Robert redeemed his mother’s prayer to Satan to conceive child

Medieval women and men who didn’t identify with consecrated religious life typically desired intensely to have children. For them, to be barren, to have no heir, was a miserable condition. In The Romance of Robert the Devil {Le roman de Robert le Diable}, composed about 1300, the Duchess and Duke of Normandy across seventeen years of marriage longed fruitlessly for children. The Duchess subsequently prayed to Satan that she would conceive. She thus conceived Robert the Devil.

In the relatively enlightened medieval period, adults understood how babies are made. Medieval adults didn’t believe that women just found themselves pregnant. Medieval adults even honestly acknowledged the problem of husbands being cuckolded. For example, in the late-fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, Friar Flatterer and Sir Penetrans-Domos came to offer medical care at the home of the sick Conscience. Peace, however, held them at the door:

Unless you’re competent in some craft, you’re not coming in here.
I knew such a one once, not eight winters ago,
who came in thus coped to a court where I lived,
and served as surgeon for both our sire and our dame.
And at the last this low friar, when my lord was out,
he salved our women so till some were with child.

{ But thow konne any craft, thow comest nought herinne!
I knew swich oon ones, noght eighte wynter passed,
Coom in thus ycoped at a court there I dwelde,
And was my lordes leche — and my ladies bothe.
And at the laste this lymytour, tho my lord was oute,
He salvede so oure wommen til some were with childe. }[1]

Wrath, who served as a cook at a convent, stirred trouble with gossip:

I prepared stews for the prioress and other poor ladies
and served them juicy suggestions — that Dame Joan was a bastard,
and Dame Clarice a knight’s daughter, but her daddy was a cuckold,
and Dame Parnel a priest’s wench — “She’ll never be prioress
for she had a child in cherry-time. Our whole chapter knows it!”
With vicious verbiage I, Wrath, cooked their vegetables
till “You lie!” and “You lie!” leapt out at once,
and each hit the other under the cheek.
Had they had knives, by Christ, they’d have killed each other.

{ I was the prioresse potager and other povere ladies,
And maad hem joutes of janglyng–that Dame Johane was a bastard,
And Dame Clarice a knyghtes doughter–ac a cokewold was hir sire,
And Dame Pernele a preestes fyle–Prioresse worth she nevere,
For she hadde child in chirie-tyme, al oure Chapitre it wiste!
Of wikkede wordes I Wrathe hire wortes made,
Til “Thow lixt!” and “Thow lixt!” lopen out at ones
And either hitte oother under the cheke;
Hadde thei had knyves, by Crist! hir either hadde kild oother. }[2]

Being born outside of wedlock, having a father who was a cuckold, carrying on an affair with a priest — these were common occurrences. Nonetheless, most persons in medieval Europe regarded such situations as involving sin, or at least not being ideal.

Praying to Satan to have a child takes sinfulness to a diabolical level. In Le roman de Robert le Diable, the childless Duchess of Normandy lost her faith through self-pity and grief:

“God, you must hate me!” she cried.
“Fruitless is how you want me to be!
To a powerless pauper, oh Lord,
you will give a child in no time,
while I, who have riches and wealth,
it seems clear, must live on, deprived.
What a powerless God you are, Lord,
unable to grant what I ask.” She paused.
“Satan,” she cried, “to you I pray,
may you now turn your attention to me
so that you give me a child,
such I pray to you from this hour forward.”

{ “Dieu,” fait ele, “com me haés.
Que fruit doner ne me volés!
Une caitive non poissant,
Donés vous, sire, leus enfant;
Et moi qui tant ai, sire, avoir
Ne puis, che m’est vis, nul avoir.
Espoir que nul pooir [n’]avés,
Que vous, sire, nul me donés.
Diable,” fait el, “je te proi
Que tu entenges ja vers moi:
Se tu me dones un enfant,
Che te proi dès ore en avant.” }[3]

Soon the Duke returned to their castle and found his wife in bed. She looked beautiful, and he desired her. Immediately he delighted her in marital sexual intercourse. There’s nothing devilish about that, usually. This occasion, however, was different. The devil had used the Duke and Duchess as tools to engender a devilish child: Robert the Devil.[4]

From a vicious, bawling, and biting baby, Robert grew to be a tall, handsome, and strong young man. He was also thoroughly wicked. Everyone at the Duchess and Duke’s palace fled from him for fear of Robert beating or killing them. Robert then went into the forest and became the leader of a band of brigands. They killed many merchants and pilgrims and set fire to abbeys and granges. Any beautiful woman Robert encountered, he raped. One day he went into an abbey, raped and killed fifty nuns, and then burned the abbey to cinders.

