The legend of Theseus of Cologne exists in several versions, all of which are ultimately derived from a chanson de geste in rhymed Alexandrines. That chanson, however, exists in three very different MSS. Besides various expansions and abridgments in the first part of the poem, the second part is very much longer and completely different in P than in L and Ph. Elizabeth Rosenthal, in her magisterial study, professed herself unable to determine whether the long or short version was original. The following categorization is based on what she considers the most probable, though far from certain, family tree.
A now-lost archetype, including only Part I
MSS L. and Ph. Theseus de Cologne, a chanson de geste in rhymed alexandrines. c. 1360-1400.
Jehan Servion’s Preface to Gestes et Croniques de la Mayson de Savoye tells the story of Tezeus’ wooing of Princess Yzobie whilst hiding in a golden eagle.
A now-lost archetype that added Part II
Miracle du Roy Thierry, c. 1374.
MS P. The chanson de geste with an added Part II.
Contant d’Orville, 1700’s. A classicized prose retelling.
1534 edition, by Jehan Longis and Vincent Certenas. Mise en prose of a manuscript similar to, though not identical with, P.
A 1550 edition by Jehan Bonfons, which was the last printing of the full work for a century and a half.
A shorter prose version, B.N. Fr. 1472. Also represented by a chapbook by Jehan Trepperel, 1503, which survives only in a transcript of a few fragments.
Le Roman de l’Assaillant. B.N. Fr. 15096, retells an episode from the story in prose.
Gestes de Courtenay by Nicolle Houssemayne, prose. Also glorifying Assaillant. Found in two MSS: Phil. 8161 and B.N. Fr. 4962.
The most interesting parts of the poem have been edited, and all versions analyzed, by Elizabeth Rosenthal, whose thesis can be downloaded for free from the British Library’s Ethos (requires an account).
The two parts of the poem appear to be by different authors. It should surprise no one that the first is superior. Part One as we have it appears to predate 1364 and to have been based on a somewhat earlier version. Part Two was likely added after 1376.
THESEUS OF COLOGNE
It is the year 632. King Floridas of Cologne marries Princess Alidoyne, daughter of King Florent, who has been fostered at the court of King Dagobert. Alidoyne says that an ugly child must have been God’s punishment of its mother, and soon after gives birth to a deformed child herself, named Theseus. He grows up wise and strong. The king’s friend Fernagus falls in love with the queen, who rejects him, so he tells Florent that the queen loves Cornicant, a certain dwarf who is her servant, and Theseus is their son together. Florent plans to burn her, but a faithful knight warns her and she flees. The king orders his henchmen to take Theseus, aged 10, to the woods and kill him instead. The boy at first resists, then accepts his father’s will, only askingback to be beheaded like a nobleman. As the henchmen hesitate, Jesus cures Theseus’ hunchback and turns him beautiful. The henchmen take the boy back to court, where King Floridas is busily searching for Alidoyne to kill her. Cornicant challenges Fernagus to combat to clear his name, at which juncture Theseus returns. Alidoyne, hearing the news, leaves the house where she was hiding, the duel is fought, and Cornicant wins.
Theseus is dubbed at fifteen. Come May, he rides out errant. He comes to Venice, which he flees when Princess Yolent falls in love with him. Going on to Rome, he falls in love by report and by seeing her statue with Flore, Emperor Esmere’s daughter, who is being wooed by some sixty Christian and Pagan princes. He impersonates a herald to enter the palace, and gazes at Flore all though dinner. He then asks her hand of the Emperor on behalf of his “master,” prince Theseus, and addresses her directly when the Emperor refuses.
