Galeron & Ganor show medieval women’s initiative in love with men

Some women today expect men to do dirty, dangerous jobs such as garbage collecting, home repair, construction work, and infantry war-fighting. Some women today also expect men to take the initiative in amorous relationships, struggle through arduous love quests, and unconditionally support women’s choices. In contrast to the passive complacency of too many gender-privileged women today, medieval women tended to be active and generous in love for men. In particular, the women-heroes Galeron and Ganor in Gautier d’Arras twelfth-century romance Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron} vigorously and courageously loved the knight Ille.

Galeron, the daughter of the Count of Brittany, ardently loved the relatively lowly Ille. He was merely the son of the knight Eliduc. Rejecting much more eminent suitors, she married him. Ille nonetheless lacked self-esteem as a man. When he lost an eye in a joust, he left Galeron for fear that she would no longer love him. He told no one where he was going. He himself didn’t know.

Seeking her beloved Ille, Galeron quested around the whole known world. She borrowed a thousand marks against her land, gathered fourteen knights to protect her, and set out to find her husband:

They crossed the sea by ship
and arrived in Great Britain.
They went to the great mountain
in Wales, then crossed to Ireland,
then back to Northumberland.
All of the Scotland they then searched,
then rode through Norway,
then searched all of Denmark
and countless lands and marshes,
all of Frisia and Hungary,
Saxony and the whole of Slavonia,
but in vain they searched for him there.

{ et il passent mer a navie
et vienent en le grant Bretaigne;
en Gales a le grant montagne
vienent, puis passent en Illande,
puis revont en Nohuberlande ;
trestote Escoce ont puis cerquie,
puis ont Norouerge travescie,
puis cerkent tote Danemarce
et tante tere et tante marce,
trestote Frise et Hongerie,
Saissone et tote Esclavonie;
mais por noient le quierent la }[1]

They kept searching for Ille amid great danger until all the fourteen men protecting Galeron had been killed. They didn’t find Ille. He had made his way to Rome.

Galeron grieved for losing Ille and the fourteen knights who had served her. She understood that men’s lives matter. She understood that she, in her privileged position, was complicit in losing those men:

This much happened all by my sin —
that Ille felt so afflicted
because he had lost his eye.
God hates very much pride in women.
That can be seen well from the first woman.
And I am well-accustomed
to parading in squirrel fur and gray fur,
and dressed in very costly silk,
and wearing my laced robes and braids.
Much have I, also, to amend.
Because of me it was that Ille fled,
Because of me dead and buried are
those men who went with me to look for him.
Now I must pray to the Mother of God
and meekly to the apostle
that he would give me penance.

{ car ce mut tot par mon pecié
k’Illes se tint si a courcié
de ce qu’il ot perdu son oel.
Que Dix het mout en feme orgoel,
ce parut bien a le premiere,
et je sui assés costumiere
de traïner et vair et gris
et dras de soie de grant pris,
de moi lacier et de bender;
assés ai, lasse, a amender.
Par moi fu k’Illes s’en fuï,
par moi sont mort et enfoï
cil qui o moi l’alerent querre.
Or m’estuet Damediu requere
et l’apostole en passïence
que il me doigne penitence. }

Galeron thus journeyed to Rome. She told the pope about all that had happened. She confessed the sin of pride. The pope absolved her and gave her a light penance.

Galeron imposed on herself a harsh penance. A highly privileged woman who never previously worked for a living, she began to work as seamstress in a humble lodging in Rome. She prudently rented her lodging from a worthy, high-ranking Roman man. Many Roman men sought Galeron’s love. She rejected all of them. Her landlord ensured that no man would dare to attempt to rape her, a crime that few men would commit in any case. Galeron occupied herself with sewing and attending morning and evening church services. She had completely changed her life on her own initiative.

