Garin le Loherain Essay - Critical Essays

Garin le Loherain


Garin le Loherain

(Also Garin le Loheren) Twelfth-century French poem.

One of the lesser known medieval chansons de geste, a category of epic verse concerned with French or classical heroes in historical settings, Garin le Loherain is the central work of the Loherain cycle, a group of poems detailing the heroic exploits of the knightly class in medieval France that also includes La geste des Loherains, Gerbert de Mez, and Hervis de Mes. A tale of two feuding clans, vassals to the ineffectual French ruler Pépin le Bref in the eleventh century, Garin le Loherain concentrates its narrative on the noble Garin, son of Hervis, detailing his family's struggle against the treacherous House of Bordelais. Relatively infrequently studied outside of France in the contemporary period, Garin le Loherain typifies the poetic depiction of strained feudal loyalties in the medieval period, and is noted for its lack of romantic machinery (otherwise typical of the chansons de geste) and remarkable “Death of Begon” episode, praised for its compressed artistic integrity.

Textual History

While some scholars suggest that a prototype of the epic may have been composed sometime before 1168, the generally accepted date for the earliest extant manuscript of the poem is given as 1180-85. Some critics speculate that Garin le Loherain may have derived from oral tradition as a sung narrative, although modern studies have tended to support its written origins. An assortment of texts exist, numbering about fifty in varying states of emendation—some featuring rhymed as well as more common assonant verse—and several survive from the epic's period of highest popularity in the fourteenth century. Many of the extant manuscripts are fragmentary; of these, four begin with the noted “Death of Begon” episode.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem opens at the royal court of Emperor Pépin le Bref in the mid-eleventh century. Dictatorial but easily manipulated, Pépin heeds the wishes of Hardré, an imperial advisor of the House Bordelais and a nefarious influence on the French ruler. Scheming to weaken his aristocratic rivals, Hardré convinces Pépin not to honor his feudal oaths to protect vassals in southern France against the invading Saracens, claiming that to do so would be too costly. Without assistance, Hervis de Mes, one of these vassals, a member of House Loherain and father of the poem's principal protagonists Garin and Begon, looks to Germany for aid against the aggressors. Later, when Pépin also refuses his obligations to another vassal, Tierri de Morïane, again at the urging of Hardré, a council of knights gathers and protest mounts. Led by Garin and Fromont, the son of Hardré, a combined force sponsored by the Loherain and Bordelais clans rides to aid Tierri in the south against the Moors. In the decisive moment before battle, however, Fromont fails to give his men the order to attack alongside Garin. Fromont's cowardly refusal to confront the enemy, a seminal act of dishonor, precipitates his gradual decline into perfidy. After the invaders have been repelled, Tierri offers his lands and only daughter, Blanchefleur, to Garin; Fromont receives nothing.

Meanwhile, in light of Pépin's recent and unwise appointment of Garin's brother Begon to the position of Duke of Gascony (a vassalage that grants him lands in the territory controlled by the Bordelais), Fromont objects to the marriage, demanding Blanchefleur and her father's lands as a promised concession from the Emperor. The action shifts back to court as Fromont incites the nobles in the royal palace. Infighting erupts and Fromont's father Hardré is killed. In the ensuing melee of interests, Pépin temporarily sides with the Loherain. Shortly thereafter, Archbishop Henri, bribed by his cousin Fromont, convinces the Emperor to marry Blanchefleur as a means to conclude the strife with the Bordelais. Seeking to sway his former friend, Fromont suggests that Garin help him kidnap Blanchefleur for Pépin, and in return promises him the hand of his own sister. An indignant Blanchefleur, however, flatly refuses the scheme. Subsequently, Fromont attempts to brand Garin a traitor, planting a rumor that the knight has attempted to assassinate Pépin. In response, Begon duels to protect the family honor and slays his opponent. Begon, meanwhile, has married Biatrix, daughter of Milon of Blaye, and in so doing has gained still more lands coveted by the Bordelais.

