The Legend of Girart of Roussillon – Origins and Influence

ORIGINS OF THE LEGEND

Girart of Roussillon, Girart of Vienne, and Girart of Euphrate are all inspired by the same historical figure: Girart II, Count of Paris, born 810, ascended 837, died c. 878.

Now Girart I of Paris had married Rotrude (who may have been the daughter of Carloman, son of Charles Martel), and founded the Girardid dynasty of Counts of Paris. His three sons, Stephen, Begon, and Leuthard I, succeeded him in turn as Counts. Leuthard I had two sons: Girart and Adalard. Adalard served as King Louis the Pious’ seneschal, and Girart became Count of Paris. Meanwhile, Count Hugh of Tours had two daughters: Bertha and Ermengarde. Girart II married Bertha sometime before 819, and Ermengarde married Lothair I, son of Louis the Pious and king of Middle Francia, Bavaria, and Italy, and Emperor of the West. In 836, Girart was sent on official business to Italy. In 837, he was made Count of Paris. He lost the title in 841, when he took the side of Lothair I against King Charles the Bald and broke down the bridges across the Seine to inconvenience the latter. Girart was among Lothair’s soldiers at the Battle of Fontenoy in 841, when that king and his nephew Pepin II of Aquitaine were decisively defeated by Louis the German and Charles the Bald. Lothair nonetheless made Girart his count of the palace in 842. When Lothair I died in 855, his son Charles, still a child, inherited Provence as his kingdom, and Girart became his regent. In 860, Girart repelled a band of Vikings who had sailed up the Rhone. The following year, Charles the Bald attempted to disinherit his nephew, but he was repelled, possibly by Girart, and returned to France. Around this time, Girart and Bertha founded the monasteries of Vézelay and Pothièrs. In 863, Charles of Provence died young and childless, and his lands passed to his brother Lothair II, King of Lotharingia, for whom Girart continued to administer them until that king’s death in 869, whereupon his territories were divided by his uncles Louis the German and Charles the Bald. Charles went to occupy Provence, but met with resistance from Girart and Bertha. Charles laid siege to Vienne, which was ably defended by Bertha while Girart was holding another castle nearby. Charles, however, first burnt all the lands around Vienne and then promised the people mercy if they surrendered. The people told Bertha they wished to surrender, Bertha send word to Girart, and Girart formally surrendered to Charles on Christmas Eve, 870. The couple went into retirement in their fiefs near Avignon, where Girart died between 877 and 879. He was buried in the abbey of Pothièrs, in Langres, where once could be seen Girart’s tomb on the Gospel side of the chapel, Bertha’s on the Epistle, and, in front of the altar, an epitaph for their infant son Thierry.

Bedier would have it, as usual, that the legend was created in the 11th or 12th century by some minstrel who had heard or read the monks’ chronicles of their founder, Girart. He argues that the only similarities between Girart of Paris and Girart of Roussillon are that they fought a king named Charles, had a wife named Bertha, had a son who died young, and founded certain monasteries, all facts that a minstrel could have learned at the abbey. The minstrels did not, however, know about such striking facts as Girart of Paris’ defeat of the Vikings, his protection of the young prince Charles of Provence against his cruel uncle, Bertha’s protection of Vienne on her own, etc., all things we would expect them to know if the story of Girart had been passed down orally.

Although Saint Badilon is real, the cult of St. Mary Magdalene at Vézelay seems to have been an invention of the eleventh century. Although Girart and Bertha did obtain for their monasteries the relics of Ss. Pontien, Eusebius, Andéol and Ostien, there is no record of the relics of the Magdalen there prior to 1050. Unfortunately for Vézelay, in the mid 1200’s a tomb was discovered in Provence. This tomb was, in reality, a Gallo-Roman tomb of the 500’s with a carving of Pontius Pilate washing his hands and a servant holding the washbasin. The discoverer, however, thought the servant was Mary Magdalene preparing to wash the feet of Christ, and the word went out that St. Mary Magdalene’s tomb had been found. The monks of Vézelay now claimed that they had received their relics from the south, but their popularity declined, and the cult in Provence flourished. Had it not been for this discovery, there would have been no association of the Magdalen with Provence, no tradition of St. Lazarus as bishop, no legend of St. Martha taming the Tarrasque, no Holy Blood, Holy Grail, no Da Vinci Code, and Dan Brown would be an obscure third-rate hack writer, instead of a rich and famous third-rate hack writer.

