women’s relational aggression and cruelty in Galeran de Bretagne

In Jean Renaut’s medieval romance Galeran de Bretagne, Galeran and Fresne grew to love each other as foster-children raised together. They overcame obstacles as young adults to ultimately marry happily. In contrast to their heartwarming romance, Galeran de Bretagne includes realistic but heightened scenes of women’s relational aggression and cruelty. This shocking within-group behavior replaces the supernatural and marvelous of other medieval romances.

In Gelaran de Bretagne, Lady Gente, whose name signifies the nobility of her birth, was envious of Marsile, the wife of a man who served Lady Gente’s husband. Marsile had a reputation for being wise, worthy, and loyal to her husband. Marsile gave birth to twin boys. At a dinner party, Lady Gente became angry when another women said that Marsile’s twins were beautiful and well-behaved. Lady Gente then declared that, according to clerics and priests, a woman gives birth to twins only if she had sex with two men.[1] In other words, Lady Gente publicly and falsely declared that Marsile committed adultery. Marsile had regarded Lady Gente as her friend. Lady’s Gente’s vicious verbal aggression toward Marsile was unexpected and hurtful.

medieval society

Lady Gente herself subsequently had twins. She knew that she hadn’t committed adultery. She nonetheless was ashamed that others would believe she was an adulteress according to her own claim. Lady Gente thus concealed her birth of twins. She arranged to have her baby twin girl Fresne secretly abandoned at the distant Beauséjour abbey. She acted as a cruel mother for a shameful reason of her own construction.

Fresne grew up in the distant Beauséjour abbey with the abbess Ermine as her godmother. Galeran, the son of Ermine’s sister Countess Yde, was raised with Fresne there. Ermine knew from the cradle, blanket, and money left with the baby Fresne that Fresne was of noble birth. Nonetheless, when Ermine recognized that as young adults Fresne and Galeran loved each other, she was furious. She lamented to herself:

Alas! How crude is this story!
Now my honor will be injured
since a young man that I have nurtured
is made to fall from his honor.
I would have rather torn
Fresne’s breasts from her chest,
even though I be her godmother,
so that Galeran would have always turned away from her!

{ Lasse! com est villain cil contes!
Or sera m’onneur amenrie,
S’une garce que j’ay nourrie
Le fait de s’onneur tresbuchier.
Je li feroie ainçoys sacher
Les mamelles de la poitrine,
Comment que soie sa marrine,
Qu’a tousjours mes ne l’en tournasse! }[2]

Tearing a woman’s breasts from her chest is the sort of sexual violence much more typically directed at men under castration culture. Another day, when Ermine saw Fresne holding a letter from Galeran, Ermine so violently snatched the letter from Fresne’s hand that she tore away skin from one of Fresne’s fingers. For having Galeran, now a Count, as her beloved, Fresne had to endure insults and verbal attacks from almost all the women at the abbey, including those who had been her casual friends. The abbess Ermine viciously disparaged Fresne:

You would like then to take a lord as husband?
You believe that you will then be a queen?
You are hunting well for your own ruin,
like a bawdy and lecherous woman.
Galeran will make you a Countess?
Keep on waiting until he takes you as his wife.
By God, I see well your scheming.
You are trading well for your great shame,
if you believe that you will be the wife of a Count.
But so please God that will never happen.
If you live for another ten years, you’ll be sorry.
For your bread you’ll be combing someone else’s wool
and cleaning outhouses for a halfpenny.

{ Vouldrez vous donc prendre seigneur?
Cuidiez vous donc estre roÿne?
Bien pourchassiez vostre ruÿne
Com garce baude et lecheresse.
Galeren vous fera contesse?
Atendez le tant qu’il vous preigne.
Par Dieu bien voy vostre barcaigne:
Bien barcaignés vostre grant honte
Si vous cuidez fame estre a conte;
Mais si Dieu plaist ja n’avenra;
Ains sachiez qu’il vous convenra,
Se diz ans vivez, avoir peine,
Pour du pain peignier autrui laine
Et de chiez laver pour maaille. }[3]

Ermine ultimately ordered Fresne to leave the abbey, even though Fresne had nowhere to go to live.

Even Esmerée, a woman who took courageous action to promote social justice, had a cruel streak. The knight Guinant loved her, but she loved Galeran. In a joust, Galeran knocked Guinant off his horse. The narrator noted:

Esmerée, who is so white-skinned,
smiled often to herself under her sleeve
at Guinant who at the end of the joust
had been knocked to earth on his side.
Mirth and joy went with his getting thrashed.

{ Esmeree, qui tant est blanche,
A ris souvent dessouz sa manche,
De Guynant qui si a jousté
Qu’a terre en a joint le costé.
Feste et joye en va démenant. }

Feeling joy from the suffering of another is mean-spirited. The narrator observed that Esmerée “held Guinant seized in the flow of her mantle’s laces {le tient priz aux courans laz}.” When Galeran again knocked Guinant off his horse, he gave Guinant’s horse to Esmerée. Esmerée delighted in Guinant’s loss:

She received him well and fittingly,
and so she enjoyed having Guinant
in contempt. She put on him the brunt of her jokes,
while Guinant called himself miserable
because she wouldn’t marry him.
Now from that Galeran had great joy,
he who had put between them discord.

{ Le receut bel et avenant,
Et comment elle en a Guynant
Despit, et mis sur luy ses gaz,
Comment Guynant s’apelle las,
Pour ce qu’elle ne le conjoie.
Or en a Galeren grant joye
Qui a mis entr’ eulx la descorde }

Galeran pandered to Esmerée’s delight in tormenting Guinant. Men should not cater to women’s desire to treat other men badly.

