Flamenca: medieval romance of Archimbaut & her husband Guillem

men slaves carry woman

Without even offering him a bride-show, the Countess of Nevers decided that her son Guillem should marry Queen Archimbaut of Bourbon. That would be a highly advantageous marriage for the family. The Count was distraught at the thought of his son leaving home to live with the Queen in Bourbon. He protested to his wife:

“Lady,” said he, “may I die by violence
if I approve such a match as this!
What you propose I take amiss.
Would you have me to dwell apart
from him who is dearest to my heart?

{ “Sener,” fai s’il, “glazis m’esteinna
S’ieu ja o voil ni o volrai!
Car m’o dizes trop m’en esglai;
Volrias doncs qu’ieu tramezes
La ren del mon c’al cor plus m’es?” }

The Countess insisted. The Count of Nevers thus had no choice but to accept his son’s marriage to the Queen of Bourbon.

Archimbaut, Queen of Bourbon, was delighted to hear that the Count of Nevers had accepted her proposal to marry his son Guillem. She assembled an entourage of 100 well-equipped knights to travel to Nevers to take her groom. She arrived on Thursday, three days before the appointed marriage date. As soon as she saw Guillem, her heart burst into flame:

While outwardly she made no show,
hot that heat within did glow.
Within she burns, without she thrills;
I think therefore it was chills
and fever this distress did bring.
Yet fatal be her sufferings,
were not at hand a remedy
one of such happy potency
that it was not a bitter glass,
but sweet and clear, and lightly clasped;
and any healthy woman would stand
to suffer pain in foot and hand
forever, but to have the feeling
one day of such delightful healing,
a cure so exquisitely taken.

{ Que nuilz semblanz non par defors
De la calor que sufr’el cors,
Qu’el art dedinz e defors trembla.
E per so ges nom par ni sembla
Que de calor sia sos mals.
E pero si fora mortals
S’aitan tost non agues mescina.
Mais el la trobet bon’e fina,
C’al penre non fon ges amara,
Anz si fon si douza e si clara
Qu’el mon non es nuilz homs tan sans
Que non degues voler quels mans
Els pes agues totz amortitz
Tostems, sol un jorn fos garitz
Per medicina tan veraia. }

Dido’s love for Aeneas was never as intense as this. The Queen wanted to have her man right there and then:

Queen Archimbaut is much distraught
by love and love’s eagerness.
She feels such anguish and distress
to wait for Sunday’s date, more pleased
to have had some clerk or priest
seal her healing on Friday or Saturday.
She would be more than glad to pay
in cash — no credit would be sought,
if such indulgence could be bought.

{ Enz Archimbautz forment s’esmaia,
Sil destreinh l’amoros consires:
Granz penal fon e granz martires
De l’esperar tro al dimenegue.
Ben volgr’ aver abbat o clergue
Que lail des lo venres ol sapte:
Si per compra ni per acapte
Pogues trobar tal indulgenza,
Del pagar non volgra crezensa. }

Religious strictures of procedure and calendar, obstinate to commerce, constrained the poor woman. Three restless nights she endured as she eagerly waited for her Sunday wedding night.

On Sunday, both the wedding Mass and the wedding dinner were extravagant. Five bishops and ten abbots, lavishly vested and robed, conducted the ceremony. The length of the Mass troubled Queen Archimbaut. When she was finally invited to kiss Guillem, she felt as regal as Juno. After the Mass, they went to the wedding dinner. It was truly a special-day banquet, with every food and drink imaginable present in massive quantities. Many different entertainers were moving and singing about the banquet room, adding further expense. All the special-day provisions didn’t matter to Queen Archimbaut:

But Archimbaut’s eyes turn aside
often toward him who holds her heart.
She wished the guests would all depart
from table, for then she would have him.

{ Mais l’ueil d’En Archimbaut si viron
Soen et lai on sos cors era.
Per so vol cascuns se levera,
Avan mieg manjar, de la taula. }

Yet the wedding banquet went on and on:

The jongleurs now begin the fun:
one takes his lute and plucks the string,
meanwhile another sweetly sings.
Queen Archimbaut viewed as trite
all this, and were it not that night
promised reward for her devotion,
I do not think that a drink or portion
could ever heal her.

