Guillaume de Palerne’s medieval dream of gender equality in love

In the late-twelfth-century Old French adventure romance William of Palermo {Guillaume de Palerne}, Queen Felise and King Embron are relaxing in a garden in Palermo with their four-year-old son Guillaume. The king’s brother had conspired with nursemaids to have both the king and his son killed so that the brother could inherit the realm. But that day, a werewolf jumps into the garden, seizes Guillaume in his mouth, and runs away. It’s a male werewolf like the male dog Saint Guinefort. Guillaume de Palerne fundamentally challenges disparagement of males and men’s gender subordination in love.

Queen Felise is a traditional woman similar to the mother of the Arthurian hero Percival. Grief-stricken that a werewolf has seized her son, she screams over and over:

Help! Help! Holy Mary!
Household of the king, what are you doing?
I will kill myself now, if Guillaume isn’t rescued.

{ Aidiés, aidiés, sainte Marie
Maisnie au roi, que faites vous?
Ja me morrai, s’il n’est rescous. }[1]

Facing such emotional coercion, the king and many other men mount their horses and chase after the werewolf. Chasing werewolves is a dangerous job. The medieval Viking woman Svanhvita didn’t push onto men difficulty, dangerous jobs. Women today should reject sexist military conscription and insist that men be saved first from sinking ships.

Not regarding males as solely instrumental, Queen Felise appreciates male beauty. She laments:

Son, where are your beautiful eyes now,
so beautiful, gentle, and without pride,
your noble brow and your beautiful hair
that all seemed to be made of fine gold,
your tender face and your bright countenance?
Oh heart, why do you not go out from me?
Son, what has become of your beauty,
your noble body and your radiance,
your nose, your mouth, and your chin,
and your figure and your appearance,
your beautiful arms and white hands,
and your beautiful loins and hips,
your beautiful legs and your feet?
Woe is me, what grief and what failure.
Already you should have been made to be
for pleasure and for desire.
Now you are food for a werewolf!

{ Fix, ou sont ore ti bel oeil,
Li bel, li simple, sans orguel,
Tes frons li gens, et ti bel crin
Qui tuit sambloient fait d’or fin,
Ta tandre face et tes clers vis?
Ha! cuers, por coi ne me partis?
Qu’est devenue ta biautés
Et tes gens cors et ta clartés,
Tes nés, ta bouche et tes mentons
Et la figure et ta façons,
Et ti bel brac et tes mains blanches
Et tes rains beles et tes hanches,
Tes beles jambes et ti pié?
Lasse, quel duel et quel pechié!
Ja dévoies tu estre fais
Por devises et por souhais,
Or es a leu garoul peuture }[2]

In literary history, the “description of a beautiful young woman {descriptio puella}” is much more common that a description of a beautiful young man. But cherishing men’s physical being can help to end epic violence against men. Cherishing men’s physical being should be done more frequently.

Trojan Dolon wearing a wolf skin to spy on the Greeks at Troy

The male werewolf engages in typical paternal care for a child. He carries the child gently and ensures that the child is happy and fed. After running deeply into a forest, the male werewolf digs a den, lines it with grass and ferns and reeds, and places the child gently within. He embraces the child. But like fathers compelled to earn money outside the home to support their families, the male werewolf has to leave the child to search for food.

When the child hears a dog barking, he is afraid and cries out loudly. A cowherd hears the child crying and runs to him. He finds the child alone. Like the male werewolf, the male cowherd engaged in typical paternal care:

He bends down toward the child and calls to him.
He much cajoles and caresses him.
So sweetly does he appeal to him
that away he went with the king’s son.
The cowherd picks him up in his arms
and then he leaves quickly.
To his house he returned.

{ Vers lui s’abaisse et si l’apele;
Mult le blandist et afavele.
Tant doucement l’atrait a soi
C’o lui s’en vait li fix le roi.
Et cil entre ses bras le prent.
A tant s’en vait isnelement,
A sa maison est revenus }

The cowherd and his wife didn’t have any children. They are delighted to adopt the little boy Guillaume.

