Floriant et Florete: An Arthurian Romance of the Mediterranean
Floriant et Florete, a thirteenth-century Arthurian romance, is preserved in a single manuscript that has been held, since 1941, in the Archives and Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library. Although neglected by scholars and unknown to common readers, its text is not only interesting as an entry in the annals of Arthurian history, it is also fascinating as a work of literary pastiche.
A "pastiche" is a feat that resembles plagiarism in its execution: the writer stitches together various themes and episodes and even repeats passages verbatim from pre-existing texts, in order to create a composite work whose aesthetic rests on the writer and audience's prior knowledge of an earlier tradition. The pastiche differs from plagiarism in that it does not intend to deceive the reader into thinking it an original work; on the contrary, the successful pastiche evokes its antecedents for the purposes of parody or satire, which depend on the audience's awareness of the pastiche's derivative nature.
I have been lucky enough to work directly with the manuscript of Floriant this spring as a research intern in the Manuscripts and Division, and I believe that the text and the manuscript should hold a strong interest for medieval and Arthurian scholars and enthusiasts. As a pastiche, Floriant casts a new light on the practices of rewriting and re-interpretation among the other medieval Arthurian romances of its time. But before delving into those intricacies, I will summarize a) the medieval French Arthurian legend as it relates to Floriant, b) the plot of Floriant itself, c) certain scholarly hypotheses regarding Floriant's historical context, and d) Floriant's relationship to the other romances that constitute its source material.
The Arthurian legends constitute a vast body of literary and artistic work, including (to name a few of the most well-known pieces) the collection of Welsh tales called the Mabinogion (c. 1350), Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, completed in 1138), Sir Thomas Malory's prose narrative Le Morte d'Arthur (printed in 1485), Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poetical cycle The Idylls of the King (completed in 1885) and T. H. White's novel The Once and Future King (published in 1958).
Floriant et Florete is part of the second literary generation of Arthurian romances written in Old French. The word "romance" refers not to love but to a prose or poetical narrative written in a "Romance language," or one of the many languages descended from Latin. The Arthurian legends first entered the romance genre during the final third of the twelfth century, when a poet calling himself "Chrétien de Troyes" composed the narratives of Erec et Enide, Cligés, Le Chevalier de la Charette (or Lancelot), Le Chevalier au Lion (or Yvain), and Le Conte du Graal (or Perceval). In the thirteenth century, as Chrétien's works became more and more widely read, they spawned numerous imitators and adaptors, including the anonymous writer of Floriant et Florete.
In the romance tradition, King Arthur rules over a powerful kingdom and a luxurious court, but he himself is a weak, ineffectual ruler whose mistakes must be rectified by his knights and whose wife, Queen Guinevere, is in love with the knight Sir Lancelot. (Note: This spinelessness is a far cry from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century versions of Arthur as a figure of strength whose kingdom is a utopian civilization.) Eventually, Arthur is mortally wounded in a battle against his illegitimate son, Mordred, but he does not die; rather, he is spirited away to a magical island or castle so that his wound may be healed. Legend has it that Arthur will one day return to his kingdom in its hour of need.
For the following plot summary, I have relied on the information given in the edition of Floriant et Florete edited by Annie Combes and Richard Trachsler (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003). Combes and Trachsler's edition, the first to bring Floriant et Florete to a modern audience, is composed in French and lacks an English translation.
The romance tells the tale of Floriant, the son of the King of Sicily, who has been dispossessed of his inheritance by his father's disloyal seneschal, or household steward. Abducted as a newborn by Morgan Le Fay, Floriant is raised in the secret castle of Mongibel until he is fifteen years old, when he departs on an enchanted ship to go on various adventures. Eventually he reaches King Arthur's court in Britain, where he learns his own name and the name of his father. Having discovered his true identity, Floriant departs for Sicily with King Arthur's armada in order to avenge his father's death and deliver his mother from the siege that has been raised against her by the treacherous seneschal.
