Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Music and Magic in Le Bel Inconnu and Lybeaus Desconus

Linda Marie Zaerr

While magic in medieval romance has often been linked with books, associations between magic and music have largely been overlooked despite ample evidence of correlations in medieval theory.1 The transparent etymological links between Old French canter and encanter and between Middle English chaunt and chauntement invite consideration of how these arts are employed in romance, where the terms often occur together. Exploration of romance figures who employ music and magic, the context and the purpose of these arts, the moral valence, and the extent to which music and magic are linked with power can reveal fundamental connections in medieval thinking. The thirteenth-century Old French Le Bel Inconnu and its fourteenth-century Middle English analog Lybeaus Desconus offer a startling demonstration of a transformation that may reflect thinking about performance.

The moral valence of both music performance and enchantment is ambiguous in Le Bel Inconnu. The narrator is represented as a musician, and jongleurs enhance the joy and splendor of Arthur’s feast; at the same time, jongleurs are closely associated with the evil enchanters Mabon and Evrain. Similarly, while the Pucele of the Ile d’Or uses enchantment to instruct and assist, Mabon and Evrain use it to seize power and destroy. In contrast, Lybeaus Desconus intensifies the association of music with magic and expresses disapprobation of practitioners of both. Music is no longer a part of Arthur’s feast, the Lady of the Golden Isle uses music and magic together to hinder the hero, and the minstrels associated with Mabon and Irayne are unsympathetic. In this Middle English transformation of the French story,2 both music performance and enchantment are associated with a subversive other world.

These observations reveal attitudes to performance that can contribute to our understanding of historical performance of medieval romance. Scholars continue to debate whether the romances were performed. Few of the French manuscripts and none of the English include musical notation, and codicological evidence does not give evidence of minstrel recitation or memorial transmission.3 On the other hand, performance elements are by their nature ephemeral and resistant to documentation. Once a text is memorized, a minstrel would not need a manuscript, and instruments most frequently associated with romance recitation are structured to facilitate improvisation.4 It is difficult to generalize about professional performers in early thirteenth-century France or late fourteenth-century England. Throughout the era there was a suspicion of entertainers, perhaps best expressed in the much quoted discussion by Thomas de Cobham, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late thirteenth century. He distinguishes three types of histrio (performer): the first disgusting dancers, the second criminals, and the third, "qui habent instrumenta musica ad delectandum homines" ("who have musical instruments with which to delight people"), are divided into two categories. The first type frequent drinking establishments and sing disreputable songs and risk damnation. The second type, "qui dicuntur joculatores qui cantant gesta principum et vitas sanctorum et faciunt solatia hominibus vel in egritudinibus suis vel in angustiis suis et non faciunt nimias turpitudines sicut faciunt saltatores et saltatrices et alii qui ludunt in imaginibus inhonestis et faciunt videri quasi quedam phantasmata per incantationes vel alio modo" (qtd. in Stevens 235) ("who are called jongleurs, who sing the deeds of princes and the lives of the saints and bring people solace both in sickness and in distress, and they do not perform the loathsome acts that male and female dancers do or others who act out disgusting spectacles and make themselves appear as apparations, whether through enchantments or other means").5 Whether performers of romance fit his narrow category of morally acceptable entertainers, they are, even if indirectly, associated with "incantationes."

In twelfth-century France, the tremendous popularity of the troubadours in the south of France crept north. Though there was some distinction between the noble trouvères and the professional jongleurs, the categories were often indistinct.6 In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries texts associated with performers often express concern that inferior entertainers are gaining precedence (Page 26). This implies a certain professional pride and the expectation of an audience who ought to value fine performance or once have done so. However circumscribed and dependent on specific circumstances, jongleurs seem to have enjoyed a certain prestige at the time Le Bel Inconnu was created. The situation in late fourteenth-century England when Lybeaus Desconus was produced was very different. Southworth documents "the historical fact that, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, the harper as court-entertainer entered on a steady decline in popularity, from which he was never to recover" (97). In both cases, considerable ambiguity remains whether any of the widely diverse romances were performed at all, and, if so, by whom and for whom.

Certain evidence for professional performance of Old French and Middle English romance performance does survive. Much of the scholarship has been interdisciplinary, often coming from the fields of musicology and theater history, such as John Stevens’ Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama, 1050-1350, which deals with the French tradition; John Southworth’s The English Medieval Minstrel, which addresses the English tradition. The coexistence of oral and written elements in late medieval culture is underscored in A.N. Doane and Carol Braun Pasternack’s Vox intexta: Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages and in W.F.H. Nicolaisen’s Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages.7 Studies such as Murray McGillivray’s Memorization in the Transmission of the Middle English Romances find evidence of memorial transmission in manuscript variants. Literary studies include Evelyn Birge Vitz’s Orality and Performance in Early French Romance. A forthcoming book edited by Evelyn Birge Vitz, et al., Performing Medieval Narrative, explores the topic specifically from the perspective of performers.