When the male werewolf returns with meat for the child, he finds the den empty. The werewolf shrieks and howls like a father deprived of custody of his children through family-court discrimination against fathers. Enraged, he assiduously sniffs and searches and follows the child’s scent. He finds Guillaume in the house of the cowherd and his wife. They are caring for the child lovingly. The male werewolf selflessly prefers for Guillaume to have a father and mother rather than a single father who is a werewolf. Oh how great is fathers’ love for their children!

ferocious werewolf

Under the cowherds’ care, Guillaume grows virtuous and tall, noble and beautiful. His foster-father loves him and teaches him how to herd animals and hunt with bow and arrow. One day, the Roman Emperor Nathaniel is hunting in the woods. He sees the werewolf chasing a stag, just as Aeneas’s son Iulus did. Then Emperor Nathaniel comes across Guillaume in the woods. He marvels at the boy’s noble appearance. After Nathaniel swears that he means to do no harm to Guillaume’s father, Guillaume brings the cowherd to him. The cowherd explains the boy’s history. Emperor Nathaniel wants to take the boy with him. The cowherd grieves and cries, but he has to acquiesce to the Emperor’s request. Guillaume thus goes from the household of cowherds to the palace of the Roman Emperor.

Emperor Nathaniel initially uses Guillaume like a hunting prize. As fathers commonly do, Nathaniel seeks to please his daughter:

The emperor has a daughter
who is called Melior.
Never before was anyone born of woman
more beautiful or more wise.
She is about the same age
as Guillaume might well be.
She is very courtly and honest,
full of generosity and honor.
So you see the emperor
gives the child to her as a present.

{ L’emperere une fille avoit
Qui Meliors fu apelee;
Mais ainc ne fu de mere nee
Nule plus bele ne plus sage.
Et meisme de tel aage
Com Guillaumes pooit bien estre;
Mult par fu cortoise et honeste,
Plaine de francise et d’ounor.
A tant es vos l’empereor
Qui de l’enfant li fait present }[3]

Melior is delighted with this gift:

Then she takes the child and leads him
into her own personal chamber.
She has some garments brought to her
and has him dressed and outfitted.
When he is appareled in clothing
and garbed in shoes and hose to her liking,
now so courtly and very handsome
and savvy is the young man
that one would not find his equal
in beauty or appearance
under the brightness of the sun.

{ Puis prent l’enfant et si l’enmaine
En la soie chambre demaine;
Uns dras li a fait aporter,
Sel fait vestir et conreer.
Quant des dras fu apareilliés
Et a sa guise fu chauciés.
Or fu si gens et si trés biax
Et si apers li damoisiax
C’on ne recovrast son pareil
Desos la clarté du soleil
De sa biauté, de sa samblance. }

Melior and Guillaume are about eleven years old. A real, live eleven-year-old boy is a far better present for a girl than any doll. Nonetheless, men and boys should not be given to woman and girls as presents like inanimate things — like marvelous pens or balls. In the late-twelfth-century Old French romance Partonopeu of Blois, Melior is a Byzantine Empress who set up the boy Partonopeu to rape her and become her husband. This Melior treats Guillaume better than that Melior.[4]

Guillaume serves Melior superbly as a personal attendant. By age fourteen, he has become renowned for his character and skills:

The young man grows well and
becomes strong and very handsome,
and robust and well-formed and beautiful.
In the chamber he is marvelously good.
Because of his nobility and his valor,
the young women above all others
bestow on him much very great honor.

{ Forment crut et bien embarni
Et devint gens li damoisiax.
Et fors et aformés et biax.
De la chambre est merveilles bien;
Les puceles sor tote rien,
Por sa franchise et sa valor
Li portent mult trés grant honor. }

Melior falls in love with Guillaume even though he is merely her outstanding servant. What woman wouldn’t? Yet like many women, Melior is reluctant to take the initiative to tell her beloved of her love for him. Men throughout history have been gender-burdened with soliciting amorous relationships. To promote gender equality, women must take the initiative in loving men.

Like many men today, Guillaume de Palerne dreams of true gender equality in love. He sees in his dream a beautiful young woman come to him. She is sad and tearful. She says to him:

Beloved, beloved, look at me.
Here I have come before you.
Open your arms, receive my body.
I am the beautiful Melior
who is pleading for your mercy and begging
that you make me your beloved.
To your nobility I wholly abandon
my body for your service and mine.
Receive my love without opposition,
because otherwise without long delay
I will die, for I won’t be able to live
if I don’t have your love, and you don’t have mine.

{ Amis, amis, regarde moi.
Ci sui venue devant toi:
Oevre tes bras, reçoif mon cors;
Je sui la bêle Meliors
Qui merci te requiert et prie
Que tu de moi faces t’amie,
Tôt t’abandon en ta francise
Mon cors au tien et mon servise.
Reçoif m’amor sans contredit,
Car autrement sans lonc respit
Morrai, que vivre ne porroie,
Se n’ai t’amoret tu la moie. }

He kisses her mouth, nose, eyes and face, and her neck and her breasts. He presses his naked flesh to her naked flesh. Men tend to be romantically simple. Guillaume is embracing his pillow. He has a dream. How long, oh proponents of social justice? Men cry for gender equality, but you do not listen. Yet the dream still has its time. It presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint, if humanity is to endure.

