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Droit and Engin: Mesencius and Drances as Feudal Counselors in Le Roman d’Enéas


This article examines the radical revisions made to two characters from the Aeneid, Mezentius and Drances, in the twelfth-century French romance Le Roman d’Enéas. In particular, Mezentius and Drances are portrayed largely as vicious or unpleasant in the Aeneid, making their depictions in the Enéas surprising; from a torture-prone exiled tyrant in the Aeneid, Mezentius becomes a reasonable advisor advocating restraint and the rule of law, and the cowardly, jealous Drances becomes less obsequious, more clever, and more devoted to the well-being of the state. Although the relationship between the Aeneid and the Enéas is a popular area of inquiry for critics studying the romance, the changes made to these two characters are not often explored in any depth, perhaps because they are seen as less important to the central narrative and indicative of careless adaptation for the sake of the plot. I argue, however, that the transformations Mezentius and Drances undergo are carefully considered appropriations of their Virgilian characterizations. The author does not simplify the complexities of the Virgilian characters but instead reappropriates them to comment on the historical role of the courtly counselor and his theme of balance between private emotions and public duty for the sake of the state. By so doing, he cleverly engages twelfth-century audience’s expectations to make relevant political commentary and gives twenty-first-century readers new insights into medieval methods of adaptation.

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  1. John of Salisbury, The Statesman’s Book of John of Salisbury, trans. John Dickinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1963), 85, qtd. Barnes, Counsel and Strategy, x.

  2. Citations from the Aeneid will come from Mynors (1969). English translations, unless otherwise noted, will come from Ahl (2007).

  3. See Thilo and Hagen (1884), commentary on lines 8.7, 10.689, 10.775, 10.828, 10.845, 10.851 and 10.861.

  4. Ibid., commentary on line 7.653.

  5. Sullivan (1969) compares the bond between Mezentius and Lausus to other prominent father-son relationships: Aeneas and Anchises, Aeneas and Ascanius, and Evander and Pallas—as he says, the mutual obligation and love between fathers and sons is “a theme dear to a Roman’s heart” and characteristic of the Greek heroic literature Virgil used as models (223).

  6. Cf. also Sullivan (1969), who says “when in the end, after a heroic and exciting combat, [Mezentius] dies at the hand of Aeneas, we feel that, as in the case of the Sophoclean Ajax and Shakespeare's Macbeth, something great and heroic, however twisted and warped, has perished from the earth” (222).

  7. Adams (2005) argues that “Bolstering the legitimacy of Henry's reign was surely one of the primary intents of the redactor of the Eneas” (110), and Gaunt (1995) posits parallels between Enéas and Henry (77), suggesting that the romance serves as legitimating propaganda for the Angevin dynasty.

  8. For the purposes of disambiguation, I shall refer to the Virgilian character as “Mezentius” and the romance character as “Mesencius.”

  9. References to the Roman d’Enéas, unless otherwise noted, will come from Salverda de Grave (1925 and 1929).

  10. English translations of the Enéas will come from Yunck (1974).

  11. To take one contemporary manual as an example, among the personal attributes twelfth-century French author Matthew of Vendôme recommends in his Ars Versificatoria for inclusion in personal descriptions are status, age, sex, geography, and native land; these categories are derived from Cicero’s De Inventione. To these Matthew adds name, nature, way of life, fortune, character, goals, appetites, judgment, luck, exploits, and eloquence. See Galyon (1980), 48.

  12. Line 3996. References to the D manuscript of the Enéas, BN fr, 60, will come from Petit (1977).

  13. Nielson (1984) and Muse (2007) both make a case for the importance of Etruscan history in the Aeneid. Nielson argues that as the leader of Etruria, “a nation important in the formation of the Roman state, and renowned as the most religious race in antiquity,” Tarchon acts as a parallel for Aeneas and a model for a separate kind of pietas (32), and Muse suggests that “Tarchon's shipwreck is a foreboding of a dark chapter in Roman history,” his impulsive qualities foreshadowing the infamous line of the Tarquins (591). This ethnic and historical undercurrent would obviously be less useful to the medieval author’s purposes, which is another explanation for its omission from the romance.

  14. Although I do not discuss Mesapus in this article, his behavior in the romance also represents a radical departure from Virgil, who primarily associates him with his roles as Neptune’s son and tamer of horses. Here instead he seems to model a bad counselor, one who encourages Turnus’s worst tendencies, perhaps to illustrate the contrast between good and bad advisers.

  15. For a discussion of this feudal mode of private violence and medieval violence more generally, see Haidu (2004), chap. 1, esp. p. 17.

  16. Cf. Barnes (2003): “Knights who spurn wholesome counsel invite failure and dishonor; unread kings, like Athelston (Athelston), the king of Maydenland (Ywain and Gawain), Costentine (Of Arthour and of Merlin), and Edgar (Beves), who are deficient in judgment and receptive, actively or passively, to evil counsel, or averse to good, are either cyphers or tyrants” (90). Though the romances Barnes discusses are later than the Enéas, it seems clear that the same general principles about leaders who take bad advice hold true for Turnus.

  17. In the D manuscript, Evander says that he hopes to destroy “mon anemi” rather than “ton enemi” (4840), but there is nothing else to suggest the kind of organized hatred against Mezentius present in the Aeneid, nor indeed any reason to suppose that Evander’s “anemi” referred to here is Mesencius.

