieval Roland Textual Tradition

Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. x + 332 pp.

Scholars have of course for many years insisted that there is no such thing as a single Chanson de Roland; we have been reminded of this, powerfully, with the recent comprehensive edition (Brepols, 2005), under the general editorship of J. Duggan, of all the texts in the Roland chanson de geste tradition. The Roland with which we are most familiar, the so-called "Oxford" Roland, is only one of a series of adaptations that collectively are wonderful illustrations of what Paul Zumthor refers to as mouvance, the infinitely varied, subtle rewritings of even the most canonical of texts in the preprint era. (1) Strange Words is based on close analyses of four of the extant versions of what Burland calls the "Roncevaux narrative."

She starts--unsurprisingly--with the Oxford version, focusing first on the geste [Francor] to which the poet and the characters refer and then on the embedded narratives that stud the text: narratives such as Ganelon's carefully duplicitous account of Roland and the apple or of his own visit to Marsile. She concludes that central to the Oxford Roland are questions of reliability and faithfulness in narration; that to betray the geste--as Ganelon does--is to commit a treason as blameworthy as is Ganelon's actual betrayal. Her second focus is on what is known as the "Chateauroux version": the rhymed rather than assonanced version of the Roland that dates from soon after 1190. This version, she shows, operates a subtle but compelling rewriting of the Roland story and in particular rewrites Aude--to whom the Oxford version devotes a mere twenty-five lines--as a major character and Charlemagne as manipulative and unscrupulous.

In her third chapter, Burland addresses the Occitan Ronsasvals, a much briefer version probably written in the early part of the thirteenth century. Here she focuses once again on Charlemagne and specifically on the way in which Charlemagne's sin, his fathering of Roland, becomes central to the emperor's disabling grief; she also explores the ways in which the powerful lyric tradition of Occitan inflects the characters' discourses. Finally, she turns to one of the least-known of Roland texts, Galien restore, and specifically to a late-fifteenth-century version of the story contained in one particular manuscript now found in the library of the University of Oregon (CB B 54). Galien restore has, it should be said, been so much rewritten that it has usually been ignored by scholars of the Roland; its ostensible hero is Galien, Oliver's son. Here Burland focuses especially--and interestingly--on the poem's careful use of antiquated language in order to validate Galien as a hero appropriate to the Roncevaux tradition.

The interest of this study goes well beyond specific questions to do with what happens to the "Roncevaux narrative" across some four centuries. Rewriting in all its myriad forms--mouvance, adaptation, translation--is, as we all know, crucial to narrative practice in the Middle Ages. What this book explores with considerable clarity are the responses of different poets across time as evidence of shifting hermeneutic attitudes and policies: the interpretative responses of a later poet, an Occitan poet, a Burgundian pasticheur, to the larger and more contentious ethical questions raised for us by the Roland tradition in general.

Jane H. M. Taylor, Durham University


(1.) Paul Zumthor, Toward a Medieval Poetics, trans. P. Bennet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 46.
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Author:Taylor, Jane H.M.
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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