Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Politics of Courtly Love: 'La Prise d'Orange' and the Conversion of the Saracen Queen

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Politics of Courtly Love: 'La Prise d'Orange' and the Conversion of the Saracen Queen

Article excerpt

I.

"Women," writes cultural critic Barbara Harlow, "have long been at the center of the conflict between East and West...as phantasmic representations of Western designs on the Orient. The misunderstandings of the woman's place and role in the respective societies have continued through the centuries to scar relations between the different cultures.... Possession of Arab women came to serve as a surrogate for and means to the political and military conquest of the Arab world."(1) Though Harlow's observation comes from a study of the photographic representation of North African women in the age of French colonialism, her words seem oddly appropriate to what might arguably be called a medieval example of literary Orientalism, the Old French epic La Prise d'Orange. Set in a mythical ninth century during the reign of Charlemagne's son King Louis the Pious, this twelfth-century text recounts epic hero Guillaume Fierebrace's conquest of the city; through both trickery and force of arms, he acquires the name by which he is best known to literary history: Guillaume d'Orange. A pivotal part of this adventure, however,is his amorous siege and conquest of the superb queen Orable. Wife of Tiebaud, the Saracen emir across-the-sea and stepmother of Arragon, who holds the prized city of Orange in fief from his father, she abandons husband and faith in order to deliver the city to the Frankish invaders, accepting baptism at their hands-all for the love of the handsome conqueror Guillaume Fierebrace.

The prominence of this love plot, together with the comedic elements it entails, have proven something of an embarrassment for critics concerned that they somehow irreparably compromise the poem's epic seriousness and narrative coherence. Like the heroes of epic, Guillaume Fierebrace is a warrior whose personal conquests extend the borders of the Frankish kingdom, coextensive with the hegemony of Christendom itself; like the heroes of romance, on the other hand, he frequently appears ridiculous in the process of wooing and ultimately winning the beautiful, highborn lady with whom he is desperately in love. "[A] mi-chemin entre l'epopee et le roman courtois," write Claude Lachet and Jean-Pierre Tusseau in the introduction to their translation of the text: "position ambigue, de contraste, qui favorise le comique."(2)

In contrast, strikingly little attention has been paid the poem's representation of the idealized, feminized Other. This is a curious omission, for Guillaume's quest of Orable is key to his acquisition of Orange, jewel in the crown of Emir Tiebaud's magnificent empire. It is Guillaume's fascination with her reported beauty that leads him to undertake his expedition in the first place; it is through his seduction of this enemy queen that he gains the weapons he needs to wage war against her protector and stepson; finally, it is her conversion to Christianity and her marriage to Guillaume that stamp the seal of legitimacy on the count's military conquest of the Islamic south. Yet the role played by the Saracen queen has interested critics primarily as a motif that allows them to ascertain lines of influence among chansons de geste, as well as between Old French epics and other pre-existing literary and oral traditions. Perhaps this is because, as Maria Rosa Menocal suggests in a polemical article recently appearing in the pages of Romanic Review, modern readers of medieval French literary texts tend to take the representation of non-Christian characters or settings as ornamental: exotic but ultimately irrelevant detail. Interested in questions of form and genre, guided by (often unacknowledged) presuppositions about "a medieval Europe of simple paternity and unambiguous truths and meanings," they rarely take into account the "historical-cultural axis" of these "astonishingly polyvalent and relativistic products of a culture critically more pluralistic and culturally (and ideologically) diverse than our cultural institutions have wished to see in our own `heritage. …

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