The relics at Vézelay were destroyed the Protestants during the Wars of Religion, and the church turned into a stable. The relics currently venerated there are replacements sent from elsewhere. The shrine in Provence was destroyed during the Revolution, but the skull was saved and is now in a rebuilt shrine. The most likely candidate for the real relics are those brought to Constantinople in the ninth century, but I can find no information on what became of them afterwards, or if they are still preserved today.

Read more on St. Mary Magdalene here.

Val Pergunde is perhaps Valprionda, a suburb of Cahors.

INFLUENCE

Girart of Roussillon appears already in the Oxford Song of Roland as one of the Twelve Peers, and he dies at Roncesvalles. Later works incorporated him into the elaborate genealogies of the Paladins, and made him the brother of Aymon of Dordone, Doon de Nanteuil, and Bueve d’Aigremont. He plays hardly any role, however, in the poems of the Nanteuil cycle or those of the Aymonids. On occasion he fights alongside his kinsmen, but they seldom if ever, if I recall correctly, allude to the events of his life story as given in his own chansons. Later still, Girart was made into one of the twelve sons of Doon de Mayence. Besides the three mentioned above, the other eight were: Gaufrei (father of Ogier the Dane), Grifon d’Hautefeuile (of Altafoglia, one of the Maganzans), Othon, Ripeus, Seguin of Bordeaux (father of Huon), Pierre (father of the Swan Knight), Morant de Riveirs, and Hernaut de Girone.

Some MSS of Hervis de Metz insert an episode, between Hervis proper and the beginning of Garin le Loherain, wherein Girart is at war with Charles Martel. Charles asks the Pope for permission to tax the Church, reminding him that he has always given generously to her and now needs her help. The Pope agrees, but Girart is on the warpath and nearly at Paris. Charles has enough money now, but not yet enough men, and so, reluctantly, sends to Hervis for aid. Hervis makes ready to go to France, but before he gets there, Girart conveniently dies of illness. He is buried in an abbey he founded at Bar-sur-Aube.

There are other minor references to Girart. Auberi le Bourguignon conflates Girart of Roussillon and Girart of Eufrate in a prologue. Adenet le Roi alludes to the story in Bertha Broadfoot, as does the anonymous Italian who wrote the Entrée en Espagne. Girart is mentioned in some of the chronicles, more usually as the founder of abbeys than as the adversarial brother-in-law of Charles the Bald or Charles the Hammer, or as the real Girart II of Paris.

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The Legend of Girart of Roussillon

The legend of Girart of Roussillon is found in the following versions:

Girart de Roussillon. Rhyming decasyllables, 1150, in an artificial dialect that combines French and Provencal.

Vita nobilissimi comitis Gerardi de Rossellon. A Latin saint’s life.

Le Vie de Gerard. A French translation of the Latin life. Can be found with the Latin in Romania, vol. 7, pp. 161-235.

Gerart van Rossilun. A Low German translation of the saint’s life, of which only one page survives.

Girart de Roussillon. Rhyming Alexandrines, 1300’s, based on the decasyllables and the Latin life.

Jehan de Wauquelin’s Girart in prose, 1477, based on the Alexandrines.

David Aubert’s Histoire de Charles Martel, 1448, taken from Wauquelin.

Jean Mansel’s Fleur des Histoires, also from Wauqeulin.

Popular chapbooks, descended from Mansel’s version.

GIRART IN DECASYLLABLES

The poem claims to have been written by a monk named Sestu [Sextus], who began it in the sweet springtime. Charles Martel is holding a joust at Pentecost when word comes that Rome is under siege by the Saracens. Charles and his army travel thither to save the day with the help of the Emperor of Constantinople’s men. In return the Emperor agrees to give his elder daughter Bertha to Charles and his younger, Elissent, to Girart of Roussillon. Girart is sent to fetch them to France. When the girls arrive, however, Charles sees that Elissent is more beautiful, and demands to switch. Girart is furious, and threatens war. Charles offers him as compensation to be released from all his feudal obligations. Girart asks Elissent if she loves him, and she says yes. Thereupon Girart agrees to make peace, so that she can be Queen, and they will love truly and nobly. The double marriage is celebrated. When Charles releases Girart from his vassalage, he keeps only one right: the right to hunt in Girart’s forests. Queen Elissent gives Girart a ring, and the two part with tears. They love truly and nobly.

