Scaling the Walls of Medieval Troy: Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie 

Trop a esté li siegles feus 
Et sera tant come il durra:
Ja autrement ne finera.
[The world has been exceedingly cruel and will
continue in this way as long as it lasts. It will
never end in any other way.]
(Roman de Troie, lines 29318-20)
[Illuminated manuscript of the Roman de Troie, 14th century]

After a couple years of very solid, regular output, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed I’ve dropped off a bit in the last couple of months on here (je m’excuse). There are a variety of factors for this, not the least of which is being somewhat wrapped up in getting my next book off to my editor and working on research/writing for the one after that. What are either of those stories about? Well, at the risk of being mysterious, I’m going to stay vague on the details for now; at least until my editor returns the former and assures me it doesn’t need massive re-writes. As many of you who are avid readers understand, nothing is more disappointing than a promised novel that never materializes (I’m not even in The Winds of Winter crowd here— I’m still waiting for Susanna Clarke’s promised sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell…). Anyway, suffice to say this is one of the few writing superstitions I indulge in and I don’t like making too many promises I might not be able to deliver on.  But I will say that both stories are unrelated to the God’s Wife period and each other, though they both are partially set in France (albeit at wildly different times). I’ll give you all that to chew on until next month when my editor should be done with the first manuscript and I can maybe expand upon some details then. Fingers crossed!🤞 

Additionally, while anyone in my life can attest I remain an annoyingly fecund font of historical information, not every bit of of knowledge I have necessarily warrants an entire post about it. Plus, like many, I find there’s enough going on in the world that I’m trying to avoid burnout just like everyone else. The end result of all of this is I’m probably going to scale back from weekly posts for the immediate future, which, given the length of most of these, might be a relief to some of you as well. I’d like to try for bi-weekly, but it might end up being every three weeks or once a month—all depending on if I have material I think is worth sharing. But it’s not all bad news: in lieu of historical trivia dumps, I have a bunch of ancient and pre/early modern books/poems/texts of varying levels of renown lined up that I can’t wait to read and share with you. However, that’s another reason I’m shifting the timeline on updates a bit… because that means I actually have to read all of those books…

[The Burning of Troy (Johann Georg Trautmann, 1759/62)]

To kick this off, I wanted to look at Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s medieval interpretation of the Trojan myth cycle, Le Roman de Troie (The Romance of Troy), one of the earliest modern renderings of this classical story that would become so pivotal to European literature, and a foundational text in the blossoming of the “little R” romance genre that would dominate the High Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1300 CE) through to the European Renaissance. Together with two anonymous poems, the Roman de Thebes (an interpretation of the post-Oedipal Theban myth cycle) and the Roman d’Eneas (an interpretation of the Aeneid), the Roman de Troie formed a trilogy of classical French romances (the so-called romans d’antiquité) written in the common vernacular of the day for a non-Latin-fluent lay audience. Prior to these kinds of translations, classical stories were largely restricted to the clergy who could read the Latin and Greek sources in their original languages.

As for the poet himself, we know very little about him beyond his name and some cobbled-together suppositions about his likely milieu. This is typical of medieval writers of the period, particularly those working in the artistic troubadour culture that existed at this time, as one sees with Benoît’s contemporary and probably at least occasional coworker, Chrétien de Troyes, originator of the French Arthurian mythos tradition. Both Benoît and Chrétien were active in the mid-to late 1100s and both were frequently in the employ of the dense Anglo-French baronic network that stretched from French Flanders and Burgundy in the northeast to the quasi-Occitan courts of Poitou and Aquitaine in the south.