Ad Putter, after effectively summarizing both sides of the debate, distills the complexity reflected in the artifacts: "Romances passed easily from the hands of readers to the memories of minstrels or listeners, and from the oral recitations of minstrels or amateurs back into the writings of scribes" (13). If, as some have suggested, the medieval romances incorporate oral elements to create a pleasant illusion of community performance in a private reading context,8 then it is surprising to find pejorative references to performers in many romances. If, however, professional performance is in some way reflected in the extant texts, these negative references may be understood from the perspective of a performer addressing an audience with ambivalent attitudes to performance. Approaching the romances as potentially reflecting performance elements and considering their performativity can illuminate self-referential comments on music and magic and help explain divergent forms of the story.

The extradiegetic situation involving the narrator in Le Bel Inconnu would immediately establish a performer as a persona who creates stories of love and seeks to win the love of a lady. Explicit parallels between that persona and the hero Guinglain deepen subsequent undercutting when the hero behaves in a contradictory manner, failing in loyalty to two ladies. Bivalent references to music and magic address not only the characters in the tale who employ music and magic to varying ends, and not only the narrator and the lady whom he tries to compel by music and storytelling, but by implication the performer and the audience interacting through music and the transformative power of storytelling. Lybeaus Desconus simplifies the story considerably. Without the frame situation, the whimsical irony about performance loses purpose. The text is consistent in disapproval of both music and magic, yet it preserves the allure of the forbidden.

This parallels developments in attitude to magic moving from the early thirteenth to the late fourteenth century, when increasing suspicion of magic coincided with increasing fascination.9 Richard Kieckhefer summarizes a medieval intellectual progression through three perspectives:

an assumption, developed in the early centuries of Christianity, that all magic involved at least an implicit reliance on demons; a grudging recognition, fostered especially by the influx of Arabic learning in the twelfth century, that much magic was in fact natural; and a fear, stimulated in the later Middle Ages by the very real exercise of necromancy, that magic involved an all too explicit invocation of demons even when it pretended to be innocent. (Magic 16-17)

He documents increasing sorcery trials in the fourteenth century (Magic 194). Alan Kors and Edward Peters point to an increasingly structured system of beliefs and mechanism for enforcement combining in the fifteenth century with an "acute awareness of shared vulnerability and helplessness" (6). They point out that "many contemporary observers from the fourteenth century on looked upon manifest diabolical sorcery and witchcraft as quantitatively and qualitatively the single greatest threat to Christian European civilization (4).

It is not surprising, then, to find some toleration of magic expressed in an early thirteenth-century romance and explicit condemnation of such practices stated in a late fourteenth-century version of the tale. What is intriguing is to find parallel treatment of music and musicians in the two romances.10 In both cases, a performer could readily harness contemporary attitudes to magic to glamorize performance and to engage listeners. In both romances, convergence of music and magic blurs distinctions between performance of the text and performance within the text. In Le Bel Inconnu, the potential of magical power to transform reality is extended to the audience as the creator/conveyor of the tale becomes a passive participant. In Lybeaus Desconus, the audience is passively drawn into the dangerous and illicit world of magic through music performance, which becomes titillatingly dangerous by association with magic.

Le Bel Inconnu, attributed to Renaut de Bâgé, is a narrative of 6266 lines written in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and extant in only one manuscript, Chantilly 472.11 The complex tale follows Guinglain’s quest to rescue Blonde Esmerée. After various victories, he falls in love with a fée, the Pucele as Blances Mains. He leaves her to complete his quest, at the conclusion of which he learns his identity as Gawain’s son and discovers that he is expected to marry Blonde Esmerée. On the way to Arthur’s court, he returns to the Pucele and remains with her for a time. But news of a tournament lures him away from the Ile d’Or and he cannot return. The narrator, who has introduced the story as an adventure story for his lady, announces that the conclusion rests with her. If she is gracious, then Guinglain will be able to return to the lady he has lost.

The frame situation of Le Bel Inconnu explicitly links the narrator with music performance; he describes himself as someone who has made a cançon (song). Punning on the contrast between sans (without) and sense (sense), he connects the motivating force behind this song with "amors sans trecerie," a love without falsehood. Yet the sincerity of his ideal is held up to scrutiny when he narrates a romance in which the hero breaks faith with two ladies. The structure of the first five lines suggests the possibility of an appositive structure in which the cançon and the roumant may be the same, intensifying the irony.12

Cele qui m’a en sa baillie,
cui ja d’amors sans trecerie
m’a doné sense de cançon faire–
por li veul un roumant estraire
d’un molt biel conte d’aventure. (1-5)13

For her who holds me in her dominion, who has given me understanding to make a song about love without falsehood, for her I want to translate a romance of a beautiful tale of adventure.14

The process of "extracting" ("extraire") or drawing forth a romance is linked with the jongleurs in Arthur’s court, who "draw" ("traire"; 22) the bow across their vielles.

Quant la cors [i] fu asanblee,
la veïsiés grant joie faire:
as jogleors vïeles traire,
harpes soner et estiver,
as canteors cançons canter.
Li canteor metent lor cures
en dire beles aventures. (20-26)

When the court was assembled, you could have seen great merriment there: jongleurs playing their fiddles, their harps and their pan-pipes, and singers singing their songs. These singers took great pains to tell of fine adventures.

