Vivien, the Scion of Noble Lineage, Could Not Be Turned Into a Merchant

June 25, 2020

Vivien was the son that Garin d’Anseüne who on the field of Roncesvalles and not far from the inanimate body of Roland had been made prisoner by the infidels. Vivien was the nephew of Guillaume au fier bras—Vivien is the Roland of the poem of Aimeri de Narbonne.

When scarcely seven years old he fell into the hands of Norman pirates, who hastened to put to sea. He was a lovely child, “who had fair hair, curly too, and eyes like a falcon, his skin as white as a flower in summer.” There he is, poor little fellow, in the midst of the horses and mules. A female merchant happens to perceive him and buys him. This lady had always wished to have children of her own. “It is seven years since my husband went away. I will say he is our son and he will believe me.”

Medieval market

As a matter of fact this is exactly what happened, and the good merchant Godefroy is very willing to believe what his wife tells him. Even he displays for his son the most tender and touching affection. It is a good thing to have a son; it is right and it is wise to plan out a future for this long-expected heir. “He shall be a merchant,” said the worthy man, and he at once began to instruct him in the business.

“I am about to teach you how to buy cloth, corn, pepper, and cummin, and above all how to sell them,” said he.

At these words, Vivien blushed and all the blood of the race of Aimeri boiled within his breast. A merchant! He! He the grandson—the son and the nephew of so many heroes. He who would have been born a knight, if anyone could be born a knight.

Thenceforth began a struggle between the merchant and this singular apprentice, an incessant struggle, the issue of this it is not difficult to perceive. It was the ancient, the immortal dispute ‘twixt sword and counter, between the villein and the nobleman, between the real and the ideal.

“I will teach you weights and measures.”

“No, no,” replied the lad, “I would rather fight.”

“I will instruct you in money-changing.”

“Oh, what a delight to exchange some good lance-thrusts!”

“I will show you the best fairs and best markets.”

“Oh, were I only in the saddle, had I but a good horse, hounds, and falcons.”

“I will purchase some good cloth for your clothes, and strong boots which will last you a long time.”

“The infidels, the infidels! Where are they? There! Kill them! Take their silver, it is there!”

Such is the dialogue which was heard day by day in the house of honest Godefroy. Those possessed of quick ears may still hear something to the same effect in these days, for the human soul changeth not.

But the time arrived for Vivien to replace words by deeds. To him was confided one day the sum of one hundred francs to make his first purchases: he was launched into business. What imprudence! The gold burned the fingers of the future knight.

“Will you sell me that good steed for one hundred francs?” said he to a squire who passed him on the road.

The squire relinquished to him his steed on the spot and pocketed the hundred francs, but our hero found that the good horse was, alas, only a wretched hack, and our youthful merchant had been impudently robbed. Then succeeded the reproaches, the anger, the fury of Godefroy, who heaped reproaches on Vivien’s head. But our hero was very calm and pleasant notwithstanding his discomfiture, and gravely asked for the news of the war at Constantinople!

It was evident that these two minds were destined never to understand one another. One never thought of anything but of the picking up of little profits, and of leading his petty circumscribed tradesman’s life in peace and quietness. The other dreamt of nothing but horses, the chase, and the battle.

“Do you know,” said the lad one day to his master,” what I would do with all your money if I possessed it? I would build a big castle with a hall in which we could sit all day and play chess or draughts.”

The unfortunate merchant could by no means understand this singular idea, and shook his head with a discouraging smile. Nevertheless he still tried—he committed the fault of making a last attempt, and sent his son to a fair at Tresai.

This time a regular disaster supervened. Vivien, who had nothing of the merchant in him, sold three hundred vairs for sixty franks (and now-a-days we must reflect a little to properly estimate the enormity of the crime), and got rid of his merchandise in order to purchase hawks and hounds.

“Wretch!” exclaimed Godefroy, “you have squandered my fortune—it is all lost!”

“You will have some trouble, father, to find better dogs than these for quail.”

He was quite happy under the circumstance, and vainly endeavored to cheer up the inconsolable Godefroy. The question was decided. He must make Vivien a knight, and what a knight he became!

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 177–9.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 732

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