Post-classical history

English and Scots Literature

Literature with crusading themes in Middle English and Middle Scots consists of more than fifty texts dating from approximately 1225 to 1500. They were meant to be performed to an audience rather than read, serving to entertain their courtly patrons but also functioning as a means of propagating a political and religious identity, delineating the differences between the Christian “us” and the non-Christian “other.” The corpus, comprising romances, a travelogue (Mandeville’s Travels), poems (e.g., William Lang- land’s Piers Plowman and Gower’s Confessio Amantis), the Hereford Map, and texts by Geoffrey Chaucer, gives insight into how literature functioned as both reflection and stimulus of the views held by medieval courtly society. The texts, many of which were written after crusading fervor had already diminished, highlight the ongoing interest in the topic. They depict a victorious chivalric Christendom, superior on the grounds of belief, projecting a European/Christian image and identity on the medieval world stage and, though with some exceptions, in general promoting the concept that the spiritual and moral high ground is held by crusading Christian armies.

The texts are mainly of French origin, being either translated from or based on popular French originals and then adapted by individual authors to highlight certain areas of interest for author and audience. Thus some romances not only describe Saracens and crusading, but use the opportunity to criticize the domestic and foreign political situation (Guy of Warwick) through the portrayal of Saracen leaders. One of the characteristics common to these works, which clearly emphasizes the entertainment factor, is the use of popular motifs: chivalrous Christian knights seeking adventure and fighting awesome Saracen giants and ogres or romances like the Scots Taill of Rauf Coilyear, which uses the popular motif of a king (Charlemagne) traveling around in disguise.

The dates of composition are all later than the events they describe. Thus Richard Coer de Lion, dated to soon after 1300, was composed over 100 years after the Third Crusade (1189-1192). Similarly, the texts in the Charlemagne cycle all date from after 1300 (e.g., Otuel, Roland and Vernagu from around 1330, and, the last, Charles the Grete, as late as 1485), yet they all focus on the figure of Charlemagne, who died in 814, some 650 years earlier. Medieval literature relied heavily on the concept of authority. Thus in crusading literature legendary figures are endowed with military and moral authority. Charlemagne is portrayed as a role model for crusaders. In his time he was famed for his victories over the pagan Saxons and Vikings, and his religious fervor was marked by the forced conversions he had carried out, characteristics also found in crusading literature. Charles’s argument of a just war against the unbelievers was revived in romance texts.


In the early twelfth century, the chronicler William of Malmesbury defined the world as consisting of European Christendom and the non-believing Saracen world in the east; this division was later expressed by Geoffrey Chaucer in the terms cristendom and hethenesse [Chaucer, General Prologue, line 49]. In crusading literature the term Saracen is applied generically to all non-Christians, whether the texts refer to non-Christian Vikings (King Horn, The Man of Law’s Tale, Havelok the Dane, or Blaunchardyn and Eglantine) or Arabs (Richard Coer de Lion, Charles the Grete). These heathens threaten Christians both physically, in the military sense, and spiritually, through possible forced conversion and religious intolerance. Saracens make up at least two- thirds of the known world: “Affryke and Assye,” as opposed to “only” Europe (Kyng Alisaunder, line 43). Africa and Asia are seen as being vast, stretching from the borders of Europe to the “werldes ende” (KyngAlisaunder, line 1912). Charlemagne complains that he cannot conquer countries in the East because they are so “large and wyde” (The Sege of Melayne, line 144). India, wealthy and rich in spices, is home to 9,000 different peoples (Kyng Alisaunder, lines 4832-4838) who all speak the same language (Richard Coer de Lion, line 6023). In Sir Ferumbras the armies of Balan and Bruyllant, 300,000 men, speak four different languages, “Persian, Torkeys, and Arrabyns & Affrycans al-so” (Sir Ferumbras, line 5433), while in Babel and Babylon they speak “Two and sexty diuers language” (Kyng Alisaunder, line 7791). Saracen armies reflect the huge populations of these countries, as the Saracen armies are described as being as thick as grass on the ground and Saracen reinforcements on the battlefield are unlimited. That the Christians are vastly outnumbered makes the inevitable Christian victories described in the texts all the more heroic. But as Richard Coer de Lion asserts, one Christian is worth fifteen Saracens.

