Lienor overcame injustice with false accusation of rape in medieval romance

Jean Renart’s early thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole} shows justice done with deception. This innovative medieval romance assumes basic understanding about rape. Rape of women, but not rape of men, has long been a matter of grave concern in the administration of justice. False accusations of rape against men have also long been a serious public concern, except in recent decades. Emperor Conrad’s capricious love for Lienor meets Lienor’s deceptive path to justice in Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole. Amid many interlaced lyrical songs, that’s the astonishing romance of this medieval romance.

Despite his lords’ concern that he produce a legitimate heir, Emperor Conrad of Germany as a young man wasn’t interested in marriage. He preferred to enjoy springtime parties in the woods with many beautiful women. Out in the woods on such occasions, Emperor Conrad would send away boring men to hunt wild animals. Then he would summon his truly chivalrous knights with a battle cry for pleasure: “Here, knights, to the ladies {Ca, chevaliers, as dames}!” The luxuriously dressed, pleasure-seeking women and men of Conrad’s court would enjoy lavish food and drink, laughter, singing, and sex. As one woman sang:

Down there, beneath the bough,
that’s where he who loves should go.
The fountain wells up clear, oh!
That’s where he should go, who has a fair love.

{ La jus, desoz la raime,
einsi doit aler qui aime,
clere i sourt la fontaine, ya!
Einsi doit aler qui bele amie a. }[1]

Not surprisingly, young women found Emperor Conrad attractive:

A young woman tied to his robe
with her own hands a beautiful tie
from the laces of her white under-dress
(may the fair hand that put it on him
be a 100 times blessed!)
and replaced his belt
with her own little white one.
May she keep his belt well, the noble, gentle girl!

{ Une pucele li atache
de ses mains une bele atache
des laz de sa blanche chemise
(la bele main dont el l’a mise
ait or .C. foiz bone aventure!)
et si li change sa ceinture
a une corroiete blanche;
or la gart bien, la preuz, la franche }

Of course, from a medieval Christian perspective, women and men are most blessed in marital love that produces children. That unnamed young woman had neither marriage or children with Emperor Conrad.

knights and ladies trysting in woods

Emperor Conrad became deeply enamored of Lienor merely from hearing her name. Conrad’s minstrel Jouglet told him of a very beautiful woman and a valiant knight who loved her, and then of another woman just as beautiful and her noble brother. Jouglet said that the second beautiful woman was named Lienor.[2] Conrad was enthralled:

Love struck a spark
with this beautiful name very near to his heart.
From then on, I assure you, were made one
all other women next to this one.
“Blessed be the one who made this name
and the parish priest who christened her!
I would make him the archbishop of Reims
if I were the king of France.”

{ Amors l’a cuit d’une estencele
de cel biau non mout pres del cuer;
or li seront, sachiez, d’un fuer
totes les autres por cesti.
“Beneoiz soit qui cest non basti
et li prestres qui fu parrins!
Il fust arcevesqes de Rains,
se je fusse sires de France.” }

Conrad asked to hear more about Lienor. Jouglet told him all that he knew. Conrad then exclaimed:

Ah! God, how blessed that she was ever born,
and that more so for whom she will love!

{ Ha! Dex, com buer fu onques nee,
et cil plus cui ele amera! }

Jouglet suggested that Conrad was in love with Lienor. Conrad, laughing, responded:

You idiot,
what now of such faulty thought!
Do you truly believe that I’m thinking
less of the brother than of the sister?
Neither my kingdom nor my honor
allows for her to be my beloved.
But since that could never
come to be, at least I can think about it.
She has made pass pleasantly for us
this day, after all.

{… Gars provez,
com ez ore de mal apens!
Or cuides tu, voir, que ge pens
mains au frere q’a la seror?
En mon roiaume n’en m’onor
n’afferroit pas q’el fust m’amie.
Mes por ce qu’el n’i porroit mie
avenir, i voel ge penser.
Or nos a fet soëf passer
la jornee, soe merci. }

Conrad’s defensiveness and invocation of gender equality barely obscured the truth. He was already in love with Lienor, or at least with her name.

Conrad promptly summoned to his court Lienor’s brother, Guillaume de Dole. In lengthy conversations with Guillaume, Conrad came to admire him greatly. Guillaume was a courageous, highly skilled, and generous knight. Guillaume’s good character inspired Conrad to love Guillaume’s sister Lienor even more ardently. Before he had ever met her, Conrad wished to marry her. He told Guillaume:

Now you should know that I would like to make her,
if it pleases God, my beloved and my wife,
and she will be queen and lady
over all other women in the empire.

