sanctifying Desiré’s sexual relationship with a fairy

In a lai from thirteenth-century France, Desiré was a young, handsome, passionate knight. He was the son of the King of Scotland and lived in Calder. To demonstrated his worth, for seven years he engaged in violence against men in Normandy. He won renown for his bravery and prowess. One early summer day in Calder, with the trees in flower and the birds singing, he went riding for pleasure on his magnificent horse. He was mysteriously prompted mid-ride to visit a holy man who had a hermitage-chapel in the Blanche Lande.

On his way to the holy man’s chapel, Desiré came across a beautiful, scantily dressed young woman. She was shapely and noble-looking. Desiré dismounted and greeted her. He then took hold of her and laid her down on the fresh grass. As is typical for the pastoral genre, he sought to make her his beloved. The young woman cried out for mercy while showing respect for Desiré’s strong sexual passion:

Knight, away with you from here!
You will hardly gain
if you dishonor my body.
Don’t commit any evil act.
Let me be, for your own advantage.
I’m the servant of a maiden, and
in all the world there is none more beautiful.
I will let you see her shortly,
and if you are able,
make sure she doesn’t escape from you,
whatever I tell you.
If you are well-loved by her,
you will not go astray for any reason.
You will have an abundance of gold and silver
entirely at your disposal.
Don’t think that I’m lying to you,
and if she’s not to your liking,
you cannot fail with me.
I will do whatever you wish.
Put your trust in me completely.
I give you my word.
I will help you in your time of need,
whether it be near or far.

{ Chevalier, tolez vos de ci.
Ne serez gueres avanciez,
Se de mon cors me honnissiez.
Ne fetes nule mesprison,
Lessiez m’estre pur guerredon.
Je sui ja une damoisele,
El siecle n’a nule plus bele;
Je la vos ferai ja veoir;
Se vos estes de tel pooir,
Gardez que ne vos eschap mie,
Por nule rien que je vos die.
Se de li estes bien amez,
Por nïent seriez esgarez.
Assez avrez or e argent
Tot a vostre comamndement.
Ne cuidiez pas que je vos mente,
Et s’ele ne vos atalente,
A moi ne pouez vos faillir;
Je feré tout vostre plesir.
Tout asseür soiez de moi;
Je vos afi la moie foi,
Aiderai vos a grant besoing,
Ou soit de pres, ou soit de loing. }[1]

What an extraordinarily generous young woman! She obviously didn’t want to increase the number of men imprisoned for serious crimes such as rape. After her words, Desiré retained enough reason to realize that he shouldn’t rape this women just because he passionately desired her.

The young woman then took Desiré to her mistress. The mistress was extremely beautiful. Apparently ready to welcome a man, she had prepared a luxurious bed. The young woman urged Desiré to go to her mistress. However, when Desiré went to her, she fled. Desiré chased after her and grabbed her by her right hand. That’s a gesture of leading a woman to marriage. He spoke agreeably to her:

“Beautiful one,” he said, “speak to me!”
Why are you fleeing so fearfully?
I am a knight from this land.
I will be your vassal-servant and your lover.
In order to have your loyal love,
I’ll serve you as best as I can.”

{ ‘Bele,’ fet il, ‘parlez a moi;
Por qoi fuiez a tel desroi?
Chevaliers sui de cest païs,
Vostre hon serai et vostre amis;
Por vostre druerie avoir
Vos servirai a mon pooir.’ }

Men should not offer to be women’s servants. Desiré was deluded with men-oppressing ideals of courtly love. The woman assented to this all-too-common love relationship. Then they had sex.

Desiré spent a long time with the woman. He was very unwilling to leave her. But women dominated men in medieval Europe just as women do today. She told him to leave her. She insisted that he follow prescribed morality and urged him to continue to engage in violence against men:

“Beloved,” she said, “Desiré,
you will go to Calder.
I shall give you a ring made of gold
and I tell you one thing:
if you are striving to love well,
take care you do not transgress.
If you transgress in any way,
you will lose the ring at once.
And if that happens to you,
that you have lost the ring,
you will have lost me forever,
without any chance of getting me back or seeing me.
Take care that you act correctly.
Don’t let me become a hindrance to you.
I have no regard for a knight
who doesn’t attend tournaments frequently.
A knight who has a beloved
must certainly perform deeds of valor,
spend very lavishly,
and continually keep good lodgings.
Before you had my love,
you were a man of very great valor.
It’s not right for a knight
to deteriorate because of love.”