  18. Sperlich (2014) notes in her analysis of Middle English ancestral romances the role that the hero’s friends play in establishing his dynasty, and comments that “the hero’s suzerainty is based upon friendship, loyalty, and trust—a highly idealistic background setting for factual political power, but one that is suited to a fictional literary context” (42). It also seems suited to the society built on mutual civic, erotic, and marital love that the Enéas-author constructs in the relationship between Enéas and Lavine.

  19. See Highet (1972), who says, “All the rest of Vergil’s characterization makes Drances an objectionable figure who is urged on to speak, not by positive statesmanship but by his skill in revolutionary tactics … not by wisdom but by a bitter sense of social inferiority … not by love of his country but by personal hatred for Turnus” (281). Cf. also Fantham (1999), on the rhetorical techniques used in the Turnus/Drances debate to depict Turnus sympathetically.

  20. John of Salisbury says that “the flatterer is the enemy of all virtue and forms as it were a cataract over the eye of him whom he engages in conversation” (Markland 1979, 35). Barnes (2003) cites the thirteenth and fourteenth-century complaint poetry in England criticizing ill-advised kings and their self-interested advisors, mentioning in particular “The Battle of Lewes” and its portrayal of “the real enemies of the unnamed Henry III as duplicitous counsellors, who flatter him and wreak havoc on the kingdom” (9). In a feudal system placing high premium on the mutual duty of kings and subordinates to listen to and to give good advice, respectively, a flatterer threatens to advance his own self-interest above the general welfare. To include Virgil’s original introduction of Drances in such a context would immediately dispose readers to think of him as a wicked, rather than good, counselor, and this may be why the romance author doubly excises this character trait by erasing the flattery from the truce negotiation and replacing Drances with Aventinus. Drances later specifically denies being a flatterer: “nel blandirai ja nule foiz” (6650).

  21. Greimas (1979) defines “enparlé” as “disert, bavard,” suggesting both the positive connotations of eloquence and fluid speech and the negative connotations of over-wordiness or a tendency to gossip. He also suggests a connection to public speaking with related words like “emparleor” (“intermédiaire, avocat”) or the later noun “emparlerie” (“Fonction d’orateur, d’avocat”) (s.v. “emparler”).

  22. Drances’s dependence on his intelligence rather than his military ability also suggests an affinity with the clerical class, a group rising in power in the twelfth-century and whose relations with the more military class of nobles animates to some degree a number of the courtly literary texts transmitted to us from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gaunt (1995) suggests that “Much of the irony of romance may be attributed to a tongue-in-cheek clerical perspective on the chivalric nobility, carefully calculated to amuse rather than offend” (93). Though Drances here aims more to offend than amuse, he does seem to offer such a perspective. See also Baswell (2000), at 33–34.

  23. The use of “tort” here is reminiscent of Mesencius’s use of the same word to describe Enéas’s attacks against the Latins, emphasizing both men’s conciliar function of promoting the rule of law to their lords and peers.

  24. As Yunck (1974) notes, this speech is an innovation on the romancer’s part (191n).

  25. See, for example, Gransden (1991), who comments that Drances “espouses, albeit primarily out of hatred for Turnus, the cause of peace, using what sounds like heartfelt language” (15); Fantham (1999) refers to critical comparisons between Drances and Homer’s Thersites, with both fulfilling the function “of the unattractive and alienating voice of legitimate criticism” (266) but argues that class differences make it impossible for Thersites to be a real model for Drances.

  26. For more in-depth discussions of engin and its meanings, see Hanning (1977), 106–7, and Barnes (2003), 92–96.

  27. Wace, the verse historian who wrote Le Roman de Brut, may have summed up Norman policy with the words of Merlin, “la vaut engins ou force falt” (Cleverness wins where force fails). Cf. Hanning (1977), 103, and Warren (2000), esp. 147–50.

  28. The Enéas’s extended treatment of the Judgment of Paris, much expanded from its brief mention in the Aeneid, has led many critics to read the episode as a thematic key to the romance; see, for example Adams (2005), chap. 4; Nolan (1979), Petit (1990), and Gaunt (1992). Beyond the implicit comparison provided by the Judgment of Paris episode, Enéas is explicitly compared to Paris both by the characters (cf. the queen’s speech at 3291–98, in which Enéas’s connection to Paris is connected to his treatment of Dido and used to argue that he is an unfit partner for Lavine) and by the narrator (cf. 10, 109–12, “Unques Paris n’ot graignor joie, / quant Eloine tint dedanze Troie, / qu’Eneas ot, qant tint s’amie / en Laurente” [Never did Paris have greater joy when he had Helen in Troy than Eneas had when he had his love in Laurente). Guynn (2007) explicitly states the importance for Enéas of overcoming Paris’s legacy in founding Rome: “the conjugal, procreative union of Eneas and Lavine corrects the adulterous, destructive one of Paris and Helen” (56).


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Watt, C.G. Droit and Engin: Mesencius and Drances as Feudal Counselors in Le Roman d’Enéas. Neophilologus 102, 317–335 (2018).

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  • Virgil
  • Le Roman d’Enéas
  • Romance
  • Adaptation
  • Aeneid