{ Li juglar comensan lur faula,
Son estrumen mena e toca
L’us, e l’autres canta de boca.
E tot aiso fon grans enueig
A N’Archimbaut, e si la nueg
D’aquest dan noil feses emenda
Ja per poiso ni per bevenda
Non cuh que jamais revengues.
Emenda n’ac. }

Wedding ceremonies are for the families, relatives, friends, and of course the grooms. Most self-respecting brides have no interest in wedding arrangements.

For a bride, a wedding should be all about the couple. Queen Archimbaut brought to her wedding night considerable skill and experience in coupling:

That night with the man she lay
and made him husband, one would say,
for she was a master, well-skilled;
no man, however ill-willed
he might have been, or how untried,
but would have willingly complied.
And so she made Guillem tame:
strength nor guile could withstand her flame
or make resistance to her charms.
She kissed and held him in her arms
firmly, but with such tenderness
as caused the husband no distress.
In any case, he didn’t lose shape
yielding with grace to her constraint.

{ Car la nueg jac ab la puncela
E si la fes domna noella,
Car d’aquo era ben maïstre.
Nulla dona de si mal istre
Non fo que, si el la pregues,
Endesen no l’endomengues.
Leu pot doncas adomesgar
Flamenca que nos saup tornar
Ni per forsa ni per engien.
Suau la baiza e l’estrein
E gardet si al plus que poc
Noil fassa mal on que la toc;
Consi que fos, aquella ves
Anc non s’en plais ni clam non fes. }

Queen Archimbaut didn’t merely sexually serve her husband. She was willing to be his servant, if only gender norms permitted:

Archimbaut was in heart rejoiced,
having all she wished and desired.
And nothing more does she require,
but to serve and please him right,
whom she would honor and delight.
She would have gladly handed him
comb, ribbon, mirror for his beard,
had shame not stopped her equal hand.

{ En Archimbautz al cor jauzen,
Car tot ha cant vol ni desira;
De nulla ren mais non consira
Mais com pogues en grat servir
Leis cui vol onrar e blandir.
Si nol fos vergonha trop granda
El eis li dera sa garlanda
E sa penche e so mirail. }

Many men, both in ancient Roman and in medieval Europe, were reluctant to marry. But what man wouldn’t want to marry a woman like Archimbaut?

Not just warmly receptive and sexually vigorous, Queen Archimbaut was also extremely beautiful. Even other women acknowledged her beauty:

You may know well when women praise
another, she is fair indeed,
for women would not have agreed
on three in all the world to call
as having loveliness exceptional.
“We know much more than you,” they say,
“of woman’s beauty and its way.
You men are satisfied if she
gives you a welcome graciously,
speaks kindly, and with gentleness.
But she who sees the dame undress,
or go to bed or rise from sleep,
wise would be her counsel keep,
nor tell the servants what she’s seen.”
It’s thus they speak, sharp-tongued and mean,
thus trying, with belittling word
to dim the beauty that our Lord
bestows on those whom He loves best.
Achimbaut was not distressed
by any such discourtesies.
Because they found null to criticize
in her, they held their peace. But they
would have had many things to say
could they have found the least thing wrong
with her. None would have kept her tongue.

{ Quan las domnas sa beutat lauzon,
Ben podes saber bela es,
Qu’en tot lo mon non n’a ges tres
En que las autras s’acordesson
Que del tot lur beutat lauzesson,
Ans dizon: “Mielz conoissem nos
Beutat de dona non fahz vos:
Vos autreus tenes per pagat
Si domna es de bon agrat,
E queus sone gent eus acuilla;
Mais qui la ve quan si despueilla,
Quan si colca o quan si leva,
Ja non dira pois tanta reva,
Si savis es, a las serventas.”
Aissi so malas e dolentas
E volon baissar es estreiner
Lo ben que a dat Nostre Sener
A cella que plus vol ni ama.
Ges d’aizo Flamenca nos clama
Ni non s’en deu per ren clamar,
Que leis non volon ges blasmar,
Quar non i trobon lo perque;
E non s’o laisson per mais re ,
Car, si tan ni quan n’i trobesson ,
Ja nous pensetz que s’en laissesson. }

Jealousy in men has support in a fundamental gender difference in parental knowledge. With less biological basis for being jealous, women nonetheless are sometimes extremely jealous.