After a period of relative tranquility between the rival houses, Garin's brother experiences a sharp decline in his fortunes, culminating in the renowned “Death of Begon” episode, which forms a stunning dramatic interlude in the epic and in the Loherain cycle as a whole. The episode centers on a melancholy Begon as he endeavors to raise his spirits by visiting Garin after an interval of some seven years and joins in a celebrated boar hunt. Ignoring the protests of his wife, who fears the treachery of his enemies, Begon prepares himself for a journey east. Later, while engaged in the hunt for wild boar, Begon separates from his companions in the forest of Vicogne, a wilderness area that straddles territory owned by Fromont. Mistaken for a poacher, Begon draws the attention of Fromont's seneschal, who dispatches six men—including Thiebaut du Plesseis, Fromont's nephew and a sworn enemy of Begon—to waylay the trespasser. Fighting the men alone with his back to a tree, Begon slays four before being fatally pierced by an arrow. Fromont soon learns of the incident and recognizes the dead man as the brother of Garin. His son Fromondin sharply rebukes Thiebaut for the action, while Fromont himself laments this ignoble death and surely rekindled feud. The Loherains demand Thiebaut as the price for Begon's murder, but Fromont fails to convince his kinsmen to pay this debt of honor. Following their refusal, Fromont descends irrevocably into his role as traitor and antagonist to Garin. The remainder of the epic describes the Loherains’ revenge for Begon's murder. Rigaut, a former peasant and nephew of Begon knighted earlier in the epic, kills Thiebaut's nephews and later raids Bourges, sacking the Bordelais city. (Thiebaut also meets a violent end on the battlefield later in the poem.) Garin himself attacks Guillelme de Blanchefort, a Bordelais clansman supposedly under Pépin's protection at the time. Pépin subsequently shifts his support to the Bordelais. By the work's conclusion, Garin finds himself deeply in debt. His reputation wounded by Fromont's continued treachery, he must mortgage his holdings to the Prince of Cologne. Thereafter, he meets his doom in a church at the hands of a band of traitors

Major Themes

Critics distinguish a number of thematic elements in Garin le Loherain associated with the epic's depiction of a feudal social order in a state of violent disruption. Catastrophic family negotiations, internecine warfare, an acquisitive quest for wives and land, the breakdown of feudal obligations, and a lack of worldly justice are a few of the motifs that exist alongside a principal focus on treachery and revenge. Together Fromont and Garin personify these dual motivations in the poem. Fromont, for all of his treacherous lineage, however, generally appears to make his poor decisions based on circumstance and the dictates of family honor, rather than as the result of his own, internal motivation. For several scholars, Fromont embodies an outward expression of instabilities in the precarious feudal social structure of medieval France—a threat that eclipses even that of invading Saracens. Garin, while brave and steadfast, has little hope of withstanding the forces unleashed by the treachery of the Bordelais, and in opting for vindication, seals his own fate. A complementary theme divides the Frankish society depicted in the poem by gender, with commentators observing that its female characters represent ethical judgment and the wisdom of restraint, while its male figures universally lack these qualities. Invariably, men pay the price for their mistakes in the world of Garin le Loherain with their lives.

Critical Reception

Unlike the more renowned of the medieval chansons de geste, which generally feature deeper romantic, nationalistic, or religious elements, Garin le Loherain principally chronicles the daily facets of vassalage and feudal strife without these devices. Mildred K. Pope (1914) examines some of its stylistic qualities in relation to the better-known Chanson de Roland, observing that Garin’s repetitive syntactical formulation and more limited techniques of versification suffer in comparison. In contrast, the poem's compelling storyline and individualized characterizations have been designated as its most outstanding qualities. A favorite in the late medieval period, especially in the fourteenth century, when it enjoyed a phase of extreme popularity, Garin le Loherain has elicited little non-French scholarly interest in the contemporary period. Those critics who have considered the work have generally compared it with other chansons de geste, including Raoul de Cambrai or Aye d'Avignon, which bear certain similarities in terms of subject or theme. Other critics, such as Herman J. Green (1941), have opted for a more archeological approach, tracing the historical or literary lineage of named figures in the poem, especially those of its villains Fromont and Thiebaut, or have examined the textual history of the epic. The “Death of Begon” episode in Garin le Loherain has been considered one of the finer verse movements in the genre. Crafted by the poet in what W. P. Ker (1896) calls “the most varied, as well as the most compact” moment of expression in the epic, the “Death of Begon” scene stands on its own as a moving vignette of heroic action.

Principal Works

Garin le Loherain (translated by Ernest Randolph) 1935

Garin le Loheren (translated by Josephine E. Vallerie) 1947

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W. P. Ker (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: Ker, W. P. “The Old French Epic (Chansons de geste.)” In Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature, pp. 287-320. London: Macmillan, 1922.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1896, Ker compares Garin le Loherain with the French epic Raoul de Cambrai, assesses its notable “Death of Begon” episode, and observes that the work bears affinities to Icelandic saga in its concentration on character and lack of strong political, religious, or romantic motivation.]

Garin le Loherain is a story with a [a plot similar to that of Raoul de Cambrai] …—the estrangement and enmity of old friends, “sworn...

(The entire section is 3337 words.)

Mildred K. Pope (essay date January 1914)

SOURCE: Pope, Mildred K. “Four Chansons de geste: A Study in Old French Epic Versification.” Modern Language Review 9, no. 1 (January 1914): 41-52.

[In the following excerpt, Pope argues that Garin le Loherain represents a formal and stylistic break with the chanson de geste tradition, which includes the Chanson de Willelme and Chanson de Roland.]


