Tristan’s dog Hudein more loyal than Iseut

Men too often are disparaged as being like dogs. That’s mean! Yet men would be told, as the saying goes, to take it like a man. Men suffering in silence from their hurt feelings should remember that the male dog Guinefort, later honored as a saint, saved a baby from a deadly serpent. Of course, the well-trained university student asks, “What about women?” In a famous medieval story now known as that of Iseut and Tristan, Tristan’s dog Hudein was more loyal to him than was his girlfriend Iseut. If men are dogs, at least men are loyal beasts.

After they both inadvertently drank a love potion, Iseut and Tristan ardently loved each other. They had sex, but they didn’t freely consent to have sex, because they acted under the influence of the love drug. In short, they raped each other. Iseut subsequently married King Mark of Cornwall. The king suspected Tristan of carrying on a love affair with Iseut and hence banished him from the realm. With Tristan in exile, Iseut and Tristan suffered severe lovesickness for each other.

Tristan secretly traveled back to Cornwall to visit Iseut. He cut his hair in a cross-shaped tonsure, stained his face with herb juices, transformed the sound of his voice, and carried a wooden stake on his shoulder. He dressed himself as a foolish madman, and he acted like one, too. He called himself Trantris, a name like Tristran (a version of Tristan), but with the syllables reversed.

After winning entrance to King Mark’s court, Tristan entertained the king by playing the fool. Tristan proposed trading his sister for Queen Iseut. Not recognizing Tristan, King Mark found that proposal to be foolishly amusing. Tristan foolishly proclaimed his ardent love for Iseut. He declared that she had cured him of his wound from fighting her uncle Morholt. He told the court of many other events in his relationship with Iseut. He even explicitly said that she was his mistress.

Iseut wasn’t amused. She angrily accused Trantris of lying about his name and what he had done. She thought he must be a soothsayer or magician, because what only she, Tristan, and her lady-in-waiting Brenguain knew, he knew. When Brenguain suggested that the fool actually was Tristan, Iseut completely dismissed that possibility:

No, he isn’t, Brenguain, because this one is ugly,
hideous and very deformed,
and Tristan is so shapely,
a handsome man, well-made and very educated.
One couldn’t find in any land
any knight of greater renown.
Thus I will never believe this one
is the one I know as my lover Tristan.
But this fool be cursed by God!
Cursed be the hour that he lives,
and let the ship be cursed
that brought the fool to this place.
Sad it was that he didn’t drown in the waves,
out there is the deep sea.

{ Nu l’est, Brengain, kar cist est laiz,
hidus e mult conterfait,
e Tristran est tant alinnez,
bels hom, ben fait, mult ensenez,
ne serroit truvez en nul païs
nul chevaler de greniur pris.
Pur ço ne crerai je uwan
k’iço sait mun ami Tristran.
Mais cist fol soit de Deu maldit!
Malete soit le ure ke il vit!
E cele nef maldite sait
en ki li fol en vint saendreit!
Dol fu ke il ne nëat en le unde
la hors en cele mer parfunde! }[1]

She didn’t recognize her beloved Tristan because he had changed his appearance and voice. She told him to go away.

Later, Brenguain brought Trantris to Iseut. They were alone. He approached her and wanted to kiss her. She retreated and shunned him. Trantris became distraught:

Alas! That I have lived so long
when I have seen this sight
that you hold me in disdain
and now you regard me as so vile!
In whom can I place my faith
when Iseut won’t deign to love me,
when Iseut considers me so vile
that now she has no memory of me?

{ Allas! Ki tant ai vesquu
quant je cest de vus ai vëu
ke vus en desdein me tenez
e pur si vil ore me avez!
En ki me purreie mes fier
quant Ysolt ne me deing’ amer,
quant Ysolt a si vil me tient
ke ore de mai ne li suvent? }

Trantris then alluded to the epic disaster of men’s impotence:

Ai Iseut, ai beloved!
A man who is loved well is only slowly forgotten.
Much valued is the fountain that rises well,
the one whose stream is good and flows well,
but from the hour that it dries up,
that its water doesn’t rise and doesn’t issue forth,
then it no longer receives praise.
One is not made to love when one is disloyal.