The link between the frame situation and the story itself is thus established by means of references to entertaining with music and story. Like the narrator, the jongleurs "draw out" cançons and beles aventures. In performance, these references would intensify a jongleur’s identification with both the narrator and jongleurs in the story. The audience, in its turn, would be drawn into identification with Arthur’s courtiers who, like them, witness music and story performance. The connections between singing and conveying adventure stories is emphasized in lines 24-26, where the root cant (song) occurs four times. This root takes on considerable significance when we realize that the word for magic throughout the romance is encantement (literally "ensongment"). The narrator links himself and his story with singing, links singing with professional story performers in his story, and links magic with singing.

At the end of the romance, the extradiegetic and metaperformance elements converge when, presenting an unresolved conclusion, the narrator addresses his lady, offering to speak further or stay silent. He offers his audience (the lady / the listeners) the opportunity to transform the story by demonstrating a favorable reception ("biau sanblant mostrer" 6255). The transformative power of performance is transferred from the performer to the audience at all levels.

The Middle English Lybeaus Desconus lacks the entire frame situation and presents a structure that indicates growing censure of both magic and professional performers. The fée is reduced to a dangerous distraction from the hero’s true love and purpose; all magic is associated with figures who work against the hero’s best interests; and the ending is unambiguously resolved. Lybeaus Desconus, attributed by some to Thomas Chestre, exists in six manuscripts, most dating from the mid-fifteenth century, and the poem is thought to date from the late fourteenth century.15

In Lybeaus Desconus, all music performance is transferred to figures who represent a dangerous other world. The most striking instance of this process occurs at the beginning of the romance. In the French version, the splendor and joy of Arthur’s feast is highlighted by the presence of musicians, including singers performing romances such as this. Page points out that such lists of feast performers and their instruments are highly conventional in Old French narrative and designed to emphasize "the luxury and abundance of the scene whilst reinforcing the image of the court as a stable point of departure and point of return for all ‘romance experience’" (155). In the English version, Arthur’s court is stripped of entertainers. But the list of musicians is not simply omitted; it is transferred to the dwarf who attends the messenger damsel of the Lady of Synadowne, who has been imprisoned and for whom they seek a champion. The dwarf, though not a sinister character, is linked with "the other" in his identity as a dwarf. He is a famous performer, playing two of the instruments (vielle and harp) mentioned in the French version. But he is merely a "boourdour," an entertainer or jester (a trivialized version of the canteors in the French), and his entertainment is further reduced in status by appealing primarily to ladies.

Theodeley was his name:
Wyde [wher] spronge his fame,
By northe and eke by southe;
Mekyll he couthe of game,
Sotill, sawtrye in same,
Harpe, fethill and crowthe.
He was a gentill boourdour
Among ladyes in boure:
A mery man of mouthe. (142-50)16

Instead of representing "the luxury and abundance" of Arthur’s court, as it had in the French version, minstrel performance here is linked with a visitor from outside, someone bringing news of a difficult and mysterious quest.

In performance, this would have the effect of distancing the performer from the audience. Instead of being an insider as in the French version, the professional performer at the beginning of this story is an outlandish figure. A professional minstrel performing the tale could draw on that association to intrigue listeners with the suggestion that performers are not ordinary people, but mysterious beings carrying the fascination of the bizarre.

Though music performance is prominent at the beginning of both romances, magic does not figure actively into the story until the hero reaches the Ile d’Or. In both versions of the story, the lady of the Ile d’Or uses enchantment to change the hero’s perceptions of reality. In Le Bel Inconnu, enchantment is consistently associated with education. When the Lady of the Ile d’Or is first introduced, the narrator explains

Les set ars sot et encanter
et sot bien estoiles garder
et bien et mal–tot ço savoit. (1933-35)

She knew the seven liberal arts and she knew enchantment and how to read the stars and good and evil–all this she knew.

The fée’s education here encompasses understanding of good and evil. This moral dimension evidently informs her use of enchantment. When she considers what "engiens et ars" ("stratagems or arts"; 2284) she might employ to keep Guinglain with her, she does not choose to use magic, but rather tantalizes him sexually. She is successful in winning his love, though not in keeping him from leaving. In the episode just before Guinglain’s first visit to the Ile d’Or, Giflet’s admiration of the ugly Rose Espanie is explained in terms of Love’s skill in deception and enchantment, "de guille et d’encanter" (1735). If love is a kind of enchantment, and if the Lady (rather than Love) has the power to cast this enchantment, the magic does not hold power over Guinglain. He leaves her despite his love for her.

Later we learn that she has not expected to keep him on the Ile d’Or, but that she has engineered the quest leading to his self-discovery. According to her own detailed account, in all her interactions with Guinglain she has used enchantment exclusively as a didactic and salutary device. She employs specific enchantments to change the hero’s perceptions of reality in two situations: she reveals his identity to him after the Fearsome Kiss, and she creates alarming illusions when he tries to visit her room at night on his return. The voice that reveals his identity provides accurate information, and she explains that she has sent the troubling illusions to teach him not to treat ladies as lightly as he has treated her, explaining that this is for his own good:

que vos engardés a tos jor[s]
que ne soiés tant fals ne lors
que dames [vei]lliés esgarnir,
car vos n’en poés pas joïr. (4923-26)

.so that you may forever keep yourself from being so false or so foolish as to behave lightly toward ladies, for no good will come to you for doing so.

