Ermengard fought for her son William against King Louis

The epic hero Count William of Orange {Guillaume d’Orange}, son of Countess Ermengard and Count Aimeri, prevented another noble from usurping the throne of Charlemagne’s young son Louis. Years later, when the pagans inflicted a terrible defeat on William’s Frankish force at Aliscans, William came to King Louis to seek help in defending the city of Orange. Without his mother’s strong support in the royal court, William wouldn’t have received any help. Mothers acting courageously help men to receive justice.

King Louis initially refused to meet Count William. William had arrived dirty and in tattered clothes at the royal court at Laon. Louis apparently had heard about William’s disaster at Aliscans. He no longer wanted to associate with William. Rather than personally greeting William, Louis told his messenger Sanson:

Go, and you make it known
that he will never be received by me.
May the living devils themselves command his body,
such trouble and pain he has brought us.
He isn’t a man, but a living demon.
May he be cursed in his neck and in his nose.
Whatever comes to him, that is good!

{ … Alés, si vos saés,
Ke ja par moi ne sera ravisés.
As vis deables s’est ses cors commandés.
Tant nous avra travelliés et penés;
Ce n’est pas homs, ains est un vis maufés.
Maudehait ait et el col et el nes
Qui il est bei ke chi est arrivés! }

William was known for his short nose. His nose had been partially cut off in furious combat with a giant. Louis thus ridiculed and cursed his loyal supporter William. Gender equality will never be achieved while men treat other men so badly.

King Charles the Bald from the Vivian Bible

The lords at Louis’s court treated William no better than did Louis. William pleaded:

Lords, you do me great wrong.
I have nourished and advanced all of you.
Many times I have given my goods to you.
I have presented you with money and robes and horses.
If now I cannot give to you, I should not be blamed,
because at Archant I was completely beaten.
My men are dead. From much of mine little is left!

{ … Signeur, grant tort avés.
Je vos ai tos noris et alevés,
Mes biax avoirs par maintes fois donés,
Deniers et robes et chevax presentés;
S’or ne vos doing, n’en doi estre blasmés,
Car en l’Areant fui tos desbaretés.
Mort sont mi homme, molt m’en est poi remés! }

Men and women care much more about women’s welfare than men’s welfare. William knowingly concluded his plea with his most persuasive appeal:

Lady Guiborc, who has loved you so much,
sent me to ask you that you would help her.
By God, lords, take pity on her!
Help us! That would be great charity.

{ Dame Guibors, ki tant vos a amés,
Par moi vos mande ke vos le secorés.
Por dieu, signeur, prenge vos ent pité!
Secorés nos, grant aumosne ferés. }

The lords said nothing. They walked away from William.

Enraged, William resolved that, at court the next day, he would behead the king and kill as many lords as he could. Blanchefor, William’s sister, was then to be crowned as Louis’s queen. William arrived for the ceremony amid the noble, lavishly dressed court:

The count William was well recognized,
but badly he was received among them,
because he was so poorly dressed.
There was not one among them who would turn to greet him,
not even the queen, who had seen him well enough.
She is his sister, who should love him most.
By all in all he was disrespected.
William saw it and was burning in anger.
Upon a bench he went to seat himself, fully silent.
Under his cloak he held his sword fully bared.
Little more is needed. Certain is his anger toward them.

{ Li quens Guillames fu bien recounetis,
Mais malement fu entr’aus recletis.
Por ce k’il ert si povrement vestus,
N’i ot un seul ki li desist salus,
Nis la roïne, dont assés fu vetis;
Ki ert sa suer, amer le detist plus.
De tout en tout i fu mescounetis.
Voit le Guillames, forment fu irascus;
Deseur un banc s’ala seoir tous mus.
Sous son mantel tenoit son branc tout nus.
Petit s’en faut, seure lor est corus. }

Suddenly William’s father Aimeri appeared with one hundred and forty knights. More importantly, William’s mother Ermengard appeared:

Great was the noise and the cries and the shouts.
The Franks were excited. All at the court jumped up.
Facing Aimeri, the king also rose to meet him.
Now William’s increased his power and his strength.
If Ermengard can, she will help him well.

{ Grans fu la noise et li cris et li hus,
Franc s’estormisent, es les vos sailli sus.
Contre Aimeri s’en est li rois issus.
Or croist Guillaume sa force et sa vertus:
S’Ermengart puet bien sera recoruz. }

The king and the lords greeted Ermengard and Aimeri. William leaped to his feet. He was determined to display his courage in front of his parents. He approached King Louis and declared:

Jesus of Glory, the King of Paradise,
preserve her, of whom I was born,
and my dear father, by whom I was engendered,
and all my brothers and my other friends,
and destroy this evil and cowardly king,
and my sister, the whore, the courtesan,
by whom I was so basely received
and in whose court I was ridiculed and shamed.
When I dismounted beneath the olive branches,
then not one of his men, neither big nor little,
came to me to hold my Arabian warhorse.
But, by all the saints whom God has blessed,
were it not for my father, who sits beside the king,
I would split his head with my sword.