Theseus pays a goldsmith to make a hollow gold eagle, to give to the princess, in which he (Theseus) will hide. Astonishingly, this works. He overhears Flore and her ladies gossiping, then exits the eagle once all are asleep. He awakens Flore, who screams. The ladies see Theseus leap back into the eagle, and think he is a ghost. The Emperor comes, but fails to find Theseus. When all are asleep again, Theseus tries again, bringing a lamp this time. After some hesitation, Flore agrees to conceal him and to love him. They take her lady-in-waiting into confidence, and send word of Theseus’ success to his squires and the goldsmith. Theseus and Flore are married in private, and he begets a son, later to be named Gadifer, who will become Emperor of East and West and save King Ludovis [Clovis II] of France, son of Dagobert. For now, though, the Emperor of Constantinople is the Saracen Abillant, who, furious at being rejected by Flore, is invading. Theseus arranges for his men to sail a ship to the foot of Flore’s tower, and then the lovers escape thereon. Unfortunately, they are caught by the fleet of Abillant, whose herald recognizes Flore. Abillant praises Mahound and returns home, giving his ally King Aceres of Antioch all the captives except Flore. Abillant prepares to wed Flore onboard the ship, but her sorrow touches the heart of his enchanter Drumas, who magically preserves her chastity and prepares for her to escape. At this very moment, however, Aceres arrives, betrays Abillant, and attacks his fleet to conquer Flore. Drumas and Abillant drown, but Flore is saved – by Greek knights. In Constantinople, Flore is welcomed as queen, while Abillant’s brother Griffon of Saternie is regent for her and her possible son. Flore gives birth to a boy with a cross-shaped birthmark on his shoulder, whom Griffon orders his men to slay in the woods. Instead, they give him to a passing knight and take a deer’s heart to Griffon. The knight names his foundling Gadifer, after himself. All this time, Theseus is in prison in Antioch, and Aceres is nervously preparing for Griffon to attack him in vengeance for his brother.
Meanwhile, Emperor Esmere declares war on Cologne, much to the surprise of King Floridas (who has in the meantime had a daughter, Baudour [Saint Bathilde]). Floridas informs him, via messenger, that Theseus is not at home, that Esmere is overreacting, and that Esmere is being quite hypocritical, considering his own young love for Florence of Rome. Esmere prosecutes the war anyway, and besieges Cologne for seven years. At Queen Alidoyne’s advice, Floridas goes to the elderly King Dagobert of France, (under attack by the Normans) to offer him homage in exchange for relief. Dagobert sends his son, Prince Ludovis, whose standard-bearer is Count Assaillant of Dammartin. Ludovis and Baudour fall in love. King Esmere pretends to retreat in order to lure his enemies into an ambush. It is a success, and Floridas is captured. Ludovis’ men drag him away from the battle, but Ludovis, in anguish and shame, decides not to go home to France. Alidoyne surrenders Cologne to save her husband’s life, Esmere leaves the wicked Flohars in command of the city, and leads Floridas, Alidoyne and Baudour captive to Rome. Griffon sends Flore home to her father, who pardons her.
Meanwhile, Ludovis and Assaillant are wandering errant, and believed dead. Dagobert declares war on Rome, and allies with Ludovis’ cousin Desirams of Pavia. Ludovis hears of the war and joins the army. Ludovis and Esmere are both taken captive in battle. Ludovis falls in love with Flore and proposes to her, since her husband has been gone for seven years. Against her wishes, everyone begins planning the wedding, peace is made, and Flore is sent to Cologne with Ludovis.
Theseus has, meanwhile, been freed by Aceres of Antioch, for whom he has fought loyally for eight years. Aceres reluctantly agrees to let Theseus, who has had troubling dreams, go reclaim his wife, who, last he heard, was in Rome with her father. For some reason, however, he sails for Flanders instead, where he learns of the recent war, the tyranny of Flohars, and the impending wedding. As he heads to Cologne, robbers kill his squire and steal everything but his shirt. He arrives at the town as a beggar, reveals himself to a faithful innkeeper, Gaultier, and sends word by the innkeeper’s wife to Flore. Gaultier rallies the burghers, who accompany Theseus as he enters the palace, kills Flohar, and drives out the Romans. He sets a golden eagle on every tower and banner to mock the Emperor. Ludovis is out hunting at the time, and returns to hear the shocking news. He decides to go to Rome, where Esmere welcomes him as his honorary son-in-law, and makes him his heir, if he will help him attack Cologne. So it is done, but the Romans are defeated in a battle. Ludovis abandons his hatred of Theseus, and rides away, but Theseus overtakes him and challeenges him to single combat. Thesues’ sword was forged by the same man as Durendal, and he is about to kill Louis when Jesus sents Saint Denis to stop the fight and reconcile the two. Ludovis agrees to marry Baudour. Theseus and Ludovis head for Rome, the former disguised as a monk, and meet the goldsmith.