The authors show both knowledge and ignorance concerning Saracen countries. Thus in Kyng Alisaunder eastern countries are dark and dragon-ridden, whereas they are correctly described in Mandeville’s Travels as having dry deserts. In Richard Coer de Lion conditions in the desert include rain and hail and snow that create five-foot snowdrifts, all accompanied by thunder and lightning. In Blaun- chardyn and Eglantine Prussia, a Saracen country, it is so hot that Blaunchardyn, a white, Christian knight, turns black. In general the description of the blackness of the Saracens is not seen as attributable to climate, but as the outward sign of evil within: the Saracens have the color of the devil and come from “helle” (Guy of Warwick, book 2, 95:11). Descriptions of white Saracens in the texts mean that these have been earmarked by the author for later conversion to Christianity and are predestined to become members of the Christian courtly circle. Kyng Alisaunder describes exotic peoples according to the medieval Physiologus: for example, the Houndynges are like men from the chest down, but above the chest are like dogs; they bark like dogs, have shoulders like fish, and have claws like dogs. These descriptions and those of ugly Saracen giants can be traced to descriptions in classical sources, so that in the Hereford Map (c. 1300) it is possible to trace the monstrous peoples described to Ctesias of Cnidas, (fifth century b.c.) through the works of Solinus, Collectanea rerum memorabilium (third century B.C.).

Vikings who raided the coasts of the British Isles during the precrusade period are called Saracens in the texts. In King Horn, King Murry of the north of England finds “shipes fyftene, / of sarzynes kene” (King Horn, line 41) on his shores. After a battle with these Saracen Vikings, Murry and his two companions are killed, and the Saracens lay waste the land and forbid the Christian faith, so that Queen Gothild is forced to continue practicing her faith in secret, a fate similar to that suffered by Lady Hermengild in Northumberland in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, indicating the belief that Saracens were intolerant of the Christian faith. Historically the Vikings pursued a flourishing trade with the Arabs in the Mediterranean via the Baltic, Russian rivers and lakes, and the Black Sea, where they had direct connections to the ports of the Silk and Spice Roads. Many Vikings came to settle in these regions and thus also came to be called Saracens.

Charles the Great and Crusades in France and Spain

The great Christian hero Emperor Charlemagne is depicted in a cycle of texts, comprising Sir Ferumbras, The Sege of Melayne, Charles the Grete, the Sowdone of Babylone, Roland and Vernagu, Otuel, the fragment The Song of Roland, and The Taill of Rauf Coilyear. The majority are translations or adaptations from the French, although the Scots Taill of Rauf Coilyear appears to be a British original.

These romances describe the threat posed and hostility shown by the Saracens toward Christendom. Ferumbras, the Saracen from the eponymous text, is a giant and son of the Saracen sultan Balan, but has power in his own right as lord of Alexandria and rules over vast areas between Babylon and the Red Sea, Apulia, Palermo, and Russia (Sir Ferumbras, lines 53-57). He is clearly also the curse of Christendom: he boasts that he has destroyed the city of Rome, killing the Pope, cardinals, abbots, friars, and nuns. Ferumbras brags that as lord of Jerusalem he also possesses holy relics: the Crown of Thorns, the True Cross, and the nails used to crucify Christ, which he has sent to his father, Charlemagne’s deadly enemy. Sultan Arabas (Sege of Melayne) has also harried Rome and Lombardy, where he burned churches, while King Ebrahim of Spain has persecuted Christians and exiled the patriarch of Jerusalem (Roland and Vernagu), and Magog, an emissary of the Khan of Tartary, has persecuted Christians (The Taill of Rauf Coilyear). The audience becomes aware that this threat must be eliminated.

After long individual combat, the Saracen Ferumbras is beaten by Oliver and begs for mercy and promises to convert and persecute those who believe in Mahoun (i.e., the Prophet Muhammad, transmogrified into a Saracen deity) and make all pagans Christians. We find a similar situation in the romance The King of Tars, in which the sultan converts to Christianity and then forces all his subjects to do the same on pain of death. Ferumbras even becomes a Christian saint (Charles the Grete). In the Sowdone of Babylone, there are no long combat scenes, but short shrift is made of the Saracens: quick conversion or death is the motto here.

Anti-Saracen propaganda is provided by descriptions of the Saracens: they are mostly ugly giants. Christian knights clearly have to overcome their revulsion to fight them, making the foregone victory of the Christians all the more glorious in the eyes of the audience. The maltreatment of Christian knights serves as a further technique of creating audience alienation toward the Saracens. In Sir Ferumbras, Christian knights are thrown into a dungeon with snakes, and the incoming tide threatens to drown them. But it is even worse when Christian religious symbols are vandalized. The Sege of Melayne begins with a scene where Sultan Arabas tries to burn a cross, which, however, refuses to catch fire. Enraged, he has the cross covered with brimstone and pitch. Then as a punishment from God, fire bursts out of the cross and blinds all the Saracens standing around. This scene again highlights the lack of respect the Saracens show toward Christianity, but it also shows how God leads the way as punisher. Divine intervention proves that the Christians are right to annihilate the Saracens. God also helps the Christians directly. When Richard of Normandy tries to break out of a Saracen siege to reach the French forces in Sir Ferumbras, he finds the River Flagot swollen, but a white hart appears from heaven and leads him through the river safely.

