medieval hero Ille shows problem of men’s self-esteem

Men historically have been burdened with the necessity of achieving in order to be regarded as a man. In fact, the Latin word for demonstrated merit, “virtue,” is formed from the word for man, “vir.”[1] Men historically couldn’t merely declare that they identify as a man. Men had to “prove” their manliness. What proof is sufficient? Even such a distinguished man as the medieval hero Ille in Gautier d’Arras’s late-twelfth-century romance Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron} struggled with low self-esteem. Through their courageous initiative, women who loved Ille helped him to understand his intrinsic worth as a man. Women today should likewise affirm men’s intrinsic virtue.

Ille suffered trauma as a child in Brittany. When he was only ten years old, his father Eliduc died. The knight Hoel and his nephews, who hated Eliduc and his family, threatened the fatherless child Ille. The ruler of Brittany, Duke Conain, was too weak to defend him. Ille thus had to flee from his home to the court of the French king.

Ille grew to be recognized as an outstanding knight. With ten strong knights accompanying him, Ille journeyed back to Brittany to recover his ancestral home. Another twenty knights from Brittany rode out to rendezvous with him. Hoel learned of these plans and gathered a hundred knights to ambush Ille and his companions. In brutal violence against men, Ille’s force routed Hoel’s much larger force. Ille thus triumphantly entered Brittany.

Delighted with Ille’s victory, Duke Conain welcomed him to Brittany. At Conain’s court, Ille met Conain’s sister Galeron. Ille loved her for her courtliness and beauty. As a reward for winning an additional battle, Duke Conain made Ille his seneschal and put him in charge of all Brittany. Ille nonetheless regarded himself as unworthy of Galeron’s love:

Ille thought to himself: “She isn’t eager
that she have such a man as me to be her lover,
nor I to have her as my lover.
I have put my heart in a very foolish place,
because if the duke were to perceive
that I desire his sister,
all my service to him would be wasted
and in addition I would have nothing in return
from him but bad will. I don’t know what to do.”

{ Il pense en soi: “Ne li caut mie
qu’ele a tel home soit amie,
n’a moi que soie ses amis.
Mout ai en fol liu mon cuer mis,
car se li dus s’apercevoit
de sa seror que je covoit,
trestot mon service en perdroie
et d’autre part rien n’en aroie
se mal gré non: ne sai que faire. }[2]

Galeron actually ardently loved Ille. When her brother asked whom she wanted to marry, Galeron declared that she wanted Ille:

Sir, by the loyalty that I owe you,
he is your seneschal.
Even if he were to be all naked and barefoot,
he would please me more, fine sir,
than the emperor and all his empire.

{ Sire, par la foi que vous doi,
içou est vostre senescaus.
S’il estoit tos nus et descaus,
si me plairoit il mix, biaus sire,
que l’emperere a tout l’empire. }

Galeron would take no other man: “I will never have any man if I don’t have him {Ja nul rien arai se lui n’ai}.” She said that she would retire to a nunnery if she couldn’t marry Ille.

man kissing beloved woman's feet

Duke Conain was delighted with his sister’s choice of husband. He told Ille that he would give him Galeron as his wife. In medieval reality, a brother couldn’t just give away his sister as a bride. Ille rightly thought that Conain wasn’t serious:

Sir, for God’s sake, don’t make fun of me,
for I never deserved that for a single day.

{ Sire, por Diu, ne me gabés,
k’ainc nel desservi a nul jour. }

The Duke declared that the Count of Anjou, the Count of Poitiers, and the Duke of Normandy wanted to marry Galeron, but she wouldn’t accept any of them. Ille responded:

But it was never a hope to be suffered
that on her part she would marry me,
since she doesn’t favor any of them.

{ mais il n’ert ja espoir sofert
endroit de li k’ele me pregne,
des qu’ele nul de cex n’adaigne. }[3]

Conain went to Galeron and declared that he had commanded Ille to marry her immediately. Playing along with this royal pretense, she responded, “And I agree for love of you {et je l’otroi por vostre amour}.”[4] Medieval persons communicated with sophistication scarcely imaginable today.

medieval woman embracing man

Ille subsequently endured a disfiguring wound in a knightly tournament. After winning the day, he engaged in a final joust. He then lost his left eye from a lance strike. Ille left immediately to recover in seclusion. He had suffered injury not only to his eye:

But Ille had a double infirmity.
One was that he had lost an eye.
The other was that he feared his beloved,
the sister of the Duke of Brittany.
He feared that she would no longer favor him
and that she would now despise him.
He feared much according to this saying:
“Such you have, such you are worth, and for such I love you.”