Alternate version, MS P only: Theseus and Ludovis go to a fortress-town, where the goldsmith meets them.
The goldsmith informs Theseus that if he does not return at once, Aceres will kill his prisoners, for Emperor Griffon has invaded. Theseus heads for Antioch, but sends Calidas the goldsmith to Cologne to tell them what has become of him. In Cologne, Theseus is though dead, so a rich young burgher, Melchior, begins wooing Flore, who rejects him. He then forges letters framing the Queen for treason, and she is on trial when Calidas arrives and reveals all. There is to be a trial by combat, but the Emperor’s resumption of the siege necessitates its postponement. Assaillant and Lambert think Prince Ludovis is dead, but continue to fight for Esmere.
Meanwhile, Ludovis and Theseus (disguised as a monk) gain admittance to the Imperial Palace, where Floridas, Alidoyne, and Baudour are. The two pretend to be messengers sent from Esmere to put the royals of Cologne to death, and thus they escape with them and return to Cologne. Theseus learns of the Melchior affair, and orders the trial by combat to be held. Ludovis returns to the Emperor’s camp, gathers his faithful men, renounces and defies the Emperor, and enters Cologne in peace. Though Calidas is a goldsmith and not used to fighting, he wins. The next day, Archbishop Guy of Cologne weds Ludovis to Baudour.
Esmere’s brother, King Estandart of Hungary, urges him to abandon the war. Reluctantly, he agrees, on condition that Theseus make it seem that he (Theseus) was the one seeking peace, that Theseus take down the golden eagles from the towers of his city, and that the arms of Rome remain a sable eagle. Theseus agrees. After fifteen years of war, peace is made, and the festivities last fifteen days. The soldiers, newly unemployed, disperse, and many become bandits. Flore and Baudour go to Rome, while Theseus, Ludovis, Assaillant, and Lambert go to Antioch to succor King Aceres and slay Emperor Griffon. As they fight there, however, Lambert is captured, and agrees to betray the Christians for wealth. After being ransomed by Theseus, Lambert opens the east gate and lets the heathen in. Aceres escapes but, disgusted by this treachery, abandons the idea he had been entertaining of becoming Christian. The Christians are all captured. Griffon, owing to an oath, cannot execute Lambert as he would love to do, but sends him on his way. Lambert comes to Rome, where he pretends that everyone else is dead. Esmere actually is dead, and Empress Flore is horrified to hear the news, as is Baudour. Both women reject Lambert’s offer to protect them, so he returns to Paris alone, where Dagobert is dead. He tells the barons that Ludovis is dead, and they decide not to elect a new king, but to split France between them. Estandart of Hungary decides to usurp the Empire from his niece Flore, and Emperor Griffon is widely disliked in Greece.
Gadifer, son of Theseus and Flore, believed dead, is in fact being raised by Gadifer senior and his wife, who have a daughter of their own. Gadifer senior plots to make his daughter queen. He tells Gadifer junior, aged 18, that he is really a foundling, and urges him to wed his foster-sister, Osanne. (But he does not tell Gadifer junior that he is really the heir to the throne). So it is done. At this time, Aceres gathers fifteen kings, all kinsmen of his, and lays siege to Antioch, which Griffon goes to relieve, leaving his wife Clodas in charge of Constantinople. With Gadifer junior wed to Osanne, and Griffon out of the picture, Gadifer senior tells his son his true identity. They go to Constantinople, reveal all, and the barons crown Gadifer junior, expelling Clodas. Griffon at the news makes peace and alliance with Aceres, and they, Theseus, and Ludovis make war on Constantinople. In the ensuing battle, Gadifer junior cuts off Griffon’s arm and takes Theseus prisoner (he would have killed him, but since his battle cty was “Rome,” he hopes to hear news of his mother Flore). Griffon dies of his wound, Gadifer junior is left as undisputed Emperor, and Clodas is imprisoned. Theseus and Gadifer junior tell their stories, and Theseus realizes this is his son. Emperor Gadifer, wanting proof, sails to Rome disguised as a merchant. Rome is under attack from King Estandart of Hungary, so he asks Flore for an army to lead against her foe. The Romans, however, are cowards, so Gadifer rides to Estandart’s tent alone, reveals his identity, and kills him. He then rides madly for Rome, while the Hungarians are too stunned to pursue. All is reveales, and the Pope baptizes Gadifer under the name “Gadifer Theseus.” Gadifer Theseus now goes to Cologne to meet his grandparents, then to Paris, to take the side of Baudour against the traitor Lambert in an inheritance dispute. Gadifer defeats Lambert in single combat. Lambert’s kinsmen treasonously interrupt the duel to rescue him, and flee with him over the Seine. Sanson of Brittany is elected regent until Ludovis’ return, and Gadifer heads for Rome, gathers missionaries, and heads for Constantinople, where they convert many. They build Hagia Sophia. Ex-Queen Clodas also converts.