Benoît’s nom de place suggests he was from Sainte-Maure, a district in the province of Touraine in central France. Despite its centralized location in modern France, in the 12th century, Touraine was a holding of the northern count of Anjou, who at this time was also the king of England. Henry II became king of England through his mother, but his father had been the hereditary count of Anjou, which meant that while he was sole sovereign of his lands in England, for his extensive continental landholdings in Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, and Touraine, Henry was technically a vassal lord of the king of France. This is where a lot of the friction between England and France in the medieval period originates, especially after Henry absconds with and marries his French overlord Louis VII’s divorced queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and therefore gains control of Eleanor’s equally huge landholdings in Poitou and Aquitaine. Combined, this gave Henry control of more land than the king of France in France and it’s somewhat understandable how he might start to question why he should be beholden to Louis (and later, Louis’ son, Philip II).

[France in 1180, with the province of Touraine circled. Notice Henry II’s lands in red and the royal lands of the kings of France in blue]

But the complexity of the situation grows even more when one takes into account that Eleanor, while not providing her first husband Louis the son and heir he needed, had given birth to two daughters, Marie and Alix, whom their father married to his two most powerful non-English barons, the counts of Champagne, Henri of Troyes and Thibault of Blois, respectively. Eleanor, as a woman who for much of her life administered her own dower lands, would therefore spend a great deal of her life in Poitou and Aquitaine and would reconnect with the daughters she’d been forced to give up as little more than toddlers. Together, the three women would preside over the genteel literary court culture that would invent chivalry, courtly love, and give poets like Benoît and Chrétien steady employment. Indeed, it is widely believed that the “riche dame de riche rei” (“noble lady of a noble king”) to whom Benoît dedicates his Troie to is Eleanor herself, and Marie of Champagne would be a longtime patron of Chrétien’s Arthur poems. Writing for a mixed-gendered nobility who might be literate, but not in the classical languages (or in Chrétien’s case, in foreign languages like Welsh, Irish, or English), and steeped in this growing fad for brave knights and beautiful ladies living through an idealized code for proper behavior, we’ll see how Benoît’s vernacular translation of the Troy myth reflects the values and world of his aristocratic audience as much as it illustrates to them an exotic past.

We still often think of reimagining Greek myths as a modern phenomenon, but as we’ve already seen numerous times just on this blog, writers and readers have been sandboxing with the basic story of the Iliad since its inception and the Roman de Troie is an important link in this multi-narrative chain. Because Benoît’s poem will be the cornerstone of every pre-Enlightenment European retelling of any part of the myth cycle: it is from this poem, as opposed to Homer, that Boccaccio will derive his Il Filostrato, which in turn will spawn Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which will lead to Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida. For a full breakdown of the Troilus myth specifically, check out this post from last year, where I do touch on the Roman de Troie briefly in that context. But Troie is so much larger than its embellished hero Troilus or Briseida (Cressida’s original modern form); Benoît covers more of the war than the Iliad, as well as Cliff Notes the Odyssey, the Oresteia, and even the quest for the Golden Fleece in the process, which is why the poem runs to nearly 40,000 lines.

Interestingly enough, Homer isn’t even a source for Benoît, let alone his literary descendants. The Iliad and the Odyssey as we know them were largely unknown to a medieval audience, who received these stories through a variety of Greek glosses and Latin translations, a major source being the Ilias latina (The Latin Iliad), likely composed in the 2nd century CE. The Ilias latina must have borne some resemblance to the “original” Homer, however, because Benoît criticizes it (and by extension, Homer) for inventing falsehoods to embroider the story, such as showing the gods actively participating as characters in the events. Here we see the culmination of the trend begun by Plato and carried forward by Lucan in my last entry in the Pharsalia where the gods are divorced from the action, outside of oracles and the intervention of Fate. Benoît blames this state of affairs on Homer being born “a hundred years after the great expedition was assembled” (lines 51-6), which as we know from my entry on the composition of the Homeric epics, is not an entirely inaccurate statement. The composite authors we identify as “Homer” were repeating a centuries-long oral story that at its earliest was first written down four hundred years after the events of the war. Instead, Benoît cites his two main sources as two Greek eyewitness accounts by men known as Dares and Dictys, which Benoît would have read in translation in Latin. We have no extent of the original Dares manuscript and only fragments of the Dictys, but supposedly the former was a combatant who left a daily log of what he had seen each day and the latter had at least been present at the end of the hostilities. It’s from these largely lost-to-us sources that Benoît constructs his narrative.

