The Legend of Theseus of Cologne – Variations, Origins, and Influence


The Queens of France had paintings of the story (now lost) in their apartment in the Hotel Saint Pol in Paris. Various other tapestries and murals of the legend are known from registers, but all are now destroyed.

The four main exemplars of the original story are as follows:

MS P. BnF. Nouv. Acq. Fr. 10060. Missing beginning and end. Includes the long version of Part II.

MS L. BM. Add. 16955. Various pages missing. Includes the short version of Part II.

MS Ph. Phillipps 3636. Complete. Includes the short version of Part II.

1534 edition, prose. Unlike the verse MSS, which runt the two together without a break, this edition distinguished Parts I and II as separate books. Uses the long version of Part II.

The Miracle of King Thierry

A miracle play written for the goldsmiths of Paris, probably in 1374. The scene is moved to Aragon, and all connection with the Kings of France removed, wherefore we will not describe it in detail. It tells the story of Queen Osanne and her husband King Thierry. The queen-mother is unnamed. Her maidservant is named Bethis. The charcoal burner is still named Renier. Saint Michael guides Osanne safely to Jerusalem.

Gestes et Croniques de la Maison de Savoye

Written by Jehan Servion, a vassal of Phillipe II Lackland, Duke of Savoy. As the name implies, a history of the deeds of the house of Savoy all the way back to the Trojan War, though Jehan modestly disclaims knowledge of the exact descent of the Trojans from Adam and Eve. In the prologue is included the story of Theseus of Cologne, here the son of King Eseus and Queen Elaine. He wins the hand of Princess Ysobie, daughter of Emperor Giordain (sometimes called Vallerien. That is, Emperors Valerian (251-260) and Gordian II (238-244)). The date is changed to 242. The Pope is St. Fabian (236-250), not Boniface. We quote Elizabeth Rosenthal’s summary of the changes made by Servion:

“There are additions to the story:
The episode of queen Helayne and the poor woman, which replaces that of Queen Alidoyne mocking a deformed child.
The episode of the squires discussing Ysobie.
The person of the tutor who looks after Thezeus, thus making him seem younger and. less independant.
The person of the goldsmith’s wife.
The episode in which Thezeus disguises himself as a jewel merchant.
The tournament in which Thezeus obeys Yzobie’s commands exactly.

Important omissions include:
The accusation of adultery with a dwarf because of Fernagus’rejected love, consequently the single combat between Lucas-Cornicant and Fernagus.
The assassination ordered by Floridas of his own son, and the transformation before imminent death.
Separation and. further adventures after the wedding.
All pain and violence.
Realism within the happenings of the romance (although there are charming realistic descriptions of everyday life at court).” (pp. 1252-1253)

Elizabeth Rosenthal is disinclined to believe this version had any other source than the chanson de geste, which Jehan altered to suit his purposes.

Roman de l’Assaillant

Claims, almost certainly falsely, to be based on Latin chronicles. A very brief summary of the Theseus-legend, with the exploits of Assaillant told at length. The Danmartins are glorified at every turn. The only addition to the plot comes when Gerard, son of Assailant, weds Colombe, and the wedding, lasting a fortnight, is described. They will have five childen. Whenever the heroes are fighting in the East, the author takes the point of view of Ludovis and emphasises the French contributions to the wars.

Antoine de Chabannes was accused of treason against the French crown in 1461 and again in 1478. Likely one of these instances was the spur for some loyal subject of his to write this story in defense of his lord and native land.

Short Prose: Bib. Nat. Fr. 1473. and the Trepperel Fragment

A manuscript agreeing with the Trepperel fragment of 1504. 55 miniatures. A shortening of the long prose that was printed in 1534, with a few minor changes (though none of importance) and some bits of actual history interpolated from the Grands Chroniques de France. The author supports King Ludovis [here Loys] in his decision to tax the clergy and confiscate the wealth of the Church for his wars, and glorifies Assaillant, Gerard, and the Danmartins.

Gestes de Courtenay – Phillips 8161 and BnF 4962

A yet further abridgement by Nicolle Houssemayne, based on the Short Prose. Written between 1498 and 1503. The venerable and grave physician Houssemayne is a realist, and ignores all the marvellous and romantic elements of the story, focusing even more than the Short Prose on the military exploits of Ludovis and Assaillant. The most interesting thing in his work is his admission that he had to borrow the books he used without asking, since their owners would not lend them out.

Contant d’Orville

Contant d’Orville, an 18th century man of letters, worked with the Marquis of Paulmy (founder of the Arsenal library) to produce the 70-volume Mélanges tirés d’une grande bibliothèque. The edition of Theseus of Cologne from which he worked is lost. D’Orville writes very much in the style of the Bibliothèque des Romans, altering freely. Most notably, he reduces the roles of lower and middle-class characters and plays up the sacredness of nobility and royalty.


The author of the first part actually understands the point of a laisse, and uses anticipation and snappy endings. The author of the second is much inferior to he of the first, and is content to reduplicate incidents with no sense of proportion or overall structure. The complete poem features no fewer than “six accused queens, four rejected lovers, five champions, three pardoned traitors who relapse, two unwelcome weddings, two wicked uncles, two rescues (from prison and from the stake), one hero against all several times,” as Ms. Rosenthal puts it.

The motif of Christian captives being set to plow fields like beasts is also found in the English ballad of Young Beichan [Lord Bateman], Child 53, the Scandanavian ballads of Henry of Brunswick, the German songs of Alexander von Metz and the Graf von Rom. I do not know if there are any historic instances, but it would not surprise me.

The poem is certainly older than Ciperis of Vignevaux, but it is unclear which of Theseus or Baudoin de Sebourc borrowed from the other.

Christine de Pizan mentions the story in her Debate of Two Lovers (1400-1402).

Let this much suffice for Theseus of Cologne, for King Dagobert, and for the ancestors of the Carolingians, and let us now speak of the grandfather of Charlemagne, that is Charles the Hammer, or, as some books have it, King Rother.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.