She explains then how she came to learn magic, and, as in the earlier reference, elements of magic form an integral part of her education.

Or vos dirai se vos [volés]
en quele maniere et coment
jo sai faire l’encantement.
Mes pere fu molt rices rois
qui molt fu sages et cortois.
Onques n’ot oir ne mais que moi,
si m’ama tant en bonne foi
que les set [ars] me fist apre[ndre]
tant que totes les soc entendre.
Arismetiche, dyomotrie,
ingremance et astrenomie
et des autres asés apris.
Tant I fu mes cuers ententis
que bien soc prendre mon consel
et a la lune et au solelc,
si sai tos encantemens fare,
deviner et conoistre en l’ar[e]
quanques dou mois puet avenir. (4930-47)

Now, if you wish, I shall tell you how I came to learn to work magic. My father was a very powerful king, a most intelligent and courtly man. I was his only heir, and he loved me so dearly that he had me study the Seven Liberal Arts until I had mastered them all. I learned a great deal about arithmetic and geometry, necromancy and astronomy, and all the other arts as well. I studied with such diligence that I well learned how to consult both the moon and the sun, and how to work all kinds of enchantment, to tell the future so that I know at once what will happen a month in advance.

Peter Haidu has pointed out that in this list of the seven liberal arts, ingremance (necromancy) takes the place of music in the quadrivium (48). A medieval audience would immediately notice the link between music and enchantment underlined by this substitution. Necromancy is a particularly suspicious branch of magic, involving not just harmless illusion or benign "natural magic," but communication with the dead/spirits (Jolly and Peters 59). It was an intellectual movement, associated with a "clerical underworld" (Kieckhefer, Magic 151-56), and it made blasphemous use of Christian ritual.17

Yet Renaut refuses to simplify the moral dimensions of his characters. The lady tells us that she is versed in a branch of magic nearly universally condemned by the thirteenth century; yet the magic we see her using, though troubling to the hero, seems designed to advance his best interests. The overt substitution implies a certain interchangeability between the arts of music and magic, at a moral level as well as within the educational structure. Boethius describes music as the discipline most related to morality in the quadrivium,18 so the substitution of necromancy in that position intensifies the moral focus. Yet, the situation is not as straightforward as it might seem; there are a number of morally neutral medieval references to necromancy.19

Renaut underscores the substitution of necromancy for music by excluding the Pucele from any association with music except the ringing of bells. When Guinglain returns to the Ile d’Or and first sees the Pucele as Blances Mains, she is riding a horse with golden bells:

Molt escaletes i ot d’or;
par grant engien le fisent Mor
car quant li bons palefrois anble,
si sonnoient totes ensanble
plus doç que soit harpe ne rote.
Ainc n’oïstes plus douce note
ne de gigle ne de vïele. (3950-57)

The breaststrap of her horse was richly made: a hundred tiny golden bells hung from it; Moors had crafted it with great skill, for as the palfrey ambled along the bells all rang together, making a sound more sweet than that of any harp or rote. You never heard sweeter music from any hurdy-gurdy or fiddle.

The sound of the bells is explicitly contrasted with the music of such jongleurs as those associated with Arthur’s court and with Mabon and Evrain. These bells are constructed by Moors, associated with a fantastic and splendid other world, and are thus appropriate to the fée. Arthur’s court and the evil enchanters’ court share a common tradition of music, though Mabon and Evrain deploy a more impressive array of jongleurs. The Pucele as Blances Mains draws on a different tradition of magic, associated with the splendor of the East.

But she is also linked with church bells. On the morning after she and Guinglain become lovers and she explains her enchantments, the church bells sound, "li saint sonnent au grant mostier" ("the bells sounded in the great church"; 5025), and they attend mass. Although she is not linked with the court tradition of music, she is associated with both the bells of the east and bells of western Christianity.

In a performance, the lady’s exclusion from the world of court music would contrast with a jongleur narrator producing song and instrumental music. In particular, the substitution of enchantment for music in the quadrivium subtly hints at the possibility that the romance being performed may be an alternative kind of enchantment, operating to transform its hearers’ view of reality (as the lady does that of the hero), and in the frame situation operating to transform the lady’s view of the narrator. The conclusion is thus rendered more startling when the nexus of power shifts, and the lady and the audience are empowered to transform the reality of the story.

The moral bivalence of the Pucele is further reinforced by her parallel with Blonde Esmerée. Though Blonde Esmerée is evidently not capable of enchantment, she is twice linked with the diabolical. When she first appears to Guinglain as a serpent, he sees her as "si fait dyable" ("such a diabolical creature"; 3152). When she kisses him, he cries out that the devil must have enchanted him:

Li dïables m’a encanté
que j’ai baissié otre mon gré. (3209-10)

The devil has caught me in a spell, for I have kissed against my will.

The Pucele, though an enchantress, next appears to him in a garden which is a locus amoenus so wonderful that "cil qui s’estoit laiens mis / quidoit qu’il fust en paradis" ("anyone inside its walls would have believed himself in Paradise"; 4331-32). Blonde Esmerée, though free of magic, is associated with the diabolical, while the Pucele, though versed in necromancy, is associated with the divine.