Theseus and Gadifer conquer Antioch by a ruse, and convert it, crowning Calidas the goldsmith king. They return to Constantiople, where Gadifer begets triplets by his wife. The men sail for Rome, where the Pope crowns Theseus Emperor. They go to Cologne, where Floridas has died, and Theseus is crowned king. They go to France, where they pardon Lambert has regained power by wedding his sister Beatrice to Sanson. Lambert attempts to wed Baudour, but Theseus and the others crash the wedding feast and save her, killing Lambert. Ludovis is crowned king. Assaillant is given Brittany and Anjou. Theseus goes home to Rome with Flore, and Gadifer to Constantiople.
BOOK II OF THESEUS OF COLOGNE
Part II now begins, which seems to have been added by a later author and is, Rosenthal says, inferior in every way.
Gadifer heads home for Greece. There, Osane has given birth to triplet boys, who were substituted for puppies by Clodas. Clodas’ maid takes the boys to the woods, but doesn’t have the heart to drown them, and so simply abandons them. They are found by Regnier a charcoal burner, who adopts them, to his wife’s annoyance, who makes him swear sobriety, so that they can afford to raise them. They are baptized Renechon, Regnault, and Regnier. Meanwhile, Gadifer curses his wife, insults her low birth, and locks her and the three dogs in the dungeon while he goes to save King Calidas of Antioch from Aceres. Osane languishes for four years, until Gadifer returns, when he releases and banishes her. She winds up in Jerusalem running a hostel for pilgrims. Clodas becomes Gadifer’s mistress. When the triplets are old enough to go into town on business, they buy weapons and armor instead of necessities, to their foster-father’s delight and their foster- mother’s fury. (They know they were adopted). When they are around thirteen or fourteen, Aceres again invades with fifteen kings. Theseus and Ludovis arrive to help Gadifer, but are captured. The triplets sell their wares in Constantionple’s market, receive mockery for their pretensions to arms and armor, and finally attack the Saracens, rescuing Theseus and Ludovis. Theseus dubs them knights, and Gadifer makes them his chamberlains. Clodas notices a family resemblance, and trembles with fear of discovey. She arranges for the food-taster to be poisoned and frames the triplets for it. To top it off, she accuses Regnault of attempting to seduce her. The charcoalburner offers to fight in his sons’ defense against Clodas’ champion. So it is done, and all the truth comes out. Clodas and her maid are burnt, and her champion (who colluded in the poisoning) is hanged.
Meanwhile, Aceres’ ally the King of Syria has stormed Antioch and killed King Calidas the Goldsmith (most versions), and Aceres himself is still outside Constantinople. After a bloody battle, Aceres retreats, but takes Renechon prisoner. Unfortunately for Aceres, a kinsman of his has usurped Jerusalem from him, so he offers to set Renechon free if Renechon defeats the usurper in single combat. Aceres confirms the oath by tapping his tooth. As Renechon slips into Jerusalem disguised as a pilgrim, he stays at his mother’s hostel. He tells her the news of court, but does not reveal he is the prince. Nor does she reveal she is Osane. She is influential at court, and introduces him to the Emir, to whom he tells his message. The Emir is reluctant to fight, but his barons overrule him.
