lai of Argentille & Haveloc protested gender in medieval marriage

Political scheming caused Princess Argentille to be married to the kitchen scullion Haveloc in the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc written about the year 1200. Like the seventh-century English nobles Æthelthryth and Tondberht and many American couples today, Argentille and Haveloc seemed to be destined for sexless marriage:

When they were both brought to bed,
she was greatly ashamed of him,
and he even more so for her sake.

{ Quant coché furent amdui,
Cele ot grant hunte de lui
E il assez greinur de lui. }[1]

Fear and wariness in the marital bed fosters neither joy nor sleep. However, personal conversation overcame the apparent gulf of social class between them. It also prompted physical intimacy:

But later they became so trusting of each other,
both in their words and their expressions,
that he loved her and lay with her
as was his duty to do with his wife.
On the night he first had sexual congress with her,
he had such joy from it and loved her so much
that afterwards he fell asleep and became oblivious.

{ Mais pus se assurerent itant,
E de parole e de semblant,
Ke il l’ama e od lui just
Cum il od sun espuse dust.
La nuit qu’il primes i parla
Tel joie en out e tant l’ama
Ke il s’endormi e oblia. }

In these verses, the Anglo-Norman word for sexual congress is a form of the verb parler. That Anglo-Norman verb most commonly means “to have conversation.” But as the greatest scholars of lais recognized, the fitting meaning here is “to have sexual congress.”[2] That meaning re-enforces the communicative development in Argentille and Haveloc’s relationship depicted in the prior four verses. Their relationship in words became a relationship in flesh. That’s fundamentally a Christian understanding of love.

Although primarily interpreted as political history, the lai Haveloc offers keen psychological insight into medieval marriage. Wives and husbands in Haveloc consciously treat each other with sensitivity for their relationship.[3] For example, a hermit told Argentille that Haveloc was born of a royal lineage. That’s an extraordinary claim about a man working as a kitchen scullion. Argentille addressed the situation with psychological sophistication:

She returned to her husband.
In private and lovingly,
she asked him where he was born
and where his family were.

{ Ele s’en vait a sun seignur.
Privement e par amur
Li demande dunt il ert nez
[E ou] esteit sis parentez. }

Argentille took care to show that her love for her husband didn’t depend on whether the hermit’s claim was true. She also took care not to expose her husband to public ridicule.

Haveloc believed that he was the son of Grim the fisherman and his wife Sebur. That elderly couple lived in the small Lincolnshire town called Grimsby. Unhappy under her current circumstances, Argentille wanted she and Haveloc to go to live with his parents. Haveloc readily agreed.[4] When they arrived in Grimsby, only Grim and Sebur’s daughter Kelloc, married to a merchant, remained alive. Kelloc asked Haveloc about the beautiful woman with him. He explained that she was his wife and a princess who had been robbed of her heritage. Recognizing the astonishing circumstances, Kelloc, who had grown up with him, pondered what to do:

She summoned her husband.
Following his advice, she asked Haveloc
whose son he was, if he knew,
and if he recognized his parents.

{ Sun seignur avant apella,
Par sun conseil li demanda
Ki fiz il fu, s’il le saveit,
Si sun parenté conusseit. }

Medieval women respected their husbands. In a complicated situation, a medieval woman might summon her husband for advice and occasionally even follow his advice.[5] Haveloc declared that Grim was his father and she his sister. Kelloc then revealed Haveloc’s true parentage: he was actually the son of Gunter, King of the Danes. Grim and Sebur had served as Haveloc’s guardians after King Gunter had been treacherously killed. Argentille and Haveloc were thus actually a royal couple.

medieval woman warrior sits on seashore

Through victory in brutal violence against men, Haveloc became the new Danish king. Argentille became the queen of the Danes. After King Haveloc had ruled Denmark very successfully for three years, Argentille advised him to engage in further violence against men:

Argentille advised him
to cross to England
in order to conquer her heritage
from which her uncles had ejected her
and with great wrong disinherited her.
The King said that he would do
whatever she advised him.