{ ‘Amis,’ fet elle, ‘Desirrez,
A Calatir vos en irez;
.I. anel d’or vos baillerai,
Et une chose vos dirai:
Or vos gardez de meserrer,
Si vos penez de bien amer.
Se vos mesfetes de noient,
L’anel perdrez hastivement;
Et se ce vos soit avenu
Que vos l’anel aiez perdu,
A toz jors mes m’avrez [perdue],
Sanz recovrer et sanz veüe.
Gardez que molt la faciez bien,
Ne nos chargiez por moi de rien.
Je ne pris noient chevalier
Qui sovent ne vait tornoier,
Car chevalier qui a amie
Doit bien fere chevalerie,
Et despendre bien largement,
Et bons ostex tenir sovent.
Ainz que vos eussiez m’amor,
Fustes vos molt de grant valor;
N’est mie droiz a chevalier
Que por amor doie empirier.’ }

In controlling Desiré, the woman instructed him “not to transgress” and to “act correctly.” What exactly these instructions mean isn’t clear.[2] Modern academics celebrate alleged “transgressing,” yet they’re also typically keen to act correctly according to dominant academic ideology. The woman explicitly urged Desiré to continue to maintain relationships with his fellow knights while engaging in risky acts of violence against men. That seems to be an implicit comment on Erec’s retirement from chivalry after marrying Enide in Chrétien de Troyes’s well-known twelfth-century romance Erec et Enide.[3]

Desiré did as his beloved instructed him. He spent lavishly, gave many gifts, and performed many deeds of violence against men. He would return occasionally to his beloved and stay briefly with her. She had a son and daughter with him, but she never told him of the existence of these children. Fathers typically love their children dearly and want to have a meaningful relationship with them. Modern “child support” laws often reduce fathers to wallets in relation to their children. At least Desiré’s beloved didn’t send the child-support police after Desiré while denying him access to his children.

Nicholas Poussin, Sacrament of Penance

One day while heading to visit his beloved in the Blanche Lande, Desiré came upon the hermitage where a holy man lived. Desiré decided to confess his sins to him. Among other sins, he confessed to having sex outside of marriage with his beloved woman.[4] The holy man gave Desiré advice, imposed a penance, and absolved and blessed him. When Desiré mounted his horse to leave, he looked at his finger and realized that the ring his beloved had given him was gone. He was filled with sorrow and fear.

Desiré rushed to visit his beloved. But he couldn’t find her. Desiré’s beloved was a fairy-woman. She had magically taken her gold ring back from him. Desiré lamented:

I shall never again have joy or pleasure.
Alas, unhappy one, what have I done wrong?
I love you above all.
You are certainly not acting properly.
The hermit gave me confession.
He never spoke ill of you.
I asked for pardon from him for my sins.
If I haven’t done anything unreasonable,
beautiful one, don’t get angry.

{ Jamés n’avré [joie] ne hait;
Hai las! chaitif! qu’ai je mesfait?
Ja vos ain ge sor toute rien;
Certes ne fetes mie bin.
Li hermites me confessa;
Onques de vos n’i mesparla.
De mes pechiez li quis pardon;
Se je n’ai fet (a)autre reson
Bele, ne vos en courouciez }

Desiré and his beloved sinned by having sex outside of marriage. He knew this. The hermit, of course, didn’t blame her for their sexual relationship. But Desiré’s sin went beyond illicit sex. He declared to his beloved woman, “I love you above all {Ja vos ain ge sor toute rien}.” That’s a sin against love for God. Like so many men, Desiré had fallen into gyno-idolatry. He went so far as to declare to his beloved fairy-goddess:

Impose my penance on me.
What the hermit told me
and the fasting in which he instructed me,
at your pleasure I shall abandon them
and do your bidding.

