William and the Werewolf

By Michael Smith

A beautifully illustrated translation of the 14th century chivalric epic.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Mediaeval marriage vows and dramatic tension in William and the Werewolf

In my last update, I discussed the passion of the two lovers in William and the Werewolf, that between the Sicilian prince William and the Roman princess, Melior. In this update, I want to reflect on the significance of this for the story and how the poet frames the romance so it is rich in tension for its contemporary audience.

Central to the tension is William’s perceived unroyal status (unknown to the characters that is) and Melior’s father wishes to marry Melior to the heir to the Greek empire. Melior is an eminent match for any rich prince; William – the “fair unknown” – has unproven heritage.

Purposes of marriage in feudal society

Mediaeval landed society, with power allocated by kings (feudal obligation) and legitimised by the church, was fundamentally centred on land and inheritance. Marriage was key to the sustaining of the power base.

As Georges Duby explained in his masterful The Knight, the Lady and the Priest (1981), patriarchy was fundamental to marriage in early mediaeval society. Linked to this were three key precepts – that marriage was based on “monogamy, exogamy, and the repression of pleasure”.

(Above: a mediaeval marriage in Bologna c.1350)

If the male line was key, a male heir was crucial. Monogamy ensured a fixed outcome of uncontested descent where the oldest child inherited the lands of the father and could further expand his lands by marrying a wealthy heiress. The outcome of marriage was social aggrandisement.

Further, by marrying an heiress from elsewhere, exogamy ensured not only a stronger biological line but also enabled territorial expansion because it required a partner from outside the realm. An inherent (though clearly not ordained) corollary to this is the well-known trait of monarchs to sleep with whoever they wished, so in the minds of the church, a perfect partner should be sufficient to divert the “wandering eye”.

A marriage ideal meets reality

A successful marriage should therefore be one of perfect union: pleasure within marriage, loyalty to one’s spouse, aggrandisement for the future.

Yet this was a fragile notion, as history continues to tell us. For example, following the death of his only legitimate son in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry I had no male heir, despite having many illegitimate sons. His nominated choice of successor – his daughter Matilda – was not unanimously supported, leading to a period known as the Anarchy (1135-1153). This was only resolved by the birth of two sons to Matilda with Henry II succeeding to the throne in 1154.

Above: the White Ship Disaster and its implications ( British Library, Royal MS 20 A.ii, fol. 6v.)

Henry VIII of course is the prime example of the desperation of a king in search of a male heir; the Habsburg monarchy the exemplar of a dynasty where a denial of exogamy led to well-known in-breeding.

Marriage rules and dramatic tension in William and the Werewolf

So it is in such a setting of inheritance and power that William finds himself when he learns of Melior’s arranged marriage to the heir to Greece. He is not royal, he has no known lands; the audience knows that the conceit of the romance is that it will be impossible for him to marry Melior unless something happens.

When he learns of the proposed marriage, William, blinded by love and constrained by the social order, cannot see a way forward; for him, the world has conspired against him. He enters a dark realm; pricked by the darts of love into near insanity, and even thinks Melior has turned against him:

“Faithfully without falsehood,   you have failed me now,

And have turned your intentions   towards another!

You have wrought me great wrong,    great sin well and truly,

To do me such distress   that I die for your sake.

But lovely beloved,   our Lord wishes it

That your worthy will   was to come to me now;

And you have lengthened my life   and lessened my misery

Through the solace of seeing you,    my dear sweetheart!"

Of course, the audience knows William’s true royal heritage even if  - as yet – neither he nor Melior knows of his royal birth. We know the characters have a legitimacy in the contemporary social framework of the poem, but they themselves are unaware of it. The poet exploits this, creating a world of unimaginable tension for his mediaeval audience: the two lovers must be separated unless something dramatic happens.

But happen it does – because the emperor has tried to arrange this marriage without thinking that his daughter has a will of her own! In denying one of the three fundamentals of a successful dynastic marriage, and ignoring his own daughter’s wishes, he has destroyed in one swoop his own ambitions and, critically for his own reputation, those of the Greek emperor:

And when Melior had heard   all wholly his will,

She sickened for sorrow,   and wept well and sorely,

And so lovingly said,   “Beloved, truly believe this,

All mortal men upon earth   should not save my life

If you were to wend from this world,   and I not follow you!

I have no knowledge of this, loved one,   believe me truly,

For though my foolish father   might affirm agreements,

Why suppose that I would   now perform his will?

No, by God who gave me   the Ghost and my soul,  

His travails are for naught   no matter the outcome!

For there is no mortal man   that shall ever have me

But you, love and loved one,   believe me most truly;

In faith, they will have to    fast fell me and swiftly,

Or bury me deep down alive,   or draw or hang me!” 

Of course, the romance finds resolution in the end but key to its success is its contemporary setting and its audacious and subversive subtext that women have the right to choose as much as men. It is folly to assert dynastic aggrandisement on the shoulders of men alone; marriage is a two-way business.

To understand the power at the heart of the plot, we return to Georges Duby. The central tension of the romance rests on the couple’s self-evident monogamy, exogamy and crucially, the essential pleasure of a relationship which any other marriage would deny.

The poet’s masterful control of the tripartite elements of Duby’s definition is what makes William and the Werewolf - William of Palerne – such a majestic achievement.

Thank you for supporting my work and please do spread the message to help this new translation be published. In the meantime, here's wishing you and your family a very happy Christmas and that the coming year is a better one for all of us.


Michael Smith

PS - with lockdown denying many of us the opportunity of seeing family and friends for Christmas this year, I put together a brief film of the feasting at Camelot which takes place towards the beginning of my recent translation of King Arthur's Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure). I hope you enjoy it - and don't forget to pack the Rennies! - More here 


Main image:  Marriage of Bohemond I and Constance - Chronique d'Ernoul et de Bernard le Trésorier (late 15th C), f.170 - BL Royal MS 15 E I

Back to project page
Share on social

Top rewards