Queen Archimbaut became insanely jealous about the Queen of France’s favoritism toward Guillem. The royal French court came to Bourbon to celebrate Queen Archimbaut’s marriage to Guillem. Not anticipating any trouble, Archimbaut had asked the French Queen to bring Guillem to Bourbon when the royal procession passed through Guillem’s city of Nevers. The French Queen honored Guillem with a seat next to her in the royal procession. Moreover, she took his hand and led him out from church after the royal procession had gone to Mass.

When the procession arrived at the banquet in Bourbon, the Queen of France continued to favor Guillem. After dinner, he was the first she asked for a dance. In addition, she gave him a love-sleeve for his lance. The King of France privately indicated his concern to Queen Archimbaut. She wasn’t worried about causes of jealousy, but the King insisted:

“Queen Archimbaut, causes of this sort
shall I think swirl about to try
you before 15 days have gone by.”
“My King, put jealousy aside,
It would mislead you and misguide.”
At that the King shook his head.
“Will you not be jealous?” he said,
“By God, you will, and it is true
that you will have good reason, too.”

{ “Don Archimbaut, aquest conortz
Cueig eu ben que sobre vos torn
Anz que siu passat .xv. jorn.”
“No i movas, domna, gelosia,
Que ja per ren non o seria.”
Adonc ela son cap secos:
“Dizes que non seres gelos?
A la fe Deu! vos si seres,
E ben leu razon vos n’aures.” }

The French Queen took Guillem to evening church service and then led him back again. They talked happily. Pulling him close to her going into the dining room, she gave him a light squeeze on the buttocks. That infuriated the French King and drove Queen Archimbaut mad. The French Queen even embraced and kissed Guillem in front of Archimbaut. She thought that she was greatly honoring him as Guillem’s wife.

The royal entourage departed, leaving Queen Archimbaut burning with jealousy. She wrung her hands and was near to tears. She thought to go to Guillem and claw his cheeks or gouge his eyes. But Guillem was with his fellow knights. Archimbaut, like most authorities today, wanted to keep domestic violence against men strictly secret. She flung herself down on a couch and complained as if she were in pain. Wishing she were dead, she thought to never get up, but feared what others would say. As too often is the case, she was filled with anti-meninist sentiment:

She kept saying: “Lord! Whatever made
me marry? Good God! I was mad.
And was I not well off before?
May evil come to my family for
advising me to do what is
no good for any woman!
A husband I have, a husband!
Alas! What woe comes to my life!
By jealousy I’m so torn and racked,
I do not know how to act.

{ E diz soen: “Laz! quem pensiei
Quan pris mollier? Deu! estraguiei.
E no m’estava ben e gent?
Oi lo! Mal aion miei parent
Quem cosselleron qu’ieu preses
Zo don ad home non venc bes!
Aras avem mollier, mollier!
Lasset! Mout mi pot esser fer
Que gelosia mi destreina;
Non sai de qual guisam capteina. }

Her jealousy was all his fault. She, the poor dear, was quite a sight:

She shows a pitiable plight:
she starts nothing, does nothing right.
Oft’ she goes out, oft’ she returns,
inwardly suffers, outwardly burns.
Jealous is she who does such things!
She bleats, imagining she sings;
she roars, imagining she sighs.
She understands not otherwise.
The pater noster of the ape
she says, but her words have no shape.
All day she grumbles, growls, berates.
The sight of strangers irritates.
When one does happen to appear,
she puts on a most busy air,
whistles, not to reveal her pain,
mumbles: “I can scarcely refrain
from kicking you outdoors headlong.”