Conscious of his own wickedness, Robert thought that he must have been stained from birth. He went to his mother. He threatened to kill her unless she explained to him why he was so wicked. She told him the truth about her childless despair and her prayer to Satan for a child. Robert indeed was a child from Hell by Satan’s intervention in his conception.

Robert the Devil seeking penance from the Pope

Robert then resolutely rejected his devilish birth identity. He began his transition by throwing away his sword and having his head shaved. He changed into a rough, old cloak and discarded his shoes. He then walked as a pilgrim to seek penance from the Pope. The Pope directed him to a holy hermit living alone deep in a forest called Marabonde.

Robert’s penance, which the hermit learned through a divine message, was horrific. The hermit hesitated to impose such a harsh penance. Robert insisted:

“Sir,” said Robert, “Know now:
there is nothing in the world that I would not do
so as to recover my soul
from the devil, who claims to have birthed it.

{ “Sire,” dist Robers, “or sachiés:
N’est riens el mont que ne feïsse,
Por coi je m’arme rescoussisse
Al diable, qui part i claime.” }[5]

For Robert’s penance, he was to act like a madman and allow all, without retaliation, to insult him, chase him, throw stones at him, and beat him. He was also required to remain silent. Moreover, he could eat only food that he wrestled away from dogs.

Robert the Devil receiving his penance from the hermit that the Pope reveres

Robert performed his penance on the streets of Rome and then in the Roman Emperor’s palace. Three times an envoy of God brought him armor and a white charger so that he could defend the Emperor from a Turkish attack. In the massive battles, Robert killed tens of thousands of men as an unknown white knight of extraordinary prowess. Robert kept hidden that he was that white knight. He thus disassociated himself from violence against men, even when it was necessary for defense of the realm.

Most importantly, Robert subverted the devil by identifying with dogs. Although he wrestled his food away from dogs as his penance required, Robert then fed dogs with food from his own mouth. He also slept with dogs under the stairs of the Emperor’s palace. Men have long been disparaged as dogs for their vibrant and dynamic sexuality. In the end, the beautiful, compassionate, and wise daughter of the Roman Emperor sought to marry Robert. If Robert had married her, he would have become the Emperor’s successor and eventually ruled the whole realm next to his wife. Robert instead became a disciple of the hermit in the forest. The devil was thoroughly defeated. Robert had shown to all that men are not merely dogs.[6]

The moral lesson of Le roman de Robert le Diable is fundamentally biblical. It highlights under-appreciated aspects of the life of the prophet Elisha. Following God’s command, the great prophet Elijah anointed Elisha as his successor when he found Elisha plowing with twelve pairs of oxen.[7] Elisha was thus engaged in extraordinarily vigorous plowing. With his mantle, Elijah engulfed Elisha to signify his anointing. Elisha then sacrificed his oxen and used the wood of his plow to cook the meat and share it with the people. The symbolism of Elisha’s change in station subverts castration culture to celebrate a man’s freely given gift of himself in service to the people.

Elisha subsequently engaged in miraculous deeds distinguishing him from the stereotype of men as dogs. Late in spring in Shunem, a wealthy married woman came to him and gave him food. She was childless and longed to have a child. She offered Elisha food whenever he was in Shunem. Eventually she said to her husband:

Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put for him there a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. Whenever he visits us, he can stay there.

[8]{ נַעֲשֶׂה־נָּא עֲלִיַּת־קִיר קְטַנָּה וְנָשִׂים לֹו שָׁם מִטָּה
וְשֻׁלְחָן וְכִסֵּא וּמְנֹורָה וְהָיָה בְּבֹאֹו אֵלֵינוּ יָסוּר
שָׁמָּה׃ }

Why wouldn’t a husband want a strange man whom his childless wife has been feeding to sleep in their home at night? The husband supported his wife’s desire. Elisha stayed in their house overnight. The next spring, about a year later, the wife gave birth to a son. No one believes that Elisha cuckolded the Shunammite woman’s husband. Elisha was not a devilish dog, but a man of God. The Shunammite couple gained a child as a blessing from God for their hospitality to Elisha.

