Waltharius continued: Christian epic hero becomes monk

In the early medieval Germanic epic poem Waltharius, Prince Walter of Aquitaine and his beloved, Princess Hildegund of Burgundy, escape captivity under Attila the Hun. They contrived for Attila and his court to fall asleep drunk and stuffed with food after a lavish banquet. Hildegund and Walter then sneaked away. In their escape, Hildegund led like a pack mule Walter’s war horse loaded with stolen treasure. The warrior-hero Walter walked away with her. That’s not how epic heroes typically escape captivity. Walter, however, was a Christian epic hero. In subsequent medieval continuations of Waltharius, Walter became a monk. Whether as a warrior or as a monk, Walter was comically distinctive as a Christian.

Ruthwell cross contains scenes from Christ's life and runic inscriptions

According to the late-twelfth century epic The Monastic Life of William {Le Moniage Guillaume}, Count William, a figure associated with the epic hero Walter of Aquitaine, became a monk upon the death of his wife. William and his wife had lived a hundred years together in joy, often joking and laughing together. While William was grieving over his wife’s death, God instructed William to become a monk at the Genevois abbey on the sea. William donned his armor, took up his sword and shield, mounted his war horse, and journeyed to the abbey. There he placed his knightly equipment on the altar. He requested to the abbot that he be admitted as a monk.

While readers of epics typically take for granted massive violence against men, the abbot at Genevois didn’t. He knew about the epic hero Walter / William:

“Sir William,” says the abbot, “good, sweet lord,
you have killed and cut down many men.
I cannot deny you penance
for your sins. You have killed twenty thousand men.”

{ “Sire Guillaume,” dist l’abes, “biaus dous sire,
Maint home avés fait tüer et ocire;
De penitance ne vos puis escondire
Pour vos peciés, dont avés fait vint mile.” }[1]

William apparently knew of such epic behavior only be ear. When the abbot asked him if he knew how to chant and read, William answered, “Yes, sir abbot, without looking at a book {Öil, sire abes, sans regarder en livre}.” The abbot and the monks laughed at William’s illiteracy. They promised to teach him to read the Psalter and sing matins. William’s penance for his massive violence against men was the duties of a monk.

epic warrior-hero William of Aquitaine becomes a monk

William became a highly distinguished monk. After being tonsured, he was given monastic garments. Those garments were far too short for him, for he was nine inches taller than any other monk. He also ate much more. One monk complained:

I’ve never seen a man with such a large appetite.
If we have a loaf and half to eat,
he has three, yet is never satisfied.
Curses on such a monk in the abbey!

He barely fasts from midday to early afternoon.
Mornings he eats three good, large loaves,
so that not a crumb or crust remains.
When we have beans, he demands the beet-root
and fish and in addition good wine —
of a large barrel, not a drop remains.

{ De si grant coust ne vi home en ma vie:
Quant nos avons une mice et demie,
Il en a trois, ne s’en saole mie.
Mal dehet ait tel moine en abëie!

A paines june de midi dusqu’a none;
Au main menjue trois mices grans et bones,
N’i remaint point de mie ne de croste.
Quant a des feves, si demande la joute
Et les poissons et le bon vin encontre;
D’un grant sestier n’en remanra ja gote. }

The monks feared that William’s voracious eating would cause them all to starve. Moreover, he threatened them with his fists if he didn’t get his way. He severely beat the abbey cellarer for not giving him more wine.

According to Le Moniage Guillaume, the abbot conspired with the other monks to have William sent on journey that they hoped would result in him being killed. They sent him to buy fish by journeying through the forest. There robbers regularly waylaid travelers. Deliberately putting William in danger isn’t Christian. Nonetheless, the abbot enjoined William to Christian non-violence. If robbers took his goods, he was not to fight back. William spoke of hypothetical thefts and imagined his furious fighting response. In each case — robbers taking his horse, gloves, boots, and wool tunic — the abbot forbade anger and forbade fighting back. But when the matter got down to underwear, the abbot recognized an exception:

And William says: “If they take my underwear,
the item that we call breeches?”
“Certainly,” said the abbot, “that would be a bad thing,
a thing that should much displease you.
Defend your underwear if you can do some harm to the thieves.
With bone and flesh you may act strongly against them.”
And William says: “This would please me well.
Since permission has been given to me to do that,
I swear to you by the body of Saint Hilaire,
if they should do anything to me that should displease me,
they will find me fierce and cruel.
To have my underwear pulled off of me would be a big shame.
Before they have my underwear, I would make several roar,
if God preserves my fists.