{ Ben es intratz e mala brega:
Ren non acaba ni eissega.
Soen vai dins, soen defora;
Deforas art, dedins acora.
Ben es gelos qui aisi bela:
Quant cuja cantar et el bela,
Qpant cuja sospirar, bondis.
Neguna ren non eissernis:
Lo pater noster diz soen
Del simi, que res non l’enten;
Tot jorn maleja e regana,
E fail gran dol li genz estraina.
Quant hom estrainz era intratz,
El si fes mout afazendatz
E siblet per captenemen.
Suau diz: “A penas tein m’en
Que nous get fors en decazeig! }

She thought all women gazed upon her husband with lust, so she sought to keep all women from their home. She figured for sure he would get another woman pregnant. She feared that he already had done so, and would soon be turning over 30% of his income to that other woman in child support. She raged against herself, tore her hair, scratched her cheeks, bit her lips, ground her teeth, shivered and burned.

Filled with anger and hate, she abused her husband. She called him false and a liar. She barked:

I know the wiles, the soft caress
of hands, the feet that gently press.
With whom do you think you have to do?
I know the tricks as well as you.

{ Eu conosc ben los guins els sinz,
Els mas estrinz el pes causins.
Cui pessatz vos aver trobat?
Aitan sai con vos de barat }

Her husband Guillem had beautiful blond hair. Believing that a clerk’s haircut would make her husband more chaste, she resolved to have him tonsured. She summoned a chaplain to do the deed. When the chaplain came to Guillem with comb and scissors, Guillem, bewildered, questioned why:

The chaplain couldn’t reply to him
for sorrow, that he had to trim
a head of hair that shone more bright
than a bright leaf of gold that might
have been wrought at Montpellier
where it’s brightest, so men say.

With scissors of no great size, but
well-sharpened and most keen to cut,
the chaplain sheared the locks. Temple
and neck he shaved, and made an ample
tonsure on top, all clean and fair.

{ Le capellas nom poc respondre
De gruneza car si vol tondre
Sos cabeillz, ques eron plus saur
Ques una bella fuilla d’aur,
De cel c’a Monpeslier si bat,
On plus hom lo troba colrat.

Ab unas forfes ben tallans
Que ges non ero massa grans,
Le capellans sa crin li tol.
Los pols li botoisa el col,
E fail corona gran e large. }

All the household wept as they saw the loss of Guillem’s hair. The maid Bellepile did as savy, active women do:

Bellepile burned not the hair.
Ah no! She wrapped it in a mesh
of silken fabric, white and fresh.
And with it a fine loop she’ll weave
for fastening a mantle-sleeve
or belt, which later she will bring
Flamenca as an offering.
A thousand kisses then shall press
it and wear it to nothingness.

{ Na Bellapila, ans las met
En un bel cendat blanc et net
Et obrar n’a un bel fresel
Per far afflibles de mantel,
E per joia lo donara
A Flamencha quan fag sera.
E car seran mil ves baisat
Cil cabeil ans que siu usat! }

News of this terrible violence to Guillem’s head spread around the country. All came to know that Queen Archimbaut was a horribly jealous wife. They composed ballads about how she abused Guillem. Some even sang them to her. She, unaware of her ridiculousness, became angrier and more unreasonable. She insisted:

The prudent woman is keen and wary.
What if some vile female adversary,
aping the wiles of courtly love —
a thing that she knows nothing of —
should make his virtue go astray?

{ Quan savis es, quel venga dans.
E que faria s’us truanz,
Ques fenera d’amor cortes
E non sabra d’amor ques es,
L’avia messa en follia? }

No other woman had ever thought that way about the men-abasing medieval sexual feudalism of courtly love. Gender bigotry others know to love, but Queen Archimbaut was wholly ignorant of women’s privilege.

Archimbaut decided to keep Guillem imprisoned in a tower. He would be imprisoned there in spacious quarters with two serving men. The only woman that would be allowed to visit him would be Archimbaut herself. Guillem couldn’t leave to go to work. In fact, he didn’t have to work at all. He received fine food and drink and was spared extremes of hot and cold. Unlike women of leisure, he couldn’t go outside his tower home except to go to church and to the baths, accompanied by his wife:

He knew not what to do, poor child.
With the fierce threats and rantings wild,
this jealous wife so grieved her man,
that death, not life, seemed a better land.
And if the day was bad, the night
was worse. Just boredom with her, no delight.
Of solace and comfort, he had none
to lighten his affliction.