Some time later, Charles decides to go hunting in Roussillon, without asking leave of Girart. He prepares the hunt with his vassals, and sends a herald to Girart ordering him to do homage for his lands. Girart answers that he and his father before him held the land in alleu [that is, not as a fief, but in their own right], that he has four bold nephews, and that he does not care a fig for Charles’ power. Charles promptly lays siege to Roussillon. The siege lasts all summer, until the King bribes Girart’s seneschal Richier of Sordane, a peasant’s son, to open the gates for him. Girart awakens to find the enemy inside his castle, and he is obliged to flee to Avignon, which he also holds. He raises an army there and returns to reclaim Roussillon. Fouque kills Richier in the battle. Charles, meanwhile, is in Orleans. Girart sends Fouque as messenger to Charles, who is exceedingly displeased. Thierry says that this is what comes of using treason instead of honest fighting. Charles is angrier still, but Thierry reassures him that he has no love for Girart, because Girart’s father Drogon and uncle Odilon made him an outlaw in the woods for seven years, until Charles restored him to favor and gave him his sister as wife. Charles and Fouque meet in a monastery near Roussillon, and agree to trial by battle, in the field of Vaubeton. The loser will have to travel to the Holy Land as a pilgrim. So many knights come that there are none left anywhere else in France. In the battle, Drogon has a hauberk from the forge of Espandragon [King Uther?] and the sword of Marmion [otherwise unknown]. Nonetheless, Thierry kills him and his brother Odilon. God stops the battle by striking Charles’ and Girart’s standards with lightning, turning them to ashes. The two agree to a five year truce, and that Thierry will be banished.

Meanwhile, in the confusion of the civil war, the Saracens, Saxons and Frisians have all invaded France. Charles marches south first, to deal with Seguran of Syria, who has invaded Gascony. Unbeknownst to him, Girart is there, too, and the brothers-in-law are formally reconciled in Val Pergunde. The French go north to repel King Rabeu [Raimbaut] of Frisia, and Girart serves the king well in other battles over the years. When the five years are up, Girart formally pardons Thierry, and all seems to be well.

It is not well, however, for Girart’s cousins Boson and Seguin (sons of Odilon) murder Thierry and his two sons during a tournament Charles is holding at Pentecost. War again breaks out. Charles sends an ambassador to Girart, who refuses to make peace. Charles defeats Girart in battle after battle, including Mont-Amele, and Civaux. Girart’s men begin to abandon him. Girart is defeated at Civaux, but as he flees he kills some of Charles’ men who have taken sanctuary at a roadside cross, and then goes on to burn down a monastery in which some other men of Charles’ have taken refuge. He then returns to Roussillon, which Charles besieges. Girart insists, against Fouque’s advice, on doing battle in the field. The men of Roussillon are slaughtered, Fouque taken captive, Boson slain. Girart and Bertha head for Hungary, but learn that her family is dead, and they can expect no shelter there. Instead, they settle in Aurillac, where they live as peasants for twenty-two years and do penance for their sins. He becomes a coal-burner, she a seamstress. After twenty-two years, Girart returns to France in disguise and manages to obtain an interview with Queen Elissent by showing her his ring. She recognizes him and obtains his pardon from Charles. For seven years, there is peace. Girart has two sons by his wife after their return. One dies young, but the other grows strong and healthy. Unfortunately, Girart has not learned his lesson about showing favor to the children of peasants: his seneschal, an ex-serf named Guy de Risnel, kills Girart’s son and blames it on Charles, hoping to start the war again. The war does indeed start. Guy repents too late. Girart takes Charles prisoner in battle, but the Pope makes peace, and Girart and Bertha return to Vézelay, to end their days in peace. Bertha sneaks out every night to work on the church, which causes Girart some alarm, until he discovers the reason for her absence. Girart has the body of Saint Mary Magdalene transferred to the monastery of Vézelay, which he joins after Bertha’s death. The wars began in 700, and lasted sixty years, all told, but now he dies in peace and sanctity.

VITA COMITIS GIRARDI

The Vita Girardi is found in its original Latin, and in an old French translation, both of which were printed by P. Meyer in Romania, vol. VII. Scholars agree it was based on the chanson de geste.

Girart is stated to have served under Charlemagne, Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, and Louis II. He was the son of Drogon, born in Avignon. He married Bertha, daughter of Count Hughes of Sens. Bertha’s sister Eloyse marries King Charles. When Count Hughes dies, his sons-in-law quarrel over his inheritance, which starts the war. Girart loses and spends seven years in the forest, after which he and Bertha go to Eloyse, disguised as pilgrims. The Queen makes peace, but Charles the Bald has wicked counselors, who stir up war. Girart defeats Charles, but forbears to pursue him in his flight. They fight 12 or 13 battles, until an angel bids Charles make peace. Girart and Bertha build monasteries, where miracles happen. Girart’s two sons die a natural death in this version. The mention of miracles reminds the author about earlier events in Girart’s life, so now he relates some more details about the war, telling how Charles took Rousillon by treason, Girart reclaimed it, and God intervened by striking both their standards with lightning. Back in the present, Bertha dies and is buried in Pothièrs. Two years later, Girart dies at Avignon, requesting to be buried by his wife. The folk of Avignon try to keep his body, but they are stricken with a seven-year famine. An angel appears to a monk, bidding him transfer the body. So it is done, and Girart works miracles at his new grave.

