sexual tension between Walter & Hildegund in tenth-century Europe

medieval love as chess game

Returning triumphantly from leading the Huns in savage battle, Walter of Aquitaine entered the chamber of King Attila the Hun. There he met Hildegund of Burgundy. She was the beautiful young woman to whom he had been betrothed from childhood. Attila the Hun had taken both Hildegund and Walter from their parents as hostages. Alone in the king’s chamber, they embraced and enjoyed sweet kisses.

Hildegund administered the kingdom on behalf of Attila’s wife Ospirin. But Walter was no boot-licking General Belisarius. With manly self-assertion he said to Hildegund after his exhausting martial work:

Swiftly bring me here drink! I am tired and out of breath.

{ Ocius huc potum ferto, quia fessus anhelo. } [1]

She, striving to please her man, brought him a precious goblet filled with undiluted wine. He held her hand, and she looked at him intently. He then offered her a drink from the goblet. He said:

We have both endured exile so long —
not being unaware of what by luck our parents
arranged between us for our future life.
How long will we remain silent about this?

{ Exilium pariter patimur iam tempore tanto,
Non ignorantes, quid nostri forte parentes
Inter se nostra de re fecere futura.
Quamne diu tacito premimus haec ipsa palato? }

He wants to talk about marriage? He wants to talk about marriage when they’re alone in the king’s bedroom and have embraced and kissed and started drinking? Most men are romantically simple. What sort of man was Walter?

Hildegund thought that Walter was satirizing her and the idea of getting married. She remained silent for awhile. Then she burst out in epic eloquence:

Why fake in speech what you reject deep in your breast,
and with your mouth urge what you spurn with all your heart,
as if it were a great shame to marry such a bride?

{ Quid lingua simulas, quod ab imo pectore damnas,
Oreque persuades, toto quod corde refutas,
Sit veluti talem pudor ingens ducere nuptam? } [2]

In a more colloquial translation, “So you’re gay, so you’re just not into me, is that it?” Walter, a wise young man with extraordinary masculine self-control, had important plans. He also was learned in the game of love. He confidently dismissed Hildegund’s words:

Away with what you say! Set straight your sense!
Since no one is here but us alone,
know that I spoke nothing from a deceiving mind,
don’t think anything nebulous or false was mixed in.
If I knew you would focus for me a ready mind,
and faithfully, carefully keep your vows through everything,
then I would offer you all the mysteries of my heart.

{ Absit quod memoras, dextrorsum porrige sensum!
Noris me nihilum simulata mente locutum,
Nec quicquam nebulae vel falsi interfore crede!
Nullus adest nobis exceptis namque duobus.
Si nossem temet mihi promptam impendere mentem
Atque fidem votis servare per omnia cautis,
Pandere cuncta tibi cordis mysteria vellem. }

Scarcely anyone today can even imagine a man speaking such words to a woman. That’s why there’s now an epidemic of sexless marriages. To overcome that imaginative and performative disability, recognize reality and natural laws of cause and effect:

At last the maiden, bowing at the man’s knees, proclaimed:
“To wherever you call me, my lord, I will eagerly follow,
nor would I prefer anything above your pleasing commands.”

{ Tandem virgo viri genibus curvata profatur:
“Ad quaecumque vocas, mi domne, sequar studiose
Nec quicquam placitis malim praeponere iussis.” } [3]

Walter himself couldn’t overturn gynocentrism. But he acted so as to secure Hildegund’s respect for him.

With a careful plan and faithful execution, Hildegund and Walter escaped from the court of Attila the Hun. Walter carried heavy armor and weapons so that, if necessary, he could fight to protect Hildegund and himself. After forty days of flight, he spotted a well-protected cave nestled in the lush Vosges valley of northeastern France. Declaring that he needed rest, he led Hildegund to that cave.

Needing rest is natural, even for men, yet in seeking rest men run the risk of appearing weak. Men have the burden of continually maintaining a strong masculine frame to retain women’s passion for them. Walter masterfully handled that burden:

Putting aside his heavy burdens of war, he then said,
collapsing into the maiden’s lap: “Keep a careful watch,
Hildegund, and if you see a dark dust-cloud rising,
awaken me with your charming touch of gentle reminding,
and even if you should see a huge troop advancing,
take care, my dear girl, not to disturb my sleep immediately,
for from here one can see clearly to a far distance.
Attentively scan all points around the region.

{ Bellica tum demum deponens pondera dixit
Virginis in gremium fusus: “circumspice caute,
Hiltgunt, et nebulam si tolli videris atram,
Attactu blando me surgere commonitato,
Et licet ingentem conspexeris ire catervam,
Ne excutias somno subito, mi cara, caveto,
Nam procul hinc acies potis es transmittere puras.
Instanter cunctam circa explora regionem.” } [4]

Walter putting his head into Hildegund’s lap shows fine masculine initiative. Even better was his wry assertion of masculine self-confidence: if a huge troop is advancing to attack us, don’t wake me too soon. I want to enjoy a little more sleep before I deal with that problem. Readers should understand that Hildegund scanned the region with a smile on her face and a tingle in her loins.

Soon Hildegund spotted a group of heavily armed men advancing on horseback. Because she hadn’t learned the lesson that Erec taught Enide, she woke Walter when the group of armed men was still far away. Walter casually wiped his eyes to enliven them from his deep sleep. Then with sleep-stiff limbs he put on his clothes and armed himself. He began to prepare for battle by whipping his sword through the air.

