Dana Cushing (ed.).

A Middle English Chronicle of the First Crusade: the Caxton ‘Eracles’.

2 vols (Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, 2001), pp. xxv+915. 4 figures.

  This is a new edition of William Caxton’s 1481 translation of the first nine books of the so-called ‘Eracles’, the Old French translation of Archbishop William of Tyre’s Historia. The first eleven chapters describe the history of the city of Jerusalem from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, while the rest of the text is an extremely detailed account of the First Crusade, culminating in the capture of the city of Jerusalem. Cushing has added a parallel translation, a short introduction, an historical essay on the interpersonal relations underlying the crusaders’ command and social groupings, and a very thorough index, which gives particular attention to military aspects of the text.

A detailed account of the First Crusade based on a twelfth-century source is of obvious interest to students of military history. Dana Cushing is a graduate of medieval history who speaks regularly at academic conferences and who has direct experience of military matters as an enlisted reservist of the U.S. Marine Corps. She is to be congratulated for undertaking a study of a text largely overlooked by professional historians.

Yet this text is essentially a translation of a translation of a translation. The reader may ask what are the purpose and the use of a translation of a work so far removed from the original text, and who the intended audience of this book might be. As the translator’s introduction leaves the answer to these questions unclear, I will examine these questions in this review.

Historical value of the text

The value of Archbishop William of Tyre’s Historia to the military historian is beyond dispute, but his account of the First Crusade was written over half a century after events and was based largely on the non-contemporary account of Albert of Aachen. It does provide a comprehensive overview of the First Crusade, composed with the advantage of hindsight and written by a native of the kingdom of Jerusalem, thus reflecting the image of the First Crusade in the Latin East by the second half of the twelfth century. Yet modern historians of the First Crusade prefer to use the more contemporary accounts of the Crusade rather than William, only falling back upon William’s account to provide a later perspective on events.

The significance of William of Tyre’s account of the First Crusade to the early twenty-first century historian is that his account became the best known scholarly account of the First Crusade during the Middle Ages. His version of the Crusade, therefore, is the version that medieval writers from the early thirteenth century onwards used and his image of events shaped the image that future generations held of those events. For instance, while modern historians would point to the importance of Raymond of Toulouse or Bohemond of Taranto in the crusade, William, following Albert of Aachen’s chronicle - itself closely related to the vernacular Chanson d’Antioche - promoted Godfrey de Bouillon as the hero of the First Crusade; and Godfrey remained the hero of the crusade until recent times, most famously in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata.

Yet William’s version of events was not well known in his own words. It was the Old French translation of his Historia, the ‘Estoire de Eracles Empereur’, which became the most famous version of the history of the First Crusade. Until recently historians tended to dismiss the ‘Eracles’ as simply a translation, but recent work by scholars such as John Pryor (in The Horns of Hattin, ed. Benjamin Kedar, 1987) and Annetta Iliéva (in a paper given at the second Clerkenwell conference on the Military Orders in 1996, regrettably still unpublished at her death in 1997) has shown that there are significant differences between the Old French translation and William’s Latin text, and that the manuscripts of the Old French translations themselves differ significantly from each other. There is here the potential for much research into the different translators’ choice of words and additions and subtractions from William’s original, and the possibility that these reflect the circumstances of the time when the translation was done, the interests of the translator, or the interests of the patron or intended audience of the work.

Hence, the fact that a medieval text is a translation of a translation does not mean that it must be of little historical value. Many commonly-used medieval historical texts are fundamentally translations and assemblages of other writers’ work: such as the various chronicles of the First Crusade which followed the anonymous Gesta Francorum, or the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris, which follows the chronicle of Roger of Wendover until the year 1235. But no one would argue that Roger’s account of the Emperor Frederick II’s crusade of 1228-9 should be used in preference to Matthew’s account; and historians of the First Crusade use the accounts of Guibert of Nogent and Baldric of Bourgueil even though they are similar to the Gesta. Clearly some medieval translations and adaptations have considerable historical value.

