First things first, the translation I’m working with is from Charles Scott Moncrieff. It's a more direct translation and uses dated language, so there's a chance I might misinterpret some stuff. I apologize in advance for any confusion that will cause.
Second things second, the writing is shit, and I’m sorry, but these ideas have been going through my head all day and I figure someone else might find this stuff interesting.
To set the scene a bit, I’ll post the first few opening stanzas.
Charles the King, our Emporer the great,
Full seven years hath sojourned in Spain,
Unto the sea conquered the loft plain;
Now no fortress against him doth remain,
No city walls are left for him to break,
Save Sarraguce, that sits on high mountain.
Marsilies it’s king, who feareth not God’s name,
Mahumet’s man, he invokes Apollin’s aid,
Nor wards off ills that shall to him attain.
King Marsilies, he lay at Sarraguce,
Went he his way into and orchard cool;
On a terrace he sate, of marble blue,
Round him his men, full twenty thousand, stood.
Called he forth then his counts, also his dukes:
“My Lords, give ear to our impending doom:
That Emperor, Charles of France the Douce,
Into this land is come, us to confuse.
I have no host in battle him to prove,
Nor have I strength his forces to undo.
Counsel me then, ye that are wise and true;
Can ye ward off this present death and dule?”
What word say no pagan of them knew,
Save Blancandrins, of the Castle of Val Funde.
Basically, the gist of that is, King Marsilies is the last of a group of invaders in Spain and King Charlemagne (don’t ask me why he’s called King Charles, I don’t know) is at his door stop. He calls a council of his men and says “Listen up fellas, King Charlemagne is here and we’re pretty much fucked. We can’t outsmart him, we can’t outfight him, and we can’t sit around waiting here forever. How the hell are we gonna get out of this?”
To which, only one of his men answered him and the next few stanzas is his answer . . .
Blancandrins was a pagan very wise,
In vassalage he was a gallant knight,
First in prowess, he stood his lord beside.
And thus he spoke: “Do not yourself afright!
Yield to Carlun, that is so big with pride,
Faithful service, his friend and his ally;
Lions and bears and hounds for him provide,
Thousand mewed hawks, seven hundred camelry,
Silver and gold, four hundred mules load high;
Fifty wagons his wrights will need supply,
Till with that wealth he pays his soldiery.
War hath he waged in Spain too long a time,
To Aix, in France, homeward he will him hie.
You shall receive and hold the Christian rite;
Stand honor bound, and do him fealty.
Send hostages, should he demand surety,
Ten or a score, our loyal oath to bind;
Send him our sons, the first-born of our wives;
An he be slain, I’ll surely furnish mine.
Better by far they go, though doomed to die,
Than we lose honor and dignity,
And be ourselves brought down to beggary.”
Says Blancandrins; “By my right hand I say,
And by this beard, that in the wind doth sway,
The Frankish host you’ll see them all away;
Franks will retire to France their own terrain.
When they are gone, to each his fair domain,
In his Chapelle at Aix will Charles stay,
High festival will hold for Saint Michael.
Time will go by, and pass the appointed day;
Tidings of us no Frank will hear or say.
Proud is that King, and cruel his courage;
From the hostages he’ll slice their heads away.
Better by far their heads be shorn away,
Than that ourselves lose this clear land of Spain,
Than that ourselves do suffer grief and pain.”
“That is well said. So be it.” the pagans say.”
So, I’m gonna tackle the fourth stanza first, because it’s pretty easy to summarize. Blancandrins is basically saying “This ransom will be enough to appease Charlemagne. He’ll go home, he and the French will leave us alone, he’s gonna kill the hostages, but that’s fine cause we get to stay here and keep our own heads.”
I’m honestly a bit out of my element here, because this is the first time I’ve read a poem with an actual ransom of this magnitude. Actually, this is the first time in recent memory where I’ve read a poem with a ransom in it at all. This ransom though, since I’ve re-read it last night, has been on my mind literally all day. Here are my thoughts on the different sections of it, which is honestly kind of boring, so if you want to skip to my overall thoughts go to the section titled Marsilie’s Motivation.