{ Jhesu de gloire, li rois de paradis
Save celi, de qui je sui nasquis,
Et mon chier pere, dont fui engenuis
Et tos mes freres et mes autres amis,
Et il confonde cel mavais roi faillis
Et ma serour, la putain, la mautris,
Par qui je fui si vieument recuellis
Et en sa cor gabés et escarnis.
Quant descendi sous l’olivier foillis,
Ainc de ses hommes n’i ot grant ne petis,
Ki me tenist mon destrier Arabis.
Mais, par les sains ke diex a beneis,
N’iert por mon pere, ki les lui est assis,
Je le fendroie del branc si qu’el cervis. }

King Louis and Queen Blanchefor were terrified. But Ermengard and Aimeri immediately recognized William and embraced him. So too did four of his brothers, who had traveled there with his parents.

The crowd at court was silent, uneasy, and unsure. Two of William’s brothers wept for close men relatives they had lost in the violence of William’s defeat. One noble softly said to another:

What living devils could endure so much?
Never did so many valiant knights go there,
who were never to return to France.
For evil we met William and his pride.
He left Orange. Let the infidels have command of it!
He can have Vermendois up to the port of Vuisart.

{ Quex vis deables porroient soffrir tant?
Ainc n’i alerent tant chevalier vaillant,
C’onques en France fuisent puis repairant.
Mar acointames Guillame et son beubant;
Car laist Orenge, as maufés le commant!
S’ait Vermendois jusqu’au port de Vuisant. }

No one came forward to offer William help. Then his mother Ermengard stood and proclaimed in a loud, clear voice:

By God, you Franks, you are all cowards.
Sir Aimeri, now your heart is going lacking.
Beautiful son William, you shouldn’t be distressing,
for by the apostles whom penitents seek,
I have yet a treasury so very large
that twenty oxen couldn’t carry it.
All of it I will give, not having a coin left,
to the soldiers who are willing to fight.
And I myself will be riding there,
wearing hauberk and shining helmet laced on,
shield at my neck, sword at my side,
lance in my fist, going in the first rank in front.
Even though I have hair old and white,
I have a heart bold and completely joyful,
so I will help my child, so please God.
For by the apostles whom penitents seek,
when I will be armed on my warhorse,
there’s no pagan, Saracen, or Persian,
that if I can reach him with my cutting sword,
will not at the battleground fall from his warhorse!

{ Par dieu, Francois, tout estes recreant.
Aimeris sire, or te va cuers faillant.
Biaus fiex Guillames, ne te va esmaiant;
Car, par l’apostle que quirent peneant,
Encor ai jo un tresor si tres grant,
Ne le menroient .xx. bués en cariant;
Tout le donrai, ja n’i lairai besant,
As saudoiers, ki s’iront combatant,
Et je meïsmes i serai cevauchant,
L’aubere vestu, lacié l’elme luisant,
L’escu au col et au costé le brant,
La lance el poing, el prumier cief devant.
Por ce se j’ai le poil cenu et blanc,
S’ai je le cuer hardi et tot joiant,
Si aiderai, se dieu plaist, mon enfant.
Car, par l’apostle ke quirent peneant,
Puis ke serai armé en l’auferrant,
N’i a paien, Sarrasin ne Persant,
Se le consieu de mon espié trenchant,
Ne le convigne chaoir de l’auferrant! }

Ermengard standing up for her son William was the turning point in his request for help. Men’s welfare depends on women’s decisive action. If a woman supports a man, men and women will rally behind her and support him, too.

Ermengard, Countess of Rietberg, 1562 to 1584

Men betraying men, as King Louis did to his loyal friend William, isn’t sufficient to perpetuate gender injustice. Women ultimately control men and effectively rule society under gynocentrism. Massively gender-disproportionate slaughter of men in war and in other forms of violence occurs only with women’s complicity. If she were for him, the world would be more just and more humane, and one could truly imagine gender equality.

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The above story of Countess Ermengard and her son William of Orange is from Aliscans, a twelfth-century “song of deeds {chanson de geste}.” It’s part of the Old French epic cycle known as the Deeds of Garin de Monglane {Geste de Garin de Monglane} or the Cycle of William of Orange {Cycle de Guillaume d’Orange}. Another chanson de geste in that cycle is The Monastic Life of William {Le Moniage Guillaume}. Aliscans, the place where the Saracens devastatingly defeated William and his Franks, is also called Archamps or Archant. It might be the place now known as Alyscamps in Arles.

Notice that when William’s mother and father arrive at King Louis’s court at Laon, William first thinks of his mother Ermengard, not his father Aimeri, helping him (Aliscans, v. 2594). In William’s defiant “Jesus of Glory” speech, he mentions his mother first (id., v. 2640). Ermengard also comes before Aimeri in recognizing William (id. v. 2658). Ermengard speaks first in support of William, and she even chides her husband Aimeri for not more strongly supporting their son William (id., v. 2710).

