Introduction The Tale of the Emperor Coustans and of Over Sea

by Peter Faulkner

When Morris’s developing interest in printing led him to found the Kelmscott Press, whose first publication appeared in May 1891, he put himself in a position to bring out small editions of works that he liked which were unlikely to appeal to a wide readership, as well as more popular works. In the former category we may place the two volumes of Raoul Lefevre’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy as produced in translation by William Caxton c.1475, which was published at the Press in November 1892, soon followed by Caxton’s translation of The History of Reynard the Foxe in January 1893.1 In April 1893 the Press produced The Order of Chivalry, translated from the French of Ramón Lull by Caxton, together with the medieval French L’Ordene de Chevalerie with a translation by Morris entitled The Ordination of Knighthood.2With his interest in medieval French literature stimulated in this way, Morris went on to translate the four thirteenth-century stories that came to constitute Old French Romances in 1896.3

On 31 January 1893 Morris wrote, probably to F.S. Ellis who did much of the editorial work for the Kelmscott Press:

There is a little book of the Librarie Elzévirienne hight Contes et Nouvelles de la XIIIme Siècle: two of these are amongst the most beautiful works of the Middle Ages, and I intend translating them, and printing in a nice little book in Chaucer type.4

Morris’s first biographer, J.W.Mackail, makes the observation that this little book, published in 1856, ‘had for thirty years been one of the treasures of literature to him. Together with the "Violier des Histoires Romaines", which appeared in the same series two years later, it had been among the first sources of his knowledge of the French romance of the Middle Ages'.5 Mackail draws attention to a letter from Swinburne thanking Morris for sending him a copy of the last of the Kelmscott Press volumes of these translations, in which Swinburne recalled his and Morris’s  shared pleasure in reading the French stories ‘in  the days when we first foregathered at Oxford’ nearly forty years before.6  Mackail also notes that from his reading of the Nouvelles Morris had planned two of the stories for The Earthly Paradise, the unfinished poem ‘Amis and Amillion’, which had its origin in ‘L' Amitié d'Amis et d'Amile’, and the completed tale ‘The Man Born to be King’, based on 'Le Conte de L' Empereur Coustant’. In fact, however, for ‘The Man Born to be King’, the second poem for March in The Earthly Paradise, Morris seems also to have used the story as told in an English translation of the Gesta  Romanorum, a collection of stories in Latin collected In England in the fourteenth century, and first published in 1472.7

‘The Tale of the King Coustans’ is the most straightforward of the group; it illustrates the idea that it is impossible to prevent the fulfilment of destiny.  One evening the pagan Emperor of Byzantium, Musselin, spcaks unrecognised to a Christian workman an whose wife has just borne a child, and who tells him that the astrological evidence shows that the child, a son, will one day marry the Emperor’s daughter and so become emperor. Musselin is angered by this claim, orders the knight who is with him to steal the child so that he can kill it, slits its belly, and declares that no such lowborn child will ever succeed him. This only shows that he does nor know what kind of story he is in, and the rest of the narrative is the fulfilment of the workman’s prophecy. The knight who has to dispose of the body feels pity, and leaves it near a monastery. Here the Abbot too is compassionate, and sends forn doctors to heal the child. He then baptises him with the name Constans, because it has been costly to save him. The story then moves on fifteen years, by which time Coustans is a handsome and accomplished lad, and a favourite of the  Abbot , who takes him with him to court . When the Emperorr is told his story, he realises who the lad is, and demands him from the Abbot. Havingg got the boy into his service, he wants to arrange for him to be killed secretly. He therefore writes a letter, which he tells the unsuspecting young Coustans to take to the Burgreve of Byzantium, in which the Burgreve is instructed to kill the bearer of the letter - a plot device used by Shakespeare in Hamlet. However, when Coustans reaches the city, he finds his way an into a beautiful garden, and falls asleep. Here he is seen by the daughter of the Emperor, who has come there to play with her three companions. They find Coustans sleeping under a tree, and are delighted by his good looks. The Emperor’s daughter reads the letter and is distressed by it, but rapidly come up with a neat plan. She substitutes for the fatal letter one in which the Burgreve is ordered to arrange for him to marry Coustans to the Emperor’s daughter. Th e Burgreve does as he is told; the wedding takes place and is celebrated for fifteen happy holidays.When the Emperor thinks that enough time has elapsed for his command to have been carried out, he sets off for Byzantium. On the way he meets a messenger, who tells him of his daughter’s wedding and suggests that, as they have been a married for three weeks, she may already be pregnant.  The Emperor’s response is surprisingly positive; her accepts that what has happened cannot be reversed, and rides into Byzantium to accept the situation. The positive quality of the conclusion is reinforced when, on the death of the Emperor, Coustans takes the Abbot as his advisor, and the country is converted to Christianity. The son who is born to the couple will become the great Constantine, because of whom the city of Byzantium is renamed as Constantinople. Thus Christian Providence works itself out for the common good, in the most simply postive of this group of stories.