{ Et dist Guillaume: “S’il me tollent mes braies,
Icele chose c’on claime famulaires?”
“Chertes,” dist l’abes, “dont seroit cose laide;
De cele cose vos doit il bien desplaire.
Desfendés lor si lor pôés mal faire:
D’os et de char lor faites grant contraire.”
Et dist Guillaume: “Ice me puet bien plaire.
Quant le congié me donés de ce faire,
Je vos en jur par le cors saint Ylaire,
S’il me font chose qui me doie desplaire,
Troveront moi felon et deputaire.
Grant honte aroie de mes braies hors traire,
Ains que les aient en i ferai maint braire,
Se Dex mes bras me sauve.” }[2]

Depriving a man of his underwear isn’t usual epic matter. The abbot’s specification of bone and flesh for William’s strong response alludes to Adam’s love for Eve: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Moreover, the repeated use of the verbs meaning please / displease contributes to a sexual context.[3] Seeking to seduce the robbers, William wore a silk belt trimmed with gold when he traveled through the forest to buy fish.

Traveling back through the forest with the purchased fish, William encouraged his servant-attendant to sing. The servant-attendant began like a courtly singer of epics:

Would you like to hear about Sir Tiebaut the Slav,
and of William, marquis with the short nose,
how he captured the city of Orange,
and took Orable as his wife and peer,
and Gloriete the principal palace?

{ Volés öir de dant Tibaut l’Escler,
Et de Guillaume, le marcis au cort nés.
Si com il prist Orenge la chité,
Et prist Orable a moillier et a per,
Et Gloriete, le palais principer? }

Before William could cheer on this epic song about himself, the singer stopped. He was afraid of attracting robbers. William, however, commanded him not to stop singing. William said that he shouldn’t be afraid, for he would protect him.

Fifteen robbers heard the singing and came to despoil the travelers. They tied up the servant-attendant and threw him in a ditch. Then they demanded goods from William. Without resisting, William gave them his horse, gloves, robe, wool tunic, and gown. He was then naked except for his boots and his underwear. His luxurious belt held tight his underwear:

The leader of the thieves has seen the belt
and the precious stones and the fine gold gleaming.
He swears by God that he won’t let it go.
He kneels down, for he wants to untie it,
so that he can pull it out of William’s underwear.
The count watches him and can’t help but rage:
“Ah, God,” William says, “now I must go mad!
These treacherous swine have captured me,
and they don’t want to leave me even my underwear!

Our leader in the abbey has commanded me:
if I find a man who seizes my underwear
and wants to pull off my belt by force,
only then could I get angry.
If I much delay, better not to have been born,
for these men are very evil and treacherous.”
He raises his fist and strikes the leader.
He gives such a blow on the front of his face
that he breaks the bone of his jaw into two parts
and throws him dead onto the earth.

{ Li maistres lerres a coisi le braier
Et les jagonches et l’or fin flamboier;
Damedieu jure ne li vaudra laissier.
Il s’agenoille, qu’il li veut deslacier,
Qu’il le voloit fors des braies sacier.
Voit le li quens, n’i ot que courecier:
“He! Dex,” dist il, “com or puis esragier,
Com or me tienent cist gloton losengier,
Que nes mes braes ne me veulent laissier!”

“Ja commanda dans abes, nostre maistre,
Se trovoie home qui me tolist mes braies.
Et mon braier vausist a force traire,
Lors dont a primes me poroie je iraistre.
Se plus ateng, miex vauroie estre a naistre,
Car il sont trop felon et deputaire.”
Hauce le poig, si vait ferir le maistre;
Tel cop li done devant en son visage,
L’os de la goule en deus moitiés li quasse,
Mort le trebuce a terre. }[4]

Kneeling in front of William and tugging on the belt of his underwear suggests sexual assault. Rape of men happens about as frequently as rape of women. In this case, William fought back using only flesh and bone. After killing seven of the thieves, he lamenting not been able to use a sword. Upon looking around for a permitted weapon, he tore the leg off a horse and bludgeoned the rest of the thieves to death with that flesh and bone.