When he realizes that he’s been merely dreaming, Guillaume feels great despair. He’s like a despairing meninist literary critic that anti-meninist haters seek to kill:

Thus he makes a comparison of himself
and says: “I resemble the wild boar.
When he sees the lance turn toward him,
he heads straight that way.
So he hurls himself onto the spit,
as does one who doesn’t fear death.
The lance completely pierces his entrails
and separates his heart from his chest,
and he drops dead elsewhere.
It’s just the same with me.
Onto the lance and onto the spit,
so I have killed myself for sure.

{ Ains fait de soi comparison
Et dist: “Je semble le sengler:
Quant voit l’espiel vers lui torner,
Droit cele part aqeut sa voie;
Si se fiert dedens et embroie,
Si comme cil qui mort ne doute,
Que l’entraille li perce toute
Et le cuer del ventre li part,
Que mors trebuche d’autre part.
Tot autresi est il de moi:
En l’espiel sui et el embroi;
Si m’oci tôt a essient.” }

Guillaume in this metaphor is as foolish as Suero de Quinones or Don Quixote. The great ninth-century gardener Walahfrid Strabo envisioned the beauty and fruitfulness of love. Men’s love for women should not drive them to suicide. Despair loses.

Every day Guillaume sits hidden under an apple tree in a garden below the window of Melior’s bedchamber. For fifteen days he languishes there in lovesickness. Then Melior, suffering from lovesickness herself, seeks comfort in her garden. She goes there with her most trusted and most wise servant-woman Alixandrine. Alixandrine spots Guillaume hidden under the apple tree. Both Alixandrine and Melior go to him. Melior greets him, “God bless you, sweet beloved {Diex vox beneie, amis dous}.” Guillaume hears Melior calling him “beloved {amis}.” That word can also mean merely “friend.” He’s puzzled. Alixandrine speaks to him and discerns his lovesickness for Melior. She begs Melior to be kind to Guillaume and save his life.

Melior evidently believes that men’s lives matter. Moreover, she is lovesick for Guillaume. So she does as more women should do, except that she first addresses Alixandrine as if it weren’t more fitting for her to speak directly to Guillaume:

She looks at him sweetly
and says: “Lovely woman, as God is watching me,
I would not want to be
the murderer of him or any other,
nor a sinner in such a manner.
Because of you and because of your prayer
and for him whom I see in such peril,
before he dies for me in this way,
I grant him all my love and myself.
Let this never again be in doubt.”
And she says to him: “Beloved, come forward,
for I am yours from this moment forward.
I am entirely yours and want to be,
without seigniorial authority and without pride.”

{ Cele li fait un douc regart
Et dist: “Bele, se Diex me gart,
Je ne voudroie pas de lui
Estre homecide ne d’autrui
Ne pecheresse en tel maniere;
Por vos et por vostre proiere
Et por lui qu’en tel péril voi
N’ains qu’il ensi muire por moi,
Moi et m’amor li otroi toute;
Ja mar en sera mais en doute.”
Et dist: “Amis, venés avant,
Car vostre sui d’ore en avant;
Vostre sui toute et estre vuel,
Sans signorie et sans orguel.” }

Guillaume is delighted that Melior loves him and doesn’t expect him to be subordinate to her in love. More men deserve such love.[5]

The werewolf, who acted as a caring father to Guillaume and later a loyal friend to him and Melior, appreciates Guillaume’s dream of gender equality in love. After prevailing in horrific violence against men, Guillaume marries Melior. He also learns that the werewolf is Alphonse, the son of the king of Spain. Alphonse’s stepmother Queen Brande had turned him into a werewolf to prevent him from inheriting his father’s realm. Guillaume threatens Brande with brutal death if she doesn’t turn Alphonse back into a man. She thus does. Alphonse then marries Guillaume’s sister Florence “as equal, as wife, and as companion {a per, a feme et a compaigne}.” As that marriage vow indicates, Alphonse also aspires to Guillaume’s dream of gender equality in love.