Much of Rome was meanwhile celebrating Ille’s prowess in violence against men. He had led the Romans in repelling a Byzantine invasion. He was a smart, fierce warrior, yet modest when not in battle. The Roman Emperor made Ille his seneschal. Despite his rise to eminence in Rome, Ille was sorrowful. He still loved his wife Galeron and grieved for being without her.

The emperor’s daughter Ganor fell in love with Ille. His modesty, well-reasoning mind, and handsome appearance attracted her. When she heard everyone speaking highly of him, she loved him even more. One day Ganor saw Ille in court dressed finely to meet her father the emperor. She was stirred with desire for him:

She looked down from her window, so she saw him coming.
With difficulty she kept herself from falling.
She saw that he was lovely and cultured,
and she saw those well-aligned limbs,
his beautiful mouth, and his beautiful face.
The beauty in him was so much
that she did not remember about his eye.
She thought about other things, as well she would.
Much other things there were for thinking.

{ regarde a val, sel vit venir;
a paine se pot soustenir.
Voit qu’il est biax et ensigniés,
et voit ces membres alignés,
sa bele bouce et son bel vis.
Tant a de bel en lui assis
que de son oel ne li sovient.
Aillors entent, ce li convient;
assés a aillors a entendre. }

Her thoughts are formed with the words “vit,” a low word that in Old French can mean penis, and “membre,” a sophisticated word that also can mean penis. How does it matter if Ille has only one eye? She thought about kissing him, and embracing him, and the joy of having him sexually penetrate her.

Ganor went to greet Ille. She sought his love. She didn’t ask him directly, for she thought that a king’s daughter shouldn’t do such a deed.[2] She told him:

Friend, what you do pleases me.
It is right that your lips kiss
the daughter of the king and queen,
and she should be at your command.

{ Amis, li vostre fais me plaist.
Drois est que vostre bouce baist
fille de roi et de roïne
et k’ele soit a vous acline. }

Her treated her respectfully, but he didn’t lover her. He had heard that Galeron had undertaken a long journey in search of him, and that she had not returned home to Brittany. His heart remained with Galeron, but Ganor’s heart had gone out to him.

Seeking to gain Ille as his son-in-law, the emperor arranged for the pope to urge Ille to marry Ganor. Ille told the pope that he wouldn’t. The pope insisted. Ille then said that he was already married to Galeron of Brittany and that he was grieving deeply because he didn’t know her whereabouts. The pope then proposed sending messengers to Brittany to seek information. If Galeron’s whereabouts weren’t known, the pope urged Ille then to marry Ganor. Such bigamy was illegal under church. But the pope solicitously told Ille:

If anything is done against the law,
all the sin will be on me.

{ Se faites rien contre la loi,
trestot le pecié preng sor moi. }

Ille acted contritely more rightly. Riding through Rome, he gave aid to the naked, the poor, and orphans, but not specifically widows. Ille knew that a man having lost his wife suffered just as much as a woman having lost her husband.[3]

Since Galeron couldn’t be found, Ille agreed to marry Ganor. Their marriage was proclaimed to take place in two weeks. Ganor, delighted to be marrying Ille, had aggressively pushed for a quick marriage:

No one heard news of this proclamation,
neither high nor low, not count nor duke,
without saying openly
that it had been done too suddenly.
Much you would hear them swear
that for four months at least should have endured
the banns of marriage, so that it would be well-known
and acknowledged by all.
But to Ganor that was much too long.
The couple should have been summoned to marriage,
so said the lovely one, very much earlier.
Then they could have had a long banns.
Ganor despised all those
who would delay the marriage contract.
Since this woman much sought it,
she felt neither pain nor sorrow in being married,
and when she was about to put the contract to her advantage,
she said, “Why was it not done immediately?”