{ Ohi! Ysolt, ohi! amie,
hom ki ben aime tart ublie.
Mult valt funteine ki ben surt,
dunt li reuz est bon e ben curt,
e de l’ure ke ele secchist,
ke ewe n’i surt ne ewe ne ist,
si ne fet gueres a praiser:
ne fait amur quant voit boiser. }

Iseut said that she saw nothing to indicate that he was “Tristan the Lover {Tristran le Amerus}.” Considering him superficially, she didn’t perceive his inner being.

To get Iseut to recognize him, Tristan told of experiences they had together. Their adulterous trysts were daring and dangerous:

After blood-letting,
we were there in your bed-chamber.
But the crazy dwarf, born of a whore,
sprinkled flour between our beds
so by that means anyone would know
if it were true — the love between us.
But I realized that the flour was there.
From my feet standing on my bed, I jumped into your bed.
The jump broke the blood-letting wound in my arm
and I bloodied your bed.
When I jumped back, likewise
I made bloody my own bed.
Then King Mark came up there
and found your bed bloody.
He came to mine immediately
and so found my bloody sheets.
Queen, for love of you
I was then chased away from the court.

{ … senez fumes
en vostre chambrë u sumes.
Mais li fol naims de pute orine
entre noz liz pudrat farine
kar par tant quidat saver
le amur de nus, si ço fust veir;
mais je de ço m’en averti:
a vostre lit joinz peez sailli;
al sailer le braz me crevat
e vostre lit ensenglentat;
arere saili ensement
e le men lit refis sanglant.
Li reis Marke i survint atant
e vostre lit truvat sanglant;
al men en vint eneslepas
e si truvat sanglant mes dras.
Raïne, pur vostre amité
fu de la curt lores chascé. }[2]

Suspected of adultery, Iseut arranged to take an oath to allay concerns. On the day of her oath, Tristan, disguised as a pilgrim, carried her from a boat to the shore. On the shore, Iseut contrived a fall:

When you were coming ashore from the boat,
in my arms I held you softly.
I had well disguised myself
as you had ordered me to do.
I kept my head very bent down —
you know what you said to me then —
that I must let myself fall with you.
Iseut, beloved, isn’t that true?
Softly you fell to the ground,
and you opened your thighs to me,
and let me fall between them,
and so saw all the people.
By such means, as I understand it,
Iseut, you were saved at judgment
from the oath and the tale
that you told in the king’s court.

{ Quant vus eisistes de la nef,
entre mes bras vus tinc süef; –
je me ere ben desguisee,
cum vus me avïez mandé:
le chef tenei’ mult enbrunc –
ben sai quai me deïstes dunc:
ke od vus me laissasse chair; –
Ysolt amie, n’est ço vair? –
süef a la terre chaïstes
e voz quissettes me auveristes,
e m’i laissai chaïr dedenz,
e ço virent tuz les genz.
Par tant fustes, ce je le entent,
Ysolt, guari’ al jugement
del serment e de la lai
ke feïstes en la curt le rai. }

At the judgment proceeding, Iseut swore that no man had been between her thighs except her husband King Mark and “that pilgrim there” (Tristan in disguise), whom all had just seen fall between her thighs. She didn’t lie. She was only intentionally deceptive.[3]

When suspicion of adultery persisted, Tristan and Iseut fled from King Mark’s court. King Mark, however, tracked them down. He found them sleeping together in the forest. Tristan explained:

But God had worked for us.
Mark found the sword between us
as we were lying far apart.
The king took the glove from his fist
and placed it over your face,
very softly, and he didn’t say a word,
because he saw the sun’s ray
that had burned you and made your face red.
The king then went away
and left us to sleep.
After that, he didn’t have any suspicion
that there was anything not good between us.
He pardoned us from his anger,
and at once he sent for us.

{ mais Deus aveit uvré pur nus,
quant trovat le espee entre nus
e nus rejumes de loins;
li reis prist le gaunt de sun poing
e sur la face le vus mist
tant süef ke un mot ne dit,
kar il vit un rai de soleil
ke out hallé e fait vermeil;
li reis s’en est alez atant
si nus laissat dormant;
puis ne out nul’ suspezïun
ke entre nus öust si ben nun:
sun maltalent nus pardonat
e sempres pur nus envoiat. }

Despite these distinctive, memorable stories, Iseut didn’t believe that the man standing before her was Tristan. He lamented her disdain for him. He suspected that her love for him had been deceitful.