Women desiring the blessing of children need not pray to Satan nor cuckold their husbands. Laughably improbably wonders are possible. Moreover, not having children doesn’t necessarily imply a barren life. Robert the Devil was childless and an evil-doer. He transitioned to a new identity as a hermit devoted to God. That devotion was fruitful:

For his sake God made many miracles
in this world before Robert died,
not just after his life had ended.

{ Por lui fist Dieus mainte miracle
En cest siècle, anchois qu’il finast
Ne que sa vie aterminast }[9]

Even childless persons can do worldly good and thus be fruitful.

* * * * *

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[1] William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 20.343-8, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, English modernization (modified slightly) from Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990).

The Middle English word “leche” referred to a physician and is a near-homonym for the Middle English “lechour,” which means “lecher / man engaged in inappropriate sexuality.” To “salve” means both to treat medicinally and to greet. It also ironically alludes to Mary’s conception of Jesus. This wordplay is discussed in Schmidt (1995), p. lii.

The friar called Sir Penetrans-Domos has a name that comes from Latin words in the Vulgate translation of 2 Timothy 3:6. Speaking of the godless, Timothy declares:

Among them are those who penetrate into households and captivate little women weighed down with sins, women led by various desires, always learning and never coming to true knowledge.

{ ex his enim sunt qui penetrant domos et captivas ducunt mulierculas oneratas peccatis quae ducuntur variis desideriis, semper discentes et numquam ad scientiam veritatis pervenientes }

2 Timothy 3:6, Latin text of the Vulgate, my English translation.

I used the phrase “low friar,” with the low for alliteration and to express disrepute, where the text refers to a “limiter.” The term “limiter” refers to a friar holding a license to beg in a limited area. Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990) pp. 252-3, gloss for “friar.”

[2] Piers Plowman 5.155-63. sourced as previously. Dame Clarice apparently was the same woman as “Clarice of Cock’s Lane {Clarice of Cokkeslane}” in Piers Plowman 5.311. Cock’s Lane was a street in London on which were legal brothels. On Parnel’s fiercely sinful flesh, Piers Plowman 5.62-5. Although nuns, Clarice and Parnel apparently also were prostitutes. On striking on the cheek, cf. Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29.

[3] The Romance of Robert the Devil {Le roman de Robert le Diable} vv. 37-48, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefitting from that of Rosenberg (2018).

Commerce with the devil is a motif in medieval literature. In a sixth-century Byzantine story, Theophilus transferred his soul’s allegiance to the devil in exchange for worldly status and wealth. In a miracle of Saint Basil composed between the seventh and ninth century, Proterius gave his soul to the devil in exchange for a woman’s love. In Le roman de Robert le Diable, it’s not that a “childless duchess makes a pact with the devil to conceive a child.” Hahn (2019) p. 887. The duchess merely prayed to the devil.

Irregularities in conceiving a child are also a motif in medieval literature. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, the wizard Merlin was born of a woman who never had sex with a flesh-and-blood man. She was thought to have coupled with a daemon. The Scottish saint Kentigern reportedly was the son of a virgin mother. A lady in Marie de France’s lai Yonec became pregnant with a hawk transformed into a knight. In the lai Tydorel, a queen likewise became pregnant with an otherworldly knight.

Le roman de Robert le Diable survives in two manuscripts, conventionally denoted A and B. They are A: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25516 (written about 1280) and B: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 24405 (written in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century). The primary text in Löseth (1903) comes from MS. A.

Le roman de Robert le Diable was widely distributed and adapted. The Dominican monk Étienne de Bourbon / Stephen of Bourbon {Stephanus de Borbone} included an abridged retelling of the story in his Treatise on Various Preachable Materials {Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus}, which he composed in the 1250s. Jean Gobi the Younger similarly included a retelling in his Ladder to Heaven {Scala coeli}, an exempla collection that he wrote between 1327 and 1330. A short version was included in the thirteenth-century Chronicle of Normandy {Chronique de Normandie}. In the fourteenth century, a short version was included in the Large Chronicle of Normandy {Grande Chronique de Normandie}. The fourteenth century also saw a poetic adaption for moral instruction, Song of Robert the Devil {Dit de Robert le Diable}, and a play Miracle of Robert the Devil {Miracle de Robert le Diable} included in the collection Miracles of Our Lady through other persons {Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages}. Many other adaptations in a variety of languages have occurred right through to the present. For a brief review of the reception history, Rosenberg (2018) pp. 2-4.

[4] Without textual warrant, Rosenberg’s translation brutalizes the Duke’s sex with the Duchess after she had prayed to Satan for a child:

No word did he utter as she lay there in bed,
He rushed and thrust until he was spent.