The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}, an early eleventh-century Latin reader for students, more explicitly points an attack on a man’s underwear. The hero in this version is the great soldier Walter. As an aged man, Walter apparently become a monk and traveled on behalf of his brother monks. They placed him under an underwear rule:

The brothers mandated Walter not to surrender his underwear,
but to defend that alone after everything else had been taken from him.

{ Mandant Waltero fratres non tradere brachas,
Omnibus ablatis tacito defendere solas }[5]

While Walter was on a journey, robbers waylaid him. He surrendered to the robbers his horse, his horse’s armor, his whip, all his outer clothes, and his hood. When the thieves sought to take his underwear, he fought back:

Experienced in military service, he was vigorous with weapons, as is well-known.
He scattered their assault and repressed it with great strength.
He hurled them all down from their horses without shedding blood.
He said, “Every other spoil, but none from the anus,
the brothers tolerate for those who carry the brothers’ messages.
Such booty they forbid to the greedy robber.

{ usus militia viguit, quae nota, sub armis:
dissipat assultus macta virtute repressos,
Omnes disiectos ab equis sine sanguine stravit,
dicens: “Omne quidem spolium, de podice nullum
fratres his tolerant, qui fratrum nuntia portant,
tales exuvias avido vetuere latroni.” }

The reference to raping men or boys should be obvious. In the relatively enlightened medieval period, the rape of men and boys wasn’t regarded as merely a laughing matter. Young men students learned a specific example of resisting rape by fighting to retain their underwear. The Christian epic hero Walter defeated gang rape without shedding blood and without penal punishment of the offenders. In Christian understanding, everything is possible for those who believe in God.[6]

monk Saint William of Gellone, a former warrior (see helmet on ground) teaching women and men religious

The mid-eleventh century Chronicle of Novalese {Chronicon Novaliciense} adapted the Waltharius and similarly continued it to make Walter into a monk at the monastery of Novalesa in northwest Italy. Walter joined the great Christian king Charlemagne in the Chronicon Novaliciense’s work of linking the Novalesa monastery to important figures. While its story closely follows parts of the earlier Waltharius, “a more Christian hero now inhabits a more Christian epic.”[7] The Chronicon Novaliciense develops the underwear rule, but here Walter speaks with the formality and deference that Abraham did in bargaining with God to prevent Sodom’s destruction:

Then Walter: “I beg, my lord, be not angry if I inquire further. What should happen about my underwear, if they similarly wish to do what they did previously with my other goods?” And the abbot replied, “Let the humility already displayed suffice for you. I decree nothing to you concerning your underwear, since your humility would seem to me to have been great in allowing the despoiling of your other vestments.”

{ Tunc Waltarius: “Obsecro, mi domine, ne irascaris, si loqui addero. De femoralia quid erit, si similiter voluerint facere ut prius fecerunt?” Et abbas: “Iam tibi predicta suffitiat humilitas: nam de femoralibus tibi aliud non precipiam, cum magna nobis videatur fore humilitas priorum vestium expoliatio.” }[8]

When Walter subsequently went on a journey, robbers seized his other goods and then sought his underwear. He fought back strongly and used metal weapons and the leg of a calf as a club to kill many of the robbers. The most intimately approaching robber bent down to take Walter’s sandals from his feet. Walter struck that robber with a killing blow to the neck.

Within Christian epic, succumbing to pride is the worst loss. In the Chronicon Novaliciense, Walter’s heroic victory over the robbers was nearly a defeat:

Many of the robbers were killed, and the rest were indeed put to flight. They left everything behind. After Walter obtained his victory, he took everything — his own goods and the others’ goods — and returned at once to the monastery. He was laden with his great spoils. When the abbot saw these things about which he had already heard, he however immediately groaned. With the rest of the brethren he gave himself over to lamentations and prayers for Walter and admonished him harshly. Walter then truly accepted the penance that the father advised, lest by such a wicked deed he be overcome with his body’s pride. From pride he could suffer the loss of his soul.