But that’s not to say that Benoît wasn’t doing some of his own interpretations of his primary sources. As I alluded to above, one thing Benoît does in line with Homer is to essentially graft his time period onto the Trojan myth. In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we see the author(s)’ Iron Age culture integrated with the Bronze Age story in terms of details and customs, and the French poet does something similar. Benoît’s Greeks and Trojans ride medieval warhorses (destriers) and wear chain mail hauberks, rather than ride in chariots with leather or linothorax armor. In their down time, they play chess and backgammon, and their ladies offer their long sleeves as love tokens in the courtly tradition. Essentially, Benoît takes a story rooted in the honor/fame culture of ancient Greece and molds it into one instead grounded in the elaborate medieval French culture of coteiseement (courtesy), both as it pertains to the ritualistic performance of courtly love between the genders and to the chivalric code of conduct between (mostly male) knights. As a modern audience, we’re used to thinking of these two concepts together, perhaps even as interchangeable ideas, but something that unfolds over Benoît’s long poem is both a conversation about the limitations of each, but also how the separate demands and desires of courtly love and chivalry can even conflict and lead to struggles within that bland umbrella of coteiseement.

[As a quick aside before I continue, I read Troie through Burgess and Kelly’s excellent 2017 English prose translation. They annotate each of their prose paragraphs with the corresponding line numbers in the original French text, but because I don’t have a direct line-by-line comparison between the two, when I quote from the English text, I will mostly be providing a span of lines that will draw the curious to the pertinent overall section of the poem rather than the specific line. The exception to this is when I can easily ascertain that the quote is coming from the first or last line of a prose section.]

So what else is different? Probably too many small details to mention all of them, but one of the biggest is the opening of the story. Homer, addressing an audience intimately familiar with the Trojan mythos, can afford to start ten years into the conflict and allude back to prior actions at will throughout the narrative. But Benoît recognizes the story may be unknown to his audience (“so those who are ignorant of Latin can enjoy it in French” (lines 1-44)), so he knows he must start at the beginning and explain the causes of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks. And yes, I said “causes” as in plural. The exclusion of Eris from the wedding of Thetis and Peleus is omitted (because the gods are absent; near the end of the poem Thetis makes an appearance, but she is merely the daughter of a king, not a nereid). Similarly, the resulting Judgment of Paris is mentioned only in passing by Paris himself, but simply as a means to convince his father Priam and the more skeptical of his brothers (Hector and Helenus) to let him lead a raiding party on Greek territory because Venus had promised to give him the most beautiful woman in Greece in a dream, rather than in person (line 3845-928). But why are the Trojans thinking about raiding the Greeks in the first place? Well, the real original cause of the Trojan War stems from Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece.

[I mean, I’m completely down to blame Jason over Helen, for the record…]

Technically Jason’s equally awful uncle Peleus (actually, this is Pelias in the Greek mythos, but Benoît or his Latin sources might have conflated the two very similar names) is the real cause, because he sends his nephew on the supposedly impossible quest to obtain the mythic Fleece in a bid to keep him from his rightful throne in Iolcos.  In an episode not usually depicted in any version of the story I’m familiar with, the Argonauts make a pit stop for some rest on the beaches outside of Troy, where they offend the king, Laomedon, by not presenting themselves to his court to ask permission first (a clear violation of medieval coteiseement). When the Greeks refuse to apologize for their social gaff, Laomedon chases them off his land and the Greeks swear revenge for his inhospitable stance as soon as they get back from the Golden Fleece mission. That is pulled off (with Medea doing most of the heavy lifting) much in the traditional way, but after the typical happily-ever-after-until-Jason-crosses-Medea in Iolcos, the Greeks round up their friends and sack Troy back into the Stone Age. They raze the city to the ground and kill or enslave any remaining Trojans, including the now very dead Laomedon’s daughter Hesiona, who is given as a concubine to Telamon, king of Aegina. Laomedon’s son, Priam, is fortunately away (along with his wife Hecuba and their children) so he misses all of this. He comes back and sets about rebuilding the city even better than it was before.