Galeran himself had to endure his beloved Fresne deliberately tormenting him. Believing that Fresne was dead, Galeran agreed to marry Fleurie, who looked very much like Fresne. In fact, unknown to Galeran, Fleurie was actually Fresne’s twin sister. Hearing of Galeran’s plan to marry, Fresne didn’t send an urgent message to Galeran telling him that she was still alive. She instead appeared at the wedding ceremony. There she played on her harp a lay that Galeran had composed for her. That music was an unmistakable message to Galeran:

As soon as Galeran heard the lay,
the blood drained from him without delay,
He didn’t know where he was or what he was doing.
Fresne saw the color drain from his face
and saw that he was silent.
Then she spoke to him against his silence:
“Count Galeran, how your face expresses yourself!
How dear you hold your wife —
you who don’t want to enjoy yourself!
Little must she love you and value you
when you are made to show this appearance to us.
Are you so exhausted by gout,
or by fear, or by greed?
Is it because I might want to have from you
the gift of a mantle or a cloak?
God be thanked, I have enough to have them,
so don’t be so frightened.
Look at him, he thinks himself betrayed
when I speak here of these gifts.
Is the blow that has darkened you
from a sword, or from a lance of ash?”

{ Que que Galeren ot le lay,
Li sancs li mue sans delay,
Ne soit ou il est ne qu’il face;
La couleur li voit en la face
Fresne muer, et sel voit taire;
Dont parole a li par contraire.
“Quens Galerens, com faictes chiere!
Com avez vostre famé chiere,
Qui ne vous voulez envoisier!
Peu vous doit amer et prisier,
Quant si fait semblant nous moustrez.
Estes vous si de goute outrez
Ou de paour ou d’avarice?
Est ce pour mantel ou pour plice
Que je vueille du voustre avoir?
Dieux mercy, j’ay assez d’avoir
Ne soiez ja si esbahiz.
Voiez, il cuide estre trahiz,
Quant je paroi de ces dons cy.
Est ce cops qui vous a nercy
D’espee ou de lance de fresne?” }

In Old French, the name Fresne literally means “ash” tree / wood. Galeran recognized that the woman taunting him was his beloved, long-lost Fresne. Why did Fresne reveal herself to Galeran in such a shockingly cruel way?

Galeran de Bretagne shows a new development in medieval romance. The world of Galeran de Bretagne depicts women’s power not only over their lovers, but also in social relations more generally:

It is a world stripped of the Celtic merveilleux and the Arthurian bric à brac; a world that is at times petty and mediocre, but loving and welcoming as well. In Galeran the antagonists are real people who are prone to human vices and frailties: greed, lies, malicious gossip, misunderstanding, gratuitous calumnies, and the like. The monsters and dragons are within the characters themselves.[4]

Recent scholarly studies have established that women are superior to men in social communication. Women are thus more proficient than men in within-group relational aggression and cruelty. Man’s inhumanity to man is a well-known theme in literary study. Women’s inhumanity to women and men should be equally recognized.

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[1] Jean Renaut, Galeran of Brittany {Galeran de Bretagne} vv. 128-172. For the Old French text and an English translation, Foulet (1925) and Beston (2008a), respectively. For general information on Jean Renaut and Galeran de Bretagne, see note [1] in my post on Esmerée.

[2] Galeran de Bretagne, vv. 2984-91, Old French text from Foulet (1925), my English translation, benefiting from that of Beston (2008a).

Subsequent quotes from Galeran de Bretagne are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 3854-67 (You would like then to take a lord…), 4951-55 (Esmerée, who is so white-skinned…), 5044 (held Guinant seized in the flow of her mantle’s laces), 6267-73 (She received him well and fittingly…), and 7005-25 (As soon as Galeran heard the lay…).

[3] Fresne responded to Ermine’s dire prophecy with an assertion of her intrinsic nobility:

My heart, madame, so guides me
that I do not engage in any other tasks than
reading my Psalter every day,
making works of gold or silk,
listening to tales of Thebes or of Troy,
playing lays on my harp,
and mating others in playing chess
while feeding the bird on my wrist.
Often I have heard my teacher say
that such custom comes from intrinsic nobility.
My heart so wants to direct itself there
that I could never be weary of it.

{ Mon cuer, madame, si m’aprent
Que je ne face aultre mestier
Le jour fors lire mon saultier
Et faire euvre d’or ou de soie,
Oÿr de Thebes ou de Troye,
Et en ma herpe lays noter,
Et aux eschez autruy mater,
Ou mon oisel sur mon poign pestre:
Souvent ouÿ dire a mon maistre
Que tel us vient de gentillesse;
Tant le vueil mon cuer s’i adresse
Que je n’en pourroie estre lasse }

Galeran de Bretagne, vv. 3878-89. Fresne described herself as engaged in the activities of highly privileged medieval women. Most medieval women and men engaged in laborious tasks involving travel outside the home, e.g. drawing water from wells and plowing fields.

[4] Talarico (2002) p. 4. Beston observed:

Renaut’s ongoing questioning of the conventions of the romances of his time points to a certain distancing of himself from romance, the genre to which his poem nevertheless belongs. His attraction to romance is regularly corrected by the harsher realities of daily life.

Beston (2008b) p. 212.

[image] Medieval society: Queen Auffique and her advisors {Reine Auffique et ses conseillers}. Illustration from an instance of Richard de Fournival’s thirteenth-century Way of Love {Commens d’amour}. Detail from folio 5 of Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon, MS 526, made early in the fourteenth century.


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. “Galeran de Bretagne: Between Romance and Realism.” Neophilologus. 92 (2): 205-215.

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

Talarico, Kathryn M. 2002. “‘Un Merveilleux Contraire’: Public and Private Desire in Galeran de Bretagne.” Dalhousie French Studies. 59: 3–20.

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