Carol Sweetenham shares her motivations for translating Robert the Monk

Posted by David Cota, Senior Marketing Coordinator

I had three reasons for translating Robert.” Carol Sweetenham shares her motivations for translating Robert the Monk’s work in her guest blog.

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As someone who works in government I think a great deal about what constitutes narrative. And so I have been fascinated for years by the blurring of historical and fictional in the accounts we have of the First Crusade. Latin chronicles by Benedictine monks contain themes and anecdotes from popular culture. Conversely the epic cycle of chansons de geste recounting the events of the Crusade draws on written history. I wanted to translate Robert’s chronicle because it sits at this intersection of history and fiction; and there are few better ways of getting into the warp and weft of a text than translating it.

Robert the monks history of the first crusade

The First Crusade was one of the most written about events of the Middle Ages. Within a decade it had spawned at least three eyewitness accounts and a further half dozen by non-participants. It was ultimately to create, uniquely amongst contemporary events, its own epic cycle in the thirteenth century, and its reverberations continued into the sixteenth century. One text in particular, the anonymous Gesta Francorum written from a Southern Norman perspective, was adapted by three Benedictine monks into separate but related accounts: Guibert of Nogent, abbot of St Germer de Fly; Baudry of Bourgueil, Archbishop of Dol; and Robert the Monk.

Of all these accounts Robert’s was by far the most popular. It survives in some one hundred manuscripts, more by a factor of ten than any other account. It was known across Europe. It continued to be read, translated and adapted until the sixteenth century. As such it has been hugely influential in shaping our perception of the Crusade. Yet it has been largely ignored by modern scholarship. Until recently the only published version was in the nineteenth century French compendium of Crusade texts, the Recueil des Historiens des Croisades. The only translation available was equally a nineteenth century one by Francois Guizot, long since out of print, and a German one; there was nothing for English speakers. As such it was virtually inaccessible to a modern Anglo-Saxon audience. Modern analysis was confined to passing comments in other works: there was no study available. And Runciman’s dismissal of Robert as “popular and somewhat romantic” in his magistral history of the Crusades still casts a long shadow.

I thought it was more than time for a modern audience to have easy access to Robert’s work, and was delighted that Ashgate agreed to publish an English translation. Whilst I had some misgivings about using the Recueil edition given its age, I had neither time nor inclination to do an edition myself. Since then Marcus Bull and Damien Kempf have brought out an excellent new edition of the text, and much to my relief the Recueil text – and hence my translation – have stood up well.

I had three reasons for translating Robert. The first was that he brought a particular perspective to his view of the Crusade. As a Benedictine he placed it in the context of the divine plan, rooting it firmly in the context of the Old and New Testament. He was well placed to have access to a range of source material, which he wove into his main source the Gesta Francorum. He brought a shrewd and sceptical eye to the course of events: I was particularly struck by his sardonic aside that “all [the leaders of the Crusade] spoke in favour of reconciliation without any suggestions as to how it was to be achieved.” And he also brought a wider cultural hinterland reflected in for example his use of the conventions of the chanson de geste and classical authors such as Lucan and Ovid. So by translating him I felt I gained an insight into the mind of an educated and shrewd twelfth-century observer.

The second was his importance in shaping later perceptions of the Crusade. As the most popular account he had a major influence on later descriptions: for example he was the obvious source to which the thirteenth-century compiler of the Chanson d’Antioche turned for material. So I wanted people to have access to an influential source and judge its impact for themselves.

The third and perhaps most important reason was his skill as a storyteller. Robert shapes the Crusade into a tight and logical narrative arc, culminating in a paean to Jerusalem and bookended by two major speeches: that of Urban II at the beginning of the Crusade and his opponent the emir Clemens at the end. His account is a vivid one full of drama, event, humour and pathos. And more than that, he has an ability given to few writers: to conjure up scenes in a few words which open a brief window to the twelfth century. Saracens cluster like flies round rotting meat. A heap of straw is blown apart by the wind. Peasants wait in dazed acquiescence to be slaughtered. For me Robert brings the Crusade alive in a way no other chronicler quite manages, and I wanted to share that freshness and excitement with a modern audience.

As translator you want above all for your author to be read and enjoyed. You are there as a medium to make him (rarely her) accessible to a modern audience rather than as an author in your own right. I wanted academics and in particular students to appreciate Robert. So I was delighted when I was approached at Leeds IMC with the words “I know who you are – you’re Robert’s translator! My students use him all the time.” Definitely mission accomplished, I felt.

Carol Sweetenham

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Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade was chosen by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our History publishing programme. View the full list of History Editors’ Choices

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