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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY - pArt 3
The Chanson de Geste of Girart de Roussillon
The story of the rediscovery of Les Fontaines Salées is curious. It is fiction made fact - the result of following a legend to its source, and finding elements of the truth, but also finding further mystery. Not until comparatively recent times was the full story revealed, and even now the site has much raw archaeology to offer.
The legend which led to their rediscovery, is important to King Arthur’s story. It is a medieval Chanson de Geste called ‘La Chanson de Girart de Roussillon (vi). Chansons de Gestes were part of what is known as ‘The Matter of France’. They were sung troubadour stories of the military and religious heroics mainly of Charlemagne and his Paladins against the Moorish invasion. The most famous is the Chanson de Roland about the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. They compare with ‘The Matter of Britain’, the legendary history of Britain and, of course, King Arthur.
Girart de Roussillon was written down at about the same time as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History. Although anonymous, it is thought to be based on an ancient epic poem and recorded by a monk either in Vézelay or Asquins some time between 1136 and 1180. Like all similar tales of that time it contains legendary matter spattered with fact, miraculous religious events, marvellous weapons, bloody battles and impossibly evil or saintly people who may, or may not, have actually existed. In this case, Girart de Roussillon and his wife Berthe were most definitely real. They lived in the 9th century and are credited as the founders of Vézelay. How much of their story is real, as told in this Chanson de Geste, will never be known. But, we have a medieval Vézelay Chronicler in Hugues de Poitiers, who is our main reality check. His account of the history of Vézelay is vivid and absorbing. Regarding the early history, it must be remembered that he is writing from a distance of 300 years. But first a brief synopsis of the legend.
The Chanson de Girart de Roussillon is just what you might expect a conscientious but bored monk to spend his winter months in Asquins writing down. It’s heavy on religion and morality. It’s heavy on jealousy, rivalry, hubris and treachery. It’s ten thousand lines of old French, plus an epilogue – which makes it hard-going unless you’re a French medievalist. But as a tale of Burgundy from an ancient time and place – it’s like finding buried treasure.
The story begins with a rivalry between two nobles: Charles the Bald (who was also ‘real’ - and bald) and Girart de Roussillon. Charles, the King of France, controls the north of France. Girart, the Duke of Burgundy, controls the south. In fact there are several theories about who was the actual Girart. Was he Girart de Roussillon as in Langedoc-Roussillon – the region of southern France? Was he Girart de Roussillon who had lands in the Morvan?
Or was he Girart from the region near to Chatillon-sur-Seine where he had a castle and founded another abbey, as well as Vézelay, as the legend would have it?
Anyway, the Emperor of the east in Constantinople, was having the usual trouble with ‘barbarians’. This time the ‘barbarians’ were the ‘Saracens’. (If you try one of those automatic internet translations from French into English the ‘Saracens’ are translated as the ‘Buckwheats’ – which doesn’t somehow reflect the right level of menace). At the Pope’s behest, both Girart and Charles went to the Emperor’s aid. As a reward for their services the Emperor had promised them each one of his daughters in marriage. As the highest ranking noble, King Charles was to get Berthe the more senior and serious daughter, and Girart was to get Elissent - the younger of the two. By all accounts, Elissent was beautiful and Berthe was – a good and saintly woman. Of course when he saw her, the King, being a shallow, power-crazed, war-mongering, testosterone-led chauvinist, wanted Elissent instead of Berthe and petulantly demanded he have her. Girart was gallant and immediately gave her to the King – but not before the poor girl had fallen hopelessly in love with Girart. She didn’t much like the look of Charles who was, of course, bald. In fact, she never fell out of love with Girart even though her sister now, quite properly, occupied Girart’s thoughts. The King was furiously jealous – not only because Girart was now loved by both sisters, but also because he had a sneaking suspicion that saintly Berthe was probably the more suited to being his Queen after all, and he’d made the wrong choice.
Charles took out his anger on Girart by capturing Girart’s castle near Chatillon-sur-Seine, thus beginning a series of wars and counter-wars. Girart retreated to Avallon and gathered around him a very large army. His father, Drogon (a name of legendary ‘weight’) and his uncle were brought into the fray. As was the custom in those days, a battle was ‘arranged’ between the two sides. Like a contest, there was a date, place and time agreed where the two conflicting sides would make combat. The winner would be compensated. The battle was to take place beside the River Cure at ‘Valbeton’ – said to be located between St.Père-sous-Vézelay and Pierre Perthuis.
© Marilyn Floyde 2007
Next - The Forges of Avalon
2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.