The armed men approached closely, their spears flashing. Stupefied with fear, Hildegund cried out:

“We have the Huns here,” she said,
and falling to the ground in great sorrow spoke out:
“I beg, my lord, that my neck be cut by your sword,
so that I, not obtaining union with you in the marriage bed,
shall not suffer carnal intercourse with any other.”

{ “Hunos hic,” inquit, “habemus,”
In terramque cadens effatur talia tristis:
“Obsecro, mi senior, gladio mea colla secentur,
Ut, quae non merui pacto thalamo sociari,
Nullius ulterius patiar consortia carnis.” }

A virgin woman yearning to experience her beloved man’s sword is completely understandable. While Jephthah allowed his daughter to bully him into killing her, Walter was a strong, independent man. He thus refused to do what a woman begged him to do:

In response the young man said: “Shall your innocent blood stain me?”
And, “How can my strong sword strike down my enemies,
if it does not now spare so faithful a friend?
Away with your request! Toss fear from your mind!
The one who has often led me out of various dangers
can here, I believe, rout this enemy of ours.

{ Tum iuvenis: “cruor innocuus me tinxerit?” inquit
Et: “quo forte modo gladius potis est inimicos
Sternere, tam fidae si nunc non parcit amicae?
Absit quod rogitas; mentis depone pavorem.
Qui me de variis eduxit saepe periclis,
Hic valet hic hostes, credo, confundere nostros.” }

While he rejected yes-dearism, Walter like far too many men didn’t sufficiently value his own life. Facing brutal fighting against a numerous foe, including the highly skilled warrior Hagen, Walter said to Hildegund:

If only, God willing, I can disrupt his strength,
then,” he said, “from this battle my life shall be saved for you, Hildegund, my spouse.”

{ “Quam si forte volente deo intercepero solam,
Tunc,” ait “ex pugna tibi, Hiltgunt sponsa, reservor.” }

Every man’s life deserves to be saved for its intrinsic value and dignity, irrespective of whether he has a loving spouse. Epic violence against men continues because not every man has the courage to reject it.

Walter at least rejected Hildegund’s entreaty to kill her with his sword. Men are made for loving, not killing. At the same time, men should not expect romance to be simple. A man must be strong and skilled enough to build and sustain sexual tension to enjoy a long and loving conjugal partnership.

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[1] Waltharius, l. 223, Latin text and English trans. (modified slightly) from Ring (2016). A monk apparently wrote the Waltharius some time between 840 and 965 in a Germanic area.

Subsequent quotes are from Waltharius ll. 231-4 (We have both endured…), 237-9 (Why fake in speech…), 241-7 (Away with what you say…), 248-50 (At last the maiden…), 503-10 (Putting aside his heavy burdens…), 543(2nd half)-547 (We have the Huns…), 548-53 (In response the young man said…), 570-1 (If only, God willing…). The Latin text is from Ring (2016). That’s the leading critical edition. It’s slightly superior textually to a freely available online Latin text (part 1, part 2, part 3), but also includes documentation of textual variants. The English translation is my responsibility. I have benefited greatly from the translations of Ring (2016) and Kratz (1984).

[2] Hildegund regarded Walter’s prior words as spoken “in irony {per hyroniam}.” On the medieval meaning of that term:

One fragmentary manuscript of the Waltharius glosses the Latin hyoniam with the Germanic word spot (whence the modern German Spott), meaning “mockery” or even “sarcasm”

Ring (2016) pp. 170-1, n. 62, citing the published fragment images of Green (2004). The manuscript is known as Manuscript I and dates to the mid-eleventh-century. The Germanic gloss is from the twelfth century. Ring (2016) p. 22.

[3] Hildegrund poignantly alludes to the words that Ruth the Moabite spoke to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth 1:16.

[4] Nickel associates Walter putting his head in Hildegund’s lap with a folkloric tradition in which a warrior puts his head into a princess’s lap under a tree and asks her to examine his head for lice. In a still surviving oral version, when the man falls asleep and the princess looks up in the tree, she sees eleven hanged women in the branches. Nickel (1973) p. 141. This folktale motif is completely different in tone from the corresponding events in the Waltharius. Ring rightly calls the relationship between the stories “highly speculative.” Ring (2016) p. 176, n. 121.

[image] Woman and man engaged in chess game of love. The depicted minnesinger is Margrave Otto von Brandenburg (Otto IV, 1266–1308). Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 13r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. On love as a game of chess, see e.g. Bernart d’Auriac, “S’ieu agues len de saber e de sen,” and more generally, Blakeslee (1985).


Blakeslee, Merritt R. 1985. “Lo dous jocx sotils: la partie d’échecs amoureuse dans la poésie des troubadours.” Cahiers De Civilisation Médiévale. 28 (110): 213-222.

Green, Jonathan. 2004. “Waltharius fragments from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Altertum Und Deutsche Literatur. 133 (1): 61-74.

Nickel, Helmut. 1973. “About the Sword of the Huns and the ‘Urepos’ of the Steppes.” Metropolitan Museum Journal. 7: 131-142.

Kratz, Dennis M., ed. and trans. 1984. Waltharius and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Ring, Abram, ed. and trans. 2016. Waltharius. Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations 22. Leuven: Peeters. (A. M. Juster’s review)

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