The medieval adventure romance Guillaume de Palerne shows the ideal of gender equality in love carried forward from ancient Greek novels such as Daphnis and Chloe to medieval works such as Floire and Blancheflor. However, even in the relatively enlightened medieval period, the ideal of gender equality in love wasn’t fully realized. Elite medieval men suffered a nine-year life expectancy shortfall relative to elite medieval women. Medieval men lacked the parental knowledge that medieval women naturally had. Medieval men were thus susceptible to being involuntarily cuckolded. Since police states were not yet developed, medieval men effectively had some reproductive rights. However, they could still be burdened with state-enforced involuntary fatherhood. Men endure even more oppressive gender inequality today. True gender equality in love remains a dream.

* * * * *

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[1] William of Palermo {Guillaume de Palerne}, vv. 96-8, Old French text from Michelant (1876), English translation (modified slightly) from Sconduto (2004). Guillaume de Palerne probably was composed between 1194 and 1197. Id. p. 4. Sconduto’s translation, which is quite faithful, is based mainly on Micha (1990). Micha’s edition doesn’t differ substantively from Michelant (1876) in the passages quoted in this post. Wilmot-Buxton (1910), pp. 56-75, provides excerpts from Guillaume de Palerne in loose English prose paraphrase. Those excerpts don’t convey the romance’s concern for gender equality in love.

Guillaume de Palerne survives in one thirteenth-century manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Arsenal, 6565, folios 77-157. That manuscript also contains the only surviving text of Jean Renart’s Romance of the Kite {Li roumans de l’escouffle}, composed about 1200. The kite is a bird of prey. Despite Guillaume de Palerne itself surviving in only one manuscript, McKeehan (1926) characterizes this romance as a medieval “best seller.”

In the thirteenth century, an unknown poet made a Middle English alliterative verse translation of Guillaume de Palerne. That translation is known as William of Palerne. For an edition, Skeat (1876). The Old French Guillaume de Palerne includes graphic representations of brutal violence against men:

The {men} warriors hew and slice each other apart; they pierce each other’s flesh and expose and remove internal organs so that

Brains, entrails, and intestines
are spread all over the meadow.

{ Cerviax, entrailles et boieles
Espandent par la praerie. }(Guillaume de Palerne, vv. 1908-9)

The {men} warriors mar each other to the point that individuals {individual men} become unrecognizable corpses lost in a mélange of blood and guts.

Ward (2015) p. 472 (modified non-substantially). The Middle English verse translation eliminated such graphic representations. The Middle English poet apparently translated Guillaume de Palerne to cater to the social and political interests of this translation’s patron, Humphrey IX de Bohun, sixth Earl of Hereford and eleventh Earl of Essex. Id. pp. 471-2. Social and political interests commonly efface men’s gender in violence against men.

Guillaume de Palerne has also survived in a variety of other adaptations. Four editions of Pierre Durand’s Middle French prose adaptation, composed in the first half of the sixteenth century, were published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sconduto (2004) p. 2.

Subsequent quotes from Guillaume de Palerne are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 135-51 (Son, where are your beautiful eyes now…), 209-15 (He bends down toward the child…), 648-57 (The emperor has a daughter…), 703-13 (Then she takes the child and leads him…), 810-16 (The young man grows well…), 1133-44 (Beloved, beloved, look at me…), 1254-65 (Thus he makes a comparison of himself…), 1464 (God bless you, sweet beloved), 1689-1702 (She looks at him sweetly…), 8770 (as equal, as wife, and as companion).

[2] This description of a young boy’s beauty begins with what’s known as the “where are {ubi sunt}” motif. That motif typically concerns the transience of life. An influential early medieval instance is “Ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manent {Where now does the bone of faithful Fabricius abide}?” From Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy {De consolatione philosophiae} 2.M7, incipit “The one who seeks precipitously only / for glory, believing in his heart it to be highest {quicumque solam mente praecipiti petit / summumque credit gloriam},” v. 15, Latin text of O’Donnell via Perseus, my English translation. For further classical examples of the “ubi sunt” formula, Bright (1893).

A penitential hymn dating to no later than the mid-thirteenth century transmited the “ubi sunt” motif to what has become a common commencement song. The relevant stanza from a Parisian manuscript begins, “Where are those who came before us in this world {Ubi sunt qui ante nos in hoc mundo fuerer}?” Randolph (1912) p. 296. That stanza was incorporated into the song now known as “Let us rejoice {Gaudeamus igitur}” or “On the brevity of life {De brevitate vitae}.”