The seneschal, aided by the Emperor of Constantinople, launches an attack on King Arthur's fleet. During the combat, Floriant meets Florette, the Emperor's daughter, with whom he falls in love. After a second battle, this time at Palerma, Floriant and Florette arrange to meet secretly at night in a bower, but a dwarf surprises them and alerts the Emperor. The lovers flee to King Arthur's camp. After a third battle, in which Floriant's enemies suffer heavy losses, the Emperor offers to negotiate a peace with Floriant and Arthur. At the negotiation, Floriant publicly denounces the seneschal's treason and challenges him to a judiciary duel. Floriant, of course, defeats the seneschal, who confesses his guilt and is subsequently drawn and quartered.
Floriant marries Florette and is crowned King of Sicily. After three years of happiness, Floriant overhears a noblewoman accuse him of being a recreant knight, and he decides to prove his valiance once again. He and Florette depart Sicily under the names of the Fair Savage and Pleasant of the Isle, and after several adventures, they reach King Arthur's court, where they reveal their true identities. Messengers arrive at Arthur's court to announce the death of the Emperor and to declare Floriant as his heir. Floriant and Florette depart for Constantinople, where Floriant is crowned as the new Emperor. They return to Sicily after three years.
Ten years after their return, Floriant, while out hunting, pursues a blindingly white deer to the summit of a mountain and into a castle, where he finds Morgan le Fay. She tells him that his life was almost over, but he will stay alive as long as he remains with her at Mongibel; King Arthur will join them later when he receives a mortal wound. Morgan sends three fairies to fetch Florette, who is quickly brought to Mongibel. After that, no one ever hears tell of Floriant and Florette again.
According to Combes and Trachsler, textual and intertextual evidence strongly suggests that Floriant was composed after 1268 at the earliest, possibly in Italy or in Sicily itself. With its portrayal of a united Sicily, Floriant may well have been written in the 1280's, as propaganda on behalf of the Frankish Angevin kings. Floriant and Florete may have been written as an attempt to imagine a more pro-Angevin situation, although the solution it provides — that of a Sicilian prince who, rescued and protected by a fairy queen, becomes the Emperor of Constantinople — would have been as impracticable as it was alluring.
An alternative hypothesis, that Floriant constitutes a lament for the passing of Norman rule in Sicily, is proposed by Sara Sturm-Maddox in her article "Arthurian Evasions: The End(s) of Fiction in Floriant et Florete," found in the anthology Por le soie amisté: Essays in Honor of Norris J. Lacy, eds. Keith Busby and Catherine M. Jones (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2000), 475-489.
According to Sturm-Maddox, the Normans dreamt of Mediterranean domination. The romance fulfills this aspiration by including King Arthur (whose legend, though British in origin, was often "re-rooted" to legitimize Norman rule) as a significant ally for the Sicilian prince Floriant, whose marriage to the Byzantine princess Florette unites the Mediterranean under Sicilian — or is it Norman? — domination.
By 1268, when Sicily had passed from Norman to Hohenstaufen to Angevin rule, the Norman dreams of empire would have taken on a nostalgic, tragic cast. It is notable that the end of Floriant et Florete contradicts the usual prophecy of Arthur's triumphant "second coming" to Britain in her hour of need: Arthur, like Floriant, will stay alive only as long as he remains in the castle of Mongibel. By foreclosing the possibility of Arthur and Floriant's return, the romance may be refusing to make the usual Arthurian promise of a glorious future. If this be the case, then the romance is not offering the Angevins a vision of future conquest, but rather mourning the golden age of the Norman past.
The information regarding the intertext of Floriant et Florete is drawn from Annie Combes and Richard Trachsler's introduction, as well as from Keith Busby's article "The Intertextual Context of Floriant et Florete," contained in French Forum 20.3 (Sept. 1995), 261-277. The quotations from Perceval and from Floriant et Florete are translated from selections in the appendix to Busby's article. "Intertextuality" refers to the relationships among different texts, while the "intertext" of a given work refers to the bodies of literature to which that work relates.