{Or sachiez que g’en voudrai fere,
se Deu plest, m’amie et ma feme
et qu’ele iert et roïne et dame
de totes celes de l’empire. }

At first Guillaume thought that Conrad was jesting. Lienor was an orphan, and not from a royal family, nor from a family possessing vast lands. Conrad, however, insisted that he wished to marry Lienor.

Conrad’s seneschal, the chief justice of his realm, plotted to tarnish Lienor’s reputation. The seneschal perhaps understood that Lienor as queen would rank above not only all other women in the empire, but also all other men. He secretly traveled to see Lienor and her mother. Lienor’s mother wouldn’t allow her to see any man without her brother Guillaume present. However, by pretending to be devoted to Guillaume and by giving the mother expensive gifts, the seneschal learned much about Lienor. He even learned that that she had a crimson-rose birthmark on her tender, white thigh.

Back at the emperor’s court, Conrad told his seneschal that he planned to marry. Like other lords of the realm, the seneschal had long urged the emperor to make a strategically favorable marriage. The emperor said that he planned to marry a virtuous, wise, and beautiful virgin. She was Lienor, the sister of Guillaume. The seneschal responded that the princes and lords of the realm would never permit Conrad to marry Lienor. Stunned, Conrad pressed for an explanation. The seneschal declared that he had taken her virginity. He described the crimson rose on her thigh as proof that he had enjoyed her body. The emperor was appalled. Marrying Lienor was now impossible for him.

News that the emperor’s marriage to Lienor was canceled because she was debauched stunned the emperor’s court. Guillaume was utterly distraught and became deathly ill. When one of Guillaume’s nephews learned of the deception, he declared that Lienor must be killed. The nephew quickly rode away weeping. He was going to Dole to murder Lienor. That gender structure of honor killing, while sentimentally appealing, isn’t dominant. Despite the usual anti-men bigotry, men and women are victims of honor-based killings at about the same frequency.

When Guillaume’s nephew arrived at Lienor’s home, a page ran out to greet him. But the nephew ignored the page, drew his sword, and strode toward the house. At the threshold, he yelled:

Where is the slut, the harlot,
who would have been lady and empress,
if not for her own lechery?

{ Ou est la jaiaus, la mautriz,
qui fust dame et empereriz,
se sa ribaudie ne fust? }

Fortunately, as he was charging into the house:

Just then he tripped over a piece of wood
and went sprawling, sword and all.
A servant, who had spitted
a goose between two ducks,
who was neither a weakling nor a coward,
rushed at him and held his arms.
Now the boy had no power to do
any great harm, except with words.
Another man leaped on him and gripped him,
and the two held him tightly.

{ Il s’est abuissiez a un fust
si qu’il chaï o tot s’espee.
Un serjans, qui ot espaee
une jante entre .II. mallars,
qui n’iert ne foibles ne coars,
li vient erroment, si l’embrace.
Or n’a il pooir que il face
trop grant mal, se n’est de parole.
Uns autres li saut, si l’acole,
si le tienent amdui mout cort. }

Men commonly put their lives at risk to save women’s lives. That’s the case even for men much less privileged than women, even for men who are essentially women’s servants. So it was for Lienor’s servant-men.

When she realized what the seneschal had done, Lienor’s mother fainted. Lienor, both a virgin and a strong, independent woman, confidently comforted her mother about the seneschal’s false claim:

Beautiful mother, before the end of April,
which is already very near,
I will have totally exposed
his villainy and his deception.
I will make him recant all
that he has made the king believe.

{ Bele mere, ainz la fin d’avril,
qui ja est mout pres de l’issue,
avrai ge tote aconseüe
sa vilonie et sa mençonge.
Tot li ferai tenir a songe
quanqu’il a fet le roi cuidier. }

Lienor immediately traveled to Mainz. That was where her and the emperor’s marriage was to have been celebrated.

After she had settled in Mainz, Lienor summoned a clever page to act as a go-between. She gave him a brooch, a fancy cloth belt, and an alms-purse containing a fine emerald ring. She instructed the page to give those items to the seneschal as love gifts from the Châtelaine of Dijon. Apparently well-connected to court gossip, Lienor knew that the seneschal had long courted the Châtelaine. She, however, had never consented to give him a pledge of her love. The page was to tell the seneschal that the Châtelaine had softened toward him and was offering him these gifts. But if he ever wanted to see her again, he must tie them on his bare skin beneath his shirt.