{ Cele semonse n’entent nus,
ne haut ne bas, ne quens ne dus,
qui ne dient apertement
que trop l’ont fait sodainement.
Assés les oïssiés jurer
que .iiii. mois poroit durer
li bans al mains, qu’il fust seüs
et par trestout ramenteüs.
Mais a Ganor est il mout lonc:
on les deüst avoir semons,
ce dist la bele, tres antan;
lors se feïssent un lonc ban.
Ganors a tos ceus en despit
qui metent le plait en respit.
Des que la feme bien le veut,
ne mal ne sent ne se deut
et quan le plait doit metre a ués,
ce dist: “Por coi nel fist on lués?” }

As the emperor’s beautiful young daughter, Ganor was probably the most powerful person in the Roman Empire. She was accustomed to getting what she sought.

court of Anne of Bohemian and Richard II, queen and king of England

On the wedding day, Galeron noticed crowds rejoicing in the Roman streets and heading to Saint Peter’s church. Then she heard that a man named Ille was marrying the emperor’s daughter. She fainted. Her neighbors splashed water on her face to revive her and wrapped a bandage around her head. They told her that the great warrior Ille the Breton, savor of the Romans, was marrying Ganor, the emperor’s daughter. They didn’t know Galeron’s past. They scolded her for appearing distraught on this joyous wedding day.

Galeron went to Saint Peter’s church. She stood behind the door until she saw the groom, her husband Ille, coming. She was afraid to approach him for fear that the Romans would beat her for being insolent. She was afraid moreover that Ille would reject her. But if she did nothing, she regarded herself as responsible for Ille committing the sin of bigamy. She was in a difficult place:

Just then Ille entered the church.
The wretched woman, who was waiting for him there,
pushed herself forward and threw herself
as his feet. He raised her up,
and this annoyed and grieved the doorkeepers.
Leaping forward, they intended to strike her.
“Get back,” said Ille. “I see you are peasants.
Would you strike a lady in my presence?
Little do you know, it seems, about what is troubling her.
There is no civilized man who can too much
advise persons about their difficulties.
Every day is the time to do well,
to give advice, to speak well.”

{ Atant et cil entre el mostier.
Li lasse qui illoec l’atant
se met avant et si s’estant
as piés celui et il le lieve;
et as wisciers anoie et grieve:
salent avant, ferir le voelent
si com li huissier faire suelent.
“Fuiiés,” dist il. “Vilains vos voi.
Ferriés vos dame devant moi?
Poi savés, espoir, qui li nuist.
Il n’est hom sossiel qui trop puist
consilier gens de lor contraire.
Tos jors est saisons de bien faire,
de conseil doner, de bien dire. }

Galeron told Ille her name and her story. She gave him her blessings and asked only that the pope arrange for her to withdraw to a nunnery. That would make Ille’s second marriage licit. Ille was stunned, yet he retained his fine tactical mind:

Ille would have quickly kissed her,
but he feared the spitefulness
of the Romans, full of baseness.
Never would he eat bread again
if the Romans found out about it now —
if that spiteful and violent people
knew the full details
of the deed he planned to do.
The noble being, the good-natured one,
would be torn into 100 pieces.

{ Ciex le baisast isnelement,
mais il doute la felonie
des Romains pleins de vilonie.
Jamais ne mangeroit de pain
se or le savoient li Romain;
se la gent felenesse et fiere
savoient tote le maniere
de l’oevre que il cuide faire,
la france riens, la debonaire
seroit depicie en .c. pieces }

Still struggling with his lack of self-esteem as a man, Ille asked Galeron whether she resented him because he lost an eye. She responded with truth spoken in love:

I do not love your misadventure,
but I love you above all other beings,
and shall do so for as long as I live.
I regard as a drunken fool
any who is not displeased, who is not disturbed,
when her beloved has a bad situation,
but she should not despise him for it,
nor hate him more, nor love him less.