{ Argentile li conseilla
Q’il passast en Engletere,
Pur sun heritage conquere
Dunt ses uncles [l]’aveit jeté
E a grant tort desherité.
Li reis li dit qu’il fera
Quanqu’ele li conseilera. }

The medieval ideal of marriage was conjugal partnership. But medieval marriage often devalued husbands relative to their wives. Women, for example, typically didn’t serve as men’s equal partners in brutal warfare. More significantly, norms of gynocentrism instruct husbands to do whatever their wives advise them to do.

Deborah directs Barak's men to kill Sisera's men

In Haveloc, the dominant woman Argentille shows little concern for men’s suffering. The first day of battle for the lands of Argentille’s heritage caused massive harm to men:

The combat between the sides was fierce,
lasting until five in the evening.
Many of the Danes were killed
and among the survivors many were badly wounded.
The Danes were nearly unable to suffer more
when the darkness made them part.
Haveloc was very angry
because of the men he had lost.
With the Danes he would have retreated
and returned to his ship
if the Queen would have suffered that.

{ Entre eus fu dure la meslee
De ci que vint a la vespree.
Mut i out Daneis oscis
E des altres assez malmis;
Il nel poient mes suffrir
Quant la nuit les fait partir.
Aveloc fu mult irascuz
Pur les homes qu’il ot perduz.
Od ses Daneis s’en fu[s]t alez
E a sa navie returnez,
Si la reïne li suffrit. }

Queen Argentille suffered none of the war’s violence. Her suffering was the thought of not regaining her inheritance through men’s brutal suffering in battle. Greatly devaluing men’s suffering relative to her interest, Argentille refused to allow her husband and his surviving men to retreat. The author of Haveloc understood and attempted to communicate gynocentric devaluation of men’s lives. Literary scholars have still largely failed to recognize that historical reality.

Charlemagne mourns Roland and other dead men warriors

From her position of female privilege, Argentille advised her husband King Haveloc even with respect to tactics of warfare. She advised manipulating the bodies of the dead Danish men:

Because of a ruse that she promised would work,
by which he could conquer his enemy,
the King remained, so trusting her.
All night long he had limbs cut
and at both ends sharpened.
They staked up the dead men;
among the living they positioned them.
They were arranged into two echelons,
with axes raised above their shoulders.

{ Par un engin que li pramist,
Dunt il veincerei sun enemi,
Remist li reis, si la creï.
Tute la nuit fit peus trencher
E de dous parz aguiser.
Les morz homes i ficherent;
Entre les vifs les drecerent,
Dous escheles en unt rengez,
Les haches sur les cous drecez. }

Medieval literature recognized that women’s guile readily defeats men. Haveloc ironically trusted in his wife’s guile. Via stakes driven into the ground and at the other end into their bodies, dead men were grotesquely resurrected according to Argentille’s instructions. Dead men thus rose to be mixed among living men, all prepared to do further violence against men. With this highly imaginative scene, Haveloc poignantly depicts the horror of men’s subordination to women and men’s suffering as a gender.[6]

Men’s inhumane status as a gender is readily ignored or forgotten under gynocentrism. Staked-up dead men positioned among living men served Argentille’s interest. Because so many men have been killed on both sides, the opposing king perceived his side to be out-manned seven to one. He thus made peace. He pledged loyalty to Haveloc and surrendered all of Argentille’s lands. That’s what historical accounts concerning Argentille and Haveloc have memorialized.[7] The subtle men’s sexed protest of the lai Haveloc apparently hasn’t been noticed until now.

To serve social justice, study of medieval literature must be welcoming and inclusive of meninist literary criticism. Dominant anti-meninist ideology has marginalized transgressive, wildly imaginative medieval works and supported continuing devaluation of men’s lives.[8] Women and men today must strive to realize the medieval ideal of equal conjugal partnership. A way forward starts with much greater appreciation for the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc.