Keen is Guillem’s misery
which makes him languish, yawn, and sigh.
He suffers sorrow and distress
caused by his woman’s surliness.
He has drunk many a bitter tear
and finds life sorrowful and drear.

{ Li bona res non sap ques fassa.
Mout ergueil e mouta menassa
L’aven del gilos a suffrir;
Sos viures val meins de morir.
Sil jorn a mal , pietz ha la nug
Car ren no i te mas sol enug;
E sa pezansa, e sa mort,
Non troba ren que la conort.

Mout trais Flamenca greu trebail,
Car mout sospir et mout badail,
Mout angoissa e mout sospir
L’aven per son marit suffrir,
E mouta lagrem’a beguda.
Dolenta es et irascuda. }

In another medieval romance, a girl rescued Lancelot from imprisonment in a tower. Archimbaut guarded the tower herself to ensure that no other woman could get to Guillem, or he to any other woman. What was the poor husband to do? Would he have to endure the misery of his jealous wife imprisoning him for the rest of his life?


*  *  *  *  *

The above is Flamenca Queered, part 1. See also part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Read more:


The above story is based on the thirteenth-century Old Occitan Romance of Flamenca. Flamenca offers a subtle critique of courtly love predominant among the troubadours writing and singing Old Occitan lyric. “Flamenca has been judged by critics to be one of the major masterpieces of thirteenth-century vernacular literature.” Walkley (1996) p. 87. The Old Occitan quotes above are from the Old Occitan Flamenca text in Hubert & Porter (1962). The English translations are based on id., but include my significant, small changes. The translations aren’t a faithful representation of the Old Occitan Flamenca, but are strongly and consistently related to it.

Archimbaut is perhaps the most interesting character in Flamenca. Archimbaut isn’t a static type conventional in literature of courtly love:

Commentator and editor Ulrich Gschwind wonders why no one has proposed calling the thirteenth-century Occitan Romance of Flamenca the ‘Roman d’Archimbaut’ instead. Gschwind poses an intriguing question, for it is true that Archimbaut, the romance’s jealous husband or gilos, undergoes more profound personal changes than either of the other two major characters, and the narrative hinges on these metamorphoses.

Moreau (2009) p. 41. Archimbaut (the Old Occitan spelling) is also spelled as Archambaut and Archambaud in modern translations and studies.

The author of Flamenca isn’t known. The text itself refers to a Bernardet in a way consistent with that being the author’s name. Bernardet seems to have had an association with a lord of Alga. Alga was a castle that the Roquefeuille family owned. It’s located in Rouergue, Department of Aveyron, France. Blodgett (1995) pp. xi-ii. Flamenca is a learned, sophisticated poem:

the poet was a figure of considerable erudition, who, perhaps like William, “studied at the University of Paris, quite possibly under the renowned German scholar and philosopher, Albertus Magnus” (Stebbins 509). He was, finally, in some way within the sphere of influence of the lords of Alga, and may have been a monk in the monastery at Nant.

Id. p. xii. From the discovery of the unicum Flamenca manuscript in 1834 through to late in the twentieth century, even highly learned literary scholars have commonly failed to read Falmenca with sufficient sophistication.

With threadbare academic cant and frequent appeals to the authority of academic cult heroes, a Princeton literature PhD candidate in the course of strongly affirming dominant academic ideology argued that Flamenca is subversive:

Flamenca’s very radical subversion lies in its refusal to accept a view of the subject as radically ‘outside’ medieval power dynamics, or as purely self-determined. The modernity of Flamenca is paradoxically the recognition of the weight of medieval discursive tradition on the subject. Yet, be it in terms of temporality, gender or binary logic more generally, Flamenca does not, I have argued, emphasize the weight of tradition in a resigned, fatalistic manner. Truer to Derrida than to Foucault, it does not set out to reverse the anteriority of discursive forces to the ‘natural,’ desiring subject, but rather deconstructs their opposition, and the dominoes of binary logic then continue to falter. … Flamenca is also a strong injunction for the modern reader: not despite, but with and because of her or his temporal distance from the text, to think in and through ‘out-of-jointedness’ in the name of the anti-formulaic, always pressing and never realized, ethical imperative to make things more just.