Guillaume’s beauty is understood as indicating his noble origins even thought he worked as a cowherd. The narrator declares, “Nature proves itself in certain persons {auques se prueve nature}.” Guillaume de Palerne, v. 731. That’s a theme of the romance:

In the debate in medieval literature between nature and nurture, the poet clearly positions himself on the side of the former and agrees with the proverb, “Meulz vaut nature que nurreture” (“Nature takes precedence over upbringing”).

Sconduto (2004) p. 30, n. 16, citing proverb 1273 in Morawski (1925). Cf. the twelfth-century Old French Roman de Silence.

[3] Cf. Luke 7:28, Matthew 11:11 (“among those born of women” there is no one greater than John the Baptist).

[4] On the “intertextual game of romance” in Guillaume de Palerne, Hodgson (2015).

[5] Guillaume de Palerne shows more concern about one woman being forced to marry against her will than many men being killed. Alphonse, the King of Spain, sought to marry Guillaume’s sister Florence. When Florence and her mother Queen Felise of Sicily refused that marriage proposal, King Alphonse invaded Sicily. Under Guillaume’s leadership, the Sicilian men defeated the Spanish men. Many men were killed in this war. In seeking peace, King Alphonse declared:

We have made ourselves a gift to her,
so she can do with us all she pleases.
Cursed be he who takes a wife
when he takes her against her will!
When one takes her by her desire
and by the approval of other people,
and he does for her as best her can,
then has he not done all that is necessary?

{ De nos li avons fait douaire,
Si em puet tot son plaisir faire.
Moilliers’a prendre ait mal dehé
C’on prent outre sa volenté!
Quant on par son voloir la prent
Et par le los de l’autre gent,
Et on li fait au mix c’on puet,
N’en a on pas ce qu’en estuet. }

Guillaume de Palerne, vv. 7173-80. Wives should also do for husbands as best they can. It is also necessary that women and men to speak out vigorously against epic violence against men.

King Alphonse’s son, also named Alphonse, said nothing about the massive violence against men that his father instigated. The son, however, castigated his father for seeking a bride against her will:

You did a very great wrong
when by force you wanted to have
the young woman against her will.

{ Mult fu grande la desraisons
Quant par force voliés avoir
La pucele outre son voloir. }

Guillaume de Palerne, vv. 8056-8. Massive violence against men must be recognized as a very great wrong.

[images] (1) The Trojan Dolon wearing a wolf skin to spy on the Greeks at Troy. Painting on Attic red-figure lekythos made in 460 BGC. Preserved as accession # CA 1802 in the Louvre Museum (Paris, France). Source image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011) and Wikimedia Commons. Odysseus and Diomedes discovered and killed Dolon. In contrast, Melior and Guillaume put on bear skins and deer skins in successfully eloping from Rome. On animal skins in Guillaume de Palerne, McCracken (2012). (2) Ferocious werewolf. Drawing thanks to LadyofHats and Wikimedia Commons.


Bright, James W. 1893. “The ‘Ubi Sunt’ Formula.” Modern Language Notes. 8 (3): 187-188.

Hodgson, Eleanor. 2015. Reflections of Writing Rewriting and Reading in Twelfth-Century French Literature: A Study of Guillaume De Palerne As a Self-Reflexive Romance. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Sheffield, UK.

McCracken, Peggy. 2012. “Skin and sovereignty in Guillaume de Palerne.” Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes. 24: 361-375.

McKeehan, Irene Pettit. 1926. “Guillaume de Palerne: A Medieval ‘Best Seller.’PMLA. 41 (4): 785–809.

Micha, Alexandre, ed. 1990. Guillaume de Palerne: Roman du XIIIe Siècle. Genève: Droz.

Michelant, Henri Victor, ed. 1876. Guillaume de Palerne: Publié d’après le Manuscrit de la Bibliothèque de L’arsenal à Paris. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

Morawski, Joseph, ed. 1925. Proverbes Français Antérieurs au XVe Siècle. Paris: É. Champion.

Randolph, Charles B. 1912. “Three Latin Students’ Songs.” The Classical Journal. 7 (7): 291–305.

Sconduto, Leslie A. 2004. Guillaume de Palerne: An English Translation of the 12th Century French Verse Romance. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. 1867. The Romance of William of Palerne (Otherwise Known as the Romance of “William and the Werwolf”). London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society by N. Trübner.

Ward, Renée. 2015. “Politics of Translation: Sanitizing Violence in William of Palerne.” Studies in Philology. 112 (3): 469-489.

Wilmot-Buxton, E. M. 1910. Stories from Old French Romance. New York: F.A. Stokes.

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