At this point MSS Ph and L abridge drastically. P and the prose give the long version. Ph and L:
Gadifer, Theseus, and Ludovis head for the Holy Land, but Renechon has beheaded the Emir in single combat. The melee becomes general, however, and the Christians arrive as the pagans are fighting each other. They chase the heathens into Jerusalem, sack that city, rescue Renechon, and capture Aceres, who is baptized. Osane and Renechon reveal their identities to each other. There is much rejoicing, Renechon marries Queen Florinde of Rohaix [Edessa], the niece (or sister in P) of Aceres. Aceres soon renounced his baptism, but the story does not tell of that. All return to their own kingdoms and live happily ever after.
The long version, of P and prose:
Florinde arrives to help her brother Aceres, and she and Renechon fall in love. During the melee that follows the single combat, the Emir lives, Aceres is captured by the Christians, and Renechon escorts Florinde home to Rohaix. Theseus, Ludovis, and Gadifer abandon the war to rescue Baudour and Flore from the king of Frisia, who is invading France to avenge his kinsman Lambert. Florinde offers to convert to Christianity if Renechon can reclaim Jerusalem for her. He challenges the emir to single combat, defeats him, but allows him to return home. Florinde and Renechon are wed and become king and queen of Jerusalem and Syria, but Florinde keeps her baptism secret, letting the people think Renechon has become a Saracen. The emir, meanwhile, goes to the Sultan of Damascus for aid, and they besiege Jeruslaem.
Regnier the collier’s wife dies of luxury, and he makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, killing pagans on the way with a tent pole. In the confusion of battle, however, he saves the Emir and nearly kills Renechon, forcing him to retreat. The Sultan, impressed, gives Regnier a horse and a mighty axe, so mighty that the blacksmith who made it was executed with it, lest he ever make its equal. In a subsequent battle, Regnier takes Renechon prisoner, recognizing him only when it is too late and the king is in the Sultan’s hands. He realizes he is on the wrong side.
Florinde appoints one Buciffaus as her general. Regnier kills the Emir and joins the men of Jerusalem. The Sultan retreats with Renechon. Buciffaus neglects to pursue him, hoping to marry Florinde. Regnier prevents him from raping her, but she insists on pardoning him, very foolishly, for he tells the army she is a traitor and has her arrested. As Osane comforts her, Florinde considers sending for aid from Gadifer, her father-in-law. Osane realizes Renechon might be her son, but he also might be Clodas’. Osane does not know either, and so they send two Knights Templar as messengers to Constantinople.
Meanwhil, in France, King Gauffroy of Frisia is besieging Paris. Thesues, Gadifer, Regnault and Regnier the Younger arrive to help. Assaillant’s son, Gerart of Dammartin, distinguishes himself, but Gauffroy captues Queen Baudour and Queen Flore, the latter of whom had been acting as general. Gerart obtains their release by defeating Gauffroy’s champion in single combat. He then kidnaps Queen Coulumbe of Frisia, intending to marry her once Gauffroy is dead. Gauffroy is expelled from France, but not killed. At this juncture, the Templars arrive. As the forces of Christendom are massing for a Crusade to rescue Renechon, Gauffroy arrives, fights Gerart in single combat, and loses his life. He then weds the widow.
Meanwhile, Aceres, to get Pope Boniface to set him free, pretends to convert and accepts baptism. He then leads the Pope and the crusaders to Antioch, where his men welcome him and help him capture or kill all the Christians in the night. The Pope and some others are spared, so they may be tortured. Aceres next heads to Jerusalem, leaving the Pope to draw a plough until he returns.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Aceres assumes control and oversees a duel between Regnier and Buciffaus, the latter of whom loses, is executed, and his body burnt. Regnier feigns indifference to the plight of the Pope, in order to gain Aceres’ confidence. He then escapes with Florine and Osane, having forged a letter from Aceres. In Antioch, the three gain admittance to the prisoners, free them, and massacre the Saracen population. Pope Boniface crowns Regnier king of Antioch, and plans are laid to rescue Renechon from Damascus.
In Damascus, the Sultan’s wife, Ydierne, has secretly converted to Christianity and wishes to marry Regnault. Suspecting something, the Sultan orders her burnt. As she is being led to the pyre, Regnier and his men arrive in disguise, fire the city, rescue Ydierne (who has baptized herself while being led to the stake), slaughter many Saracens, and free Renechon. They all retreat to Antioch, and the reunions are joyful. Pope Boniface baptizes Ydierne properly. Aceres and the Sultan arrive and lay siege to Antioch, while Gadifer, ignorant of recent events, attacks Damascus. Aceres and the Sultan return to Damascus and capture Gadifer, Regnault, and Regnier the Younger.