The writer of Floriant et Florete responded to, rewrote, and often simply recopied the works of Arthurian literature that had come before. He was familiar with all five of Chrétien's works, and it is probable that he had a copy of at least one of them at hand while he was writing.
Floriant's prologue, like the prologue of Chrétien's Erec and Enide, begins by quoting a proverb and then "glosses," or elaborates, upon it. The Mediterranean setting of Floriant seems to have been borrowed from Cliges, whose hero, like Floriant, ascends to the throne as the Emperor of Constantinople, or else taken from the early thirteenth-century romance Guillaume de Palerne, in which a young prince of Apulia is rescued from his father's enemies and raised in ignorance of his lineage until he grows to chivalric greatness, defeats his family's foes, marries the Emperor's daughter, and ascends to his father's throne. The story of Floriant's abduction and subsequent upbringing by Morgan le Fay may also be lifted from an early thirteenth-century romance called the Prose Lancelot, in which the title character is spirited away by Viviane, also known as the Lady of the Lake, and raised as her own son until he too sets out to discover his true identity and ascend to greatness. Finally, the episode in which Floriant is accused of being a recreant knight is lifted from Erec and Enide, in which Erec overhears his wife, Enide, lamenting that she has ruined his honor and knighthood by keeping him by her side rather than encouraging him to perform knightly deeds of prowess. Like Erec, Floriant brings his wife on a quest in order to re-establish his reputation, although Floriant and Florette do not suffer Erec and Enide's emotional anguish over the issue.
In addition to adapting episodes and motifs from previously-written romances, the writer of Floriant et Florete frequently copied entire passages verbatim into his own text, including dozens of quotations from Chrétien's Perceval. Where Perceval reads,
It was on a Pentecost that the Queen was sitting next to King Arthur at the head of the table, and there were counts and kings enough, and Kay came into the hall, unarmored and holding a wooden staff, and he said: "My lord, if it please you, it's time for you to eat." "Kay," replied the King, "leave me in peace; for by the eyes in my head, I will never eat at such a great feast, at which I'm holding court in state, until some novelty come to my court. (2785-88; 2793-95; 2820-26)
My lords, it was on a Pentecost that the Queen was sitting next to King Arthur at the high table. There were many dukes, counts, and kings; and Kay came before the King, a wooden staff in his hand. "My lord," he said, "now listen to me: your feast is ready, and you can eat now." "Kay," replied the King, "leave me in peace, for by God, I won't eat until I hear some news of novelty or adventure, whether it be good or bad." (1537-50)
These translations from the Old French appear in the appendix to Keith Busby's article.Floriant contains many other copied passages, only slightly changed (if at all) from their source. One or two such lines might have been a coincidence, but the vast number of line-for-line correspondences between Floriant and Perceval indicate that the writer of the latter text was deliberately embroidering his romance with stolen finery. Although such borrowing was not unusual during the Middle Ages (during the fourteenth century, Chaucer himself would incorporate portions of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy into his verse romance Troilus and Criseyde), what is uncommon is the scale on which it was performed by the writer of Floriant, whose text contains not one original episode — a feat that must have been difficult to accomplish.
To be continued...
In my next blog post, I will discuss Floriant's significance as a literary pastiche and as a work of adaptation or translation.
Busby, Keith. "The Intertextual Context of Floriant et Florete." French Forum 20.3 (Sept. 1995) 261-277.
Combes, Annie and Richard Trachsler, eds. Floriant et Florete. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003.
Raffaespo. "Palazzo Realie di Napoli - Carlo I d'Angiò." Wikipedia Commons. Web. May 31, 2003.
Sturm-Maddox, Sara. "Arthurian Evasions: The End(s) of Fiction in Floriant et Florete." eds. Keith Busby and Catherine M. Jones. Por le soie amisté: Essays in Honor of Norris J. Lacy. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2000. 475-489.