British journalist Boyle (The Sum of Our Discontent, 2004) examines a favorite medieval legend.
Perhaps you remember Blondel, the devoted troubadour, from a nursery story: While Richard the Lionhearted (1157–99) languished in prison, Blondel wandered throughout Europe, singing a tune Richard would know. He skulked from castle to castle, crooning, until one night a voice from deep within a tower returned his tune, and Blondel knew he had found his king. Boyle believes there might just be a grain of truth to this old tale, and he is determined to get it out of the nursery and back into serious history. Still, most of the book is devoted to a familiar rehashing of Richard’s life. The son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II joined the Third Crusade shortly after being crowned king of England in 1189. Eventually realizing he could not take Jerusalem, he returned to Europe three years later. En route, Richard was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria. In England, Eleanor and the royal governors began to get nervous. With possible invasion by Philip of France imminent, the queen regent knew she had to begin negotiating immediately for her son’s release, but no one had any idea where exactly Richard was, or who was holding him. Here is where the legend of Blondel comes in—finally, over a hundred pages later. What, exactly, did Richard and Blondel sing? It’s a question much debated by historians of music. (One possibility is a ditty that has come down as “Fierce in me the fever burning.”) Whatever the tune, the story of the faithful troubadour has provided plenty of fodder for subsequent musicians. Boyle devotes an epilogue to summarizing subsequent musical renditions of the Blondel-Richard tale, from Gretry and Sedaine’s comic opera Richard Coeur de Lion to Robert Schumann’s song “Seek in faith, and you will find!”
Pleasant, light reading. Whether fact or fiction, the tale of Blondel never fails to tug at the heartstrings.