After the page has completed his mission, Lienor went to the great assembly of nobles in Mainz to make her case for justice. When she entered the hall, all were stunned at the beauty of this unknown lady. She fell at the emperor’s feet and cried out for mercy. The emperor promised to give her justice. He also promised to do whatever she asked him to do. Beautiful young women easily rule the world.[3]

Lienor declared to the emperor and the assembled nobles that she had been victimized. She described her victimization:

It was a day some time ago
that this man here, your seneschal
(here she pointed him out to the emperor)
came to a place, by chance,
where I was doing my sewing.
He did me great harm and outrage,
for he took my virginity.
And after that great foulness,
he also took my belt
and my alms-purse and my brooch.
I demand here from the seneschal,
for taking my honor and my virginity
and my treasures, compensation.

{ Il fu uns jors, qui passez est,
que cil la, vostres seneschaus
(lors le mostre as emperiaus),
vint en un lieu, par aventure,
ou ge fesoie ma cousture.
Si me fist mout let et outrage,
qu’il me toli mon pucelage.
Et aprés cele grant ledure,
si m’a tolue ma ceinture
et m’aumosniere et mon fermal.
Ice demant au seneschal:
et m’onor et mon pucelage
et de mes joiaus le domage. }

Lienor thus falsely accused the seneschal of raping and robbing her. The seneschal quickly responded that he had never seen her before and that he hadn’t taken her virginity or her treasure. Since justice in medieval Europe respected due process, the emperor didn’t simply listen and believe the woman. Moreover, the emperor didn’t listen and believe his seneschal regarding an unknown woman. If Lienor had revealed her identity at this point, all would understand that the seneschal had repudiated his claim to have taken her virginity. She then could have recanted her accusation. However, the seneschal similarly could have recanted his denial of having ever seen her before.

The emperor considered how to resolve this she-said / he-said case. Lienor then described the belt and purse that he allegedly had taken from her. She declared that the seneschal had them tied to his body under his shirt. She asked the emperor to look under the seneschal’s shirt. Since the emperor had promised to do whatever Lienor requested, he had a knight pull up the seneschal’s shirt. Underneath was the belt and purse, exactly as Lienor had described them.

The evidence seemed to condemn the seneschal to death. That would be the penalty for raping Lienor. The lords, who knew the seneschal well, pleaded for mercy. The seneschal lamented that he wasn’t given an opportunity to speak against this new evidence. He desperately pleaded to the lords:

I could make swear
a 100 knights, if the emperor wished,
that this evil and this misfortune
have come upon me through enchantment.
For I don’t know for certain
that the belt was hers,
but, by God and by our childhood,
by my worth and by my love,
let him at least do me such honor
for all that I declare here —
that I never saw her before in all my life,
never caused her shame or outrage,
never violated by force her virginity —
that he let me swear by an ordeal
as a reward for my service.
And without more delay, if in that I
fail, have me hanged!

{ Je li feroie ja jurer,
s’il voloit, a .C. chevaliers
que ciz maus et ciz enconbriers
m’est venuz par enchantement.
Car ge ne sai certainement
s’ele fu soe, la ceinture;
mes, por Deu et por norreture,
por ma deserte et por m’amor,
me face encore tant d’onor
que, de ce que je mis en ni
que onques mes jor ne la vi
ne ne quis honte ne outrage
ne ne forçai son pucelage,
qu’il m’en let purgier par juïse
en guerredon de mon servise;
et se g’en ce, sanz plus atendre,
enchiece, si me face pendre! }

The lords conveyed the seneschal’s request to be tried by ordeal. The emperor felt pity for the seneschal, who had for many years served him well. Yet he wasn’t willing to allow the seneschal a trial by ordeal unless the unknown beautiful woman who had charged him with rape agreed. Lienor graciously agreed. The seneschal was thus thrown into a pool of water. He sunk to the bottom. That validated his claim that he had never before seen Lienor.

seneschal in water ordeal to test guilt

Events had turned out just as the smart, guileful Lienor had planned. She went before the emperor and now complained that the seneschal had falsely tarnished her reputation by claiming that he had seen the rose on her thigh and enjoyed her virginity. She claimed the honor and queenship that had been intended for her. Thus she revealed that she was Lienor. That she had made a false accusation of rape was understood as merely a tactic for securing justice. The emperor leaped up and embraced her. He kissed her a hundred times, not even asking for her affirmative consent before each and every kiss. All the nobles now approved Conrad marrying Lienor. With Lienor wearing an exquisite wedding dress depicting the matter of Troy, she and Conrad were promptly married.[4]

