Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Ansiau, an old crusader, leaves his fief in Champagne and his family to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The half-blind lord hopes that at the grave of his eldest son and in the holy city of Jerusalem, he will find release from his grief. He is given a twelve-year-old boy, Auberi, as his squire.
The new lord of Linnières is another son, the licentious and unscrupulous Herbert le Gros. Herbert’s mother, the Lady Alis, so disapproves of his behavior that she refuses to live with him. She moves to a farmhouse, along with her husband’s illegitimate daughter Eglantine, who is having a clandestine affair with her half brother.
Herbert sends to Normandy for his son Haguenier, who for years was training to be a knight. On his way home, Haguenier meets the beautiful, bored Lady Marie of Mongenost and swears allegiance to her, hoping that devotion will propel her into his arms.
After ten years of absence, Haguenier feels like a stranger in his own home. However, he soon finds friends, including his brother Ernaut, who was refused the hand of a cousin’s daughter because of his illegitimate birth. Ernaut is threatening to kill himself. Herbert decides to send Ernaut for a papal document that might help his case. Meanwhile, Herbert proceeds with his other plans. Haguenier and his two illegitimate brothers are knighted, and Haguenier is married to a wealthy, older widow. After Haguenier makes a poor showing in a tournament, Herbert sends him to prove himself in the crusade against the Albigensians.
On the road to Marseilles, Ansiau is joined by a lighthearted runaway monk, Riquet, and by Bertrand, or Gaucelm of Castans, who, because of his wife’s Albigensian enthusiasm, was blinded as punishment for heresy. Riquet leaves the party to remain with a village girl, and the other three proceed through the war-ravaged countryside. At Pamiers, Bertrand is reunited with his son but finds him determined to die for his new faith. In despair, Bertrand departs.
Fearful of his mother and, to a lesser degree, of damnation, Herbert breaks off his affair with his half sister. Eglantine aborts their child and, bent on destroying Herbert, haunts the forest, experimenting with witchcraft.
After distinguishing himself in battle, Haguenier becomes ill and has to abandon the crusade. His wife produces a beautiful little girl. Haguenier is captivated, but because the child is not a male to carry on the line, Herbert is furious. Despite Haguenier’s objections, Herbert has the marriage annulled. However, Haguenier says that unless Marie becomes available, he will not marry again. Marie continues to test her lover, pushing him into a battle with a rival, which Haguenier loses, then insisting that he fight in a tournament using only a mirror for a shield. Amazingly, he survives and triumphs over four knights. By now, Haguenier is the complete chivalric lover. To show his devotion to Marie, he even forswears physical love.
One disaster after another comes upon Herbert and those associated with him. Ernaut is heartbroken when, despite the papal document, he is once again rejected and the girl he loves is betrothed to another man. Haguenier tries desperately to get his half brother through this crisis, but, when the marriage takes place, Ernaut hangs himself, just as he threatened to do.
Discovering his affair with Eglantine, the Lady Alis disowns Herbert and places a curse upon him. Then comes a bitter drought. When rain falls everywhere except on Herbert’s lands, the peasants blame Eglantine’s witchcraft. A mob sweeps down upon Lady Alis’s farmhouse, injuring her and killing Eglantine. Convinced that his mother’s curse is working, Herbert confesses his many sins to a priest and is given a number of penances. Herbert does make a fairly short pilgrimage. However, he hires someone else to go to the Holy Land in his place.
In Marseilles, Ansiau and his two friends are delighted to have Riquet rejoin them. The monk promptly begins making money to pay their way to the Holy Land and turning it over to Ansiau for safekeeping. When Ansiau is robbed, Riquet begins all over again. In desperation, he goes into a church to pray. While he is there, a woman leaves a necklace of precious stones at the shrine of Saint Mary Magdalene. Assuming that his prayer is answered, Riquet takes the necklace, sells it, and procures passages to the Holy Land for his friends and himself.
In Acre at last, Ansiau searches for his son’s grave without success. He decides to continue on his way to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Bertrand is now too ill to walk but, fearful of remaining behind alone. Ansiau and Riquet decide to take turns carrying him. The four leave Acre with a large convoy, accompanied by armed men. However, a band of Muslim warriors sweeps down from the hills, kills the guards, and takes the rest captive. Young, strong men such as Riquet are sent to be sold as slaves. Those not of much use, such as Bertrand, are marched until they die of exhaustion. In fact, Bertrand chooses to die; he leaves the line of prisoners and is decapitated. Seeing that Ansiau, though blind, still has considerable physical power, the Muslims set him to work turning a mill. Because they believe that Auberi is Ansiau’s son, they permit the boy to remain with the old man.
While Herbert is away, his wife Aelis is so indiscreet that Haguenier is forced into a duel with her lover. On his return, when Herbert learns about the scandal, he begins beating his wife. Chivalrously, Haguenier goes to her defense. In the ensuing scuffle, Herbert’s back is broken. During the days that follow, Herbert forgives his son, and the Lady Alis, regretting her curse upon him, forgives Herbert. On his deathbed, Herbert asks Haguenier to marry off his one-year-old daughter and turn over the family estates to her husband. Haguenier, he says, should enter a monastery. Haguenier obeys his father’s wishes and becomes Brother Ernaut. When his wife dies, Haguenier has his daughter sent to Marie to be reared.
In the Holy Land, Ansiau persuades the faithful Auberi to make his escape, and, eventually, the boy finds his way to a group of Christian pilgrims. Among the Muslims, Ansiau gains the reputation of being a holy man and a healer. He dies on a hill above Jerusalem.
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