Esmerée courageously offered healing to lovesick Galeran

Like Floire and Blancheflor, Galeran of Brittany and Fresne of Normandy grew up together in a medieval French abbey as if they were brother and sister. They actually were born from different parents. They came to love each other in the way of woman and man who desire to be one. They pledged eternal love to each other and mutually promised to marry when the time was suitable. Fresne and Galeran, however, lost contact as young adults. Compassionately recognizing Galeran lovesickness, the beautiful, noble young woman Esmerée offered to have sex with him.

Esmerée’s healing initiative occurred in the the court of her father, Duke Heliman of Metz. Galeran had become Count of Brittany and a highly respected young man. He went to Metz to earn knighthood from Duke Heliman. Galeran, however, was gravely lovesick for Fresne. Courtiers at Metz speculated that Galeran was in love with Esmerée, the duke’s daughter. Esmerée herself ardently loved Galeran. But she was reluctant to forego traditional female privilege in seeking amorous relationships:

medieval woman rejecting man in love

“In the end it’s necessary for me to reveal,”
said Esmerée to herself,
“to Galeran what I am thinking,
because it’s good to seek to be healthy.
How? Do you therefore want to request
the Breton’s love first of all?
For all my days that would give me in front
of all such unpleasantness and such shame.
Well, so what? It doesn’t matter to anyone
if I should happen to make myself a fool.
And I don’t have control over myself,
for Love so dominates me and judges me,
in the place of me let Love be accused
and let Love be proceeded to rebuke.
If I fail to escape my misery,
abandoned to my wicked pride,
I will keep making a wicked mistake.
So I should tell him, in order to be wise.
But if he would be so outrageous
that he would not want to receive my love,
all the shame will accrue to him.
It wouldn’t be exchanged to me.
Then I would be his lover
and he would love me better than another.
So I leave it to Love and to him.”
The young woman thus analyzed her situation.
Hence she was made to say her desire by the power
of the love that burned her and pricked her.

{ “En la fin m’estuet il ouvrir,”
Fait Esmeree en son pouppens,
“A Galeren ce que je pens,
Car la santé est bonne a querre.
Comment? Veulx tu doncques requerre
Le Breton d’amours tout avant?
Tousjours mes te seroit davant
Mis ytel ledure et tel honte.
Cui chaut, puisqu’a nulli ne monte
Fors a moy si je faz folie?
Et quant je n’ay de moy baillie,
Qu’Amours me mestroie et justise,
En lieu de moy en soit reprise
Et seue en soit la reprouvance.
S’issir hors de ma mesestance
Lessoie par maulvés orgueil,
Gardé avroye en maulvés fueil.
Se li dy, pour ce seray sage.
Mais s’il a en li tant d’oultrage
Que recevoir m’amour ne veille
Toute la honte l’en accueille;
Qu’a moy ne vendra elle mie.
Puis que je seroie s’amie
Et il ameroit mielx autruy:
Si le les Amour et a luy.”
Ainsi devise la pucelle.
Ce li fait dire l’estencelle
De s’amour qui l’eschaufe et point. }[1]

If a man solicits love from a woman who doesn’t welcome his amorous advance, then he’s a shameful sexual harasser. If a woman solicits love from a man, and he rejects her, he acts shamefully. If she then falsely accuses him of attempted rape, who expresses concern within gynocentric society? Esmerée understood these pressing concerns of social justice. She thus resolved to tell Galeran of her love for him.

Esmerée’s mother, the Duchess of Metz, was very fond of Galeran. She called him her son. She also often summoned him to visit her. She would have him sit by Esmerée as she and Esmerée entertained him. The noble and charming Esmerée provided warm and enjoyable company. She would raise Galeran’s spirit and soothe his broken heart.

One day, seeking to lift his depression and divert his heart, Galeran visited Esmerée. The lovesick Galeran was sad and pensive. Esmerée was attentive to him. She took a chaplet off her head and lovingly arranged it on his head. Then she gazed directly into his eyes and said:

Galeran, brother, it is my opinion,
as a young woman secretly makes,
that you have under the armpit
a hidden wound by which you hurt,
where it doesn’t have use of an opening,
that is you have a wound without a hole.
Not known by urine tester or by inquiry,
your illness apart from your complexion is hidden.
If you feel pain in your heart
that is causing you grief by being hidden,
you should very well uncover it
and show it where you believe
that you might find relief for your malady.
Tell me if you see what I am saying to you.