{ mais Illes a double enfierté.
L’une est de l’oel que il n’a mie,
l’autre de ce qu’il crient s’amie,
qui suer est au duc de Bretagne;
et crient mais qu’ele ne l’adagne
et k’ele l’ait mais en despit,
si se crient mout de ce respit:
“Tant as, tant vax, et je tant t’aim.” }

Like Odysseus afraid to return home as a poor man to his wife Penelope, Ille thought that he had lost the merit that had earned him his wife Galeron’s love. Ille lamented to himself:

Alas! Why then do I go on living
after this torment has been inflicted on me?
Cursed be the day and the hour
that I did not die immediately,
because that would have been comfort to me,
if my sweet beloved had wept for me,
she who now will be my enemy.
Even when I had two eyes,
I was insignificant and knew little
to have as my wife the sister of the duke.
The son of Eliduc had little before.
Now he is poorer by half.

She who has always loved me
and hated anyone who wanted to hurt me
will wish for my death and that I die,
when she learns of my misfortune,
but never will the sweet being,
so please God, know of its sight.
God! What a death I have through he who wounded me
when he wasn’t able to hit me in the heart.

{ E las! por coi vesqui je puis
que cis tormens me corut seure?
Maleoit soit le jour et l’eure
que je ne sui esranment mors,
car ce m’eüst esté confors,
si me plainsist ma dolce amie,
qui ore sera m’anemie.
Entrués que je .ii. iex avoie
ere petis et poi savoie
por avoir le seror au duc.
Ains ot poi li fix Eliduc;
or a il mains de la moitié.

Cele ki m’a tos jors amé
et haï canque me vaut nuire
volra ma mort et que je muire,
por k’ele sace m’aventure;
mais ja la douce creature,
se Diu plaist, le voir n’en savra.
Diex! com m’a mort qui me navra,
quant ne me pot el cuer ferir. }

Ille was wounded in his heart. That wound didn’t occur from a lance strike, but from his lack of self-esteem as a man.

News reached Galeron that Ille had been wounded. Nobody could tell her the nature of his wound. Had he been wounded like the Grail King Anfortas? Such a wound would cause a medieval wife intense grief. Galeron quickly traveled to see Ille. By Ille’s order, an attendant barred her from entering Ille’s bedroom. The attendant pleaded:

Lovely lady-lord, for God’s sake, have mercy!
Here you now have nothing to do.
For God’s sake, don’t be angry,
because your lord is very hurt
and wounded by a misadventure.
His injury is of such nature
that he would be made doubly distressed
if a woman were to come into his presence.

{ Bele dame, por Diu, merci!
Vos n’avés or que faire chi.
Por Diu, ne vos en coreciés!
Car vostre sire est mout bleciés
et navrés par mesaventure;
si est ses maus de tel nature
que il li feroit double anui
se feme venoit devant lui. }

A smart, active young woman, Galeron wouldn’t allow herself to be prevented from being with the man she loved. She dressed as a man, mingled with Ille’s chamberlains, and stood outside his door. When the opportunity eventually arose, she entered Ille’s bedroom. There she hid.

Thinking he was alone, Ille grieved aloud that he had barred Galeron from visiting him. He lamented:

“Ah,” he said, “my sweet sister,
how I must have in me a hard heart
when I am here and you are there outside!
Lovely one, even if you don’t have my body,
my heart is yours night and day.
Alas! How I am dying for your love!
Great is the affliction that torments me
and the love that I have in my mind.
That love was the chief path of my journeying,
but now in such illness I am held
that it will divorce me from love,
because now Galeron will never again favor me —
she who for me would not favor
a count, nor a duke, nor the son of a king.”