{ Ma penitance m’enchargiez.
Ce que li hermites me dit,
Et les junes que li aprist,
A vostre plaisir les lairai,
Et vos commandemenz ferai. }

That’s like the Hebrews casting and worshiping a golden calf in the desert after God had led them out of slavery.[5] Men throughout history have been prone to gyno-idolatry. If a woman or a fairy-woman gets angry at a man for confessing to a priest his sexual sin with her, then she has no understanding of Moses’s fury and God’s mercy. Desiré’s sacrilege was even worse:

His heart was filled with sorrow,
and he roundly cursed the hermitage,
and likewise the hermit himself
he cursed repeatedly.
And the horse that had carried him there,
and himself for ever having spoken to him.
He cursed himself a great deal in a short time, saying
more than a hundred times that he should not remain there.
He lamented very greatly
and prayed more than a hundred times
that the whole place should be shamed
and consumed by hell-fire,
along with the hermit who lived there,
and the mouth with which he spoke,
and all those who had confessed to him
or who would ever speak to him.

{ Molt ert dolenz en son corage,
Durement maudit l’ermitage,
Et l’ermite tout ensement
Remaudit it assez sovent,
Et le cheval qui l’i parta,
Et soi quant onques i parla;
Molt se maudit em petit d’eure
Plus de .C. foiz qui’il n’i demeure.
Molt durement s’est dementé,
Et plus de .C. foiz a oré
Que trestot le lieu fust honniz,
Et que mau feus l’eüst bruïz,
Et l’ermite qu’il i trova,
Et la bouche dont il parla,
Toz ceus qui consenti li ont,
Ne qui jamés i parleront. }[6]

In short, Desiré became furiously, blasphemously insane. He returned to his home in Calder. There he languished seriously ill for more than a year. Everyone thought that he would die. The righteous God that most medieval Europeans worshiped might well have struck him down for his blasphemy.

One day while Desiré was in bed, his beloved came to him. She declared that she had hated him for a long time for his lack of discretion. She rationalized their sexual relationship:

It was not such a great sin.
I have never been married,
or engaged or promised,
and you have never had a wife.
I think you will regret this.
When you sought out confession,
I well knew that you would be losing me.
What use is it to confess a sin
if one cannot abandon it?

{ Ce ne fu pas si granz pechiez.
Je ne fui onques esousee,
Ne fianciee, ne juree.
Ne fame esplusee n’en as;
Je croi tu t’en repntiras.
Quant tu confession queroies,
Bien sai que do moi partiroies.
Que li pechiezvaut au gehir,
Que ne se puet mie partir? }

Human beings are rationalizing animals. In Christian understanding, sincerely intending to sin no more is sufficient to receive absolution in confession. Many persons confess the same sins over and over again. Christians must believe that with God all things are possible, including abandoning any sin.

In fact, Desiré was compelled to abandon his sexual sin. When his beloved fairy-woman took away her gold ring from him and disappeared, he couldn’t have sex with her. When she reappeared, she refused to have sex with him:

You have wronged me greatly,
but because I loved you so much,
I want to give you another chance.
You can see me each day,
laughing and sporting with you.
Renounce your grief!
But you certainly won’t have any more from me,
nor will you ever seek out confession.

{ Molt avez vers moi meserré;
Por ce que tant vos ai amé,
Vos veil fere tant de retor.
Veoir me porrez chascun jor
Ensemble o vos rire et joer.
Lessiez vostre dolor ester,
Mes ja certes plus n’i avrez,
Ne confession n’i querrez. }

Desiré was immediately restored to good health. He thanked her and kissed her. Then she departed. Although the fairy-woman apparently never confessed her sexual sin, she joined Desiré in church and took Eucharist with him. In the teaching of the medieval Christian church, her action probably wasn’t licit. At the level of everyday life, medieval Christians weren’t enmeshed in logic-chopping.

One day the fairy-woman arrived at the King of Scotland’s court. She brought with her Desiré’s son and daughter. She requested that the King make their son a knight and find a suitable spouse for their daughter. She also requested that she be married to her beloved Desiré. The King fulfilled all her requests. He himself married their daughter, despite the near consanguinity. Then Desiré and the fairy-woman departed to her fairy land. Apparently giving up fellowship with his knight-friends and the violence against men of chivalry, Desiré never returned to his father’s court.