Then Tristan remembered that he had given Iseut his dog Hudein. Since she rejected him, he at least wanted his dog back from her. Brenguain brought Hudein:

Tristan said to him, “Come here, Hudein!
Once you were mine, now I’m taking you back.”
Hudein saw him, at once knew him,
and greeted him joyfully, as is right to do.
Never have I heard of a dog after returning
to create greater joy
than Hudein did to his master,
such great love for him did he show.
He rushed upon him, his head raised,
rubbing him with his muzzle, patting him with his paws.
Never did an animal show such great joy.
It made one have great compassion for them.

{ Tristran li dit: ‘Ça ven, Huden!
Tu fus ja men, ore te repren.’
Huden le vit, tost le cunuit,
joie li fist cum faire dut.
Unkes de chen ne oï retraire
ke post meiur joie faire
ke Huden fist a sun sennur,
tant par li mustrat grant amur.
Sur lui curt, leve la teste,
unc si grant joie ne fist best’:
bute del vis, fert del pé;
aver en pöust l’en gran pité. }[4]

Tristan held Hudein and petted him. Still hurting from Iseut rejecting him, he complained to her:

My dog remembers me,
I who nurtured him and trained him.
You don’t, whom I loved so.
Much does a dog have great nobility,
and a woman great deceit!

{ Melz li suvient
ke jo le nurri ki le afaitai
ke vus ne fait ki tant amai!
Mult par at en chen grant franchise
e en femme grant feintise. }[5]

The next time you hear men disparaged as dogs, think to yourself: women should strive to be more like dogs.

Recognition of Tristram by La Belle Isoude (stained glass window)

Iseut finally became more like a dog. When Tristan shifted back to his natural voice, she finally recognized him. Then she loved him as ardently as he loved her:

Such joy she had from her lover,
whom she held by her side,
that her joy in no way could be contained.
She would not allow him to depart that night.
She said that he would have there a good guest-house
and a fine bed, well-made and beautiful.
Tristan sought nothing else
beyond Queen Iseut and her alone.
Tristan was joyful and happy.
He knew that he would be well-lodged.

{ tele joi’ en ad de sun ami
ke ele ad e tent dejuste li
ke ele ne set cument contenir:
ne le lerat anuit mes partir,
dit k’i averat bon ostel
e baus lit ben fait e bel.
Tristran autre chosce ne quert
fors la raïne Ysolt u ele ert;
Tristran en est joius e lez:
mult set ben ke il est herbigez! }

Men delight in being well-lodged. What’s wrong with that? I’d like to know, except there they go, cuckolding King Mark again. Neither Iseut nor Tristan was King Mark’s dog.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] The Madness of Tristan of Oxford {La folie Tristan d’Oxford} vv. 577-90, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Short (1993), English translation (modified) from Weiss (2009). Subsequent quotes from Folie Tristan d’Oxford are similarly sourced. Bliss (2018) provides excerpts of the Anglo-Norman text of Short (1993), with English translation. Rosenberg (1998) provides an Old French edition and English translation, but inadvertently missing vv. 952-995.

The Folie Tristan d’Oxford is “d’Oxford” because it survives only in MS Oxford Bodleian Douce d. 6 (SC 21983), folios 12v – 19r. That manuscript apparently was written in the last third of the thirteenth century. Folie Tristan d’Oxford is thought to have been composed in the last quarter of the twelfth century with the benefit of Thomas’s Tristan. The Madness of Tristan of Berne {La folie Tristan de Berne}, which survives mainly in MS Bern, Burgerbibliothek 354, folios 151rb-156rb, is similar to Folie Tristan d’Oxford, but the former is much shorter. For a correlation of themes in the Oxford and Bern Folie Tristan, Bromiley (1986) Appendix. For Old French text and English translations of both, Rosenberg (1998). On Tristan story themes in literary history, Schoepperle (1913).