Priam rebuilds Troy and, perhaps because his father’s own lack of hospitality caused everything, is seemingly willing to let the episode go. His one sticking point is that Telamon has kept his sister Hesiona as a concubine rather than a proper wife, as would befit her station, despite giving birth to Telamon’s son, Ajax (in the Greek mythos, Hesione is the mother of Telamon’s son Teucer, rather than Ajax). So he sends a messenger to the Greeks to ask for her back, no questions asked, if she is going to be kept in this lesser condition. The Greeks respond in a bafflingly rude way to this very reasonable request, with several of them going so far to threaten physical violence to the messenger (a tremendous lapse of coteiseement). Only then is retaliation by the Trojans considered and Paris puts forward the idea of taking one of the Greeks’ women in a tit-for-tat. Opinion is divided, but Priam decides to listen to his three stupidest sons (Paris, Deiphobus, and Troilus) and the Trojans sack Sparta during the festival of Venus while Menelaus is away and make off with Helen. The beautiful queen of Sparta is depicted by Benoît fairly sympathetically throughout the poem, but is admitted to be a willing participant in her abduction, having almost instantly fallen in love with the handsome Paris, something chalked up to the machinations of Fate. The Greeks discover the theft, swear to make war on the Trojans, and the more cannon mythos proceeds as usual from here.

Another thing Benoît shares with Lucan and Homer though is a taste for long descriptive battle scenes, especially in the early going of the war. While generally out of favor outside of military nonfiction these days, these sections must have filled a pop culture role that hyper-violent action and horror movies fill for us. Eyeballs get knocked out of people’s heads, entrails spill out onto saddles, and corpses pile up by the thousands—especially as the conflict drags on with no end in sight. One of the more realistic aspects of Benoît’s narrative is to show the brutality escalating as the poem goes on, as the knights involved grow more desensitized and desperate. In the early melees, there are numerous examples of coteiseement by both sides, not just during truces but in the midst of battle. Kinship ties are acknowledged and honored between the combatants, and previous displays of friendship and hospitality remembered, so that lives are often spared and lawful retreats respected. However by the time the narrative is hurtling to its bloody climax, all of that goes out the window and one of the last great death scenes is Paris literally trying to hack his cousin Ajax to pieces while Ajax simultaneously kills Paris by stabbing him through the face (lines 22779-825).

[A 15th century Dutch tapestry depicting the deaths of Achilles, Paris, and Troilus. Like in Benoît’s poem, the combatants wear medieval armor and rather than Hector, it’s Troilus whose body is dragged behind Achilles’ horse.]

The collapse of coteiseement between the knights infects the relationship between men and women as well, and as I mentioned earlier, demonstrates the underlying tension between chivalry and courtly love, and how quickly the rules of polite society can collapse in a crisis. One of the most disturbing scenes in the entire poem starts when Hector’s wife Andromacha (Andromache in the Greek mythos) has a classic Calpurnian portent of doom from the gods delivered via a dream that warns her Hector will die if he takes part in the next battle. Hysterical not only for her own sake, but knowing that the city’s hopes for victory are largely centered on her husband’s shoulders, she begs him to stay back. Despite his great love of his wife and her reputation as the wisest and noblest of women (Benoît calls her “extraordinarily learned” (lines 5519-40)), Hector knows that chivalry demands that he not hang back for fear of his life. These two, especially Hector, are held up as paragons of coteiseement by the generally pro-Trojan Benoît, but when Andromacha tries to convince Priam and the other ladies of the court to keep Hector back by telling them of her dream, her husband explodes with truly uncharacteristic rage. He violently berates her and professes to hate her so deeply he nearly physically assaults her (lines 15235-54). Andromacha cannot retaliate against her husband, so she in turn verbally lashes out at Priam, her king and father in law, for not helping, using the grossly familiar tense of “Di, va!” (basically, “Hey, you!” in medieval French) to speak to him, something inconceivable of a woman of her status to do (lines 15491-532).