{ Que il l’enporte sor son lit
Tantost, et en fait son délit. }

Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 61-2, Old French text from Löseth (1903), English translation from Rosenberg (2018). Rosenberg thus perpetuated the terrible social injustice to men that Ausonius parodied with his fourth-century Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis}. Weiss (2018) courageously pointed out Rosenberg’s failing here. A much better translation for those verses:

When he had carried her onto their bed,
immediately with her he did her delight.

{ Que il l’enporte sor son lit
Tantost, et en fait son délit. }

Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 61-2, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation. The pronoun “son” can also mean “his,” but in v. 62 it’s best translated as “her” in appreciation for the sexual pleasure that men give to women.

Robert the Devil was distinctive in that he not only engaged in violence against men, but he also was violent toward women, even his mother and his nurses. Even as a baby, Robert was vicious:

Not for feeding nor for nursing
did he wish to give up his cruelty
but howled and wailed and loudly cried.
All the time fussing about this life,
all the time vicious and angry,
he was always swinging around with his feet.
And when they came to nurse the demon,
he all the time bit his nurses,
all the time howling, all the time attacking,
he was never at ease without screaming.
His nurses were averse to him,
fearing so much to nurse him,
that they prepared for him a tube
so that they would never have to nurse him directly.
Much they feared him, because he bit
each one when she lifted him.
When he could not bit or scratch them,
then he would go bash them with his feet.

{ Por paistre ne por alaitier
Ne vaut sa cruaité laissier
Ains hule et brait et forment crie.
Tos tans demaine ceste vie;
Tous tans est il fel et iriés,
Il regibe toudis des piés;
Et quant li malfés alaitoit,
Sa noriche tous tans mordoit,
Tous tans hule, tous tans resquinge,
Ja n’ert a aisse s’il ne winge.
Les noriches cel aversier
Redoutent tant a alaitier
Que un cornet li afaitierent,
Que onques puis ne l’alaitierent.
Mout le redoutent, qu’il mordoit
Cascune quant el le levoit.
Quant il ne pot mordre et grater
Dont les va il des piés bouter. }

Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 99-116, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefiting from that of Rosenberg (2018). Rosenberg’s translation is quite loose here. It even uses a negative metaphor with a dog in translating v. 101: “He brayed like a beast; he barked like a dog.” Dogs, however, have a redemptive function relative to Robert the Devil.

Sir Gowther, a Middle English adaptation of Le roman de Robert le Diable, accentuates the violence of baby Robert the Devil into killing his wet nurses:

He sucked them so that they lost their lives —
soon he had slain three!
The child was young and he grew quickly.
The Duke had sent for six more wet nurses —
pay heed, gentle audience —
before twelve months had passed
nine nurses had he slain,
ladies fair and free-born.

{ He sowkyd hom so thei lost ther lyvys,
Sone had he sleyne three!
Tho chyld was yong and fast he wex –
The Duke gard prycke aftur sex –
Hende harkons yee:
Be twelfe monethys was gon
Nine norsus had he slon
Of ladys feyr and fre. }

Sir Gowther vv. 113-20, Middle English text from Laskaya & Salisbury (1995), my English modernization. For a modernization of the whole poem, Scott-Robinson (2016).

[5] Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 830-3, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefiting from that of Rosenberg (2018).

Other medieval romances feature knights undergoing extended penance. For discussion of the Middle English penitential romances Sir Gowther, Sir Isumbras / Sir Ysumbras, Guy of Warwick, and Robert of Cisyle, Hopkins (1990).

[6] Robert’s redemption in relation to dogs has attracted considerable attention in the context of Sir Gowther, a fourteenth-century Middle English adaptation of Le roman de Robert le Diable. These studies have ignored the masculine gendering of dogs and historical disparagement of men as dogs. See, e.g. Huber (2015) and Zacher (2017). Disparaging men as dogs associates them with religious others. Resnick (2013).

A dog brings the penitent Gowther (the figure of Robert the Devil) in the forest a loaf of bread to eat three times on each of three successive days. That specific act of canine compassion, associated by the number three with Christian salvation, isn’t in Le roman de Robert le Diable. On its significance, Zacher (2017) pp. 284-5. Canine compassion for the repentant Robert the Devil echoes the compassion of dogs for the exiled Tristan in the Iseut-Tristan story corpus.

Le roman de Robert le Diable differs significantly from Sir Gowther. Robert the Devil doesn’t marry the Roman Emperor’s daughter or any other woman in Le roman de Robert le Diable, but the man-devil figure Gowther marries the princess in Sir Gowther. Le roman de Robert le Diable thus more directly challenges medieval gynocentrism.

Scholars writing in the misandristic tradition have obliterated the meninist perspective in both Le roman de Robert le Diable and Sir Gowther. For example, one such scholarly article begins with platitudes of dominant gender ideology:

The sensationalist opening sequence of the late Middle English poem Sir Gowther (c. 1400) reveals a pattern of male violence and abuse, which locates power in the patriarchal structures of the court, even when it insinuates the destructive and sometimes sterile consequences of hyper-masculinity.

Adler (2017) p. 49. Such intellectual work is so barren that one might rightly wonder whether it arises from prayers to Satan for scholarly publications under today’s dominant interests.

Underscoring the problem of men being falsely accusations of rape, both Huber and Zacher claim that the devil raped the duchess in Sir Gowther. Huber (2015) p. 289, and Zacher (2017) p. 432. There’s no clear textual warrant for that grave charge of rape. Even the devil deserves her due.

[7] 1 Kings 19:19-21 (Elijah anointing Elisha as his prophetic successor).

[8] 2 Kings 4:8-17 (Elisha ministers to the childless Shunammite woman). With his body Elisha was able to enliven even dead boys. By laying on the widow of Zarephath’s dead son three times, Elisha brought him back to life. 1 Kings 17:17-24. Elisha similarly resurrected the Shunammite woman’s dead son, with this instance specifying that Elisha put his mouth on the boy’s mouth. 2 Kings 4:32-37. Elisha’s action suggests an ancient form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As the story of David and the Shunammite woman Abishag underscores, one should not presume sexual conduct.

[9] Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 5042-4, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefiting from that of Rosenberg (2018).

[images] (1) Robert the Devil seeking penance from the Pope. Illumination in instance of Le roman de Robert le Diable. On folio 177v of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25516 (made about 1280). (2) Robert the Devil receiving his penance from the hermit that the Pope reveres. Robert carries a club. That club associates him with the wildman Rainoart in Aliscans, a chanson de geste in the Cycle of William of Orange {Cycle de Guillaume d’Orange}. Similarly from folio 180v of Français 25516. (3) Robert the Devil receives a knight’s armor and equipment from an angel. The Roman Emperor’s daughter, who came to love Robert, looks on. Similarly from folio 186v of Français 25516.


Adler, Gillian. 2017. “Canine Intercessors and Female Religious Metaphor in Sir Gowther.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 48: 49-71.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans., Elisabeth D. Kirk, and Judith H. Anderson, eds. 1990. William Langland. Will’s Vision of Piers Plowman. New York: W. W. Norton.

Hahn, Stacey. 2019. ‘Review. “Robert the Devil”: The First Modern English Translation of “Robert le Diable,” an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century by Samuel N.Rosenberg.’ Speculum. 94(3): 886-888.

Hopkins, Andrea. 1990. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huber, Emily Rebekah. 2015. “Redeeming the Dog: Sir Gowther.” The Chaucer Review. 50(3-4): 284–314.

Laskaya, Anne and Eve Salisbury, eds. 1995. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Löseth, Eilert, ed. 1903. Robert le Diable: Roman d’Aventures. Paris: Firmin Didot. Alternate source.

Resnick, Irven M. 2013. “Good Dog/Bad Dog: Dogs in Medieval Religious Polemics.” Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest. 18: 70-97.

Rosenberg, Samuel N. 2018. Robert the Devil: The First Modern English Translation of Robert le Diable, an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. Reviewed by Hahn (2019) and Weiss (2018).

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1978. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text. London: J.M. Dent.

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1995. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge Ms B.15.17. 2nd ed. London: J.M. Dent.

Scott-Robinson, Richard. 2016. Sir Gowther: A modern English translation. eleusinianm. Online.

Weiss, Judith. 2018. “Review. Rosenberg, Samuel N. Robert the Devil: The First Modern English Translation of Robert le Diable, an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century. University Park: The Pensnylvania State University Press, 2018.” The Medieval Review. Online 18.11.02.

Zacher, Samantha. 2017. “Sir Gowther’s Canine Penance: Forms of Animal Asceticism from Cynic Philosophy to Medieval Romance.” The Chaucer Review. 52(4): 426–55.

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