In Lybeaus Desconus, the incident of the Lady of the Ile d’Or is reduced to a brief, though dangerous, distraction, and the hero never returns to her. La Dame Amoure is not in any way involved in Gyngoline’s quest to rescue the Lady of Synadoun. Instead of assisting him with her enchantment, she uses enchantment to keep him with her for a year. The messenger damsel, Elyne, ultimately wakes him from his blurred vision of love using not enchantment but reason, concluding that:

For the love of o woman
That mekyll of sorcery canne
Thow doste the grete dissehonour. (1503-05)

For love of a woman capable of powerful sorcery, you do yourself great dishonor.

As in Le Bel Inconnu, this lady offers her love to the hero and he returns her love, but this time the narrator condemns the love, blaming la Dame Amoure for lack of chastity (1476). The hero’s year-long delay on the Ile d’Or is due to the lady’s sorcery. Here the lady uses enchantment specifically to blear his vision of reality, and the narrator expresses strong disapproval. In addition to love, she uses enchantment to keep the hero with her. Her enchantment is successful for a year, and it is worked through music performance:

For the faire lady
Cowthe more of sorcerye
Than other suche fyve;
She made hym suche melodye
Off all maner mynstralsye
That any man myght discryue.
Whan he sawe hir face
Hym thought that he was
Jn paradice on lyve;
With false lies and fayre
Th[u]s she blered his eye:
Evill mote she thryue! (1485-96)

For the fair lady knew more sorcery than five like her. She performed such melodies for him of all kinds of minstrelsy that no one could describe them. When he saw her face, it seemed to him that he was alive in Paradise. Thus she bleared his eys with false and lovely lies. May she fare badly!

Instead of being linked with music in the realm of education as it had been in Le Bel Inconnu, here enchantment is carried out by means of music performance that creates deception. Her craft is described in derogatory terms; she is employing "false lies and fayre" (1494). As in Le Bel Inconnu, she is associated with paradise, but here the connection is clearly deceptive; it seems to him that he is in paradise. In this version of the story the first fully developed representation of music performance is linked with a dangerous and disreputable practice of magic. We hear nothing from the point of view of the lady in the English version, and the hero’s love for her appears to be an illusion that vanishes as soon as he has shaken himself free of her enchantments.

At first glance this passage might seem abhorrent to a minstrel performing the work, since music performance is here associated with a character who works against the hero’s goals. But the lady is not a repellent character. She is beautiful, and her music is powerful. A performer in fourteenth-century England might thrive on such a representation of performers as dangerous. John Southworth suggests that toward the end of the fourteenth century "the harper-poets are displaced by the new breed of courtly writers, minstrel entertainers of the old tradition . . . give way to the gifted amateur" (108). A minstrel performance would seem less passé if it evoked the allure of the forbidden. Linking music performance with magic would enhance that effect at a time when condemnation of and fascination with magic were both swelling. In that environment, pejorative representations of music could be a survival strategy for a performer.

The most striking conjunction of music and enchantment in both versions of the story occurs when the hero visits the hall of Mabon and Evrain. In Le Bel Inconnu, Lampart informs Guinglain of what he will see in the Cité Gaste: in the enchanters’ hall, there are a thousand windows and in each window a richly dressed jongleur, each with a different instrument,20 and each with a candle. He goes on to describe the sound and advises the hero to return their courteous greeting with a curse:

De trestotes les armo[n]ies
i a molt doces melaudies.
Tantost con venir vos verront,
trestout bel vos salueront.
Vos respondés, ‘Dius vos maudie!’ (2823-27)

From the harmony of all these instruments, you will hear sweet melodies. As soon as they see you coming, the jongleurs will greet you courteously. Answer them thus: ‘May God curse you!’

Lines 2823-24 describe polyphony, that is many melodies resulting in a kind of concord. In practice, about eight different melodies would be all that could simultaneously interact effectively. In romance, however, such extensive application of polyphony often heralds a marvelous encounter.21

When Guinglain arrives at the hall, he finds just what Lampart had described, but now the description of the jongleurs is expanded:

L’un voit as fenestres harper,
l’autre delés celui roter;
l’uns estive, l’autre vïele,
li autres gigle et calimele
et cante cler comme serainne;
li autres la citole mainne,
li u[n]s entendoit au corner
et l’autres au bien flahuter;
li un notoient lais d’amor,
sonnent tinbre, sonnent tabor,
muses salteres et fretel
et buissines et moïnel.
Cascuns ovre de son mestier. (2887-99)

The knight saw one playing the harp, while one next to him played a rota; one played the bagpipes, another a hurdy-gurdy, another a fiddle, another a shawm, and another singing with a clear voice like a siren’s; another one played a lute, one a horn, while another played skillfully on his flute; some played songs of love to the sounds of the tambourines and the tabors, the cornemuses, psalteries, and pipes, the trumpets and the horns. Each played his own part.