In Constantinople, Gadifer is thought dead, so Clodas’ four brothers claim the throne. Regnier the Elder challegnes all of them to a duel, killing one and wounding two. The brothers surrender and are hanged. Gadifer the Elder, father of Osane becomes regent, and prepares an army to rescue Renechon. [Here begins a long lacuna in the 1550 edition] Regnier, meanwhile, goes to Rome, where Flore is in peril from the bishop of Hungary, newly elected Pope, as Boniface is thought dead. He is the brother (in-law?) of King Estandard, whose son Eracle claims the Imperial throne. Theseus and Ludovis, meanwhile, are fighting yet more traitors in France. Regnier arrives, enters the council, kills Eracle with his great axe, and drives out the anti-pope. The Romans are mustered to leave for Crusade, while Regnier heads for France.
Gauffroy of Frisia’s kinsman Nabugor of Autefeulle (Hauteville) is attacking France, in alliance with King Arthur of Britian (yes, that King Arthur). Regnier again joins the wrong side by mistake, and takes Oton prisoner. Fortunately, in the enemy’s camp he learns of a treason they are planning, and is able to join Ludovis’ side and foil it. Theseus tells the rebles that the King of France is sacred, ever since God sent three fleurs-de-lys to Clovis. Then he and the others head for Antioch, where the Sultan and Aceres are laying siege to Renechon, Osane, Florinde, Ydierne, and Pope Boniface. Renechon is captured. The Sultan demands his wife in exchange, and the deal is made, much to Aceres’ fury, who thinks Renechon should be executed and that Ydierne cannot be trusted. So angry is he, that he declares war on the Sultan, and sends part of his army to besiege him in Damascus.
Aceres himself is still before Antioch, so Gadifer the Elder arrives to aid. The reunions are joyful, but soon after Gadifer is captured by the Sultan’s men, who were on a raid. He is thrown in a dungeon with Gadifer the Younger, Regnault, and Regnier the Younger. They recognize each other, but Gadifer the elder dies. The jailor accuses the other three of murder, and brings them before the Sultan and Ydierne, who offer to free them if they will fiht for them. Ydierne secretly confesses her love to Regnault, who accepts it, after some surprise and hesitation. One of the courtiers, Thaurus, who has loved her long, plans to betray Damascus to Aceres in exchange for her hand in marriage.
The French and Romans arrive to aid Antioch, and the reunions are joyful. They raise the siege and march against Damascus, to fight Aceres and the Sultan at once. Regnier the Elder captures Aceres, who surrenders Jerusalem to the Christians, and Renechon is crowned King. But the Sultan, with Gadifer the Younger, Regnault, and Regnier the Younger, attack Jerusalem, so that these three are against the rest of their family. Regnier the Elder, however, captures all three of them, but four unscruplous Romans steal them away to Antioch, in order to hold them for ransom. Thaurus renews his offer to the Christians to betray Damascus, which they accept. Renechon, however, is unwilling to hand over Ydierne, so Regnier the Elder enters Damascus, accuses Thaurus of treason, and fights him in trial-by-combat. [MS P ends here]
Regnier defeats Thaurus, who is executed. He then slips away with Ydierne, and the Sultan is killed in an ensuing battle. Damascus is taken, Aceres sent on his way, and the family of Theseus goes to Jerusalem.
[Here 1550 edition lacuna ends.]
The Romans who stole the prisoners present them to Pope Boniface and company. All are recognized, and the whole family is united at long, long, long last. The Pope weds Regnault and Ydierne. Regnier marries one Clerombaude, sister of Gerart of Dammartin. Regnier the Elder reigns in Antioch. Renechon and Florinde rule Jerusalem. Regnault and Ydeirne reign in Damascus, capture Edessa, and kill Aceres, whoe lands they give to Regnier the Younger. The triplets hold the Holy Land their whole lives, but when they die the pagans claim it, not to be dislodged until the coming of Godfrey of Bouillion.
Let thus much suffice for the chanson of Theseus of Cologne, and let us now look at the other forms of the legend.