Caxton’s translation of ‘Eracles’ is important for the historian because it highlights the continuing interest in the First Crusade in England in the late fifteenth century, and continued interest in crusading, as explored by Christopher Tyerman in his ground-breaking England and the Crusades. Caxton’s translation does not add anything to our knowledge of the First Crusade itself. It may add something to our knowledge of how warfare had changed between the late eleventh and late fifteenth centuries, for Cushing notes (p. v) that Caxton sometimes changed references to traditional stone-throwing siege machines into references to guns. In her note to ch. 26 on p. 795 she remarks: ‘Obviously there were no guns involved in the first crusade. The later French source does not have this either so it is likely that Caxton was trying to wax dramatic, albeit anachronistically’. But as a military historian Cushing could have said much more on this point. Firstly, not all readers will know when guns began to be used in the Middle East, and it would have been useful to add this information. Secondly, rather than trying to ‘wax dramatic’, it could be argued that Caxton was over-translating. In attempting to render his French text into modern English, he translated the early thirteenth-century French siege machines (themselves adapted from William’s late twelfth-century Latin siege machines) into late fifteenth-century siege machines, therefore guns. After all, both traditional siege machines and modern guns fired carefully shaped stones, but the traditional siege machines used traction as the propellant while the modern guns used gunpowder.

The problem of Caxton’s mistranslation or overtranslation underlines the question of what this translation of Caxton’s translation is intended to achieve. Dana Cushing explains in her introduction that she encountered the text during a long period in hospital and decided that a fresh treatment of the text was necessary, considering both the history of the text itself and the history it relates. She adds that she hopes it will be useful to professional historians and the interested layperson. Yet she does not explain what she intends them to take from it. It is true that Caxton’s text has been underused, but even in this text it receives only five pages of critical consideration. The historical essay on the interpersonal networks underlying the crusaders’ command and social groups is interesting and will be appreciated by students; but one feels that more analyses of this sort could have been added, considering different aspects of the text and its contents. The notes to the text make various useful points of comparison with William of Tyre’s work and the Old French translations, as well as giving additional information - but as the notes are at the end of the second volume, and are referenced to the main text only by chapter number rather than page number, they are rather inconvenient to use. And Cushing does not fully explain why Caxton’s text is important. For instance, we are not presented with a full explanation of Archbishop William of Tyre’s version of events or its own historical standing as a secondary source for the First Crusade; this is apparently assumed knowledge, but no references are given for the benefit of the non-expert. We are not told how Caxton’s translation was received in England, whether it had any influence in its own day, or its subsequent history.

The most obvious use for the interested layperson of Caxton’s translation is as an English translation of the first nine books of ‘Eracles’. There is no modern edition of any of the manuscripts of ‘Eracles’, and no critical edition; so for many scholars wanting access to ‘Eracles’ this edition of Caxton is an obvious resort. For those who want to read ‘Eracles’ and cannot read Old French, Caxton is the answer, and I myself have sent students to read Caxton’s translation for this purpose. This translation of Caxton’s translation also provides a version in modern English of William of Tyre’s Historia - albeit a flawed one, as both the Old French translators and Caxton amended their original. There is already an English translation of William of Tyre’s Historia, by Emily Babcock and A. C. Krey; but this is out of print. The new edition of the Latin text of William’s work, published by Brepols, is expensive and difficult to obtain. In short, for the interested reader who does not need the precise words which William used but who simply wants a roughly contemporary history of the First Crusade, this edition will meet their need. And there is no doubt that the story told here is still as exciting and compulsive a read and as fascinating an account of military deeds as it was in Caxton’s own day.

Finally, this translation of Caxton’s translation is of interest to students of fifteenth-century English history. Caxton’s translation of ‘Eracles’ reveals the continuing interest of the English nobility in crusading. Godfrey de Bouillon remained a leading Christian hero, one of the ‘nine worthies’. In the 1480s the English still dreamt of crusading, even though few had the opportunity to go to the East. This work is important as a reflection of the thought-world of its time.

It could be objected that Caxton’s English is not difficult for anyone familiar with the English of the King James’s Bible (just over a century later) and that a translation is scarcely necessary. This is true for professional scholars, but students will probably find Cushing’s translation easier than Caxton’s Middle English.

The translation

This said, how useful is the modern English translation? As it is a parallel translation, it is easy for the reader to check the translation to the original. Therefore the translator need have little concern about catering for the requirements of those who are studying Caxton’s use of language; such readers can look straight at the original. The purpose of the translation, therefore, is surely to enable the student to read Caxton’s account easily. Cushing states (p. iv) that her aim is ‘ “dynamic equivalence”, the reproduction of the original effect upon a new audience’. This suggests that the translation of Caxton is intended to be read as a dynamic account of the First Crusade, as Caxton intended it to be. On the other hand, as Cushing argues that Caxton’s translation is full of errors and archaic (p. vi), perhaps ‘dynamic equivalence’ would produce a stilted, awkward translation, full of errors - presumably not what is intended here.

There are obvious problems to tackle in a translation of this sort. The most blatant is the problem of rendering proper names. Should the translator use the names in the original text, or their modern equivalents, or use the original names with the modern equivalents in brackets or in the notes? As a teacher and a translator myself, I would have thought that the need was to produce a translation which was easy to read and to understand. As this is a parallel translation, the medieval originals are easily identified in the parallel text; in the translation they should be translated. There is no need to retain them in the translation as could be necessary if this were a ‘stand-alone’ translation.