Emperor Conrad and Lienor marry

Conrad planned to put the seneschal to death for falsely besmirching Lienor’s reputation. Lienor, however, intervened to grant him a reprieve. Instead of being directly killed, the seneschal was sent into the terrible violence against men of Christians battling with Muslims for control of the Holy Land.[5]

Making a false accusation of rape isn’t an ideal way for a woman to vindicate her integrity. Justice by whatever means necessary contradicts due process, a fundamental ideal of justice. As the mass incarceration of men makes clear, justice systems can produce unjust effects. In Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole, unjustified love triumphs through a perverse process of justice. That’s more than a romance. Beyond meninist insistence on taking false accusations of rape seriously, women appreciating men’s love for them is the most important means for securing justice for all.[6]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Jean Renart, The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole {Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole} vv. 295-9, Old French text from Lecoy (1962), English translation (modified slightly) from Psaki (1995). Psaki also provides an Old French text, but Lecoy’s is more accessible to the non-specialist. For an alternate English translation, Durling & Terry (1993). The previous short quote (Here, knights, to the ladies) is from v. 223.

Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole dates to 1212-1225. It has survived in only one manuscript: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensi latini, 1725, folios 68va-98va. That manuscript was written roughly about 1300. Psaki (1995) pp. xii, xxviii.

Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole is notable for including forty-six love-lyric insertions within its verse narrative. The lyric insertion at vv. 295-9 is by an unknown singer. Other lyric insertions are by known singers, including Gace Brulé, Châtelain de Couci, Jaufré Rudel, Renart de Beaujeu, and Bernart de Ventadorn. Guillaume de Machaut’s fourteenth-century Voir Dit includes lyric insertions more intimately interwoven with the surrounding verse.

Subsequent quotes from Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole are similarly sourced. The subsequent quotes above are from vv. 247-54 (A young woman tied to his robe…), 793-800 (Love struck a spark…), 817-8 (Ah! God, how blessed…), 829-38 (You idiot…), 3016-9 (Now you should know…), 3016-9 (Where is the slut…), 3924-33 (Just then he tripped…), 4026-31 (Beautiful mother…), 4778-90 (It was a day some time ago…), 4908-24 (I could make swear…).

[2] As many scholar have observed, Jouglet’s doubling of the beautiful woman has parallels with Jean Renart’s Lay of the Reflection {Lai de l’Ombre}. The motif “love from afar {amour de loin}” is associated with the man trobairitz Jaufré Rudel. An excerpt from one of Rudel’s songs about amour de loin, “When the days are long in May {Lanquan li jorn son lonc e may},” is included in Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole, vv. 1301-7.

Lienor is pronounced with three syllables. Hence that name has also been written Lïenor and Liénor.

[3] Second only to beautiful, young women in social dominance are mothers. With striking honesty, a scholar writing late in the nineteenth century commented about Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole:

Of all the beauties of the poem, doubtless none is so unique, so naive, so characteristic, so charming, as the affectionate deference shown by Guillaume for his mother.

Todd (1886) p. 157.

[4] No jaded, passionless lover, Conrad enjoyed intensely his wedding night with Lienor:

I haven’t yet told you
what pleasure the king had that night.
If any man can have delight
in holding his beloved in his arms
in a beautiful bed all night long,
then one can know well that Conrad had that.
When Tristan most loved Isolde,
and he could best take pleasure
in holding and kissing her,
and all the rest that went with it,
and when Lanval and another 20
lovers like these could do the same,
still you may know in truth,
that one could not compare
their pleasure lightly to his.

{ Je ne vos ai mie conté
quel siecle li rois ot la nuit.
Se nus hom puet avoir deduit
a tenir s’amie embraciee
en biau lit, la nuit anuitiee,
donc pot on bien savoir qu’il l’eut.
Quant Tristrans ama plus Yseut
et il s’en pot miex aaisier
et d’acoler et de baisier
et dou sorplus qu’il i covint,
et Lanvax, et autretex .XX.
amant com cil orent esté,
ce sachiez vos de verité,
ne peüst on aparellier
lor siecle a cestui de legier. }

Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dol, vv. 5501-15. Lienor almost surely enjoyed their wedding night even more than Conrad did.

The day after her wedding night, lords came to beg Lienor to grant mercy to the seneschal. Jean Renart then lightly mocked historically pervasive brutalization of men’s sexuality:

She was very beautifully
dressed, adorned and braided,
and didn’t have much injuring,
thank God, from what the emperor
had given to her the previous night.