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[1] Haveloc, vv. 377-9, Anglo-Norman text (manuscript P) from Burgess & Brook (2015), English translation (modified) from Burgess & Brook (2016). Haveloc was written by an unknown author in Lincolnshire, England, probably between 1190 and 1220. This lai survives in two manuscripts denoted P and H. They are P: Cologny-Genève, Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Codex Bodmer 82; and H: London, College of Arms, Arundel XIV. Burgess & Brook (2015) provides a critical edition of both P and H and a verse-by-verse English translation of H. Burgess & Brook (2016) offers a prose translation of P. For an earlier edition of P that’s freely available online, Bell (1925). For an earlier, freely available text of H with English translation, Hardy (1888).

The political scheme that engulfed Argentille and Haveloc involved familial betrayal. King Edelsi promised his neighboring brother-in-law King Achebit to protect his daughter Argentille after his death and to have her married to the strongest man in the land. King Achebit subsequently died. King Edelsi then arranged for Princess Argentille to marry the kitchen scullion Haveloc, the physically strongest man in the land. By that deliberate misinterpretation of his promise, King Edelsi appropriated the kingdom that Argentille inherited from her father. The marriage of Argentille and Haveloc, who went by the name Cuarant as a kitchen scullion, was arranged without the consent of either.

An earlier Anglo-Norman verse account of Argentille and Haveloc exists within Geoffrey Gaimar’s History of the English {Estoire des Engleis}. Gaimar wrote Estoire des Engleis in the 1130s in Lincolnshire for Constance, wife of Ralf Fitzgilbert. She was much more privileged than almost all medieval men. For a critical edition and English translation of Estoire des Engleis, Short (2009). For an earlier, freely available edition, Hardy (1888). Burgess & Brook (2015), Appendix II, provides an English translation of Gaimar’s Haveloc.

The story of Haveloc was written in Middle English as a romance between 1295 and 1310. Called Havelok the Dane, it depicts Haveloc as an ideal king from the perspective of laborers and peasants. Staines (1976), which compares Havelok the Dane to Gaimar’s Haveloc and the lai Haveloc. In Havelok the Dane, the character of Argentille is named Goldeboru. For a glossed Middle English text, Herzman, Drake & Salisbury (1999). Here’s a modern English translation of Havelok the Dane.

Burgess & Brook (2015) provides the most comprehensive coverage of medieval accounts concerning Haveloc. It provides text and English translations for many short versions:

The foregoing short versions of the Havelok story, five in French, eight in English and five in Latin, are mainly found in chronicles of the history of England. They testify to the widespread awareness and popularity of the legend in the later Middle Ages and into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in the East-Anglian region. But these chroniclers did not just record a good story. They were interested in the political and social history of England, and for the most part they clearly regarded Havelok as an important figure in the chain of royal successions in both England and Denmark.

Burgess & Brook (2015) p. 207. Fahnestock (1915) provides some detailed textual comparisons among long versions. Weiss called Havelok the Dane “the most literary treatment.” Weiss (1969) p. 247. Havelok the Dane is the most conventional literary treatment. On Haveloc’s development into a conventional man-hero in the literary history of the story, Staines (1976). For a more nuanced perspective, Couch (2008). With respect to Argentille and Haveloc’s marital relationship, the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc is far more critically perceptive and sophisticated than the Middle English Havelok the Dane.

Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced from Haveloc (manuscript P) verses 383-9 (But later they became so trusting…), 531-4 (She returned to her husband…), 579-82 (She summoned her husband…), 970-6 (Argentille advised him…), 1035-45 (The combat between the sides was fierce…), 1046-54 (Because of a ruse that she promised would work…).

[2] Burgess & Brook (2016) translated parla in v. 387 as “had relations with.” The corresponding verse in manuscript H is “La nuit qe primes enparla” (v. 391). Burgess & Brook (2015) similarly translated enparla as “had relations with.” Sayers objected, asserting “Anglo-French enparler seems to have been read as emparer.” Sayers (2017) p. 1164, which translated enparla as “conversed with.” Parla in fact is attested in Anglo-Norman to mean sexual intercourse. See Espervier vv. 93, 99, and 144, and note to v. 93 in Burgess (2012); Wace’s Conception Nostre Dame, vv. 827-8: “How can a woman bear a child / if she has not had sex with a man {Feme, coment enfantera / Qui a home parlé nen a}?”; and Wace’s Roman de Brut, v. 117: “He had sex with her and she conceived {Od li parla, cele conçut}.” For texts, Blacker, Burgess & Ogden (2013) and Arnold (1938-1940). In addition, as argued above, the meaning “had sex” makes much better sense in the broader context of the relevant verse in Haveloc.

