Acknowledgment: This work has been summarized using the Wayne State University Press 1987 edition, translated and edited by Ralph Nash, copyright 1987. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are some paraphrases of its commentary. Some of the notes derive from various web sources
Overall Impression: This is an interesting and entertaining epic poem. Though it has a Christian theme, it is otherwise comparable in style and conventions, if not in greatness, to the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. It is the inspiration for many dramatic musical works (Handel, Monteverdi, Rossini, and others).
The action takes place in c. 1099, beginning near Judea in Palestine, just prior to the liberation of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. The Crusaders were first urged to war by Pope Urban II at Clermont in 1095.
Invocation to a Christian muse [in keeping with the conventions of epic poetry]. The poet pays homage to his patron, Alfonso II, of the ducal family of Este.
The noble Godfrey ("Bouillon", Goffredo) of Bouillon (in Belgium) is elected Captain of the gathered army of Crusaders [often called the "Franks"] in the sixth [actually the 4th] and final year of the First Crusade, 1099. They have already taken Nicaea and Antioch and are preparing to take Jerusalem. God sends to Godfrey the angel Gabriel to say He has elected him to lead. The goal of the Crusade is "founding in Palestine a new kingdom where religion might have a solid seat and there would be none to forbid the dedicated pilgrim to adore the great sepulcher and discharge his vow..." Godfrey calls a council and insists that they focus on the intended goal, and not on rearing princedoms, etc. The gathered princes respond variously but elect him leader.
The poet gives an extended catalog of the princes and warriors assembled (only partially repeated here): the Franks, previously led by Hugh, include their new leader Clothar, plus Robert, William, Baldwin, Guelph. The British include William, son of the king. Tancred (Tancredi)... Digression on how Tancred viewed the lovely pagan maiden Clorinda (1:47) and promptly fell in love with her. Tatin from Greece... Digression on the lack of cooperation on the part of the Greeks. The Adventurers, led by Dudon, include Eustace (brother of Godfrey), Ubaldo, etc. Rinaldo, son of Bertoldo and Sophia. Raymond of Toulouse is a wise older man, counselor to Godfrey. Stephen of Amboise.
Godfrey calls the men to make ready, as he has learned Egypt's king (or Caliph) is coming toward Gaza with a large army to defend Jerusalem. Godfrey hopes that Sven (Prince of Denmark) will come quickly with his men to provide additional support.
Jerusalem is ruled by Aladine, Prince (or king) of Jerusalem and a follower of Mahoun (Mahomet or Mohammed--i.e., a Muslim). Aladine oppresses the local Christians (Jews are not mentioned). He works to fortify the city against the impending siege attack.
The sorcerer Ismen, a Muslim, makes plans for the stealing of an effigy of Mary from the Christian's temple in Jerusalem. But after it is stolen, it disappears. The chaste Christian maiden Sophronia claims responsibility, and so does her lover Olindo, who wishes fervently to be with her in death. Both are condemned by Aladine to be burned at the stake. But the warrior woman from Persia, Clorinda, arrives and rescues them by making a special plea to Aladine.
The Crusaders at Emmaus are visited by Aletes and Argantes (the "fierce Circassian", from Russia), serving as ambassadors from Egypt. They ask them to desist in their campaign and warn them of the consequences of continuing, but Godfrey refuses to give up and chooses war. Godfrey gives them gifts, and they depart.
The Crusaders arrive before the walls of Jerusalem. Aladine is accompanied at the walls by Erminia the fair. She came to his court after her father Cassano king of Antioch lost his throne and was killed by the Crusaders. Clorinda rides out to attack the Franks, and is countered by Tancred. Erminia conceals her secret passion for Tancred. Clorinda's identity is revealed and Tancred feels even greater passions for her. He proposes single combat to her, and offers that she slay him. But she is wounded by another man and flees. Argantes (the "fierce Circassian") attacks the Franks. Erminia admires the handsome Rinaldo. She identifies the Crusader heroes: Rinaldo, Dudon, Gildippe and Edward (wife and husband), etc. Dudon is killed, and Rinaldo is enraged. Godfrey counsels his men to turn back from the attack. Erminia points out Godfrey, the white-bearded Raymond (his wise counselor), Baldwin, William, Guelph, etc. Funeral observances are held for Dudon. The Franks begin to harvest timber to construct siege machines.