The Christians also show intolerance toward the Saracen faith. Christian knights ridicule the Saracen gods by saying that they are asleep all the time and are therefore ineffective. They attempt to wake them up by smashing them and bombarding the Saracens with statues of their own gods. In Charles the Grete, Sultan Balan, encouraged by a false devil in the form of the Saracen god Mahoun, attacks the tower where the Christians are holed up, but unlike the Christian God, the Saracen gods are ineffective and the attempt fails. This is juxtaposed to the situation where Floripas, the sultan’s daughter, who helps the Christian knights and who is in possession of the holy relics from Jerusalem, holds these out of the tower window, at which all the Saracens drop dead. The author shows that Floripas, a Saracen, is aware of the evil and inferiority of the Saracens and the superiority of the Christian God.

Floripas, sultan Balan’s daughter, a traitor to the Saracens, is also portrayed as the antithesis of the Christian courtly lady. She has fallen in love with the Christian Guy of Burgundy and wants to marry him. To this end she helps the Christian knights escape from prison by dashing out the brains of the jailer, and because her governess becomes suspicious of her actions, she tosses her out of the window. Furthermore, when her father is captured by Charles, she advises the Christians not to waste any time but simply to kill him. Sortybran, the sultan’s adviser, has warned the sultan from the beginning that he should not trust his daughter because she is a woman (Sir Ferumbras). Thus Saracen women in particular are not to be trusted. Sultan Balan is defeated by Charles and is captured. Ferumbras, Balan’s son, tries to persuade his father to convert, but he refuses. An attempt at converting Balan is made, and a baptismal font of marble, in which the Saracens apparently keep wine, is prepared. But when the ceremony is about to begin, Balan, in keeping with the stereotype of the short-tempered Saracen, first punches a bishop and then spits into the font and is beheaded on the spot.

Crusading in the East: Richard the Lionheart

The most violent crusading text is Richard Coer de Lion, which describes the organization and implementation of the Third Crusade. There are long violent battle scenes in which the Christians are always victorious, though often greatly outnumbered. Saladin, described as a daunting and untrustworthy military adversary, has the True Cross in his possession, which Richard wants to win back as well as taking Jerusalem. The Christian and Saracen sides each wish to convert the other, so that belief plays a pivotal role. Richard is portrayed as a merciless warlord and orders all Saracens who refuse to accept baptism to be killed. When King Philip II of France, his ally, does not comply with these instructions at Taburet and Archane, Richard storms the towns and kills all the inhabitants. The text insinuates that the Christians would have been able to take their ultimate goal, Jerusalem, had it not been for the weak Christian leadership. Philip leaves for France, and Richard is only able to secure a truce.

The siege of Acre takes center stage, and this part of the text constitutes a unique episode in English literature. Richard has taken 2,000 Saracen prisoners. When he falls seriously ill, he desires pork, which he says will save his life. An old knight of Richard’s, who speaks from experience, tells the cook to prepare Saracen, and Richard unsuspectingly eats the dish, thinking it is pork, and recovers. Richard is then told that he has eaten Saracen, and his reaction is to laugh heartily. As a consequence, Richard decides to use his Saracen prisoners in a diplomatic strategy aimed at intimidating Saladin and forcing his hand, while also striking fear into the Saracens with his ruthless behaviour. Thus he invites Saladin to send emissaries for talks. A banquet of Saracen organized by Richard personally is prepared. High-ranking Saracen prisoners are chosen, their heads cooked, and their names placed on their foreheads. Thus Saladin’s emissaries are served their own relatives, whom they are then forced to eat by a laughing Richard. Richard says that while he has so many Saracen prisoners his men will not starve at Acre. This gruesome incident possibly reflects acts of cannibalism supposedly perpetrated by the Franks at Ma‘arrat al-Numan during the First Crusade. However, Richard’s noble and chivalric traits are also highlighted, when he refuses to kill Saracens while they are asleep (Richard Coer de Lion, lines 6449-6450).