{ Ex illis namque plurimis occisis, reliqui vero in fugam versi relinquerunt omnia. Waltharius autem adepta victoria accipiens cuncta et sua et aliena, repedavit continuo ad monasterium, cum maxima preda oneratum. Abbas autem talia ut ante audierat, vidit, ilico ingemuit ac se in lamentum et precibus cum reliquis pro eo dedit fratribus, increpans eum valde acrius. Waltarius vero exin penitentiam accipiens a predicto patrono, ne de tanto scelere superbiretur in corpore, unde iacturam pateretur in anima. }

Pride in Walter’s heroic deed implied grief. Christians understood pride to be a cardinal sin. Defeating robbers and acquiring much spoils is little gain relative relative to spiritual loss. Even retaining one’s underwear could not compensate for the loss of one’s soul.

While not as important as the fate of one’s soul, underwear was a matter on considerable concern to Christians in medieval Europe. Hebrew scripture commanded that Aaron and his sons wear underwear when ministering to the Lord in the tabernacle. The sixth-century Christian monastic Rule of Saint Benedict declared that in ordinary places simple clothing not including underwear is sufficient for monks.[9] Benedictine monks thus established the practice now commonly known as “going commando.” Some regarded that practice as scandalous. In a letter of instruction issued in 866, Pope Nicholas I declared:

What you have asked concerning underwear we consider to be pointless. … For if you or if your women take off or put on underwear, it does not bring about salvation nor does it offer any increase in your virtues.

{ Quod de femoralibus sciscitamini, supervacuum esse putamus … Nam sive vos, sive feminae vestrae, sive deponatis,sive induatis femoralia, nec saluti officit, nec ad virtutum vestrarum proficit incrementum. }[10]

Nonetheless, the Cistercians, a monastic community founded in 1098 to observe more strictly the Rule of Saint Benedict, rejected underwear along with other luxuries.[11] Whether monks should wear underwear became quite controversial among monastic orders in twelfth-century Europe.

While repenting his past violence against men, the Christian epic hero fought to retain his underwear as a monk. His monkish resolve transcended the bitter monastic controversy over underwear. He fought as a monk against men being raped. More importantly, the Christian epic hero rejected pride.[12] Rejecting pride is the most distinctive sign of being Christian.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] The Monastic Life of William {Le Moniage Guillaume} (short version / version I) vv. 125-8, Old French text from Cloetta (1906-11) vol. 1, English translation (modified) from Ferrante (1974).

Le Moniage Guillaume apparently drew upon epic literature associated with three Walter / William figures. One was Walter of Aquitaine, the hero of the Waltharius. Walter of Aquitaine is associated with the fifth-century Germanic kingdom of the Burgundians in southwestern France. Another was William of Gellone, founder of the Abbey of Gellone and probably the same person as William, Count of Toulouse. William of Toulouse was a counselor to Charlemagne’s son Louis. The third was William of Orange {Guillaume d’Orange}, the hero of a major Old French epic cycle known as La Geste de Garin de Monglane. Guillaume d’Orange was credited with driving the Saracens out of Provence in southern France.

The lives and legends of the three Walter / William figures intermixed in various ways. The early tenth-century Waltharius, the mid-eleventh-century Chronicon Novaliciense’s account of Walter as a warrior and a monk, the early-twelfth-century Life of William of Gellone {Vita Willelmi Gellonensis}, and the late-twelfth-century Moniage Guillaume show the mixing of these Walter / William figures over time.

In the chanson de geste The Crowning of Louis {Le Couronnement de Louis}, Walter of Tolouse appears as William of Orange’s nephew:

The count William sent for him called Walter
the Toulousain, thus to announce the plan.
He was his sister’s son, a noble knight.