The great enemy of the human race (Satan=Dis=Pluto) gather his devils from the Abyss. He is envious of the Christians and wants to oppose and disrupt the Crusade. One of his devils inspires Hydraotes, ruler of Damascus, to send Armida to the Christian camp for the purpose of seducing them with her wily and magical ways. She is "proud of her beauty, and of the gifts of her sex and her youth". She arrives at the camp of the Franks. Eustace leads her to Godfrey. Using her most sensual appeal, she asks Godfrey for aid. She recounts a sympathetic (but contrived) tale of how she is an orphan, and how an uncle has usurped her throne and plotted to kill her, etc. She claims she is chaste and her honor unspotted. Godfrey refuses her request for the moment, but Eustace appeals on her behalf, and Godfrey partially relents. The whole camp of thousands of men fall in love (lust?) with her.
Rinaldo is the favorite to succeed Dudon, and is promoted by Eustace. But Prince Gernando is stirred to envy by the Fury Alecto (who was sent from the infernal regions by Pluto) and disparages and slanders Rinaldo. Rinaldo confronts and kills him. Godfrey prepares to arrest Rinaldo, who is persuaded by Tancred to show restraint and to flee to Bohemond (Prince of Antioch). Godfrey calls for Rinaldo to submit to trial, but he has already ridden off. Guelph, his uncle, defends Rinaldo's actions.
Despite her most sensual efforts, Armida fails to allure Godfrey or Tancred. When the time has come for her to leave, she stirs the more susceptible men to jealousy. According to Godfrey's plan, her allotted 10 defenders are chosen by drawing lots, but many other men volunteer to accompany her on the effort to win back her throne-they ignore Godfrey's warnings of caution in trusting a pagan woman. She leaves the camp, followed by many men including Eustace.
Godfrey learns from a messenger that supplies intended for the Crusaders and coming from the Genoese fleet were intercepted, and famine now threatens the Crusaders. Godfrey reassures his men while concealing his inner doubts.
Inside Jerusalem, Argantes addresses King Aladine--he is impatient for fighting to begin. Aladine describes Solyman ("the Turk", prince of Nicaea), who is soon to arrive and come to their aid, but Argantes is jealous and contemptuous of Solyman. He resolved to do single combat with the Franks. Aladine agrees and issues Argantes' challenge through Pindor. Argantes sallies forth accompanied by Clorinda and troops. Tancred is elected to fight Argantes, but he is initially preoccupied with love for the lovely Clorinda. Argantes therefore fights Otho, and is wounded. Tancred then challenges him, and they fight until night forces a halt. Tacred pledges to Argantes that he will reappear to resume the fight.
Erminia recalls how nobly Tancred treated her when he defeated her father Cassano, king of Antioch, and how Tancred granted her liberty. She came to Jerusalem, still burning with love for Tancred. Erminia now wants to treat Tancred's wounds, and is conflicted between Love (for him) and Honor (her loyalty to the Islamic cause). She is a close friend to the pagan warrior maiden, Clorinda, and resolves to steal her armor to use as a disguise so she can go to Tancred. She heads out dressed in her armor, but is ambushed by Polyphernes and flees. Tancred, thinking she is Clorinda, searches after her.
Erminia escapes into a forest and finds refuge with shepherds by the river Jordan. She tells them her story, and they provide peasant clothing for her to wear. Tancred continues the search for her but loses her trail, and instead follows false directions to Armida's magic castle. He learns that Rambaldo of Gascony has become a pagan--they fight, and eventually Rinaldo is trapped and imprisoned in the castle.
Argantes returns to finish the combat, but finds that Tancred is missing. Raymond (Count of Toulouse) volunteers to be Tancred's substitute, recalling the fights of his younger days. He prays for divine protection, and almost defeats Argantes with the help of an angel sent by God. But Beelzebub sends assistance to Argantes, and Oradin is induced to shoot Raymond with an arrow. The truce conventions of single combat have thereby been violated. General fighting ensues followed by a terrible storm. Clorinda charges in with her troops and the Franks are routed.
A devil, Astagorre, speaks to Alecto (the Fury) about the attack by Solyman on Sven's troops in Thrace (Sven is son of the king of Denmark). A survivor of that attack brings news to the Franks of the death of Sven and the massacre of most of the Danes. He tells of the miraculous events accompanying Sven's burial. He brings Sven's sword for Rinaldo, who is to use it to take revenge on Solyman (Canto 20). Godfrey praises Sven and his warriors. A patrol brings false news of Rinaldo's death--Aliprando tells how a headless body wearing Rinaldo's insignia and arms was found by a river--but Godfrey is not yet convinced that Rinaldo is dead. Alecto stirs discontent in Argillan, who incites the Italians to insurrection against the Franks over Rinaldo's death. Godfrey prays, is divinely inspired, and quells the incipient riot.