In the Folie Tristan d’Oxford, the main characters are written as Tristran and Ysolt. The name Tristran supports the anagram Trantris. In the English-language text, I’ve normalized their names to Tristan and Iseut.

Subsequent quotes above are from Folie Tristan d’Oxford, vv. 694-700 (Alas! That I have lived so long…), 700-8 (Ai Iseut, ai beloved!…), 712 (Tristan the Lover), 739-56 (After blood-letting…), 819-34 (When you were coming ashore…), 881-94 (But God had worked for us…), 907-18 (Tristan said to him…), 934-8 (My dog remembers me…), 989-98 (Such joy she had…).

[2] Weiss’s translation inexplicably omits the reference to blood-letting. Blood-letting was a common medieval health practice. When virgin women have sex, many, but not all, experience a small amount of harmless blood flow. Iseut was not a virgin. This bloody bed incident alludes ironically both to blood flow in a woman’s first sexual intercourse and the brutalization of men’s sexuality.

[3] Myth-makers writing to buttress women’s dominant social power have gushingly sympathized with Iseut and universalized the boot-licking man:

The men who were enthralled by this story all desired Iseult {Iseut}. At times, she outraged them. At other times, they perhaps, in the end, pitied this young girl, who had been carried away, one day, by the murderer {Tristan} of her uncle, over the seas to the bed {as queen) of a man she did not know {King Mark}; they perhaps pitied this woman, from then on hounded, divided against herself, shared as between these two lions she saw in a dream when drowsy after love {adulterous sex with Tristan}, tearing her apart, torn between two antagonistic forces of equal power, desire and the law. This Iseult was pitiable, victim of her own passion and of the passion that her very presence sufficed to ignite among the men who were constantly close about her, and some of whom spent the night, in an opportune obscurity, a few paces from her bed.

{ Les hommes que l’histoire captiva désiraient tous Iseut. Par moments, elle les indignait. À d’autres moments n’avaient-ils pas pitié, en fin de compte, de cette fille que le meurtrier de son oncle avait un jour emportée au-delà des mers pour la conduire dans le lit d’un homme qu’elle ne connaissait pas, pitié de cette femme désormais traquée, divisée contre elle-même, partagée, comme entre ces deux lions qu’elle vit en songe, assoupie après l’amour dans la tiédeur des heures chaudes, la déchirant, écartelée entre deux forces antagonistes d’égale puissance, le désir et la loi. Iseut pitoyable, Iseut victime de son propre feu et du feu que sa seule présence attisait parmi les mâles qui la côtoyaient sans cesse et dont quelques-uns dormaient la nuit, dans une obscurité propice, à quelques pas de sa couche? }

Duby (1995) p. 129, English by Birrell (1997). Harper more objectively described qualities of Iseut: “immaturity, superficiality, selfishness, predisposition towards anger, violence, emotional outbursts and lack of judgement.” Harper (2003) p. 83. Not all men desire women like that.

[4] The Folie Tristan d’Oxford earlier describes Tristan giving Iseut a different dog:

Don’t you remember, my beautiful lover,
about the little love-gift
that I once sent you —
a little dog that I bought for you?
That was Little Grown,
whom you held most dear.

{ Ne menbre vus, ma bele amie,
de un’ petit’ drüerie
kë une faiz vus envaiai,
un chenet ke vus purchaçai?
E ço fu le Petitcru
ke vus tant cher avez ëu. }

Folie Tristan d’Oxford , vv. 757-62. The dog Little Grown {Petitcru} is a magical dog that appears in other romances of Iseut and Tristan. Hudein (also spelled Huden), in contrast, found Iseut and Tristan in the forest. Tristan trained him not to bark so as not to reveal their presence. Hudein, along with Tristan’s hawk, hunted food for them. Id. vv. 873-6. Hudein has slightly different names in different versions: Utant (Eilhart von Oberge’s Tristrant), Hudent (Folie Tristan de Berne and Béroul’s Tristan), Hiudan (Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Isolt), and Hodain (Sir Tristrem). Weiss (2009) p. 152, n. 40.

[5] In the Folie Tristan de Berne, Tristan says to his dog:

You haven’t lost the love you have for me.
You’ve shown me a warmer welcome
than the woman I loved so much.