{ Mout estoit en bele meniere
vestue, acesmee et trecie,
que ne l’avoit pas si blecie
la nuit, Deu merci, l’emperere
que de ce dont la proiere ere }

Id. vv. 5559-66.

[5] Psaki commented:

The Roman of the Rose is eminently suited to analysis using a feminist approach. Issues of gender and representation are vividly engaged, for example, in the figure of Lïenor, fixedly absent throughout most of the tale, whose appropriation and misrepresentation by the seneschal raises disquieting questions about the representation of her by Jouglet, Conrad, Guillaume, and most particularly by the author himself.

Psaki (1995) p. xv. Psaki declares that this tale lacks:

a “really feminist” ending, an ending in which Lïenor deposes Conrad and rules the Empire herself or dispenses with him altogether to open a orphrey-shop with her mother in Mainz.

Id. p. xvi. In a truly feminist ending, Lienor might also castrate her brother Guillaume, burn down Mainz, and found a new city in Amazonia for her orphrey-shop with her mother. Lienor would of course have her servant-men transport to her orphrey-shop the two large chests filled with all her fine clothes and jewels that had been packed for her wedding to the emperor. See Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole vv. 4066-71.

[6] Lacy favored interpreting the tale as being about creating fictions:

Both Jean and his characters are involved in literary creation and elaboration, and he invites us to participate in that same enterprise, to share actively in his creation. If we view the work as a poem about poetry, or a romance about romance, if we see it not as a mimetic replication of reality, but simply as a text containing various subtexts consciously created or re-created by characters who are themselves similar creations, then we must judge it more favorably. As roman d’aventures or roman courtois, it may well be something of a failure; as pure fiction or as a drama of language, it is a notable, even remarkable achievement.

Lacy (1981) p. 787. In his chapter entitled “Women and Love,” Baldwin favored a conventional, crude, totalizing fiction:

In medieval society, gender relations were asymmetric; patriarchy was ingrained and misogyny was prevalent. … Misogyny is not limited to a few overt expressions, but pervades all medieval literature in more subtle and indirect ways, which feminist critics have sought to expose. Nor is misogyny limited merely to negative evaluations of women. The praise of female attributes or the introduction of forceful female characters may also have served to manipulate, co-opt, marginalize, or otherwise entice women to conform to asymmetrical gender positions with a male-dominated society. Since these covert and subversive techniques are difficult to uncover, I shall simply take it for granted that both my authors and their society were patriarchal and misogynistic.

Baldwin (2000) pp. 123, 125. Baldwin thus excluded men from loving in his chapter entitled “Women and Love.” By popular academic diktat, negative evaluations of men, or massive slaughter of men, don’t count as misandry. Given such ideological context, de Looze in interpreting Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole not surprisingly suggested that all men are self-centered fantasists:

Inherent in the seneschal’s failure to recognize the woman with whom he claims to have had carnal knowledge is perhaps the suggestion that the erotic experience for the male is more one of fantasy projection than communication and coming to know his psychic other.

de Looze (1991) p. 603. Medieval literature of men’s sex protest provides much better insight into gender and love between women and men.

[images] (1) Knights and ladies trysting in the woods. Wood engraving by Louis Bouquet from Mary (1921) p. 5. (2) The seneschal undergoes the water ordeal to test his innocence. Wood engraving by Louis Bouquet from id. p. 100. (3) Emperor Conrad and Lienor marry. Similarly from id. p. 107.


Baldwin, John W. 2000. Aristocratic Life in Medieval France: the romances of Jean Renart and Gerbert de Montreuil, 1190-1230. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

de Looze, Laurence. 1991. “The Gender of Fiction: Womanly Poetics in Jean Renart’s Guillaume de Dole.” The French Review. 64 (4): 596-606.

Durling, Nancy Vine and Patricia Terry, trans. 1993. Jean Renart. The Romance of the Rose or Guillaume de Dole. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 1981. ‘“Amer par oïr dire”: Guillaume de Dole and the Drama of Language.’ The French Review. 54 (6): 779-787.

Lecoy, Félix. ed. 1962. Jean Renart. Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole. Paris: Champion. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de français médiéval, dernière révision le 30-12-2010.

Mary, André, trans. (French). 1921. Jean Renart. La Pucelle à la Rose: roman d’amour & de chevalerie de l’an 1200. Paris: Éditions de la Banderole.

Psaki, Regina, ed. and trans. 1995. The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole (Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole). New York: Garland Publishing.

Todd, Henry Alfred. 1886. “Guillaume de Dole: An Unpublished Old French Romance.” Transactions and Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America. 2: 107-157.

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