Bryn Hammond's Reviews > The World Beyond Europe in the Romance Epics of Boiardo and Ariosto

The World Beyond Europe in the Romance Epics of Boiardo and A... by Jo Ann Cavallo
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bookshelves: epic-and-romance

“For Boiardo human freedom was epitomized by the imaginary wanderings of Charlemagne’s paladins across the globe in the company of non-European and non-Christian knights and ladies who often shared their chivalric ideals.”

What an open-minded human being was Matteo Maria Boiardo. I come away from this book with a hugely upscaled admiration for him – and with Ariosto possibly spoilt. Before, I loved them both indiscriminately. I’m one of these the author complains of, who blur the two Orlando poems – Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, continued by Ariosto in Orlando Furioso. Not after her book, which contrasts their “distinct and opposing visions of the world.”

The world beyond Europe. I was always entranced by how far these guys travel – to the ends of Asia – and I’ve wondered about the poets’ knowledge of the world, what material they had to concoct their romances from, and how they thought of the foreign. Because I was struck in particular by Boiardo’s Agricane, who has a definite Mongol lineage and lives at the furthest reaches of the world, and is a gorgeous figure even his enemy likes. More on him at the end of this review.

Knights were never so errant as in these Italian cadenzas on the stern old story of Charlemagne’s Roland. The Song of Roland, of course, pits Christians against Saracens, but Boiardo overturns every Carolingian convention, in that arena: “his knights and damsels originate from every corner of the globe... Newly invented Asian, African and Middle Eastern characters join traditional Carolingian figures in embodying a code of chivalry that transcends national, religious, ethnic and linguistic barriers.” Brandimarte, “representative of a truly universal knighthood,” grew up in Castle Wild in the vicinity of Samarkand, a city suggestive to Boiardo’s original audience of “a crossroads of various civilizations in the East.” Again and again his large cast displays “a universal chivalric code indifferent to religious creed.”

He inserts into his stories details that keep in our minds the shared “classical cultural heritage” of Christianity and Islam, through which they can talk to each other, on exemplars from history and legend – Alexander and Hector – on science and philosophy, Greek and Arab. He uses history. Behind Rugiero, who practices an “unconditional chivalry” – and, as Cavallo notes, is a North African man desired by a French woman – stands Rigieri or Roger I and II, Italo-Normans whose “disinterested courtesy” was directed towards Muslims, too. While in Syria, Boiardo’s Noradino is named for Nur ad-Din, who along with his successor Saladin was in chivalric, courteous odour even among Crusaders. In the well-governed realm of Noradino, “although Orlando is not the first knight to pass through Syria in a chivalric narrative, he is quite possibly the first ever to find this region at peace.” Yes, Boiardo pictures a Middle East under Saracen government and a haven of “safety and harmony” where Christians can mingle with their Muslim peers and enjoy the courtly sports. At this point you may want to award Matteo Maria Boiardo the Nobel Peace Prize. Conversions? They happen in his poem, but seldom. They are not sought after nor presented as a solution for the future – not even a wish. They are voluntary, and proselytizing is seen to never work. They are also historical: they are set in Armenia or among the Mongols and have a real-world reason. It’s far from the ahistorical fantasies of mass conversion usual in chivalric romance, where a Muslim once beaten by a Christian knight curses his God and converts on the spot.

And Ariosto? I’ve preferred to talk about Boiardo. Character by character she contrasts them, and story by story, whereby Ariosto inverts Boiardo’s meanings. Boiardo has a tale to suggest that knowledge of the foreign, even at a risk, has potential gains; Ariosto has a tale, with echoes of Boiardo’s, to warn against intimacy with the foreign. When Boiardo alludes to Crusades he does so “in a way that expressly distances his poem from the ideology typical of the Carolingian romances,” but Ariosto works his plot around to a crusading ideology – and indeed calls for a new crusade. Boiardo’s interfaith love affairs, optimistic in him, come to a bad end in Ariosto or are rewritten to eliminate the cross-culture. There is a “systematic degradation of Saracen heroes.” Perhaps his worst is what he does with Marphisa, a queen of the unspecified East and a worldwide knight errant. In Boiardo she is committed to chivalric values and absolutely blind to religious or cultural difference; by the time Ariosto is done with her she’s a convert and a “fanatical miles Christi” who only wants to slay Saracens. Let this stand for Ariosto’s other “degradations” of Asian and African characters, for he gives the treatment to each and every one. While I’m on women, though, I’ll mention the difference in Angelicas. In Boiardo, Angelica of Cathay is a self-confident world-traveller of undiminished “agency” who always has the upper hand in situations; in Ariosto she is a pursued victim in close and sexy scrapes with ravishment.