Alecto urges Solyman to make a surprise night attack on the Christian camp (a violation of the chivalric code). After Solyman lost Nicaea, he was taken in by the Egyptian king. While the Egyptian king is assembling his army from Asia and the Moorish regions, Solyman has been gathering the Arabs together. The night is filled with prodigies and monsters. Solyman gives his troops a pep talk before battle. But as they approach by stealth, they are discovered. Latine wounds Solyman, and is slain. Clorinda retaliates, with Argantes at her side. Godfrey and Solyman are paired up in a fight. But Michael the archangel arrives, and informs the many devils present that God has forbidden any further direct intervention by the devils in the fighting. A description of the Ptolemaic universe is given. The heroic female warrior Gildippe enters the fight. Solyman's page Lesbin is slain, and he in turn kills Argillan, who has been freed from prison. The battle is won by the Christians with the help of the fifty warriors who had followed Armida. Solyman reluctantly flees, alone.
The sorcerer Ismen appears to Solyman. He takes him to Jerusalem in a magic chariot surrounded by a cloud. Ismen prophesies the coming of Saladin (said to be Solyman's descendent) and the reconquest of the Holy Land (1169-89). They arrive at Mt. Sion [Zion] and Ismen takes him in through a secret cave [described by Josephus as used by Herod the Great]. Solyman, still invisible, enters the meeting with Aladine and the assembled council. Orcano warns of the siege machines being made and the impending food scarcity--he believes Solyman is dead or imprisoned. But Solyman reveals himself to those assembled and Aladine is glad to see him.
Meanwhile, William tells Godfrey of the Circe-like enchantments Armida's inflicted on the men who followed her. Her castle is located in the swamp of Sodom, and has hundreds of maidens in attendance. The men were magically transformed--William became a fish. Armida's demanded that they become pagans and fight the Christians, but the men all refused. She decided to send them to Egypt to be slaves. But while they were en route, Rinaldo encountered and freed them. He set aside his bloody armor. Peter the Hermit confirms that Rinaldo is well and prophesies: the Guelphs (papal followers) will be in conflict with the Ghibellines (followers of the German Holy Roman Emperor). More homage to the Este dukes, etc.
The Crusaders piously celebrate a public mass on Mt. Olivet. The pagans watch all this with astonishment. The Crusaders are preparing to assault the city. At dawn, they call the troops to arms. Raymond counsels Godfrey not to expose himself to excessive danger, but Godfrey recalls his vows at Clermont to join in the actual fighting.
The pagans are also preparing for battle, and pray. Battle begins--the weapons employed include boiling pitch and battering rams. Clorinda picks off many noblemen with her arrows. The wall is breached by the ram. Godfrey is wounded by Clorinda's arrow, and Guelph is put in charge. Pagan women join in the fighting. Solyman and Argantes plunge into the fray. Tancred repels the attack. Godfrey undergoes surgery, and his guardian angel miraculously heals the wound. He returns to the battle and wounds Argantes. Night forces a halt to the assault on the city.
Clorinda seeks greater glory, and tells Argantes of her plan to burn Godfrey's siege machines at midnight. Her eunuch Arsetes, worried about her safety, tells Clorinda the story of her origins in Ethiopia. Her father was the king of Ethiopia, Senapus, and her mother was a black Christian queen. She gave birth to the white Clorinda. The queen, understandably concerned (though innocent) about the king's likely jealousy, decided to conceal the birth, and gave the infant Clorinda to Arsetes to raise. A tigress at one point suckled her. Arsetes was commanded in a dream by a heavenly messenger to baptize her, but he did not do this, and she was raised a pagan. Arsates has had a new dream, in which the messenger tells him that Clorinda will become a Christian. She is pensive, as she has had a similar dream, but resolves to remain a Muslim. Clorinda and Argantes sally forth and successfully burn down the siege tower. But as they retreat from the counterattack that ensues, she is inadvertently left outside the closed gate. Tancred notices her and challenges her to a fight (not realizing she is a woman). They fight until it is obvious she is losing more blood than him. He wants to know "his" name, but she only tells him that she destroyed the tower. Tancred is angered and mortally wounds her. Knowing she is dying, she asks that he baptize her--God wants her as His handmaiden. Tancred uncovers her head and discovers who she really is, that she is the woman he had loved. He fetches water from a nearby stream, and baptizes her, after which she dies. He deeply grieves to lose her. The Franks arrive and take Tancred and Clorinda's body back to camp. He is remorseful and wishes to die, especially after viewing her wounded body. But Peter the Hermit counsels Tancred that God is chastening him to return to the task at hand. In a dream, Clorinda appears to him and lovingly consoles him by speaking about the heaven that she now enjoys as well as her love for him. She is buried, and the next day he visits the grave, consoled that she has forgiven him, hoping to be united with her in death. Arsetes laments her death, and Argantes swears vengeance.