An un-numbered amount of lions, bears, and hounds stand out to me partly because everything else is numbered except these, but also because it lists two relatively exotic animals and a rather mundane (but important one). If the amount of hawks and camels listed are anything to go by, I’m guessing they’re not offering a small number of each of these three animals. The lions and bears strike me as particularly impressive because they probably took a lot of resources to capture, quasi-train, and maintain. That said, their value probably doesn’t come from their utility but their exoticness. The list then goes to quasi-exotic and somewhat useful with the “thousand mewed hawks.” Those birds were probably considered relatively valuable back then, being used for sport hunting and all, and at the same time took quite an investment to train them all. I can’t help but think that the offering of a thousand trained hawks alone would be considered pretty substantial. The seven hundred camels though, might be even more substantial, because they’re work animals. That said though, this might be a case of not knowing your audience, because I can honestly see King Charlemagne and his men thinking “Camels? WTF? This is Europe. They’re half useless here.” All in all though, that collection of animals is a pretty impressive package, and if paraded through the streets would make quite the spectacle. Which might be part of the point.
The Gold and Silver
Four hundred mules loaded high with silver and gold. I have so many questions. Is that a lot for a ransom? That sounds like a lot of a ransom. How much silver and gold can one mule carry? What’s the silver to gold ratio here? An even fifty/fifty? More silver than gold? More gold than silver? I don’t have a baseline as to how much value is actually in that offering, but I’d imagine it’s quite a substantial amount. It has to be, if it’s part of an offering to secure a city and the men who live inside it.
Here’s the thing though, at the same time, I don’t think for King Marsilies and his men that it’s a lot. They’ve all been fighting and living in Europe for how long? Wikipedia says the background for this poem is during The Umayyad conquest of Hispania which spanned decades. That is decades worth of both war booty and collected taxes. On the one hand, it’s a probably a lot of money and it’s King Marsilies’ and his men’s money. On the other hand though, they probably didn’t come by it honestly, so it probably doesn’t pain them too much to let it go. After all, there’s always more years for more taxes, especially if they get to keep their city.
Conversion to Christianity
Here’s where it gets interesting. King Marsilies, as part of this ransom, is willing to be converted to Christianity. That’s pretty substantial, because it’s not only his soul that’s at stake here. If King Marsilies converts to Christianity, it’ll more than likely have a direct effect on his allegiances and relationships with other rules, how his court is carried out, and probably a ton of other stuff. His conversion doesn’t just affect him as a person, it affects him as a king and as a result it affects his subjects. Plus, for the Europeans who are trying to push out the Muslim invaders, this is a propaganda victory for them.
First Born Sons as Hostages
This is also very interesting, with a little insight. To requote the poem, they’re offering “sons, the first-born of our wives.” Ten to twenty of them, and in the words of Blancandrins again “Proud is that King, and cruel his courage; From the hostages he’ll slice their heads away.” They’re sending their first born sons, of their legitimate wives, to their deaths. Back then, first born sons usually got all of the cool stuff. Land. Money. Probably some titles and such. By allowing their first born sons to be taken away, these men are willing to risk the continuation of their families’ social positions and wealth. For men of their status, that’s a lot.
So that’s what I’ve interpreted from the ransom offered. I’m more than half ready to believe that Marsilies didn’t take this offering lightly, but at the same time realized he didn’t have much of a choice. Part of the reason I think that is the fourth stanza ends
“Yeah. Okay. Sounds like a good idea.” There’s no argument over whether the ransom is too big or too small. There’s no debate or offering of alternative ideas. There’s no young, brave soul saying “Wait! Send me and a crack team of men out in a last ditch effort to save the city!” It’s a huge ass ransom, with big consequences, and no debate.
I’m willing to admit that part of the reason the agreement is so abrupt and undisputed is because of the limits of the storytelling at the time. This is a four thousand line poem. You can’t embellish it with every little detail.
Still, when you think about it, Marsilies knows he’s between a rock and a hard place. He has a city and twenty thousand men to think about. He’s in a foreign land, all of his allies are gone, and Emporer Charlemagne is a bad ass.
I can’t help but think if I was in his position, I’d feel crushed by the weight of the responsibility of so many people depending on me. I can’t help but think if I was in his position, I’d feel overwhelmed with fear of a superior army marching to my gates and no allies able to come to my aid. I can’t help but think if I was in his position, I’d feel like the entire world is coming down around me.
I can’t help but think if I was in his position, I’d pay any price to get out of that bind, and that ransom sounds like the deal of the century.