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The Matter of France, the legendary history of Charlemagne, had a central but now largely unrecognised place in the multilingual culture of medieval England. From the early claim in the Chanson de Roland that Charlemagne held England as his personal domain, to the later proliferation of Middle English romances of Charlemagne, the materials are woven into the insular political and cultural imagination. However, unlike the wide range of continental French romances, the insular tradition concentrates on stories of a few heroic characters: Roland, Fierebras, Otinel. Why did writers and audiences in England turn again and again to these narratives, rewirting and reinterpreting them for more than two hundred years?
This book is the first full-length study of the tradition. It investigates the currency and impact of the Matter of France with equal attention to English and French-language texts, setting each individual manuscript or early printed text in its contemporary cultural and political context. The narratives are revealed to be extraordinarily adaptable, using the iconic opposition between Carolingian and Saracen heroes to reflect concerns with national politics, religious identity, the future of Christendom, chivalry and ethics, and monarchy and treason.