When Homer spoke French

The 1160s represent an important watershed in Homer’s western medieval literary afterlife. It is the point when Homeric myths, in particular the Trojan War, ceased to develop new forms under ancient, Latin models, and instead morphed into vernacular, medieval forms. In other words, Homer ceased to tell his stories in Greek (or actually Latin, since late antiquity), and learned to speak French. Old French, that is. Oïl!

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The Greeks attacking Troy from the Sea, with the Greek and Trojan soldiers equipped as medieval chivalric knights from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, France (Paris), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v-83r

The first vernacular development in the Troy cycle was the Roman de Troie (Romance of Troy) of Benoît de Sainte Maure. Written between 1155 and 1160, the Roman, so called because it was written in ronmanz, meaning for ‘vernacular’, is a 40,000 epic poem in Old French about the Trojan war and its aftermath. It is the first medieval poem to accuse Homer of lying for having written about events he hadn’t been a witness to. Benoît based his narrative on the two most famous Latin medieval sources for the Trojan War, the pseudonymous works of Dictys of Crete and Dares Phrygius, both purporting to give an eyewitness account of the war: Dictys from the Greek point of view, Dares from that of the Trojans, although Dares’ influence was far more central to Benoît’s narrative. Although the authors behind Dares and Dictys ultimately took their material from Homer (the Greek intermediary text on which the surviving Latin translation being lost), they are responsible for the anti-Homeric tradition which Benoît inherited.

The Roman opens with a prologue which tackles Homer head-on:

‘Homer, who was a wonderful cleric, wise and learned, related the destruction, the great siege and the reason why Troy was deserted…. but his book does not tell the truth, for we know for certain and without doubt that he was not born until a hundred years after the great expedition was assembled. No wonder he failed, for he was never present there and never witnessed anything that happened. When he had written his book and made it known in Athens, he met with strong opposition.’ (trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Douglas Kelly, (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 41-2).

Benoît was wrong, of course, but his point about what we may today call source criticism is valid, and takes its place in the long history of western historical and philological scholarship. A trouvère rather than a scholar, Benoît trusts Dares, who, though heavily indebted to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, claims his account is truer because he lived during the Trojan War. In the Iliad, Dares was a Trojan priest of Hephaestus, and the account associated with his name is given from his point of view. Obviously, Benoît did not have the scholarly means to disentangle this point in the reception of the Homeric stories. He takes Dares for granted, but in doing so, he unwittingly brings Homer into the 12th-century world. Through Dares, he is the first to give Homer a French tongue.

Benoît was immensely popular in the Middle Ages and provided the material for a rich, enduring cycle of stories about Troy in vernacular languages, of which the most famous was that of Troilus and Briseida, later picked up by Boccaccio and Chaucer. A large number of manuscripts of Benoît’s Roman survive. Of these, one is particularly interesting.

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Benoît de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie in British Library, Add MS 30863. The verses are octosyllabic, flat-rhymed (AA BB). Sections open with beautiful painted initials.

This manuscript is preserved in the British Library and dates from the 13th century (Add MS 30863). It contains an imperfect copy of the Roman de Troie, missing 4,300 lines out of some 30,300. However, this copy of the text is remarkable in that it marks the Greek and Trojan personal names, both male and female, with a small sign in green ink in the outer margin. This is either an abbreviated ‘G’ for Greek (Grecus/Greca), or ‘T’ for Trojan (Troianus/Troiana). With so many characters in the epic (23 battles +aftermath!), the writer (the reference signs appear to have been added by the person who painted the red and green initials, either the scribe or an illustrator) provided a humble yet efficient reading aid for keeping close to the narrative as well as for memorizing the text. The Greek heroes Agamemnon, Menelaus (Menelax in Old French), Nestor and Ajax are each marked with a small ‘g’ in the margin in the image below. King Priam’s bastard sons Cassibilant, Dinas of Aron and Doroscalu, as well as the Trojan warrior Rodomorus are marked with a ‘t’ in the subsequent image.

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The G signs in the margin correspond to the names of Greek warriors on the two lines. There are two names on each of the marked lines (Agamemnon and Menelax / Nestor and Ajax)

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The names are marked with a small G and a T in the margin. This makes it easier to keep track of who’s fighting against whom.

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