William and the Werewolf
By Michael Smith
A beautifully illustrated translation of the 14th century chivalric epic.
Friday, 14 April 2023
William and the Werewolf - where was it written and what does it tell us about who wrote it?
The extant survivors of Middle English romances are rarely, if ever, the work of the original author. Instead they can at best be described as a “witness” to the original text although, like any witness, their reliability is questionable. How reliable a witness is William and the Werewolf (aka William of Palerne) to its original exemplar and what clues does it give about the scribe?
We know that the story of William of Palerne (Palermo) is a Middle English non-rhyming, long-line alliterative redaction of a tail-rhyming Old French original, Guillaume de Palerne; more than 150 years separates the original French parent from its English child.
We know this because the French text was dedicated to Countess Yolande, daughter of Baldwin IV; Yolande died between 1188 and 1200. The English text is dedicated to its patron, the invalid bibliophile, Humphrey de Bohun IX, Sixth Earl of Hereford who died in 1361. Both texts were written in the lifetimes of their patrons.
Problems of dialect
A feature of Middle English romances is that, in their text, they preserve the dialect if not of the author then certainly the scribe who redacted the work from the original. For example, in the four extant MSS of the Awntyrs off Arthure (the Adventures of King Arthur), each manuscript reveals different dialectical features – the romance was popular enough to be copied across England and adapted by individual scribes.
In the case of William and the Werewolf, the manuscript is unique. It is the only witness text to survive and yet even here there is a complexity to the dialect of the scribe. In the words of Ralph Hanna III, the extant text contained within Cambridge, King’s College, MS 13 provides the reader with a “single surviving manuscript of dubious antecedents, particularly minmal evidence on which to base a text”.
Interpreting the text
Various scholars have tried to pinpoint the dialect of the romance. In his summary of these assessments, GHV Bunt reveals the complexity of what survives by showing how different scholars arrived at varying, and equally logical conclusions.
Based on their analysis of text’s dialect, each scholar’s suggested origins vary between Shropshire, Gloucestershire, the “West Midlands”, the “East Midlands”, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, and the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire borders. One scholar even advocated an innovative assessment of the scribe, suggesting he was a Northerner attempting to please his Southern patron, Humphrey.
In my own reading of the text, I can see that it does not have the distinctive northernisms of texts such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Thornton Awntyrs, or the alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death). Its word forms are gently distinct from these poems; its dialect mellower, its spoken sound less coarse than those from the north.
Coming to conclusions
In his assessment, Bunt writes “we shall […] need to rest content with the provisional conclusion that the language of William of Palerne combines West Midland and Eastern, possibly Norfolk elements.”
This is attractive. The content of the text alludes to Humphrey’s Gloucestershire estates but more specifically references Edward II’s tomb (below) at Gloucester cathedral (ll. 165-69); we also know that Humphrey spent most of his life at Pleshey in Essex.
While the Gloucestershire references may reflect the fame of Edward’s tomb rather than a locality of authorship, Humphrey’s own estates included Haresfield, Whitminster and Southam, all close to the city.
As the romance says, the translation was written for those “that know no French” (l.5533). The great scholar Thorlac Turville-Petre has argued this may refer to a generous act by Humphrey to have a work written for those in his distant estates whom he could not meet due to his own infirmity.
Derek Pearsall has argued such patronage may have been “of a condescending and remote kind” although such an argument seems wilfully singular given the effort involved not simply in copying a French original but also reducing its length and then rewriting it in an entirely different poetic form.
What is less clear is how close a witness the extant text is to the story as written down for Humphrey by the putative “William” named as its scribe.
An accurate witness?
Some Middle English romances, such as Bevis of Hampton, have clues embedded within them to allow an historical stemma to be developed showing which one was the earliest and where the others fit in relation to that. William and the Werewolf does not afford us this possibility.
Perhaps what can be said fairly safely, based on its relationship to its French exemplar, is that the text is very close to the original Middle English redaction.
Written in a bold textura hand of the later 14th Century (ca. 1350-75) it cannot be too distant in years from its source. Hence, it is likely that despite its varied dialectical components it does not bear the scribal variations and errors so prevalent in romances such as Bevis, whose popularity stemmed many centuries.
Combining West and East Midlands with elements of Norfolk dialect, the consensus seems to be that William and the Werewolf is fundamentally linked to its patron and is seemingly a reliable witness to the original lost form.
Its scribe may well be the only person who actually knew the original autograph manuscript, a text perhaps once contained in the magnificent library tower at Pleshey in Essex.
Sadly, like that very tower (above) - of which only hidden foundations on an overgrown motte now survive - the extant manuscript of William and the Werewolf is today our only witness to the story once commissioned by that lord who so loved books.
Author, Translator, Printmaker
PS. As I write, William and the Werewolf is now 95% funded! I calculate just 20 more supporters are needed to help make this translation happen. If you know of anyone who would be interested in supporting this - the first ever translation of this wonderful romance - please can you ask them to pledge? Alternatively, if you have already pledged for the book but would like to consider increasing your pledge option (e.g. unsigned to signed, or signed to "original print" level), every little will help the book get over the line. We're nearly there - and none of this would have been possible without your help. Thank you.
Walking with William
- Your name in the back of the book.