{ Je n’aim pas ta mesaventure,
mais toi sor toute creature,
et ferai tant com j’ai a vivre;
et celui tieng je mout a ivre
cui ne desplaist, cui ne messiet
quant il a son ami mesciet;
mes ne l’en doit mesaesmer,
ne plus haïr ne mains amer. }

Ille then summoned the pope. He fell at the pope’s feet and told him about his wife Galeron. Ille declared that he wouldn’t marry Ganor. Ille’s expected second wedding night became a night with his formerly lost first wife:

The joy of that night was more than ever before,
since nothing in the world, no matter how well crafted,
is worth as much as joy recovered.
That is so because for each who desires joy,
so much he is more deprived of it,
so much is his delight greater
when he is able to attain his joy.

{ Joie ot la nuit plus c’onques mais,
qu’el mont n’a rien si bien ovree
qui vaille joie recouvree;
car a cascun qui la desire,
de tant com il plus se consire,
de tant li est li delis graindre
quant il sa joie puet ataindre. }

The pope, the emperor, and particularly Ganor were utterly distraught at this extraordinary development.

Ille resolved to leave Rome with Galeron and return to Brittany. The Romans believed that, without Ille, their enemies would destroy them. They despaired. With her strong, independent womanly spirit, Ganor responded differently:

To Ganor that news was very loved and beautiful,
for she immediately knew well
that they all would die if Ille went away.
She would very dearly wish this,
and she would love it more than anything.
And all this was brought from Envy,
because she intensely hated her own life.

If Ganor had used the man
for whom she had desire,
never would she have sought company there,
but in this evil that was tormenting her,
that they all die with her was her wish,
to avenge her anger and her great pain.
She cried: “God and Saint Mary,
now to this death I have been called!
I who should well die alone,
now will see Rome perish around me.
Now my death will be more attractive,
because little will remain after it.
Now they no longer will be able to mock me —
not king, nor duke, nor count, nor baron,
because he who has defended Rome,
he from whom my death has come,
has left them to evil that’s fitting.
God grant that all this may come quickly!”

{ cui ele est mout amee et bele,
qu’ele set bien tout entresait
qu’il morront tot, se il s’en vait.
Ce vauroit ele mout tres bien,
si l’ameroit sor toute rien;
Et toute ice li vient d’envie,
car mout het durement sa vie.

Se Ganors eüst esploitié
a ce k’ele avoit covoitié,
ja n’i quesist avoir compagne;
mes de cest mal qui li engragne
morroient tuit o li son voel
por vengier s’ire et son grant doel.
Escrie: “Dix, sainte Marie,
com or m’a ceste mors garie!
Seule cuidoie bien morir:
or verrai Rome o moi perir.
Or ert la mors plus avenans;
car povres ert li remanans.
Or ne me poront mais gaber
ne rois ne dus ne quens ne ber,
car cil qui Rome a deffendue,
de cui ma mors est descendue,
les metra mais al convenir.
Dix doint que tost puist avenir!” }

Ganor quickly repented of these words, but they expressed how she felt. The Carthaginian ruler Dido is celebrated for destroying herself in despair about love. Ganor, daughter of the Roman emperor, would outdo Dido.

Like the Trojan women burning Trojan ships, Ganor understood women’s power. Gautier d’Arras observed:

Priest, reason, justice, and law
often make lovers distraught.
Women and love often undo
all that these four have agreed.
Women and love have such nature
that often they act against justice,
against law, against even reason
and against the speech of the priest.
Love is of very rich esteem.
Towards all these four it has undertaken war —
made on them many attacks.
And when a woman has made love her ally,
and those two are of one piece,
a grand marvel it is if they would give up any
of the thing that they would want to do,
because they are of a very strong disposition.

{ Prestre, raisons, drois et lois
font les amans sovent destrois.
Feme et amors desfont sovent
de tous ces .iiii. le convent;
Feme et amors ont tel nature
que sovent font contre droiture,
contre loi, contre raison voire
et contre boce de provoire.
Amors est mout de rice pris,
vers tous ces .iiii. a entrepris:
faite lor a mainte envaïe.
Et puis que feme est en s’aïe,
qu’eles sont ans .ii. d’une part,
mervelle est grans se nus les part
de cose qu’eles voellent faire,
qu’eles sont mout de haut afaire. }

Ganor insisted that Ille return to her if she or Rome needed his help in violence against men. Under the force of her despair and tears, Ille agreed to be used in that way.