Ermengard was a well-known name in medieval Europe. It’s a Germanic name arising from the German words “ermen/irmin,” meaning “whole, universal” and “gard” meaning “enclosure, protection.”

Women have been powerful figures historically. Ferrante noted of Countess Ermengard:

Some of the traits attributed to this attractive character may well be based on a contemporary figure, Ermengard the Countess of Narbonne. She inherited her father’s lands in 1134 and ruled them, despite attempts by the Count of Toulouse and others to take them from her, until 1192, when she abdicated in favor of her nephew. While she ruled, she led her own troops and she exercised all the powers of a ruler, even judicial.

Ferrante (1974) p. 58, n. 44.

King Louis, the son of the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, is known historically as King Louis the Pious. King Louis historically was the husband of Ermengarde of Hesbaye. She had six children with him. The depiction in Aliscans of Ermengard dominating King Louis in support of her son William may reflect historical sense of Queen Ermengarde of Hesbaye’s marital relationship with King Louis.

In a related cyclical chanson de geste, The Crowning of Louis {Le Couronnement de Louis}, Guy of Alemagne challenged the young, weak King Louis to single combat to determine the fate of Rome. No Frankish baron was willing to accept that challenge on behalf of King Louis. Louis was sighing and weeping bitterly when William entered the royal tent on the battlefield outside Rome. William responded with motherly compassion and motherly aggression to Louis’s plight:

When he sees Louis, he was not a little enraged.
Then he shouts, so that all the barons can hear:
“Ah! Poor king, may only the body of God make you grieve!
Why do you cry? Who has done you harm?”
And Louis answered, he who was defenseless:
“In the name of God, sire, I know not to conceal it from you.
Guy of Alemagne has demanded of me a great outrage.
By my sweet body he orders me to fight.
There isn’t a Frank who will appear in my place,
and I am a young man, and small in age,
so I can’t endure well such barons.
“King,” said William, “may only the body of God make you grieve!
For your love I have done twenty-four challenges.
Do you think for this I would now fail you?
Not at all, by God! I will carry this fight.
All your Franks aren’t worth half a coin.”

{ Quant il le veit, a pou que il n’enrage.
Lors li escrie, oiant tot le barnage:
“Hé! povres reis, li cors Deu mal te face!
Por quel plorez? Qui vos a fait damage?”
Et Looïs respondi, que n’i targe:
“En nom Deu, sire, ne sai que vos celasse:
Gui d’Alemaigne m’a mandé grant oltrage.
Par noz dous cors me requiert la bataille,
N’i a Franceis qui por mon cors le face
Et je sui jovenes, et de petit eage,
Si ne puis pas bien sofrir tel barnage.
“Reis,” dist Guillelmes, “li cors Deu mal te face!
Por vostre amor en ai fait vint et quatre:
Cuidiez vos donc que por ceste vos faille?
Nenil, par Deu! Je ferai la bataille.
Tuit vo Franceis ne valent pas meaille.” }

Le Couronnement de Louis, vv. 2418-34, Old French text from Langlois (1920), my English translation, benefiting from that of Ferrante (1974). Le Couronnement de Louis is thought to have been composed before Aliscans. Ferrante (1974) pp. 10-2. Ermengard’s subsequent courageous action shows that William had his mother’s character.

The above quotes from Aliscans use Old French text from Wienbeck, Hartnacke & Rasch (1903) and English translation (modified) from Ferrante (1974). Those quotes are Aliscans vv. 2394-2400 (Go, and you make it known…), 2418-24 (Lords, you do me great wrong…), 2435-8 (Lady Guiborc, who has loved you so much…), 2576-86 (The count William was well recognized…), 2590-4 (Great was the noise and the cries and the shouts…), 2638-51 (Jesus of Glory, the King of Paradise…), 2695-700 (What living devils could endure so much…), 2709-28 (By God, you Franks, you are all cowards…).

[images] (1) King Charles the Bald on his throne. Charles the Bald {Charles le Chauve} was the son of King Louis the Pious and became King of West Francia in 843. The image is a detail from an illustration of the Vivian Bible being presented to King Charles. This illustration was made by monks of the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours about 846. From folio 423r of the Vivian Bible {Bible de Vivien}. The Vivian Bible is a bible that Count Vivian gave to Charles the Bald in 846. Preserved as MS. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 1. (2) Ermengard, Countess of Rietberg from 1562 to 1584. Portrait painted by Hermann Tom Ring in 1564. Preserved in Collection Fritz Thomée. Source image via Wikimedia Commons and Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur. Here’s a family portrait that includes Ermengard of Rietberg.


Ferrante, Joan M., trans. 1974. Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics. New York: Columbia University Press. Review by Diana Teresa Mériz.

Langlois, Ernest. 1920. Le Couronnement de Louis, chanson de geste du XIIe siècle. Les classiques français du Moyen Âge, 22. Paris: Champion. Alternate presentation.

Wienbeck, Erich, Wilhelm Hartnacke, and Paul Rasch, eds. 1903. Aliscans. Kritischer Text. Halle A.D.S: Verlag Von Max Niemeyer.

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