Archives for posts with tag: guigemar

Ok, I’m going to try to make it through this post about descriptions of eunuchs in medieval poetry without consulting Chaucer. He’s dying to share his freshest double-entendres with us about these gentle natured folk, but we should let some other poets have their turn at first crack for this cliché.

In the 14th century dream vision poem Pearl, the poet has the dreamer use the words “meek and mild” to describe the Pearl maiden:

Moteles may, so meke and mylde[1] Moteless maiden so meek and mild[2]

nightingale

Medieval poets often used the words “meek and mild” to describe the Virgin Mary and pious women in general in religious poems to the point of cliché. Here’s an example from The Thrush and the Nightingale, a late 13th century debate poem where two birds argue over the reputation of women. The thrush attacks women while the nightingale defends them:

O fowel, thi mouth the haueth ishend

Thour wam wel at this world iwend,

Of a maide meke and milde

Of hire sprong that holi bern

That boren wes in Bedlehem[3]

Your words have now confounded you!

Through whom was all this world made new?

A maiden meek and mild

Who bore in Bethlehem a Son.

I was amused the other day to see the words “meek and mild” used for comedic purpose to describe eunuchs in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. The Metrical Paraphrase is an entertaining 14th century text that has all sorts of amusing asides that we associate with good medieval storytelling. I like imagining English court audiences feasting on encores of these lively versions of classic Bible Stories. Was it the only version of the Bible available in the vernacular? If it was, they sure were lucky!

We tend to think that the dark ages were darker than they actually were and that everyone – save those at the top of the church and select nobles – knew next to nothing about the Bible besides, say, bits of the nativity, Noah’s Flood, and the crucifixion before the Wycliffe Bible went into circulation. Well, they did have The Metrical Paraphrase. Now, I wouldn’t call The Metrical Paraphrase a scholarly translation of the Old Testament, but it is certainly a translation in the sense that most medieval “translations” are more akin to what we would call a retelling. The Metrical Paraphrase is just that – a retelling. The poet’s retelling is surprisingly faithful to Scripture and embellished with amusing asides[4]  and the occasional description of things in the story that would be foreign to his medieval audience.

Esther and Ahasuerus

One example of an amusing aside in the Metrical Paraphrase occurs in the poet’s description of Queen Vashti’s chamber in The Book of Esther. The poet makes sure to point out that the eunuchs – the only men allowed to be in the room with her – are “meek and mild”:

 and thei were ordand in ther yowth
that hei myght do no manly dede,
Bot ever more meke and myld of mouth
servandes als maydyns for ther mede[5]

Poor guys. They were “ordained” in their youth that they might “do no manly deed.” Instead, they act as servants for the maidens, their voices “meek and mild” just like those of the angels in heaven or the Vienna Choir Boys.

After all, it’s their spiritual example-setting and deep scriptural knowledge that puts these eunuchs in the unique position of being the only men besides King Ahasuerus[6] who are allowed inside the king’s harem, right? The cliché of the eunuch being the only male permitted in the chamber with a lord’s object of desire is one that is often used to describe villains in medieval poetry. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, for example, the only person permitted to see the maiden who is kept as a prisoner by her jealous husband besides the husband is a eunuch.

Marie de France initially introduces the eunuch without pointing out what distinguishes him physically from other men:

Uns vielz prestre blans e floritz

Guardout la clef de cel postiz[7]

An old priest with hoary-white hair

guarded the key to the gate…[8]

guigemar l255

Lines 255-56 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

But before moving on with the story, she can’t help but add:

Les plus bas members out perduz:

Altrement ne fust pas creüz

…he had lost his lowest members,

otherwise he would not have been trusted.

guigemar l257

Lines 257-58 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

This is typical Marie de France embellishment. We can hear her delivering the line out of the side of her mouth. The line about how the old priest had lost his “lowest members” is presented so matter-of-factly that if she were called out for obscenity, I can just hear her indignant reply, “Well that’s how he WAS.”

