The Story of Floris and Blancheflour
12th century, Old French | 13th century Middle English retelling in manuscript copies at Cambridge University Library, British Library, National Library of Scotland.
‘Take this ring, son. While you are wearing it, you need fear nothing. Fire will not burn you, the sea will not drown you and iron and steel will not be able to cut you.'
'There was a whole spate of literary activity in Old French and Anglo-Norman French near the end of the twelfth century,' said Miranda. 'Arthurian romances like Thomas of Britain's Tristan, the pre-Vulgate Lancelot, all of Chrétien de Troyes' five romances, brilliant as they are, and all the Breton lais of Marie de France, who probably wrote at the court of King Henry II of England and some of whose tales are set in the world of King Arthur. And many others as well – such as the ones set in Norman Apulia in southern Italy, like Ipomadon and William of Palerne, strange romances like Robert le Diable and one from which the Middle English Breton lai of Egaré and Chaucer's tale of Constance were later based, and family romances involving disguise, like Boeuve de Haumton – Bevis of Hampton – and Guy of Warwick...'
'And all written in the decades surrounding the Albigensian Crusade against home-grown heresy,' said Quintin.
'Well exactly. And all of them really weird, with loads of shared themes and motifs,' agreed Miranda. 'Like Floris and Blancheflour for example, composed in Old French in about 1170 and abridged into Middle English in about 1250. Three really weird features of this romance need explaining. They all occur as Floris is about to set off to look for his sweetheart Blancheflour. His father, the king, goes to find a suitable horse for him.
'The king ordered that a palfrey be saddled. One side of the horse was white and the other side red:
The oon half white so mylke, and that other reed so silk. – and I could not begin to tell you how fine the saddle was. It was encrusted with jewels, with gold and precious stones embroidered into the fabric with gold thread. The queen was generous as well. She took from her finger a ring. ‘Take this ring, son. While you are wearing it, you need fear nothing.
Ne fir thee brenne, ne drenchen in se, ne iren ne stel schal derie thee. – Fire will not burn you, the sea will not drown you and iron and steel will not be able to cut you. And always it will bring you good luck.’ Then weeping, his mother and father said goodbye and kissed their son softly on the lips.
Thai made for him non other chere than thei seye him ligge on bere. They acted as though they could see him lying in his coffin.
'Ever come across dazzlingly red and white animals before?'
'Welsh Mabinogion,' replied Quitin. 'The hounds that belong to Arawn, the king of the Otherworld.'
'Well done! So the horse they're sending Floris off on is a creature of the Otherworld. But don't forget that you could get slaughtered for writing stuff that was obviously pagan. So it had to be clever. And it doesn't come much cleverer than this: Floris is the son of the king of Spain. Blancheflour is the daughter of a Christian lady and they both grow up together. But when they reach puberty, Floris's father begins to get worried that Floris might not want to marry according to his wishes and the upshot of all the scheming is that Floris is shown Blancheflour's tomb, looks at the scenes depicted on the side, tries to kill himself, is shown that the tomb is empty, vows to travel to where Blancheflour has gone, receives a ring that gives him invulnerability to death, and a horse from the Otherworld, sets off from his own funeral and travels to the place where Blancheflour has been taken – which corresponds to the scene on the tomb – wearing the ring that confers invulnerability to death, and finds Blancheflour pursuing a new life, as a maiden belonging to the Emir of Babylon, in the real world.
'The rest of the story involves him rescuing Blancheflour, after nearly getting them both burnt alive in the attempt, and finally marrying Blancheflour with the ring of immortality that led him to her in the first place.
'Of course, it's all strung together in a way that makes prosaic sense, and you need to get your eye in to see that this is what it's all about. But it is, honestly.'