William of Palerne Essay - Critical Essays

William of Palerne


William of Palerne

Fourteenth-century English romance.

William of Palerne, an English translation of the late twelfth-century French romance, Le Roman de Guillaume de Palerne, was commissioned circa 1350 by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. Nothing is known about William, the poet who translated Guillaume de Palerne for de Bohun, and just as little is known of the author of the original French poem. The story contains common folklore motifs, including the transformation of a man into a werewolf. Critics have examined these motifs, as well as the plot, setting, and style of both versions of the poem; from such analyses some scholars have attempted to draw conclusions about the authors of both the French and English versions of the poems, as well as about the poets' methods of composition.

Textual History

The story is extant in three original forms: a French poem in octosyllabic couplets, an English alliterative poem, and a French prose romance dating from the sixteenth century. Little is known regarding the origins of the French verse Guillaume de Palerne. The poem is believed to have been completed around the end of the twelfth century. Many scholars concur that the French poet based the romance on several Italian legends or sources. From evidence within the poem, it has been concluded that the romance was written for the Countess Yolande, the eldest daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Hainault and Alice of Namur. References within William of Palerne reveal that it was translated into English from the French verse circa 1350, at the behest of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, who died in 1361. The English author is noted for having been quite faithful to the French original.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem traces the adventures of two princes. One is Prince Alphouns, heir to the Spanish crown, who as a youth was transformed by his stepmother into a werewolf; the other is William, Prince of Apulia and Sicily. When William's evil uncle, in an effort to become heir to the crown, attempts to have young William murdered, the little boy is rescued by the werewolf (Alphouns). Throughout William's life, he is followed and guided by the werewolf. William is eventually taken under the wing of the Roman emperor, and falls in love with the emperor's daughter, Melior. The two run off together and are led by the werewolf back to Sicily. Finding his family under attack by the Spaniards, William goes to war and conquers his enemies. Meanwhile, Alphouns is restored by his stepmother to his human form. The story ends with the marriage of Alphouns to William's sister, Florence, and William to Melior. Additionally, William is elected to the emperor's throne following the death of his father-in-law.

Major Themes

William of Palerne is filled with common folklore motifs and themes, such as animal transformations, and various occult occurrences. The themes of love and marriage, as well as separation and restoration—elements commonly found in earlier romances and folktales—are examined in William of Palerne. The poet's treatment of love and marriage, which has been described as light-hearted and playful, plays a greater role in the poem than in earlier romances. Warfare is a major issue in the poem, and while elements of battle are depicted graphically, as in other medieval romances, the treatment of warfare is less gruesome than in other contemporary poems.

Critical Reception

Many scholars have analyzed William of Palerne strictly in terms of the limited facts regarding its textual history, while others have compared the French version to its later English counterpart. Still others study the adaptation of contemporary legends and folktales within the romance. Frederick Madden discusses the history of the extant French and English manuscripts, and presents the pertinent biographical backgrounds of the patrons for whom both the French and English poems were composed. Walter W. Skeat praises Madden's edition of the poem, commenting that Madden is one of the first editors to present a strict and literal interpretation of the text. Skeat also offers a brief synopsis of the plot of William of Palerne. Kate Watkins Tibbals, in her study of the romance, observes that while the author of the English poem remained faithful to the French original, the English poet increased the poetic merits of the romance through description, characterization, and humor. Furthermore, Tibbals suggests that the werewolf, rather than William, is the true hero of the story. Tibbals goes on to assess the significance of the magical elements within the poem, the most notable of which is the transformation of a man into a werewolf. Irene Pettit McKeehan, on the other hand, views William as the story's hero. McKeehan describes the plot similarities between Guillaume de Palerne and a number of other French and Celtic tales. McKeehan maintains that the story also bears resemblances to contemporary history, and that the compiler tailored the story to appeal to Countess Yolande (his patroness) and her court. Similarly, Charles W. Dunn agrees that the poet attempted to write a story designed to be of special interest to his patroness. In particular, Dunn argues, the story's Italian setting was especially suited to the Countess and her circle, because it was “both familiar and fantastic.” Dunn also discusses elements commonly found in contemporary legends—such as love, slaughter and warfare, and “wonder-elements,” including magic and prophecy—and discusses the poet's adaptation of these legends and his treatment of these elements in Guillaume de Palerne. Like Dunn, G. H. V. Bunt asserts that the poem's setting is of particular importance. Bunt states that the author's descriptions of the setting display an extensive knowledge of the geography of Southern Italy and Sicily. Along with McKeehan, Bunt takes notice of the historical aspects of the poem, which would have been recognized by the poem's original (French) audience. Bunt notes that such historical associations must have seemed extremely remote to the English audience of the fourteenth-century William of Palerne. Additionally, Bunt discusses the plot and structure of the poem and comments on other critics' similar analyses, registering disagreement with Tibbals' assessment that Alphouns the werewolf is the hero of the story.