{ Ne m’as mie t’amor toloite.
Mout m’as montré plus bel sanblant
Que celi cui j’amoie tant. }

Folie Tristan de Berne, vv. 523-5, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Rosenberg (1998). Earlier Tristan declared appreciatively, “Dogs have a remarkable nature {Estrange nature a en chien}.” Folie Tristan de Berne v. 485, sourced as previously.

Neither Thomas’s Tristan nor Béroul’s Tristan includes Tristan praising his dog for loving him more than Queen Iseut does. But Béroul’s Tristan includes Tristan’s extravagant appreciation for dogs:

Solomon who is right said
that it is his hound that is his lover.

{ Salemon dit que droituriers
Que ses amis, c’ert ses levriers. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 1461-2, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Lacy (1998b).

In Eilhart von Oberge’s Tristrant, Tristan, exiled, marries a second Iseut, Iseut of the White Hands. She treats him coldly. Tristan tells his companion Kaherdin that his first beloved Iseut (Queen Iseut / Iseut of Ireland and later Cornwall) loves the dog he gave her more than Iseut of the White Hands loves him. Queen Iseut’s caressing of the dog confirms Tristan’s claim. Schoepperle (1913) vol. 1, pp. 42, 44. The proverb “one who loves me loves my dog {qui l’aime il aime mon chien}” apparently was already current in the twelfth century. Id. p. 157.

Schoepperle calls Iseut’s love for Tristan’s dog “one of the extravagences of courtly sentiment” in Eilhart’s Tristrant. Id. But it’s also an example of men’s sexed protest with respect to Iseut of the White Hands. In the Folie Tristan d’Oxford and Folie Tristan de Berne, Tristan’s comparison of Hudein’s recognition of him with Queen Iseut’s superficial disregard for him is similarly an expression of men’s sexed protest. In dominant discourse, medieval expressions of men’s sexed protests have been unjustly marginalized and stigmatized through superficial, hateful name-calling.

[images] (1) Man lovingly holding dog. Source photo by Katie Cook. Photo made in Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2008. Generously offered on flickr under a Creative Commons By/2.0 license. (2) La Belle Isoude (Queen Iseut) recognizes Tristram (Tristan) at Tintagel. Stained glass panel (excerpt) designed by Edward Burne-Jones in 1862. This is one of thirteen Tristram and Isoude stained glass panels placed in Harden Grange, which was textile merchant Walter Dunlop’s house near Bingley in Yorkshire. Overall design by William Morris of Morris, Marshall, Faulker & Co.


Bliss, Jane. 2018. An Anglo-Norman Reader. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Bromiley, Geoffrey N. 1986. Thomas’s Tristan and the Folie Tristan d’Oxford. London: Grant & Cutler.

Duby, Georges. 1995. Dames du XIIe siècle. Volume I. Héloise, Aliénor, Iseut et quelques autres. Paris: Gallimard. Translated in English by Jean Birrell as Women of the Twelfth Century. Volume One: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Six Others. Chicago, IL: Polity Press and the University of Chicago.

Harper, April. 2003. Images of Adultery in Twelfth and Thirteenth-Century Old French Literature. Ph.D. Thesis, University of St Andrews.

Lacy, Norris J., ed. 1998a. Early French Tristan Poems. Vol. 1. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Lacy, Norris J., ed. and trans. 1998b. “Béroul’s Tristan.” Pp. 3-218 in Lacy (1998a).

Rosenberg, Samuel N., ed. and trans. 1998. “Les Folies Tristan.” Pp. 219-310 in Lacy (1998a).

Schoepperle, Gertrude. Tristan and Isolt: a study of the sources of the romance. Volume 1. Volume 2. London: David Nutt. Alternate source.

Short, Ian, ed. 1993. The Anglo-Norman Folie Tristan. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society(ANTS) Plain Texts Series 10. London: Birbeck College. Alternate presentation.

Weiss, Judith. 2009. The Birth of Romance in England: The Romance of Horn, The Folie Tristan, The Lai of Haveloc, and Amis and Amilun; Four Twelfth-Century Romances in the French of England. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS).

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