Even if there were fewer than a thousand musicians playing fewer than a thousand different melodies in concord, these instruments would be unlikely to play together. The catalog includes "loud instruments," such as the shawm, horn and trumpet, and "soft instruments" such as the psaltery, lute and vielle. Such lists of musicians playing diverse instruments simultaneously are very common in medieval romance, and they may represent a kind of musical equivalent to the locus amoenus topos: as flora and fauna that could never exist in the same climate occur together in an idealized place, so instruments and performers who could never accord play simultaneously in an idealized music performance.22

The list, however, includes features that relate directly to this romance. The singers are compared to sirens, females who enchant men to stay by means of song, and this contrasts directly with the Pucele, who refuses to retain her love by enchantment and who does not perform music. "Lais d’amor" constitutes a wry self-reference, evoking the initial presentation of the narrator as a person who composes narrative songs about love, and a subtle reminder that this is a lai d’amor in two senses: it is about love and it is designed to inspire a lady’s love in the frame situation. The jongleurs are thus emblematic not merely of the evil magicians, but also of the narrator himself. In a performance, this would create a delightful multiple awareness. Like the performer, the jongleurs play music and sing story; but conversely, like the jongleurs, the performer may be "del encantement" (part of the enchantment 3365).

The passage resonates strangely in the French romance tradition. Though it follows the paratactic syntax of feast entertainment described by Page,23 it does not reinforce "the image of the court as a stable point of departure and point of return for all ‘romance experience’" (155). This court is associated not with the initiation and conclusion of the adventure, as Page proposes, but with its climax. In performance, the audience would be more involved in the adventure by experiencing something similar to what the hero experiences: jongleur performance. In the more conventional setting of the court of departure and return, the audience would be experientially linked to the passive role of the feast participants. Here they are experientially joined to the active role of Guinglain, who does not know what will happen next but has power to react to it. This empowerment of the audience is validated at the conclusion of the romance.

The jongleurs, though associated with unambiguously evil magicians, are not unambiguously evil themselves. When Guinglain appears, they call out loudly:

Dius saut, Dius saut le chevalier
qui est venus la dame aidier
de la mainnie Artu le roi! (2903-05)

May God save the knight who comes from the court of King Arthur to render aid to the lady!

Guinglain’s curse on them rings harsh after this warm greeting. They assist him in his combat with the magicians by holding the candles that allow him to see. Darkness falls on the hall when Evrain runs away, but immediately after Guinglain prays to God for help, one of the jongleurs lights all the candles, the music resumes, and the knight is no longer afraid. They are thus the ones who answer his prayer to God.

Entrols qu’il se demente ensi,
li uns des jogleors sailli,
a tos les cierges fu touça.
Atant la clartés repaira
des cierges qui alumé sont.
Li jogleor lor mestier font:
cascuns sonnoit son estrumant
ansi con il faisoit devant.
Quant venue fu la clartés,
de rien ne s’est espaventés. (2971-80)

While he thus lamented, one of the jongleurs jumped up, and lit all of the candles. At once the hall was bright again from the light of the candles. The jongleurs now began to ply their trade: each played his instrument, just as he had before. Once the light had returned, the knight was no longer afraid of anything.

When Mabon is killed, the jongleurs leave violently:

Atant s’en vont li jogleor;
cascuns enpaint par tel vigor
sa fenestre quant il s’en part
que li palais tos en tresart.
Si durement batent et hurtent
que tot li uis qui laiens furent
qu’a poi qu’il n’abatent la sale
de la noise hidouse et male.
Li cierge furent enporté. (3073-81)

All at once the jongleurs went away; each slammed the window shutters so violently as he left that the whole hall shook. They banged all the doors so hard as well that they almost made the hall collapse with the fearful din. The jongleurs had taken all the candles with them.

The noisy departure of the musicians contrasts with their harmonious music. With the music goes the light; both were evidently part of the enchantment. Neither the music nor the light works against Guinglain in this version of the story. The jongleurs, far from hindering him, treat him courteously and (like the performer) shed light on his adventure.

In contrast, with Mabon and Evrain sinister applications of both music and magic converge. Blonde Esmerée recounts that they are enchanters who arrived as jongleurs. After her father’s death, it is not more than three months

que çaiens vint uns enchantere
et aveuc lui estoit ses frere;
il i vinrent con jogleor.
Cil doi enchanterent le jor
tote la gent de ceste vile,
don’t bien en i avoit cinc mile.
Cascuns d’els cuidoit enca[r]gier.
Les tors faisoient erracier
et tos les clociers jus caoir. (3321-29)

Before an enchanter arrived here, along with his brother; both claimed to be jongleurs. That same day these two worked their enchantments on all the people of this city, of whom there were fully five thousand. Each person believed he was going mad. The enchanters caused the towers to be ripped up and made all the belfries fall down.

The enchanters appear as jongleurs, and they make people mad by literally "ensinging" them. In contrast with the Pucele, who attends chanted Christian mass in response to church bells, these magicians with their chanting tear down the structures that hold the bells.

Forms of the root word encant are used throughout this section, so it is striking that when the sorcerers come to enchant Esmerée, they do so by touching her with a book: "quant il m’orent tocie d’un livre, / si fui sanblans a une wivre" ("as soon as they had touched me with a book, I took on the appearance of a serpent"; 3341-42). We are never told by what means the Pucele works her enchantment; education (and presumably books) are linked with her magic and she is overtly dissociated from all music except the music of bells. The enchanters, however, who are so intimately associated with music, carry out this enchantment by means of a physical book, not the words or music notated therein. At this point Esmerée explains,

Li gogleor que vos veïstes
quant vos en la sale venistes
estoient del encantement. (3363-65)

The jongleurs whom you saw when you entered the hall were part of the enchantment.