Samuelson (2016) p. 453. My interpretation of Flamenca above is consistent with queer subversiveness truly practiced in seeking justice.

For an accessible analysis of Flamenca relevant to the adaptation above, Walkley (1996). For a freely available English prose translation, Prescott (1933). Zufferey & Fasseur (2014) is the most current scholarly edition of the Old Occitan text. Meyer (1901) is good, freely available critical edition. Scrivner et. al (2013) documents an arduous project to make the Old Occitan text machine-readable and computable. McGuire & Scrivner (ND) provides an online presentation of the text and Blodgett’s English translation. Presenting texts online in an innovative but enduring form is quite difficult. Here’s a list of editions and translation of Flamenca. Here’s an additional list of editions, translations, and scholarly notes and resources.

The Flamenca verses quoted above are (cited by the verse numbers of the Old Occitan text of Hubert & Porter (1962)): vv. 53-8 (“Lady,” said he…), 164-78 (While outwardly she made no show…), 179-87 (Queen Archimbaut is much distraught…), 313-6 (But Archimbaut’s eyes turn aside…), 317-24 (The jongleurs now begin the fun…), 326-39 (That night with the man she lay…), 345-52 (Archimbaut was in heart rejoiced…), 559-76 (You may know well when women praise…), 877-885 (Queen Archimbaut, causes of this sort…), 1022-31 (She kept saying…), 1036-52 (She shows a pitiable plight…), 1136-9 (I know the wiles, the soft caress…), 3563-68, 3581-85 (The chaplain couldn’t reply to him…), 3586-94 (Bellepile burned not the hair…), 1196-1200 (The prudent woman is keen and wary…), 1344-51, 1400-05 (He knew not what to do, poor child…). The verse numbers in Meyer (1901) are very close to, but not identical to, those of Hubert & Porter (1962).

[image] Woman in a sedan chair carried by her men slaves in São Paulo, Brazil, about the year 1860. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


Blodgett, Edward D., trans. 1995. The Romance of Flamenca. New York: Garland.

Hubert, Merton Jerome, trans. and Marion E. Porter, ed. 1962. The Romance of Flamenca. A Provençal poem of the thirteenth century. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

McGuire, Michael and Olga Scrivner. ND: Not Dated. “The Flamenca Project: Le Roman de Flamenca (The Romance of Flamenca).” Online presentation of the Old Occitan text of Meyer (1901) and the English translation of Blodgett (1995).

Meyer, Paul. 1901. Le roman de Flamenca: publié d’après le manuscrit unique de Carcassonne, traduit et accompagné d’un vocabulaire. Bibliotheque Francaise du Moyen Age, 8. Deuxième édition entièrement refondue par Paul Meyer. Tome premier. Paris: Bouillon.

Moreau, John. 2009. “The Perversion of Time: Jealousy and Lyric in The Romance of Flamenca.” The Modern Language Review. 104 (1): 41-54.

Prescott, H. F. M. 1933. Flamenca. Translated from the thirteenth-century Provençal. Here attributed to Bernardet the Troubadour. London: Constable & Co.

Samuelson, Charles. 2016. “Queering temporality and the gender binary in Flamenca.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. 7 (3): 431-455.

Scrivner, Olga, Sandra Kübler, Barbara Vance, Eric Beuerlein. 2013. “Le Roman de Flamenca: An annotated corpus of Old Occitan.” Proceedings of the Third Workshop on Annotation of Corpora for Research in Humanities. 6: 85-96. (Supplementary: online presentation of part of Old Occitan text of Flamenca).

Walkley, Maxwell. 1996. “Comic Elements in the Thirteenth-Century Provençal Romance ‘Flamenca.’Arts: The Journal of the Sydney University Arts Association. 18: 98-107.

Zufferey, François, ed., and Valérie Fasseur, trans. (into French). 2014. Flamenca. Lettres Gothiques, 32551. Paris: Le Livre de Poche.

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