|Millais, The Knight Errant (1870)|
Continuing the theme of abduction from Part 1, this post looks more closely at the Middle English romance Octavian.
This romance was widely disseminated throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Middle English text survives in two distinct versions, known as the Northern and Southern Octavians (NO and SO). Both versions are thought to have been composed during the same period, around 1350, although surviving copies of the romance date to almost one hundred years later (McSparran, 41-42). In this post I focus on the version of NO in Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c.1450) as it contains the most interesting details about abduction.
The romance begins with the longed-for birth of twin sons to Octavian, Emperor of Rome and his wife. The Emperor is overjoyed, but his happiness quickly turns to anger as, through the plotting of his mother, it appears that his wife has been adulterous and she and her sons are exiled.
Wandering in the forest, the Empress becomes lost and her two children are kidnapped. Wandering in the forest, the Empress becomes lost and her two children are kidnapped. The first, named Octavian after his father, is captured by a griffin, then a lioness, but is rediscovered by the Empress. Mother and son travel to Jerusalem where they are greeted by the Christian ruler and Octavian is baptised. The other child, Florent, is kidnapped by an ape and then found by a knight and outlaws respectively, who eventually sell the child to Clement, a Parisian merchant. Clement and his wife raise Florent as their own child.
When Florent is grown, France is besieged by Saracens, who camp just outside of Paris. The daughter of the Saracen Sultan, Marsabelle, writes to the King of France for permission to reside at Montmartre. Amongst the Saracen host is a giant, whom Marsabelle agrees to kiss if he can bring her the head of the King of France. The giant attacks Paris, but Florent, dressed in Clement’s rusty armour, kills him. Florent cuts off the giant’s head and rides to Montmartre where he presents it to Marsabelle, claiming the kiss she had earlier promised.
He then attempts to abduct Marsabelle, lifting her over his saddle, but is forced to release her as an outcry rises in the town. Marsabelle returns to her father’s camp, where the Sultan is incensed by Florent’s actions, assuring his daughter that she will be revenged. Marsabelle, however, confides in her maid, Olive, that she has fallen in love with Florent and wishes that he would come to abduct her. Meanwhile, Florent returns to Paris and is knighted at a feast where his true parentage is revealed.
Riding near the Saracen camp one day, Florent spies Marsabelle and Olive walking by the riverside and crosses the river on his horse to speak with her. Marsabelle tells him of her plan for how Florent should abduct her and tells him about her father’s best horse, which Clement, in disguise, steals from the Saracens. The next day Florent enacts Marsabelle’s plan, carrying her to Paris, but his absence from the battlefield means that Octavian and the King of France are captured. Florent tries to rescue them but fails, and all the Christians are imprisoned.
Word of their capture reaches Jerusalem, and the young Octavian, Florent’s brother decides to rescue his father. He and his mother travel to France with an army, ambush the Saracens and defeat them. Octavian rescues the prisoners and reveals his identity, reuniting the joyful family. Marsabelle is christened and marries Florent. They all return to Rome.
Several different abductions occur in Octavian, but it is the abduction of the Sultan’s daughter, Marsabelle, by the romance’s hero, Florent, which pervades the narrative: introduced at line 994, her abduction is not completed until line 1524 (the version of the romance in Cambridge Ff.2.38 is 1731 lines long). Abduction of the heroine by the hero is rare in Middle English romance, Bevis of Hampton is the only other Middle English romance I know of where the hero abducts the heroine (and in Bevis it is with the heroine’s consent).
So how does Octavian make abduction, a potentially traumatic event, into something a hero can successfully enact to secure a love match with his heroine? I want to suggest that by reworking the abduction of the heroine as rescue rather than kidnap, that Octavian transforms kidnap into a legitimate act of courtship. A large part of this transformation, I want to suggest, is the reworking of abduction as rescue or protection.
In Octavian, Marsabelle requires protection. She is aware of the danger of her situation, travelling alone in wartime Europe. After arriving in France, Marsabelle contacts the King of France, requesting ‘to lodge at nearby Montmartre, / Three miles from Paris […] for she wanted to see marvellous things’ (788-9, 792).
The King grants her permission and offers her safe passage, in doing so explicitly laying out the potential dangers involved:
The King of France greeted the maiden,
For he was truly a King and knight,
And swore by his faith,
That she could confidently travel [to Montmartre];
For no man would harm her
Either in daylight or at night (793-8).
The identified threat here is sexual; as I mentioned in Part 1, the danger of rape was a consistent subtext in the abduction of women. The King assures Marsabelle that ‘no man’ will ‘harm her’, the Middle English word ‘mysdo’ here carrying connotations of sexual assault.
The sexual threat to Marsabelle is made evident when Florent ‘travelled directly / To Montmartre where the maiden was residing’ (994-5) bearing the head of the giant he has just killed. Florent greets the Princess, presenting her with the head, to which the Princess responds: ‘I think he [the giant] has kept his promise; / When he could not obtain the King’s head, / He sent me his own instead’ (1012-14). So far, their conduct seems appropriately demure, yet Florent here retorts:
‘Maiden […] beautiful and fair
Now I will have what you promised to him’:
And over the saddle he leaned.
Again and again he kissed that maiden,
And picked her up, and rode away (1015-19).
