medieval counselor courageously advised king

Advisors telling a leader something she doesn’t want to hear can harm the advisors’ status and remuneration. Nonetheless, for advisors to add value to a leader’s decision-making, they must not merely flatter the leader and tell her what she wants to hear. This fundamental principle has been known in the consulting business at least since Aristotle advised Alexander the Great, sometimes unsuccessfully. A thirteenth-century Old French romance stated this principle explicitly through the words of a medieval counselor advising the king of France.

The king of France received a beautiful young man as a messenger. The king greeted the messenger and welcomed him with a kiss. The king later learned that the messenger came from a vassal-king with a message to kill the messenger. In medieval European culture, killing a messenger was regarded as dishonorable. So too was killing a person whom one had kissed in friendship. The king asked the counts of Blois, Nevers, and Clermont for advice on what he should do to the messenger.

Mary goes to her dormition

The counselor counts debated the matter among themselves. Because he was the oldest, the count of Blois spoke first. Spouting proverbs such as “one good turn deserves another {uns bezoins altre requiert},” Blois proposed giving the messenger a forty-day reprieve on account of the kiss and then executing him. The count of Nevers agreed with this proposal. The count of Clermont, however, argued strongly that preserving the king’s honor required that he not harm the messenger. Blois and Nevers agreed with Clermont’s reasoning, but worried that Clermont’s advice wasn’t what the king wanted to hear.

sword to the mouth reveals true intentions

Clermont insisted that proper conduct was to give the king the best advice even if that wasn’t the advice the king wanted to hear. Clermont explained to Blois and Nevers:

My good lords, I have never said
that the king cannot act as he sees fit,
despite my considered opinion.
Even after I have given him
the best advice I know,
he can still do just as he wishes.
Is there then any reason to keep silent
about proper counsel, if he requests it?
By faith, no! If he asks for it,
I’m duty bound to give him sound advice,
and then let him act as befits a king!
Were I tormented by the very Devil,
I would still discharge my duty
to my lord, whom I should love,
since he asked me in good faith!
If I always tell him the best action to take,
it’s not my fault if he takes the worst.
Even if I incur the king’s displeasure,
I will not stray at any price from the right path,
as far as I can determine it.

{ Biel segnor, cho ne di jo mie
Que li rois ne puist faire bien
Trestolt son plaisir malgré mien.
Mais puis que dit li averai
Al miols que dire li sarai,
Puet il faire tolt son plaisir.
Doi li jo donc por cho taisir
Consel de droit, s’il le demande?
Nenil, par foi! s’il le conmande,
Consel li doi doner et dire,
Et puis si face comme sire!
Ja diäbles tant ne m’esmarge
Que jo del tolt ne me descarge
Viers mon segnor, cui amer doi,
Quant conjuré m’avra en foi!
Se jo li di le miols tols dis,
Quel blasme i ai s’il fait le pis?
Encor li soit il contrecuer,
Nen istrai del droit a nul fuer
Por cho que g’i puissce assener. }

Too many men remain silent when they are asked for their opinion. When they speak, too many men say what they think their leader wants to hear, especially if their leader is a woman. Much evil results from silence and conforming advice to dominant interests.

medieval advisors

Meninist literary criticism insists on men speaking frankly about women and to women in literary study. Men’s silence deserves part of the blame for gross injustices against men. But meninist literary critics aren’t doctrinaire. If a meninist literary critic’s wife or girlfriend asks him if she looks fat, well, that’s a wholly different matter!

* * * * *

Read more:


The above quotes are from The Romance of Silence {Le roman de Silence} by Heldris of Cornwall {Heldris de Cornuälle} vv. 4559 (one good turn deserves another) and 4692-4711 (My good lords, I have never said…), Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Roche-Mahdi (1992). This romance was composed in the second half of the thirteenth century. It survives in one manuscript: Nottingham, University Library, Mi LM 6, f. 189r-223v, written in the thirteenth century.

[images] (1) Mary the mother of Jesus goes to her death (Dormition). Illumination on folio 17 of the Hunterian Psalter, a manuscript produced in England about 1170. Preserved as Glasgow University Library MS Hunter 229 (U.3.2). (2) Sword piercing the mouth of a man. Cf. Hebrews 4:12. Decorated initial on folio 127 of the Hunterian Psalter. (3) Two men advisor-evangelists. Decorated initial on folio 154v of the Hunterian Psalter.


Roche-Mahdi, Sarah, ed. and trans. 1992. Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *