Sege off Melayne, The

Sege off Melayne, The
(The Siege of Milan)
(ca. 1350–1400)
   The Sege off Melayne is a fragmentary late 14thcentury ROMANCE of CHARLEMAGNE, written in a northern dialect of MIDDLE ENGLISH and surviving in a single manuscript (British Museum MS Additional 31042, known as the “London Thornton” manuscript) dating from about 1450. The 1,599-line poem is written in 12-line TAIL-RHYME stanzas rhyming aabccbddbeeb, the form of many popular romances of the time. Unlike most Charlemagne romances, however, The Sege off Melayne has no known source, and, although the narrator refers to “the chronicle” as his source, the poem may even have originally been composed in English, particularly since its theme seems less the glorification of the French king than it is the exaltation of the religious ideal of the crusade. The protagonist of the poem is clearly the archbishop, Turpin, rather than Charlemagne himself or one of the 12 peers of France (such as Roland or Oliver).
   The theme of the poem is the defense of the faith against the Saracen infidel, the great goal of the late medieval crusading mentality. It begins as the sultan Arabas leads his armies into Tuscany, conquering many cities.He burns the crucifixes in the churches and sets up Mohammedan “idols” in their place, and martyrs many Christian women and children. Sir Alantyne, the lord of the city of Milan, is confronted by the conquering army, and given the choice of death or conversion to Islam. He spends the night in prayer, and an angel appears to him, telling him to go to Charlemagne, king of France, and tell him that God bids him to rescue Milan from the heathen. The same night, Charlemagne also receives a vision in which an angel gives him a sword, symbolizing a holy sanction for a war on the Saracens.
   In a council of Charles’s retainers, Ganelon advises Charles not to go to the war, but to let Roland lead an army there instead—as in The SONG OF ROLAND and other CHANSONS DE GESTE, Ganelon is depicted as a treasonous knight. Roland’s army rides to Milan and engages the Saracen army but suffers a terrible defeat. Roland is taken prisoner, with Oliver and two other peers, but the other 40,000 Christian warriors are slain. The poet, calling the French troops “our knights,” focuses specifically on the death of the duke of Normandy, who has a dying vision of French knights being welcomed into heavenly bliss.
   In the second fitt (or section), the sultan tries to persuade the four French knights to forsake Christianity by burning a crucifix in order to demonstrate the powerlessness of the Christian God. As an answer to the knights’ prayers, not only does the crucifix fail to burn, but fire flashes from it and blinds the Saracens, enabling the four knights to kill their captors (including the sultan Arabas) and escape on white horses, which appear at the precise moment they are needed.When Bishop Turpin hears of the slaughter, he laments to the Virgin Mary, complaining to her that had she not been born and given birth to Christ, these 40,000 knights would not have been killed. Charles is disturbed by the news, and Ganelon advises him to make himself vassal to the new sultan, Garcy. Turpin curses Ganelon and his advice, and urges Charles to take vengeance for the knights he has lost. The bishop himself sends throughout Christendom for an army of priests, 100,000 strong, who come to fight for the faith under his guidance. But once again, under Ganelon’s advice, the king refuses to take part in the battle. At this, Turpin calls the king a coward, and excommunicates both him and Ganelon. He then leads his huge army against the city of Paris, and Charles decides to relent, ask the bishop’s forgiveness and absolution, and go himself to Milan. Within three weeks he has raised another army, and they set out for Lombardy.
   In fitt three, the final battle begins. Turpin essentially directs the battle.He goads the others on to do their duty to their God.When his squire despoils the body of a dead Saracen, Turpin beats him with his sword and declares that there should be no spoils until victory is won.Wounded twice, Turpin still fights on. He vows not to eat or drink or have his wounds tended to until Milan is taken back by the Christians. He urges Charlemagne to fight on against superior odds even as reinforcements arrive from Brittany. But the manuscript breaks off at this point, before what was clearly to be an ultimate victory for the Christian forces. The Sege off Melayne is a lively and readable romance, of particular interest for its focus on Turpin and the moral values he represents. In addition, the poem provides a clear view of Christian attitudes toward Muslims in the late medieval period.
   ■ Barron,W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987.
   ■ Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
   ■ Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances. Edited by Alan Lupack. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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