Valentine and Orson
Nancy Ekholm Burkert
Hardcover
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989
ISBN: 0374380783

This is one of my favourites. Sometime around 1300, an anonymous French poet wrote an epic about two twin brothers, seperated at birth. One was raised in the court of King Pepin, the other by a bear in the woods. This version, called "Valentine et Sansnom" (or "Valentine and Nameless") was lost, but sometime around 1400 a Middle Low German version called "Valentin und Namelos" (which translates about the same) was turns up. Shortly afer this (c. 1475-1489), a French prose version titled "Valentine et Orson" was printed at Lyons by Jacques Maillet. Between 1503-1505, Maillet's version was translated into English for Wynken de Worde by a man named Henry Watson, although no complete copies of the first printing exist, we do have copies of later printings. The story of Valentine and Orson also show up in the work of artists like Bruegel, Durer, and Hieronymous Cock. So, if you were alive in western Europe between 1300 and 1600, chances are you knew this story.

And what a story it is: against the background of the ancient courts of Greece, the Emperor Alexander marries the beautiful Bellisant, sister of King Pepin. Unfortunately, Bellisant has also attracted the attentions of the Archbishop of Constantinople, and, when she rejected him, he lies about her to the Emperor. Alexander, despite the fact that she is extremely pregnant, banishes her. While lost in the woods, she gives birth to twin boys, but a great she-bear comes upon her and runs off with one of the twins. Bellisant follows the bear, and while she is away, her brother, Pepin, finds the other baby "abandoned" in the woods. Pepin gives the child into the care of his noblest knight. When Bellisant returns, having lost the bear, she finds her other child is missing. Eventually, the two are re-united with each other, and ultimately their mother, but they have name adventures in the meantime -- including an encounter with the Green Knight, and consulting the famous Brass Head of Roger Bacon.

The Burkert translation is a verse translation, with extensive illustrations. It may not be as strictly accuracte as the Arthur Dickson translation done in the 1920s, or Dickson's edited version of Watson's translation (in the 1930s), but it's a lot of fun -- and the illustrations make it more so. Any of you who saw us do this as a dumbshow at Le Poulet Gauche will remember what a great story this is. [AY]
Buy Valentine and Orson

Poems of Francois Villon
Another French poet for you with a good eye for realism and striking language is Francois Villon, a 15th century character who was accused of murdering a priest, spent too much time in the taverns and was eventually condemned to be hanged. His "Testament" is earthy, and, imagining himself strung up, contains these great lines:
"my neck will find out how much my ass weighs."
This may be the first sick joke in European literature. My editions are in French, but there must be some English translations out there. [MI]
Buy Poems of Francois Villon

The Vinland Sagas, The Norse Discovery of America
Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga
Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (Translators)
New York University Press, 1966

The Norsemen "discovered" North America five centuries before Christopher Columbus, and returned to tell the tale. The sagas are thought to have been written some time afterward (twelfth century-ish), and surviving manuscript copies are from the fourteenth century. It's a story of exploration and harship in the form of disease and skraeling (native) attacks, not to mention prophecy and ghost sightings. If I were going to tell it, I would condense it, keeping representative episodes, since there's some repetition. [AoF]
Buy The Vinland Sagas
 
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