Marsabelle’s sudden abduction here is startling and is particularly emphasised in the Cambridge Ff 2.38 version of Octavian. In the alternative text of the Northern Octavian in Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91 (Thornton), the line reads ‘and picked her up and intended to ride away’ (931, my emphasis), suggesting that the attempted abduction is more conditional. The abduction is thus more abrupt and definite in Cambridge Ff 2.38; it is clear that Florent does ride away with Marsabelle, although he does not get far, as he is forced to ‘put the maiden down, / And ready himself to fight’ (1025-6).
The elements of this attempted abduction reveal an interesting blurring between abduction and rescue. Whilst the reaction of others in the romance suggests that this is a straightforward kidnapping – ‘tumult and commotion rose in the town’ (1021) and Marsabelle’s father is so angry ‘that it was dreadful to see’ (1071) – there are aspects of the abduction which are more reminiscent of chivalric behaviour. For example, immediately after he abducts her, Florent cuts off part of Marsabelle’s ‘scarlet sleeve’ (1027) telling her: ‘mistress, by this you will recognise me’ (1028) in battle. This courtly and chivalric convention was regularly deployed in the literature of the period.
Furthermore, the sudden and intense expression of love between the two protagonists is typical of courtly depictions of love and suggests a relationship akin to that of victim/rescuer, as opposed to victim/abductor: the romance reveals ‘such love grew between the two of them’ (1030). So whilst some aspects of this abduction serve to construct it as straightforward kidnap, others suggest that it is a rescue, partly formed by elaborate chivalric ritual.
This abduction-cum-rescue is further complicated by the ambiguous position of Florent. If we read his actions as prompted by chivalric convention, Florent is presented as lover and rescuer, courting and liberating Marsabelle. However, if this is simply an abduction, Florent becomes a villain, assuming the place of the predatory giant. There is plenty of evidence to label Florent as lover. Although Florent’s taking away of Marsabelle can be read as abduction – Marsabelle later refers to Florent as the man who ‘abducted [her] from the Borough of the Queen’ (1244) – it is not necessarily non-consensual abduction (In his edition of Octavian Maldwyn Mills considers that ‘Borogh Larayn’ corresponds to ‘modern Bourg-la-reine in the [Parisian] arrondissement of Sceaux’ (Six Middle English Romances [London: Dent, 1973], note to line 787, p. 203). The romance makes it very clear that Marsabelle did not want to kiss the giant; in fact, she ‘would rather be punished / Than see him access her chamber: / So hideous a creature was he’ (808-10). Thus, by killing the giant, Florent has removed the threat of an unwanted relationship and allowed himself to be fixed as Marsabelle’s rescuer.
The romance also construes Marsabelle as so much in love with Florent that she ‘wept with sorrow, / When he could not win her’ (1031-2) potentially suggesting a desire not just for Florent, but for the abduction itself. Indeed, for the rest of the romance, Marsabelle devotes herself to arranging a more successful second abduction.
Furthermore, the use of the word ‘win’ shifts the tone of events from abduction – ‘picked her up, and rode away’ – to the idea of winning a woman by triumphing at a task: in this case, the killing of the giant. The word ‘win’ is used nine times in the Cambridge Ff 2.38 version of Octavian and refers to Marsabelle on five occasions. The Middle English Dictionary notes various uses of ‘win’ to denote possessive acquisition, including the gaining of a woman in a contest. By using this word to describe abduction, Octavian thus nuances its meaning.
The practice of ‘winning’ a woman was at the heart of the literary romantic and chivalrous ethos and is a regular feature in romance. By representing Marsabelle as a willing participant in this subsequent abduction, and defining the first attempted abduction as the courtly actions of a lover, the romance positions Florent as a rescuer, liberating Marsabelle both from sexual contact with a giant and, as this is a Christian-centric romance, from her Saracen companions and religion.
But the abducting Florent can also be read as villainous. In attempting to abduct Marsabelle, Florent assumes the role of the giant he has defeated. Yet he goes further than simply claiming victory and returning the giant’s head to Marsabelle: he not only claims the ‘one kiss’ (816) that Marsabelle had promised to the giant, but proceeds to claim several more: ‘again and again he kissed that maiden’. Moreover, Florent proceeds to abduct Marsabelle, moving from one kiss to claiming her whole body, fulfilling the abduction from which the king of France promised to protect Marsabelle. Florent’s statement – ‘now I will claim what you promised to him’ – establishes Marsabelle as a spoil of war, or a prize for defeating the giant. Yet, this is not a prize offered to Florent but one he designates for himself.
Furthermore, although Marsabelle arranges her second abduction by Florent, this first abduction is not constructed as offering her any real agency. The inference is that she will be abducted either way and although it would be preferable to be kidnapped by Florent rather than by the giant, this is not really figured as a choice for Marsabelle. This episode illustrates the contradictory characterisation of Florent as both lover and rescuer, villain and abductor, demonstrating the paradox of the captor-hero, which is common in modern romance but much rarer in medieval romance. It also reveals the undercurrent of violence which pervades chivalrous behaviour and the extent to which conventions of romance can be used to recast violent abduction as romantic rescue.
In Part 3, I will connect the articulation of abduction in Octavian with contemporary ideologies of abduction and consent.
McSparran, Frances, ed. Octovian. Early English Text Society 289. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
All translations of Octavian into modern English are my own.