As a performance text, this provides rich material. The evil enchanters seem jongleurs, and they employ jongleurs as part of their enchantment. But the jongleurs associated with them are not destructive; it is the enchanters (who are not really jongleurs) who destroy and drive mad. The one act of transformation we see is done with a book. A jongleur performing this passage could maintain active involvement on the part of the audience and at the same time protect the jongleurs, who are the catalyst of audience involvement, from the condemnation that falls on Mabon and Irayne.

In Lybeaus Desconus, the Synadoun episode roughly parallels the French version, though it is much briefer. Here it is not the lady of the Ile d’Or, but Mabon and Irayne who practice necromancy. Lambard describes them as "Clyrkys of nigermansye" (1756). Their palace is constructed "by nygrymauncye / J-wrought with ffayreye" (1767-68). Lybeaus receives no instruction before he approaches the palace. When he arrives,

Trumpys, hornys, sarvysse,
Right by-for that highe deys,
He herde and saughe with sight. (1836-38)

Right in front of that high dais, he heard and saw trumpets, horns, and other feast music.

When he advances further, he sees only minstrels.

With harpe, lute and roote
And Orgone noyse of note,
Grete gle they maden all;
With sotill and sawtery,
Suche maner mynstralsye
Was neuer with-in wall.
By-for euche mynstrale stode
A torche bothe fayre and gode,
J-tende and brente bright. (1851-59)

They all played loud music with harp, lute, rote, and the sound of organ music. With citole and psaltery, such music was never heard within walls. In front of each minstrel stood a fair and good torch, alight and burning brightly.

These minstrels do not greet Lybeaus, and he does not curse them. In fact, there is no interaction, and this creates an impression of the minstrels as inhuman beings, inhabitants of some other realm. As in the French version, the minstrelsy serves to enhance the splendor of the hall, and it would be surprising to hear these instruments together. Here there is no specific mention of polyphony, and there is no allusion to other parts of the romance.

Far from helping the hero, these minstrels go away, extinguishing their torches, before he begins his combat. Their slamming the doors and windows causes an actual threat to him in this version. In fact, sorcery is not the important part of the challenge Lybeaus faces. As Finlayson has pointed out, in Lybeaus "It seems to be a uniform response that sorcery can be, indeed has to be, vanquished by human strength as a matter of narrative necessity" (395).

Again, this text is well-suited to performance by a fourteenth-century minstrel. While the romance minstrels work against Gyngoline, they are impersonal. They do not speak to him or interact with him. As in Le Bel Inconnu, they are not evil. The reference to the minstrels sets apart the climax of the story. The parallel with the audience’s experience (hearing a minstrel) would intensify the passage. Similarly, the minstrel gains an aura of mystery by functioning in a role analogous to the romance minstrels.

Though there is no direct evidence for minstrel performance of Le Bel Inconnu or Lybeaus Desconus, as discussed earlier there is increasing evidence for the likelihood of such a performance. Consideration of the two versions of the story in the light of performance reveals potential metaperformance elements that can explain aspects of Le Bel Inconnu that have not been addressed and can illuminate reasons for the transformations of the French tradition evident in the English Lybeaus Desconus. The sophistication of Le Bel Inconnu, with its reliance on a polyphonic milieu of ideas, would be ideally suited to an early thirteenth-century jongleur. Both music and magic become tools that function in performance to foster a bivalent view of the characters who interact with Guinglain and ultimately function to empower the audience in story creation. The clarity and simplicity of Lybeaus Desconus, on the other hand, and its carefully indirect association with the forbidden, is well-suited to a late fourteenth-century audience, more suspicious of magic. By aligning both music and magic with the illicit other, a minstrel could maintain a respectable morality while implying an intriguing association with that which is mysterious and forbidden.


1 Richard Kieckhefer points out that "music was seen as having magical powers" (Magic 2). Throughout the Middle Ages, the pitches used in western music were consistently linked with the spheres of the universe. Macrobius’s commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio was frequently cited in support of this concept, and every music theorist touched on the idea. The spheres, in turn, were intimately bound up in astrology, a cornerstone of medieval magic. The tradition goes back as early as Pythagorus and Plato (Godwin 6, 44). Valerie Flint observes that "Music, therefore, and especially the music of the liturgy required, gave its participants and audiences one further excuse for pondering upon the influences of the planets." She suggests that music "assists . . . in the adjustment of attitudes to magic, and in the acceptance of aspects of it formerly condemned" (140). Return

2 It is uncertain whether Le Bel Inconnu was a direct source for Lybeaus Desconus, but it represents the French tradition from which the English version was drawn. Return

3 For a summary of this discussion, see Ad Putter’s introduction to The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance. Return

4 Jerome of Moravia (ca. 1280), for instance, describes a vielle tuning that creates a modal framework in which a performer has only to follow a simple pattern of finger placement. Nearly any sequence of notes on any string will produce an idiomatic melodic pattern (Zaerr 53). Return