GIRART IN ALEXANDRINES

Based on the poem and the Vita, but insists that the king is Charles the Bald. Louis the Pious split his empire between Louis the German, Charles the Bald, and Lothaire, who promptly went to war. Girart stayed neutral. The brothers made a treaty at Verdun. Charles the Bald reigned thirty-two years until his own doctor poisoned him, in 878. Bertha died three yeas after. Girart seven years after Bertha. Before that, though, Girart had a very large territory in southeast France. The kings of Hungary, Span, Sicily, Aragon, Navarre, Galicia, and Seville are all his allies. Fouchier le Marshall is the son of Hernault. Girart has four nephews: Fouque, Gibert, Seguin, Boz, the sons of the Count of Provence. Girart himself is eight feet tall. His children, Eve and Theodore, died young. A description of Poitiers follows, and an account of how the Vandals invaded Roussillon, and the city was destroyed and rebuilt. The author suggests it was named after rossignols [nightingales]. Girart, in sum, has almost as much land as Charles. They marry Bertha and Eloise, the daughters of Count Hugons of Sens. When he dies, his sons-in-law quarrel over his inheritance, despite Bertha’s pleading for peace. Charles lays siege to Roussillon, whereupon the rest of Girart’s fiefs surrender without a fight. Bertha advises Girart to surrender. Girart sends Fouque to Charles, as in the decasyllabic poem. Fouque is about to attack Charles, but courtiers restrain him. Girart is defeated and driven from Roussillon to Poligny, where he is defeated again, and flees with Bertha. They intend to go to King Oton of Hungary, but instead are obliged to live in the woods where Girart works as a charcoal burner. Eventually, the reconciliation takes place as in the Vita. Girart and Betha do good works, but at last Girart asks Charles for Bertha’s fiefs back, whereupon Charles declares war. Girart thinks he’s bluffing, and takes possession of the disputed land, whereupon Charles attacks him. Girart defeats Charles in Flanders and at Soissons, then comes the battle of Valbeton, in Pierre-Pertuise. In the battle, Drogon is killed. After the battle, a truce is made, but no lasting peace. Charles returns home, and Girart and Bertha build monasteries. They bring Saint Eusebius to Pothièrs, and Saint Pontien to Vézelay. Saint Badilon, a bishop, brings the body of St. Mary Magdalene from Aix in Provence to Vézelay. Charles resumes the war and lays siege to Roussillon. Girart’s chamberlain betrays him and opens the gates. Girart manages to retake the castle, but Charles sets fire to it as he retreats, and it is ruined. Girart flees and builds a new castle, Chatillon. Charles lays siege to this one, too. Girart sends Bertha to Provence, and himself retreats to Montargis. He and Charles battle at Sixte, near Pont-sur-Yonne. Girart is victorious, and chases the king all the way to Paris, which he besieges. But God sends an angel to make peace. Girart and Bertha return home to live piously and work miracles and Vézelay and Pothièrs. Bertha and Girart die and his vassals fight over his body, all as in the Vita. Miracles occur at their tombs. The lame are healed, a vandal is blinded, and Bertha appears in glory to the sacristan. A hermit sees seats in Heaven prepared for their souls, as in the Vita.

WAUQUELIN’S GIRART

Is a mere mise en prose of the Alexandrines, with a few details of Burgundian local color.

DAVID AUBERT’S HISTORY OF CHARLES MARTEL

Is based on Wauquelin, but he restores Bertha and Eloyse to their place as princesses of Hungary. According to Aubert, Charles the Hammer was the son of Eustache of Berry, who was son of Duke Gloriant of Berry. Charles married the fair Marcebille, daughter of King Theodorus of France, much against that monarch’s will. He then fell in with Duke Girart of Roussillon, and they became fast friends. They went to Constantinople, where they served the Emperor and had many adventures, before returning home, the one to become King of France, the other to become Duke of Bourgogne. The story then continues as in Wauquelin, only much abridged.

JEAN DE MANSEL

I can find little information on him, but what I have indicates that he did little of interest. He slightly abridged Wauquelin, and the chapbooks that followed him and were based on him presumably did the same, with each new edition being even more corrupt than the one before it.