Later Texts

The Three King’s Sons (c. 1500) describes how Sicily has been partly conquered and besieged by Turks. The King of Sicily seeks help from fellow Christian rulers. To his aid come Prince Philip of France, Prince David of Scotland, and Prince Humphrey of England. The hand of Iolante, the king’s beautiful daughter, is an added bonus. In this late text, combat between Saracens and Christians no longer includes decapitations, arms being chopped off, or cleavings in two; in fact, there are very few military details: feelings and doubts play a greater role. The Saracen prince Ferabras of Persia and Orcays the son of the Sultan of Turkey, earmarked as future Christian knights, help the Christian princes to victory over the Saracens and are instrumental in bringing about the obligatory final death of the sultan. Orcays and his beautiful sister convert to Christianity. She marries Humphrey of England, and Orcays marries Humphrey’s sister. In the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), we see the contradictions in the depiction of Saracens. Dabbling in science ( Treatise on the Astrolab) and with a knowledge of alchemy ( The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale), Chaucer integrates Arab, therefore Saracen, learning into his works. He also describes the mysteries of the East in The Squire’s Tale, where the daughter of the King of Tartary is given a ring by the King of Arabia that allows her to understand the language of the birds. We are presented with a high-born, exemplary Christian knight in the Knight’s Tale who fights for both Christian and Saracen lords (though never against Christians), thereby highlighting the equality of the East and the West from a courtly military point of view. However, in The Man of Law’s Tale we find the Constance motif, in which a Christian princess is married to a sultan on condition that he converts. Her jealous Saracen mother-in-law casts her adrift: as in the case of Floripas, we see the violent, at times heartless, Saracen lady. In The Man of Law’s Tale Chaucer describes Viking Saracens. However, Chaucer also ridicules the whole courtly scene in his Tale of Sir Thopas, citing characters from well-known crusading romances, and introducing a giant knight with the name of Sir Olifaunt. Chaucer, the teller of the tale, is stopped in his tracks by the Host, and the Tale of Melibeus, based on a traditional French source and the complete antithesis of Sir Thopas, then follows. These apparent contradictions can be explained by Chaucer probably finding it imprudent to criticize the social and religious status quo.

Religious Viewpoints

Conversion and religion are clearly central elements in these crusading texts. There are great celebrations when worthy heathen knights become Christians (Otuel). There are also Christianized ex-Saracens who become most fervent in converting and killing Saracens, as in Otuel and the King of Tars.

Although tolerance toward Saracens is shown in some texts (Piers Plowman), and equality between Christian and Saracen chivalry is demonstrated in Blaunchardyn and Eglantine and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, the King of Tars highlights the uselessness of the Saracen faith. A Christian princess is forced to marry a heathen sultan for political reasons, and when she gives birth to their child it is a formless lump of flesh. The sultan says that it is her fault because she does not believe in his gods, Termagaunt, Apolyn, and Mahomet (in most texts the Saracens are presented as having three gods, probably a reflection of the argument put by Arab theologians that Christians could not have three persons in one god). The sultan prays to his gods to make the child normal: nothing happens. The queen then prays to her Christian God and the child is immediately transformed into a beautiful baby. The sultan, now convinced of the efficacy of the Christian God, converts and is baptized, receives a new identity with a change of name, and miraculously changes color from his Saracen black to Christian white, an outward sign that his soul has now been cleansed. We find a similar situation in Charles the Grete: the Christian Clotildis’s first son, though baptized, dies, and the second son falls ill after baptism. Her heathen husband Cloys says that baptism is to blame, but through Clothidis’s prayers the child survives. Now convinced by the efficacy of the Christian God, Cloys converts and is baptized by St. Remigius. Through divine intervention, a dove from heaven brings a vessel with chrism, which from that time is used to anoint the kings of France.


The element of entertainment plays a vital role in these texts, and “Saracen bashing” clearly found favor with courtly circles. Audiences were probably well aware of the superior lifestyle and learning of the Arabs through contacts in the East they had made or through hearsay. Certainly Christians readily adopted Arab lifestyles in Outremer and Sicily. However, as compensation, it was believed that though the Saracens had a superior lifestyle, they could not achieve salvation. Through the Schism of East and West (1054), Western Christendom had needed to define its role in the world anew and acquire an identity of its own through its spiritual center, Rome. Furthermore, through the teachings of influential theologians such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the concept of “us” and “them” and ideas such as offering non-Christians the choice of conversion or death became firmly established, and they are reflected in crusading literature. Saracens and Christians were economic, political, military, and above all religious rivals. Thus we find populist religious hatred and bigotry in this literature, which considers crusading as constituting a “just war,” using Charlemagne’s argument from 600 years earlier. However, while demonstrating intolerance, crusading literature in English and Scots also reflects a popular curiosity about and fascination with the “Saracens” that lasted to the end of the Middle Ages.

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