With Garin le Lorrain the chronicle stage is all but reached. [chanson de geste] The strophe structure is virtually destroyed, the language often prosaic, the repetitions without trace of emotional appeal.


(The entire section is 2745 words.)

Herman J. Green (essay date May 1941)

SOURCE: Green, Herman J. “Fromont, a Traitor in the Chansons de geste.Modern Language Notes 56, no. 5 (May 1941): 329-37.

[In the following essay, Green probes possible historical sources for the treacherous figure of Fromont in Garin le Loherain and related works.]

A character by the name of Fromont plays a rôle of the first importance in Garin le Loherain and throughout the entire Loherain cycle of which Garin forms the nucleus.1 We also find a Fromont in the principal villainous role in Jourdain de Blaivies.2 In Berthe aus grans piés3 a reference is made to this character from...

(The entire section is 3208 words.)

Hillel Schwartz (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Hillel. “Garin le Loheren: Preliminary Report on a Rhymed Manuscript.” Romania 98, no. 4 (1977): 541-50.

[In the following excerpt, Schwartz investigates the manuscript status of Garin le Loherain and its place between oral and written traditions.]

In 1966 the Bancroft Library of the University of California (Berkeley) acquired from Sotheby's a manuscript of two parts of La geste des Lorrains, Garin le Loheren and Girbert de Mez1. The reappearance of this manuscript solves several problems which have plagued scholars since the 1870's. It promises also to shed some light on the more general issues...

(The entire section is 2755 words.)

Barbara Schurfranz (essay date winter 1980)

SOURCE: Schurfranz, Barbara. “Thiebaut du Plesseis in Garin le Loheren: An Echo of La Chanson de Guillaume?” Romance Notes 21, no. 2 (winter 1980): 243-47.

[In the following essay, Schurfranz concentrates on the role of Thiebaut in Garin le Loherain and on links between this figure and Thiebaut de Bourges of La Chanson de Guillame.]

In La Chanson de Guillaume, Thiebaut de Bourges and his nephew Estourmi indirectly cause Vivien's death. Though lacking any heroic qualities whatsoever, these two reprobates did not gain, as did Ganelon, the standing of archtraitor in chanson de geste literature, and mention of either of them in other...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)

Catherine M. Jones (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Jones, Catherine M. “Identity and Disguise in a Late French Epic: Hervis de Mes.Essays in Medieval Studies 4 (1987): 107-17.

[In the following essay, Jones analyzes the function of disguise and dissimulation as weapons used to exclude the rising bourgeoisie from the world of the aristocracy in Hervis de Mes, a thirteenth-century epic of the Loherain cycle.]

Hervis de Mes is a branch of the provincial epic cycle known as the geste des Loherains. The oldest and most prominent poem in the cycle, Garin le Loherain, depicts the bitter rivalry between two feudal houses during the reign of Pépin le Bref; succeeding...

(The entire section is 3217 words.)

Susan H. Cavanaugh (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Cavanaugh, Susan H. “The Identification of a Lost English Analogue of the ‘Death of Begon’ Episode from the Old French Epic Garin le Loherain.Medium Ævum 57, no. 1 (1988): 64-67.

[In the following essay, Cavanaugh suggests that a fourteenth-century text once owned by Sir Simon Burly is likely an English translation of the “Death of Begon” episode from Garin le Loherain.]

Of the relatively few inventories of privately owned books that survive from the Middle Ages, one of the better known is that of Sir Simon Burley, a favourite of Richard II who was executed by order of the Merciless Parliament in 1388.1 Burley's inventory is of...

(The entire section is 1452 words.)

Sarah Kay (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kay, Sarah. “Allies and Enemies.” In The “Chansons de geste” in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions, pp. 175-99. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Kay compares Garin le Loherain with Aye d'Avignon in order to highlight its theme of treachery spawned from an internally confused social order.]


Garin is an altogether more pessimistic narrative [than Aye d'Avignon]. Although as in Aye traitors ally themselves with pagan interest, there is no compensating move on the pagan side to restore order for the non-treacherous Franks. Frankish society is not...

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Further Reading


Pohoryles, Bernard M. Demonstrative Pronouns and Adjectives in “Garin le Loheren” and “Gerbert de Mez”: Etymology, Morphology, Syntax, and Comparison with Five Old French Epic Poems and Five Old French ‘Romans.’ New York: Pace College, 1966, 293 p.

In-depth linguistic analysis of Garin le Loherain and its sequel Gerbert de Mez.

Schurfranz, Barbara deMarco. “La Chevalerie Ogier: Verbatim Borrowing from the Geste de Loherains.Romance Philology 30, no. 3 (February, 1977): 470-74.

Studies extensive verbal duplication between Le Chevalerie Ogier and the Loherain...

(The entire section is 88 words.)