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Elizabeth Melick on Unusual Giants

“Now bigin ichil…” (Of Unusual Giants)

He hadde tuenti men strengthe,
And fourti fet of lengthe,
Thilke panim hede,
And four fet in the face,
Ymeten in the place,
And fiften in brede,
His nose was a fot and more,
His browe as brestles wore,
He that it seighe it sede
He loked lotheliche
And was swart as piche
Of him men might adrede.

The passage above is from the Middle English romance Roland and Vernagu, which I am currently editing for a volume of four linked Charlemagne romances. This particular passage occurs about halfway through the poem, and it introduces Vernagu, a Saracen giant who Roland, the Christian hero, must defeat. The description of Vernagu suggests that he is a fairly typical giant: forty feet tall, as strong as twenty men, with loathsome and bestial facial features.

In his introduction to Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes that the function of a giant is to “signif[y] those dangerous excesses of the flesh that the process of masculine embodiment produces in order to forbid; he functions at the same time to celebrate the pleasures of the body, to indulge in food and wine and sex.” As Cohen suggests, many of the giants found in Middle English romances are gargantuan, looming symbols of indulgence of physical pleasures. Perhaps the most salient example, the giant of Mount St. Michel in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, is entirely controlled by his fleshly impulses for sex and food. The initial description of Vernagu sets him up to be the same sort of foe for Roland as the giant of Mount St. Michel is for Arthur—his exaggerated size and strength represent both the formidable threat of the Saracen forces and the notion that Saracens are more susceptible to physical temptation than are Christians. Any audience member who is familiar with the common role of giants anticipates that at any moment, Vernagu will begin committing horrible acts of violence and destruction.

But Vernagu surprises us. He conforms to expectations of courtly behavior perfectly, seeming reluctant to cause any lasting damage to Charlemagne’s court or seriously harm any French knights. Rather than mauling or rending the knights who face him, Vernagu tucks them under his arm like dolls, removes them from the fighting area, and sets them down unharmed (aside from the considerable blow to their pride). Even more curious, when Vernagu finally faces Roland in combat, both man and giant have swords and fight as two knights of average stature would.

Vernagu again proves that he is an exceptional giant—or at least a highly irregular one—in the middle of the night, when he wakes to find that Roland has placed a stone pillow beneath his head. Moved by Roland’s kindness, he begins an earnest and insightful discussion of Christian theology with Roland. While not all giants found in Middle English literature are as violent or brutish as the giant of Mount St. Michel, most of them still have a tendency toward sensuality and wrath. In resisting any sort of bodily pleasure, even of food and drink, and exhibiting a highly rational and even intelligent mind, Vernagu certainly stands out from his fellow giants.

The poet’s decision to make Vernagu such an irregular giant is complicated further by the presence of another giant in the romance—Charlemagne himself.

Just forty lines before the poet introduces Vernagu, he offers a new description of Charlemagne, who has already been the focus of the poem thus far:

Tuenti fete he was o lengthe,
And al so of gret strengthe,
And of a stern sight.
Blac of here and rede of face,
Whare he com in ani place,
He was a douhti knight.

Charlemagne may be only half as tall as is Vernagu, but he is still a towering figure. His features are decidedly less frightening than are Vernagu’s, but Charlemagne’s size and coloring is still intimidating. The similarities between the two descriptions are striking; both list the height, breadth of face, strength, and skin color. In fact, because of the similarities between these two descriptions, nearly every time I search through the text for that first appearance of Vernagu, I initially mistake the description of Charlemagne for the one of Vernagu.

Why the Roland and Vernagu poet chose to make one of his heroes so similar to his villain is a question I cannot yet answer. As a modern reader, bothered by Charlemagne’s (fictionalized) conquest of Spain and forced conversion of the Saracens in this romance, I would like to think that the poet is suggesting that Charlemagne is as much of a monster as, well, an actual monster. However, knowing the historical context the way I do, I highly doubt this is the case. Medieval Christian readers tended to view Charlemagne as a hero and admired his conquest and conversion missions.

What I have learned from reading and re-reading Roland and Vernagu, along with other similar romances, is that we simply cannot make sweeping generalizations about the ways that Western Christians viewed peoples of other races, religions, and nationalities. Saracens—both giants and the more regular-sized ones—are portrayed in vastly different manners in various romances. While I think it’s certainly helpful to have a broad understanding of the way Saracens are depicted in Middle English literature, I also think that we should be considering romances featuring Saracens individually.  The portrayal of a Saracen as both a giant and intelligent is fairly uncommon in Middle English literature. (If any readers happen to know of other similar giants or examples of giants that will add to this discussion, please let me know!). As I work through my editing process and write the introductions to these texts, I hope to come up with some more concrete interpretations of this pair of giants.

For now, though, all I know is that these two giants are highly unusual.

Note on this blog:

In this post, I have honed in on a thematic element (difference in race and religion) that controls the plots of each of the romances that will be included in my edition. In future posts, I hope to offer reflections on my editing process, interesting facts about the manuscript witnesses, and any other insights I can offer.

Learn more about Middle English Text Series (METS)

By Elizabeth Meilck