In both The Middle English Metrical Esther and Guigemar, the eunuch is described in places where women live a life in confinement and in both stories these women become liberated. In the book of Esther, Vashti is powerless. She is confined to a room with her maids and the eunuchs and the moment she refuses one of the king’s biddings, she loses her title as queen. This role is replaced by Esther, a woman who empowers herself. Not only do we see Esther enjoying the freedom of being able to talk in private with Mordecai, but she deposes a political enemy in the king’s court and also manages to convince the king to change one of his decrees which, in turn, saves the lives of her people. In Guigemar, the maiden is released from her prison by Guigemar and the magic boat. In both stories the eunuch appears in scenes that describe a woman being ruled by her husband and in both of these situations there is the image of a castrated man – the very absence of sexuality! Are both of these poets trying to say that wherever we find an oppressed woman we will also find a castrated man?


[1] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) v.961. available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl

[2] References to Pearl and The Thrush and the Nightingale in Modern English translation are taken from Medieval English Verse, trans. Brian Stone (Harmondsworth, 1964).

[3] The Thrush and the Nightingale in Middle English from Bodleian MS Digby 86 (Wessex Parallel Web Texts) l.169-73. available online: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~wpwt/digby86/thrushtxt.htm

[4] So I couldn’t resist. Here’s something from Chaucer: Compare this to the Host Harry Bailey’s winning criteria for the tale-telling competition in The Canterbury Tales – “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost.” Is Chaucer suggesting that secular tales could provide moral substance as well as entertainment value by presenting them in a way that was already popular in his day for religious works such as the Metrical Paraphrase, Patience (Story of Jonah told by the Pearl Poet in contemporary 14th century setting) and the Mystery Plays even if the moral substance piece isn’t always from the Christian tradition?

[5] The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011), l.16529-32. Available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/livingston-middle-english-metrical-paraphrase-of-the-old-testament

[6] It’s interesting to note that the religion of King Ahasuerus (“Assuere” in Middle English) is ambiguous in The Metrical Paraphrase‘s Esther (“Hester” in Middle English). He’s a Persian king who – we assume – does not worship the Hebrew God, however, since the story takes place in what appears to be a contemporary English court setting complete with nobles and knights, the king is described more like a misguided Christian king than an infidel. Also, though the heroine Esther is Jewish, she is presented sympathetically as a character in the Christian tradition despite the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval England.

[7] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[8] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

Sequitur pars secunda.

Last time, we left the Roman Emperor’s daughter Constance in the safe hands of the constable and his wife Hermengyld in Northumberland. The Man of Law made a point to tell us that Constance is speaking a “Latyn corrupt” to communicate with the constable. Now, if Marie de France were telling this story during the 12th century, she probably would’ve used romance convention to deal with the issue of language barriers. Her Breton lay Guigemar is the story of a knight who is sent on a quest to discover love.

Scenes of courtly love

Scenes of Courtly love on ivory mirror case (late 14th century) Musée du Louvre (Photo: Wikipedia)

Guigemar is the son of a baron. His father sends him as young boy to live in a nearby king’s court. There, Guigemar learns the ways of chivalry and when he comes of age the king dubs him a noble and presents him with arms. Guigemar goes to Flanders and fights in many battles. He soon becomes a very famous knight and his name comes to be known throughout all of France. There is, however, one peculiar thing about Guigemar: he has no romantic interest in women. Guigemar returns to Brittany and visits his parents. They are pleased to see that their son has such great success in his professional life. After hanging around his family’s castle for about a month, he feels the urge to go hunting so he summons his knights, hunters, dogs, and beaters and leaves early the next morning to chase game in the forest. When they spot the first stag, his men unleash the dogs and rapidly they run ahead in pursuit of the beast. Guigemar, meanwhile, stays behind with his squire. Soon after the sounds of the dogs fade into the distance, Guigemar and his squire notice in a thicket a white hind with antlers like a buck.

white hind

Detail from The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-1399) National Gallery, London (Photo: Wikipedia)

The squire quickly hands Guigemar his bow and arrows. Guigemar shoots the deer in the head only to have his arrow rebound, hitting his own thigh. Guigemar falls off his horse onto a thick patch of grass in such a way that he is face to face with the dying animal. The deer speaks to Guigemar telling him his destiny:

Ja mais n’aies tu medecine!Ne par herbe ne par racine,Ne par mire ne par poisunN’avras tu ja mes guarisunDe la plaie qu’as en la quisse,

De si que cele te guarisse,

Ki suferra pur tue amur

Si grant peine e si grant dolur,

Qu’unkes femme tant ne sufri;

E tu referas tant pur li,

Dunt tuit cil s’esmerveillerunt,

Ki aiment e améavrunt

U ki puis amerunt après.

