Richard Coeur de Lyon


Richard Coeur de Lyon
(ca. 1300–1325)
   Richard Coeur de Lyon (Richard the Lion Heart [or Lionhearted]) is a MIDDLE ENGLISH verse ROMANCE of some 7,136 lines, composed in the southeastern part of England at the very beginning of the 14th century. The anonymous text is written in rhymed octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets and mixes chronicle with pure legend in telling the story of RICHARD I, king of England, and his adventures on the Third Crusade. The text survives in seven manuscripts and several fragments, and is believed by some to be based on an Anglo-Norman original from the mid-13th century, though no such source has survived. Popular tradition has turned the protagonist of this romance into a mythic character bearing little resemblance to the historical personage of Richard I. The charismatic quality of Richard’s character, presented by the patriotic writer as a point of national pride, is attributed in the romance to the fact that his mother is not the historical ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE but a supernatural elf-woman who is daughter of the infidel king of Antioch. In the romance, Richard proclaims a tournament on the day of his coronation. Jousting in his own tournament in disguise, Richard determines that Sir Thomas Multon and Sir Fulk Doyly are the worthiest knights in the realm, and chooses them to visit the Holy Land with him on a pilgrimage, in order to become familiar with the land prior to the intended Third Crusade. Returning in disguise from the pilgrimage, they insult a minstrel in a tavern. In retaliation, the minstrel (an Englishman who has recognized the king) visits Richard’s enemy Modard, king of Almayn, and betrays Richard to him.Modard arrests and imprisons the three travelers. Challenged by Modard’s arrogant son, Richard strikes the prince dead with a single blow of his fist. Modard wants Richard put to death, and sends a lion to kill him in his prison chamber. But Richard destroys the lion by reaching down its throat and pulling out its heart. He then carries the heart into Modard’s hall and eats it raw before the king’s eyes. Thus he earns his nickname, and Modard allows him to be ransomed. Upon his return to England, Richard plans his crusade, and much of the poem is devoted to his exploits against the Saracens in the Holy Land. There are detailed descriptions of battles, as well as gruesome depictions of Richard’s slaying of numerous Saracens, whose heads he cooks and dines upon with relish, serving them as well to visiting “pagan” ambassadors. In the romance, Richard is successful in conquering Babylon and Jaffa, and agrees to a three-year truce, after which the poem breaks off, unfinished.
   The romance of Richard Coeur de Lyon, while popular in medieval England, is seldom read today: It is without merit as history, and is not a distinguished literary text, being in addition too grisly for most tastes. It has been suggested that the author was the same poet who wrote the contemporary romances Of Arthour and of Merlin and King Alisaunder, but there is no way to prove such a conjecture. Perhaps the most valuable impact of the poem is its influence on Sir Walter Scott’s early 19th-century novel The Talisman.
   Bibliography
   ■ Ambrisco, Alan S. “Cannibalism and Cultural Encounters in Richard Coeur de Lion,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29 (1999): 499–528.
   ■ Broughton, Bradford B. The Legends of King Richard I, Coeur de Lion: A Study of Sources and Variations to the Year 1600. The Hague:Mouton, 1966.
   ■ Chapman, Robert L. “Notes on the Demon Queen Eleanor,” Modern Language Notes (June 1995): 393–396.
   ■ Heng, Geraldine. “The Romance of England,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, 132–172.
   ■ Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Other Medieval English Romances. Translated, edited, with an introduction by Bradford B. Broughton. New York: Dutton, 1966.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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