Post-classical history

Crusade Cycle

A modern term (Fr. Cycle de la Croisade) referring to a coherent cycle of largely anonymous Old French crusade epics, originating in the early twelfth century and reaching its most extended form in the second half of the thirteenth century.

The cycle survives in twenty-four manuscripts and fragments, notably MSS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr.12558 (the oldest known version, from around 1275) and the roughly contemporaneous fr.12569 (the most complete version). Four other manuscripts are known but have not survived. Depending on the manuscripts in which it appears, the cycle amounts to some 30,000-50,000 lines. Its core is a trilogy (the cycle rudimentaire) consisting of the Chanson d’Antioche (from around 1100, and attributed to a poet called Richard le Pèlerin), the Chanson (or Conquête) de Jérusalem (c. 1135), and Les Chétifs (c. 1149). These texts were adapted and brought together between 1180 and 1190 by the otherwise unknown Graindor de Douai. His role is as yet unclear: he may have been a poet, or simply a patron.

This core cycle relates the central episodes of the First Crusade (1096-1099), but in an uneven manner: the Chanson d’Antioche follows fairly closely the historical siege and conquest of Antioch in 1097-1098; the ties with history are loosened in the Chanson de Jérusalem, in which the siege, conquest, and defense of Jerusalem in 1099 are interspersed with fictitious elements. Les Chétifs,the middle part of the trilogy, is a highly fictional story about three crusaders captured at the battle of Civetot, who gain their freedom by heroic feats in the service of their Muslim captor. The role of Godfrey of Bouillon, who gained prominence only after the conquest of Jerusalem (15 July 1099), is of minor importance in the Chanson d’Antioche, but greatly enhanced in the Chanson de Jérusalem, a tendency that continues in the further development of the cycle.

Between 1180 and 1220 the cycle rudimentaire was expanded with five epics that narrate events before the time of the First Crusade: La Naissance (Les Enfances) du Chevalier au Cygne (in twoversions: Elioxe from 1190/1200, and Beatrix from 1190/1220); Le Chevalier au Cygne (1170/1188); La Fin d’Elias (1188/1218); Les Enfances Godefroi, possibly by an otherwise unknown poet calledRenaud (1191/1220); and Le Retour de Cornumarant (c. 1292). These branches offer a highly fictitious and legendary ancestral history of Godfrey of Bouillon, who is presented as the grandson of the legendary Swan Knight. These so-called épopées intermédiaires (intermediary epics) originated in the French-speaking parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and were probably added to the core cycle at the request of Duke Henry I of Brabant (d. 1235). In this expanded form the cycle could function as propaganda for his crusading initiatives, while also strengthening his claim on the Lotharingian ducal title by subtly incorporating Godfrey of Bouillon into his own family tree. These five epics offer little on the historical crusades.

The third developmental stage of the cycle shows a return to crusade history. In the second half of the thirteenth century four continuations were added to the Chanson de Jérusalem: La Chrétienté Corbaran, La Prise d’Acre, La Mort de Godefroi, and La Chanson des Rois Baudouin. These continuations present a version of the history of Outremer from the battle of Ascalon (1099) up to the eve of the battle of Hat- tin (1187). The backbone of the story is formed by the reigns of the rulers of the Latin kingdom: Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin I, Baldwin II (called Baudouin deSebourc), Amalric, and Baldwin IV; it concludes with the ascent of Saladin. There are important connections with history, which are flawed by many anachronisms and incorrect mixing of events and characters. The abrupt ending before the battle of Hattin and the total neglect of the unsuccessful Second Crusade (1147-1149) make it highly plausible that the cycle in this form was meant to raise enthusiasm for a new crusade by extolling the glorious days of the Latin kingdom at a time when its very survival was threatened.

Although the cycle is evidently related to the tradition of the Old French chansons de geste, parts of it can be considered as vernacular historiography rather than pure literary fiction. The importance of the cycle for contemporary ideas about the crusade is demonstrated by the number of manuscripts, and also by the fact that it was evidently translated into Middle Dutch. In the early fourteenth century the cycle (as presented in MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr.12569) formed the basis of an adaptation known as the Chevalier au cygne et Godefroid de Bouillon. Together with Baudouin de Sebourc, the Bâtard de Bouillon, and the lost poem known as Saladin, it has sometimes been viewed incorrectly as a second crusade cycle; yet, although some historical figures and events are faintly recognizable, it is evident that this loosely connected group of texts should be considered as a collection of romances (Fr. romans d’aventures) in which crusade history forms the backdrop: as such it is an important witness to the later evolution of the public perception of crusade history.

The Old French Crusade Cycle



Length (lines)

Naissance du Chevalier au Cygne



Chevalier au Cygne



Fin d’Elias



Enfances Godefroi



Retour de Cornumarant

c. 1292


Chanson d’Antioche

c. 1100


Les Chétifs

c. 1149


Chanson de Jérusalem

c. 1135


Chrétienté Corbaran



Prise d’Acre



Mort de Godefroi



Chanson des Rois Baudouin



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