{ Li cuens Guillelmes en apela Gualtier
Le Tolosan, ensi l’oï noncier.
Fin sa seror, un gentill chevalier }

Le Couronnement de Louis, vv. 1656-8, Old French text from Langlois (1920), my English translation, benefitting from that of Ferrante (1974). Walter is called “the courtly Walter {li corteis Gualtiers}.” Le Couronnement de Louis, v. 1288, sourced similarly. See also id. v. 567. For further analysis of the Walter / William figure, Smith (2011) pp. 161-5 and Black (2006). For related literature, Learned (1892), Cloetta (1906-11), vol. 2, Magoun & Smyser (1950), and Ziolkowski (2012).

The Genevois abbey of Le Moniage Guillaume seems to refer to the abbey of Aniane in Languedoc, France. Saint Benedict (Witiza) of Aniane was the leading abbot in the reign of Charlemagne. Benedict founded the Aniane abbey about 780. The Benedictine abbey of Gellone, founded in 804, was initially subordinate to the abbey of Aniane. The abbey of Gellone began to be called the abbey of Saint Guillaume early in the eleventh century. By the mid-twelfth-century, it was known as the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Along with those name changes, William of Gellone was assimilated to the epic hero Guillaume d’Orange in a new charter for the monastery forged late in the eleventh century or early in the twelfth. In this new foundation legend, Guillaume d’Orange fled the Genevois abbey / abbey of Aniane to found the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. On re-imagining the abbey’s founding, Remensnyder (1995) pp. 189-93.

Abbey of Gellone / Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (Hérault, France)

The epic hero William who became a monk in Moniage Guillaume had earlier been known as William Fierce Arm {Guillaume Fièrebrace} and William with the Short Nose {Guillelme au cort nes}. On these names, Ferrante (1974) p. 38, and Hüe (2016). According to the epic, William’s nose had been damaged in his fight with a giant.

Le Moniage Guillaume survives in short and long versions. Subsequent quotes from Le Moniage Guillaume are similarly sourced from the short version, unless otherwise noted. Quotes from Le Moniage Guillaume above are vv. 131 (Yes, sir abbot, without looking at a book), 192-5, 201-6 (I’ve never seen a man with such a large appetite…), 345-58 (And William says: “If they take my underwear,”…), 446-50 (Would you like to hear about Sir Tiebaut the Slav…), 574-82, 590-99 (The leader of the thieves has seen the belt…).

[2] Above I’ve translated braies, from the Latin bracae, as “underwear.” That word probably has the same historical source as the English word “breeches.” To differentiate the Old French word famulaires, I’ve translated it as “breeches.”

Underwear styles have changed through history. Breeches aren’t identical to what today are called boxer underwear. Above I’ve favored in translation the word “underwear” because that’s the most common and easily understood English word for the relevant undergarment.

[3] Cf. Genesis 2:23. The long version of Moniage Guillaume trivializes William’s concern about losing his underwear. Specifically, upon hearing William’s question about underwear, the abbot “laughs to himself {ris desous sa cape}.” Moniage Guillaume, long version (version II), v. 695, Old French text from Cloetta (1906-11), vol. 1.

[4] The long version of Moniage Guillaume deflects concern about rape into concern about nakedness:

If they take my underwear from me, that would be great harm,
because one would be able to see all my matter.

{ S’il les me tolent, chou sera grans contraires,
Car on porra veir tot mon afaire. }

Moniage Guillaume, long version (version II), v. 689-90, Old French text from Cloetta (1906-11), vol. 1, my English translation.

An underwear story included in Chronicle of the Monastery of Montecassino {Chronica monasterii Casinensis} by 1075 similarly avoids the threat of rape. This story concerns Carloman, the son of the Frankish majordomo Charles Martel. Carloman, a Frankish leader himself, retired to the monastery of Montecassino in 747. One day while he was guarding the monastery’s sheep, thieves attacked him:

Those persons of a perverted mind, having robbed him of everything, began to depart. Then Carloman, not suffering the shame of his shameless members, violently snatched from them only his underwear. Unwilling to contend for the rest, he patiently allowed his other goods to be taken away.