The ill-starred dissolution of the love between Troilus and Briseida/Cressida might be considered the poem’s ultimate expression of death of coteiseement caused by the war, but its true nadir might actually be the grotesque parody of courtly love between Achilles and Priam’s daughter, Polixena (Polyxena). During one of the many truces that punctuate the decade of fighting, Achilles sees Polixena and falls instantly in love with her. In Benoît’s narrative, it is this sudden infatuation with the Trojan princess that leads to Achilles refusing to continue to fight, rather than the concubine-driven beef with Agamemnon of the Iliad (though a version of that comes in as an eleventh-hour anecdote told by Ulysses/Odysseus as something that happened between them in the past that was previously resolved (lines 26878-27038)). Displaying all the classic medieval symptoms of terminal lovesickness, Achilles sends a messenger to Queen Hecuba begging her to help him with a suit to Priam for her daughter’s hand. Unfortunately for Achilles, this is after he’s already super-murdered Hector and Troilus, so Hecuba’s kind of still mad about that. But she recognizes getting Achilles out of the fight would even the odds for the Trojans, so she gets him to stay in his tent while she strings him along for a bit. This works for a while, but eventually chivalric honor gets Achilles back into the war, so Hecuba instead plots with Paris to kill Achilles in the temple of Apollo where he’s supposed to meet with Polixena, the classic lovers’ tryst replaced by a deadly ambush. In this way Achilles, who can’t be defeated by war (Mars) is slain by love (Venus). After the ultimate fall of the city to the Greeks, Polixena will still in a way become Achilles’ prize, as she is a ghost bride sacrifice to Achilles’ unappeased spirit.

These are the major themes in Troie, and I think they’re really interesting from a cultural perspective on their own, but if you’re a fan of Homer or retellings that play on the Trojan myth cycle, I also think there’s just a lot fun stuff in here to chew on. I haven’t even gotten to mention Priam’s robots, or one of the Trojan ally’s tank-chariot (pulled by camels!) or another’s battle centaur, or the fact that the most treacherous asshole in a sea of discoteiseement might be Aeneas (here, Eneas). But despite the bleakness of the war and the fates of those who survive (mostly adhering to the familiar post-Iliad mythic tradition), Benoît manages to end on a somewhat hopeful note, largely through the agency of Andromacha. Like in the Greek tradition, Hector’s widow is claimed as a concubine by Pirrus (Pyrrhus/Neoptolemus), the son of Achilles, and although Pirrus is as generally unsympathetic as he is in most tellings, like he does in Euripides’ Andromache, he falls in love with her. Unlike in some versions, however, in Benoît, not only does Andromache still have one of her sons with her (Laudamanta), but she also has a son by Pirrus (Achillides). Pirrus is murdered by Agamemnon’s son Orestes over the former abducting his wife Hermiona (Hermione—Helen and Menelaus’ daughter), but this last gasp of Trojan-inter-Greek feuding finally seems to put the ghosts of the past to bed. Pirrus’ grandparents Peleus and Thetis take Andromacha and her boys in, and the son of Hector and the grandson of Achilles grow up as blood brothers whom Benoît describes as the “flower of youthful chivalry” (lines 29763-814). When Achillides takes over his father’s lands, faithful Laudamanta is at his side, with the enmity between between Achilles and Hector, and between Greece and Troy, seemingly to at last be at an end. Just as the tragic concubinage of one Trojan princess started everything, so too does the equally unfortunate bondage of another mend the rift.

[A Pompeiian fresco depicting Orestes killing Pyrrhus while Hermione looks on (1st century CE)]
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