{ Galeren, frere, il m’est avis,
Fait priveement la pucelle,
Que vous estes dessouz l’esselle
D’une plaie bleciez oscure,
Ou il ne pert point d’ouverture;
Ainz avez playe sans pertuis.
Congnoistre n’oriner ne ruis
Voustre mal fors a la couleur.
Se vous sentez au cuer douleur
Qui vous voist grevant par covrir,
Vous la devez moult bien ouvrir
Et moustrer la dont vous cuidiez
De vostre mahaign estre aidiez.
Dictes moy si je vous dy voir. }[2]

An intelligent and active young woman, Esmerée of course didn’t consider herself to be merely a hole. But she understood what men need to be cured of lovesickness.[3]

Galeran understood that Esmerée wanted to be his lover. But Galeran had given his heart to Fresne. Esmerée’s words made him dream of being with Fresne. Esmerée realized that she needed to be more direct. Not asking for his affirmative consent, she embraced Galeran. Then she said:

Galeran, brother,
have toward me a bright face.
If you don’t hold me to be presumptuous,
I am totally at your command
in order to free you of this malady.

{ Galeren, frere,
Aiez vers moy la chiere clere.
Si ne me tenez a estoute,
Si je suis en vo commant toute
Pour vous oster de ce mahaign. }

Galeran courteously responded that no medicine could cure him of his wound. Galeran didn’t believe in universal medicine. Only Fresne could heal his wound.

Esmerée was disappointed with Galeran’s lack of interest in well-established medicine. Nonetheless, she treated him with respect and continuing compassion. She told him:

Then I was foolish to think to heal you.
Doing that was like wanting to drink the sea
— when I took on the suffering of loving you —
and nonetheless I want to love you.
I won’t desist on account of your haughtiness,
because to love well one must be humble.
Since I am beyond my own power,
and I have placed myself entirely in yours,
I will minister to your nobleness
until it accepts and consents
to where I have turned my desire.

{ Donc ay je eü fol cuidier.
Fait celle, et vueil boire la mer,
Quant je met peine a vous amer.
Et ne pourquant amer vous vueil,
Ja ne leray pour voustre orgueil,
Car qui bien ayme il se humilie.
Puis que hors suis de ma baillie,
Et en vous me suis du tout mise,
Je verrai vostre gentillise
Tant qu’elle s’acort et assente
La ou j’ay tournée m’entente. }

In short, she didn’t take no for an answer. No, however, was the enduring answer. Galeran continued to treat Esmerée respectfully, but he never allowed himself to be her lover, no matter how lovesick he felt for the absent Fresne.

medieval woman offering her heart to a man

From their commanding position in medieval society, medieval women had compassion for men. Not only striving to cure men of lovesickness, medieval women slayed monsters for men. Medieval women defended their men from devilish castration. When their beloved men were in love with another woman, medieval women acted with extraordinarily generous love. In medieval society, women and men venerated Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the fully and no more than human brilliant example of merciful and generous love. Modern societies cannot aspire to restore such love instantaneously. A good start, however, would be for more persons to study and appreciate the courage, initiative, and generosity of Esmerée in love for Galeran.

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[1] Jean Renaut, Galeran of Brittany {Galeran de Bretagne} vv. 4498-525, Old French text from Foulet (1925), my English translation, benefiting from that Beston (2008a). For a summary of this romance, Barrow (1924) pp. 131-2 (where it’s titled Galerent), and Beston (2008b).

Nothing is known about Jean Renaut other than what can be inferred from Galeran de Bretagne, his only known work. Jean Renaut is now generally regarded to be a different person than Jean Renart.

Jean Renaut is thought to have composed Galeran de Bretagne at the end of the twelfth century or at the beginning of the thirteenth century. This romance survives in only one manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français 24042, written in the fifteenth century.

Jean Renaut’s romance Galeran de Bretagne shares central structures with Marie de France’s lay Le Fresne. Both involve female twins that are separated at at birth and who as young women love the same young man. The discovery of identity and resulting marriage is similarly structured in both works. Jean Renaut, however, emphasizes disparity in rank as an obstacle to marriage and Christian moral teaching much more so than does Marie de France. Beston (2008a) p. 5.