{ “Aï,” fait il, “ma doce suer,
com je par ai en moi dur cuer
quant je sui chi et vos la fors!
Bele, se vos n’avés mon cors,
mes cuers est vostre nuit et jor.
Las! com je muir por vostre amor!
Grans est li max qui me tormente
et l’amors graindre ou j’ai m’entente.
De l’amour ere a cief venus,
mais or sui de tel mal tenus
qui de l’amor m’eslongera,
car ja mais ne m’adaignera
cele qui n’adaigna por moi
conte ne duc ne fil a roi.” }

Galeron remained hidden and didn’t dare speak. She didn’t know the nature of Ille’s injury. Could it be an epically debilitating injury?[5] When daylight came, Galeron saw that Ille’s head was loosely bandaged with a silk cloth. That bandage slipped a bit. Galeron saw his wound. It wasn’t the most terrible wound a husband could have, but it was bad enough. She wept for her husband’s misfortune.

Ille heard a woman weeping in his bedroom. He turned his bandaged head toward her and saw a man. He was baffled and cried out, “What are you doing here {que fais tu chi}?” Galeron begged him for mercy. Ille didn’t understand. Then she said:

Sir, I am Galeron here,
and so you are my husband,
whom I love as much as my own body.
I was a door-keeper outside
all day yesterday and would be yet
if it weren’t for trickery. But so it is now
that I have thus arranged affairs
that I have come to be in your presence.
Now let me be told the reason
for which my entry was barred,
for I don’t believe that I have done wrong
in thought, or in word, or in deed.

{ Sire, je sui chi Galerons,
et vous si estes mes barons,
que j’aim autant comme mon cors;
si fui oussiere par defors
ier tote jor et fuisse encore
s’engiens ne fust; mes si est ore
que je me sui ensi tenue
que je sui devant vos venue.
Or si me soit la raisons dite
por coi m’est l’entree escondite;
car je nel quit avoir forfait
en pensé n’en dit ne en fait. }

Ille explained that he hadn’t barred her entrance out of animus toward her. He loved her as her loved his own heart. She didn’t understand why then he had excluded her. He explained why:

My sweet sister, because I cannot
see a woman without having double
the affliction that is tormenting and troubling me.
I know it that would grieve you
if my distress were doubled.
I cannot see you as I did before.
This is what most of all gives me pain —
what fills me most with anguish and anger.

{ Ma douce suer, car je ne puis
feme veoir, que ne me double
li max qui si m’angoisse et torble;
si sai qu’il vos en peseroit
se ma destrece me dobloit.
Ne vos puis veoir com je suel:
çou est la riens dont plus me doel,
dont plus sui plains d’angosse et d’ire. }

Galeron now understood. Ille lacked good sense of his worth as a man. She urged him to be gallant and lively, and not to act like a young woman hiding in her room. Perhaps she didn’t fully understand how he felt as a man. Galeron departed from Ille’s bedroom.

Now truly alone, Ille pondered the situation. He couldn’t overcome his sense that he was no longer worthy of Galeron’s love:

Lord God, how could it be
that this very sweet being,
as soon as she knew of my misadventure,
wouldn’t despise me for all time?
Once I heard a proverb that says
that a woman has a very fickle heart
and often changes her mind.
And this cannot be the place for me,
because she is the sister of the duke, and I see
that there isn’t a woman as beautiful as she in all the world.
May God destroy and confound me
if but for a single day I now remain here
and if I don’t flee to such a place
that news of me will never again reach
the sister of the duke, who is so beautiful!
I have well perceived the issue —
that she has recognized my illness.

{ Sire Dix, comment avenroit
que la tres douce creature,
des qu’ele saroit m’aventure,
ne m’eüst tos jors en despit?
Jou oï ja dire un respit
que feme a mout le cuer volage
et mue sovent son corage.
Et ceste n’est mie endroit moi,
car ele est suer au duc; si voi
qu’il n’a si bele en tot le monde.
Dix me destruise et me confonde
s’un seul jor mais sui ore ichi
et se j’en tel liu ne m’en fui
que mais n’orra de moi novele
la suer au duc, qui tant est bele!
J’ai bien la cose aperceüe
k’ele a m’enferté conneüe. }[6]

His fundamental issue was his lack of self-esteem. He swore his servants to secrecy, saddled his horse, and rode away into the night. He had no destination. He merely rode on and on away from home.[7]

medieval man committing suicide

Ille didn’t understand that his loss of an eye didn’t make him less worthy of his wife Galeron’s love. Men’s bodies matter. Men’s bodies can rise firm, strong, and magnificent like a cedar of Lebanon. They will inevitably decay. Galeron loved Ille with an enduring love. Other women throughout history have similarly loved men. A woman’s enduring love for a man cannot depend on his body always being as it once was.