Va t’en de ci! Lai m’aveir pes! (v.109-122)[1]

Puisses-tu ne jamais trouver de remède!Nulle herbe, nulle racine,Nul médecin, nulle potionNe guériront jamaisLa plaie de ta cuisse

Tant qu’une femme ne viendra par la guérir,

Une femme qui souffrira pour l’amour de toi

Plus de peines et de douleurs

Que nulle autre amoureuse.

Et toi, tu souffrirais tout autant pour elle.

Et votre amour émerveillera

Tous ceux qui aiment, qui ont aimé

Et qui aimeront

Maintenant va-t’en, laisse-moi en paix!

(v.109-122)[2]

May you never find a cure,nor may any herb,root,or doctor or potionever heal the woundyou have in your thigh

until you are cured by a woman

who will suffer likewise for her,

so much so that

all those who are in love,

who have known love

or are yet to experience it,

will marvel at it.

Be gone from here and leave me in peace.

(44)[3]

white hind's speech to guigemar

White hind’s speech to Guigemar from a manuscript (c.1201-1300) Bibliothèque national de France (Photo: gallica) (Quoted text above begins on the 4th line of this detail)

So begins Guigemar’s quest. He bades his squire go find the others and bring help. Now alone, Guigemar soon finds a magical and mysterious boat that is superbly constructed and lavishly decorated. Inside this boat there is a bed quilted with silk woven with gold. Guigemar rests on the bed, waking later to discover that this magical boat has unfurled its silk sail and is taking him on a voyage. He prays to God just as Constance does and is safely brought to port. He lands “below an ancient city, capital of its realm” (46) (desuz une antive cité / esteit chiés de cel regné Au pied d’une vielle cite) (v.206-07). There, Guigemar meets a noble woman who is made by her jealous husband to live in a tall marble structure. The only human contact she has besides her husband is a maiden servant and a eunuch. This structure has only two entrances: a guarded door and a garden which connects to the sea. The woman and her maiden notice the mysterious ship during one of their strolls in the garden and inside they found Guigemar sleeping. As you probably guessed, Guigemar and the lady discover that they are star-crossed lovers. A confrontation with the jealous husband occurs, they are tragically separated but reunited involving the magic boat, a knot, and a chastity belt, their romance is once again threatened by another jealous lord, Guigemar fights in a tournament, razes a castle, and the two lovers ride off into the sunset together. I can’t give you a proper telling but in Marie’s lays you can find the story of Guigemar. Her telling is much fresher in mind than mine.

Marie’s story starts and ends in Brittany during the reign of Hoël so it is in the realm of Arthurian Legend. She has her knight travel to Flanders before the episode with the deer and the story’s events return to Brittany, but the place the magical boat takes Guigemar is not in Brittany. This strange, ancient land is not properly identified. Which language does Guigemar use to communicate with the noble woman and which language does she use to communicate with everyone in Brittany when the magical boat takes her there later in the story? These are details that Marie doesn’t bother herself with in this or any of her lays. You’ll be much more likely to find details of how lavish a magical boat looks than which languages characters from foreign lands are using to converse with each other in Marie’s lays. Marie relies on romance convention to do the translating for her characters. There are so many magical elements in this story already with a talking deer and an unattended magical boat that transports our protagonists to and from Brittany and some unidentified place and time that the audience is in such suspension of disbelief that they don’t question things like which language the characters are using to speak with each other or how is it a knight can talk with a deer!

Chaucer is no stranger to using romance convention to solve language barrier issues between man and bird. Chaucer’s Squire uses it in his tale with the king’s daughter Canace’s magic decoder ring:

That on hir finger baar the queynte ryngThurgh which she understood wel every thvngThat any fowel may in his leden synAnd koude answeren hym in his ledene ageyn(II 433-36) That on her finger bore the curious ringBy which she understood whatever thingBirds in their language said, and which could teachHer how to answer in natural speech (400

Next time I’ll get back to Constance and the Man of Law’s Tale – I promise!

Explicit sequitur pars.


[1] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[2] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[3] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

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