I was afraid, as I read this book, that I’ve forever lost my innocence on Ariosto. A pity if I can’t forget this and enjoy him, because as C.S. Lewis said, “When you are tired of Ariosto, you must be tired of the world.” Last night I finished this work of criticism and I am tired of Ariosto. It won’t last. I guess it’s Boiardo who makes him look bad, because what do you expect from romances of Charlemagne? You don’t expect Boiardo. – In case you haven’t read Boiardo and suspect from this description he’s programmatic or no fun, he’s the one who promises us “the biggest, most stupendous war/Attempted yet in prose or verse.” He loves overreachers – along the lines of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. It’s just that they are never motivated by religion. Characters aren’t judged on ethnicity or faith, simple as that: now go have adventures.

I’ve kept til last Agricane, the king of Tartary. I’ve been in love with him from way back, and why not? Orlando adores him too. A few years ago when I got my hands on the full translation of Boiardo I paid him special attention because I now research Mongol history. How Mongol is he? Deliberately Mongol, says Cavallo, with more historical references than the girl from Cathay or Gradasso of Sericana (maritime China). Romances simplify the world into a Christian/Saracen division, but Agricane is never called a Saracen or mentions Muhammad – he calls on the sun, known as a Mongol divinity, and his Tartary flies Mongol flags. When Agricane makes a big noise about how he despises to profit by his enemy’s traitor, I had to wonder whether this is a reminiscence of Genghis Khan, who was famous for the same. Cavallo says yes. She finds significant, in the state of the world Boiardo paints, that in the Mongols’ wars religion was absent as a motivation. She sees the progress of Mongol history followed in the career of Agricane’s son, with changes that “align” him with Ogodei.

I am convinced by her arguments, about Boiardo’s conscious use of Mongol history. However, I have to say I found an inadequacy in the sources she consults on that history. I thought odd that she should have John Man as a main informant, because his is a popular history. Why not, in a book such as this, use an academic one? I was more startled when, on the question of Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance, she went to Robert Silverberg for information. The science fiction writer, who did a history of Prester John, and is quoted in the notes: “Genghis himself had no strong religious convictions but was content to observe the simple pagan shamanism of his forefathers.” This exhibits a poor understanding, since of course, one can have strong religious convictions within the indigenous religion of the Mongols. I hate to find fault here, because Cavallo is forward-thinking and not inclined to the dismissive attitudes implicit in the Silverberg quote. It’s a shame she hasn’t explored more widely in Mongol scholarship. What else, then, might she have spotted in Boiardo? She makes little mistakes: Khublai’s mother wasn’t a convert but came from a Nestorian Christian steppe people. As far as I can see, these do not mar her argument. Yet they must in a sense weaken the book. I was disturbed further when, on the subject of Prester John, she rests entirely on the Robert Silverberg, published in 1972. And on the ethnicity of Mamelukes, her text was so brief as to be almost misleading.

Still, it’s not easy to span the world, in the wake of Boiardo’s knights, and scholarship on these romances has neglected the view beyond Europe. Cavallo’s book, I understand, boasts several firsts. It’s been an exciting event for me, who never dared hope I’d find a person to tell me about the links between Agricane and Genghis Khan.
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Reading Progress

October 17, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
October 17, 2013 – Shelved
October 17, 2013 – Shelved as: epic-and-romance
October 27, 2013 – Started Reading
October 27, 2013 –
page 50
12.76% "Not only does Boiardo "want to evoke the specificity of the Mongol Empire" with Agricane of Tartary, but his characterization follows what was known to him of Genghis."
Finished Reading
October 30, 2013 –
page 219
55.87% "I have learnt a sky-high esteem for Boiardo but can I ever enjoy Ariosto again? And why does Boiardo have 50 ratings to Ariosto's 898? These are the injustices."

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by John (new)

John Caviglia Great review!

Bryn Hammond Thanks so much, John. Two of my enthusiasms meet and I write an essay...

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