William and the Werewolf
By Michael Smith
A beautifully illustrated translation of the 14th century chivalric epic.
Wednesday, 1 March 2023
Should have put a ring on it - the power of women in medieval Middle English romance
Although the figure of the “damsel in distress” is a frequent stereotype in medieval romance, to say such characters are typical is very far from the truth. Across the spectrum of Middle English romance, female characters are as fully-rounded as their male counterparts and often wield huge power in challenging the pomposity of them.
Guinevere is perhaps the most famous of Arthurian women but how do we see her? If we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, she is seen as an exemplar of beauty – but is she? She is certainly the person against whom Gawain compares Lady Bertilak, but what is noticeable is that the Lady is more beautiful than the Queen. Not only this, but the Lady possesses a power of inordinate sophistication and articulacy which is more than a match for Gawain’s “luf-talking”.
Gawain appears to show Guinevere as placid, strangely weak and contemptible but below this appears a deeper distrust of her and her character. Guinevere seems to hover at the beginning and the end as a somewhat vain figure, the personification of the surquedry and vanity of Arthur’s own court.
It is not clear from the poem whether Guinevere is known already by the audience as an adulteress or the lover of Lancelot although she is seen as someone fit to die by Morgan le Fay, the old woman of Hautdesert. Nonetheless, she is seen as corrosive: because Morgan hates her, she sends the Green Knight to terrify the court and potentially bring about its end if Arthur, not Gawain, were to take up the knight's beheading challenge.
The verdict of the poets
Indeed, a number of the English medieval romance poets do not seem to like Guinevere, even if she is seen as beautiful and elegant with her enchanting grey eyes. In the near contemporary Awntyrs Off Arthure (the Adventures of Arthur), she becomes an ambiguous figure whose beauty and grace is contrasted by the unique revelation by the ghost of her mother that she is the child of adultery.
In this romance, Guinevere’s mother, a monstrous death-blackened corpse/ghost who has emerged from purgatory in the middle of a lake, persuades Guinevere to pray for her and to give alms to the poor in order to save her soul. This part of the romance is also an exemplum, where the ghost tells her daughter of the need for probity and charity in life if Guinevere is not to end up like her mother.
But if the ghost seeks an end to its own misery, it also has a message for Guinevere suggesting - unlike the tangential references in the Green Knight story - that the queen's vanity is well known by the audience.Guinevere is revealed by the poet to be flawed - and with a hidden, darker past.
It is a curious feature of the Awntyrs that it also has content and style which either draws from or influences the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death). In that poem, too, Guinevere is a target for contempt; swooning when Arthur leaves her to fight the Romans, she later commits adultery herself with Mordred and uniquely (in the canon) has children by him.Guinevere appears both corrupt and corruptible.
The “loathly lady”
The poets seem to want to contrast outer beauty with inner goodness, or with depth of thinking. The notion of the “loathly lady” is a frequent motif in these romances; as with the ghost and the Gawain-poet’s Morgan, the seemingly monstrous Dame Ragnelle in the East Midlands’ stanzaic Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is a hugely ambiguous figure. Yet, when Gawain agrees to marry her, she is subsequently revealed as a woman of great wisdom and beauty. The women, it seems, set their own agenda because they can – and are - empowered to do so by their scribes.
This emerges most dramatically in the alliterative Sir Degrevant, of which two examples survive. In this romance, Melidor, the daughter of a dinosaur Earl, tests and eventually accepts Degrevant as her husband – a man shown to have, in particular, commercial skills fit for the modern age. On her side is her mother, who belittles the old Earl for sticking to the old ways; eventually Degrevant and Melidor emerge as a partnership of equals.
Melior the prototype?
It is in this light that we must see the character of Melior (not Melidor!) in William and the Werewolf. She is almost prototypical in that we see her inner thoughts as a love-struck teenager yet we also see her as possessing what academics call “agency” as she elopes with her young lover William.
While she may have the desires of a Guinevere character, she is able eventually to control them and bring about greatness. Repeatedly, she is seen as the brain behind William’s exploits as she often rescues him from his own masculinity; in a similar vein, her maid Alexandrine has the ability to foresee problems before they occur, mixing magic potions and out-thinking men before problems arise.
If Melior is a “damsel”, she has a mind of her own and is not subject to the brutality of men like one of the "abandoned lady" characters in the romances of Chretien de Troyes. Throughout the romance she espouses sound thinking; in the end she is loved by her husband but also by her realm.
She is, as Beyoncé might describe her, an independent woman – an inspiration for those who followed in the poems of the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century. English women in these romances really do have minds of their own; they are no mere trinketry to grace the arms of knights.
In such a light Guinevere, like Arthur, is a figurehead of a dying age, unable to hold back the forces of change nor to disguise their own errors through some form of divine right. The damsels in distress it seems are those who - like their men - perpetuate the past.
Author, Translator and Printmaker
PS as I write, William and the Werewolf is 87% funded - we’re nearly there! Please spread the message of this marvellous alliterative romance to your friends and ask them to support the book. Don’t forget too that you can also upgrade your pledge to help the book be fully funded (unsigned to signed; signed to “Lover’s Pledge” and many more - including orginal prints and the original linocut book jacket artwork [one only!]).
Thank you so much for supporting this book on its journey; it would not have been possible without you.
All images used in this update are available via the public domain. They are (from the top)
- Hiltbolt von Schwangau, Master of the Codex Manesse
- Dance with Musicians, Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense, (Lombardy 1390s)
- Master of the Vienna Roman de la Rose, c. 1430
- Detail from Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, 1338-40
- Heinrich von Stretlingen, Master of the Codex Manesse fol.70v
Walking with William
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