Ismen hopes to prevent the Crusaders from harvesting the timber from the woods (so they can't build more siege machines) and summons demons and hellish spirits to fill the only available forest. He invokes Pluto (Dis).
Godfrey wishes to have the siege machines built. But the Franks are frightened away by the demons in the woods. Alcasto fails to disperse the spirits and flees. Them Tancred enters the forest and fails as well. He is deluded when he hears the false voice of Clorinda. He is also confronted by a fire that does not burn, and various monsters. He reports on his failure to Godfrey. Peter the Hermit advises they desist on the plan to harvest the forest.
The summer heat increases, and the Crusaders suffer from the drought. Godfrey prays for rain--his prayers are answered by God.
God sends Godfrey a dream including visions of heaven. Hugh comes to him and counsels him to find and bring back Rinaldo, and that Guelph will ask for Rinaldo's pardon. He awakens, and Guelph indeed arrives to ask for the pardon of his nephew. Godfrey wisely avoids acting out of spite, saying "Let rigor give way; and let what universal consensus chooses be reason and law." He selects Charles and Ubaldo to search for Rinaldo.
Peter the Hermit sends the searchers to the Wiseman of Ascalon, who can apparently walk on water. He guides the two men to where the rivers are born--a magical realm with many jewels. He tells them of Rinaldo's adventures while under Armida's enchantment. She had arranged for the deception involving his arms that made others think that Rinaldo was dead. She lured Rinaldo to an island on the Orontes (river in Syria), enticing him like a Siren with promises of sensual pleasure, and disparaging the illusory benefits of Fame. She fell in love with him, and transported him in a magic chariot to the Fortunate Islands [Canary Islands?] in the Atlantic Ocean, where she still keeps him for her pleasure. Fortune will take the 2 searchers there, and Peter instructs them how to find and rescue Rinaldo from his shame.
The Wiseman gives Charles and Ubaldo magic devices and takes them to meet Fortune, who will guide them. She takes them in her skiff--they sail rapidly along the shore of the Levant (passing the Egyptian army) and the African coast, past Gibraltar to the Atlantic. While sailing in the Atlantic, she tells them of unknown lands to the west that will someday be civilized by Christianity. They arrive at the Fortunate Isles. The pair climbs the mountain, repelling a dragon and a lion, and resisting the temptations provided by seductive women, they arrive at Armida's palace.
They view the gardens and marvel at the ornate carvings on the gates. Following instructions they have been given, they negotiate Armida's maze to its center. They enter her magic garden where fertility abounds and birds talk, and view the lovers together. When Armida leaves temporarily, they present themselves to Rinaldo. His warlike spirit is reawakened. They show him a mirror to shame him with what he has become, and persuade him to return with them. Armida discovers the plot and chases after Rinaldo, trying to dissuade him, or failing that, asking him to take her with him. But Rinaldo resists her pleas, cites their shame, and leaves. Abandoned, Armida vows to torment him. She summons devils to destroy her magic palace, and flies back to the Saracen camp at Gaza.
The king (Caliph) of Egypt reviews his army at Gaza--a catalog of the leaders is given. Armida unexpectedly arrives and joins the king. Emiren is appointed to serve as commander or Captain of the army. Armida offers her hand in marriage to whoever will kill Rinaldo.
Rinaldo lands in Palestine. The Wiseman of Ascalon admonishes him for his amorous interlude and shows him his ancestors depicted on a shield. (These include the Este patrons. He also refers to Rinaldo's future illustrious progeny, especially Alfonso II, the reigning duke of Ferrara when Tasso wrote the work)... Charles presents Rinaldo with Sven's sword. They arrive at the Crusader's camp.
Godfrey welcomes and pardons Rinaldo, and tells him of the problem with the enchanted woods. Peter instructs Rinaldo to also seek heavenly pardon, which he does, praying for forgiveness. He becomes purified by dew from Heaven, and his surcoat becomes white. He goes to the woods, and crosses a magic bridge made by Armida. A nymph is born from an oak, and more nymphs appear and dance about him. The myrtle [tree of Venus] gives rise to Armida's form--she tries to entice him but fails, then becomes a threatening giant. But he cuts down the myrtle, and the enchantments are broken. The timber is harvested and the siege machines are constructed. A dove with a pagan message is intercepted by Godfrey, and he learns that the Egyptians will arrive in 4-5 days. Tancred volunteers his squire Vafrine to spy on the Egyptian army. Godfrey resolves to make a fresh assault on the city. A day of prayer. The attack begins. Rinaldo climbs the wall with a scaling ladder and cannot be repelled. The pagans employ flaming liquid (Greek fire?), but God redirects the fire toward the walls. The archangel Michael shows Godfrey invisible armies of angels in the sky, aiding in the assault. Godfrey reaches the top of the walls and plants the Cross. Some Saracens withdraw to Solomons's Temple. The rest are slaughtered by the rampaging Christians who pour into the city.
Tancred encounters Argantes. They want to complete their single combat and withdraw some distance from the city and to fight it out. Tancred is wounded but slays Argantes, then collapses exhausted and wounded. Mass killing and rape takes place in the city. Rinaldo breaks into the temple of Solomon, where more pagans are slaughtered. Solyman takes Aladine to the Tower of David. Raymond is nearly taken hostage. Godfrey calls a halt to the fighting for the night.
Vafrine mingles with and spies on the Egyptian army near Gaza. He hears Ormond tell Emiren of his evil plot to kill Godfrey while disguised as a Frank and using poisoned arrows. Vafrine joins the suitors and followers in Armida's tent. Adrastus (the Indian) and Tissaphernes are contending for Armida's love. Erminia recognizes Vafrine, but reassures him that she will not reveal his identity--they steal away into the countryside. Erminia tells Vafrine her story, how Tancred swore to protect her, and how she fell in love with him, how she was taken as a captive by Egyptians to Gaza. The two travel alone toward Jerusalem and find Tancred lying unconscious near Argantes' body. She kisses and revives Tancred, and begins to lovingly tend to his wounds, drying them and binding them with her hair. Tancred's men arrive and find lodging for him in Jerusalem, with Erminia nearby. Vafrine reports on the plot to Godfrey, and warns Rinaldo of Armida's offer to reward his death. Raymond advises caution and more besieging, but Godfrey decides to proceed with the battle soon and in the open air, outside Jerusalem.
The Egyptian army is approaching. Godfrey insists that the Crusaders rest for a day. At dawn on the next day, Godfrey marches his army out of Jerusalem. He gives a pre-battle pep talk to his army, as does Emiren to his. The armies face off and the battle begins. The warrior woman Gildippe displays great courage and heroism, as does her husband Edward. She fights Altamore (King of Samarcand) and is wounded. Godfrey discovers Ormond and his conspirators. Rinaldo encounters Armida but ignores her. Though torn between Love and Wrath, she is restrained by her love from killing him. Prince Altamore ignobly helps her to safety instead of helping his own army. Solyman, impatient for a final outcome, rushes out of the tower of David alone, but Aladine and the others follow him. Tancred rises from his sickbed to help Raymond, who is under attack. Aladine is killed by Raymond and the tower of David is taken. Solyman mortally wounds Gildippe. Edward rushes to defend her and Solyman cuts off his arm. He falls by her side--"joined together their pious souls depart." (Their love death is preceded by a touching Homeric simile, "as the elm to which wantonly the tendrilled grape entwines...") Adrastus fights with and is slain by Rinaldo. Solyman knows death is near and is killed by Rinaldo. The pagans flee. Tissaphernes fights Rinaldo and is wounded, then slain. Rinaldo comes to the aid of Armida, recalling that he had pledged himself as her knight when he parted from her. She buries her arms and is considering suicide, but Rinaldo stops her, takes pity on her, and embraces her. He promises to restore her to her royal throne and to be her champion. She accepts him and professes to be his handmaid. Meanwhile, Godfrey slays Emiren. Altamore surrenders to Godfrey proposing a ransom, but Godfrey nobly refuses to profit monetarily from the victory. The slaughter of the pagans continues--the city has been liberated. He goes to the temple and hangs up his arms, and "here devoutly adores the great Sepulcher, and discharges his vow."