{ Illi vero perversae mentis homines funditus eum expoliantes, coeperunt abire. Tum Karolus pudorem pudendorum membrorum non sufferens, femoralia tantum sua violenter eis eripuit; caetera, nolens contendere, patienter illos auferre permisit. }

Leo of Ostia {Leo Ostiensis}, also known as Leo of the Marsi {Leo Marsicanus}, Chronica monasterii Casinensis, chapter 7, Latin text from Monumenta Germaniae Historica, SS 7, p. 584, my English translation. Without any convincing evidence, Cleotta regarded this version of the underwear story as the original. Cloetta (1906-11) vol. 2, p. 132, n. 2, and p. 134. Peter the Deacon subsequently expanded the story. Id. p. 132, n. 2.

[5] Egbert of Liège, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis} 1.1717-8, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Babcock (2013). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Fecunda ratis vv. 1.1727-32. Voigt (1889), which is freely available, provides a nearly identical Latin text.

Egbert, a teacher at the cathedral school of Liège, completed Fecunda ratis between 1010 and 1026. Babcock (2013) p. xiii, xv. Fecunda ratis has survived in a single, eleventh-century manuscript: Cologne, Erzbischöfliche Diözesanbibliothek, Dombibliothek codex 196, fols. 1r-63r.

The story of Walter and his underwear is titled “About the monk Walter defending his breeches {De Waltero monacho brachas defendente}.” The story begins: “The brothers mandated Walter not to surrender his breeches {Mandant Waltero fratres non tradere brachas}.” Fecunda ratis 1.1717. That verse seems to have been proverbial. Elsewhere in the context of one-verse proverbs, it’s repeated nearly verbatim: “The brothers mandated Walter not to relinquish his breeches {Mandant Waltero fratres non reddere brachas}.” Fecunda ratis 1.214.

The reference to Walter’s “military service {militia}” being “well-known {nota}” (v. 1.1727) points to Walter’s action in a prior epic tradition. That’s plausibly the epic tradition of the Waltharius.

[6] Mark 9:23. Fecunda ratis is “schoolbook for young boys.” Babcock (2013) p. vii. The inclusion of the story “De Waltero monacho brachas defendente” in such a schoolbook points to the continuing problem of men raping boys. Curtius called it a “droll story{Schwank}” and a “droll tale {Schwank}.” Curtius (1953) p. 434. That narrow interpretation seems to me a serious misreading in the institutional context of Fecunda ratis. Consistent with ignorance and gender-bigotry in discussing rape, Woods (1996) ignores rape of boys and men.

[7] Clark (2017) p. 359.

[8] Chronicle of Novalese {Chronicon Novaliciense} 2.11.12-14, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Clark (2017). The monastery of Novalese was founded in 726 in the Susa Valley of northwest Italy. In the middle of eleventh century, a monk of Novalese constructed a history of the Novalese monastery. This Chronicon Novaliciense has survived only incompletely in a parchment roll {rotulus}. It’s probably the original manuscript. It’s now preserved in the State Archives of Turin {Archivio di Stato di Torino}. Id. p. 1. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Chronicon Novaliciense 2.11.37-40.

[9] On the priestly underwear requirement, Exodus 28:42-3, 39:28; Ecclesiasticus 45:8. Saint Benedict of Nursia established his monastic precepts, know as the Rule of Saint Benedict, early in the sixth century. Chapter 55 of the Rule of Saint Benedict contains precepts concerning underwear. Here’s Latin text of Chapter 55 and an English translation.

[10] Response of Nicholas to a Bulgarian emissary {Responsa Nicolai ad consulta bulgaronun}, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 119:1002 via Shopkow (2017) p. 188, English translation (modified slightly) from id.

[11] Robert of Molesme founded the Cistercian Order in 1098. He intended the Cistercian monks to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict more strictly than Benedictine monks then did. Because of the white cowl that they wore, Cistercian monks were known as “White Monks.” The White Monk strictly observed the Rule of Saint Benedict by, among other practices, not wearing underwear.