5 My translation. Return

6 Colin Muset, for example, was both a trouvère and a jongleur (Stevens 43). Return

7 Along similar lines, Joyce Coleman’s Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France, though it does not directly address the popular romances, articulates the "complex interlinking and differentiation of modalities" (222). Return

8 P.R. Coss, for example, suggested that the minstrel tags in romances were strictly "a literary convention designed to create an atmosphere of lively recitation" (35). Return

9 Kieckhefer suggests, "There is nothing extraordinary about this simultaneous fear of the practitioner and interest in the practice; it was found in the pagan culture of antiquity, and it would be surprising not to find it in medieval Europe" ("Specific Rationality" 834). Return

10 In a book in progress, Maria Dobozy documents the suspicion that surrounded professional performers and discusses elements of their craft that run counter to the medieval value of moderate behavior. Return

11 Numerous critics have focused on Le Bel Inconnu. Some, such as Donald Maddox and Debora Schwartz, have explored connections with previous writers, particularly Chrétien de Troyes. Philippe Walter looks at connections with Celtic mythology. Voichita-Maria Sasu sees the poem situated in a temporal macrocosm, in which time is not linear but mythic. Many scholars have focused on contradictions or dualities in the poem. Boiron and Payen suggest an attempt to please two audiences; Alain Guerreau uses folkloric classifications to explicate a structure that establishes an equilibrium; Sara Sturm and Penny Simons point to generic instability; Peter Haidu elucidates a structural indecision between two concepts of the hero and two of the heroine; and Lori Walters suggests "The Bel Inconnu incarnates at once a male wish-fulfillment fantasy and female reservations concerning such a dream" (35). All of these discussions find the artistry of the poem in some way focused around contradiction. Renaut’s treatment of music and magic accords with these observations. Return

12 Penny Simons finds a tension between lyric and romance genres in Le Bel Inconnu, but a reference to "canteors" singing both "cançons" and "beles aventures" (lines 24-26) suggests at least the possibility that the terms could be interchangeable in this text. Return

13 All quotations from Le Bel Inconnu are from the edition by Karen Fresco, translated by Colleen P. Donagher. Except where noted, translations are from that edition. Return

14 My translation. Return

15 Lybeaus Desconus has received considerably less critical attention than Le Bel Inconnu. Maldwyn Mills uses the Lybeaus manuscripts to demonstrate the limitations of stemma, suggesting that a "disour" may improve sense and/or form. He also points to two other poems that may have been written by Chestre ("Composition" 109). Ad Putter discusses Thomas Chestre as inhabiting a "hybrid oral and literate world" (13). Return

16 All quotations from Lybeaus Desconus are from Lambeth Palace MS. 306, ed. Maldwyn Mills. Translations are mine. Return

17 Kieckhefer observes, "The blasphemous use of ritual, the invocation of spirits for amoral or straightforwardly destructive purposes, and the sheer megalomania of the necromancers can appear repulsive to modern as well as medieval eyes" (Magic 164). He explains that, as Christian ritual was efficacious if it fulfilled objective standards, "So, too, the necromancers believed, God could be effectively mocked and his power used for evil ends if the rituals of necromancy were correctly performed. Necromancy thus parodied the basic late medieval understanding of ritual" (Magic 165). Return

18 "Since there are four mathematical disciplines, the others are concerned with the investigation of truth, whereas music is related not only to speculation but to morality as well" (Godwin 45). In this context, it is worth noting that Boethius was condemned to death for "adjuration of demons and witchcraft" (Dukes 257), though the reasons were more politically complex. Return

19 Peter Noble demonstrates a shift to more sinister representation of magic in the last half of the thirteenth century, but this romance falls before that shift. Kieckhefer points out that "Some sources speak of neutral spirits, whether astral (associated with the heavenly bodies) or elemental (connected with natural powers on Earth)" (Magic 169), and Finlayson mentions the work of Michael Scot "who, while condemning magic and necromancy, nevertheless asserts the magus to be not only a trickster and evil-doer, but also wise in the secrets of nature and in prediction of the future" (367). Return

20 Brown and Sadie discuss the importance of differentiating genres of music and the difficulty of doing so (21). Return

21 Another instance is the birdsong after Calogrenant pours water on the stone in Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain. Return

22 Baumgartner suggests regarding the jongleurs, "Dans la mesure où ils diabolisent aussi bien les pouvoirs de l’écrit qu’ils usurpent les ressources d’une musique qui au moins dans la description de la Gaste Cité, semble bien participer de pratiques infernales, ils pourraient aussi porter condamnation des voix artificieuses de ces faux amants, de ces perfides trouvères qui mettent en péril la fin’amor et que dénonce le narrateur aux vers 1237-1271" (19). (To the extent which they demonize as well the powers of the written and usurp the resources of a music which, at least in the description of the Gaste Cité, seems to participate in demonic practices, they could also carry condemnation of the artificial voices of false lovers, of those perfidious trouvères who put fin’amor at peril and whom the narrator denounces in lines 1237-1271). Return

23 Page cites as one of the formulae for describing feast entertainment, "li uns VERB li autres VERB" ("one VERB another VERB" 155). This construction fits the passage exactly. Return


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