Men must root their self-esteem in their intrinsic being from birth to natural death. In truth, a man doesn’t have to achieve anything to be a man. A man doesn’t have to do anything to be a man. Men know who they are.

* * * * *

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[1] Men’s gender-distinct being has been effaced historically through generic use of terms such as “man” and “mankind.” Moreover, men authors historically have often had little or no distinctive gender self-consciousness. Meninist literary criticism is beginning to address these important issues that have been marginalized under dominant ideology.

[2] Gautier d’Arras, Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron} vv. 1309-17, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Eley (1996). Subsequent quotes from Ille et Galeron are similarly sourced.

Ille et Galeron survives in two manuscripts: manuscript P, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 375, f. 296ra-309vd, written late in the thirteenth century; and manuscript W, Nottingham, University Library, Mi LM 6, f. 157ra-187va, written in the thirteenth century. Eley (1996) provides an excellent edition of manuscript P, corrected with manuscript W where necessary. Lefèvre (1988) is a freely available edition of manuscript P. It has more mistakes and some unnecessary inclusions from W.

Gautier d’Arras probably composed Ille et Galeron in the mid-1170s. Eley (1996) pp. xix-xxii, which shows that the Arlima dating of 1156-1157 is surely wrong. Eley associated the original version with manuscript P. Gautier d’Arras apparently revised that version about 1180. His revision led to the recension associated with manuscript W.

Gautier dedicated Ille et Galeron to Beatrice I, Countess of Burgundy, Queen of Germany, and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Beatrice was the daughter of Count Renaud III of Burgundy. She was related to two popes and four Holy Roman Emperors. Gautier praised her extensively. He understood her great power and privilege, and he apparently hoped that she would be generous to him:

Because of her great power and honor,
it might seem that her generosity is less,
but her generosity is so great
that her power is less than equal.

{ Por grant pooir et por honeur
est vis que largece ait meneur;
mais se largece est si tres grans
que ses pooirs est mains parans. }

Ille et Galeron, vv. 107-110. Manuscript W adds in its epilogue an additional dedication. That dedication is to Thibaut de Blois, a man much less powerful than Beatrice.

Gautier d’Arras probably wrote Ille et Galeron as a response to Marie de France’s lay Eliduc. Both stories involve a warrior-hero that two women love. Both stories involve him marrying one of the women and then the other. In addition, Ille et Galeron seems to allude to Eliduc in narrative details. Gautier apparently sought “to improve on his original,” i.e. Marie de France’s Eliduc. Eley (1996) pp. xxx-xxxiv. Gautier declared:

A great thing concerns Ille and Galeron:
it isn’t elongated with fantasies
and you will never find any falsehoods in it.
There are some lays that when one hears them,
it seems they are all similarly
as if one was asleep and dreaming.

{ Grant cose est d’Ille et Galeron:
n’i a fantome ne alonge
ne ja n’i troverés mençonge.
Tex lais i a, qui les entent,
se li sanlent tot ensement
com s’eüst dormi et songié. }

Ille et Galeron, vv. 931-37. For more on Gautier’s sources and his reworking of them, Cowper (1922) and Moore (1991).

Subsequent quotes above are from Ille et Galeron. They are vv. 1456-60 (Sir, by the loyalty that I owe you…), 1454 (I will never have any man if I don’t have him), 1484-5 ( Sir, for God’s sake, don’t make fun of me…), 1504-6 (But it was never a hope…), 1522 (And I agree for love of you), 1680-7 (But Ille had a double infirmity…), 1692-1703, 1714-21 (Alas! Why then do I go on living…), 1743-50 (Lovely lady-lord, for God’s sake, have mercy…), 1775-88 (“Ah,” he said…), 1829 (What are you doing here?), 1837-48 (Sir, I am Galeron here…), 1858-65 (My sweet sister, because I cannot…), 1920-36 (Lord God, how could it be…).

[3] In medieval Europe, differences in social rank were major obstacles to marriage. The foundling Fresne, in love with Count Galeron, told him:

The fact that you are regarded as so rich
and from such a high lineage
and so respected and so wise
will drive you apart from me.
I should not associate with you,
because I am poor and lowly,
nor should I dare to love you.
I have brought myself into this great folly,
but one who is in love’s power
cannot rightly counsel herself.