[3] Modern literary scholars have largely interpreted medieval marriage to buttress anti-meninist myths:

Medieval romance heroines, just as women in the real medieval world, are prohibited from participating in military combat, but they take an active role in personal relationships in these narratives. This may be in part because the relatively new concept of romantic love in companionate marriage was making its way into popular culture. Marriage was slowly moving away from being mostly an exchange of property (the woman and her dowry being the items of exchange) and towards a loving if not always socially equal partnership.

Herzman, Drake & Salisbury (1999), Introduction. The thirteenth-century men’s sexed protest of Matheolus provides much better insight into medieval marriage.

[4] Haveloc responded to Argentille’s request with prompt subservience:

My lady, we will be there very soon.
I will gladly take you with me.
Let’s go and take leave of the King.

{ Dame, tost i serum venu;
Volunters vus merrai od mei.
Alums prendre cungé al rei. }

Haveloc (manuscript P) vv. 546-8. In this interaction, Gaimar’s Haveloc displays full-blown gyno-idolatry toward Argentille:

My love,
be it wisdom or be it folly,
I will do what you wish.
I will take you there if you think fit.

{ La maie amie,
U seit saver, u seit folie,
Jo ferai co ke vus volez.
La vus merrai si vus me loez. }

Haveloc (Gaimar’s version) vv. 315-8, Anglo-Norman text from Hardy (1888) v. 1, p. 15, English translation from id. v. 2, p. 10.

[5] The scribe of manuscript H apparently couldn’t imagine Kelloc seeking advice from her husband. The H manuscript thus reads:

She summoned Haveloc
and in private asked him
whose son he was, if he knew,
and if he recognized his parents.

{ Haveloc avant appella,
Et a consail li demanda
Qui fiz il ert, s’il le savoit,
Si son parenté conoissoit. }

Haveloc (manuscript H) vv. 583-6, Anglo-Norman text from Burgess & Brook (2015), English translation (modified) from id. A strong, independent women like many medieval women, Kelloc took the initiative to arrange Argentille and Haveloc’s return to Denmark.

[6] Unlike Argentille, Haveloc showed extensive, meaningful concern for men’s lives. In overthrowing the evil Danish King Odulf, Haveloc put his own life at risk to avoid the deaths of many other men. In particular, Haveloc challenged King Odulf to a man-to-man fight in place of battle between their respective forces. In that brutal fight, Haveloc killed King Odulf. Haveloc then pardoned all of King Odulf’s men. Peace was thus established without further loss of men’s lives.

Haveloc engaged in violence against men only when he had no alternative. For example, when a gang of young Danish men grabbed Argentille, apparently intending to rape her, Haveloc killed five of them. Townsfolk then attacked him and Argentille. Haveloc in response killed many more persons. These actions were defensive violence when Haveloc had no reasonable alternative.

Weiss uncritically described Haveloc as passive and subordinate to his wife Argentille:

Naive, sexually ignorant (Estoire 175-178), strong but curiously passive, Haveloc often takes second place to his wife Argentille, who initiates action, makes decisions, and gives proof of much more resource.

Weiss (1969) p. 252. Haveloc, like many men today, passively accepted his wife’s authority over him and didn’t challenge men-oppressing gender norms.

[7] Burgess & Brook stated:

Haveloc is far more concerned with social and political issues than it is with chivalric activities and amorous relationships. Indeed, even the more literary incarnations of the Haveloc story read more like a work of history than a work of entertainment.

