I have been working for some time on a new translation of William of Palerne, which Madden in the nineteenth century called the “romance of William and the Werewolf”. It is a fascinating story in that it translates a long French romance into a shorter, alliterative telling.
William, and a number of other poems from this period form part of a canon of works written in the alliterative style, as opposed to stanzaic tail-end rhymes. This group of romances is now defined as forming part of the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century (a group which features Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Alliterative Morte Arthure. William of Palerne (Cambridge, King’s College MS 13) is thought to be the oldest extant alliterative romance from the Revival and is due special attention.
The alliterative romances are usually treated differently from stanzaic romances because they are either “beefed up” in terms of content and description or sometimes because they have more evident social or political references to the world in which they appeared (although the earlier, tail-rhyme Richard Coeur de Lion of c.1300 shows this is not definitively so). This has led to some applying the term ‘literary’ to these romances, distinguishing them from their (unjustifiably so-called) “poorer” stanzaic cousins.
A transitional romance?
The interesting feature of William is that it was a translation of a tail-romance French poem – Guillaume de Palerne - into English; rendered in the alliterative style. It is a significant work which tells the story of two princes denied their lands by duplicity and deceit and how they overcome the obstacles in their way to reclaim their kingdoms. Whittling down over 9500 lines in French to 5500+ lines in English, the poem morphs from a romantic epic into a slightly different form: a combination of a traditional romance and the more detailed descriptive telling of the alliterative canon.
Whilst closer in its emotions to stanzaic romances than to complex alliterative romances such as Gawain, William of Palerne is nonetheless a masterful work which tackles significant social and historical issues in a compelling way.
These include: the creation of outlaws; the fragility of inheritance through the male line; the rights of women to choose for themselves; the fundamentals of marriage; the importance of forgiveness; the responsibilities incurred by noblesse oblige; and the development of maintenance of strategic dynastic alliances.
The poem also has an interest those other than knights and royalty, with a particular understanding of working folk such as farmers, servants, woodsmen and labourers.
Humphrey de Bohun - literary connoisseur
The poem was translated into English somewhere between 1340 and 1361 for Humphrey (VIII) de Bohun, Sixth Earl of Hereford, by a scribe known only as “William”. De Bohun himself, who lived the latter part of his life at Pleshey in Essex, was a major connoisseur of literature although his collection was largely of Latin and French works. However, it is unclear whether the poem was intended for his personal collection or for the enjoyment of others within his vast estates (there is a reference to his lands in Gloucestershire within the text).
(Above: the remains of de Bohun's great castle at Pleshey, with the motte in the background)
The text actually states that the poem is intended for those that know no French. Hence, a clue to why it was translated may lie in the fundamentally positive message of the romance, as well as its sympathy for working folk. In showing how two princes (its hero William and the Spanish prince Alphonse) overcome gross injustices to reclaim their lands and rule them with acclaim, the poem not only shows how right must be done and how good governance is key it also – unusually –exudes a message of forgiveness for those who did those wrongs.
William is returned to his lands in Palermo (the poem's 'Palerne') as its rightful heir; Alphonse (who was denied his inheritance by his stepmother who turns him into a werewolf), is also returned to his status as rightful prince of Spain. William and Alphonse – and their two queens - are acclaimed as worthy rulers who are loved by all in their lands for their kindness and justice.
A romance with a social message?
Thus, we are drawn to consider whether its message was an intentional one by Humphrey – a way of informing those on his estates that he was a positive lord, supportive of his tenants. If the poem was translated later, perhaps around 1360, its message of lordly fragility and the need for stability might have been even more significant as English armies were increasingly involved in wars in France.
While William of Palerne – the romance of William and the Werewolf – does not reach the sophisticated heights of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is nonetheless a work of extraordinary warmth and power which still brings pleasure and joy to the modern reader.
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About the author
Michael Smith read history at the University of York and is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.
His illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018. His translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, publishes in February 2021.
Michael is currently translating William and the Werewolf, a new translation of the 14th Century masterpiece William of Palerne, written for Humphrey de Bohun in c. 1340-60.
To help this book become reality, please be a patron here.