In Galeran de Bretagne, Guinant, the Duke of Austria, ardently loved Esmerée. She, however, wasn’t interested in him. Jealous of Esmerée’s love for Galeran, Guinant instigated horrific violence against men, including against Galeran. A modern scholar declared:

Modern narrative art would either reject the Esmerée-Guynant episode altogether and rely for its contribution to the theme upon the Fleurie episode, or condense it and give it greater dynamic plot value.

Barrow (1924) p. 73. Violence against men is regrettably conventional in epic and medieval romance. In her specific references to Galeran’s wound and its cure, Esmerée’s concern for Galeran’s lovesickness isn’t conventional. Barrow, Beston, and many others haven’t adequately appreciated Esmerée in Galeran de Bretagne.

Another Old French romance from the early 1170s witnesses to men’s gender burden in soliciting amorous relationships. The matter concerns Ille (a man) and Galeron (a woman):

Ille did not know that she loved him,
nor did Galeron know that he loved her,
for she was of so very high rank
that he did not dare reveal his love for her,
and she would not reveal her love to him
first for anything that was,
because it’s not fitting for a woman to say
“I want to be your lover”
if a man has not previously requested her love
and spent a long time in her service.

{ ne Illes nel set de celi,
ne Galerons que cil aint li,
car cele est si tres haute cose
que cil descouvrir ne li ose,
n’ele ne li descoverroit
premierement por rien qui soit,
qu’il n’afiert pas que feme die
“Je voel devenir vostre amie,”
por c’on ne l’ait ançois requise
et mout esté en son service. }

Gautier d’Arras, Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron}, vv. 1217-26, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Eley (1996).

Subsequent quotes from Galeran de Bretagne are similarly sourced. The three subsequent quotes above are from Galeran de Bretagne, vv. 4558-571 (Galeran, brother, it is my opinion…), 4581-85 (Galeran, brother, / have toward me a bright face…), 4598-608 (Then I was foolish to think to heal you…).

[2] Examining a patient’s urine was a common practice in ancient medicine. At the abbey of Beauséjour, where Fresne and Galeran were raised, the chaplain Lohier observed Fresne lovesick and declared:

The heart doesn’t have what it wants.
Your complexion witnesses this to me.
I see your maladies and your pains
like one sees them in the urine.

{ Le cuer n’a mie ce qu’il veult,
Ce me tesmoigne vo couleurs:
Je voy les maulx et les douleurs
Aussi com en voit en l’orine }

Galeran de Bretagne, vv. 1458-61. Fresne confessed to Lohier that she was lovesick for Galeran. She said that he loves her more than Paris loved Helen, and that she loves him more than Yseult ever loved Tristan. Fresne insisted that she hadn’t done any serious wrong. She declared that she hadn’t delivered her body to shame and dishonored herself. She meant that she didn’t have sex with Galeran even though she loved him and they planned to marry.

[3] Beston characterizes Jean Renaut as “conservative and deeply religious in orthodox Christian terms.” Beston (2008c) p. 214. Such persons in westernized countries today wouldn’t speak so frankly about men’s sexual needs. Persons of different viewpoints spoke relatively freely in medieval Europe.

[images] (1) Medieval woman rejecting man’s love offering. Illustration from instance of Richard de Fournival’s thirteenth-century Way of Love {Commens d’amour}. Detail from folio 7r of Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon, MS 526, made early in the fourteenth century. (2) Medieval woman offering her heart to a man. Illumination on folio 59r of the Alexander Romance in Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, pt. I. A scribe wrote this leaf in Picardian French, the dialect of Flanders, in 1338. The Tournai illuminator Jehan de Grise and his atelier illustrated it in 1344.


Barrow, Sarah F. 1924. The Medieval Society Romances. New York: Columbia University Press.

Beston, John, trans. 2008a. An English Translation of Jean Renaut’s Galeran de Bretagne, a Thirteenth-Century French Romance. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Beston, John. 2008b. “Une bele conjointure: the structure of Galeran de Bretagne.” Neophilologus. 92 (1): 19-33.

Beston, John. 2008c. “Galeran de Bretagne: Between Romance and Realism.” Neophilologus. 92 (2): 205-215.

Eley, Penny, ed. and trans. 1996. Gautier d’Arras. Ille et Galeron. London: King’s College London Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies.

Foulet, Lucien, ed. 1925. Jean Renaut. Galeran de Bretagne: Roman du XIIIe Siècle.. Paris: É. Champion. Alternate source.

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