In Nigel of Canterbury’s Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}, Burnel the donkey pondered becoming a White Monk. Despite donkeys being renowned for having big penises, Burnel was anxious about his penis (“tail”) being short. That anxiety influenced his thinking about not wearing underwear as a White Monk:

They don’t have the bother of underwear when lying down
in bed. They are far from fear of that!
Their genital members down below know no underwear.
Night and day together their genitals will be always unrestricted.
Therefore what would I do, if wind coming from the south
would quickly bare my behind?
How could one bear to face such shame?
Afterwards how could one return to the cloister by foot?
So if by chance my shameful nudity might be seen,
I would never be a White Monk for the rest of my life.

{ Taedia de nocte femoralia nulla jacenti
In lecto facient; sit procul iste timor.
Nescia braccarum genitalia membra deorsum
Nocte dieque simul libera semper erunt.
Ergo quid facerem, veniens si ventus ab Austro
Nudaret subito posteriora mea?
Qua facie tantum quis sustinuisse pudorem
Possit et ad claustrum postea ferre pedem?
Quod si contingat mea nuda pudenda videri,
Nunquam de reliquo Monachus Albus ero. }

Speculum stultorum, vv. 2139-48, Latin text from Mozlley & Raymo (1960), my English translation, benefiting from that of Regenos (1959). If his genitals were exposed, Burnel would forever be red in embarrassment. That’s why he would no longer be a White Monk.

Inadvertent exposure wasn’t merely the matter of a medieval donkey’s anxiety. Walter Map’s late-twelfth-century On trifles of courtiers {De nugis curialium} tells of a great procession by the English king Henry II and Rericus, “a great monk and an honorable man {monachus magnus et honestus}.” A White Monk stumbled in front of them:

The wind propelled his habit over his neck such that the natural truth was made clearly visible. The wretched parts of which one is to be ashamed appeared before the unwilling eyes of the lord king and Rericus. The king, that repository of all politeness, pretended that his face was averted, and he was quiet. Rericus, however, said to himself softly, “A curse on the scrupulousness that reveals the anus!”

{ uentus autem uestes eius in collum propulit, ut domini regis et Rerici oculis inuitis manifesta fieret misera ueritas pudendorum. Rex, ut omnis facecie thesaurus, dissimulans uultum auertit, et tacuit. Rericus autem intulit secreto “Maledicta, religio que deuelat anum!” }

De nugis curialium 1.25, Latin text from James, Brooke & Mynors (1983), my English translation, benefitting from that of id.

[12] Tension between Christian values and epic values have long been recognized. In a letter to a Mercian bishop (probably Bishop Unuuona of Leicester), Alcuin of York in 797 asked, “What Has Ingeld To Do With Christ {Quid Hinieldus cum Christo}?” Alcuin, Letter 124. Cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Ingeld was an epic hero in Old English literature. Alcuin’s concern, however, wasn’t just the performance of epics at episcopal banquets. He was more generally castigating “an over-cosy alliance between a Mercian bishop and king.” Garrison (2005) p. 252.

Christian remolding of Germanic epic is apparent in the Old English poem “Dream of the Rood.” A scholar observed:

the concept of heroism in Old English Christian poetry does not simply reveal a dichotomy of Germanic and Christian; the Christian itself is many-coloured and, by and large, consonant with the Germanic. But at the deepest level it is flatly contradictory. The Christian hero manifests holiness, which encourages patience, while the Germanic hero reflects courage, which leads to pride.

Woeber (1995) p. 364.

[images] (1) Ruthwell Cross in the Ruthwell Church, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland in 2017. This monument was made in the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. It contains scenes from Christ’s life, Latin inscriptions, and runic inscriptions. Source image thanks to Rosser1954 and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s a less mystical view. (2) Epic warrior-hero William of Aquitaine becomes a monk. Carved, painted, and gilded chestnut relief made in the first quarter of the sixteenth century for Saint William’s Church {Église Saint-Guillaume} in Strasbourg. Image thanks to Ji-Elle and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Monk Saint William of Gellone, a former warrior (see helmet on ground) teaching women and men religious. Excerpt from folio 88r of Book of Hours of Simon de Varie, made in 1455 and preserved as MS. Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The Hague, Netherlands) 74 G37. (4) Abbey of Gellone / Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (Hérault, France). Excerpted from a photo by Fabien Dany. Shared, including on Wikimedia Commons, under a CC By SA 2.0 license.


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