Principal Works

The Ancient English Romance of William and the Werwolf, edited by Frederick Madden, 1832.


Frederick Madden (essay date 1832)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Ancient English Romance of William and the Werwolf, Burt Franklin, 1832, pp. i-xvii.

[In the essay below, Madden reviews the circumstances surrounding the composition of William of Palerne, discussing in particular the likely date of composition, the patron for whom this translation of the French poem Guillaume de Palerne was written, and what is known about the origins of Guillaume de Palerne.]

The Romance of William and the Werwolf, contained in the present volume, is printed from an unique Ms. preserved in the library of King's College, Cambridge, and its literary history renders it of more than common interest to...

(The entire section is 6871 words.)

Walter W. Skeat (essay date 1867)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Romance of William of Palerne, N. Trübner and Co., 1867, pp. i-v.

[In the following essay, Skeat praises Frederick Madden's edition of William of Palerne for its “strict and literal accuracy,” and offers a brief outline of the story.]

1. The “Extra Series” of the publications of the Early English Text Society, of which this is the first volume, is intended to be supplementary to the ordinary series in such a way as to expedite the printing of the whole quantity of work to be printed. It has been proposed that it shall be reserved entirely for reprints and re-editions, and this rule will in general be adhered to. At the...

(The entire section is 2332 words.)

Kate Watkins Tibbals (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: “Elements of Magic in the Romance of William of Palerne,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 1, No. 2, October, 1903, pp. 355-37.

[In the following essay, Tibbals briefly discusses the textual history of William of Palerne and analyzes the nature and significance of the story's magical incidents, including animal transformations and prophetic dreams.]

About the year 1350, at the command of Sir Humphrey Bohun, the French Roman de Guillaume de Palerne was translated into English by one William, of whom we know nothing but this name. The translator was unusually faithful to his original, omitting nothing essential and making no important addition;...

(The entire section is 6913 words.)

Irene Pettit McKeehan (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: “Guillaume de Palerne: A Medieval ‘Best Seller’,” PMLA, Vol. 41, No. 4, December, 1926, pp. 785-809.

[In the following essay, McKeehan focuses on the plot of Guillaume de Palerne. McKeehan discusses the numerous similarities between this story and several other tales, particularly Floriante et Florete, a French romance written circa 1300, Cormac Mac Art, an Irish tale about a prince raised by a wolf, and the Lai de Melion, a “Celtic Werwolf Tale.” McKeehan also investigates the elements of the story that were likely to have increased its popularity among contemporary audiences.]

So many things about the Middle Ages...

(The entire section is 10170 words.)

Charles W. Dunn (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “From Legend to Romance,” in The Foundling and the Werwolf: A Literary-Historical Study of Guillaume de Palerne, University of Toronto Press, 1960, pp. 125-39.

[In the following essay, Dunn focuses on the setting and plot of Guillaume de Palerne. Dunn comments on the author's adaptation of Sicilian source legends into the French romance.]

Now that we have established the probability that Guillaume derives its setting from geographical facts and its plot from national Sicilian legends, we are in a position to analyse the romancer's methods by asking how he obtained his material, why it appealed to him, and how he converted it into romance....

(The entire section is 6028 words.)

Thorlac Turville-Petre (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Humphrey de Bohun and William of Palerne,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Vol. LXXV, No. 2, 1974, pp. 250-52.

[In the following essay, Turville-Petre maintains that William of Palerne likely was composed prior to 1361 at the command of Humphrey de Bohun for members of his retinue, who resided at two neighboring manors.]

That Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex, commissioned the alliterative poem William of Palerne at some date before 1361 is one of the few ascertainable facts about the social background of the poems of the Alliterative Revival.1 Since, as a result, so much importance is accorded to this one nugget...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

G. H. V. Bunt (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Story,” in William of Palerne: An Alliterative Romance, Groningen, 1985, pp. 93-108.

[In the following essay, Bunt studies the structure, setting, historical background, and magical elements in William of Palerne.]

1. Since the first three leaves of the Ms. are lost, we are dependent on the French Guillaume de Palerne for the opening episodes of the story, which are, however, recapitulated later in our English poem.

The French poem, then, tells us that king Embron of Sicily and his queen Felise have a four-year-old son, Guillaume, who is entrusted for instruction to two Greek ladies, Gloriande and Acelone. The king's...

(The entire section is 8012 words.)

Further Reading


Dunn, Charles W. “Guillaume de Palerne and Monreale Sculpture.” Mediaeval Studies X (1948): 215-16.

Discusses a sculpture group, carved circa 1174-1189, on the capitals of the Benedictine cloister of Monreale Cathedral. One of the sculptures resembles a legend upon which Guillaume de Palernemay be based.

Foster, Edward E. and Gail Gilman. “The Text of William of Palerne.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen LXXIV, No. 3 (1973): 480-95.

Analyzes various editions of the text of William of Palerne, including that of Walter W. Skeat, and proposes a number of emendations....

(The entire section is 118 words.)