Medieval women acted strongly and independently in relation to men. After returning to Brittany, Galeron and Ille had two children. A difficult third childbirth prompted Galeron to vow to God that if she lived, she would enter a nunnery. She apparently didn’t ask for her her husband’s consent before making that vow. That’s not surprising. It’s similar to a wife today getting a no-fault divorce or having an abortion. After Galeron entered a nunnery, Ille on his own initiative returned to Rome and married Ganor. Men only rarely act strongly and independently in relation to women.

In our benighted, ignorant, and bigoted age, many persons believe in simple, hateful myths of patriarchy and misogyny. Gautier d’Arras’s twelfth-century romance Ille et Galeron provides a much more realistic historical perspective.[4] In Gautier’s romance, the woman-heroes Galeron and Ganor are truly strong, freely thinking, independent women. Men today should emulate them.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Gautier d’Arras, Ille and Galeron {Ille et Galeron} vv. 1984-95, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Eley (1996). On Ille et Galeron, see note [1] in my post of Ille’s lack of self-esteem. For a freely available Old French edition, Lefèvre (1988).

Subsequent quotes from Ille et Galeron are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 3085-3100 (This much happened all by my sin…), 3315-23 (She looked down from her window…), 3345-8 (Friend, what you do pleases me…), 3746-7 (If anything is done against the law…), 3962-79 (No one heard news of this proclamation…), 4096-4109 (Just then Ille entered the church…), 4256-65 (Ille would have quickly kissed her…), 4289-96 (I do not love your misadventure…), 4393-99 (The joy of that night…), 4595-601, 4608-25 (To Ganor that news…), 4656-69 (Priest, reason, justice, and law…).

[2] In the early thirteenth-century Old French play The Well-Mannered Man of Arras {Courtois d’Arras}, the working woman Pourette took the initiative to make a love toast to the Courtois:

But I am your lover and your mistress
who truly loves you to her heart’s end.
I gave you the wine as a sign of love
and, believe me, I will not deceive you.

{ mais vostre amie et vostre ancielle,
qui bien vous ainme de cuer fin,
vous donc par amors le vin
et, saciés, pas ne vous dechoi. }

Courtois d’Arras, vv. 214-8, Old French text from Faral (1922), my English translation, benefiting from that of Axton & Stevens (1971) p. 148. Privileged women tend to look down on sex workers such as Pourette and seek to be not like them. Any woman can clearly differentiate herself from sex workers by not charging men, explicitly or implicitly, for sex, and not having sex with a lot of men. Not wanting to be like a woman sex worker isn’t a good reason for a woman not to take the initiative to express her love for a man even before he indicates his love for her.

[3] Passages such as Deuteronomy 27:19, Exodus 22:22-24, Jeremiah 49:11, Psalms 68:5, 82:3, James 1:27 reflect the particular social circumstances of men’s historical gender burdens. Women today are fully capable of supporting men and children.

[4] A leading scholar of Ille et Galeron observed:

In Ille et Galeron, rejection of fantasy and the supernatural goes hand-in-hand with a concern for realism which is reflected not only in the action and its physical surroundings, but also in the psychology of the protagonists. … Her {Ganor’s} reactions to major events in her life are entirely believable, and create a picture of a woman who may not always be sympathetic, but is cerainly never two-dimensional.

Eley (1996) pp. xxxvi, xxxix.

[image] Court of Anne of Bohemian and Richard II, queen and king of England, at their coronation in 1382. Except from folio 20 of Liber Regalis, Westminster Abbey Library, MS 38.


Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

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

Faral, Edmond, ed. 1922. Courtois d’Arras: Jeu du XIIIe Siècle. 2nd Edition, revised. Paris: H. Champion.

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.

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