Burgess & Brook (2015) p. 19. On the political context of Haveloc, Kleinman (2003), Battles (2012), and Murtaugh (2016). Gender concerns amorous relationships, men-abasing constructions of chivalry, as well as social and political issues.

[8] With respect to medieval Anglo-Norman lais / romances, Weiss asserted:

That the romances retain interest for us today is in large part due to their creation of these female characters, who challenge the stereotypes of their period and, in so doing, come alive.

Weiss (1993) p. 19. The “stereotypes of their period” are stereotypes that our period has projected onto them. That modern work of stereotyping medieval women and men serves to buttress the gynocentric ideology that continues to oppress men today. Medieval literary studies must do more to be welcoming to men as a gender.

[images] (1) Britomart: medieval woman warrior gazes longingly across the sea. Britomart is the heroine of Book III of Edmund Spenser’s allegorical epic The Faerie Queene (1590). Watercolor painting by Walter Crane, made in 1900. Preserved in Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs (Paris, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The prophetess Deborah directs Barak and his men warriors to attack Sisera and his men warriors. Cf. Judges 4:8-16. From folio 12r of the Morgan Picture Bible (The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638), created in Paris c. 1245. (3) King Charlemagne mourning Roland and other men warriors who died in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. Fourteenth-century illustration via Wikimedia Commons.


Arnold, Ivor D. O., ed. 1938-1940. Le roman de Brut de Wace. 2 vols. Paris: Société des Anciens Textes Français.

Battles, Dominique. 2012. “Reconquering England for the English in Havelok the Dane.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (2): 187-205.

Bell, Alexander, ed. 1925. Le Lai d’Haveloc and Gaimar’s Haveloc Episode. Publications of the University of Manchester, French series 171, no. 4. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Blacker, Jean, Glyn S. Burgess, and Amy V. Ogden, eds. and trans. 2013. Wace, The Hagiographical Works: The Conception Nostre Dame and the Lives of St Margaret and St Nicholas. Leiden: Brill.

Burgess, Glyn S., ed. 2012. “The Lay of Espervier.” Pp. 17-47 in Gaffney, Phyllis, and Jean-Michel Picard, eds. The Medieval Imagination: Mirabile Dictu. Essays in Honour of Yolande De Pontfarcy Sexton. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook. 2015. The Anglo-Norman Lay of Haveloc: text and translation. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Couch, Julie Nelson. 2008. “The Vulnerable Hero: Havelok and the Revision of Romance.” The Chaucer Review. 42 (3): 330-352.

Fahnestock, Edith. 1915. A Study of the Sources and Composition of the Old French Lai d’Haveloc. Jamaica: The Marion Press.

Hardy, Thomas Duffus, ed. and trans. 1888. Lestorie des Engles: solum la translacion Maistre Geffrei Gaimar. 2 volumes. Vol. 1, text. Vol. 2, translation. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.

Herzman, Ronald B., Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. 1999. Four Romances of England. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Kleinman, Scott. 2003. “The Legend of Havelok the Dane and the Historiography of East Anglia.” Studies in Philology. 100 (3): 245-277.

Murtaugh, Daniel M. 2016. “Havelok the Dane: Kingship, Hunger, and Purveyance.” Neophilologus: An International Journal of Modern and Mediaeval Language and Literature. 100 (3): 477-488.

Sayers, William. 2017. “Book Review: The Anglo-Norman Lay of Haveloc: Text and Translation. (Gallica 37).” Speculum. 92 (4): 1163-1164.

Short, Ian, ed. and trans. 2009. Geffrei Gaimar. Estoire des Engleis: History of the English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Staines, David. 1976. “Havelok the Dane: A Thirteenth-Century Handbook for Princes.” Speculum. 51 (4): 602-623.

Weiss, Judith. 1969. “Structure and Characterisation in Havelok the Dane.” Speculum. 44 (2): 247-257.

Weiss, Judith. 1993. “The Power and the Weakness of Women in Anglo-Norman Romance.” Pp. 7-23 in Carol M. Meale, ed. Women and Literature in Britain, 1150–1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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