The second story in the Kelmscott edition, ‘The History of Over Sea’, has a more complicated and dramatic plot, involving, as the title suggests, a good deal of travel. The hero, Thibault, who is married but childless, decides to go as a pilgrim to the shrine of St. Jakeme or Jacque; his unnamed wife insists on accompanying him. On their way, the couple are set upon by eight robbers as they pass through a forest. Thibault kills three of them, but is over come by the others, tied up, and thrown into a bramble-bush. The five remaining robbers then rape the lady, and leave her with her husband.He has seen what has happened, but feels no ill will towards his unfortunate wife, as he knows that she had been forced. He calls to her to unbind him and get him out of the brambles, but - to the reader’s surprise - she picks up a sword and advances aggressively towards him, fearing that one day he will will reproach her. She seems even to want to kill him, but the blow she delivers with the sword cuts through his bonds, and he escapes. After this extraordinary event, they escape from the forest and rejoin their retinue. Thibault  continues to honour his lady, but no longer lies with her.

 The train of events here started will obviously have its consequences. The lady's father finds out what has happened, and tries ro punish her. But Providence prevents this, and after a series of exciting adventures, she becomes part of a group of travellers. They make their to the East, to the land of the Saracens , where the lady marries the generous young Sultan and has two children by him.  The Europeans return to Europe.  In Rome the Pope baptises the Sultan’s son as William, receives the lady back into the Christian church, and confirms her marriage to Thibault.  Thus they can return happily to their native place. The Count’s son becomes a knight, and worthy of the rank because of his chivalrous behaviour. The story ends positively with two weddings. William marries the daughter of Raoul de Preaux, while his sister marries Malakin of Baudas, a valiant servant of the Sultan. She, like her mother earlier in the story, is given a choice in the matter; indeed, Malakin will accept her only if it is a free choice on her part. She becomes the grandmother Saladin.Thus we are brought back to the figure so prominent in The Ordination of Knighthood, and so admired in medieval Christendom.

Morris’s pleasure in both these very different stories is evident. He tells them in the manner he has developed for the two earlier stories, vigorously, with a preference for short words, and employing a deliberately medieval vocabulary (for which a Glossary has been provided) which takes the reader into an unfamiliar but engrossing world. The clear contrasts between good and evil, and the delight in story-telling and the natural world, appealed to him, just as he reacted against the psychological complexity of contemporary novelists like Henry James, whom he termed the ‘clever but dull Mr. James’.8 Thus it is no surprise to find that Morris  was at the same time writing the series of stories that have come to be called the Prose Romances, which exhibit some of the qualities of the French tales. At the Kelmscott Press he produced The Story of the Glittering Plain in May 1891 and again, with Walter Crane’s illustrations, in February 1894; The Wood beyond the World in October 1894; Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair in September 1895; The Well at the World’s End in June 1896; and, after Morris’s death, the Press issued The Water of the Wondrous Isles in July 1897 and The Sundering Flood in February 1898. In the section of her recent William Morris and the Idea of Community entitled ‘The Bibles of the People’,Anna Vaninskaya has given a convincing account of Morris’s attitude to fiction in these years, showing how his use of the romance genre enabled him to ‘demonstrate the values of association, fellowship and mutual aid as against ‘modern individualism and introspection’.9 His reading of the French tales clearly helped him in this self-imposed task. 


1William S. Peterson, A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984; 1985, pp. 24-7 and 29-31.
2ibid., pp. 36-9.
3Old French Romances. Done into English by William Morris. With an Introduction by Joseph Jacobs, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1896, 1914. Subsequentltly as Jacobs.
4Norman Kelvin, editor,The Collected Letters of William Morris, 4 vols., Princeton,  NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984- 96; Vol. IV, 15; 31 January 1893.
5J.W.Mackail, The Life of William Morris, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899; 1922, Vol.II, 297.
6ibid.,Vol. II, 297-8.
7ibid.,Vol.II, 298; see Florence Boos, The Design of William Morris’ ‘The Earthly Paradise’, Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991, p.74, Note 4.
8Commonweal, 15 December 1888; in Nicholas Salmon, editor, William Morris. Journalism, Bristol: Thoemess Press, 1996, pp. 490-1, where James is said to write from ‘the stand-point of the superior middle-class person’.
9Anna Vaninskaya, William Morris and the Idea of Community, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, p. 68.