The early thirteenth-century lai Desiré shows the sophistication and intricacy of medieval thinking about men’s gender position. While men are not merely dogs, men tend to be romantically simple. Men readily fall into gyno-idolatry. From a Christian perspective, gyno-idolatry is a more grievous sin than illicit sexual activity among never-married persons. After Desiré confessed his sexual sin, his beloved fairy-woman ensured that he sinned no more in that way. She, however, had tempted him to gyno-idolatry in his desperate attempt to regain her. Moreover, she led him away as a married man to her fairy land. Meninist literary critics find in that ending troubling questions.[7] So too should all readers with sensitivity to men’s lived experiences in relation to women.

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[1] Desiré, vv. 148-72, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). Burgess & Brook (2016) includes nearly the same faithful translation, but without the lineation and the corresponding Old French text.

The lai (lay) Desiré survives in two manuscripts. Burgess & Brook’s text and translation are based on MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, f. 72rb-77ra. Tobin (1976) is based on MS P: Cologny (Genève), Fondation Martin Bodmer, 82, f. 7vb-12va. “Dialect apart, the two versions are not greatly dissimilar.” Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 15. MS S is 48 verses longer. For a detailed analysis of the manuscript differences, id. pp. 14-6.

In the lais Graelent, Guingamor, Desiré, and Marie de France’s Lanval, a knight falls in love with a fairy. Desiré is the most structurally complex of these lais and is the one most implicated with Christianity. Smithers (1953) provides extensive, deadening structural analysis. Burgess & Brook (2007) pp. 13-4 provides a useful structural summary.

The supernatural women of the lais have been variously called a fay, fée, enchantress, and fairy mistress. Burgess and Brook, the leading authorities on lais, prefer the terms fée or fairy mistress. Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 17. I use the term fairy above for simplicity for a non-scholarly audience. The point at which Desiré realizes his beloved is a fairy isn’t clear.

Subsequent quotes above from Desiré are similarly sourced. They are from vv. 213-8 (“Beautiful one,” he said…), 231-55 (“Beloved,” she said…), 351-9 (I shall never again have joy…), 360-4 (Impose my penance on me…), 367-82 (His heart was filled with sorrow…), 420-8 (It was not such a great sin…), 437-44 (You have wronged me greatly…).

[2] The woman’s vagueness in commanding Desiré isn’t incidental. It’s “structurally crucial.” Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 28.

[3] Scholars have pointed to links between Desiré and Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain. For a review, Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 19. Perhaps the link to Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide has been too obvious for scholars to mention.

[4] A public ceremony and a priestly blessing wasn’t necessary to enact a Christian marriage in medieval Europe. A lavish special-day wedding banquet wasn’t required either. Pope Alexander III in 1181 declared that freely given, explicit consent and sexual intercourse established a marriage. However, Pope Innocent III early in the thirteenth-century made consent the only relevant factor. Trafford (1999) pp. 15-6. Cf. Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 37, n. 62. In practice, parents, particularly mothers, often had decisive influence. Desiré and his beloved fairy-woman agreed to be lovers, not spouses.

[5] Exodus 32.

[6] “One wonders if such an attack could have been written by a cleric.” Burgess & Brook (2007) p. 35. Medieval clerics effectively had much greater freedom of expression than do most scholars today. With respect to this specific lai, Desiré’s vicious rant against the hermit and against sacramental confession emphasizes his fall into gyno-idolatry.

[7] The story of the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 can raise troubling questions. Interpreted superficially, Jesus’s teaching there might be thought to mean that sinning more implies loving more, or that loving and sinning are equivalent. Christians throughout history surely wouldn’t regard such an interpretation as the best interpretation with respect to overall understanding of Jesus’s teachings. The interpretive difficulties of Luke 7:36-50 seem to me included in Desiré. That lai has sexual desire, sexual sin, and forgiveness as central, but not exclusive, themes.

[image] Jesus forgiving the sinful woman: Luke 7:36-50. Painting by Nicholas Poussin in 1647 for his Seven Sacraments series as the Sacrament of Penance. Preserved in the National Gallery of Scotland. Image via Web Gallery of Art.


Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

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

Smithers, Geoffrey V. 1953. “Story-Patterns in some Breton Lays.” Medium Ævum. 22 (2): 61-92.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976. Desiré. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de français médiéval, dernière révision le 20-6-2016.

Trafford, Claire de. 1999. The Contract of Marriage: the maritagium from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Ph.D. Thesis, School of History. University of Leeds.

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