Meeting Report: First Encounters with the Roman de Fergus — a Medieval Tale of Galloway Goings-on

29 January 2016
Penny Eley (Emeritus Professor of Medieval French, University of Sheffield)

Members of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society enjoyed a talk on an unusual topic on Friday, 29 January. The speaker, Penny Eley, Emeritus Professor of Medieval French at Sheffield University, described the background to Le Roman de Fergus, a story of medieval knights, a white stag and the son of a Galloway peasant who became King of Lothian. Composed during the early years of the thirteenth century, the tale is written in Old French, the language of the English and Scottish nobility. It was probably intended to be read out loud, perhaps at a family gathering or after dinner at a large court. An Arthurian romance, it was the equivalent of the modern novel. But the medieval audience was sophisticated, and would have realised that it was also a parody of another tale, Le Conte de Graal by Chretein de Troyes, whose hero was the knight Perceval.

Penny's talk focussed on the first section of the tale, which had more local connections. The story begins in Cardigan, where King Arthur and his knights, including Perceval, set off on a hunt. With the mention of Perceval, the audience would have been anticipating a prequel or sequel to Le Conte de Graal. The hunting party find a white stag, often a sign that something supernatural is to follow in mediaeval stories. During the course of a single day they pursue the stag north to Carlisle, and then on to Jedburgh, Lammemuir, Ayr and Ingeval. The latter may be Inch, between Cairnryan and Glenluce in Galloway. Wherever it is, the author unflatteringly describes it as a land of godless, ignorant, beastlike people! Even worse follows when, instead of Perceval bravely killing the stag, the poor animal drowns in a bog, and its corpse is retrieved by Perceval’s dog.

Perceval fades into the background, but a new hero emerges — Fergus. Fergus, the son of a peasant father and noble mother, is ploughing when he sees the King Arthur and his knights. He has always admired knightly ways, and King Arthur allows him to join them. The rest of the action takes place in Liddesdale, Lothian and the Borders, and Fergus goes onto have many adventures. He meets and falls in love with Galiene, and wins her hand in marriage in a tournament. She is the daughter of the King of Lothian, so when her father dies Fergus finds himself crowned in his place.

Penny also described the many mysteries about the story itself. The author, 'William de Clerk', had a good knowledge of southern Scotland, yet there is no evidence that the story was known in this area. Perhaps there were a few Scots in the intended audience elsewhere? It is well written and humorous, and is found bound with other well-known works, yet only two complete copies survive today. Perhaps the biggest mystery is Fergus himself. The medieval audience would have been familiar with the 'nature versus nurture' debate, and this is a theme throughout the story. Given that he was a 'Galloway rustic', the son of a peasant, the author is asking if he can he really be a hero? There are frequent reminders or his origins and his ignorance in the ways of the court, yet his mother was a noblewoman. Which side will win? Penny suggested that the audience read it for themselves to decide, as it is available as a modern English translation.