It would have been useful to have had an explanation from the translator as to why she has adopted the opposite policy. Rather than translate the medieval originals into their modern forms in her translation, she has left them in the original. The modern form may be given in the notes (inaccessible at the back of volume 2), or at first mention in the text (but never again), or only in the index. Thus Bohemond of Taranto is called ‘Buymont’ throughout, following Caxton. The modern undergraduate student will be completely baffled as to who this ‘Buymont’ is. The Bohemond fan will look up that hero in the index and be referred to ‘Buymont’, but the student looking up ‘Buymont’ will not be informed that this is Bohemond. The only cross-reference I found between the two names is on p. 149, where Buymont’s castle has the addition in square brackets: [Bohemond’s castle].

Again, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius is called ‘Eracles’ throughout, in the translation and in the notes. This is the Old French form of the name; but no student will find him under that name in a modern book of Byzantine history, and there is no hint here that the usual modern usage is ‘Heraclius’. Godfrey de Bouillon (or von Bouillon, or of Bouillon) is named throughout as ‘Godefrey’, following Caxton. This is not as misleading as Buymont/Bohemond or Eracles/Heraclius, but as the two spellings are so similar it seems unduly finicky to keep the medieval spelling when the modern spelling would make the text appear more approachable to the modern student. Yet, on the other hand, Caxton’s ‘Hecam’ becomes ‘Hakim’ in the translation (p. 14). This seems entirely sensible; the modern reader can immediately identify the caliph Hakim who persecuted Christians in Jerusalem in the early eleventh century and who is referred to by many modern writers on the crusades.

Although Cushing is reluctant to translate medieval western European names to their modern equivalents, she always refers to William of Tyre as ‘Tyre’, although his contemporaries (and modern scholars of the crusades) refer to the archbishop as ‘William of Tyre’.

In short, it would have been very helpful to have had an explanation in the introduction to the book as to which policy had been adopted on the translation of names and the reasoning behind that policy. The lack of a clear policy is likely to lead to confusion among non-specialists, and irritation among specialists.

Moving on from the vexed problem of proper names to the translation as a whole, Cushing states that ‘a good translator must paraphrase sometimes in order to make the text sensible to the current audience’ (p. iv).  She adds that she has put square brackets around additions or significant changes. This is commendable. But what constitutes an addition, in the context of paraphrase?  In chapter 21 (for instance), Caxton omitted the definite article to some nouns - a commonplace omission in Middle English, which is still permissible in modern British English. The article is placed in square brackets in the translation: ‘they thought wel that it was no place no tyme to venge theyr shames’ (p. 88) becomes ‘they decided that it was neither [the] time nor [the] place to avenge their wrongs’ (p. 89). In fact modern British English would permit: ‘they decided that it was neither time nor place to avenge their wrongs’. If modern U.S. English requires the article, then the insertion of the article is part of the process of direct translation and not an addition or significant change. As the original text is opposite the modern translation in this book, any reader in doubt as to the original words need only look at the facing page.

On the other hand, earlier in the same chapter an entire phrase is entirely recast, with no indication given of this in the translation: ‘they shold retourne agayn the way that they were comyn vnto the cyte of nyz’ becomes ‘the pilgrims should backtrack to Niö’. Yet a more direct rendering would have been just as clear, and no less dynamic: ‘they should return again the way that they had come, to the city of Niö’.

In short, the translator’s approach has varied from the very cautious to the paraphrase. Some additions in square brackets disrupt the flow of the translation and arguably did not need to be in square brackets; in other places the paraphrase has lost more than strictly necessary. This said, no translation is perfect.


This book will be welcomed by those interested in medieval military history, who would enjoy reading a version of a twelfth-century account of the First Crusade. The very thorough index will enable them to trace many details easily, from the role of horses, sheep and cows, to weapons, fortifications and ships, and the role of women. However, for undergraduate use the book presents certain difficulties. The notes, the translation, the figures and the introduction assume a certain level of knowledge of Archbishop William of Tyre and the history of the period that the typical English-speaking undergraduate does not have. The translation makes no concessions to those who are not familiar with the Old French forms of medieval names, such as Buymont for Bohemond. So students will need guidance in using this book. Those without a good knowledge of the First Crusade will find a modern history of the campaign useful to aid them in identifying the persons involved, and to provide a map. 

Helen Nicholson

Cardiff University

© 2001, De Re Militari