{ Ce que l’en vous tient tant a riche
Et extrait de si hault lignaige
A si prisié et a tant sage
Vous fera de moy departir.
Ne me doy a vous aatir,
Pour ce que je sui povre et basse,
Non tant que j’amer vous osasse.
Si m’est venu de grant follie;
Mais cil qui n’est en sa baillie
Ne se puet a droit conseillier. }

Jean Renaut, Galeran of Brittany {Galeran de Bretagne}, vv. 2190-99, Old French text from Foulet (1925), English translation (modified) from Beston (2008).

[4] Medieval women and men relished having sex. Galeron and Ille were married the very day that Duke Conain brokered their marriage. Then their love desires were promptly realized:

Ille, who had much longed for her,
shared with Galeron one bed,
and they had such joy and such delight
that no man could describe it.
Now joy commenced to display itself,
for no one was ever given so much in one night.

{ Illes, ki mout l’a goulousee,
et Galerons ne font c’un lit,
et ont tel joie et tel delit
que nus hom nel poroit conter.
Or commence joie a monter,
k’ainc tant n’en dona une nuis. }

Ille et Galeron, vv. 1526-31.

[5] The comic aspect of secrecy about Ille’s wound (is it a genital wound?) is consistent with Gautier d’Arras’s subtle sense of humor. On humor in Gautier’s Eracle and Ille et Galeron, King (1996) Ch. 4.

[6] Virgil, who keenly appreciated women’s power, observed: “a woman is always varying and circumstantially responsive {varium et mutabile semper femina}.” Aeneid 4.569. Adaptability is a vitally important human trait, especially in modern societies.

Late in the twelfth century, Andreas Capellanus’s On love {De amore} aparently recast Ille’s eye injury into a case where a woman left her lover after he lost his eye. De amore 2.7.15, as discussed in Eley (1996) pp. xxxiv-v.

[7] Like many husbands throughout history, Ille was subservient to his wife Galeron:

Galeron was praised and esteemed by all,
because they didn’t know anyone so accomplished.
Because of this Ille was more eager
to be always subject to her command,
to her will, and to her pleasure.

{ Trestos li mons le loe et prise,
car on ne set si bien aprise.
Por çou est Illes plus en grant
d’estre tous jors a son commant,
a son voloir, a son plaisir. }

Ille et Galeron, vv. 1601-5.

Ille subsequently grew in self-confidence. He acted decisively when heading to the altar for a second marriage. He later also acted decisively after Galeron entered a nunnery. He didn’t merely resign himself to being a sexless husband. Ille thought to himself:

A nun has what use for a castle?
But the king’s daughter, who can take and give, does,
so let the nun read her psalter
in the abbey and in the church!

{ de castel c’a a faire none?
Mais fille a roi qui taut et done,
Et la none son sautier lise
en l’abeïe et en l’eglise! }

Ille et Galeron, vv. 5652-5. Ille then journeyed from Brittany to Rome to protect Ganor, the beautiful young daughter of the Roman king (emperor). On Ille’s personal growth, Eley (1989) p. 267, Eley (1996) pp. xxxviii-ix.

[images] (1) Man kissing beloved woman’s feet. Illustration from instance of Richard de Fournival’s thirteenth-century Way of Love {Commens d’amour}. Detail from folio 7 of Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon, MS 526, made early in the fourteenth century. (2) Woman embracing man. Illustration similarly from folio 7 of Dijon, MS 526. (3) Man committing suicide. Illustration similarly from folio 10 of Dijon, MS 526.


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

Cowper, Frederick A. G. 1922. The Sources, Date, and Style of Ille et Galeron by Gautier d’Arras. Ph. Thesis, University of Chicago.

Eley, Penny. 1989. “Patterns of Faith and Doubt: Gautier d’Arras’s Eracle and Ille et Galeron.” French Studies. 43 (3): 257–270.

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.

King, David Sacket. 1996. Romances Less Traveled: Gautier d’Arras’s Eracle and Ille et Galeron Reconsidered. Ph.D. Thesis, Washington University. .

Lefèvre, Yves, ed. 1988. Gautier d’Arras. Ille et Galéron. Les classiques français du Moyen Âge, 109. Paris: Champion. Available online via Base de français médiéval.

Moore, Christine M. 1991. A Literary Study of Ille et Galeron by Gautier d’Arras: generic experimentation and development in late twelfth century France. Ph.D. Thesis, Australian National University.

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