Jonathan Fruoco, ed. and trans., Les Faits et Gestes de Robin des Bois: Poèmes, Ballades et Saynètes. Collection Moyen Âge européen. Grenoble: UGA éditions, 2017. ISBN: 9782377470136. Paperback, €24.90. 374 pp.
Reviewed by Amy Brown
University of Geneva
This collection is an unusual phenomenon: an edition of Middle English texts, presented in parrallel with a modern French translation, along with an introduction and editorial apparatus in French. Those of us who work with medieval French will know that the reverse (Old or Middle French text with modern English translation) is relatively common. Medieval English texts, however, are rarely edited or translated with francophone readers in mind. Fruoco’s Faites et Gestes de Robin des Bois will find as its widest audience those who will use it as a teaching text, and one of particular interest to those who, like myself, teach pre-modern English texts to Francophone students. The selection of early Robin Hood texts is similar to that of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series edition Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Knight & Ohlgren, 1997; rev. 2001), which I have been using as my class textbook this semester. Fruoco’s edition is divided into three sections: the late medieval balads, beginning with the Geste of Robin Hood; a selection of play texts, beginning with a reconstruction of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham based on that of Manly (1887) and Greg (1908); and finally selected later ballads, beginning with Robin Hood and Little John.
Fruoco’s edition does provide fewer texts than the TEAMS edition, devoting its space instead to the parrallel modern French translation. This has some disadvantages, and in my classes in particular I would supplement with the chronicle texts from the TEAMS edition, but the Fruoco edition has other advantages. The introduction provides an excellent, thorough but not over-burdened overview of the texts, the history of the Robin Hood tradition, and some of the key critical concepts (one section asks whether to consider the early texts to be poems or ballads, and why that matters). The individual textual introductions provide crucial editorial history and justifications for the inclusion of each text in the volume, and the bibliography is both extensive and up-to-date. All of these features in themselves make the book an attractive prospect as a teaching tool, particularly if―as was my case semester―you begin a seminar using Robin Hood texts as a first introduction to Middle English language and literature. Francophone students who are able to access the editiorial apparatus in their native language may find the encounter with Middle English less intimidating, and have more time and energy to spend on engaging with the texts themselves.
For the most part, the editorial choices Fruoco makes follow those of Dobson and Taylor (1976), including what is to my mind a somewhat erratic approach to editorial emendations. In Robin Hood and the Monk, for instance, corruption in the manuscript is presented with minimal editorial intervention, but elsewhere, speculated absent lines from stanzas which have not been damaged are added. In Fruoco’s edition, which is numbered by stanza rather than line, the lacuna in the manuscript occurs at stanza thirty, which consists of two corrupt lines. Following Dobson and Taylor, Fruoco gives a minimally reconstructed reading, “Robyn […] church […] ran, / tro out hem everilkon”, and a brief footnote explaining that the lines are nearly illegible and the following stanzas lost. In comparison, Knight and Olhgren’s edition of the same text has the advantage of providing details of other editor’s reconstructions, and evidence from examination of the manuscript under ultraviolent light.
In contrast to the minimal intervention approach to the lacuna, a rather more speculative intervention has been retained at stanza thirty-six, where the manuscript reading is only two lines, ‘“And I mete hym,’ seid Lutil John / We will go, but we too.’” Fruoco presents Dobson and Taylor’s reconstruction, which inverts the lines and adds two more, one before and one after, so that the stanza becomes a discussion between Little John and Much the Miller’s son (who otherwise appears without introduction at stanza thirty-eight). Fruoco’s explanatory footnote here notes that Knight and Ohlgren integrate the two lines in question into the preceding stanza, and indicates a preference for Dobson and Taylor’s reconstruction on the grounds that it introduces Much into the narrative. This is certainly a choice which produces a more straightforward translation: the necessary explanation which would have to be footnoted to stanza thirty-eight to explain Much’s involvement would be more off-putting to the non-specialist reader. However, I find the reconstruction unconvincing as an editorial intervention in itself. As a consequence of the choice to so closely follow Dobson and Taylor, the strength of this edition lies very much in the resource of its translation and apparatus for Francophone readers, rather than as an original addition to the editorial history of these texts.
I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to introduce medieval English literature to high school Francophone classes, or to university students who are not expected to develop reading facility in Middle English. The French translation makes the text accessible to students who are not English literature majors―I can see this text being useful in literatture comparée classes. For classes where close analytical engagement with the original is expected, the fact that Fruoco’s translation is in prose means it is clear and direct, and thus a useful guide where the original language is complex or abstruse. Working through the passages that my students found most difficult in the early ballads, I found Fruoco’s translation to be sufficiently close to the original as to provide help with understanding the structure as well as the content.
Finally, UGA Editions indicate an intended popular as well as academic audience. Although, as I noted above, facing-text editions of medieval English works with modern French translations are more scarce than the reverse, Les Faits et Gestes joins the company of Émile Pons (1946) Sire Gauvain et le Chevalier Verte, and the more recently published André Crépin, Beowulf (2007). The Lettres Gothiques series, a subset of Hachette’s Livre de Poche line, presents facing-page translations of medieval texts from many languages (including Crépin’s Beowulf): Fruoco’s Les Faits et Gestes is a little more expensive, but would appeal to a similiar reading public. The inclusion of the early modern dramatic texts may be of particular interest to anyone wishing to bring English medieval and early modern literature alive in performance for Francophone audiences.
Crépin, André, ed. and trans. Beowulf. Paris: Librarie Générale Française, 2007.
Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds.: Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1976)
Greg, W. W., ed. “Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, A Dramatic Fragment.” In Collections Part II. The Malone Society. Vol. 1., 120-24. Oxford, 1908.
Knight, Stephen, and Thomas H. Ohlgren, ed.: Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. 2nd ed. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
Manly, J. M., ed. Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama. Vol. 1. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1897.
Pons, Émile, ed. and trans. Sire Gauvain et le Chevalier Verte. Paris: Éditions Montaigne, 1946.